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In chapters five and six we get to know some of the principal characters a bit better. In particular, Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston’s prolonged conversation about Emma in chapter five gives us a much better concept of the personalities of both, while providing one of the few moments in the book when we are not sharing Emma’s perspective. The world according to Emma is full of praise and accommodation (as we will see in chapter six); the reality, often represented by Mr. Knightley, is a bit harsher. He succinctly and accurately lists all of Emma’s faults and potential pitfalls, setting himself up as an unbiased observer of her behavior:
“But I,” he soon added, “who have had no such charm thrown over my senses, must still see, hear, and remember. Emma is spoiled by being the cleverest of her family. At ten years old, she had the misfortune of being able to answer questions which puzzled her sister at seventeen. She was always quick and assured: Isabella slow and diffident. And ever since she was twelve, Emma has been mistress of the house and of you all. In her mother she lost the only person able to cope with her. She inherits her mother’s talents, and must have been under subjection to her.”
A few exchanges latter he adds, “I do not pretend to Emma’s genius for foretelling and guessing,” before proceeding to predict rather precisely what will happen in the novel. Mr. Knightley will consistently prove a master of understatement. Watch for it as the story progresses.
Lovely interpretation of Emma Chapter V from the 2009 adaptation
The clip above shows Mrs. Weston interacting with Mr. Knightley on very equal terms, but in the book she is far more deferential towards him. The intimacy between Mr. Knightley and herself is so well established that he has no hesitation in sharing his deep reflections on Emma or offering criticism of her upbringing, even to one responsible for it, but it is only with the greatest hesitation that Mrs. Weston is willing to speak in opposition to Mr. Knightley, as when she advises him to not share his concerns about Harriet Smith with his brother and Isabella:
“I know that you all love her really too well to be unjust or unkind; but excuse me, Mr. Knightley, if I take the liberty (I consider myself, you know, as having somewhat of the privilege of speech that Emma’s mother might have had) the liberty of hinting that I do not think any possible good can arise from Harriet Smith’s intimacy being made a matter of much discussion among you. Pray excuse me; but supposing any little inconvenience may be apprehended from the intimacy, it cannot be expected that Emma, accountable to nobody but her father, who perfectly approves the acquaintance, should put an end to it, so long as it is a source of pleasure to herself. It has been so many years my province to give advice, that you cannot be surprized, Mr. Knightley, at this little remains of office.”
Much of Mrs. Weston’s deference can be attributed to the difference in their social positions, yet one can clearly see why such a gentle woman would have great difficulty controlling a privileged, capable, and confident pupil like Emma. As she demonstrates, Mrs. Weston is far more comfortable praising her former student than finding anything to criticize. This may be attributed to her tender nature, but like Mr. Woodhouse, Miss Smith, and even Mr. Elton, Mrs. Weston is one of many people bolstering Emma’s notion that she can do no wrong. Her flattery is really more dangerous than that of the others, in that it is the product of an intelligent, informed mind.
Despite the constant praise of her companions, Emma does knows she is not perfect, at least not quite. Perhaps we have Mr. Knightley to thank for that, but in chapter six a tinge of her self-doubt emerges, proving that she has enough self-awareness to know her own weaknesses, even as she complacently accepts praise that she knows she doesn’t deserve:
She had always wanted to do every thing, and had made more progress both in drawing and music than many might have done with so little labour as she would ever submit to. She played and sang;—and drew in almost every style; but steadiness had always been wanting; and in nothing had she approached the degree of excellence which she would have been glad to command, and ought not to have failed of. She was not much deceived as to her own skill either as an artist or a musician, but she was not unwilling to have others deceived, or sorry to know her reputation for accomplishment often higher than it deserved.
The last line beautifully illustrates how willing Emma is to believe in her own fantasies over reality. She may be introspective enough to perceive some of the ways in which she is lacking, and she’s certainly intelligent enough to see straight through Mr. Elton’s folderol, but she is completely blind when reality doesn’t mesh with her fantasy.
Awesome depiction of Emma’s active imagination from the 1996 ITV production.
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