“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)