Until about three weeks ago if you had asked me who my favorite Austen hero was I probably would have said (after much thought) Colonel Brandon from Sense and Sensibility. I wouldn't have really called him a "hero" (and he certainly wouldn't have called himself one!) though that is what he is classified as but he is quite the gentleman and you can't help but love him for his attachment to Marianne. I have seen several different adaptions of the book and by far my favorite portrayal is the one by Alan Rickman. He really seemed to fit the part and his voice! Really, what can be said about his voice but wow!
However, about three weeks ago I finally picked up and read Emma ... in about a day. Really. It was marvelous; a fantastic comedy of manners with some very comical moments and very memorable characters. And the most memorable? Mr. Knightley of course! He has now become my favorite Austen hero. He was, after all, Jane's favorite hero and created in him her "ideal Regency English gentleman." And boy did she ever!
A little background on the character for those of you who have not read this novel (and if you haven't...why??): Mr. Knightley of Donwell Abbey is the principal land owner in Highbury (the little town where the story takes place), is about 37 or 38, and a close friend of Emma Woodhouse and her father. In fact, Emma's older sister and Knightley's younger brother are married and living in London so there is a very close relationship between the families. Knightley is intelligent, kind, sensible. and very generous. Being an old friend, he is very concerned with Emma's "upbringing" (though she is 21 in the story...) and worries about her. He is the only person in the novel who can gain the upper hand with her and is the only one who will find fault with her (which is something she needs). Knightley just wants (so he thinks) Emma to be the wonderful young lady he knows she can be and sees that as his reason behind his constant concern over her activities. Of course, his feelings run deeper than he originally expected. At the end his patience does win out and he wins the woman of his dreams.
So that is a very generalized look at Mr. Knightley but there is so much more to him! He is quite the gentleman, friendly to every one despite their "situation" (remember there were strict social classes at this time all dependent upon how much money one had). He always goes out of his way to help the impoverished Mrs. and Miss. Bates and their niece, Jane Fairfax (so much so that some believe he is going to marry Jane at one point!). He also considers his tenant farmer Robert Martin a friend; Martin even comes to him for advice on whether to marry or not. So while he is obviously aware of his own situation in the community he is not at all snobbish about it and uses his position to help as many as possible. Even when Frank Churchill arrives Knightley is able to be the perfect gentleman around him, never revealing how much he dislikes him and suspects Frank isn't all that he seems. There are some wonderfully humorous moments between Knightley and Emma that show he is quite funny and witty. Even when he is lecturing Emma, he is not at all unkind and you can tell by his words and manner that he truly wants to help her. After she insults Miss. Bates at the Box Hill picnic you can tell that his anger with her stems from his extreme disappointment in her behavior, knowing she is a better person than that (and feeling this change is because of Frank Churchill). You will not find Mr. Knightley covering the pages of the novel but his presence is there even if he, physically, is not; Emma is usually concerned with what Mr. Knightley will think and even finds herself guided by his opinions (even if she is not aware of it).
There have been a few different TV and movie adaptions of this wonderful story but my favorite is the 1996 Miramax version with Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma and Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightley. As another blogger stated, "he is the definitive Mr. Knightley," a statement with which I heartily concur. Northam is wonderful in this role. Besides being oh so suave and handsome (yes, all the Knightley pictures in this post are of him!), he really brings the character to life. He just has gentleman written across him. His mannerisms, his humor, his emotions all fit with the Mr. Knightley of Austen's novel - and he looks so comfortable and at ease in those Regency clothes! Throughout the movie I find my eyes drawn to him whenever he appears, he really steals the scene! He does a superb job with the script; in fact some of the most memorable lines (or scenes) are his. His "Badly done, Emma. Badly done" is one of the most famous lines from the movie. After seeing this movie I have found it very easy to picture Northam's Mr. Knightley in the various sequels or retellings of Emma I've come across (the best, in my opinion, is Barbara Cornthwaite's George Knightley, Esquire).
I love this movie so much that I have yet to return it to Netflix! Of course when I've gone looking for it in the $5 section at Target, I can't find it, though I've seen it numerous times over the years! I highly recommend this movie to any Austen fans; I do not think you'll be disappointed. Besides the wonderful Mr. Northam, there is some other fantastic acting in the movie. Get it! Watch it and see for yourself what a wonderful job Mr. Northam does with this character! I am very glad I watched Showtime's The Tudors before I saw this movie. Northam plays Sir. Thomas More in the series and I think I would have cried to see my Mr. Knightley meet More's horrible end!