After having gorged myself on trashy supernatural novels recently, I found myself craving a bit of Emma. I’ve mentioned before that every time I re-read an Austen novel, I get something new out of it (for example — this).
So far, this time around, I’ve noticed that a very subtle comparison between Mr Elton and Mr Knightly happens early on in the text, way before there’s any other hint that he’s a douche.
In this comparison, all the signs are there that Mr Elton is an inferior man… because the first thing that comes to his mind when discussing a woman is her appearance.
This is just not gentlemanly.
See, at the end of chapter 5, Mr Knightley and Mrs Weston have a chat about Emma, and Knightley starts it off by having a whinge about Emma’s new friendship with Harriet and how it’s only going to encourage Emma to be even more conceited and silly (this annoys him because he knows that the clever, capable Emma could achieve just about anything with a bit of discipline).
The conversation quickly ends up just being about how wonderful they both think Emma is. Mrs Weston brings up how beautiful Emma is but Knightly quickly brings the discussion back to her character and mind.
Immediately after this, chapter 6 starts with a parallel situation. Mr Elton and Emma are chatting about Harriet, and Mr Elton starts off by talking about how pretty Harriet is.
It’s very subtle, but it’s your first clue. Sure, the reader soon finds out that Elton is an ingenuine sycophant, a gold-digger, a social climber, an annoying conversationist and pretends to understand drawing but doesn’t, but forget all that — it’s already clear that he’s more interested in a woman’s physical appearance than in her mind and her character. Later, of course, we find out that if you combine physical appearance with money, anything else can be damned for all he cares, but he is ultimately inferior to Mr Knightley because he objectifies women.
In other news, when you google “regency period” you get some weird results. Including the picture above… and this