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Emma's arguments - this won't end well
Dueling portraits of power and influence in Emma and Knightley, and The Great Jane-Austen Showdown, part 2
Hope you are surviving this Month of Love - love can be a rough ride! Hang on, because we are tackling it all head on and spending February unpacking the great Jane Austen showdowns and the big arguments of Pride and Prejudice and Emma, the books where Austen’s tensions and contentions come to a head between our Two People in ways that still influence our enemies-to-lovers tropes, romances, and romcom tensions today.
And today’s post is what we might call the low-hanging fruit of Austen conversations - because this argument between Emma and Knightley is just everything.
It manages to build the simmering tensions of that foundational romance-building Austen created, while also doing another Very Austen thing: forcing the reader into an examination of class lines, gender lines, power lines, and prevailing assumptions and standards about gendered conduct, relationships, marriage, class, and society.
It’s all in this argument that does not end well - the ever-gracious, bemused Knightley will stalk out in a huff, leaving Emma feeling, let’s say, vexed.
So let’s unpack how they get to this point - because we know that even though this specific argument isn’t pretty the actual book is going to ultimately arrive at its HEA. Spoiler: Knightley ends up giving Emma an awful lot of credit, and Emma in return does indeed live up to his standards and hopes - almost. (The question of how these two will live together is very much left unanswered in this novel, if you ask me. Yet we get perfect felicity and a wedding so we’re all good.)
And what kicks off this argument?
Friendship! In fact, two friendships! Knightley’s friendship with the worthy, hard-working, sensible farmer Robert Martin.
That’s Knightley in one corner. And in the other corner we have Emma, and her inequitable and oppressive friendship with Harriet Smith.
Austen makes two things clear about Harriet that are not always picked up in the film adaptations: Harriet is hot! And also, Harriet is not the brightest tool in the shed. (Update: Actually Harriet is, according to Peter Graham writing in Jane Austen and Charles Darwin, perfectly clever, she’s just very young - aged 17.) And Emma, who is older, and razor sharp. And it is in Emma’s argumentation tactics that we readers - and also Knightley - can see that sharpness on full display.
Let the games begin!
[F]orcing the reader into an examination of class lines, gender lines, power lines, and prevailing assumptions and standards about conduct, relationships, marriage, class, and society. It’s all in this argument that does not end well …
Knightley’s friend Robert Martin is proposing - has proposed - to Emma’s friend Harriet Smith. So immediately we have set up here that symmetry that Austen uses so effectively to begin her painting of dueling portraits: one portrait of Knightley and how he approaches his relationships, his influence, his power, and his philosophy of life; and also a counter portrait of Emma and how she approaches her relationships, her influence, her power, and her philosophy of life such as it is.
We are already set up in a cringey and fun situational comedy with this argument because at its outset we see the all-knowing, influential, land-holding-magistrate, and much-older, Knightley immediately approaching Emma with his news that Harriet is about to receive an offer of marriage from Robert Martin.
Knightley’s ‘news’ (spoilers abound!)
And this news-bringing Knightley is cringey and a bit horrifying and also funny because: We readers know that this proposal has already happened - we have with Emma read Robert Martin’s nicely composed letter and we’ve also watched/read the painful scene of Emma’s dictating a rejection for a disappointed, confused, and trusting Harriet Smith. Emma’s friend Harriet places her future in the hands of a friend whom she feels is more capable and powerful than she.
We are now alert to the fact that Knightley, and his complacent anticipation of Harriet’s and Robert’s joy, is going to be brought down hard.
But how is Emma going to do this?
We might be feeling a little terrified by this situation, or at least awkward.
But Emma feels none of it. No, friends, she’s smiling. She’s enjoying knowing something that Knightley doesn’t know - and she exhibits zero regard for the lives she is playing with. But we readers have regard for those lives; and we want to put our hands over our eyes.
The argument has not even started yet. This is the setup.
So, still, before we get into it and see how the ambitions of these two strong-headed people will clash in their own specific way - before that clash happens - it’s fascinating to go to the text and see that in Knightley’s seemingly banal initial rambling about Robert Martin Austen gives us a very clear picture of Knightley’s thoughts on not just Robert Martin his friend but also on meritocracy, gender roles and responsibilities, marriage, money, farming, and family.
So much is in there! Here’s a portion of what Knightley says of Robert Martin and so much else:
“I have a thorough regard for him and all his family, and I believe, considers me one of his best friends. … I never hear better sense from any one than Robert Martin. He always speaks to the purpose; open, straight forward, and very well judging. He told me every thing; his circumstances and plans, and what they all proposed doing in the event of his marriage. He is an excellent young man, both as son and brother. … He proved to me that he could afford it. … he … left the house thinking me the best friend and counsellor man ever had. This happened the night before last.”
So after reading this, we know quite a lot about the Martins. And we also know things about Knightley.
We know that Knightley himself is someone who is not only constantly appraising others, but that also he admires those who judge for themselves. We can see that Knightley also considers Robert Martin to be not only of good judgment - but of the best judgment.
This is a nod from Austen, through Knightley, toward meritocracy. Through Knightley Austen is herself showing the possibility of respect and approbation and also success - Knightley makes it clear that Robert Martin can afford to marry - and Knightley presents a vision for a future here for these two people. A vision that includes comfort, productivity, a strong family network, love.
A Regency bromance
And even better, this speech of Knightley’s also reveals to us pure joy from Knightley, and corresponding potential for heartbreak: We don’t know whether to laugh or cry as Knightley makes it clear that these two men have rejoiced in the possibility of a successful, lucrative life full of love that is set before Robert Martin - and they’ve left this conversation full of hope and feelings of strong friendship.
[T]his speech of Knightley’s also reveals to us pure joy from Knightley, and corresponding heartbreak in the reader: We don’t know whether to laugh or cry as Knightley makes it clear that these two men have rejoiced in the possibility of a successful, lucrative life full of love that is set before Robert Martin …
We have here a Regency-style bromance! And one based on true mutual regard, affection, and virtuous support of one clever, kind, privileged man for another clever, kind, hard-working one.
What is Emma’s reaction to this speech that she hears, as we readers do, with the full knowledge of the devastating letter Robert Martin will by now have received? Is she full of doubt, regret, or any confusion?
Not at all, friends! The confusion will come, but at this point Emma is “smiling”!
Emma “had been smiling to herself through a great part of this speech” - and her answer to this is: “‘Come”’ said she, “I will tell you something, in return for what you have told me.”
Cringe! Put the book down and walk away!
Emma tells Knightley that Robert Martin has been refused, in one sentence that we are told “was obliged to be repeated before it could be believed.”
Austen spares us the full impact but she gives us the immediate aftermath of this news and it’s not pretty: “Mr. Knightley actually looked red with surprise and displeasure, as he stood up, in tall indignation, and said …”
Mr. Knightley, Austen makes clear, has changed colors. And not just “turned red,” but: “actually turned red.”
And here as with Mr. Darcy in that Pride and Prejudice awful-proposal scene, Austen is giving us the full blocking of not only Knightley’s feelings, but the physical manifestation of those feelings and leaving very little for us to interpret: Knightley is pissed.
And he is tall with indignation - a vision that would appear to be a subjective one; we are seeing Emma’s viewpoint here. And is this intimidating for Emma, this tall indignation of a family friend much older than she and the person who holds the most power in her life and in her community? Not a bit.
In fact, no worries, Emma is having fun!
When Knightley is able to speak, here’s what Knightley says, ostensibly about Harriet but we know this is about Emma and he gets right to the point - Knightley always does: “Then she is a greater simpleton than I ever believed her. What is the foolish girl about?”
That’s a question, however, that is just condescending enough - thank you, Austen - that we are now almost glad that Emma is going to have some fun with her answer, and fun is had with this comeback:
“Oh! To be sure,” cried Emma
[Here comes a nice dose of Austen sarcasm, the first teaspoon full, and Knightley will dish out some of his own very soon.]
“It is always incomprehensible to a man that a woman should ever refuse an offer of marriage. A man always imagines a woman to be ready for anybody who asks her.”
Marvelous! Here is a “fact” from Emma that is not at all verifiable. But considering the spirit of the era, yes she has a point! She’s on to something! It may have nothing whatsoever to do with this situation, but yet there’s truth to it - and this confusion of unverifiable assertions that are true but also shocking to say and also irrelevant is a mixture that could drive a person mad. Even a Knightley person.
She’s on to something! It may have nothing whatsoever to do with this situation, but yet there’s truth to it - and this confusion of unverifiable assertions that are true but also shocking to say and also irrelevant is a mixture that could drive a person mad. Even a Knightley person.
But Knightley’s reply is quite sane as he replies the only reasonable way he can to this, an admirable way to confront misinformation if that’s what it is: “Nonsense! A man does not imagine any such thing.”
And now Knightley takes the mic. He questions Emma’s information about the refusal. We are on a fact-finding mission that is suspenseful even if - and likely because - we know the facts.
But now the refusal is not the point! And this is what’s fascinating about this argument: Emma has successfully veered the conversation away from the refusal where she is not on solid ground, and she’s steered this thing - calculating her strategy in mere seconds - toward a place where she has some firmer ground.
Emma’s speech throughout this argument both invokes and challenges the attitudes advised for men and women in the 18th century conduct books - by writers like Dr. John Gregory and his published advice to his daughters, by Fordyce’s sermons so loved by the hilarious and treacherous Mr. Collins, and by female writers like Hannah More.
But first, before Emma elaborates on expected and confining gender roles in matrimonial negotiations - she’s coming to that - first, she and Knightley get into it over the situations and the class roles of their two friends.
This is the part about class. (Coming up: the part about gender!)
Knightley deems Robert Martin more than worthy; Emma deems Harriet worthier.
And worse, Emma not only considers Robert Martin unworthy but she also painfully insults him - “I cannot admit him to be Harriet’s equal … By your account, he does seem to have had some scruples. It is a pity that they were ever got over.”
And this is where Knightley sort of begins to lose it: “Not her equal!” exclaimed Mr. Knighley loudly and warmly; and with calmer asperity, added, a few moment afterwards, “No, he is not her equal indeed, for he is as much her superior in sense as in situation.”
We’re into it now! Knightley is shouting, then getting himself together, and seething. If you’ve seen the Autumn de Wilde EMMA. film of 2020, you have heard the actor Johnny Flynn, who is a singer and songwriter, deliver these vocal dynamics in that fabulous argument scene. But Austen wrote those dynamics into the text!
And what has really got Knightley “warm” here and what this argument is now about is class: class situation, whether it can be overcome, and whether internal merits are worth anything.
It’s not about nothing! Knightley is uplifting Robert Martin’s superiority through his friend’s sensibility, his inner character. And insisting that that inner character is worthy of respect. Emma is insisting on her friend’s superiority - but has no grounds for that superiority other than that she is Emma’s friend and so enjoys high connections.
Knightley now goes off, in a fairly long speech that we won’t repeat but it’s expounding on his view that Harriet brings nothing to the table - no inner resources that Austen is so fond of calculating, just as she does the outer resources that characters bring to the table: Harriet has no money, no family, no intelligence, no experience. “She is pretty, and she is good tempered, and that is all.”
Readers, we are in agreement with Knightley. Of course! But: Hang on a second - she is pretty, and good-tempered, and that is all?! Isn’t that exactly what all of the conduct books, most of the novels, and the sermons of the 18th and 19th century are advising women to be, exactly? Pretty as they can be, good-natured as they can be, and the rest will take care of itself?
The weakness in Knightley’s argument here is not Knightley’s weakness - we are getting a portrait of a man who insists on judging according to inner merits rather than superficial ones. But of all people it’s the young, inexperienced female Emma that Austen is going to commission to pick this up and argue with Knightley as a stand-in for the patriarchy and for the harsh rules of a society that rewards birth, aristocracy, and arbitrary power. Good luck, Knightley.
And when Knightley is defending a sensible, hard-working farmer he is calling up a vision of meritocracy that was not necessarily valued in Regency England, but it was valued in Austen’s own family. The Rev. George Austen, Jane Austen’s father, was a hard-working clergyman and farmer - firmly from the gentry, or the lower ranks of the English ruling classes, but a person who had to work hard to make ends meet. Austen’s mother, Cassandra Austen, also helped manage the family’s boarding school, the farm produce, and a lively home front. Austen’s brothers mostly had to scramble for a comfortable living - and they did so through things like the clergy, banking, and the Navy, all somewhat meritocratic professions that Austen celebrated as such. And she herself found what little income she was able to gather, of course, through her writing.
Emma is wrong and also right
So here goes Emma, whom critics have for centuries pointed to as wrong, and she is deeply wrong. But she’s also right, in that she’s pointing at reality, whether we and Knightley like it or not:
“What! Think a farmer, (and with all his sense and all his merit Mr. Martin is nothing more,) a good match for my intimate friend! … The sphere in which she moves is much above his. —It would be a degradation.”
Ouch. With this hit, Knightley gets blunt: “A degradation to illegitimacy and ignorance, to be married to a respectable, intelligent gentleman-farmer!”
And here we see Austen’s brilliance, her ventriloquism, as she puts the morally “right” argument challenging the status quo in Knightley’s mouth but the harsh reality yet “wrong” argument of the status quo in Emma’s. In doing so, Austen is upending just everything: Emma is invoking society’s superficial and arbitrary values about class - radical to do! - and in doing so is the opposite of meek, mild, and innocent.
[H]ere we see Austen’s brilliance, her ventriloquism, as she puts the morally “right” argument challenging the status quo in Knightley’s mouth but the harsh reality yet “wrong” argument of the status quo in Emma’s. In doing so, Austen is upending just everything: Emma is invoking society’s superficial and arbitrary values about class - radical to do! - and in doing so is the opposite of meek, mild, and innocent.
So to recap: Austen gives our heroine the mouth to voice harsh Regency realities. How does it sound, friends? We don’t like it. Not one bit.
Austen was going to create a heroine whom no one but herself would much like, she (reportedly, and according to a nephew) said. Did she ever.
And at this point in the argument Emma uses Knightley’s own moral argument about meritocracy and she turns it back on him, applying it to Harriet.
Here’s Thomas Paine, er, Emma answering Knightley’s moral indignation with her own indignation about Harriet. If meritocracy is good enough for Mr. Martin, it should be good enough for Miss Smith: “As to the circumstances of her birth, though in a legal sense she may be called Nobody, it will not hold in common sense. She is not to pay for the offense of others, by being held below the level of those with whom she is brought up.”
So often in Austen she hides her harsh truth-telling behind a naive, innocent, and wrong heroine who happens in this instance to be right. (We unpacked this in our most popular post ever: Wrongheaded Heroines.) Here Emma almost sounds like the revolutionary writer and thinker (who was imprisoned for his views) Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense among many other criticisms of the aristocracy. Why should Harriet be punished for the actions of others, for her station determined by her birth? Indeed! It is not common sense. Put her behind bars for saying so.
Emma is about power
And the tables have turned so now it’s Knightley taking up Emma’s line of whatever-you-think-here’s-the-harsh-reality. And Knightley is also right: No one who cares about their station is going to marry Miss Smith. And, Knightley says, and this is way more crucial to this book than we often realize: You’re ruining her life by interfering. Take it away, Knightley:
“She was as happy as possible with the Martins in the summer. She had no sense of superiority then. If she has it now, you have given it. You have been no friend to Harriet Smith, Emma. Robert Martin would never have proceeded so far, if he had not felt persuaded of her not being disinclined to him. I know him well. He has too much real feeling to address any woman on the haphazard of selfish passion. And as to conceit, he is the farthest from it of any man I know. Depend upon it he had encouragement.”
This is about much more than its surface-level issue of - who was right and who is listening to whom. This speech is now about power and influence. This is Austen making it very clear to the reader through Knightley that these two people were on a path to happiness, and Emma got in the way. That Emma is using her power and influence in a way that is destructive. And Knightley feels implicated in this too now.
Why would Austen bother taking the argument down this path?
It could take many essays and posts to unpack this single sentence but here it is: The story of Emma is a story about power. It’s about influence and how you use that influence. And so many of Austen’s stories are about this - you see it in Sir Thomas of Mansfield Park and, in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy’s influence of Jane and his friend Bingley. These stories quite simply cause us readers to reexamine our own power and be conscious and careful of how we use it - whether we are a parent, a magistrate, a sister, or a friend.
It’s all there in Knightely’s speech: “You have been no friend to Harriet, Emma.”
This is going to play out wildly in the proceeding hundreds of pages and it’s the basis for all their arguments because Knightley explicitly says, later, that he feels he must say something to her as her friend.
Because this is what friends and good citizens do - they speak up and use their influence and insights for good when they can, even when it’s awkward, cringey, uncomfortable, or even harmful. You might be Knightley getting exasperated, you might be Emma getting in a muddle, you might be Mary Wollstonecraft losing her reputation, Thomas Paine being imprisoned. But speak up.
We also see here Knightley championing real feeling over selfish passion - another favorite thread and theme in Austen’s novels and frequently seen as the main lesson here. And it’s a good one!
But Emma cannot and will not take on this theme. Here for the first time we see that Knightley’s speech about true affection has got through to her, and what does she do? She changes tack, and quickly: “It was most convenient to Emma not to make a direct reply to this assertion; she chose rather to take up her own line of the subject again.”
Oh, that’s good, Emma. The only problem is Knightley does see your maneuvering. He’s just too nice to say so right now.
Her own line
But this change in tack is fascinating and quite simply this is showing some real debating skills, some quick maneuvering, some shameless manipulating, as Knightley and Emma borrow and overlap each other’s strategies - strategies that for many late 18th century and early 19th century thinkers women are not only discouraged from but are simply not capable of. This kind of maneuvering just doesn't happen in the Regency female brain; but in Emma it’s on brilliant display.
This may be one reason Austen gave these two such a large age gap - it actually strengthens Emma’s skills as we are seeing one young mind not yet formed but speaking up and deploying agency perhaps for the very first time; and we’re seeing it against an alternate portrait of a mind well-formed and close to power.
Whatever is going on with this, it’s fascinating to watch!
And one fun thing Austen is doing in this argument is not only showing this kind of strategic debating skill in a woman and a much younger one at that, but of course holding it up as a bad example with so many layers: Emma is wrong about most things but right about some things - and at any rate we have here a much younger woman winning an argument even while wrong!
Austen is … showing this kind of strategic debating skill in a woman and a much younger one at that, but of course holding it up as a bad example with so many layers: Emma is wrong about most things but right about some things - and at any rate we have here a much younger woman winning an argument even while wrong!
How exasperating! And how illuminating! Our perspective of what a young woman is capable of has just got wrecked. And we’re laughing along as Austen wrecks it.
So here Emma takes up her brilliant tactic and changes the subject back to “her own line” - and what is this line? The subject she chooses to take up now is: gender roles. The class argument she has lost, even while being partly right. Right, because she’s presenting the society line, harsh as it is.
She’s about to do the same thing with stereotypical gender roles.
So let’s talk gender, Knightley. Good luck, Emma.
This is the part about gender
Emma as we’ve said does a quick calculation even under the watchful, exasperated eye of a much-older and all-powerful Knightley and she takes up her line with confidence, authority and relish, enjoying every minute of it.
Let’s look at this bit with annotations, keeping in mind that, hilariously, most of this is in one very long sentence separated by commas and semicolons. Take it away, Emma:
“Waving that point, however, and supposing [Harriet] to be, as you describe her, only pretty and good-natured, let me tell you,
[Let me tell you? Emma is definitely telling you, Knightley. See the sermonizer Fordyce: “modesty is often silent: female decorum is never bold." Sermons to Young Women, II, 126, as quoted in Alison G. Sulloway’s Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood ]
that in the degree she possesses them, they are not trivial recommendations to the world in general,
[Not a bad tactic - you might be wise, Knightley, but the world in general is not. It’s wonderful the way Austen finds subtle ways to lift her Two Persons up above the fray, a signal to the reader that these two belong together.]
for she is, in fact, a beautiful girl, and must be thought so by ninety-nine people out of an hundred; and till it appears that men are much more philosophic on the subject of beauty than they are generally supposed;
[And now Emma is taking on not only the world in general but also the entire male population, whose minds should apparently be of a superior model. Emma doesn’t waste any time taking it all down. And by the way, again, she’s paraphrasing the many conduct books of the period describing women as serene, fragile, and constrained; and men as assertive, responsible, and active. We wish we could see Knightley’s face here - which is why the adaptations and dramatizations are so much fun.]
Til they do fall in love with well-formed minds instead of handsome faces,
[See: Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.”]
a girl with such loveliness as Harriet, has a certainty of being admired and sought after, of having the power of choosing from among many, consequently a claim to be nice [choosy]. … I am very much mistaken if your sex in general would not think such beauty, and such temper, the highest claims a woman could possess.”
Emma is on a rant! And the scholar Alison G. Sulloway says these tactical arguments reveal “Austen’s guerilla techniques of simultaneous revelation and concealment at their very finest. It offers ‘received opinions’ in so sensible a way that no realistic person can altogether refute them. And then it undercuts them …”
Knightley immediately separates himself from this assertion about men in general with a brilliant comeback that takes a minute to unravel, especially if it’s in a cinematic dialogue - take it, Knightley:
“Upon my word, Emma” -
[Someone like Professor John Mullan needs to examine what’s always going on when an Austen character says “upon my word” - for Knightley and others it seems to signal something along the lines of WTF! But we digress.]
“Emma, to hear you abusing the reason you have, is almost enough to make me think so too. Better be without sense, than misapply it as you do.”
LOL. Knightley, you jest.
But when you think about it, he’s right and we’re with him on this - and again this comeback is yet more piling on to Austen’s portrait of power and influence in this novel: Truly, do we want to live in a world ruled by the Harriets? Kind, sweet, gentle but a bit dim citizens of the world? Or do we want to live in a world ruled by the Emmas? Clever, privileged, strategic and influential, and very willing to creatively rebuild their world and force their influence on others who are weaker?
For the answer, just look around you: First just look around at other Austen characters like Sir Thomas the Antigua plantation-owner, Lady Catherine the love-wrecker, and Sir Walter a terrible steward of his great estate which is England itself?
Yes, take it from sarcastic Knightley: Harriets might be better. It might be better to throw out all of your education, England, than to misapply your privilege, power, and knowledge to wrecking the lives of others, be they citizens of colonies, citizens who live in and among enslavement, or powerless citizens in your own country or county of Highbury.
Too much? If it’s too much, why is it there in the text?! Austen put it there and we can assume it was intentional. For those in doubt, let’s hear it again: To hear you abusing the reason you have … Better to be without sense at all than to misapply it as you do.
Emma is still having fun, however:
“‘To be sure!’ cried she playfully.
[Somewhere perhaps in her letters Austen refers to the ‘play of mind’ between young people and that’s a close reference it seems to the dialogue between her characters. If someone knows this reference, please advise us.]
“I know that is the feeling of you all. I know that such a girl as Harriet is exactly what every man delights in —what at once bewitches his senses and satisfies his judgment. Oh! Harriet may pick and choose. Were you, yourself, ever to marry, she is the very woman for you.’”
Whoa - ‘satisfies his judgment’. In other words, satisfies him that his partner knows much less - something Emma is revealing she might not herself be so grand at. And, did you remember that direct reference to Knightley and Harriet? Does Emma have it coming!
Knightley repeats that her friendship is damaging to Harriet, and provides the axiom that applies to both Harriet and now Emma: “Vanity working on a weak head, produces every sort of mischief. … Men of sense, whatever you may chuse to say, do not want silly wives. … (for Harriet Smith is a girl who will marry somebody or other,) till she grow desperate, and is glad to catch at the old writing master’s son.”
What a revelation here from Austen: Did we know that there is a type of woman who will marry “somebody or other”? To allude to a type that will “marry somebody or other” immediately presents a vision of an alternative. And of course this is the alternative Austen herself took. If there were not a Knightley or a Darcy around, best not to just marry a Somebody-or-other.
And here the “somebody” echoes the earlier “nobody” that references Harriet and her family. For some people, we all can be boiled down to somebodies and nobodies after all. We are meant to be on alert to these arbitrary classifications of humanity that Knightley and Emma are jointly parading before us.
The gentleman from Abbey-Mill
And so yes here Emma comes back finally to class and status. She underlines her traditional, status-quo views while both referencing and denegrating the Martin family and home while doing so, and with this Knightley has finally had enough.
Here’s Emma giving Harriet’s viewpoint on this oppressed, powerless individual’s behalf, thank you:
“She might not, while she was at Abbey-Mill …”
[And what a lovely, romantic name for the Martin homestead and the visions presented of a loving family of Robert Martin and his sisters. Abbey-Mill fanfic, anyone?]
“But the case is altered now. She knows now what gentlemen are; and nothing but a gentleman in education and manner has any chance with Harriet.”
“Nonsense, errant nonsense, as ever was talked!” cried Mr. Knightley. —“Robert Martin’s manners have sense, sincerity, and good-humour to recommend them; and his mind has more true gentility than Harriet Smith could understand.”
Again, right to the end, readers of this novel for 200 years are being forced into the surprising, upside-down position of having a heroine that defends the status quo, while a patriarchal figure challenges it with this vision of “true gentility” powered by affection and respect, rather than arbitrary status and wealth.
Austen is at her most brilliant here, reeling us into the argument with humor and allowing us to feel, as Professor Louis Menand puts it, that we’re in on the joke. All the while she’s changing - or at least challenging - our mind.
As promised, this argument doesn’t end well. “Emma made no answer, and tried to look cheerfully unconcerned, but was really feeling uncomfortable …”
She just wants Knightley to go, even though she “yet had a sort of habitual respect for his judgment in general, which made her dislike having it so loudly against her; and to have him sitting just opposite to her in angry state, was very disagreeable. Some minutes passed in this unpleasant silence…”
Tension! Simmering, smoldering tension and we’re not as readers disliking it. They are sitting across from each other, angry, and tense, and not uncaring about the other. We’re into it.
The tension continues, it’s drawn out, it smolders: Emma attempts to talk about the weather, but Knightley is busy thinking. He’s pretty bummed out, obvi: “He made no answer. He was thinking.”
What he’s thinking about is his friend Robert Martin’s feelings, and his friend’s future.
Finally, Knightley leaves Emma with one more warning and not his last in this book about her “views, and plans, and projects” suggesting very specifically and insightfully that if it’s Mr. Elton Emma has her sights on for Harriet, she should think again: “Elton may talk sentimentally, but he will act rationally.”
Mr. Elton for the status quo! Just like Emma!
As we know, not only Mr. Knightley is going to warn Emma openly - a rare thing - about this, but also his brother Mr. John Knightley, as we’ve discussed in a previous post, will warn Emma about this when he observes Mr. Elton with Emma and deduces that it’s Emma that Mr. Elton has his sights on. She’s warned openly and candidly by both brothers, on totally separate occasions, and still walks right into her disaster! LOL.
And what is the very worst part of this ending? An ending that is unendurable, and unanswerable, even for Emma and even for Knightley and these two lovers who are rarely without words: Emma just lies! Of all the bad things Emma does, this ability to just outright lie might be the worst, and it makes things seem hopeless for her.
Here is Emma’s final answer to Knightley’s accusation about her plans for Harriet with Mr. Elton, plans we all know are not only in mid-campaign but also about all either of them thinks about. Emma denies it all, with this:
“I am very much obliged to you,” said Emma, laughing again. “If I had set my heart on Mr. Elton’s marrying Harriet, it would have been very kind to open my eyes; but at present I only want to keep Harriet to myself.”
There is so much to dislike in this short speech - here Emma brings her misapplied influence and knowledge to a selfish knot, weaving in the threads of her snobbery, her condescension, her inability to listen to a friend, her lack of self-knowledge, and she ties it all up into one big bold twist of a lie.
And Knightley’s answer now?
“Good morning to you,”—said he, rising and walking off abruptly. He was very much vexed.
I’ll bet! Knightley is not happy, Austen makes clear, and she also makes clear that Emma - even as she might “win” an argument while being wrong and also unfairly resorting to lies - she is nevertheless even unhappier than Knightley. It doesn’t always feel good to win:
“Emma remained in a state of vexation too; but there was more indistictness in the causes of her’s than in his. She did not always feel so absolutely satisfied with herself, so entirely convinced … He walked off in more complete self-approbation than he left for her.”
This is a portrait of sad, disappointed confidence vs. bold, lively confusion. Which would you prefer? To be right, and disappointed like Knightley? Or to be wrong, and boldly soldiering on like Emma? Which is better for the world?
You can be sure Austen is showing us much more than just two people fighting about their friends, about proposals, about love and family and friendship. Yes, this argument is about all those things - and those things are important.
But this argument, surely, is about even more: It’s showing us dueling portraits that exhibit boldly diverging approaches to power and influence. It’s forcing us to consider how power and privilege are disbursed in our society, how our inner character and ethics can determine the manifestations and the impact of that disbursement, and how whatever station we find ourselves in society, we have choices to make about how we wield the power and agency we have.
[T]his argument, surely, is about even more: It’s showing us dueling portraits that exhibit boldly diverging approaches to power and influence. It’s forcing us to consider how power and privilege are disbursed in our society …
And Austen goes even further - to show us how our choices position us for happiness: How making the right choices and navigating ethically and astutely can indeed lead to peace even with disappointment and loss; but that alternatively asserting our power and influence on others even while giving us “wins” can lead to confusion, vexation, and a blurring of our vision, a blurring that will damage our self-knowledge and also our relationships. It will cut us off from love. As Emma feels at the end of this argument, so Sir Thomas feels in his arguments with Fanny Price in Mansfield Park.
And as always, with Emma Austen even goes further, and this is the part we love. Through Robert Martin and the family of Abbey-Mill, Austen presents yet another portrait that is nothing to do with Knightley or Emma:
It’s a portrait of friendship, meritocracy, family harmony, and love of the sort that is more likely than not to lead to happiness.
So, friends: How is this for the month of love? We did not know that this argument was going to take us to Abbey-Mill. What an interesting place to find ourselves! It seems like there could be much more written about this vision that Austen presents - it seems that elsewhere in the novel Harriet Smith mentions that the family has books in the house as well. When it all adds up, it’d be interesting to view the portrait Austen paints of this family and of Robert Martin.
What are your thoughts on Robert Martin, the Harriet and Emma friendship, and this argument between Knightley and Emma? So much going on! Let us know what you think of this scene as you read it, and also as you view it.
What is your favorite screen adaptation of Emma?
Coming up, we’re putting together an entire series on Austen and Democracy. This will be way more fun than it sounds, we promise! And there is an entire post dedicated to the topic: “Emma is about Power.” We’ll break this down further into what Austen might be forcing us to examine about society and its structures through the story of Emma.
More to come! Thank you for being here and engaging with this project.
Meanwhile, please enjoy the rest of February, stay tuned for more discussions on Austen and Democracy - conspiracies, and power, and information and disinformation, all arriving in March, and also our discussions on the novels and films, as well as some very slow-moving podcasts that will arrive, all of it, to your inbox when you subscribe:
We’ll be here!
Have a wonderful weekend, and may you win all the arguments you start,
Links and Community
This is Austen’s Arguments part 2; here’s part 1, an annotation of Mr. Darcy’s horrible first proposal in Pride and Prejudice:
All text quotes in this post from Emma are from this Penguin Classics edition of Emma.
I adore Alison G. Sulloway’s book Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood, and plan to be in conversation with this wonderful work for many essays and posts to come. We’re planning a series upcoming this spring on Heroines, inspired by Sulloway’s scholarship and emboldened and inspired by her insights. Stay tuned!
Lady Denham in love! Here’s a wonderful series that’s been around a decade but we just discovered it - Last Tango in Halifax. It stars Anne Reid, who also plays Lady Denham in PBS’s Sanditon series, with the wonderful, Shakespearean Derek Jacobi. The creator is BBC producer Sally Wainwright, the mastermind behind Gentleman Jack and Happy Valley.
All the Knightleys - this was a fun post about the Knightley brothers and their influence , or not, on Emma.
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