Emma is, quite possibly, the Austen book that has the most to say about patriarchy.
As I pointed out before, the age gap between Emma and Mr Knightley is almost as great as that between Marianne and Colonel Brandon. Brandon, in fact, marries a woman who is practically the same age as his ward Eliza, the girl everybody thinks is his illegitimate daughter. It’s made me wonder if he ever had a thought in his mind of marrying Eliza himself, once she’d get to marriageable age; but that plan (if it ever existed – there’s no evidence for it, just my conjecture) is spoiled, of course, by her letting herself be seduced and impregnated by Willoughby. So Brandon marries another woman, just as young, just as emotional and impulsive, although he has to wait for her to grow up to be a suitable mate first.
Mr Knightley, on the other hand, actively helps with raising Emma into the kind of woman he can marry. In fact, if he wasn’t around to tell Emma a few home truths, she’d be completely spoiled; between her poor pathetic father and her intelligent but a-little-too-indulgent governess, both of whom think Emma is just wonderful, she would think herself completely infallible. At least Mr Knightley lets her know that there’s one stronger than her whom she can’t lead around by the nose. I love the little side remark at the end of the book, when Emma and Mr Knightley are discussing what Emma should call him, and she says “I remember once calling you ‘George,’ in one of my amiable fits, about
ten years ago. I did it because I thought it would offend you; but, as you made no objection, I never did it again.” Way to deal with a brat, Mr Knightley! He is the one person in Emma’s life against whom she can test her mettle, the one who sets her boundaries, who gives her strong personality some strong guidelines to operate in. What an excellent father he is to little Emma…
And then he marries her. Although, first, he has to subdue her one more time, has to give her one more lecture on where she’s out of line. Chastened, she molds herself into what he would wish. And then they both realise that they’ve loved each other “ever since [Emma was] thirteen at least”, and they marry, rice is tossed, and that’s the end of that. One gets the impression that Mr Knightley is now resolved to no longer be the father figure (he apologises for the lectures he’s given her), and Emma no longer the rebellious kid who needs bringing into line.
However, there is, to me, a faint undercurrent of uneasiness in that ending. For one, I can’t believe that they will actually be able to shed the habits of a lifetime, drop their roles of father-daughter in favour of the husband-wife ones. And that scenario is one which I find just a little uncomfortable.
But then, I’m a twenty-first century inhabitant. For Austen’s time, the patriarchal model of the father-husband and the child-wife was one quite normal form of marriage. It crops up more than once in her writing as something she approves of.
Fanny and Edmund are one example – he “formed her mind”, taught her what to think and like and feel, which ensures their happiness together as they think alike in everything. Not quite a Pygmalion, but the suggestion is there. The other quite patriarchal story is Darcy and Elizabeth: she goes around with false ideas, until his wiser input, his better judgement and knowledge of reality, sets her straight. But more importantly, Darcy is the powerful man who can bring the headstrong heroine to her knees.
Mr Knightley and Emma combine the two storylines: the Pygmalion-style “fashion a wife in your own image” and the “a strong woman calls for a strong man” one. A strong woman needs the most powerful male of her acquaintance to bring her to submission – and both Darcy and Knightley are definitely the king pins of their circle. They’re not just very gentlemanly gentlemen, they’re the richest gentlemen with the biggest tracks of land, the ones with the most power whom everyone defers to. They’re the only ones who are suitable mates to an Elizabeth or an Emma.
Of course, in none of these stories is there a real father to help out the young heroine. Mr Woodhouse is pathetic, Mr Bennet emotionally and mentally unavailable, Mr Price coarse, poor, and just plainly out of reach.
The most interesting one of them is Mr Woodhouse – his relationship with Emma is the parent/child scenario in reverse. She has to baby him, has to be mother to her father – and she’s had to do that ever since she took over running the houshold at thirteen or thereabouts. (Come to think of it, perhaps there’s a good reason Mr Knightley has been in love with her ever since then – she’s been a woman from that age on, and is obviously very well suited to being a mother and the mistress of an estate.)
In Emma, Austen has quite a lot to say on the subject of what being a father means, both a real father, and a pater familias.