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Let’s face it – no one in their right mind would ever think of Mr. Knightley as just another guy next door (except, of course, for Emma). His estate includes most of the property in Highbury and he’s a gentleman. In Jane Austen’s world, that makes him h-o-t. Of course, he’s also hot-looking (as the incorrigible Mrs. Elton kindly informs us). Moreover, he actually is a decent guy. All of the time.
Why is Mr. Knightley so easy to like? Perhaps it’s because, in the game of life, he seems to be playing with a stacked deck. He’s the eldest son of his family, which means that he inherited the majestic Donwell Abbey (while his brother, John Knightley, takes his family to London to build his own fortune). Donwell Abbey happens to be the largest (and most prosperous) estate in Highbury, which makes Mr. Knightley something like its king. Or at least its knight. Get it? Moreover, Donwell Abbey happens to be everything that’s perfect – and perfectly English: "It was a sweet view—sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive."
In other words, if we’re establishing a sense of the perfect English gentleman, Mr. Knightley’s it. Remember our discussion of the Prince Regent in the overview? Well, George (prince) might have seen this as a big slap in the face: George Knightley is just about everything that the Prince Regent isn’t. Austen works hard – and perhaps almost blatantly – to craft a character that serves as a perfect foil to the soon-to-be king of England. Gutsy, huh? We think so, too.
Mr. Knightley’s pretty comfortable in his mantle of power, though. Emma may tease him about walking everywhere, but he does things like this because he’s not worried about wearing his cash on his sleeve.
Perhaps this is why Knightley finds himself attracted to Emma. After all, everyone likes a challenge, right? And since all of Highbury remains ready to worship Mr. Knightley at any time, having someone around who’s willing to cause some problems might just be appealing. At 37, he’s exactly sixteen years older than Emma. (We knew that you were counting!) The whole brother-sister relationship they have going dissolves somewhere during the course of the novel, but it finally hits Mr. Knightley like a load of bricks when he realizes that Frank might be in love with Emma. Come to think of it, it’s pretty interesting that even Mr. Knightley doesn’t figure out how he feels until he has direct competition – when Frank Churchill comes to town, things start heating up fast. Emma actually accuses Mr. Knightley of being close-minded when it comes to Frank – which, believe us, is a first! It’s sort of like a showdown in the Wild West. Highbury’s not big enough for the two of them. And so Mr. Knightley…leaves.
What? He doesn’t stick around to fight for his love? Why not? We’re so glad you asked. You see, this gets us to the responsible streak in Mr. Knightley’s temperament. If we could pick two words to describe Mr. Knightley, they’d be "honest" and "truthful." Wait, don’t those mean just about the same thing? Yup. We just wanted to make sure that you got the picture. Over and over again, Mr. Knightley tells Emma what he thinks she needs to hear – even if it means that she dislikes him for it. See, for example, his attention to her snotty set-down of Miss Bates:
[…]were she prosperous, I could allow much for the occasional prevalence of the ridiculous over the good. Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation—but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. [… ] Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed! […] This is not pleasant to you, Emma—and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will,—I will tell you truths while I can; satisfied with proving myself your friend by very faithful counsel, and trusting that you will some time or other do me greater justice than you can do now.
He’s constantly pushing the boundaries of what he knows to be Emma’s respect for him. How much can he say before she’ll hate him? How much should he say to keep Emma in line? Weighing Emma’s trust in his opinion against her distaste for hearing criticism, Mr. Knightley always manages to warn her of potential social improprieties. Like Mrs. Weston, then, Mr. Knightley serves as one the moderating influences to Emma’s impetuous character. We know that Emma’s screwing up because Knightley tells us she is.
As long as he’s convinced that Emma loves a good-for-nothing flirt, however, Mr. Knightley can’t seem to step in. We’re not really sure why this is – but his insecurity sure does make him likeable!
There’s one more big thing: Mr. Knightley decides that he’ll leave his home to move in with Emma and her father. We all know that Mr. Woodhouse isn’t exactly the most entertaining of men…in fact, we might just call him a crotchety old man (in fact, we do. See his character analysis below). Moreover, leaving Donwell Abbey is a pretty big step. Of course, Mr. Knightley came to Hartfield every day before he got engaged to Emma, so it’s not such a huge change for anyone involved, but it’s still worth thinking about. Is this another meaningless move that won’t sacrifice his social cache (sort of like walking to a party instead of taking a carriage)? Or is Knightley truly unconcerned about his reputation? We leave it up to you, dear readers.