Family Values and Society

Family Values and SocietyJohn and Isabella Knightley enjoy the company of each other, their children, and their family before they prefer the company of anyone else. It is essential to understand this for failure to accept it leads to disappointment and disagreement. 

Mrs. John Knightley was a pretty, elegant little woman, of gentle, quiet manners, and a disposition remarkably amiable and affectionate, wrapt up in her family, a devoted wife, a doting mother, and so tenderly attached to her father and sister that, but for these higher ties, a warmer love might have seemed impossible. 

Because of her higher ties to her husband and children the idea of extending her visit without her husband is unthinkable to her, which disappoints her father. Emma seems to understand as she warned her father that this would be the case long before the Knightleys came to visit.

Last month I read a blog post on Austen Authors entitled Monica’s blog: Mothers in Jane Austen. In it Monica Fairview writes about Jane Austen’s treatment of mothers in her many novels, and the overall picture doesn’t seem to be too favorable even given the difference of societal expectations on the matter. At the time I had not thought of Mrs. John Knightley, but I do now. I’m not sure that Isabella’s mothering is within societal acceptance, though she does have “a competent number of nursery-maids” for her five children, because she feels strongly enough to voice her opinions. 

When the subject of Frank Churchill is brought up who left the care of his widowed father Mr. Weston to be adopted by his aunt and uncle Isabella says, “But how sad it is that he should not live at home with his father! There is something so shocking in a child’s being taken away from his parents and natural home! I never can comprehend how Mr. Weston could part with him. To give up one’s child! I really never could think well of any body who proposed such a thing to any body else.” It is interesting that her own husband tries to dissuade her from making too harsh a comparison between her feelings as a mother to how others feel about their children, while managing to make a jab at his suspicion that Mr. Weston may value society more than family affection.

It is on this point that Emma struggles with a desire to defend her good opinion of Mr. Weston, but decides to keep the peace thinking that “…there was something honourable and valuable in the strong domestic habits, the all-sufficiency of home to himself, whence resulted her brother’s disposition to look down on the common rate of social intercourse, and those to whom it was important.” In fact even Mr. Knightly demonstrates a preference for his own family circle to include his children that seems out of fashion. This is seen when the adults are to go visit the Westons.

The preparing and the going abroad in such weather, with the sacrifice of his children after dinner, were evils, were disagreeables at least, which Mr. John Knightley did not by any means like… He is in an ill humor the whole time until they return to Hartfield where they all get snowed in, but because he is with his wife and children it seems no hardship. In fact he seems quite happy enough with the arrangement. When it at last comes time for the Knightleys to go back to their home in London, Mr. Woodhouse is disappointed that he still cannot convince Isabella to stay behind for a longer visit.

The Knightleys, like anyone, have their preferences, which put them at odds with those on the outside or that don’t share them. Does that make them unfavorable? Are they unlikable characters? Because we read largely from Emma’s point of view there are some aspects of Isabella and John’s behavior that arise from their feelings about their family that don’t sit well, but I find myself admiring them. They are not presented necessarily as the perfect couple amiable with the world, but they have a devotion to each other and their children that makes them realistic.

What do you think about John and Isabella Knightley? Does Jane Austen portray Isabella’s mothering as unfavorable? Does John Knightley come off badly as a husband and father? 

*Photo: Family Enjoying Sunset at Pass-A-Grille by Fifth World Art, obtained through Flickr.

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