In early January 2015, Diane Reynolds and I had a conversation in Janeites and Austen-L regarding the thinly veiled, creepily pedophilic subtext of the interactions between Emma and Mr. Knightley relating to their large age differential (21 vs. 37):
Diane: “The chapter opens with Emma deciding to make it up to Mr. Knightley and doing so by greeting him as he visits with her niece (and his niece), baby Emma, in her arms, a bit of artifice that Emma uses to disarm him. Again, atmospherics come into play--the text never says that the current baby Emma reminds Mr. Knightley of the baby Emma he remembers from when he was 16--the baby Emma who is now the grown up Emma holding a baby Emma--but clearly the implication--or background note--is all over the passage. And Emma works very hard to be a peacemaker, to smooth over differences for the family Christmas. The baby gambit works. …”
Me: “As usual, Diane, your attention gravitates to the most significant aspects of each chapter which lead off the page into shadowy realms. In this case, you rightly pick up on what I see as the latent pedophilia in which Chapter 12 is drenched, as I will now explain….it’s Knightley’s disturbingly fond free associations from holding a baby girl in his arms to remembering holding the infant version of his now 21 year old sister in law in his then 16 year old arms. The universal response should be “EEEWWWW!” The creepiness factor is off the charts. It was a memorable moment at the 2011 JASNA AGM in Ft. Worth when Andrew Davies drew a collective gasp from 800 attendees at his plenary address by daring to suggest that Knightley’s interest in Emma is very disturbing.”
Diane: “He is holding baby Emma when he agrees with the adult Emma. "Yes ... I was sixteen years old when you were born." How can the baby Emma he is holding not be jogging this memory -- and awareness -- of their age difference? How can he not be thinking of adult Emma in her babyhood? Emma tries to reduce the difference Mr, K perceives by noting that she is now 21, implying they are both now adults, which they are. But Mr. K won't give it up: "I have still the advantage of you by 16 years experience" and then he says patronizingly, pointing directly to his male privilege, "and by not being a pretty young woman and a spoiled child." If Emma looks to establish some equality with him as an adult--and she IS an adult—he insists on characterizing her as a child. Mr. K then turns to address baby
Emma directly, asking her to tell her aunt to set "a better example than renewing old grievances."
Me: Indeed, Jane Austen is showing us, without saying it out loud, that the age difference is what really turns Knightley on --- he’s like one of the pedophiles on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit who loses interest in his victim unless he can keep seeing her as very young. We see Knightley in this scene charmed by Emma from angry thwarted petulance to smiling joviality—we see a side of him we’d rather not. This whole creepy theme will be revisited, in spades, when Emma and Mrs. Weston chortle over baby Anna Weston near the end of the novel. But enough about Knightley---I say the chapter is drenched in pedophilia, because the far greater portion of Chapter 12 is then given over to Mr. Woodhouse’s disturbingly strong feelings about having some alone time with daughter Isabella. We see that Knightley and Mr. Woodhouse have an awful (all puns intended) lot in common when it comes to their attentions to much young females--- in their own families, no less….”
Today, I want to add several additional insights regarding the passages in which Emma “saucily” engages with Knightley about his fixation on her when she was young. (For ease of reference, at the end of this post, I’ve presented both of those excerpts, with the many specific references that Knightley makes to Emma’s age shown in ALL CAPS, to show that Knightley collected and treasured these memories the same way Harriet collected and treasured Mr. Elton’s used bandages! And I’ve also included an excerpt from the tete a tete between Knightley and Mrs. Weston in Chapter 5 which is part of that pedophilic aura of the novel, in that Knightley fondly reminisces about the prepubescent Emma there as well.
First and foremost, in response to those who might claim that Knightley’s fixation on the young Emma was not meant by Jane Austen to disturb, but was simply a reflection of JA’s comfortable acquiescence in the patriarchal mores of her time --- during which marriages of men to much younger women were common --- consider what prompts BOTH of those two conversations between Knightley and Emma, separated by 41 chapters and six months of action in the novel:
Emma is holding baby Emma (her niece) in her arms in the first passage; and
Emma and Knightley are discussing baby Anna Weston in the latter one, presumably right after a visit to Randalls by Emma and Mr. Knightley.
So in both cases, we see Knightley’s romantic imagination being very specifically triggered by the sight (and touch) of a female baby. EEEWWW!!!!! This subtle textual clue removes any doubt that Jane Austen intended her attentive readers to notice this connection, and to recognize that Emma has somehow (and surely not in a good way) learned a long time ago that the way to Knightley’s heart is through his interest (obsession) with young girls. And when we add to that creepiness the even greater creepiness of Mr. Woodhouse and his focus on young women around him---looks like we stumbled into a particularly disturbing episode of SVU!!
Second, returning to Andrew Davies’s brilliant insight into the pedophilic subtext of Mr. Knightley, I want you all to know that he not only discussed it in passing at that JASNA AGM, he also addressed it in more length in his witty, scholarly 1996 article in The Telegraph, the relevant text of which I have also added at the end of this post for your ready reference. And…best of all, Davies also embodied his insight in his film version of Emma, when we hear the following dialog at the romantic climax, when Knightley finds Emma in the garden at Hartfield after his return from London, and decides to take the plunge and tell Emma that he loves her. Davies added the following two lines of dialog:
Knightley: “I held you in my arms when you were three weeks old.”
Emma: “Do you like me as well now as you did then?"
[Knightley moves in for their first kiss]
So, to that loud chorus who complain that Davies sexes Jane Austen up on his own initiative, the above shows that Davies is as much insightful scholar as creative storyteller, and he grounded that dialog on very firm textual footing indeed! It foregrounds Jane Austen’s actual background.
Third, writing this post caused me to connect the dots between several related strands of research I’ve been doing over the past several years on JA’s pedophilic subtexts, including two in particular:
Back in 2011, I looked at the apparent allusion to Emma in Gigi (both in Colette’s original novel, and in the 1958 musical film adaptation)—an allusion which Amy Heckerling was the first to cleverly and brilliantly tag in Clueless (1993), when the music from Gigi is played at the precise moment when Josh first notices his stepsister Cher as a beautiful, desirable woman, when she appears dressed to kill coming down the stairs of their home. Gaston Lachaille and his “charming” uncle do seem to me to be modern French versions of Mr. Knightley and Mr. Woodhouse, and the older family members who are grooming Gigi for Gaston are interesting takes on Miss Bates and Mrs. Weston; and
I have been posting regularly during the past few years about the many sides of the pedophilia subtext of Mansfield Park, which I eventually recognized as a key allusive source for Nabokov in Lolita.
It all makes me realize that Nabokov surely had Mansfield Park, Emma, Pygmalion, and perhaps also Gigi, on his scholarly mind when he created Humbert Humbert and Lolita.
And finally, that brings me to Ground Zero of this particular thread ----Alan Jay Lerner, the lyricist and librettist who collaborated with Frederick Loewe on My Fair Lady (of course, adapted from Shaw’s Pygmalion), also, as everyone knows, had equally great success with Gigi. That might just have coincidence, that Lerner and Loewe’s two biggest successes were both about older men lording it over a younger woman in a disturbing way. But the kicker that puts Lerner in the Hall of Shame in terms of promulgation (peddling) of pedophilia into the zeitgeist as an acceptable, even desirable, lifestyle, is that after Loewe retired, Lerner went through a series of unsuccessful musicals, and one of them was (what else?) called Lolita, My Love.
As Cher from Clueless would have chimed in -- EWWWW!!!!
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RELEVANT PASSAGES RE KNIGHTLEY’S PEDOPHILIC FIXATION ON EMMA:
Chapter 12: She hoped they might now become friends again. She thought it was time to make up. Making-up indeed would not do. She certainly had not been in the wrong, and he would never own that he had. Concession must be out of the question; but it was time to appear to forget that they had ever quarrelled; and she hoped it might rather assist the restoration of friendship, that when he came into the room she had one of the children with her—the youngest, a nice little girl about eight months old, who was now making her first visit to Hartfield, and very happy to be danced about in her aunt's arms. It did assist; for though he began with grave looks and short questions, he was soon led on to talk of them all in the usual way, and to take the child out of her arms with all the unceremoniousness of perfect amity. Emma felt they were friends again; and the conviction giving her at first great satisfaction, and then a little sauciness, she could not help saying, as he was admiring the baby, "What a comfort it is, that we think alike about our nephews and nieces. As to men and women, our opinions are sometimes very different; but with regard to these children, I observe we never disagree."
"If you were as much guided by nature in your estimate of men and women, and as little under the power of fancy and whim in your dealings with them, as you are where these children are concerned, we might always think alike."
"To be sure—our discordancies must always arise from my being in the wrong."
"Yes," said he, smiling—"and reason good. I was SIXTEEN YEARS OLD WHEN YOU WERE BORN."
"A material difference then," she replied—"and no doubt you were much my superior in judgment at that period of our lives; but does not the lapse of one-and-twenty years bring our understandings a good deal nearer?"
"Yes—a good deal nearer."
"But still, not near enough to give me a chance of being right, if we think differently."
"I have still the advantage of you by SIXTEEN YEARS' EXPERIENCE, and by not being a pretty young woman and a spoiled child. Come, my dear Emma, let us be friends, and say no more about it. Tell your aunt, little Emma, that she ought to set you a better example than to be renewing old grievances, and that if she were not wrong before, she is now."
"That's true," she cried—"very true. Little Emma, grow up a better woman than your aunt. Be infinitely cleverer and not half so conceited. Now, Mr. Knightley, a word or two more, and I have done. As far as good intentions went, we were both right, and I must say that no effects on my side of the argument have yet proved wrong. I only want to know that Mr. Martin is not very, very bitterly disappointed."
"A man cannot be more so," was his short, full answer.
"Ah!—Indeed I am very sorry.—Come, shake hands with me."
Chapter 53: I do not believe I did you any good. The good was all to myself, by making you an object of the tenderest affection to me. I could not think about you so much without doating on you, faults and all; and by dint of fancying so many errors, have been IN LOVE WITH YOU EVER SINCE YOU WERE THIRTEEN AT LEAST."
"I am sure you were of use to me," cried Emma. "I was very often influenced rightly by you—oftener than I would own at the time. I am very sure you did me good. And if poor little Anna Weston is to be spoiled, it will be the greatest humanity in you to do as much for her as you have done for me, except FALLING IN LOVE WITH HER WHEN SHE IS THIRTEEN."
"How often, WHEN YOU WERE A GIRL, have you said to me, with one of your saucy looks—'Mr. Knightley, I am going to do so-and-so; papa says I may, or I have Miss Taylor's leave'—something which, you knew, I did not approve. In such cases my interference was giving you two bad feelings instead of one."
"What an amiable creature I was!—No wonder you should hold my speeches in such affectionate remembrance."
"'Mr. Knightley.'—You always called me, 'Mr. Knightley;' and, from habit, it has not so very formal a sound.—And yet it is formal. I want you to call me something else, but I do not know what."
"I remember once calling you 'George,' in one of my amiable fits, ABOUT TEN YEARS AGO. I did it because I thought it would offend you; but, as you made no objection, I never did it again."
"And cannot you call me 'George' now?"
"Impossible!—I never can call you any thing but 'Mr. Knightley.' I will not promise even to equal the elegant terseness of Mrs. Elton, by calling you Mr. K.—But I will promise," she added presently, laughing and blushing—"I will promise to call you once by your Christian name. I do not say when, but perhaps you may guess where;—in the building in which N. takes M. for better, for worse."
Also, see Chapter 5, Knightley’s tete a tete with Mrs. Weston, and ask yourself whether the memory that Knightley “feelingly” desires to forget, about Emma omitting to do any thing Mrs. Weston wished, might just have something to do with Mr. Knightley’s desires for the very young Emma:
[Knightley] "Emma has been meaning to read more EVER SINCE SHE WAS TWELVE YEARS OLD. I have seen a great many lists of her drawing-up at various times of books that she meant to read regularly through—and very good lists they were—very well chosen, and very neatly arranged—sometimes alphabetically, and sometimes by some other rule. The list SHE DREW UP WHEN ONLY FOURTEEN--I remember thinking it did her judgment so much credit, that I preserved it some time; and I dare say she may have made out a very good list now. But I have done with expecting any course of steady reading from Emma. She will never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding. Where Miss Taylor failed to stimulate, I may safely affirm that Harriet Smith will do nothing.—You never could persuade her to read half so much as you wished.—You know you could not."
"I dare say," replied Mrs. Weston, smiling, "that I thought so then;—but since we have parted, I can never remember Emma's omitting to do any thing I wished."
"There is hardly any desiring to refresh such a memory as that,"—said Mr. Knightley, feelingly; and for a moment or two he had done. "But I," he soon added, "who have had no such charm thrown over my senses, must still see, hear, and remember. Emma is spoiled by being the cleverest of her family. At ten years old, she had the misfortune of being able to answer questions which puzzled her sister at seventeen. She was always quick and assured: Isabella slow and diffident. And EVER SINCE SHE WAS TWELVE, Emma has been mistress of the house and of you all. In her mother she lost the only person able to cope with her. She inherits her mother's talents, and must have been under subjection to her."
…."I either depend more upon Emma's good sense than you do, or am more anxious for her present comfort; for I cannot lament the acquaintance. How well she looked last night!"
"Oh! you would rather talk of her person than her mind, would you? Very well; I shall not attempt to deny Emma's being pretty."
"Pretty! say beautiful rather. Can you imagine any thing nearer perfect beauty than Emma altogether—face and figure?"
"I do not know what I could imagine, but I confess that I have seldom seen a face or figure more pleasing to me than hers. But I am a partial old friend."
"Such an eye!—the true hazle eye—and so brilliant! regular features, open countenance, with a complexion! oh! what a bloom of full health, and such a pretty height and size; such a firm and upright figure! There is health, not merely in her bloom, but in her air, her head, her glance. One hears sometimes of a child being 'the picture of health;' now, Emma always gives me the idea of being the complete picture of grown-up health. She is loveliness itself. Mr. Knightley, is not she?"
"I have not a fault to find with her person," he replied. "I think her all you describe. I love to look at her; and I will add this praise, that I do not think her personally vain. Considering how very handsome she is, she appears to be little occupied with it; her vanity lies another way. Mrs. Weston, I am not to be talked out of my dislike of Harriet Smith, or my dread of its doing them both harm."
EXCERPT FROM ANDREW DAVIES’S 1996 ARTICLE
“Among all the flawed inhabitants of Highbury and its environs, Mr Knightley stands alone as the very embodiment of the ideal English gentleman. I have yet to find a critic prepared to hazard a question-mark about this most Austenian of Austen heroes so let's raise one or two here. Mr Knightley is "seven or eight-and-thirty", Emma is 20. He is an "old family friend". He probably held her in his arms when she was a baby. He's played a lot of different roles through her childhood and adolescence: much older brother, sort-of-uncle, stern but loving tutor and substitute father, since Mr Woodhouse is so inadequate in that role. And then in Chapter 53, he tells her that he has been in love with her since she was 13. Hmm. We'd certainly see that as an inappropriate attachment these days. The guy has practically powdered her bottom, for God's sake.
Well, at least he waited till she was 20 before proposing a full sexual relationship. But why did it have to be Emma? I know people didn't get about much in those days (Emma's never been to the seaside) but Mr Knightley must have met some eligible women. Is Knightley a bit of a Humbert Humbert, or what? To put it at its kindest he looks a bit slothful in the mate-hunting department. There is of course the material consideration: Knightley has land but not much cash, and Woodhouse has cash but not much land. In fact, Knightley owns most of the county, apart from the Hartfield estate. Is it mean of me to imagine Knightley as having spent many hours pondering the map of the area and thinking how much more satisfying it would be if that awkward corner of land were subsumed into the Donwell estate? And Mr Woodhouse's thousands would have a very beneficial effect on the cash flow.
But these are base thoughts, and I shall desist from them. Knightley is one of Austen's most attractive heroes: strong, decisive, intelligent, outspoken, unsnobbish - and he's sensitive to other people's feelings, sussing out the Jane / Frank situation long before anyone else does. He is also an exemplary English gentleman.”