The sort of stories I like are about people growing up. They say that adolescence is now a period that lasts up to a few decades - from as early as ten to as late as 35. And though my friends and I like to joke about the Peter Pan syndrome of boys who never want to grow up, let alone get married, girls have the same problem - if not worse.
A good story is only as great as it reflects the Great Story - resurrection, change, death, growth, re-birth. When I need entertainment and a hot poker to help me resurrect, change, die, grow and be re-born, I don't always turn to Harry Potter or any book of Catholic theology. My Friday night entertainment, equal parts inspiration, is Jane Austen's Emma.
But I do.
Maybe it's because I love teenagers, who are always growing from good to better until they reach their best in Christ. Maybe it's because I have a soft spot for villains when everyone's rooting for the underdog. But my reasons for appreciating Emma, and my theory on why Knightley does as well, has to do with knowing that even when the surface is perfect, there's always something more to be seen. Emma is just as brave and selfless as Hermione; her circumstances were different. Her character is revealed in her moments of weakness, moments of surprise and moments of anguish.
To prove my point, here are my top 4 quotes from the amiable Emma:
1 | "I have no thoughts of matrimony at the present."
Very few Austen heroines, or real women, have the ability to say this honestly. Emma, like her more popular literary "sister" Elizabeth Bennet, turns down her first proposal for marriage hastily but with thoughtful conviction. She has caught someone's heart, like all Austen heroines, without trying.
Marriage is the plot of most novels but Emma is in pursuit of other people's happiness, or at least the power of controlling them. Her lack of desire to be married shows her desire for freedom or, more accurately, her dislike of change or lack-of-control. She is the mistress of her own fate and everyone else's.
Today, it's normal to think of our career and service of others above our own. To make sure everyone around you is married before yourself, however, was not normal then. None had that luxury like Emma, making her one of the first women in literature unafraid of being an old maid or spinster. She marries not out of need of money, or security, but her possession of both these things makes it the last thing she would ever want to do. She is wealthy, so - once again - she is an Austen girl who marries for love, to someone even more generous than herself.
Emma's self-titled novel is the only Jane Austen story named after the main character. This is a reflection of her narcissism, I'm sure, but also of her development which is more important than her location (Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey) her primary trait or the primary trait of her significant other/sister (Persuasion, Pride & Prejudice, Persuasion.) Austen titles name the driving force of the story and for this one, it is Emma - her nature, her growth, her drive, her choleric persona. Emma's marriage is not the climax; her becoming is.
This is a story about her development from a girl into a woman, a teenage mind into an adult. This is what Knightley was waiting for and noticed as soon as she began apologizing for her lack of social graces - and remedying them. As soon as she noticed how much she has and began using them for more than just her reputation.
2 | "We are all anxious that you do not worry about Miss Fairfax's future."
This may be a quote unique to the 2009 version of Emma - I can't find it in the book yet. Emma takes Miss Bates' hand and wishes a genuine good for the girl who has excelled over her in every way. She models Mr. Knightley and Mr. Woodhouse's concern for others. After all, you cannot buy a better world. The pain must be shared and felt. Emma's compassionate nature is what Mr. Knightley has seen in her all the time.
In the 1972 mini-series, Knightley's character is developed through the many episodes to show that he loves farming, he is a good steward and he is not so elegant or fashionable (though he is both out of duty) as he is hard-working. He is loyal to his tenants and his friends, including Mr. Woodhouse, his nephews and Emma herself. He is especially passionate about Miss Bates and anyone experiencing misfortune. In many ways, he is the opposite of Mr. Elton and Frank Churchill (Emma's first two 'suitors.' They each bring out the worst in Emma but here, in this quote, we see that Emma has been raised in a way by Mr. Knightley to reflect more than just sympathy and empty words. The seeks forgiveness from Miss Bates for her lack of respect and speaks to her heart, genuinely wishing to ease her situation - and her anxiety over the future. He has always taken responsibility for her behavior. He understands her true character in order to encourage her when she is not acting her genuine self.
I knew this before because of a book my Grandma gave me, but it's a hard rule to follow. In the book, Emma tells this to Harriet Smith concerning a mystery crush. In the 1996 movies, it's Mrs. Weston who reminds Emma how to act when Frank Churchill is coming back to town. How should we act around a guy? How should we dress? Who should we be? Guys can be unnerving and sometimes lead us on. In every Austen novel, the girls who act out of turn always get burned. The same thing happens for those who fall for a guy who behaves rashly. (Which is why having a guy fall for you before you know it's happened is the safest way to not mess it up.)
We want to be happy with someone who is in love with us, whose intentions we never have to doubt. Sometimes, it's another issue with control - we want to be the one who is "less in love." If he initiates, we cannot doubt his intentions or feel insecure. Letting his behavior determine yours helps you not to rob yourself the joy of being swept off your feet. The heartthrob only falls for the dweeb who is secretly obsessed with him in Hillary Duff movies. Sooo... am I saying we should lower our standards? No. I'm telling you to evaluate your standards. Don't emotionally lust after people you've never met. Don't establish a relationship in your head and seven Pinboards on a hypothetical boyfriend. Don't assume he's proposing on Valentine's Day when he got you a pair of socks for Christmas. Don't tell everyone in the world about him and your prospective children after the first date. We know these are things we should not do but do we always understand why? It's more than playing it safe. It's more than avoiding getting ourselves hurt. It takes a very long time to heal after relationships where our heart was given away and not reciprocated. You may even spend the rest of your life regretting, or playing back your behavior, blaming yourself, imaginging things that weren't there. You get so used to letting your own sensations rule that you forget another person is required for love. Which is why the greatest threat is that it taints your image and definition of love. It blinds you from recognizing love when you do find it. Emotional lust doesn't just steal your dignity in the present. It robs you of the ability to experience joy in the future.
This boils down to waiting to let him lead, especially when it comes to DTR. Wait till he mentions his long range goals. Don't you dare bring up the M word first! Maybe that sounds antiquated but if you're anxious, and likely to become paranoid or insecure, I highly recommend always letting his behavior determine yours. How he acts is the only way to know if he really wants you.
Some guys are shy and don't always have the guts to ask you out. You can always be encouraging and patient until he does muster the strength. If he's a man of God who can make you laugh and if you feel a flicker of attraction (like if he says something and you sort of want to lick him, or at least repeat it to your girlfriends), don't dump a bucket of cold water on those coals. Let him lead, let him be the one with hope. Emma's advice reminds us that if the dignity of every woman is the purpose of every man (St. John Paul II). When we chase after a guy in an undignified why, it diminishes his purpose.
In the 2009 version, a beautiful moment takes place where Emma rises from a sleepless night and the dawn shines behind her. She is new. She has changed. Her hair is a mess and she goes into society disheveled, vulnerable, embarrassed. When Emma apologizes to Miss Bates, she shows her true character. Emma has been one push from emotional maturity the entire book. Shes suffers a death to her ego and material vanity over status when she insults Miss Bates. She rises when she is able to embrace the equality of all, the anxiety that others experience and her duty to alleviate it as a leader in her community.
Emma reminds me of my experience in Nicaragua. No feeling person can experience children in poverty and return to their clean bathroom without a sense of responsibility to eliminate inequality. A longing to apologize, to compensate, to be a better person than you were before. To be a heroine means you realize that you're not the main character of your story: God is. And how He opens your eyes to injustice, to His longing for souls, to becoming someone who sees beyond themselves - that is the plot of my life.
1. BBC's Emma (2009)
2. Emma Approved (2014)
3. BBC's Emma (1972)
4. Clueless (1995)
5. Gwenyth Paltrow's Emma (1996)
6. Kate Beckinsale's Emma (1996)
2nd Place Emma: Joanna Sotomura
2nd Place Mr. Woodhouse: 1970's BBC Version
2nd Place Knightley: I love them all. Each Knightley shows a handsome, down-to-earth love interest that is loyal, patient and wise with a quick wit and a big heart.