When I first discovered JAFF, this book and its partner, ‘George Knightley, Esquire, Book Two, Lend Me Leave’ were amongst the first books that I became aware of. They appeared to be books that many people had read and rated highly, so they went on to my wishlist as books I wanted to read soon. Over time, they slipped lower and lower as books I’d bought while they were on sale for reduced price and newer releases clamoured for the top spots. When the Austenesque TBR group on Goodreads chose this as a group read book for March I was really pleased to be given the impetus to finally read them. It's taken me a while to post my review as April was such a busy month here and I wanted to post my reviews for both books close together. I'll post my review of book two later this week, but read on to see what I thought of the first book in this series...
The story opens with Mr Knightley returning from London to Hartfield. Emma’s governess, Miss Taylor has just become Mrs Weston and Mr Knightley is keenly aware that Emma is bound to feel a huge void in her life. Although Knightley is busy with his estate, being a magistrate, taking part in local society including almost daily visits to the Woodhouse family and having occasional visits to his brother’s growing family in London, he is starting to become aware that there is a void in his life too.
‘After the noisy cheerfulness of his brother’s house, Donwell Abbey seemed lonely and silent—even more so than usual.’
One thing that I really enjoyed about this book was how evident it was that Mr Knightley has a huge soft spot for Emma – in ‘Emma’ you see many instances of him seemingly disapproving of her, but there was also an evidently very close relationship so it was good to see that highlighted further:
“There may someday be a mistress at Donwell Abbey who prefers the modern style and who persuades you at the last to pull down that grove.”
Never, thought Knightley. The lime walk was one of his favourite retreats when he had something to think over. He had been known to pace it for hours when an important decision had to be made. And Emma liked it.’
It’s clear from both books that Mr Knightley is a very forbearing man – many of the inhabitants of Highbury are tiresome in their own way, which always made me feel quite sympathetic towards Emma’s feelings for them, and he is shown to be generous in his toleration for the foibles of others here, though not lacking in judgement, as evidenced by his feelings towards Mr Elton, whom he judges to not always behave in a manner entirely befitting a Christian who should be setting a good example to his flock.
I wasn’t expecting much humour in this book so I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was plenty of it, ranging from the misunderstandings of a deaf servant, to Mr Knightley’s unexpected acquisition of a cat which becomes particularly attached to him, to the wonderful letters going back and forth between the Knightley brothers. The letters especially were a wonderful addition to the story, setting out how keen John was to see his older brother settled, showing an affectionate relationship between the brothers and allowing a dry sense of humour to shine through. They are just as amusing during the times they are face to face:
“I do wonder at you, John. Do you lie awake at night thinking of ways to provoke me?”
“Yes,” said John. “It takes a great deal of contemplation.”
In this book a very interesting point is raised, of why Emma doesn’t object more to Frank Churchill’s neglect of his father and stepmother in not visiting sooner.
‘No one could doubt Emma’s devotion to her own father; she showed him unceasing kindness and consideration, even though he could be a very tedious companion. How then could she treat so lightly Churchill’s indifference to Weston, a man who was by no means a tedious companion, and who, if not due a visit before now, was certainly owed one on the occasion of his marriage? Knightley could not understand it.’
From ‘Emma’ we know that she actually isn’t always representing her own true feelings. Here is a snippet from Austen's story, where Emma speaks to Mr Knightley about Frank Churchill coming to the neighbourhood:
‘She was the first to announce it to Mr. Knightley; and exclaimed quite as much as was necessary, (or, being acting a part, perhaps rather more,) at the conduct of the Churchills, in keeping him away. She then proceeded to say a good deal more than she felt, of the advantage of such an addition to their confined society in Surrey; the pleasure of looking at some body new; the gala-day to Highbury entire, which the sight of him would have made; and ending with reflections on the Churchills again, found herself directly involved in a disagreement with Mr. Knightley; and, to her great amusement, perceived that she was taking the other side of the question from her real opinion, and making use of Mrs. Weston's arguments against herself.’ – from ‘Emma’ by Jane Austen.
I thought this distinction in the views was very interesting; it reminded me of how often in ‘Emma’ people’s true feelings are disguised or mistaken, and it’s a theme I think is likely to continue over to the second book, particularly as Frank Churchill’s attentions towards Emma intensify.
When considering the subject of Mr Knightley’s feelings towards Frank Churchill, the title of the book becomes a little clearer. A longer quote from the Bible is as follows:
‘Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up.’
This quote could almost describe Mr Knightley – he is certainly long-suffering and kind, putting up with even the most tedious of neighbours, and dealing kindly with tenants, yet he is not boastful or big-headed (you could learn something from him there, Mr Elton!). The only way he doesn’t fulfil the verse is that Mr Knightley envies somebody, when it should be ‘Charity Envieth Not’. The ending of this book coincides with Frank Churchill having to leave Highbury, leading to the ball being postponed, in ‘Emma’. The ending of this book sees Mr Knightley making a resolution which, for me, didn’t quite fit with my view of his character. It was not an ungentlemanly resolution, but just one I didn’t find likely. However, this was a minor quibble in an otherwise very enjoyable book.
As for the style of the book, I would say that it’s not quite Austen-like, but I found it very enjoyable all the same. The pace of the book is fairly leisurely, but that was no bad thing, as I thought it really set the scene. There were some minor characters which were very nicely fleshed out, as well as the introduction of new ones. I felt that the author of this book really knew ‘Emma’ thoroughly, and used things mentioned in passing in Austen’s book to provide events and characters for this book. I would certainly recommend this book, and I hope that the remaining book in the series lives up to the promise of this book. This for me was a 4½ star read. Onward to book two!