In Jane Austen's Emma, when Mr. Weston is making the rounds at a party talking about his son, Mr. Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley are apparently less happy than Mr. Weston would hope them to be:

Mr Weston, however, too eager to be very observant, too communicative to want others to talk, was very well satisfied with what she did say, and soon moved away to make the rest of his friends happy by a partial communication of what the whole room must have overheard already.
It was well that he took every body's joy for granted or he might not have thought either Mr Woodhouse or Mr Knightley particularly delighted. They were the first entitled, after Mrs Weston and Emma, to be made happy;—from them he would have proceeded to Miss Fairfax, but she was so deep in conversation with John Knightley, that it would have been too positive an interruption; and finding himself close to Mrs Elton, and her attention disengaged, he necessarily began on the subject with her.
Emma, chapter 35

Why are Mr. Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley not "particularly delighted" here? Mr. Woodhouse I could assume because of his noted preference to stay at home and have limited company, but that doesn't explain Mr. Knightley's lackluster reaction.

What's up with Mr. Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley in this scene?

1 Answer 1


Mr Woodhouse and Mr Knightley have different reasons for their lack of delight. As you correctly surmise, Mr Woodhouse dislikes any disruption of his routine, and prefers to keep limited company. Frank's gregarious nature is off-putting to him, and he especially objects to Frank's desire to hold a ball in Highbury. When Frank proposes that the ball be held at Randall's, Mr Woodhouse is horrified:

“Oh! no,” said he; “it would be the extreme of imprudence. I could not bear it for Emma!—Emma is not strong. She would catch a dreadful cold. So would poor little Harriet. So you would all. Mrs. Weston, you would be quite laid up; do not let them talk of such a wild thing. Pray do not let them talk of it. That young man (speaking lower) is very thoughtless. Do not tell his father, but that young man is not quite the thing. He has been opening the doors very often this evening, and keeping them open very inconsiderately. He does not think of the draught. I do not mean to set you against him, but indeed he is not quite the thing!”

Frank proposes instead that the ball be held at the Crown. Mr Woodhouse is not any less distressed:

“No; he thought it very far from an improvement—a very bad plan—much worse than the other. A room at an inn was always damp and dangerous; never properly aired, or fit to be inhabited. If they must dance, they had better dance at Randalls. He had never been in the room at the Crown in his life—did not know the people who kept it by sight.—Oh! no—a very bad plan. They would catch worse colds at the Crown than anywhere.”

Emma, chapter 29

Frank's first visit ends abruptly without the ball's having taken place, but as Mr Woodhouse correctly concludes, his return would revive the idea of the ball. Frank's generally brash and outgoing nature is antithetical to Mr Woodhouse's own, and the latter can take no joy at the prospect of Frank's renewed presence in Highbury.

As for Mr Knightley, he is jealous and suspicious. He suspects that Emma is in love with Frank, and is also beginning to believe that Frank is toying with her affections. A few chapters further on:

Mr. Knightley, who, for some reason best known to himself, had certainly taken an early dislike to Frank Churchill, was only growing to dislike him more. He began to suspect him of some double dealing in his pursuit of Emma. That Emma was his object appeared indisputable. Every thing declared it; his own attentions, his father’s hints, his mother-in-law’s guarded silence; it was all in unison; words, conduct, discretion, and indiscretion, told the same story. But while so many were devoting him to Emma, and Emma herself making him over to Harriet, Mr. Knightley began to suspect him of some inclination to trifle with Jane Fairfax.

Emma, chapter 41

This passage is part of a pattern of incident establishing, at least on re-reading, that Mr Knightley has been in love with Emma for a while, but does not believe that she loves him in turn. Another such passage is in chapter 31, when he is hurt and embarrassed at discovering that Emma has been thinking he is himself in love with Jane Fairfax. That passage, despite its indirection, is astonishingly precise in its depiction of Mr Knightley's frame of mind. It's worth quoting at some length:

“I know how highly you think of Jane Fairfax,” said Emma. Little Henry was in her thoughts, and a mixture of alarm and delicacy made her irresolute what else to say.

“Yes,” he replied, “any body may know how highly I think of her.”

“And yet,” said Emma, beginning hastily and with an arch look, but soon stopping—it was better, however, to know the worst at once—she hurried on—“And yet, perhaps, you may hardly be aware yourself how highly it is. The extent of your admiration may take you by surprize some day or other.”

Mr. Knightley was hard at work upon the lower buttons of his thick leather gaiters, and either the exertion of getting them together, or some other cause, brought the colour into his face, as he answered,

“Oh! are you there?—But you are miserably behindhand. Mr. Cole gave me a hint of it six weeks ago.”

He stopped.—Emma felt her foot pressed by Mrs. Weston, and did not herself know what to think. In a moment he went on—

“That will never be, however, I can assure you. Miss Fairfax, I dare say, would not have me if I were to ask her—and I am very sure I shall never ask her.”

Emma returned her friend’s pressure with interest; and was pleased enough to exclaim,

“You are not vain, Mr. Knightley. I will say that for you.”

He seemed hardly to hear her; he was thoughtful—and in a manner which shewed him not pleased, soon afterwards said,

“So you have been settling that I should marry Jane Fairfax?”

“No indeed I have not. You have scolded me too much for match-making, for me to presume to take such a liberty with you. What I said just now, meant nothing. One says those sort of things, of course, without any idea of a serious meaning. Oh! no, upon my word I have not the smallest wish for your marrying Jane Fairfax or Jane any body. You would not come in and sit with us in this comfortable way, if you were married.”

Mr. Knightley was thoughtful again.

Emma, chapter 31

Mr Knightley's own rather complicated feelings toward Emma and Jane Fairfax, his awareness of the easy relationship Frank has with Emma, and his growing awareness of a secret understanding between Frank and Jane, cause him to regard Frank with jealous dislike. Frank is something of a nemesis to Mr Knightley, and his return to Highbury is therefore a source of displeasure.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.