As Emma, who declined to eat anything more than a biscuit, looked around at the happy faces, all deferring to the man in their midst who in his turn listened to whatever they might say when he was not too taken with consuming what seemed to her prodigious quantities of food, she could not help but contrast this scene to that which Mr. Knightley found at Hartfield: a querulous foolish old man, an ignorant old maid, and a wife who gave him no heir and scarcely concealed an unquiet heart.
(from Emma & Knightley, page 193)
Emma & Knightley is a sequel to Emma, my favorite Jane Austen novel (at the moment, anyway), that catches up with Emma and Mr. Knightley about a year-and-a-half into their marriage. Mr. Knightley has settled into life at Hartfield, giving up his family home, Donwell Abbey, since the difficult Mr. Woodhouse could not bear to be parted from his daughter.
The novel opens with Emma learning of the death of Jane Churchill (née Fairfax) shortly after giving birth to a son, and Frank Churchill, overwhelmed with grief, is nowhere to be found. Despite Mr. Knightley’s intense dislike of Frank Churchill, he goes off to search for him in London on behalf of his father, Mr. Weston, but Emma stumbles upon Frank at Donwell Abbey — crazed, impassioned, and taking aim at Emma for marrying an “old” man who surely is not as passionate as himself. When Mr. Knightley returns, preoccupied with his brother’s troubles, he is quiet and distraught, and Emma just can’t bring herself to tell him she has seen Frank Churchill.
It’s soon obvious that the Knightleys are having some marital problems, with Mr. Knightley treating Emma with affection but not passion, and Emma increasingly frustrated with his daily excursions to the home of Robert and Harriet Martin and his unwillingness to share his troubles and plans with her. She worries that he is bored with her or regrets leaving Donwell Abbey, and she feels that he still views her as a child. Billington follows Emma and Mr. Knightley around Highbury and London (where Emma meets the exotic and exhuberant Philomena Tidmarsh and her scholarly vicar stepson, Dugobair), separate even when they are together, both knowing that something is wrong and unwilling to communicate.
Emma & Knightley was an enjoyable novel, but I must admit I was disappointed by Billington’s take on Austen’s characters. I’d wanted to see how Emma and Mr. Knightley fared in marriage given their age difference and past friendship, and while I didn’t expect their marriage to be perfect, I never imagined they’d tiptoe around each other for most of the book. Some passionate arguments and disagreements (like the one in Emma, when Mr. Knightley accuses her of influencing Harriet Smith’s rejection of Robert Martin) would have been more dramatic and exciting.
Even if marriage didn’t cure Emma of her arrogance (which it didn’t), I didn’t expect her to be whiny and insecure. And why was it so impossible for her to call her husband George instead of addressing him as “Knightley” — especially when she found Mrs. Elton calling her husband “Mr. E.” to be downright ridiculous? Meanwhile, Mr. Knightley seems to have lost some of his charm and confidence, and I thought it was out of character for him to exclude Emma from everything, given how anxious he was to discuss with her Robert Martin’s proposal and the possibility of something going on between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax in the original novel.
I didn’t mind seeing Frank become an even bigger scoundrel, but how Billington made Miss Bates — a woman who couldn’t stop rambling even if she tried — essentially speechless was also disappointing. However, I liked her original character, Mrs. Tidmarsh, and her take on some of the secondary characters, like the infamous Sucklings and Isabella Knightley.
While it didn’t completely satisfy my desire to revisit my favorite characters, I’m not sorry I read Emma & Knightley. There were plenty of flawed characters and misunderstandings, and I liked that Billington touched on more serious topics, like abandoned children, grief, and even financial troubles. I just wish I could’ve liked her Emma and Mr. Knightley as much as I’d hoped to.
Disclosure: Emma & Knightley 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.