Authors: Emma Tennant
EMMA in love
Emma Knightley, handsome, married and rich, with a comfortable home and a doating husband, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence, and had lived nearly four years since her marriage with very little to distress or vex her.
She had suffered, it was true, at the death of her father Mr. Woodhouse, a loss brought about by the catching of a cold at Hartfield, where Emma and Mr. Knightley attended to his every need; and she had suffered again when her sister Isabella, seven years her senior, had died shortly after, in London, of a fever. But the gratitude felt at the order in which parent and sibling had succumbed to mortality soon supplanted the real grief Emma felt at that time; for Mr. Woodhouse could not criticise
Isabella's doctor for his negligence, having departed this world himself; and Isabella, already ill on the first occasion of her father's sitting unwontedly in a draught, had neither desire nor capacity to give vent to her mistrust of Mr. Perry.
Two years had Emma lived at the centre of Mr. Knightley's estate, Donwell Abbey; and for all the suggestions put forward by those in Highbury who considered it advisable to give opinions on the renovations required by an ancient house, neither she nor Mr. Knightley had so much as touched a stone or added a wing. Despite the pleas of Mrs. Elton and her friends, visitors to the Vicarage and thus, by sheer force of convention, occasional guests at Donwell Abbey, Mr. and Mrs. Knightley declared themselves content with the place as old Mr. Knightley had left it. There was no need for a prospect.â It was pleasant enough to pass down the lime walk and discover from there the pretty stream that made a boundary with the Abbey Mill Farm; if one were fortunate, the sight of apple blossom or gently rising smoke might be augmented by a glimpse of Mrs. Martin, who lived as happily at the farmhouse with her husband as Mr. and Mrs. Knightley were seen to do at the main house. Emma was satisfied, or so it was judged, with all she had been given in life; and at twenty-five years of age might earnestly look forward to many years in surroundings that were in no need
whatsoever of modernisation or improvement.
The real evils of Emma's situation lay in the power of having had too much her own way since she was a child. It was considered by those who were her friends (of whom Mrs. Weston was the most devoted) that Emma's resistance to change at Donwell Abbey reflected her inclination to remain a loved daughter all her days rather than a wife.
There was also a disposition, as Mrs. Weston was aware, in the young mistress of Donwell Abbey to think a little too well of herself; she had been loved excessively by her father, who could find no fault in her; and Mr. Knightley, who once had lectured and blamed Emma if ever he felt it to be necessary, was now careful to hold himself in check, should an occasion arise that would in the past have provoked a rebuff. Emma was, in short, marooned on an island of self-regard, where any idea of a different outlook was instantly turned away. It was not only the old house, which seemed to belong to another age altogether, which its mistress wished to keep just as it was. Mrs. Weston feared for Emma herself.â But Mrs. Weston, in the days she had been “poor Miss Taylor” to Emma's father, had been a governess; and, for all the very real amicability that existed between herself and the chÃ¢telaine of Donwell Abbey, there was nonetheless a marked reluctance on the part of Emma to listen to her advice.
“Dear Emma!” said Mrs. Weston, on the occasion of her coming for a strawberry-picking at the Abbey, “I do wish you would go away with Mr. Knightley somewhere.â Why, he has talked of it himself, and says you do not give him an answer. When you returned here, you know, you would see that the rooms you sit in â even if only those â could be made over very prettily.â I saw some new papers myself, sent down to me by Mr. Weston's son Frankâ”
Here Mrs. Weston stopped, and bit her lip. Highbury, though it had grown more populous in the years since Emma's marriage to Mr. Knightley, and there were many newcomers unacquainted with the past history of the principal landowner and the other residents, still speculated on whether there should have been a match between Miss Woodhouse and Mr. Weston's son Frank Churchill. The very idea had seemed perfect; and Emma had surely been in favour of it before her attention had been drawn to the neighbour who had all her life cared for her and lavished attentions on her father; this being Mr. Knightley. Besides this, there was the small matter of Mr. Churchill's announcing he was in love with Jane Fairfax â but Highbury thought little of that unfortunate young woman now, since her abandonment almost at the church door and Frank's disappearance to Yorkshire. Here, he was said to have married an heiress specified in his aunt's will. But the village grew irascible
that so few details were known of the marriage, and Mrs. Weston was duly punished for her refusal to divulge them.
It was no wonder that the mention of her stepson's name, unintentional though it appeared to be, should cause Mrs. Weston to cease her strawberry-picking and suggest, with the familiarity to which she was happily accustomed on her visits to Donwell Abbey, that a glass of lemon water would not come amiss.
“I have no need to travel abroad,” replied Emma â for she knew her friend well enough to realise a change of subject was hastily sought, and out of mischief she would not supply it. “And I do not desire new papers on the walls of my rooms, dear Mrs. Weston. Everything is perfect as it stands. I am surprised you do not concur â why, you are come to resemble Mrs. Elton at the Vicarage, with her birds of paradise and her talk of patriotic wallpapers brought in from France. I thought you liked to come here and find all unchanged; after the sad decline in gentility of the village and its new denizens, I would have thought you grateful to be here!”
“No, no, Emma, you misunderstand me!” cried Mrs. Weston, who was disturbed at the sudden loss of composure in her friend. “There is no place more lovely than the Abbey. I am of that opinion and I shall never change it. But Frank's letter â his newsâ”
Here Mr. Knightley, seeking his wife in the Abbey
gardens, strolled down towards the strawberry beds, remarking as he came that he had hardly expected to find the ladies so hard at work in the heat of the day.
“Come in, Emma! And you, Mrs. Weston â why, you are in need of refreshment, that is as clear to me as the nose on my face. My beloved, have you not offered Mrs. Weston a glass of lemon water? My brother will be happy to join you, Mrs. Weston, if Emma forgets.”
Emma looked away in annoyance, but followed Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston into the stone parlour of the house, where refreshment was duly brought. She could not refrain from wishing that Mr. Knightley had not come to search for her at that moment; she had wanted to speak to Mrs. Weston of his brother John Knightley, who was recently arrived at the Abbey with his children for their summer visit. As her remarks on the subject of John Knightley's comportment and incomprehensible use of legal terminology would have fallen into the category of mild complaint, her husband's presence naturally stood in the way of the pursuit of this topic. Emma did on occasion wonder whether married life was destined to be a succession of captured confidences with friends.â For there was much to do with the running of the considerable estate of Donwell, and with arrangements for the entertainment of guests, which Mr. Knightley, after thirty-eight years as a bachelor, dictated without a thought to his young wife. Emma had
frequent recourse to Mrs. Weston, and on occasion to Harriet Martin, when she felt the need to voice her opinions on the running of a household; and by so doing her own sense of superiority was restored.
“It is delightfully cool in here,” remarked Mrs. Weston as she was shown to a chair in the parlour; but the manner in which her eyes roamed the bare walls of the room betrayed her continuing interest in Emma's covering them with the papers enclosed in the letter from Frank. Indeed, when John Knightley came in, and both brothers went to sit with a plan of the outlying land at Donwell, a portion of which was to be enclosed in the near future, Mrs. Weston could not forbear returning to the subject; and with a flourish she pulled a letter from her bag.
“Why does Frank take an interest in papers and the like?” enquired Emma, and she stifled a yawn. For she did not wish Mr. Knightley to hear talk of renovations: he was inclined to misunderstand when talk of altering Donwell came up; and had on two occasions berated Emma for speaking of them behind his back. It seemed Mr. Knightley had an idea that wives were intent on ruining their husbands' homes; and for all Emma's protestations that she was content for the old Abbey to remain exactly as it had always been, he clearly did not in the slightest believe her.
“I am not speaking of the papers,” said Mrs. Weston,
as she pulled a letter from her bag and from it laid out squares of gaudy paper on the stone table, as if with the intention of distracting Mr. Knightley and his brother from the real purpose of her walking up to the Abbey from Randalls today. “It is a matter of an awkwardness, dear Emmaâ” And here Mrs. Weston unfolded the letter from Mr. Weston's son and read from it aloud.
“I shall be with you the seventeenth July,” recited Mrs. Weston. “That is tomorrow, Emma. I am most distressed it should be the very same dayâ”
John Knightley rose from his seat at the far end of the parlour and approached his brother's wife and Mrs. Weston with a smile and a courtly bow. Emma smiled up at him, but, as she had increasingly to own, she did so with the effort of concealing her annoyance. For John Knightley, in the two years he had been a widower, had developed a ponderous manner, along with a habit of addressing all in his vicinity as if they sought counsel before taking the matter in hand to court. He had espoused his work, now his wife was gone: Emma felt the lack of her sister very sorely on the occasions of Mr. Knightley's brother's visit to the Abbey. The presence of the five children, Emma's nephews and nieces just as they were Mr. Knightley's, did not entirely alleviate the nuisance which Emma privately felt John Knightley had become.
“My dear Emma.” As Emma had waited on him to
do, Mr. Knightley's brother stood very solemn by the tall chair where she sat facing Mrs. Weston. There was little doubt that a matter of some gravity was about to be broached; though whether the subject was trivial or important, John Knightley invariably attached the same weight to it.
“I am informed there may be thunder tonight,” was the offering which Emma and Mrs. Weston finally received. “But all the evidence points to the contrary. There is none of that stillness in the air. A breeze comes as witness to other intentions on the part of the coming night. And tomorrow may be hot but still as fresh as today. What is your considered opinion, Emma? Mrs. Weston, you may give testimony after, and I shall examine both.”
Mrs. Weston, who did not meet Emma's eye, declared the day innocent of thunderous intent. She thought it would not rain tomorrow, either; which was to be thanked for, as Mr. Frank Churchill came from Yorkshire tomorrow, and there it rained, or so it was said, very frequently.