Jane Austen’s Prescription for Relationships

By Jessica Pipes
Jane Austen's Emma

At the end of Jane Austen’s well-loved story, Emma, the hero, Mr. Knightley, surprises Emma with his profession of love: “If I loved you less,” he declares ardently, “I might be able to speak about it more.” Emma is surprised by the proposal, and perhaps the reader is too. But really, it shouldn’t be too surprising, because a closer look at the story reveals that Emma and Mr. Knightley were perfect for each other all along. 

This is because, unlike many of the characters in the story, Emma and Mr. Knightley have a deep and sincere friendship based on honesty and generosity. It’s not a flashy friendship, but it forms a solid foundation for their love. 

I’d say that Emma and Mr. Knightley’s friendship is the chief delight of this story. Emma is spirited, a natural hostess, and a little impetuous. Her favorite past-time is making matches between her friends. Mr. Knightley is calm, even-tempered, and prone to cynicism.  He is, fundamentally, a man of truth. He can see straight through Emma’s scheming, tease her for her little vanities, and admire her knack for leadership. The two have been known each other for years and can just as easily get into a disagreement as spend a quiet and solitary evening together. 

But it is not in their peaceful times, nor even in their arguments, that the quality of their friendship is revealed. It is in the way that they quietly and selflessly work together to ensure the happiness of other people and especially of Emma’s difficult and senile father.

In one of the best scenes of the story, Emma and her father (Mr. Woodehouse) are at a dinner party when it begins to snow. Hearing of a “storm” from a tactless guest, Mr. Woodehouse immediately begins to worry. Without saying one word to each other, Emma and Mr. Knightley act in complete accord. Emma consoles her father, assuring him of their safety. At the same time, Mr. Knightley goes outside, orders the carriage to be brought around, and then goes back inside to assure Mr. Woodehouse that the snow is merely a dusting. Mr. Woodehouse is much relieved, but Mr. Knightley and Emma quickly agree that he will not be fully comfortable until he is safely home. Emma is willing to leave at once, and so the bell is rung for the servants, and together they ensure Mr. Woodehouse’s safe arrival home.

Like every Jane Austen novel, Emma could easily be a lesson in love.  It is a story about true friendship – about how a quiet, sincere, and selfless friendship blossoms into a love worthy of a lifetime of friendship.