Careful Who You Heed [Emma]

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.

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23 thoughts on “Careful Who You Heed [Emma]

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  1. You are so right; the best relationships are those where each side makes the other a better version of themselves. This is portrayed so wonderfully in Emma.

    I am a nanny, and day we took the ten year old to see a theater performance of “Emma.” After time to mull over the plot, she ended up thoroughly enjoying it, and grasped it enough to be debating with me whether Frank Churchill was ultimately a character to be liked. 😉 I think it was a good introduction to Austen, and it worked out so nice to have her see it performed live, before seeing any specific film version, since it was very engaging!

    I believe the Beckinsale version was the first I saw (or at least watched part of with my mom and grandma) and I always liked it and the Paltro version equally, but since the 2009 edition has quite stolen my heart with the music and costumes. 🙂

    1. It’s neat that you gave her the opportunity to see something live, before it ever made a more distinct impression through film; there’s something tremendously energetic and fun about live theater.

      I enjoy different things about each of the adaptations; if one could mush them all together, the perfect movie would come into existence! 😉

  2. I love the pictures you put here! The 1996 Emma will always be a favorite! My favorite line is, “Pork, Mother!”

    1. I think my favorite bit of irony is Mr. Knightley saying, “I just want to stay here, where it’s cozy,” and the camera panning out onto this ENORMOUS HOUSE.

  3. You definitely make a good case for convincing me to give this adaptation another try! I watched both this one and the Kate Beckinsale version and liked neither. Then 2009 came along and I fell for Jonny Lee Miller’s Knightley. I haven’t read the book yet (although I really want to soon!), so maybe that would change my perception of the characters and which actors/actresses I like best? Hmmmm…

    1. I like elements from all the different adaptations; if I could put them together, I’d have the perfect movie. (Keep this Emma and Knightley, nab Harriet and Jane from the 2009 version, and Frank Churchill from the Beckinsale version.)

      To be honest, I have a hard time accepting JLM as a period actor, so I struggled to see him as “the real” Mr. Knightley. 😉

  4. Another WONDERFUL piece, Charity. Though I’m judging him only on the films (because I’m too much of a wimp to try more classic lit), Mr. Knightley is, overall, my favorite Austen dude. (His press to teach Emma, to help her “grow,” to help her become the woman he knows she’s “hiding” is so well written.)

    Also, Northam is a fantastic Knightley! *swoon*

    PS: did you ever see the Emma web series!? It’s quite cute. 🙂

    1. Austen isn’t that challenging to read, in my opinion, though some of her descriptive passages can be tedious (then again, that’s a problem in a lot of novels!). I think Colonel Brandon edges out Knightley just a tiny bit, in terms of being my favorite (he’s so compassionate toward others, including giving Edward a parish so he can marry as he pleases), but Northam’s Knightley is my favorite overall Austen hero, mostly because, as I pointed out in the essay, he softens Knightley’s brutal truths through humor, wit, a twinkle in his eye, and sarcastic glances. It’s a purely artistic interpretation, probably from an emotionally-driven actor, and it makes Knightley’s brutal criticisms easier to bear.

      Now, if only I could figure out how to emulate that, instead of being frank! 😉

      No, I haven’t… I’ve stayed away from all the web series’… probably out of sheer stubbornness. Haha.

      1. For some reason I always forget about Brandon (when I was writing about Knightley in my first comment, it was Darcy and Wentworth who came to mind for comparison). I adore Brandon too. He’s a gem, and everything time I watch he and Marianne’s story (the one I actually DID read WAY back when), my heart breaks for him anew in the wake of Marianne’s infatuation of what’s-his-name.

        Nothing wrong with that. I didn’t watch Lizzie’s “Diary” series for a LONG time, and then, finally I caved. 😉

  5. I love how you pointed out that, just as Emma isn’t perfect, Mr. Knightley isn’t perfect, either–he’s sometimes too blunt, too forceful, too slow to accept change; and he learns from Emma even as she learns from him. If he were a completely flawless character, that would be a TOTALLY unrealistic story–but Jane Austen was too smart to fall into the trap of “perfect lover saves imperfect heroine/hero.” She knew, better than anybody, that that’s not the way real life works . . . and she was interested in real life, not rose-colored idealism. That’s why her stuff is still so relevant today, I think.

    1. I think Austen created Emma and Knightley as foils for one another — she’s the extroverted emotional (and irrational, in her case) idealist out of touch with reality, and he’s the introverted rational thinker who sees the immediate flaws in everything she presents; but even though Emma is often wrong, she can be right, and he fairly attributes these moments of brilliance and insight to her when confronted with them. He thinks she’s silly for trying to marry up Harriet, but admits Harriet is improved because Emma took the time to guide her forward — even if her guidance wasn’t that great in a romantic sense.

      In a way, she does this with her other books too — Eleanor is rational, Edward is emotional; Marianne is all emotion, Brandon is all devotion; Lizzie is sensible but flippant, Darcy is utterly composed and serious, etc.

      Austen is mocking society while making a point, through cleverness. What intrigues me is how popular her work remains, despite having no male perspectives at all; we only ever see them through the female gaze.

      1. I think that’s maybe WHY her work is still so popular–she gives you the female perspective, without giving in to any of the “female author” stereotypes. She avoids fluff, and silliness, and over-romanticization, and all that other stuff that female authors often do because they’re told “people will like it! Your book will sell better!” She just goes straight to the real meat of the story, and it’s brilliant.

        1. I think Jane scorned romanticism, fluff, and silliness, because she makes it a point to make her most obnoxious characters either stereotypical females (Mrs. Bennett, Marianne Dashwood, etc) or ridiculous, shallow men (Mr. Collins). I also suspect her limited perspective is because she had little contact with men outside her family or socialization, so she didn’t feel comfortable narrating their perspectives.

          1. Yep. I think it was probably a wise choice, though; if you know you don’t have the experience to properly reproduce a certain individual’s perspective, it’s better not to try it at all.

  6. YES! Love it. This is why the Paltrow/Northam version of Emma is my favorite Austen movie even though Emma is one of my least-favorite Austen books. Emma is less meddlesome, but not obnoxious. You have hit it squarely on the head, as usual.

    And I agree that Emma is something of a chameleon. I have a friend who is like that — when she’s with me, she loves classic movies and good books. When she’s with other people, she’s all about dance music or theology or whatever it is they love. I find this disconcerting, which is possibly part of why Emma is not one of my favorite Austen heroines. It’s very unlike my own personality, so I don’t quite “get” her.

    Thanks for contributing this to I Love Austen Week!

    1. It’s my favorite too, although the shorter S&S comes in a close second. I’m glad this was my introduction to Austen — it’s so witty, good-natured, funny, and colorful. It kind of set the standard for me, in terms of what the other productions had to live up to! (Some fall short.)

      I think there’s both a good and a negative side to the chameleon personality; it can be excellent if you’re doing it for selfless reasons, and trying to connect to others by having things in common — but if you’re being false, and not having an authentic personality, you can get “lost” in the charade of reflecting other people. (Is your friend an EXFJ? Fe-doms can sometimes build a persona of themselves to interact with other people, and lose a sense of self in the process, or even come to believe they are who they pretend to be.)

      Emma is an unhealthy ENFJ — she’s meddling in other people’s lives, using emotional manipulation to get them to do what she thinks is best for them, while holding an unrealistic, detached-from-reality singular goal (in this case, get Harriet into higher society, even though it’s not possible given the social conventions of the time). And Knightley is an ISTJ, rolling his eyes at how silly and controlling she’s being.

      Thanks for having me. 🙂

      1. I think my friend has typed herself as ESTP. For her, I think it’s more that she really likes being liked, and switches up her enthusiasms to match others so they will like her more.

        When my kids are a leeetle older, I already know that this Emma will be how I introduce them to Austen. It’s funny and fast-moving enough that it will work well for them.

        1. Interesting. Then it probably is just about being liked / being in the moment for her, and less about a facade. (Though, now I’m trying to imagine Thor doing the same thing and laughing about it.)

          Emma is an excellent introduction to Austen, indeed. It was a collective favorite among most of my friends growing up, although one of them hated where she insulted Miss Bates so much that she begged me to fast-forward that part when we watched it together as wee teens (I refused!), since she couldn’t stand the humiliation nor the glowering look Knightley sent Emma. (She also mocked the Kate Beckinsale version endlessly, for it’s “super-grouch” Knightley. Ahh, those were the days…)

          1. I haven’t seen the Beckinsale version, and “super-grouch Knightley” doesn’t make me want to!

            My college friends and I watched this over and over and over, too. Good times.

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