Mr. Knightley’s Harshness at Box Hill by Michele Larrow
In Emma, each scene between Emma and Mr. Knightley is presaged by earlier scenes and then connects in important ways to later scenes. A pivotal scene is Mr. Knightley’s criticism of Emma after she has insulted Miss Bates at Box Hill. The level of emotion that Mr. Knightley shows is a continuation of the anger he has shown to Emma in discussing Harriet’s refusal of Robert Martin and the scene where they discuss Frank Churchill. After they have argued about Harriet refusing Robert Martin, we see how angry he was perceived to be by Emma in her reflections: “She had a sort of habitual respect for his judgment in general, as made her dislike having it so loudly against her; and to have him sitting just opposite her in angry state, was very disagreeable” (E 65). When they argue about whether Frank Churchill is free to come to visit the Westons at the end of the first volume, the language that Austen uses to describe Mr. Knightley’s speech—“displeased…warmly….with vexation” (149-150)–shows just how angry he is during the discussion. Thus, before Box Hill, we have a couple of examples of Emma and Mr. Knightley discussing an issue and him expressing anger toward her and disapprobation about her behavior or opinions.
When Mr. Knightley criticizes Emma for her insult of Miss Bates at Box Hill, his criticism may be just, but it is delivered in an overly harsh manner. When we have re-read the novel, we know that part of what upsets him is Emma’s flirtations with Frank Churchill and not just how she has wounded Miss Bates. It is worthwhile to quote what Mr. Knightley says at length:
Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do: a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it. I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?—Emma, I had not thought it possible” (374).
When Emma attempts to defend her behavior by noting Miss Bates can be “ridiculous” (375), he counters by accusing her of being “thoughtless” and acting with “pride”:
Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed! You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her—and before her niece, too—and before others, many of whom (certainly some,) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.—This is not pleasant to you, Emma—and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will,—I will tell you truths while I can; satisfied with proving myself your friend by very faithful counsel, and trusting that you will some time or other do me greater justice than you can do now” (375).
Emma feels the full force of his criticism and feels “mortification and deep concern” (376), in part due to regret over hurting Miss Bates but probably more due to Mr. Knightley’s “ill opinion” (376) of her.
Emma and Mr. Knightley see each other only briefly before he leaves to visit John and Isabella, when Mr. Knightley almost kisses Emma’s hand after finding out that she has visited Miss Bates, which Emma thinks shows “perfect amity” (386). Later, when Emma realizes she loves Mr. Knightley, she reflects on Box Hill to ascertain his feelings for her:
She could not flatter herself with any idea of blindness in his attachment to her. She had received a very recent proof of its impartiality.—How shocked he had been by her behaviour to Miss Bates! How directly, how strongly he had expressed himself to her on the subject! Not too strongly for the offense–but far, far too strongly to issue from any feeling softer than upright justice and clear-sighted goodwill” (415-16).
Because Mr. Knightley has been so harsh at Box Hill, Emma thinks it is possible that he does love Harriet and only thinks of her as a brother or friend would.
When Emma and Mr. Knightley discuss the engagement of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, Emma is “ashamed” (426) of her past behavior and feels that she has to confess her inadequacies to the person she sees as the critic of Box Hill, Mr. Knightley. Emma admits to her errors of vanity in accepting Frank’s attentions. Emma also still thinks that Mr. Knightley could be in love with Harriet. After Mr. Knightley says that he envies Frank, Emma thinks that he wants to reveal his love for Harriet and she cuts him off. But Emma can’t bear that she has caused him pain and she is willing to accept what she fears most—the thought of him marrying Harriet. She invites him to talk “as a friend” (429) and Mr. Knightley declares his love to Emma “in a tone of . . . sincere, decided, intelligible tenderness” (430). Emma and Mr. Knightley get to have their “perfect happiness” (484) because Mr. Knightley is able to stop being Emma’s critic and Emma is able to make her own good moral choices.
Pages are from: Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. London: Oxford UP, 1966.
PBS Learning Media has the clip of this Box Hill admonition from the BBC 2009 Emma adaptation with Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller, directed by Jim O’Hanlon. I think the actors do a nice job of capturing the emotions of the scene and it is fairly close to the novel. Click on the link to view the clip—it is very short:
Michele Larrow, Regional Co-Coordinator