George Knightley

George Knightley is a principal character depicted by Jane Austen in her novel Emma, published in 1815. He is a landowner and gentleman farmer, though one (as the author slily informs us) "having little spare money".[1] A lifetime friend of Emma's, though nearly seventeen years older than she, he enjoys correcting Emma, as Emma observes in chapter 1.

George Knightley
Emma character
George Knightley as depicted in an illustration by Hugh Thomson for an 1896 edition of Emma
Full nameGeorge Knightley
OccupationLanded gentleman
RelativesMr. John Knightley
HomeDonwell Abbey; after he marries, Hartfield


A kind and compassionate person, Mr. Knightley exhibits good judgement, high moral character and maturity in contrast to Emma's still-maturing character: as a hero, he also has presence and authority, and a natural life-like quality.[2] The most hard-working of Austen's heroes, he is also the least posh, not even keeping a pair of carriage horses.[3] Despite a certain sharpness of tongue,[4] his genuine qualities are revealed for example by his disappointment when he sees Emma insult Miss Bates, a spinster of modest means. Mr. Knightley's reprimand of Emma for this insult also demonstrates his affection and esteem for her as a friend. Another revealing incident is his anger with Emma for persuading Harriet Smith to refuse Robert Martin's proposal of marriage, Martin being in Knightley's eyes an eminently suitable mate for Harriet: the violent row that follows leaves the pair estranged for some considerable time.[5] But while in some respects serving as a conduct book mentor for Emma,[6] Knightley too is taken on a journey of discovery – of his unconscious desire for Emma; of his own imaginative and jealousy-fuelled blunders[7] - which brings the characters into a more realistic, egalitarian relationship, just as in their marriage her money will complement his role as the leading local landowner.[8]

Role in narrative

In the course of the story, Emma falls briefly in love with a young, handsome man named Frank Churchill. Mr. Knightley's jealousy of the latter is gradually uncovered:[9] he makes several negative remarks about Churchill, is concerned that Frank has had a negative influence on Emma, but later admits that, because of jealousy, "I was not quite impartial in my judgement...My Emma".[10] Frank Churchill's guardian—his aunt—dies, and he is now free to publicize his engagement to Jane Fairfax, which had been kept secret to avoid his aunt's disapproval. Emma is shocked, but realizes she had never really had romantic sentiments towards Frank Churchill. Nevertheless, she worries that Harriet has feelings for Frank, but soon discovers that Harriet has become infatuated with Mr. Knightley.

Emma becomes very unhappy; finally it dawns on her that she loves Mr. Knightley—and has for a time, apparently unconsciously[11]—and is distressed as she believes Mr. Knightley and Harriet to be on the verge of marriage. Mr. Knightley is in London visiting John and Isabella Knightley when he is apprised of Churchill's clandestine engagement. He decided to return to Hartfield to offer support to Emma, whom he believes to be deeply in love with Mr. Churchill. On the spur of the moment, after finding this to be untrue, he declares his love to Emma and asks her to marry him, and she accepts. Harriet and Robert Martin marry; Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill plan a November wedding. Within a month, Emma and Mr. Knightley marry and, because Mr. Woodhouse can't face life without his daughter, Mr. Knightley gallantly moves in with Emma and her father at their estate, Hartfield.[12]

Notable portrayals

See also


  1. Ronald Blythe ed. Jane Austen: Emma (Penguin 1971) p. 223
  2. S. Kaye-Smith, Talking of Jane Austen (London 1946) p. 69 and p. 235
  3. S. Kaye-Smith, Talking of Jane Austen (London 1946) p. 87-8
  4. R. Jenkyns, A Fine Brush on Ivory (Oxford 2007) p. 75
  5. Ronald Blythe, 'Introduction', Jane Austen: Emma (Penguin 1971) p. 21
  6. G. Hecimovich, Austen's Emma (2008) p. 47-9
  7. D. Lewes, Auto-poetica (2006) p. 110
  8. G. Hecimovich, Austen's Emma (2008) p. 27
  9. Ronald Blythe, 'Introduction', Jane Austen: Emma (Penguin 1971) p. 26
  10. Ronald Blythe ed. Jane Austen: Emma (Penguin 1971) p. 243
  11. R. Jenkyns, A Fine Brush on Ivory (Oxford 2007) p. 170-1
  12. S. Kaye-Smith, Talking of Jane Austen (London 1946) p. 36-7
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