Emma: Mr. Knightley’s Proposal – Marriage or Merger?

Illustration by Willian C. Cooke, Emma, J. M. Dent & Co (1892)“And now, let me talk to you of something else. I have another person’s interest at present so much at heart, that I cannot think any longer about Frank Churchill. Ever since I left you this morning, Emma, my mind has been hard at work on one subject.”  

The subject followed; it was in plain, unaffected, gentleman-like English such as Mr. Knightley used even to the woman he was in love with, how to be able to ask her to marry him, without attacking the happiness of her father. Emma’s answer was ready at the first word. “While her dear father lived, any change of condition must be impossible for her. She could never quit him.” Part only of this answer, however, was admitted. The impossibility of her quitting her father, Mr. Knightley felt as strongly as herself; but the inadmissibility of any other change, he could not agree to. He had been thinking it over most deeply, most intently; he had at first hoped to induce Mr. Woodhouse to remove with her to Donwell; he had wanted to believe it feasible, but his knowledge of Mr. Woodhouse would not suffer him to deceive himself long; and now he confessed his persuasion, that such a transplantation would be a risk of her father’s comfort, perhaps even of his life, which must not be hazarded. Mr. Woodhouse taken from Hartfield! No, he felt that it ought not to be attempted. But the plan which had arisen on the sacrifice of this, he trusted his dearest Emma would not find in any respect objectionable; it was, that he should be received at Hartfield; that so long as her father’s happiness — in other words his life — required Hartfield to continue her home, it should be his likewise.  

Of their all removing to Donwell, Emma had already had her own passing thoughts. Like him, she had tried the scheme and rejected it; but such an alternative as this had not occurred to her. She was sensible of all the affection it evinced. She felt that, in quitting Donwell, he must be sacrificing a great deal of independence of hours and habits; that in living constantly with her father, and in no house of his own, there would be much, very much, to be borne with. She promised to think of it, and advised him to think of it more; but he was fully convinced, that no reflection could alter his wishes or his opinion on the subject. He had given it, he could assure her, very long and calm consideration; he had been walking away from William Larkins the whole morning, to have his thoughts to himself. Mr. Knightley & Emma Woodhouse, Chapter 51 

I have always been disappointed in Mr. Knightley’s marriage proposal to our heroine Emma Woodhouse. If you are not paying close attention, you might miss it altogether! No long speech declaring his esteem, admiration and love. No “will you be mine dearest, loveliest Emma?” No ardent realization that they are destined to be together. No jubilant acceptance by her. Nothing! And Emma is also at fault. She is as much about the business transaction as Knightley, concerned more about her father’s reaction and comforts, Mr. Knightley’s estate manager Mr. Larkins being inconvenienced by Mr. Knightey’s absence if they should live at Hartfield, and finally Harriet’s reaction to the news. This is more business merger negotiations than the final romantic reward for the build up by Jane Austen over the last 448 pages of the novel. For me, it is the biggest weakness in the plot to an otherwise brilliant story. If Austen had given us a romantic and moving marriage proposal, Emma might be more favorably accepted. I know that sounds shallow, but there your have it from this hopeless romantic.     

* Illustration by William C. Cooke, “Mr. Knightley’s proposal”, Emma, The Novels of Jane Austen, J. M. Dent & Co, London (1892)

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11 thoughts on “Emma: Mr. Knightley’s Proposal – Marriage or Merger?

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  1. funny, as i was reading it i was thinking “now there is a good man, one who is concerned about her family as much as she is, one who is willing to make sacrifices for the woman he loves, no matter how inconvenient they may be”…but i’ve never been a romantic. (and i also picture jeremy northam when i read it, so maybe i wasn’t paying close enough attention…heh.)

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  2. I’m in complete agreement! No swooning, no sighs…. ha ha This is where a good movie adaption makes up for the lack of it in the book.


  3. I’m with ren on this. I’m so practical I found it heartwarming that he thought of the comfort of her father before his own. I’ve always wanted to be more romantic, but it’s just never happened. Don’t get me wrong, a good chaste kiss between Lizzy and Darcy is a perfect ending for P&P 95, but that whole ending scene in the 2005 version where he keeps calling her Mrs. Darcy had me heading for the exits before the credits rolled. {{shudders}}


  4. I find Emma and Mr Knightly’s obsession with the old man’s “comfort” and “well being” disturbing. I know duty for a child to parent was considered to be all important, but I think Emma’s subservient attitude goes beyond reason and her father comes across as one of those controlling old farts who are happy to sacrifice their child’s happiness for their own comfort. A lot of young women would have been flagellated and beaten into submission with guilt trips…”How can you marry him and leave me all alone without a free slave…bla bla bla…”

    If you’ve never read the real life romance of Elizabeth Barret Browning and Robert Browning I highly recommend it. Their courtship through letters is so romantic and lovely and stressful, but obviously it had a semi happy ending as they married. EBB’s father was a controlling psycho who didn’t want any of his children to marry and tried to ensure that they didn’t. Queen Victoria was really psycho like this about her youngest daughter. Cupid won…sort of…the daughter fell in love, but Victoria only allowed the wedding on the understanding that her daughter and husband would be at her beck and call for the rest of Victoria’s life. Psycho!

    Back to Austen…the ending of Emma leaves me with awful visions of Mr Knightly being forced to wait all day for a moment alone with his wife as she plays free nurse maid to the old man demanding constant fussing. It’s a terribly unhealthy situation. How would it not have been perfectly reasonable for Emma to move to Mr Knightly’s house and then visit her father every other day for half a day?

    I wonder how many young women read this book in the early 19th centurty and despaired of finding a Mr Knightly who’d live with their controling needy fathers. Probably a lot. Come to think of it, Charlotte Bronte remained at her father’s parsonage after marrying as well…her husband had to move into another man’s house.


  5. Mr. Knightley is a practical person, used to solve methodically his big and little troubles. He has a big heart too. He thinks only of Emma’s happiness. How could she live at Donwell constantly thinking of her father alone at Hartfiield? Mr. Woodhouse needs company and care.
    Removing himself from D. he sacrifices his indipendence and public image. In that period the woman became a husband’s “property” after the marriage, quite seldom the contrary!
    Mr. Knightley’s proposal is one of my favourite passage of all JA novels:
    “I cannot make speeches, Emma:”- he soon resumed; and in a tone of such sincere, decided, intelligible tenderness as was tolerably convincing.-“If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am. …”
    Volume III Chapter XIII


  6. I have always been a bit disappointed by the romance in Emma…I reread it recently and found myself much more intrigued by Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. Knowing that they are secretly engaged, the few exchanges we see between them have a special significance. Frank is not as perfect as Mr. Knightley, but I rather like his passion and fun. Its probably that he’s a bit of a rake, but will be better for the love of a good woman…

    I have read Jane Fairfax, and I liked it, but found the backstory of her life with the Campbells a bit dull. I almost prefered imagining the backstory between Jane and Frank in Austen’s Emma.

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  7. He doesn’t say “Dearest, lovliest, Emma”, but you must have missed these key parts.

    [For a moment or two nothing was said, and she was unsuspicious of having excited any particular interest, till she found her arm drawn within his, and pressed against his heart]

    “My dearest Emma,” said he, “for dearest you will always be, whatever the event of this hour’s conversation, my dearest, most beloved Emma”


  8. Thanks for the reminder Sylvia. This happens in chapter 49 and had quite slipped my memory. It does soften my disappointment, and after rereading the chapter I appreciate it more.

    “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken; but where, as in this case, though the conduct is mistaken, the feelings are not, it may not be very material. Mr. Knightley could not impute to Emma a more relenting heart than she possessed, or a heart more disposed to accept of his.”

    Their conversation toward the proposal is so round about. Knightley thinks that Emma loves Frank Churchill and the recent announcement of Churchill’s secret engagement to Jane Fairfax will hurt her deeply. So he starts on unsteady ground. Emma on the other hand thinks Knightley is attracted to Harriet Smith, so there is the rue. They both were not expecting a proposal. There are stops and starts and then admisssion. When he says “my dearest, most beloved Emma” I am not sure if he is talking as a lifelong friend or lover. I’m not sure he knows either! I think that Austen was relaying a moment that we can experience where we come to realize something profound all at once during a course of conversation that become so evident and natural. It does not happen often, but is sweet.

    Thanks for your insight.

    Cheers, LA


  9. I like the proposal precisely because it is not moving and romantic. It’s sensible. I also like that Mr. Knightley agrees to move in w/ her father — I think it shows some degree of nonconformity. :)


  10. Look what he REALLY SAYS TO EMMA.

    I actually find this (love) speech the most moving and sencere of Jane Austen’s novels.
    take a look. it’s just a small part…

    “My dearest Emma,” said he, “for dearest you will always be, whatever the event of this hour’s conversation, my dearest, most beloved Emma—tell me at once. Say ‘No,’ if it is to be said.”—She could really say nothing.—”You are silent,” he cried, with great animation; “absolutely silent! at present I ask no more.”

    Emma was almost ready to sink under the agitation of this moment. The dread of being awakened from the happiest dream, was perhaps the most prominent feeling.

    “I cannot make speeches, Emma:”—he soon resumed; and in a tone of such sincere, decided, intelligible tenderness as was tolerably convincing.—”If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am.—You hear nothing but truth from me.—I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.—Bear with the truths I would tell you now, dearest Emma, as well as you have borne with them. The manner, perhaps, may have as little to recommend them. God knows, I have been a very indifferent lover.—But you understand me.—Yes, you see, you understand my feelings—and will return them if you can. At present, I ask only to hear, once to hear your voice.”


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