Raising a Wife

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.

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4 thoughts on “Raising a Wife

  1. So, obviously I should have read this post before leaving my last comment!

    I’ve always liked to imagine that Emma and Mr Knightley balanced each other once they were married – that she livened him up, and he helped curb her impulses. You’re right, of course, in thinking that they would most likely slip back into the roles they’ve lived their entire lives … but at least Mr Knightley only ever tries to shape her judgement, not squelch her brain or wits! He doesn’t try to subdue her, just help her live up to her potential.

    But then, I love Mr Knightley in his kindness, his humor, his gentle strength, and I admire Emma in facing her flaws unflinchingly and actively setting out to repair them without anyone holding her hand, so naturally I’m rooting for the two of them to succeed. Anne and Captain Wentworth are my favorite Austen couple, but Emma and Knightley are a close second. (Henry Tilney and Catherine Norland are third, in case you’re curious, Lizzy and Darcy fourth, Fanny and Edmund fifth, and the Dashwood couples dead last.)

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    • Yes, I have no doubts they’ll be happy together, especially in that setting. Today, that might be a different matter; but for them, it’s great. Among other things, they have in common that kindness for and consideration of those who are dependent on them, like Emma’s father. One of my favourite instances of this is at the Christmas party in Randalls, where John Knightley gets Mr Woodhouse into a total panic about the snow, and George Knightley just quietly goes, checks out the snow, reassures everyone that it’s no big deal, then he and Emma put Mr Woodhouse in the carriage and send him home. Neatly, quietly, considerately – well done, Mr & Mrs Knightley.

      I might have to argue with you about favourite Austen couples, though. Elinor & Edward rank very high on my list, as do Fanny & Edmund. But yes, Anne & Wentworth, too – hmm, in fact, I find it very hard to rank them at all… 🙂

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      • I like Elinor (and I adore Hugh Grant’s Edward), but book!Edward is another matter. Too spineless. And I have great respect for Col Brandon (likewise Kate Winslet’s Marianne, and Charity Wakefield did a lovely job of making her appear more naive about society than truly willful, which I thought was an interesting spin, but boy am I getting off topic) and rarely manage to read about Marianne without wanting to shake her. Which makes it hard to cheer whole-heartedly for either couple.

        As for Fanny and Edmund … well, you already know my thoughts on them!

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      • I don’t think Edward is spineless any more than Fanny is. He’s made a mistake when he was 20, and he wishes he could change, but his sense of duty and right & wrong is rock-solid. He’s actually a really strong character underneath. I get from him much the same vibes as from Fanny – he doesn’t think all that well of himself (his lack of realising that Elinor has fallen in love with him is one example; he doesn’t think he’s attractive enough), blames himself for all problems, is a dutiful son and brother even though he’s bullied, but when principles are at stake, you can’t budge him. No, I think he and Elinor deserve all the happiness they get, and chances are they really will be happy, because they have the same value structure.

        But I agree with you on Marianne & Col. Brandon. On one of my re-reads, it struck me quite forcibly what a self-absorbed brat she is, and my respect for Col. Brandon took rather a nosedive as a result – you’d think he’d have better taste in a wife.

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