He picked me a sprig of lavender.
His eyes searched the lapel of my jacket for somewhere to place it. He found nowhere, so he gave it to me and told me to press my fingers tightly on the petals to release the soft perfume of the flower. The aroma was familiar and comforting; enough to lull you into a deep and pleasant sleep.
There was no thought or agenda. He just wanted me to enjoy the scent. He was always trying to make me open up and appreciate the little bursts of natural life in our city – shocks of colour in a flowerbed, a glimpse of an urban fox or just the simple sound of birdsong. I live so much inside my own head; I tend to miss things.
To anyone else, it was just some lavender; a forgetful little gesture. To me, it was a gentle sort of kindness I had been starved of for a long time.
‘Reading the divine Jane. I think she has much to teach me’ – Samuel Beckett
There is a special place in the shard of ice that is my heart for Jane Austen.
Countless lazy Sundays have been lost to watching adaptation after adaptation; period dramas, old and new, devoured for hours at a time to the point where I’m certain the next episode will be the one to cause my eyes to bleed. Tattered, well-loved copies of her novels lie on my bookshelves and in drawers and boxes. On our Christmas tree each year hangs a pair of embroidered cloth Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy decorations. My Mum and I once travelled to Bath to drink sweet tea and eat hot scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream in The Pump House just because a young Austen used to promenade about the room with her sister, Cassandra. We padded around the elegant Austen family townhouse. We read notes, dressed up in Regency costumes and discovered that, regretfully, I do not suit a bonnet.
If it involves overly polite declarations of love, evening balls, slight colds being treated as terminal illnesses, extensive readings of letters out loud from inside plush sitting rooms and women taking a moment to play the pianoforte then I’m all over it.
Jane’s writing is romantic and full of biting wit and sharply observed social commentary. Her portraits of humanity can be just as relevant now as they were then although, mercifully, women no longer depend on finding a man in her district with 5,000 pounds a year.
Emma, her fourth novel, is my favourite.
If I stumble across an edition of Emma, I always buy it. I have copies to read and fold and bend. A copy to take to the beach. A copy for the bath that I wouldn’t mourn if I accidentally dropped it into the bubbles. Special editions. Limited editions. Copies ‘for show’. It’s smart and funny and it’s a book that has stayed with me long after I read the final line.
Written over the course of 1814, Emma is based in the fictional Surrey village of Highbury. It’s the story of a privileged and slightly deluded young woman who meddles in the lives of her neighbours. Considering herself something of a matchmaker, Emma Woodhouse (“handsome, clever and rich”) overestimates her abilities. Moments of poor judgement lead her somewhat astray.
It’s Clueless with carriages.
Although I love her, Emma herself can be quite unlikeable. She’s spoiled, stubborn, snobbish and judgemental. The novel is bent to distort the narration to that of how she sees herself and her sheltered, gilded world. We see a person who believes she has “kind designs” and thinks she has the power to move people around like chess pieces. When her plans collapse around her or when she’s cruel, she feels the pain of regret for her mistakes like a physical wound. Emma always thinks she’s right.
In honesty, I have been a version of Emma in the past. I know how it feels to let feelings get in the way of reason and sense; to misread and misjudge a situation. I’ve been a snob and judgemental and, sadly, I remain as stubborn as a particularly disgruntled mule as I always have been. I relate to trying to do what I believe is the right thing at the time and how it feels when you royally fuck it up.
As a result, I hold the lessons contained inside a novel penned over 200 years ago as though they had been created for me personally. Emma teaches the value of humility, emotional intelligence; of sense over insensibility. It warns of the cruelty of prejudice and reminds us that things are not always what they seem. It charts the slow course of a maturing mind.
The greatest influence of Emma, however, relates to the opposite sex.
Over the years, I’ve recognised various incarnations of male characters from the novels of Jane Austen. I’ve seen them, flesh and blood made very real, as though they had just stepped off the page, in the relationships of friends and acquaintances.
We’ve witnessed the good. The loyal Mr Bingleys who worship the ground you walk on. The Colonel Brandons who are just happy to be near you and bask in your presence. The sarcastic and clever Henry Tilneys. The Fitzwilliam Darcys who emerge sopping wet from a lake and make every woman within a mile radius think “Oh hello. I’ll have babies with that one please”.
We’ve been deeply scarred by the bad. The Willoughbys, with their passionate words but ultimately empty promises. The Frank Churchills with their flirtatious remarks who are always leading you on or – heaven forbid – hiding themselves a secret girlfriend who is usually someone you hate. The obsessive Mr Eltons who become cruel when rejected. The liars. The cads. The cheaters. The abusers – both emotional and physical.
Centuries after Jane and we’re still dealing with scoundrels and gentlemen.
There were no cravats, top hats and tailcoats to be seen but there these men were. An amalgamation of Austen scoundrels – a sort of Frankenstein’s monster – who betrayed, intimidated and lied leaving once hopeless romantics sheltering behind protective high walls. Words of cruelty, heartache and anger tend to leave you bruised and confused. It makes you narrow your eyes with suspicion when you receive any hint of nice treatment. It makes you find it hard to trust people. You shut off and let your heart harden. You let past experiences bleed into your present ones. You convince yourself you deserved that poor treatment because of things you said and did; things will always be this way.
And so we come to Emma’s Mr Knightley.
In the novel, George Knightley is a friend of the Woodhouse family. He may have a few years on Emma, but he is her oldest and closest friend. Mr Knightley is handsome and intelligent and in true Austen style, as he’s the only man our heroine knows who isn’t a close relation or already betrothed, she’s almost certain to marry him by the end.
When I was younger, my ‘dream man’, if he could have been somehow genetically engineered in a lab, would have essentially been ‘Leonardo DiCaprio with a pet golden retriever he’d let me play with whenever I wanted’. We would have the exact same tastes and opinions on everything. He’d whisk me off to Paris for the weekend, shower me in gifts, conquer hard-to-open jars and help elderly ladies to cross the street on the way to his job as a part-time vet / pilot.
As I grew older, I realised that none of these ridiculous ingredients mattered at all and not just because Leonardo DiCaprio now looks like a baked potato. I’m such a control freak, I wouldn’t enjoy being ‘whisked’ anywhere at all, let alone to Paris. Differences keep things interesting, I can open my own damn jars and as for … wait, no. The ‘part-time vet / pilot’ thing would still be impressive, to be honest.
What reading Emma helped me realise is that regardless of where you stand on the idea of a ‘dream man’, some desirable traits are universal. Mr Knightley, although a fictional character from another century, might, in fact, be an accurate description of what everyone is looking for – or hope they already have – despite the fact he wears breeches and thinks “Hum!” is a swear word.
Mr Knightley a good person. He’s loyal, observant and funny. He gives great advice, he’s smart and he challenges Emma to think about her actions because he wants her to be the best possible version of herself. He doesn’t judge others, he’s patient when people annoy him and he’s emotionally intelligent. Mr Knightley is respectful, he genuinely cares about her family and his dry, witty remarks lift Emma’s spirit. Most importantly, Mr Knightley is, above all, kind. When Harriet is publically embarrassed after being snubbed by Mr Elton at a party, Mr Knightley – who loathes dancing – asks her to dance. It’s Mr Knightley who in a sense ‘rescues’ Miss Bates from mortification when Emma suggests she’s dull. It takes Emma a while to realise that she does, in fact, love him but Mr Knightley serves as a reminder that the truest love and affection blossoms from a foundation of friendship and that is an idea to hold close.
A few days before the wedding of a friend, three of us sat in a bathroom, as we steamed what was to be her wedding dress.
We talked about the big step she was about to take with her fiancé and I made jokes about me dying of sadness surrounded by cats, such was my likelihood of ever being her position anytime soon. She then said something that made me think about relationships – about all our final relationships – and the person everyone hopes they have or hope to find and spend all our days with.
“Just marry someone who is kind.”
For days, I thought about this statement.
This sentiment is basically what Austen had been advising in all her novels. I was simply too distracted by the melodrama, mild scandal and imagining myself in gowns-which-all-look-like-nightdresses to notice the point. All the heartache, words of anger and cruelty and mistakes made on both sides of past relationships came down to a basic lack of care for the other person.
I then remembered my checklist of basic Knightley traits in my head. They weren’t unrealistic, they weren’t unreasonable and they weren’t trapped inside fiction.
Emma and Mr Knightley fight openly and honestly. He comforts her when things go wrong or she makes mistakes. Mr Knightley – when the time is right to be open about his true feelings – leaves Emma in absolutely no doubt where he stands. Emma is never asked to sacrifice any part of her personality to be deemed worthy of him. Mr Knightley sees Emma, the colossal mess of a human that she can be, as “faultless despite all her faults” because he’s her friend first and foremost. Knightley loves Emma for exactly who she is.
The short answer to ‘what women what’ can be boiled down to Mr Knightley.
We all want someone who makes us laugh, we all want respect and most of all, we all want kindness.