He could see from Emma’s face that she was a little taken aback by his harsh words. He did not repent them, however. She had been wrong before and suffered humiliation; if he could keep her from doing the same again, he would.
(from Charity Envieth Not, page 149)
Charity Envieth Not is the first of two novels by Barbara Cornthwaite about George Knightley, the hero of Jane Austen’s Emma. It’s a delightful retelling of Emma through Mr. Knightley’s eyes, from the start of Emma’s matchmaking schemes through Emma and Frank Churchill’s plans for a ball in Highbury.
Unlike some of the other Austen heroes, it’s obvious from the start that Mr. Knightley is among the best of men. He is intelligent and generous, has impeccable manners, and is always honest. In letters to his brother, John, Cornthwaite shows off Knightley’s humorous and playful side. However, Mr. Knightley’s one flaw is his tendency to find fault with Emma Woodhouse, the sister of his brother’s wife and a young woman he has watched grow up. He has 16 years more worldly experience than Emma, and he is more than willing to pass his wisdom onto her.
It’s true that Emma needs someone to guide her toward right behavior, especially since everyone else in Highbury goes overboard in flattering her — especially the vicar, Mr. Elton, whom Emma has chosen for her dimwitted friend, Harriet Smith. When Mr. Knightley realizes exactly how he feels about Emma, it’s quite possible that his admonishments may have pushed her into the arms of Frank Churchill, whose air of mystery and playful charm seem to have bewitched her. Mr. Knightley, however, sees nothing but flaws, particularly Churchill’s inability to defy his overbearing aunt and pay his respects to his new stepmother, Emma’s former governess.
In Charity Envieth Not, Cornthwaite gives readers a look into Mr. Knightley’s thoughts, showing his reasons for sometimes being harsh with Emma and for disliking Frank Churchill, the evolution of his feelings for Emma, and all the anxieties of a bachelor in his late 30s who finally understands his heart but is powerless to act. She also gives readers a glimpse into his everyday responsibilities as master of Donwell Abbey, a landlord, and a magistrate, from caring for the needs of his tenants to hearing accusations of petty crimes and dealing out punishments.
I loved Cornthwaite’s Mr. Knightley, and given that she incorporates Austen’s actual dialogue at times, I had to keep reminding myself that this Mr. Knightley isn’t Austen’s brainchild. From the story behind his dislike of dancing to his adopting his niece’s cat, Madam Duval, to his tortured heart upon the arrival of Frank Churchill, Cornthwaite made me fall in love with Mr. Knightley all over again. I also like how Cornthwaite fleshes out certain secondary characters, like Mr. Elton, in the scenes in which only the gentlemen are present. She also introduces some interesting new characters, like Mr. Spencer, Donwell’s new curate who, along with Madam Duval, becomes Knightley’s confidante.
Charity Enviety Not made me wish Emma was more popular among the authors of Austen-inspired fiction. I loved seeing one of my favorite novels from the hero’s point of view, and this retelling is richer and more enjoyable than the diary versions of the heroes’ stories. You’re going to want to have book two, Lend Me Leave, on hand when you start this one — even if you’ve already read Emma — because you’re not going to want to wait to find out what happens next.
Disclosure: Charity Envieth Not is from my personal library.
© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.