Frank Churchill and Mr. Knightley: Austen’s Representation of Different Sets of Values
From their introductions in Emma, Jane Austen sets the characters of Frank Churchill and Mr. Knightley apart, with Mr. Knightley immediately being described as “a sensible man” while Frank Churchill is described as “very good-looking” and in possession of a cheerful constitution much like his father’s. While there are similarities between the two such as their polite and affectionate manners towards those they care for, they differ mostly because of their differences in being reserved. Frank is rather indifferent towards the mixing of classes and can probably be most aptly described as a “dandy” in his speech and actions. Mr. Knightley on the other hand carries out his duties in their society without crossing the bounds of social propriety and almost always expresses ‘correct’ opinions with a simplicity and logic which is not only educational to Emma but also to the readers. While both are seen to have good, charming qualities, the novel does however seem to value Mr. Knightley’s qualities above Frank’s and as seen through Emma’s eyes, upholds Mr. Knightley as the gold standard for the ideal “English man”.
Frank Churchill is seen by many of the characters as an ideal man because of his good looks and charm. It would appear that part of this charm comes from his ability to determine what will please a person without crossing the line into the realm of over-familiarity. When complimenting Mrs. Weston he “did not advance a word of praise beyond what she (Emma) knew to be thoroughly deserved” despite having only known her for a day. Even Mrs. Elton finds “his manners are precisely what I (she) like and approve” even though Frank’s inward thoughts about her are quite the opposite of her opinion of him. This conveys to the readers that Frank is capable of charming and befriending even those who he does not like as he is able to keep his feelings of contempt hidden beneath a layer of polite ease. Despite these good aspects of his personality Frank is not always judged by the novel in a particularly positive light, espicially with regards to Mr. Knightley’s opinion of him. In the beginning of the novel, before Frank even appears, Mr. Knightley rightly judges that “he can have no English delicacy towards the feelings of other people”, a statement that is certainly revealed to be true at the end of the novel when everyone finds out he has kept a secret engagement to Jane Fairfax all along. This demonstrates a somewhat selfish quality as he is at times capable of putting his wishes above the rules of social and moral propriety.
Mr. Knightley, conversely, is a character that might be deemed as Austen’s ‘ideal’ but not necessarily a modern reader’s, although most would certainly recognise him to be the voice of reason in the novel. Readers of the novel are not the only ones who value Mr. Knightley’s opinion as it is mentioned every now and then that other characters such as Mr. Martin and Mr. Elton go to him for advice and counsel. Austen puts Mr. Knightley in a very good light by also showing the readers how capable he is in handling characters with more problematic traits. At his introduction in the novel itself he assuages Mr. Woodhouse’s grief at Miss Taylor’s wedding and his kindness in giving the Bates’ apples from his own orchard also reveal signs of sensibility towards the people in his community to readers. Some critics say that with Knightley, Austen has created the image of an almost faultless “English man”, fully equipped with all the poise and rationality of a gentleman. This point is supported by Emma’s continuous comparisons of other male characters to Mr. Knightley with him always coming out as the superior male specimen. The only mistake in opinion he ever makes in the novel is of Emma’s love for Frank but this is easily forgiven by readers as it was a mistake made out of his jealousy for all the affection Emma shows Frank. Unlike Frank’s sometimes unpredictable nature, as seen when he travels all the way to London for a haircut, Mr. Knightley is a character that readers can always trust as being honest, perceptive and logical. Readers might even find themselves thinking as Emma did : “There was no denying that those brothers (the Knightleys) had penetration”.
The novel quite clearly values Knightley’s simplicity and rationality over Frank’s charming, friendly nature as Austen uses free indirect speech to convey the characters thoughts to the readers. Most of the novel is actually descriptions of Emma’s thoughts and it is through her thoughts that readers see, while Frank is charming and good-natured, his behaviour at times causes “Emma’s very good opinion” of him to be “shaken”. His aforementioned trip to London for a haircut had “an air of foppery and nonsense in it which she could not approve” and that certainly readers would not approve of either. In comparison, Mr. Knightley is always portrayed as upright, morally and socially conscious and never makes a decision that would so much as even suggest an air of “foppery”. Austen appears to reward his character for all of his perceptiveness by dedicating certain chapters and passages to his opinion as seen in his conversation with Mrs. Weston about Emma and Harriet and in the passage about his suspicions of Frank having “inclination to trifle with Jane Fairfax”. It is also precisely because readers trust Mr. Knightley’s opinion that at times his negative opinions of Frank may influence readers into also having suspicions of Frank’s actions, thus presenting him in a bad light.
Ultimately, Mr. Knightley and Frank Churchill’s characters can be said, as some critics have noted, to be representations of a man at different levels of maturity. Besides social and moral propriety, age plays a role as well in influencing the characters opinions of each other; Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates are both given allowances for peculiar behaviour due to their age and readers may also sometimes sympathise with Emma for being foolish and overly cocky in her youth. As such, Frank Churchill is often times referred to as a “young man” and is sometimes forgiven for frivolous actions as they are put down as a consequence of age. Nevertheless, although Knightley appears to be favoured by the novel as an exemplary man with finer values, both are rewarded at the end of the novel with marriage to partners that they love. In Frank’s case some critics have commented that his marriage to Jane; a “superior woman”, suggests that while Austen does not always approve of his values or behaviour she still is mildly infatuated with this character’s charm.
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