Persuasions #13, 1991 Pages 108-117
Governess or Governor?:
the mentor/pupil relation in Emma
English Department, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec H3A 2T7
The mentor/pupil relation is both a classical pedagogical tool and an 18th-century literary convention. As a teaching device it received much approbation from John Locke in his Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), for Locke believed that children learn most effectively at home, “the forming of their minds and manners requiring a constant attention and particular application” (51) that could not be provided in school. The tutor, or governor, teaches through continual conversation with his charges and must support his precepts by always providing a positive role model (72). The ideal tutor “must be a person of eminent virtue and prudence, and with good sense have good humour, and the skill to carry himself with gravity, ease and kindness ….” (142). He must always deal truthfully and sincerely with his charges and spur them to their duty not through fear but through love (127).
As a literary device the mentor/pupil relation is usually combined with the courtship plot. The first novel to emphasize this is Mary Davys’s The Reform’d Coquet (1724) where the hero assumes the disguise of a wise old guardian who hectors the wilful heroine on her ill-conduct before rescuing her and then revealing himself to be her lover (Spencer 146). This combination of lover and mentor received fullest treatment in the novels of Frances Burney. In Evelina (1778) the mentor’s didactic and modelling functions were divided between two characters, an old guardian, Mr. Villars, and a young, exemplary hero, Lord Orville. The female mentor figure tends to appear less frequently, and if present, plays a secondary role. In didactic novels such as Clara Reeve’s School for Widows (1791) and Jane West’s The Advantages of Education (1793), however, mothers and surrogate mothers do provide wise council (Spencer 145).
Emma is a study in education, and the heroine’s painful progress toward self-knowledge is not achieved alone. Beside her are mentor figures based on both the female and male model. The former is provided by Mrs. Weston and is continued in an aberrant form in the unequal friendship between Emma and Harriet (Trilling 169 n. 12). The latter model is split in two. Since Mr. Woodhouse is almost a parody of the elderly guardian figure both the advice-giving function usually performed by the detached older mentor and the modelling function of the younger mentor are assumed by Mr. Knightley. While at once Austen’s most conventional lover – mentor, Mr. Knightley is also one of the most complex. Unlike his predecessor, the wooden Lord Orville, he is both humane and humanized, displaying a vitality and vigour only attributed to Burney’s hero. The focus of this paper will be on the major mentor/pupil relationships between Mrs. Weston and Emma and Mr. Knightley and Emma.
Mrs. Weston has usually been considered a deficient mentor, “defective but delightful” (Todd 279), because all she provides is soft, sympathetic friendship (Butler 251). Her mildness of temperament caused her, when governess, to yield to Emma’s demands instead of imposing restraint and for many years they had lived together as equals, Emma “highly esteeming Miss Taylor’s judgment, but directed chiefly by her own” (5). Mrs. Weston’s gentleness causes both Mr. Knightley and Frank Churchill to detect a former role reversal between Emma and herself, Mrs. Weston having learnt wifely submission from the domineering Emma (38, 192). Recently feminist critics like Margaret Kirkham and Claudia Johnson who are sympathetic to Jane Austen have defended Mrs. Weston’s womanly point of view.
Austen scholars have traditionally applauded Mr. Knightley’s perceptive, rational commentary, Wayne Booth in Rhetoric of Fiction saying that in Mr. Knightley Austen combines the role of narratorial commentator with the role of hero (253). Recently, LeRoy Smith, Ivor Morris and Joel Weinsheimer have emphasized how Mr. Knightley is not always right, seizing on his jealousy of Frank Churchill as an indicator of his fallibility. I do not believe Mr. Knightley is presented as an exemplary character, for I apply Austen’s aversion to “pictures of perfection” to male as well as to female figures (Letters 141). Rather, Mr. Knightley is introduced as “a sensible man” who was one of the few people who saw Emma’s flaws and the only one to have told her so (9, 11). Although usually acting on humanitarian motives, he does not always act prudently, a Lockian prerequisite. His defense of Jane and interest in Harriet, because they are both considered unattached females, is open to wide misinterpretation.
Austen criticism has tended to place Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston in a locked binary opposition. Most believe that he the rational man is always right, while she the sympathetic woman is always wrong.1 Occasionally, critics may argue the reverse with respect to one or the other. By taking a comprehensive, non-partisan approach both Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston can be considered “right.” While the dramatic action is primarily “exit governess, enter governor” (McMaster 56), the narrative as a whole is more intertwined, both governor and governess playing important roles in Emma coming to achieve self-knowledge. While Mr. Knightley has been seen as the ideal Lockian tutor (Devlin 14), Mrs. Weston is also an effective mentor in that she provides continuing companionship, loving support and is a positive role model of the mature woman.
Volume I, chapter 5 is a marvellous example of witty exchange between mature, intelligent adults. Because Emma is absent Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley can engage in one of their ongoing disagreements about Emma: here, about the suitability of Harriet as a friend. This chapter not only previews much of the dramatic action but also encapsulates both their different personalities and the histories of their relationships with Emma. Mrs. Weston defends Harriet and Emma being friends and presents a woman’s perspective on female companionship:
“I shall not allow you to be a fair judge in this case. You are so much used to live alone, that you do not know the value of a companion; and perhaps no man can be a good judge of the comfort a woman feels in the society of one of her own sex, after being used to it all her life.” (36)
She also has unqualified faith in Emma’s nature although she does not consider Emma “an angel,” despite Mr. Knightley’s claim (40):
“With all dear Emma’s little faults, she is an excellent creature. Where shall we see a better daughter, or a kinder sister, or a truer friend? No, no; she has qualities which may be trusted; she will never lead any one really wrong; she will make no lasting blunder; where Emma errs once, she is in the right a hundred times.” (39-40)
Mr. Knightley presents the opposite point of view. Based on a clear memory of Emma’s personal history and her past scholastic failures, which Mrs. Weston concedes she has erased from memory (37), he is concerned that Emma will never submit herself to anything that “requires industry, patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding” (37). He fears Emma will only succeed in superficially refining Harriet’s appearance and manners, giving her pretensions (38-39). Mr. Knightley then continues to unknowingly prophesy the major action of the book, but he also reveals a lack of self-awareness about himself and Emma:
“It would not be a bad thing for her to be very much in love with a proper object. I should like to see Emma in love, and in some doubt of a return; it would do her good. But there is nobody hereabouts to attach her; and she goes so seldom from home.” (41)
Ironically, this wish is not only granted but it also boomerangs against himself, like wishes in fairy tales (Opies 11-12). Emma is also about Mr. Knightley in love with a proper object, in doubt of a return. It does do him good for his story is that of the dispassionate observer discovering, and then coming to terms with his emotion. His boast to Mrs. Weston that he has had no “charm” thrown over his senses (37), will be undone. By the end, some of Mr. Knightley’s comments echo Mrs. Weston’s at the beginning.
Emma coming to appreciate fully the validity of Mr. Knightley’s comments about her ill behaviour is the crux of her movement towards painful self-knowledge in Volume III. Her realization of the truth of his chastisement at Box Hill about Miss Bates and later about Harriet are the shocks that impel her into self-knowledge. Afterwards, Emma begins to internalize Mr. Knightley’s opinion, beginning with her response to Jane Fairfax’s refusal of arrowroot:
she had the consolation of knowing that her intentions were good, and of being able to say to herself, that could Mr. Knightley have been privy to all her attempts of assisting Jane Fairfax, could he even have seen into her heart, he would not, on this occasion, have found any thing to reprove. (391)
She thus begins to apply Mr. Knightley’s behaviour consciously as a standard. When learning of Frank’s secret engagement with Jane, she denigrates Frank because he is the inverse of Mr. Knightley:
So unlike what a man should be! – None of that upright integrity, that strict adherence to truth and principle, that disdain of trick and littleness, which a man should display in every transaction of his life. (397)
After Emma and Mr. Knightley are engaged, she echoes Mr. Knightley’s pattern of reasoned speech and evaluative judgement. Her insistence on attributing lower and higher moral value to each member of the three couples who marry at the end of the book can be seen as an application of ‘Knightlean’ logic.
The last half of Volume III also outlines Mr. Knightley’s successful courtship of Emma, with the complication of Mr. Woodhouse being unconventionally solved by Mr. Knightley. There is a slightly comic portrait of Mr. Knightley in love, forgetting to meet Mr. Elton over parish matters and irritating his foreman, William Larkin. There is also a marvelously witty conversation between Emma and Mr. Knightley after the birth of Mrs. Weston’s baby girl that retreads much of the same ground as the conversation in Volume I chapter 5. Now Emma replaces Mrs. Weston as conversational partner, and the subject of female education is set hypothetically in the future. Mr. Knightley again raises the issue of Mrs. Weston’s drawbacks as an overindulgent teacher, but when Emma reacts with concern, his retort reverses his original opinion: “She will be disagreeable in infancy, and correct herself as she grows older.” (461) Appropriate to a new lover, but with an undercurrent of self-deprecating humour, he turns the subject to themselves: “I am losing all by bitterness against spoilt children, my dearest Emma. I, who am owing all my happiness to you, would not it be horrible ingratitude in me to be severe on them?” (461) Now it is the new humbler Emma who insists on the power of Mr. Knightley’s influence, but the equally humble Mr. Knightley downplays his role, emphasizing both her ability to educate herself and Mrs. Weston’s early instruction. Note how his “faults and all” sound like Mrs. Weston’s original “little faults”. Neither think Emma is perfect or would want her to be a less lively, “saucy” and assertive young woman:
“Nature gave you understanding; – Miss Taylor gave you principles. You must have done well. My interference was quite as likely to do harm as good. It was very natural for you to say, what right has he to lecture me? – and I am afraid very natural for you to feel that it was done in a disagreeable manner. I do not believe I did you any good. The good was all to myself, by making you an object of the tenderest affection to me. I could not think about you so much without doating on you, faults and all; and by dint of fancying so many errors, have been in love with you ever since you were thirteen at least.” (462)
Throughout, the innate compatibility between Emma and Mr. Knightley has been apparent. They both possess strong personalities with strong emotions. At family gatherings both serve as mediators, striving to prevent confrontation between their respective relatives. As an indicator of their further compatibility at the end, Emma’s and Mr. Knightley’s opinions converge regarding key characters about whom they earlier had emotionally vested differences of opinion: Jane Fairfax and Robert Martin. Concerning the latter, Emma’s shifts of opinion concerning him can be seen to chart the progress of her moral growth (Lodge x). Emma undergoes a complete reversal of opinion, the man whom initially she considered “clownish” (32) is at the end one “it would be a great pleasure to know” (475). Similarly, Emma comes to understand the validity of Mr. Knightley’s view of Jane Fairfax and how they would have been suitable friends. Emma’s self-realization that Jane deserved more had always been there in her conscience, for neither she nor Frank confesses their invention of the Dixon affair. Her intuition that she had “transgressed the duty of woman by woman” (231) was right and she accepts this serious error in her behaviour. Still, Emma’s criticism of Jane as being too reserved, although distorted by jealousy and “fancy,” (214) is seconded by Mr. Knightley, who believes that Jane “has not the open temper which a man would wish for in a wife.” (288) When Emma and Jane are reconciled, Jane expresses her unhappiness at her former forced concealment and Emma responds with a phrase worthy of Mr. Knightley: “Oh! if you knew how much I love every thing that is decided and open!” (460)
Emma’s and Mr. Knightley’s views on the more problematic characters of Frank and Harriet are equalized by there being more of a reversal. Their respective final opinions sound similar to the other’s initial opinions. Because they are in love they are perhaps too willing to cede to the other. Frank is a special problem for Mr. Knightley. Mr. Knightley’s fluctuating opinions of him could be considered as a parody of Emma’s on Robert Martin, for instead of being an index of moral growth they are an index of his jealousy. The narrator underlines this in a gently ironic passage directed against Mr. Knightley after Emma has accepted his proposal (Booth Company 434):
He had found her agitated and low. – Frank Churchill was a villain. – He heard her declare that she had never loved him. Frank Churchill’s character was not desperate. – She was his own Emma, by hand and word, when they returned into the house; and if he could have thought of Frank Churchill then, he might have deemed him a very good sort of fellow. (433)
This unreasonably positive attitude of Mr. Knightley’s should be set against Emma’s earlier very harsh assessment of Frank. Mr. Knightley’s final reasoned opinion can be garnered from his forced reading of Frank’s long letter of explanation. Here the emphasis is on the readers, Emma and Mr. Knightley, and their happiness as a mitigating influence, although Emma is more lenient. Significantly, his final judgement stresses the moral inequality between the couple, a pattern Emma will extend.
Concerning Harriet, Emma and Mr. Knightley also come to a reversal of opinion (Kirkham 135). Their new assessments may partly be coloured by love, but only Emma is in possession of all the facts. Nor does Emma betray Harriet’s inconstancy or her own fears to Mr. Knightley. This concealment casts a shadow over the initial happiness of their engagement. Emma cannot relax because she knows she was responsible for teaching Harriet to see Mr. Knightley as a paragon and imagine herself the suitable wife of anyone she desired. Just as Mr. Knightley’s final opinion of Frank is not completely divorced from his earlier jealousy, and appears slightly harsh in contrast to Emma’s, Emma’s final judgement of Harriet is touched by the jealousy that had made her realize her love for Mr. Knightley, and is also somewhat harsh. In contrast, Mr. Knightley is willing to grant Harriet a number of positive qualities that Emma cannot see and attribute them to her skill as a teacher (475).
Ultimately, Harriet remains somewhat mysterious, for we are exposed to her mainly through Emma’s viewpoint. Emma used Harriet to fill the void left by Mrs. Weston’s departure and seized on her because she was obviously “lesser” than herself: younger, stupider, sweeter, shorter and of lower class (Todd 280-81). Emma never saw her as a person but as a blank page to be filled in (Locke Essay 25). Emma’s portrait of Harriet symbolizes her arrogance in assuming the role of Pygmalion artist (Morris 157). Only Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley noticed the alterations to Harriet: the former observing the beautification of the eyes, appropriate to a female vision, and the latter noting the increase in height, unknowingly thinking like a lover by comparing Harriet with the taller Emma (47-48). Yet despite her biased opinion of Harriet, Emma at the end is humble enough to compare themselves and consider both to be marrying superior men.
Emma’s final maturity has been aided by two loving mentors. Mr. Knightley’s role has been that of a catalyst in that his crucial intercessions have forced Emma to submit herself to searching scrutiny. Unlike a catalyst, and as he is readily aware, Mr. Knightley was strongly affected emotionally when he intervened. He always tried to help Emma despite feeling she would resent it, and being hurt when they disagreed. In this way, Mr. Knightley represents the principle of critical love. If this kind of love can be seen as patriarchal, Mrs. Weston’s love as she states herself is in place of a mother (40). She represents all-encompassing maternal love, and throughout she provides Emma with a safe environment where Emma knows she is important and is secure. In the first few pages Mrs. Weston is described from Emma’s childlike, egocentric point of view:
a friend and companion such as few possessed, intelligent, well-informed, useful, gentle, knowing all the ways of the family, interested in all its concerns, and peculiarly interested in herself, in every pleasure, every scheme of her’s: – one to whom she could speak every thought as it arose, and who had such an affection for her as could never find fault (6).
This description is not completely accurate, for Mrs. Weston had always been aware of Emma’s faults, as she tells Mr. Knightley in Volume I, Chapter 5. When she sees Emma making an error she reprimands her, albeit very tactfully and gently. When Emma starts gossiping with Frank, on their second meeting, about Jane’s probable future as a governess, he is embarrassed. There are ample covert reasons why, but the obvious reason is his well-mannered confusion in the presence of his stepmother, herself once a governess. Mrs. Weston “smilingly” tries to remind Emma that she is getting upon “delicate subjects,” of which the tactless Emma is unaware (201). Later, Emma’s uncharitable behaviour to Jane is reprimanded by both Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley when Emma wonders aloud why Jane tolerates Mrs. Elton’s officious attentions. This exchange is notable both for displaying Mrs. Weston’s sensible understanding of the restraints of Jane’s life and Mr. Knightley’s lack of prudence in his accurate but perhaps overenthusiastic endorsement of Jane. A reference to Mr. Cole later in the chapter will confirm that Mrs. Weston’s misinterpretation of Mr. Knightley’s behaviour represents the consensus of opinion and is not fanciful deduction:
Mrs. Weston ventured this apology for Jane.
“We cannot suppose that she has any great enjoyment at the Vicarage, my dear Emma – but it is better than being always at home. Her aunt is a good creature, but, as a constant companion, must be very tiresome. We must consider what Miss Fairfax quits, before we condemn her taste for what she goes to.”
“You are right, Mrs. Weston,” said Mr. Knightley warmly, “Miss Fairfax is as capable as any of us of forming a just opinion of Mrs. Elton. Could she have chosen with whom to associate, she would not have chosen her. But (with a reproachful smile at Emma) she receives attentions from Mrs. Elton, which nobody else pays her.”
Emma felt that Mrs. Weston was giving her a momentary glance; and she was herself struck by his warmth. (285-86)
When Mrs. Weston tells Emma about Frank’s secret engagement, she seeks to modify Emma’s vehemence and to underline her discreet behaviour, Emma’s having been the contrary. Emma tries to rationalize her own ill-behaviour by thrusting all the blame onto Frank and Jane: “They must take the consequences, if they have heard each other spoken of in a way not perfectly agreeable!” (399). Mrs. Weston reminds Emma that she knows she never has said anything indiscreet or unkind. Emma and the reader, however, remember what Emma has said. It is the mildness of Mrs. Weston’s temperment that causes her intercessions to make little apparent impression on Emma.
Throughout the novel there is a pattern of complementary searching out that encapsulates the respective functions of Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley. In the foreground, there is Mr. Knightley coming over to Hartfield, actively seeking Emma out. In the background, there is Emma going over to Randalls to seek Mrs. Weston out – indeed it was as walking companion to Randalls that Harriet was originally deemed useful by Emma (26). Both people, and the two types of loving guidance they represent are necessary to Emma and both contribute to her ability to reach self-awareness.
Significantly, part of Emma’s education is in reticence (Todd 297). I do not consider this a negative feature, however. Neither Mr. Knightley nor Mrs. Weston knows all of Emma’s mistakes: Emma withholds knowledge from Mr. Knightley, and Mrs. Weston, probably due to her pregnancy, is not present at Box Hill. Regarding Jane, Emma never discloses the nasty suspicions she had harboured about Mrs. Weston’s future daughter-in-law. During Emma’s period of introspection, before Mr. Knightley’s proposal, she cries out with an oblique reference to her sense of guilt, “for, oh! Mrs. Weston, if there were an account drawn up of the evil and the good I have done Miss Fairfax!” (420), but stops herself, showing a self-restraint she lacked earlier. Emma is fully aware of how her behaviour has deviated from that exemplified by Mrs. Weston, and that Mrs. Weston has always acted as a model of female deportment. Much earlier, Emma had told the offensive Mrs. Elton this in a heightened exchange: “Mrs. Weston’s manners … were always particularly good. Their propriety, simplicity, and elegance, would make them the safest model for any young woman” (278).
By the end of the novel both Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston have been proven right and proven wrong. No character is completely clear-sighted and dispassionate. Although possessing considerable acumen, Mr. Knightley was unaware of his feelings for Emma and Mrs. Weston is always wrong in her match-making. Although the Westons never considered Mr. Knightley as a suitor for Emma, afterwards Mrs. Weston realizes that he had been the only possible candidate, considering Mr. Woodhouse. Interestingly, Mrs. Weston’s final judgements are confirmed by the narrator. Here is Mrs. Weston’s assessment: “It was all right, all open, all equal. No sacrifice on any side worth the name. It was a union of the highest promise of felicity in itself, and without one real, rational difficulty to oppose or delay it.” (468) Here are the narrator’s final words: “the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.” (484)
While the main action of the novel concerns Emma learning to apply her reason “rightly” instead of misapplying it wilfully, following Mr. Knightley as a model, the subtext charts a complementary feminine education which requires intelligent effort in other less obvious directions. Emma learns tact (Weinsheimer 259), a quality that the bluff Mr. Knightley does not possess, and feminine reticence. She learns about her duty from woman to woman by not disclosing shaming secrets (about Harriet) or cruel suppositions (about Jane). Mrs. Weston has these qualities to a degree, but there is no ultimate model of female maturity within the story. Rather, this standard of absolute relativity is articulated by the narrator which I believe, along with Wayne Booth in The Company We Keep, to be female (433). The expression of ultimate relativity occurs twice in the novel, the first being an ironic passage turned against Emma when the narrator remarks slyly after the Coles’ dinner party that “Perfect happiness, even in memory, is not common” (231). The other instance is the unusual narratorial qualification at the moment of Emma accepting Mr. Knightley’s proposal: “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 …” (431). Mr. Knightley’s ideal of openness and truth is now the expressed moral principle of both Mr. Knightley and Emma. However, there is a discrepancy between what Emma knows and what she states. I consider Mr. Knightley to be an idealist, Emma, perhaps unconsciously, to be a practising relativist. Thereby, they represent complementary but equal moral views, representing male and female ways of knowing.2 They achieve harmony by balancing one another. Emma would not have achieved this stature if she had not been blessed with two loving mentors, who just like Locke’s tutor, were in continual conversation with her; they supported her as true loving friends and were themselves models of right behaviour. If I detect the potential for Emma to go farther than either of her teachers, it would only be what they, as true pedagogues, would wish for.
1 In their Glossary to The Feminist Reader Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore define a binary opposition as consisting of “two terms which are classified hierarchically so that the second term is assumed to be derivative from and exterior to the first. For example, nature/culture, logos/pathos, man/woman” (243).
2 Recently feminist developmental psychologists like Carol Gilligan and Mary Belenky have described women’s moral judgments and ways of thinking in contradistinction to those of men. Instead of judging women against a male standard and finding them wanting, they argue for a different standard which stresses connection, responsibility and context in situations requiring moral evaluation.
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