I would like to start with two quotations, one from a great novel and the other from a personal letter. At the end of Emma, the narrator tells us that “the wishes, 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 [between Emma and Mr. Knightley]” (528). In an oft-quoted letter to her niece Fanny, Jane Austen declares, “pictures of perfection . . . make me sick & wicked” (484).
How are we to reconcile these two quotations? Austen scorns perfect heroines who embody all virtues and accomplishments, yet she grants to Emma perfect happiness. Shouldn’t such perfection make her and her readers sick and wicked? Somehow it does not. Somehow Austen persuades us to desire and delight in such perfect happiness for Emma and Mr. Knightley.
To answer such a question we must consider the rhetorical power of plot. Wayne Booth sees “plot . . . as active rhetoric—as the total patterning of the reader’s desires and satisfactions” (206). The plot of a story, including its ending, persuades us to desire the goods established by the story. The happy ending shapes our desire for happiness itself and for the happiness of the characters; we are persuaded, if the author is skillful and we are attentive and receptive readers, to see happiness, as the author has defined it, as desirable, and to wish that happiness for the characters. When they do receive it, our desire is satisfied as well, and we participate in their joy.
Through her plot, Austen educates our emotions so that we respond to perfect happiness with joy rather than incredulity or disgust. She convinces us to desire the goods her story establishes, and through the happy ending, she invites us to share in the joy of her characters as they receive those goods. Jan Fergus speaks of Austen’s “[e]motional didacticism” (4). “Austen,” she writes, “intends to instruct and to refine the emotions” (3). Austen refines our emotions, teaching us how to delight in the perfect happiness of Mr. Knightley and Emma, teaching us what kind of happiness deserves that kind of delight.
Thus, for the reader, Emma provides an education in desire for happiness and joy in its possession. Such education is possible because Emma herself is also educated; she is educated in love, specifically chivalric love. The medieval apparatus of love—a devoted, obedient knight rendering service, in word and deed, to a fair lady—informs Emma’s views of love. She arranges and interprets the matches around her through that apparatus—an apparatus that Austen both critiques and celebrates. Emma must learn the meaning of true chivalric service, and she herself must move from the elevated lady to the submissive knight. Our desire for Emma’s happiness depends on our acknowledgement of her own education. We are educated as Emma is.
The lexicon of Emma is thoroughly chivalric: gallantry, service, adventure, fair, lady, knight-errantry, and, of course, Mr. Knightley. The titular heroine recounts Mr. Weston fetching an umbrella for Miss Taylor “with so much gallantry” (11). Mr. Elton is frequently associated with gallantry. Miss Bates tells Emma of “the service he [Mr. Dixon] rendered Jane” when he saved her from falling overboard (171). On hearing how Frank rescued Harriet from the gypsies, Emma is thrilled by “[s]uch an adventure as this” (362). The narrator tells us that John Knightley “was not a great favourite with his fair sister-in-law” (100). Mr. Elton is “very much gratified by the kind care of such a fair lady” (118). The narrator tells us of Mrs. Elton’s “knight-errantry” (304).
The term “service” is the one I intend to focus on because it is the foundation for Emma’s chivalric education. The term has a long association with courtly love; Arnaut Daniel, whom Frances Gies calls “the culmination of the troubadour poets” (69), renders “servir” to his lady in his poem L’aura amara (qtd. in Gies 64). Emma believes this type of gallant service is the natural foundation for love. She begins plotting the match between Mr. Weston and Miss Taylor after he gallantly fetches an umbrella; Mr. Dixon’s dramatic rescue of Jane Fairfax from drowning excites her; and, of course, she concludes that Harriet and Frank’s encounter with the gypsies “make[s] them peculiarly interesting to each other” (362). After all, ladies fall in love with the knights who rescue them, and knights fall in love with the ladies they rescue.
That Emma conceives of the Frank-Harriet adventure in chivalric terms is confirmed in her subsequent conversation with Harriet. After Harriet has confessed that there is another man far superior to Mr. Elton whom she admires, Emma, believing she means Frank declares, “The service he rendered you was enough to warm your heart” (370, emphasis added). Harriet replies, “Service! oh! it was such an inexpressible obligation! —The very recollection of it, and all that I felt at the time—when I saw him coming—his noble look—and my wretchedness before. Such a change! In one moment such a change! From perfect misery to perfect happiness” (370, emphasis added). Harriet, of course, is thinking of a very different kind of service, of Mr. Knightley’s courteous invitation to dance, but her description sounds like the description of a woman in danger who looks up to see a noble knight riding to her rescue. Emma responds, “It is natural, and it is honourable . . . to choose so well and so gratefully” (370). Emma judges that Harriet’s love, a response to gallant service, is perfectly natural (the way love normally works) and honorable (Harriet’s love is worthy of honor because it reveals her virtue, namely her discernment and gratitude). Emma is not at all surprised that Harriet cares for the gallant Frank Churchill who rescued her from the gypsies. Such is the way of love. And Harriet confirms that belief, for though she is thinking of a different man and a different service, she does suggest that her love, at the very least her gratitude, the source of her love, began with service. Though the women are thinking of two different men and two different types of service, both view service as the basis of love.
Harriet, however, understands true service better than Emma, who is more captivated by daring and dramatic rescue than ordinary kindness. Emma, reflecting back on their first conversation about service, declares, “I am sure the service Mr. Frank Churchill had rendered you, in protecting you from the gypsies, was spoken of” (442, emphasis added). She remembers telling Harriet “that considering the service he had rendered you, it was extremely natural” (443, emphasis added), and she remembers Harriet “mentioning even what your sensations had been in seeing him come forward to your rescue” (443, emphasis added). When Harriet finally understands, she explains that she was referring to Mr. Knightley’s invitation to dance: “That was the kind action; that was the noble benevolence and generosity; that was the service which made me begin to feel how superior he was to every other being upon earth” (443, emphasis added). They both acknowledge the concept of gallant service, but Emma mistakes the particular service rendered. Her imagination is so “on fire” with the gypsies that she does not consider any other service (362). Harriet actually shows better judgment than Emma because she understands that Mr. Knightley’s service, which Michele Cohen calls “a chivalrous gesture,” stems from his benevolent and generous nature rather than the drama of the situation (327).
Emma rightly understands that gallant service can lead to love, but she misunderstands the kind of service that awakens love. Juliet McMaster, reflecting on this scene, writes, “there are two kinds of rescue, the genuine and the spurious, and only one is the kind that arouses and deserves love” (74). Or to render this claim more chivalric, there are two kinds of service—the spurious (Frank Churchill’s) and the genuine (Mr. Knightley’s). To be fair, Frank’s service is genuinely helpful, but it is not the type of service that deserves love. Ordinary kindness is a truer form of service than extraordinary gallantry. As Peter Leithart writes, “For Austen, the sensational or extraordinary do not provide a sound basis for moral education and experience . . . the greatest ethical challenges come in the midst of daily life, precisely when ‘nothing is happening’” (27).
Harriet, in her assessment of these men, shares this ethical vision. Mr. Knightley deliberately chooses to invite her to dance, a simple gesture “in the midst of daily life” that reveals his genuine virtue. Frank Churchill happens to be at the right place at the right time.
Emma must learn, as Harriet already knows, that the service that arouses and deserves love may have a moral dimension and may be rather ordinary. She learns this through her romance with Mr. Knightley as she comes to see that his reproofs, so often unwelcome, are the devoted service of a passionate lover. Mr. Knightley does not rescue her from gypsies, but he does reveal her moral blindness, particularly at Box Hill where she seems unaware of how cruel she has been: “Emma recollected, blushed, was sorry, but tried to laugh it off” (407). Emma has to recollect the incident before she can blush or laugh. Though Emma is ultimately responsible for her own moral growth, she needs Mr. Knightley’s gallant service to perceive her errors.
Although Emma responds nobly to his service, she struggles to see how it can arise from love. Reflecting on Box Hill, she acknowledges the justice of Mr. Knightley’s remarks but concludes that they were spoken “far too strongly to issue from any feeling softer than upright justice and clear-sighted good will” (453). Justice and good will, not love, must motivate Mr. Knightley. No knightly lover, rendering service to his lady, could speak to her as he has. But Emma does not understand that Mr. Knightley speaks to her honestly because he loves her, because he is concerned with her moral and intellectual formation. His bluntness is an act of service.
Though Austen does not include a scene in which Emma explicitly realizes that Mr. Knightley’s chastisement at Box Hill was an act of love, his proposal illuminates the past, doing away with her former “ignorance” (471). And she does wish that she could acknowledge the “important service which his better sense would have rendered her” had she heeded his warning about befriending Harriet (505). Emma is able to classify his previously unwelcome advice as an “important service.” She has experienced and imagined the service a lover renders as concrete deeds—fetching an umbrella, grabbing a lady’s habit, rescuing a helpless girl from gypsies—or as flattering compliments. She now sees that genuine service may be judicious advice that seeks the moral maturity of the beloved, not merely her physical safety.
Emma learns what true service is, and she also learns to serve, or rather, she learns the humble submission necessary for true service. As the elevated lady, the object of the knight’s affection and obedience, Emma is in danger of believing herself to be as perfect as others declare her to be. She enjoys the flattering service of the men around her. She might have liked her brother-in-law more had he flattered her: “Perhaps she might have passed over more had his manners been more flattering” (100). In Frank Churchill’s company, she is “glad to be enlivened, not sorry to be flattered” (400). She is gratified by Mr. Weston’s declaration that “M” and “A” spell perfection (404). Austen sees such chivalric elevation as potentially dangerous for the lady, for it can easily lead to a vanity that blinds her to her own faults. Gallant service might actually do moral damage.
By the end, Emma has learned to see her own imperfection and to recognize the superiority of another. Because Emma’s education in humility takes place over the course of the whole novel, I cannot explore it fully here. However, her approval of John’s congratulatory letter vividly shows that growth:
He writes like a sensible man . . . I honour his sincerity. It is very plain that he considers the good fortune of the engagement as all on my side, but that he is not without hope of my growing, in time, as worthy of your affection, as you think me already. (506-507)
The woman who was earlier troubled by John’s lack of flattering address is now able to honor his sincerity and even agree with him: “He and I should differ very little in our estimation of the two” (507). Emma, once so confident in her own judgment and so skeptical of Mr. Knightley’s, now believes him her superior and hopes to grow more worthy of him in the future. She has become the humble knight, eager to serve his lady (she actually does render “service” to Harriet by keeping the girl’s feelings for Mr. Knightley secret (469)). Whether or not Mr. Knightley is her superior is beside the point; indeed, he treats her with the same chivalric elevation, judging her to be “this sweetest and best of all creatures, faultless in spite of all her faults” (472). By reversing the traditional gender roles of chivalric romance, Austen has transformed the medieval apparatus for her own purposes, declaring that both the knight and the lady serve and submit to each other.
Emma’s chivalric education makes possible the reader’s emotional education. The reader delights in Emma’s perfect happiness because she is an imperfect heroine who grows into that happiness. Austen rejects perfect heroines because “they create emotional and moral responses precisely the reverse of edifying” (Fergus 5). Perfect heroines make readers sick and wicked. But flawed heroines who receive an education are emotionally edifying. Austen’s heroines “require complex combinations of judgment and sympathy” from her readers (Fergus 121). As flawed beings ourselves, we sympathize with but also render judgment on their flaws; as we watch them grow we come to love them. Emma is snobby, spoiled, selfish, confident, charming, intelligent, loving—a fully realized woman, who learns what true chivalric service and submission are. And as we come to love her, we come to desire perfect happiness for her. Austen wants her readers to respond with the proper emotion to the proper object. For her, the emotions have moral heft. The perfect happiness that Emma receives at the end, obtained through education in virtue and grounded in love, is truly worthy of perfect joy.
The flawed heroine, by learning service and submission, by becoming the humble knight, becomes the true lady, a virtuous woman worthy of love. In the words of an anonymous medieval romancer, Emma has grown into the “fairest levedi / . . . [f]ul of love and of godenisse” (“Sir Orfeo” 53, 55).