Thursday, August 24, 2006

Emma - The Friends become Lovers Plot


The love story between Emma and Mr (George) Knightley in Emma is that of friends who fall in love with one another. This is another difficult plot to pull off and I think the key to it is change. Something has to change the status quo between the two friends in order for them to see one another differently. Something happens to change their feelings. Instead of loving each other in a platonic manner they see the possibilities of romance. The disparity in ages between Emma and Mr Knightley (she is 21 to his 37) is something that can cause disquiet in modern readers. In practical terms it sets up a potential lack of balance in the relationship where one of the partners is so much older and is in danger of appearing as a father figure rather than a lover. The added complication in Emma is that Mr Knightley’s younger brother is married to Emma’s older sister so they are practically related. And certainly at the beginning there is no awareness of potential romance on either side.

In Chapter 5, when Mrs Weston and Mr Knightley are talking about Emma he says: “She always declares she will not marry, which of course, means just nothing at all. But I have no idea that she has yet ever seen a man she cared for… I would like to see Emma in love and in some doubt of a return; it would do her good.” So it is not as though one half of the friendship is nursing undeclared feelings for the other. They have a closeness and intimacy that spring from having known one another for years, but it is platonic. In fact for a large part of the book Emma is thinking more about her feelings for Frank Churchill than for Mr Knightley. And it is her flirtation with Frank that makes Mr Knightley think about his feelings for her and realise they are not in the least brotherly.

Change is in fact a big theme in Emma. Mr Woodhouse the invalid hates anything that changes the status quo. Emma herself seems quite happy within her restricted social circle and sees no reason to change anything. Even Mr Knightley seems a confirmed bachelor and rather set in his ways. So how does Jane Austen effect change in the book and in Emma and Mr Knightley’s feelings? It is not in fact until the ball at the Crown, in Chapter 38, that Emma’s feelings for Mr Knightley start to undergo a change. At the ball both of them are forced into different roles. Mr Knightley, seeing Mr Elton’s snub to Harriet when he refuses to dance with her, comes forward to rescue her. In doing so he appears not only as the hero whose gallantry is in stark contrast to Mr Elton’s rudeness, but also as someone who can actually dance very well. He stops being a stick in the mud. The scene between Emma and Mr Knightley at the end of Chapter 38 is very significant because Mr Knightley wants to ask Emma to dance but seems reluctant to make such a profound change in their relationship. This seems to suggest that he is at this point more aware of his feelings for her than she is of her changing feelings for him. It is actually Emma who asks him to dance and when she says: “You have shown that you can dance, and you know we are not really so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper” his response is a heartfelt: “Brother and sister! No, indeed.”

It is interesting that the encounter between the two of them at the Box Hill picnic occurs after this incident. Emma is rude to Miss Bates and Mr Knightley reproves her in strong terms for her behaviour. Had this happened before the incident at the ball, this could be interpreted as Mr Knightley in paternal mode telling Emma off. As it is, it is much more like a lover’s quarrel. Emma cries in the carriage on the way back home. She has realised that Mr Knightley’s good opinion is of huge importance to her. It is this incident that brings her new self-awareness. When Harriet Smith declares that she has hopes of marrying Mr Knightley, Emma finally realises that she could be in danger of losing him and that “Mr Knightley must marry no one but herself!” This isn’t simply Emma’s possessiveness. She has taken for granted her importance in Mr Knightley’s life and has become accustomed to being first in his affections but now that position is threatened it has forced her to recognise her feelings for him. He in turn admits at the end of the book that the arrival of Frank Churchill and Emma’s interest in him made him jealous. “On his side there had been a long standing jealousy… He had been in love with Emma and jealous of Frank Churchill…” Both of them have changed and their characters have developed to get them from a platonic friendship to recognising that they are in love with one another.

I’ve only written once book in which childhood friends become lovers. I enjoyed it a lot and will probably attempt another one soon! But one of the things that I particularly liked about the writing of it was the fact that because the main protagonists already have a relationship, albeit not a romantic one, they can speak with each other on a much more informal basis than a couple would on first meeting. The dialogue can be completely different. In fact it’s often the dialogue, as in Emma, that gives the hero and heroine away to the reader before they realise their own feelings. The reader can see how well suited they are. “We always say what we like to one another,” Emma says to Mr Knightley. The reader knows what is going to happen. When will they realise? Pinpointing the changes in a friends to lovers relationship, their uncertainties about their feelings and the way they move towards love, is very challenging and great fun.

2 Comments:

Blogger Nightwriter said...

I enjoyed Emma very much - a friendship turning to something much more was very delicately told and I felt I was there every step of the way. I also remember feeling extremely angry with Mr. Knightley when he made Emma cry! I agree with you that when a romance starts off as friendship so much more can be said between the characters, to the extent that it fleshes them out more fully than if it was a traditional boy meets girl romance. It is also interesting that love is kindled between them despite the age difference - it is not just an older man offering for a much younger woman for reasons totally devoid of feeling as was often the case in those days.

1:53 PM  
Blogger ED Denson said...

The curious thing in Emma is why everyone puts up with Mr. Woodhouse. Daughters in Austen, are very dutiful to their parents - their fathers especailly I suppose. Elizabeth Bennet likes her father more than her mother even though we are told. very late in the book I think, that she doesn't like his exposing his wife to the contempt of her children. Not a sign of that for the first 40 chapters or whatever. But Mr. Woodhouse is borderline certifiable, it seems to me. No problem for him to act that way, but for Emma and Mr. Knightly to accomodate his oddity seems wrong.

9:58 PM  

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