Men of Sense and Silly Wives: The Confusions of Mr. Knightley

Article excerpt

Debates about the authorial stance in Jane Austen's novels have often focused on Emma. The tension between Emma and Mr. Knightley and its final resolution inevitably raise questions about whether the author was upholding or challenging contemporary moral and social attitudes. On the whole, the charisma of Mr. Knightley and his apparent final triumph have persuaded critics that the novel rather supports traditional patriarchal values than otherwise. But there have been some attempts to unseat Mr. Knightley. In 1968, J. F. Burrows questioned his authoritative function in the novel, but stopped short of denying it altogether. "It is a matter," he says, "of accepting him as a leading but not oracular participant ... a matter of heeding his words but not bowing to them."(1) Burrows's reassessment of the character of Knightley leaves us much as we were before, and in his analysis he does not quite fulfill his promise to show us Emma in "an altered light." Some feminist critics have been more thoroughgoing, in particular Margaret Kirkham, who in an intelligent and searching analysis, has proved to her satisfaction that both Emma and Mr. Knightley have to change in order to be fit for each other, her purpose being to characterize the novel as a document in eighteenth-century Enlightenment feminism: "As the novel unfolds," she writes, "the education of hero and heroine, about themselves and one another as moral equals, is shown in a way which subverts the stereotype in which a heroine is educated by a Hero-Guardian."(2) Claudia Johnson also sees Mr. Knightley as less than perfect: "Knightley is not above imaginistic readings of his own ... [he] is just as apt [as Emma] to misconstrue where his interest is at stake ..."(3) This certainly provides the "altered light," but it has not apparently been bright enough to change the perception of Mr. Knightley by many more recent critics as Emma's mentor, the sane and rational warning voice that she initially ignores but ultimately has to attend to.(4) Even Laura Mooneyham, in a perceptive study that otherwise shows how Austen's heroes are often educated by the heroines, rather than vice versa, says at the very beginning of her chapter on Emma: "Austen's model for wisdom--and Emma's--is Mr. Knightley."(5)

If, however, we look more closely at the text of the novel than even the most "subversive" critics have so far done, we find that, though they have disturbed the traditional estimate of Mr. Knightley's character, something is still needed to account for all that happens between the two central characters. An examination of some of the less frequented byways of the text will reveal that, far from being somehow above it all, he is involved in the same kind of social/moral confusion as Emma and all the other characters and that it is with this general chaos that the novel is chiefly concerned. Everybody except Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, who themselves produce much of the confusion, is caught up in a complex web of social assumptions, prejudices, romantic and literary notions of all kinds, which creates a hilarious mix of misunderstanding and blunder, so that nobody is seeing exactly what is there, or hearing exactly what is being said.

The chief contemporary source of ideas on social and moral principles may be found in the conduct literature of the period which Jane Austen was very interested in, frequently quoting or referring to it in her letters, as well as occasionally in her novels. The second half of the eighteenth century saw a rapid growth in the production of books of rules for proper behavior in both sexes. It was an age of extreme social anxiety and self-consciousness which provided a ready market for works that seemed to offer reliable guidelines, particularly for those "of the middle sort" who, like Mr. Weston, were "rising into gentility and property" (Emma: p. 15)(6) in the new commercial world. These were often addressed to women, who could find themselves especially adrift and unoccupied in unfamiliar prosperity; but men also needed guidance in how to acquire dignity and acceptance in a society where the breakup of a more or less fixed semi-feudal dispensation, with all its rules of rank, deference, and dependence, was reaching a critical phase. …