My first introduction to Jane Austen was through Emma (1996). As a teenage Anglophile, I was always on the hunt for clean new costume dramas (still am) and managed to convince my mother to let us rent it on pay-per-view. I fell in love with the costumes, actors, storyline, witticisms, and lessons, and for five consecutive years watched Emma a thousand times. I can still quote entire scenes from memory and those lines are firmly embedded in my family’s collective consciousness.
I’m not a Purist, I enjoy different versions of the same story, but the 1996 version remains my favorite… for its lead, for her blue dress, for Jeremy Northam’s Mr. Knightley, for picturesque scenes of archery and sewing in a spring breeze, for the “gentler” approach with the characters (this Knightley has a twinkle in his eye that makes his corrections nicer; and Gwyneth’s Emma is less obnoxious than amusing), and of course the proposal beneath an enormous tree, where Knightley says, “Perhaps it’s our imperfections which make us so perfect for one another!
Emma is, at its heart, less a story of romance and more a tale of misguided intentions; a lesson in listening to your friends (for good or ill) and in being “led astray” by others. Harriet is on her perfect path to happiness, madly in love with an entirely suitable farmer named Mr. Martin until Emma comes along and nearly ruins it by persuading Harriet to aim higher. There’s no shortage of blame to go around; Harriet is in the wrong for being so easily led and convinced to deviate from her heart’s desire in order to earn Emma’s approval. Emma thinks she loves Harriet, but in trying to direct her romantic life, she’s actually being unloving and causing Harriet endless amounts of pain. She’s a meddling busybody who “knows best,” but lacks wisdom, a check with reality, or good judgment—a fact Mr. Knightley loves to point out on every occasion.
Like Harriet, Emma suffers from “changing” around certain people; whenever she’s with Frank Churchill, Emma becomes ruder, more condescending, and attention-seeking; Mr. Knightley isn’t wrong in his judgment that, after Emma insulted Miss Bates for a laugh in public, he “thought this evidence of Frank’s influence over you, and I could not bear to see it.”
Though it’s a tale of comedic romantic pitfalls, beneath the humor lies a central truth: the people we surround ourselves with influence us, for better or worse. Mr. Knightley admits Emma’s friendship “improved Harriet,” because it’s grown her out of some of her silliness, but Emma’s motives were primarily self-serving (she saw Harriet as a “project” rather than a friend). Mr. Knightley is the positive influence in Emma’s life. Without his corrections, some more loving than others, Emma would never have grown up, saw true kindness is as much in our actions as our words (he hates dancing, yet danced with Harriet to save her from a slight), or realized the one person whose approval matters most to her is Mr. Knightley. He has plenty of problems of his own (“I’ve corrected you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no one else could have borne it…”) but they bring out the best in one another.
That’s what draws me to a romantic couple – not quarreling or making up, sexual intensity, or the misunderstandings that happen along the way to love, but they make one another better for being together. The best friendships and romances do this; where there’s a gentle tug between affirmation and fondness, pushing one another continually toward a stronger, more courageous, less flawed version of themselves through a loving exchange. Correction without the bond of affection or consent on both sides is unwelcome and hurtful; but Emma taught Mr. Knightley not to dismiss Harriet offhand (“You chose better for [Mr. Elton] than he chose for himself”), and Mr. Knightley taught Emma to choose her friends with greater care.
Whatever comes of them, however many chicken thieves Mr. Knightley must chase off, however much her father may complain about germs and crying “infants importing disease each time they enter into the house,” however many quarrels Emma and Knightley get into over common sense (“Men of sense do not want silly wives!”), they will attain old age having improved one another, worn smooth each other’s rough edges, and that’s the best kind of relationship.