In 2014, when we were celebrating 200 years of Mansfield Park, Margaret Horwitz wrote about “The Comfort of Friendship” for my blog. Today I’m happy to introduce her contribution to Emma in the Snow, a guest post on the friendship between Emma and Mr. Knightley.
Margaret has a Ph.D. in Film Studies from UCLA, and she’s a visiting professor of literature at New College Berkeley, an institute of the Graduate Theological Union. She’s a Life Member of JASNA and she’s given many talks on Jane Austen’s novels and their film and television adaptations, as well as on the prayers Austen composed. She presented at the 2004 JASNA AGM in Los Angeles and at the 2008 AGM in Chicago, and in 2008-2009 she was a travelling lecturer for JASNA’s western region.
A few of the recent posts for this series have included photos showing what the weather looks like between December and March in places other than Emma’s Highbury (or my Halifax). In keeping with that pattern, here’s the Golden Gate Bridge, photographed in December by Margaret’s husband, Arnie Horwitz. Thank you for sharing this stunning view with us, Margaret and Arnie, and thank you, Diana Birchall, for your midsummer-themed guest post on “Mrs. Elton’s Donkey” and your photo of a winter sunset in Santa Monica, which prompted me to invite contributors to send photos of scenes that complement or contrast with that half inch of snow in Highbury.
(I wish I’d thought of this idea back in December—I missed the chance to see glimpses of, for example, December in Scotland, where Nora Bartlett lives, or January in Australia, where Susannah Fullerton lives. Ah, well—we’re making it up as we go along, and that’s part of the fun of doing this as a blog series rather than as a formal collection of essays.)
Emma could not bear to give him pain. He was wishing to confide in her—perhaps to consult her;—cost her what it would, she would listen. She might assist his resolution, or reconcile him to it; she might give just praise to Harriet, or, by representing to him his own independence, relieve him from that state of indecision, which must be more intolerable than any alternative to such a mind as his.—They had reached the house.
“You are going in, I suppose,” said he.
“No”—replied Emma—quite confirmed by the depressed manner in which he still spoke—”I should like to take another turn. Mr. Perry is not gone.” And, after proceeding a few steps, she added—”I stopped you ungraciously, just now, Mr. Knightley, and, I am afraid, gave you pain.—But if you have any wish to speak openly to me as a friend, or to ask my opinion of any thing that you may have in contemplation—as a friend, indeed, you may command me.—I will hear whatever you like. I will tell you exactly what I think.”
(Volume 3, Chapter 13, from the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Emma .)
I find this passage one of the most crucial and rewarding moments in Emma. The recurring play on the word “friend” in the novel, and the increasingly significant stages of Emma’s self-awareness, converge in her conversation with Mr. Knightley, who has just returned from London. Harriet Smith’s recent revelation of an attachment to Mr. Knightley, which Harriet feels is reciprocated, has left Emma with the realization of her own love for him, but with little “hope.” In this scene set in the garden at Hartfield, Emma allays Mr. Knightley’s concerns about her response to news of Frank Churchill’s engagement to Jane Fairfax. Emma then progresses through three stages in fulfilling her “resolution,” made the prior evening, to have “better conduct.”
First of all, having noticed Mr. Knightley’s “mortification” at her refusal to let him continue speaking, Emma feels that she “could not bear to give him pain.” She imagines he wishes to “confide in her—perhaps to consult her,” and is afraid she will hear his declaration of love for her young friend and protégée, Harriet. The alliteration in “confide” and “consult” continues and strengthens the word “cost” in her commitment that, “cost her what it would, she would listen,” for the benefit of her lifelong friend, Mr. Knightley. [My italics.]
A pattern of alliteration in the next stage emphasizes Emma’s intent to “assist his resolution” to marry Harriet, or even “reconcile him to it,” in order to “relieve him,” if Mr. Knightley is hesitating because of Harriet’s low social status. Though apprehensive and making assumptions, Emma understands the character of her old friend, recognizing that a “state of indecision” would be “intolerable … to such a mind as his.” She makes a second determination in which she is “quite confirmed,” after noting, but misunderstanding, the “depressed manner” of Mr. Knightley’s comment, “You are going in, I suppose.”
In the third stage, Emma carries out her plan, reminiscent of other points in the novel where recognition of fault causes her to repent. She admits to Mr. Knightley that, “I stopped you ungraciously just now.” Her adding, “and, I am afraid, gave you pain,” returns us to her earlier response that she “could not bear to give him pain.” The repetition of this phrase discloses a movement from inner contrition to verbal confession. Emma courageously invites Mr. Knightley to say what she believes will give her the greatest pain, representing a milestone in her growth.
In fact, she encourages him to “speak openly … as a friend,” and to ask her “opinion of any thing” that he “may have in contemplation,” and repeats the phrase “as a friend,” in an acknowledgment of his privilege as a trusted confidant. Emma’s promise to “hear whatever you like,” and then to “tell you exactly what I think” suggests an increased willingness to confront a truth which she is convinced is unpleasant. Her description of the nature of their conversation indicates a new level of parity in a friendship with overtones of “sister” and older “brother,” given the marriage of their siblings and the difference in their ages.
Emma’s readiness in this passage to “give just praise to Harriet” recalls a much earlier conversation with Mr. Knightley, when she campaigns for Mr. Elton as a suitor for Harriet. In Volume 1, Chapter 8, she “playfully” argues that “such a girl as Harriet is exactly what every man delights in.” She even remarks, “Were you, yourself, ever to marry, she is the very woman for you”—the excruciating possibility Emma believes she is now facing here in Volume 3, Chapter 13, and one she feels would be the consequence of her own misguided behavior.
Though Emma often defends Harriet, both out of affection and a desire to wield influence, her assessment is not “just,” and lacks good judgment, a quality she struggles to gain in the course of the novel. Emma’s willingness to be an advocate is at this point a much costlier act of friendship with regard to both Harriet and Mr. Knightley, since she prepares to set aside her own hopes. It is gratifying to see Emma respond sensitively during (rather than after) what is perhaps the greatest test of her integrity, a demonstration of her advancement in maturity.
Of course, just after this passage, we learn that Mr. Knightley wants to be more than a “friend” to Emma, that she will not be crushed by listening to him, nor need to say anything in support of Harriet’s claims (while having compassion for her). However, as Emma does not yet know this, her meditations and then spoken words mark an admirable resolve, and also indicate a high point in the two characters’ journey toward an even deeper and more balanced friendship in their joint humility.
While one sees a greater emphasis on Emma’s transformation as the title character, Mr. Knightley’s jealousy of Frank Churchill clouds his thinking; he misunderstands Emma’s actions, as she misconstrues those of others. In this novel, no character, however admirable, can really know the mind of another. As readers, we may infer that no human being is omniscient.
Mr. Knightley is afraid he is not the first for Emma, in the same way she fears not being first to him. Yet at this moment, they each approach the other to give solace in reference to a perceived rival. They both meet the challenge of this test by offering comfort, in place of making a claim to be the “first” to the other.
Instead of Emma having to “reconcile” Mr. Knightley to marrying Harriet, he and Emma experience a reconciliation, which began with her repentant action and his forgiving look over the events at Box Hill. These characters resume a primacy in each other’s lives, which they felt was at risk. Though Emma ultimately gives Mr. Knightley an affirmative response to his profession of love for her, the mettle they show in this passage reveals that they can now genuinely be the “friends” they have long called each other, with renewed hope from their transformation.
Seventeenth in a series of blog posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Emma. To read more about all the posts in the series, visit Emma in the Snow. Coming soon: guest posts by Kate Scarth, Kirk Companion, and Margaret C. Sullivan.