This is the second book in the ‘George Knightley, Esquire’ duology. You can see my review of the first book, ‘Charity Envieth Not’ here. Since this is Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ from Mr Knightley’s point of view, and this is the second book of the series, the following review may contain spoilers for ‘Charity Envieth Not’ as well as ‘Emma’. I would strongly recommend reading ‘Emma’ before reading this series. Now that we’ve got the warnings out of the way, let’s crack on with the review!
‘The thought of meeting her eyes with his feelings advertised on his countenance seemed too bold. If she met his gaze with alarm on her face, he would feel wretched. He would not know how to proceed. She might avoid his eyes thereafter, or speak coldly to him. He could not bear that.
He paced the full length of the lime walk and turned back again. If he did too much too quickly, he risked losing her; if he did nothing he would certainly lose her.’
While wrestling with this issue, Mr Knightley decides to just be as gentlemanly as possible, in the hope that merit will win the day. The only problem with this approach is that Mr Knightley was already a true gentleman. His character doesn’t really change during the course of ‘Emma’, she is the one who has to change and grow.
‘He had determined to show so much consideration and kindness to Emma that she would think him the best man she had ever known, but herein lay a dilemma: all the small kindnesses he could imagine doing were things that he usually did anyway, and would therefore cause no change in her ideas about him.’
What Mr Knightley doesn’t know, and what the reader will know from reading ‘Emma’, is that Emma considers him the pattern of a true gentleman, and her opinion on this never varies from the beginning to the end of the novel.
Unable to woo his lady, Mr Knightley has to withdraw somewhat from the situation. He is very lovesick, and is frustrated that he can do so little about the situation. Misery loves company, however, and Mr Knightley can commiserate by a friend, Mr Spencer, who can empathise with his situation as he is living through the same problem himself. This character is not a character in ‘Emma’ but I really enjoyed his inclusion here, because not only was he an excellent contrast to Mr Elton in being a really conscientious clergyman, but it gave Mr Knightley a safe outlet to discuss his feelings and frustration in his inability to initiate a courtship.
The secondary characters in this book, as in the first volume, were very good. It was interesting to see Mr Knighley’s impact on his neighbourhood, and some of the events that happened in the first book progressed further in the second, which gave some more depth to the portrait of Mr Knightley’s character.
Another continuation from the first book that I was pleased to see was the relationship between the Knightley brothers. They are shown to have a lovely relationship here, affectionate and full of dry humour and banter. Here, John Knightley is getting ready to leave Highbury, having brought two of his children, John and Henry, to stay with their Grandfather and Aunt Emma:
“Will you come and see me off like a good brother?”
“Of course. I will even shed tears at your departure, if you like.”
“No, no, you’ll start John howling if you do. The watchword in partings is ‘cheerfulness’.”
“Ah. Well, I can manage that. As your carriage departs I will look absolutely radiant.”
As Knightley is forced to wait and see what happens, we see some of the major scenes of the book from his perspective. He picks up on some clues that Emma misses so that some events late on in the story are not particularly surprising, whereas a first time reader of ‘Emma’ might not be expecting them. Also, the scenes at Donwell, and particularly those of Box Hill are less excruciatingly embarrassing than they are in ‘Emma’ because they are from a different perspective. As Knightley soon after goes to visit John in London we are away from Emma during a time when she realises the extent of her mistakes, the potential implications and what she really feels about a number of things. This is one of the most important parts in the novel. For all of these reasons I would definitely recommend reading ‘Emma’ first as I think this book is intended to complement ‘Emma’ by rounding off the views. If you read this story before reading ‘Emma’ I think you’d be missing parts of the story.
The character of Emma was treated very kindly by the author, and she is quite sweet and loveable here, which might not be how some readers see her. However I think it’s important to remember that she is seen through a partial, though clear-sighted, point of view by Mr Knightley. I am quite fond of Emma as a character; I know some readers struggle with her high-handedness, snobbery and arrogance in her belief in herself to such an extent that they find it hard to see her good side, but she has some excellent characteristics that are there in ‘Emma’ and highlighted here – her kindness, her humour, intelligence, her lack of personal vanity, the way that she tries to make amends when she has been wrong and her consideration for others are all positive traits.
As the reader already knows the end of ‘Emma’, then you’ll know where this story ends. Of course, not being written by a lady writer in the early 1800s there is scope for some romantic scenes, which were lovely.
I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as the first book, but it’s still an excellent read. The first book had more humour, whereas the second had some sadder issues, both within the story events from ‘Emma’ and the additional events added by the author, and of course Mr Knightley is less happy during this book, including a period of withdrawing from Highbury which made me feel really sorry for him.