Emma Woodhouse, Mr Knightley & Harriot


Gwyneth Paltrow-1996, Kate Beckinsale-1996, and Romola Garai-2009.

This is the first line of Jane Austen’s Emma.

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

It gives us, the reader, only a very brief description of the title lead in this novel. Jane uses just 40 words to describe Emma. As JA does not go into specific’s about Emma’s physical appearance, (she does not say, Emma is blonde haired, blue-eyed, slender, or of average height), we are given free rein to imagine Emma in any way we choose. This lack of detail has given the TV companies and film producers creative licence to cast whomever they please in the title role.

Above, are three of my favourite Emma Woodhouse actresses. (Though my very favourite version is Gwyneth and Jeremy).

JA also wastes little time or effort on describing Mr Knightley, saying only;

“Mr Knightley, a sensible man of about seven or eight-and-thirty, of a cheerful manner. A man who has nothing of ceremony about him.” 

However, we can also determine from remarks made in the first chapter that he is an honest man, a rich man and a good walker .

So, other than being of a suitable age, producers again had no restriction on who they picked to play the part of Mr Knightley.

These are the Mr Knightley’s for the three Emma’s above.

How do you think they did?

Jeremy Northam-1996, Mark Strong -1996, and Jonny Lee Miller-2009.

mr-knightley-jeremy-northam1 328645_1258454380634_full1jonny-lee-miller-mr-knightley-emma1

Next, we come to Emma’s young protégé, Miss Harriot Smith.

“Miss Smith was a girl of seventeen, whom Emma knew very well by sight, and had long felt an interest in, on account of her beauty. Miss Smith was a very pretty girl, She was short, plump, and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features, and a look of great sweetness, Emma was as much pleased with her manners though, Emma was not struck by any thing remarkably clever in Miss Smith’s conversation.”

Here, Jane Austen gives us a fairly detailed description of Miss Smith. Short, plump, light hair, blue eyes, sweet-natured, not very clever, but very pretty.

If you look at the corresponding Harriot Smiths below, I can’t quite see why they cast Toni Collette, who had red hair at the time, as the ‘light haired’ Miss Smith, although she does fit several of the other required criteria’s.

With Jane’s description of both Emma and Miss Smith, do you think it possible that she meant for Harriot to be prettier than Emma? Also, do you think it was possible Jane was drawing on her own friends or relations as a basis for the characters? I think it highly likely that she was; Jane had several nieces and nephews.

Miss Smith might have been based on her niece, Fanny Knight, and I definitely think Frank Churchill was based on her own brother, Edward. For Edward Austen was also adopted by a rich cousin who had no children; Thomas & Catherine Knight. Edward took their name, went on the Grand Tour and inherited the vast Knight estate on their death. This estate included a house and cottage in Chawton. Today, we know the big house as Chawton House Library, and the cottage as The Jane Austen House Museum.

Toni Collette-1996, Samantha Morton-1996, Louise Dylan-2009.



I have watched each of these productions many times over. After Pride & Prejudice, Emma is my next favourite Jane Austen novel.

I like how Jane Austen has captured the essence of life in the regency era, along with all the things she found silly and whimsical.

Each version, whether it be a TV series or film, transports the viewer back in time to an era when society could boast of gentle manners and shy courtship. This style of courtship was later described as the dance of love. (I love it). It comes over as sweet and innocent and was often conducted over a long period of time. Sometime, as described in Pride & Prejudice, a couple would be betrothed when they were in their infancy. (My, how times have changed.)

Nevertheless,, Jane does not shy away from the darker aspects of regency life. She describes events that are still pertinent in our own society.

“How the trampers might have behaved, had the young ladies been more courageous, must be doubtful; but such an invitation for attack could not be resisted; and Harriet was soon assailed by half a dozen children, headed by a stout woman and a great boy, all clamorous, and impertinent in look, though not absolutely in word.—More and more frightened, she immediately promised them money, and taking out her purse, gave them a shilling, and begged them not to want more, or to use her ill.—She was then able to walk, though but slowly, and was moving away—but her terror and her purse were too tempting, and she was followed, or rather surrounded, by the whole gang, demanding more.”

First, she describes the physical attack on Harriet, proving it was not always safe for single young ladies to venture out alone, even if very close to one’s home.

Then, though more subtly, Jane regales us with details of the snobbish and prideful encounter’s Emma, Frank Churchill, and Mr Elton have with their less fortunate neighbours. As she describes their actions, she leaves us, the reader, to pour scorn on her characters.


Emma gleefully gossips with Frank Churchill about Jane Fairfax, mocking her lowly status as a governess, while implying that she might have left her last position due to a liaison with her employer, Mr Dixon. This action on Frank’s part are made all the more intolerable when we later discover that he was actually engaged to Jane at the time, and knew full well where the piano came from. It was sent to Jane by Frank, as a token of his love for her. Later in the plot, when we discover his duplicity, Emma is incensed, and rightly so.

“I do not mean to reflect upon the good intentions of either Mr. Dixon or Miss Fairfax, but I cannot help suspecting either that, after making his proposals to her friend, he had the misfortune to fall in love with her, or that he became conscious of a little attachment on her side. One might guess twenty things without guessing exactly the right; but I am sure there must be a particular cause for her choosing to come to Highbury instead of going with the Campbells to Ireland.”

Emma embarrasses and hurts Miss Bates with an unguarded remark during the picnic at Box Hill. It is not until Mr Knightly berates her for her unkindness that she really feel the error of her ways. Emma has forgotten that Miss Bates was once her equal, but her circumstances have changes and she will only get poorer the longer she lives. With no husband or children to talk to, and only her mother for company, she had developed the habbit of talking incecently. I can tell you that I have beenin situations where I longed for a Miss Bates to break a pregnant pause in conversation! What about you?

FRANK; Ladies and gentlemen—I am ordered by Miss Woodhouse to say, that she waives her right of knowing exactly what you may all be thinking of, and only requires something very entertaining from each of you, in a general way. Here are seven of you, besides myself, (who, she is pleased to say, am very entertaining already,) and she only demands from each of you either one thing very clever, be it prose or verse, original or repeated—or two things moderately clever—or three things very dull indeed, and she engages to laugh heartily at them all.

MISS BATES; “Oh! very well,” exclaimed Miss Bates, “then I need not be uneasy. ‘Three things very dull indeed.’ That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I? (looking round with the most good-humoured dependence on every body’s assent)—Do not you all think I shall?”

Emma could not resist.

EMMA; “Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once.”

Miss Bates, deceived by the mock ceremony of her manner, did not immediately catch her meaning; but, when it burst on her, it could not anger, though a slight blush shewed that it could pain her.

“Ah!—well—to be sure. Yes, I see what she means, (turning to Mr. Knightley,) and I will try to hold my tongue. I must make myself very disagreeable, or she would not have said such a thing to an old friend.”

Emma’s attempt at matchmaking between Mr Elton and Harriot Smith sees him declare himself far above Miss Smith’s station in life, and he brushes aside Emma’s attempt with scorn and derision.

“Good Heaven!” cried Mr. Elton, “what can be the meaning of this?—Miss Smith!—I never thought of Miss Smith in the whole course of my existence—never paid her any attentions, but as your friend: never cared whether she were dead or alive, but as your friend. If she has fancied otherwise, her own wishes have misled her, and I am very sorry—extremely sorry—But, Miss Smith, indeed”

Next, we find Emma using her influence over Harriot, as her social superior, to encourage her to refuse Mr Martin’s proposal, when Harriot really wants to accept.

Harriot to Emma;

“What sort of looking man is Mr. Martin?” “Oh! not handsome—not at all handsome. I thought him very plain at first, but I do not think him so plain now. One does not, you know, after a time. But did you never see him? He is in Highbury every now and then, and he is sure to ride through every week in his way to Kingston. He has passed you very often.”

Emma’s reply;

“That may be, and I may have seen him fifty times, but without having any idea of his name. A young farmer, whether on horseback or on foot, is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity. The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other. But a farmer can need none of my help, and is, therefore, in one sense, as much above my notice as in every other he is below it.”

We live in a society where for the main part, we are able to court and marry whom we wish, but in the era Emma is set, it is clear that matrimony is not just as simple as falling in love, far from it. Social standing, connections, wealth, as well as appearance and accomplishments all counted.

Although I often think I was born 220 years too late, I am thankful that some rules in the modern world have changed for the better.

All in all, I think Emma is a happy story, one that never fails to lift my mood, whether I am reading it, watching it or listening to it on my iPod.

Till next time,

Martine xx


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