For most Austenites, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy is considered the epitome of manhood. He is the ideal man for many women. And I love Darcy, I really do. But I think there is another Austen hero who is an even better candidate for the title. In Emma, Mr. George Knightley is a dear friend of the Woodhouses. His older brother is married to Emma’s older sister; Mr. Woodhouse considers Mr. Knightley a confidante. Though sixteen years older than Emma, he is the perfect match for her. And I adore him. Now, why is he better than Mr. Darcy? Let me lay out some of the particulars.
- He isn’t arrogant. Let me be clear in saying that I don’t consider Mr. Darcy irreparably proud. He is greatly improved by the end of Pride and Prejudice. But he nonetheless has an arrogant streak in him, generally disdaining those who don’t engage him on an intellectual level. Knightley, on the other hand, has every reason, just as Darcy does, to be proud but isn’t. He has the highest social standing in the area, along with the Woodhouses. According to the class structure of the times, he is better than most everyone else. But he doesn’t act like it. His first reaction is compassion, not arrogance, toward those less fortunate and/or sillier than himself. Compassion is always more attractive than pride.
- He is a friend to Emma. Again, I’m not saying that Darcy isn’t a friend to Elizabeth. I believe their marriage would be one of deep friendship. But Knightley has known Emma since she was born. He knows her many faults but always reaffirms his friendship. Initially, at least, Darcy does not give Elizabeth the benefit the doubt in extending his friendship.
- He chastises Emma. Like a true friend, Mr. Knightley tries to help Emma correct her mistakes. He does it perhaps a little too often, but he always has honest intentions. For those of you who know the story, the Box Hill incident comes to mind. Knightley’s “Badly done, Emma!” is a turning point of the whole story. One of the things I appreciate about his honesty, though, is that he doesn’t correct her in public. He saves her the shame of being reprimanded in front of others and only speaks of his disapproval when they’re in private.
- He is real. Mr. Darcy, no matter how well portrayed, often feels like a person I could never meet on the street, whereas Mr. Knightley is incredibly genuine. He says what he thinks and enjoys manly pursuits. He’s not fond of dancing or gossip. Of course, neither is Darcy. Perhaps it’s simply that Knightley seems to be more rounded. Reading Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman, helped make Darcy more real for me. But that’s not written by Jane Austen. Anyway, Mr. Knightley seems more real and like someone I could actually meet than Darcy does.
- He’s a realist, not a romantic. Okay, part of me is in serious rebellion right now, because I’m a huge lover of romance. But, let’s face it, most men are not naturally romantic. They’re practical. Mr. Darcy has a distinctly romantic era about him, exuding the classic, mysterious aura. In the movies, he gets the proposal-in-the-rain scene, the famous wet-shirt scene (I still don’t understand the big deal about that), and the proposal at dawn. Knightley, on the other hand, has one of my favorite lines ever: “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.” Knightley speaks practically and doesn’t wrap his words in mystery. He abhors the coy games he sees played out around him because of their secrecy and dishonesty. And he’s scared of losing Emma’s friendship if he shares his feelings. How common is that? He understands and respects the boundaries of classes; that’s why he tries to dissuade Emma from setting Harriet Smith up with Mr. Elton, the preacher. He knows Harriet would be happy with someone from her own station in life, the farmer Robert Martin, while Emma is letting her romantic dreams cloud her judgment. She doesn’t see that Mr. Elton would never marry beneath him; there is a “littleness about him,” in Emma’s words, that Knightley sees. He wants Harriet to be happy, too, but he sees her marriage through a practical, not romantic, eye. So, in some ways, this goes back to the “realness” point above. Most guys are not major romantics, so don’t expect them to magically be that way.
- He’s considerate. This is basically the other side of the previous point. Mr. Knightley is not a romantic. But he is incredibly thoughtful. When a group comes to his house for strawberry picking, he provides a comfortable seat and things to entertain the always-worrying Mr. Woodhouse. And one of my favorite scenes in the BBC mini-series Emma is the last one, when *SPOILER* Mr. Knightley and Emma are on their honeymoon, going to a secret place, which turns out to be the sea. Emma has never been to the ocean before, and she is completely enraptured by his thoughtfulness. *END SPOILER* Mr. Darcy can certainly be kind, but he is not always that considerate.