Perhaps it is no surprise that my favorite Austen hero comes from my favorite Austen book: Emma. My road to loving Emma was not a short one. When I initially read the book I, like presumably many others, found Emma to be a rather mean-spirited and manipulative individual. How was I supposed to sympathize with her or cheer her on to find true love? Over time, however, I began to see Emma more as a high-spirited young woman who did not know how to guard her tongue. Somehow it feels easier to forgive youthful enthusiasm. At any rate, Emma became my favorite Austen book. But I think Mr. Knightley may have always been my favorite Austen hero.
While I recognize that the large age difference between Mr. Knightley and Emma can be off-putting for modern readers, I still cannot help but appreciate their romance. Some of my favorite love stories are the ones where the characters move from being friends to lovers. And Emma gives me that. Mr. Knightley and Emma have a long history with each other, one that means Mr. Knightley is comfortable giving Emma (much-needed) advice. I love that Emma has someone in her life who cares about her enough to want her to do and be better!
Many of the people around Emma either accept her bad behavior or do nothing but feel sad or offended behind her back. As a real friend, Mr. Knightley calls her out when she is wrong and challenges her to do better. He does not accept her rudeness or call it witty. He does not talk about her behind her back. He is honest with her at all times about what she is doing, the effects it is having on others, and how she can fix it. This is a real kindness, even though it may seem harsh. Emma does not always know how her words and actions are being received by others, and she allows bad influences to let her get carried away sometimes with her little flirtations and “amusing” observations. She needs someone to let her know when what she is doing is harmful because, in the end, Emma does not actually want to cause people harm. A lot of her behavior is her trying to be entertaining because she wants to be liked.
The wonderful thing about Mr. Knightley, however, is that he already likes Emma. He likes her just the way she is, without her needing to put on her cheerful and witty social persona. He has known her for years, seen her at home, seen her interacting with her author, seen her in all her unguarded moments. Emma does not really try to impress Mr. Knightley because she initially just sees him as her father’s friend, not as a potential suitor and perhaps not really as her friend. And so Mr. Knightley knows Emma better than most. And he loves her, flaws and all.
I am sure Mr. Darcy will be many Austen fans’ first choice. And I like Mr. Darcy, too! But I really love how close Mr. Knightley and Emma are, and that they get to build a real relationship on years of friendship and knowing each other. There is something wonderfully sweet about the friends to lovers trope. And I fall for it every time.