All the Knightleys
What do we see in Jane Austen’s most formidable leading man?
Let’s talk about Knightley.
The first thing we could say about this most elusive and imposing of Austen’s romantic heroes is that he is, like many of the characters in Austen, one extreme in a study of contrasts.
And at the other end of this extreme is the repulsive Mr. Elton. To understand Knightley, you need to understand Elton. Or, to understand what Austen is showing us through the character of the elusive-yet-ever-present, polite-but-ever-challenging Knightley, you need to understand what Austen is showing us through the repulsive Mr. Elton.
And, not only does Austen offer us a stark contrast through these characters, she doubles down on it. By giving us two Mr. Knightleys.
The Other Brother
Yes, we are not seeing double, friends.
Austen gave us two of them from the same imposing, penetrating, formidable mold: Because our dear Mr. Knightley, our George Knightley, has a brother: John Knightley.
If this is surprising to you, friends, go out there and buy the book this instant and reread it!
And, as you read, somewhere in chapter 13 you will see the sibling relationship that we rarely talk about and that is actually kind of adorable, right? And that is not the relationship between Mr. Knightley and Emma; it’s the relationship between the brother-in-law John Knightley and Emma. This sibling scene is a little journey that happens when Emma, returning home from the village with the all-flattering Mr. Elton, runs into her brother-in-law John Knightley, who is married to her sister Isabella. John, like his brother, is sharply observant and candid in his observations and his relationships, and like his brother he doesn’t have much time for worldly gatherings and the people who inhabit them (the word Austen uses is “penetrating,” and she meant sussing things out quickly, but that word can mean whatever you want it to, friends.)
On this walk, with Elton in his comically misdirected full-on-flattery mode with Emma, the two are “overtaken” by the brother-in-law, wherein brother Knightley gets to observe the goings-on, along with the reader, until Mr. Elton departs. What follows is the John-Knightley-Post-Game-Analysis of Elton’s character, his manners, and his treatment of Emma, during which the narrator, via John Knightley, tells us everything that’s going on, so that we can penetrate it too.
And what’s going on of course is this: Elton is calculating, and Emma’s misjudging. You’ll remember, that George Knightley - our Mr. Knightley - also sees that Elton will “act rationally” when it comes to love, and tells Emma she is misguided, in the first crucial argument of the novel. So Emma, as well as the reader, is getting the benefit of not one but two penetrating Knightleys, on completely separate occasions, but Emma believes neither of them.
John Knightley is not as faultless as his brother - he takes his preference for home too far, and is sometimes out of sorts. So, when he tells Emma his observations about Elton, it’s with some concern as a brother, but not much. He’s just not that invested. George Knightley is invested - and that’s why when he argues the point, it’s ultra-romantic and everyone swoons.
So what does John Knightley say?
He complains that Elton is indiscriminate in his interactions - “he must dine wherever he is asked,” like Mr. Weston, or Sense and Sensibility’s Sir John Middleton. For John Knightley, this is the pinnacle of folly, and he’s baffled.
Emma herself comes around to this way of discriminate thinking, and late in the novel observes that the man for her is a man that would have “general benevolence, but not general friendship.” Friendships should be specially chosen, they should be authentic. “She could fancy such a man.” Indeed.
But let’s listen to John a bit more, because he gives us this contrast perfectly. Compared to our hero Mr. George Knightley, whom Emma finds, “in general has so little gallantry,” John Knightley notices that Elton is flattering and working overtime when he’s around women.
In other words, why can’t he just be natural?
This is the authenticity Austen is constantly calling for, and here she’s deploying the Other Brother to do it for her. Check out John Knightley’s summation of Elton: “With men he can be rational and unaffected” - this is always the aim in Austen, friends - “but when he has ladies to please every feature works.”
Every feature works. That is funny, penetrating, and instructive all at once.
Ladies and gentleman, Mr. John Knightley: Telling us to be real, be sincere, and maybe sometimes just stay home and enjoy your own fire.
All the Other Knightleys
So that you don’t have to, I’ve gone away and observed, judged, and summed up the screen Knightleys in a very Knightley- judgy way, going back all the way to an early 1972 British television version featuring John Carson in the Knightley role, and marching onward to Jeremy Northam with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma in the 1996 film version, Mark Strong with Kate Beckinsale’s Emma in a 1996 ITV version, and finally Jonny Lee Miller’s Knightley to Romola Garai’s Emma in the sumptuous 2009 BBC rendition.
And our latest Knightley: 2020’s British musician Johnny Flynn, who manages to not only hold his own in this formidable group - formidability being the point of Knightley - but Flynn’s Knightley, as interpreted by director Autumn de Wilde, also advances the conversation.
When thinking the Knightley screen formula, which might be slightly different from the Austen formula, think: stately, “superior,” and of “high superiority of character.” Those are Austen’s words for Knightley. Or as Andrew Davies put it for his Austen heroes, strong and wounded.
Think: Regé-Jean Page, who has not played Knightley, but is cut from that same Regency-mold Austen created - whether inadvertently, accidentally, or consciously and intentionally, we’ll never know. And Page also, of course, advances the conversation.
Knightleys for the ages
So for our tour of the Other Knightleys, it has to be said they are a limited range, from buttoned-up and severe, to seething, simmering and tense; to flat-out angry and shouty.
Knightley, as you know, never gets to be happy-go-lucky, giddy, or even particularly romantic. He really doesn’t have a whole lot of fun. For some reason, this not-having-fun, the strong-woundedness, to evoke Davies, is just a whole lot of fun for us - audiences are swooning. It would take an entire post, or book, to unpack what’s going on here, and we won’t tackle this today, but stay tuned.
For now, let’s just say the only quasi-romantic thing Knightley does throughout this entire novel is invite Harriet Smith to dance. (Or, am I missing something? If so, let me know!) But while in the 2020 Emma this comes across as wildly romantic, from Knightley’s own point of view it seems he’s just once again doing his duty. Because there is that one thing that a “man can always do, if he chooses, and that is, his duty.” So there.
None of this constitutes a downside. Superior and of high character - up on a pedestal - is the way we want our Knightleys, and it’s the way Austen herself wanted her Knightley, or she would have edited him.
So let’s look at our Knightleys, chronologically:
The 1972 BBC adaptation plays like a stage production. John Carson is solid, but he’s all articulate, civilized, sometimes-bemused admonishment. No seething or ranting in sight. Certainly no Darcy-esque (or Simon the Duke) stuttering.
Compared to Carson’s early version, Mark Strong, Jonny Lee Miller and Johnny Flynn are on an emotional roller coaster. The emo Knightleys have come from our later screen adaptations, and that seems OK: In fact, why not create a Knightley for every age?
Which takes us to the mid-1990s, which of course is the age of Bridget Jones, the age of sonic walls of sound from Nirvana, and the age when Andrew Davies’ iconic 1995 BBC “Pride and Prejudice” series and the wet-shirted Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy burst on to the world and perhaps set the standard for Austen’s leading men on the screen.
And it’s the decade of the Gwyneth Paltrow-Jeremy Northam pairing as Emma and Knightley in the Miramax film.
Jeremy Northam is handsome and gallant, with a sparkle in his eye, and possibly too gallant for Knightley. In this version, the knock-down shout-out about Harriet Smith rejecting Mr. Robert Martin gets Northam only mildly exasperated, sparkle still in place, and the second half of this argument actually happens over tea. If you tried having that argument with Mark Strong’s Knightley, or Johnny Flynn’s Knightley, during this same debate, you’d have a tempest in those tea cups.
So let’s move on to Mark Strong’s Knightley opposite Kate Beckinsale’s very mildest of Emmas. Strong lives up to his name I suppose by being absolutely the most intimidating Knightley possibly ever.
Andrew Davies tells a hilarious story, which goes something like this: Apparently when filming the 1996 ITV movie and the scene where Knightley and Emma are making up from one of their arguments while Emma holds her niece, Baby Emma, and Emma passes Baby Emma to Knightley, the baby would burst into tears every time the baby looked at Mark Strong. They tried several times, apparently, to get the baby to like Mark Strong, which was very funny until it wasn’t. It eventually halted production, and finally a production designer went into town and bought a load of uncooked beans, put them in a bag, and that bag of beans became the baby. Problem solved.
Moving on to the next decade - we have 2009’s Emma, directed by Jim O’Hanlon, which I feel brought to the screen adaptation a lot of the sumptuousness and quirkiness of de Wilde’s most recent vision. Knightley in this version is Jonny Lee Miller, who also in 1999 had played Austen leading man Edmund to Frances O’Connor’s Fanny Price in Mansfield Park.
Twice over, Miller seems to be a good fit as an Austen leading man - and I hereby declare (since I’m the one judging Knightley here, and not the other way around), that he is the angriest, most shouty Knightley.
Miller is at a constant simmer, at the banalities and injustices and unfairnesses that plague Regency England, and he takes all this out on Emma, his personal project, whenever possible. That’s what he’s for.
Enter: The Sonorous Knightley
And that brings us to the planet’s latest Knightley, Johnny Flynn.
Flynn seems to me to be all over the place, in a fantastic way, when it comes to this role. He’s had the advantage, as has de Wilde, of studying all of the above performances and choosing or leaving what is needed or not.
The result is a Knightley that has all the ways of our Knightleys, but Flynn and de Wilde seem to ramp this up to 11: His anger is a bit louder, his simmering a bit more righteous, and now added to the mix we find genuine amusement, pain and joy in the delivery.
And these dynamics come out most prominently in Flynn’s voice. It is sonorous.
This seems to be because Flynn is a musician first and foremost, and he truly seems not so much to say his lines as to sing them. It might be that Autumn de Wilde, as one of the only female directors of an Austen screen adaptation, brings something bolder to the approach.
The dynamics of his voice in the classic Emma-Knightley arguments are on a wild ride, but one that seems natural to Flynn. As a radio producer, sound is something I notice, and I spend a lot of time looking at audio samples and waveforms, so on the second viewing of this film I realized that if I were the sound editor wrangling Flynn’s dialogue, I’d be looking not at a gradual slope but at a roller coaster. In that classic Harriet Smith-Robert Martin-proposal argument, Flynn’s voice goes from whispers, up to hisses and then escalates into shouts, before fading back into an urgent plea, and then ends in abrupt stony silence and a nod. The vocal range comes into play, and one of the most enjoyable things about Flynn’s performance is his mastery of it.
The moral to this story? More musical Knightleys.
Will you dance?
So what do all of these debates, discriminations, and cautions in our Knightleys bring to this complicated story of Emma?
The clue, I think, is in each of the Knightleys - the brothers, that is, John and George.
On that carriage when he overtakes Emma and Elton, John finally, after offering his advice and having it dismissed by his sister-in-law, says to her this: “I speak as a friend, Emma. You had better look about you, and ascertain what you do, and what you mean to do.” (Emma’s answer: I thank you; but I assure you you are quite mistaken.” LOL) Here’s a Knightley, another one, laying out: This Elton is after you, be vigilant, and know what you’re doing. And that proves to be very necessary advice.
The other clue comes from something Emma herself says, at the end of the novel, after evolving through a cycle of clarifying disasters, debates and missteps: When contemplating the fate of Jane Fairfax, Emma formulates a radical, subversive thought about women in her world: “If a woman can be excused for thinking of herself, it is in a situation like Jane Fairfax’s. - Of such, one may almost say, that ‘the world is not theirs, nor the world’s law.’”
Did we hear this? “The world is not theirs”? That’s right, it was true then and many of us feel it now. The world and its laws are not for you. This is Austen talking with us about survival, showing how necessary it is to think about it even when society won’t - to look about one and decide what to do, as John Knightley urges.
It’s a comment not only on our own survival but on the world itself, and it draws from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” in passages that call on “need’ and “oppression” and urge that if the world “affords no law” to protect you or “make thee rich,” then “break it, and take this.”
It’s not an accident - Austen doesn't accidentally include things in her novels as far as I can tell - that George Knightley is a magistrate, and John Knightley is a lawyer. Austen has them in drawing-room corners talking about legal matters. She portrays them as superior, as embedded in English institutions, including that of family. They keep their family close, but tellingly also will assert themselves in the interests of those the “law” and society ignores.
Those like Jane Fairfax, and Harriet Smith, and Hetty Bates.
That’s why, while George Knightley, our most enigmatic of all Austen’s men, is not generally gallant, or handsome, he after all captures our hearts. He rescues Harriet on the dance floor. He sticks up for Miss Bates. He sends Jane Fairfax a carriage.
It’s those gestures that point to the possibility of something else, something better - in humans and in the world. Of rallying all the resources of Regency Britain and its properties and its injustices, and bringing them to bear on the act of noticing those who the law forgets. Perhaps that’s why we love Knightley: Knightley asks us to dance.
What do you think?
Who is your favorite Knightley on screen? Have you ever noticed the Knightley brothers, and why do you think Austen created these two Knightleys? What do all the Knightleys and their arguments contribute to this complicated story and to Emma’s evolution as a character? What does it mean that Austen bestowed on Knightley and her leading men the task of challenging and spurring the growth of Austen’s protagonists?
Let us know all your thoughts, friends! You can comment here:
Next week we’ll hear from Professor George Justice for a bonus podcast episode - this was such a fun conversation, and I can’t wait to share it with you all and also invite you to join in.
Meanwhile, stay safe, stay well, and thank you for being here.
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