Jane Austen’s Impeccable Delineation of an Ideal Gentleman in Emma

Article Posted in: Research Articles


By – S. Kirutheeba, Vol.III Issue-XXIV January 2017

About the Author:

S. Kirtheeba is an asst. Prof. of English in Govindammal Aditanar College for Women, Tiruchendur in Tuticorin Dist., Tamil Nadu.


            The present paper titled ‘Jane Austen’s impeccable delineation of an ideal gentleman in Emma’ speaks about Jane Austen’s portrayal of ‘George Knightley’ as an ideal gentleman. A gentleman is a person who’s character and behaviour should be a role model to others. Gentlemanliness comprises of qualities such as having good manners, being compassionate, caring and understanding, sensible, duty conscious, patient etc. By possessing all the above mentioned gentlemanly qualities Mr.George Knightley, the squire of Donwell Abbey  stands out as an ideal gentleman. Throughout the story, he is depicted as an honest, upright gentleman of the highest principles and strictest moral code and is a courteous gentleman who would not offend any person. He appraises coolly, he judges calmly, he acts decisively. He is the good angel, constantly by the side of Emma, reproving and advising her whenever she does wrong and ever ready to appreciate any good or generous action of hers. As a gentleman, he has a deep respect for the established social order. The novel deals with beautiful and rich Emma woodhouse and the blunders arising from her matchmaking ventures. Jane Austen who always wrote about correct behaviour, good manners and social etiquette in her novels has dealt with the same in Emma too.

 Keywords: gentleman, compassionate, ideal, gallantry, morality etc.




In Romantic period authors mainly wrote about life, love and nature. Jane Austen is considered one of the greatest writers in English history.  She is a realist, her works are based on real life situations. The novels which she wrote are realistic and presumable.  Realism is the prevailing tone of her novels whether they are viewed from the angle of narrative, character or context.

In Jane Austen’s novels women play the main role along with different types of male characters ranging from villain to polite gentleman.  The present paper titled “Jane Austen’s impeccable delineation of an ideal gentleman in Emma” discusses about the qualities of a perfect gentleman and how well these qualities befit Mr.George Knightly, a character from Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’.

In England the general notion of ‘gentleman’ is very flexible when compared to that of ‘nobleman’ in France. A gentleman is not only respected by his status as a landed gentry but also by his personal qualities. So here the main emphasis is laid on the characteristics which make George Knightley a gentleman.

In Britain, the nobility had governed in pertinent firmness from the medieval period. There was a heavy competition for power but the ideology of privilege continued to exist. British society thought through privilege as a bounty for gentility and expected a gentleman to individualize himself by following a certain code of conduct. But a gentleman’s duty and honour doesn’t end up by following this code alone, more over, he has to be sympathetic towards women and working class people and must know when to behave in a logical manner when it comes to following rules. It is this keenness that makes him ‘gentle’ and a fair minded participant in the governing process.

Jane Austen’s character George Knightley holds to the aristocratic tradition of British society inspite of the fact that the influence of people in his own class who behaved against the progress of the society. One notable feature of gallantry was that the gentleman cheerfully rendered their duty to the society. Influential men like Mr.Knightley were expected to be concerned about their society. A gentleman’s sense of duty must be comprised with high moral quality of assisting others beyond the established rules of law, if needed.  As a Magistrate, George Knightly follows this principle by being considerate to the plight of the poor people who belong to Highbury.  This can be noted when he specifically ensures to tell Mrs. Bates that she can always rely on him during her time of need: “Mrs. Cole has servants to send can ‘I’ do anything for you?” (P.199) By making sure that Mrs. Bates preserves her self-esteem and excellence of life in her agedness, Mr.Knightley is upholding the social structure because his assistance keeps the Bateses from slipping into poverty.

‘Emma is a story of a wealthy and pretty seventeen year old girl, who lives in high bury with her father Mr. Woodhouse. She shows much interest in matchmaking.  When trying to match up her friend Harriet with Mr.Elton, an Anglican Clergyman, she starts to face unexpected complications which gradually increases with cases of mistaken intentions of love, with cast of supporting characters, each in love with someone else without  Emma knowing who is in love with who and finally she realizes the one person whom she loves. And the novel ends with a happy note of Emma Marrying George Knightley and Harriet Marrying Robert Martin.

Jane Austen’s depiction of an ideal gentleman:    

George Knightley is a main character portrayed by Jane Austen in her novel ‘Emma’. As his name infers, George Knightly encapsulates the gentleman, whose conduct, manners and treatment of every single person reflects high respect, obligingness, gallantry and astuteness. He is an extremely well-off land owner and a life time companion of Emma, who is almost 17 years older than her. He always likes to amend Emma, as she observes in chapter one. “Mr.Knightley loves to find fault with me you know-in a joke-it is all a joke. We always say what we like to one another”.(P.11)

Jane Austen employs the character of George Knightly to explain the gentlemanly behavior of a gentleman.  The considerate and patient George Knightley’s love is unselfish. At one particular point when Emma shows a special interest towards Frank Churchill, Mr. Knightley remains calm and continues to be her well wisher without reacting in a negative way. He is always concerned about Emma’s welfare. He always wished to see her doing the correct thing instead of commiting mistakes. As he is an honest man he never felt reluctant to tell Emma the truth, especially regarding her misguided endeavors to intrude in others affairs.“He was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma woodhouse and the only one who ever told her of them”(P.11).  At one particular point Emma herself tells him that his unselfish gentlemanly guidance has done good to her.

George Knightley has the ability of judging people rightly, this may be because of his matured nature which Emma lacks. This can be noted when he shows his anger on Emma for convincing Harriet Smith to decline Robert Martin’s proposal of Marriage, because from Knightley’s standpoint, Robert Martin is a well suitable partner for Harriet and this proves to be right at the end. And in yet an other incident when Knightley feels that Emma was wrong in insulting Ms.Bates, he frowns at her for her harsh behavior towards the innocent lady. When everybody was believing Frank Churchill, Mr.Knightley was the only person to suspect Frank’s behavior and guess that something is going on between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax.

From Jane Austen’s perspective, good manners and decent behaviour of a man towards women is a significant feature in deciding his capacity for being known as a gentleman. Mr.Knightley never looks for attention of posing as a wit or by being a great entertainer. Always friendly and gracious, he never tries to do anything with the intention of getting an acclaim or compliment but unassumingly he talks to every one on variety of topics ranging from the trivial to the important with perfect simplicity and without displaying superiority. He pays regular visits to Emma’s house to see her father, Mr.Woodhouse, even though the old man’s conversation is sometimes boring as it is constantly based on weather and wealth.

At social events when the Bateses require transportation to attend the event, Mr.Knightley always volunteers to help them with the goal that they don’t feel under obligation. A good gentleman, does kind deeds unobtrusively mindful of the necessities of others without their asking, kind favour managed with no garishness. This becomes palpable through Emma’s conversation with Mrs.Weston, when Emma comes to know that George Knightley helped the Bates by giving his carriage when Jane Fairfax was sick:

I Know no man is more likely than Mr.Knightley to do the sort of thing or to do anything really good natured, useful, considerate, or benevolent. He is a very humane one and this considering Jane Fairfax’s ill health, would appear a case of humanity to him and for an act of un-ostentatious kindness, there is nobody whom I would fix on more than on Mr.Knightley.(P.182)

George Knightley’s decision of leaving Donwell Abbey to come and live with Emma and her father displays Austen’s portrayal of a gentleman who understands and adjusts with the everchanging roles of women in society. People know him as a kind and compassionate gentleman.  He always considers other individuals first. He doesn’t prefer to see others being treated rudely. For example, when Mr.Elton was extremely inconsiderate to decline to hit the dance floor with Harriet, just because of the fact that she was so much beneath him in status, Mr. Knightley, who has much higher station than Mr. Elton steps in and asks Harriet to dance with him, though he doesn’t like dancing. No one anticipated Mr.Knightley to dance but he had noticed the circumstances and saw obviously that it required his consideration.

Jane Austen unveils her view point about the importance of a man’s behavior and the goodness of being thoughtful and sympathetic in exposing the gentlemanliness of George Knightley. He is very sociable and unlike Emma, he easily mingles with people from different social backgrounds. Because of his nature everybody likes him and it was his influence that changed Ms.Woodhouse to become more compassionate.

Mr.Knightley never entertains men who don’t live up to the standard of honour and integrity. The widowed father of frank Churchill who recently remarried the governess of Emma, is constantly promised by his son to pay a visit to congratulate him and honour the step mother but when the date of his visit approaches, he gives weak reasons for not showing up. This not only disappoints Mr. and Mrs. Weston, but it equally dejects all those who expect him. Mr.Knightley notices Frank’s careless attitude in this matter as most unpardonable, “There is one thing Emma, which a man can always do, if he chooses, and that’s his duty, not by maneuvering and finessing, but by vigour and resolution”(P.122).

Here, while observing the character of George Knightley we understand that Jane Austen is of the view that comprehending one’s moral duties to ensure that the person is dedicated to them is an indication of a perfect gentleman.  She has observed many characters of different natures so as to create the different types of men that existed in the general public of her times. She often used comparison and contrast as a method for expressing her perspectives clearly. In Emma, she has brought Frank Churchill and George Knightley, two men with varying natures to measure one against the other with an idea of bringing out their distinctive features to find out the real gentleman.

As a gentleman George Knightley never entertains duplicity. The irresponsible Frank Churchill flirts with Emma, by making her and others think that he is falling in love with Emma while he is already secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax, whom he wishes to make envious for some misconception in their relationship.  This conduct too Knightley finds absolutely offensive and unmanly, accusing Frank for his guile:

So unlike what a man should be! none of  that upright, integrity, that strict adherence to  truth and principle, that disdain of trick and littleness which a man should display in every transaction of his life. (P.320).

Jane Austen’s depiction of George Knightley makes it clear that she has observed and judged men based on their brilliance, morality, disposition and their money related circumstances. As a nobleman Mr.Knightley always identifies breeches of conduct in a man’s behaviour that lacks commonsense, gentleness and discretion. For example he reviles Emma for intruding as a match maker in the life of sweet little Harriet Smith, who is courted by Robert Martin a noteworthy agriculturist of whom Emma objects. Emma brainwashes Harriet with fancies of marrying a person who belongs to high class and advances a non-existent sentiment with Mr. Elton, an Anglican clergyman. In a noble way Knightley speaks only the truth, that too in a open and direct way. At one particular point Knightley alerts Emma saying, “you are more likely to have done harm to yourself, than good to them, by interference”. He cautions her not to be authoritative, insisting that grown up men and women require no match makers to decide their lives. According to him a courteous person has commonsense, doesn’t interfere in others affairs, does not like to prove his importance, and refuses to stand against truth. Inspite of the arguments and disagreements, Emma admires and respects George Knightley, for she knows very well about his good nature. This is apparent when she says to Harriet,

Mr.Knightley’s air is so remarkably good, that it is not fair to compare Mr. Martin with him. You might not see one in a hundred, with gentleman so plainly written as in Mr.Knightley.(P.29)

Though Emma does not like to attend events when she finds the company boring or wantingly maintaining a strategic distance from the garrulous Miss. Bates or to be with the less out spoken Jane Fairfax, Mr.Knightley never disregards the courtesies of consideration that require his participation. Despite the fact that he despises balls, he attends these events and socializes like a man of honour. Even though Emma’s brother-in-law whines the uncomfortableness involved in visiting Mr. Wood house’s home, Mr.Knightley, as a good neighbour and gentleman, frequently visits the lonely and elderly man, to give him company.


It is hard to find people who are polite, lovable, duty conscious, patient, profound, compassionate, unselfish and chivalrous.  Only a few people possess these qualities and Mr.George Knightley is one among them and so is considered as a perfect gentleman he is one of Jane Austen’s most loved characters and she acknowledged that he is “very far from being what I know English gentlemen often are”.

From the perspective of Jane Austen a gentleman is a man of Ethics, moral values, noble at heart and polite by nature. And  knowing well about the traits of a gentleman, Jane Austen has succeeded in creating the image of George Knightley as a perfect gentleman. The novel ends up with George Knightley winning over his love, this gives us a clear vision of Jane Austen’s view that it is a true gentleman who is ultimately victories.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold.(ed.). Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’. Modern Critical Interpretations. New Delhi:        Vira (first Indian edition), 2007.

Byrne, Paula.(ed.). Jane Austen’s Emma – A Source Book. London: Routledge, 2004.

Litz, A.Walton. Jane Austen: A Study of Her Artistic Development. London : Chatto and Windus,1965.

Stephen.(ed.). Jane. Emma.New York : W.W. Nortan & Company, Inc. 1993.

Waldron, Mary. “Men of Sense and Silly Wives: The Confusion of Mr.Knightley”.   Studies in the Novel 28.2 (1996) : 141-158.

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