Most would say that Emma Woodhouse was born lucky. Beautiful, clever and rich, and in possession of a happy nature, what could possibly occur to disturb her peace of mind?
At almost 21, Emma was the younger of two daughters, born to a loving father who spoiled her. As a consequence of her elder sister’s marriage Emma had been left in sole charge of her father, and of his household at the tender age of 14. This early responsibility had, of course, shaped her character. Emma was generally sensible and well organised, and mature beyond her actual years. It has to be admitted that she was also rather bossy, willful, and used to having her own way.
The girls’ mother had sadly died in their childhood, Emma being barely five at the time, and thus not able to recollect much of her mother’s maternal affection. Mr. Woodhouse was a most indulgent father to both his daughters, but his own nature was such that he could hardly cope without his wife who had been of a more practical and pragmatic turn of mind than he. Mr. Woodhouse’s solution had been to hire a governess cum housekeeper to look after himself and his two girls. Miss Taylor, who had been ensconced at Hartfield for almost sixteen years, had in later years become more of a companion to the father and a close friend and confidante to the daughter.
This day in July 2014 Emma had reason to be aggrieved, although she had really only herself to blame for the wrong. Miss Taylor had married. It had been such fun to promote the match, and to ensure that Miss Taylor should be thrown together with Mr. Weston. Emma had congratulated herself warmly once an engagement to marry had been affected. In fact she had skipped with happiness for her friend. Then had come the excitement of organising the wedding and the reception, which obviously, must be held at Hartfield as being home to Anne Taylor for the majority of her adult life.
Emma had bustled about the small town of Highbury, and organised the church service, the catering, a marquee for the garden, and everything else that could possibly be required for the perfect country wedding. The invitations had duly been dispatched to friends and neighbours alike, and a rare trip to London had been made to select Anne Taylor’s wedding dress.
All Emma had left to do was to reflect with pleasure on the success of the day, and with regret on what she had blithely abetted. An evening alone with her father was in stark contrast to the times that Emma had normally enjoyed in idle pursuits and conversation with her friend. Some, in private, indubitably thought one circumstance of Emma’s life to be unlucky. Though to Emma’s lasting credit she would never have agreed with the belief. Mr. Woodhouse was in frail physical health, and mentally he was not robust enough to rally. Emma’s father had suffered not only the loss of his adored wife, but also from a minor stroke some years before. The loss of his partner in life, coupled with the malaise had raddled his self-confidence and fuelled his already anxious nature. Henry Woodhouse could worry for England. The slightest change of circumstance to the comforts of his everyday existence could sink him into depression or exacerbate his panic attacks. Emma and Miss Taylor between them had long sought to keep his mind distracted from national and world affairs, limiting his access to the TV and to newspapers as though he were a child.
This evening Emma sighed and shook away her ennui with a brave smile, and made an effort to cheer her father’s want of spirits.
‘Papa should we watch some TV? Or perhaps you would prefer a game of cards, or we could do some more of your jigsaw puzzle?’
‘What should we be doing if poor Miss Taylor were here?’ Henry Woodhouse responded plaintively. Emma stifled a giggle and sought to disabuse her father (again) of his belief that Miss Taylor had suffered a terrible fate by agreeing to marry their near, and dear, neighbour Mr. Weston.
‘She’s not ‘poor’ Miss Taylor, Papa’ Emma rebuked gently, ‘she will be happy with Geoff Weston, he’s a good man and they are well suited’ she smiled tenderly at her father as she could see his distress, ‘they love each other Papa, AND’ Emma stressed, ‘Randalls is but half an hours walk, not five minutes in the car. We will most probably see her every day.’ Emma continued to represent to her father the change in circumstance in the most favourable light, firstly for Miss Taylor herself, secondly for themselves, and lastly for Geoffrey Weston who had, for the time being at any rate, sunk in her father’s eyes. Emma’s pains were after a little time distracted by a pleasant occurrence, the arrival of Mr. Knightley.
George Knightley was probably her father’s oldest and dearest friend, though considerably younger than him. Henry Woodhouse had grown up with the Knightley boys’ father and had transferred his affections to the sons once his old friend had died. Henry Woodhouse had even been able to forgive the younger brother, John, from tearing his daughter Isabella from the family home. It had been a difficult task at the time, but eventually he had been forced to admit that had Isabella not married John, he would not have been blessed with his four, rather noisy, though otherwise perfect, grandchildren.
In response to Emma’s exclamation of pleasure, a smile lit the furrowed brow of Emma’s father, as he also spied George Knightley striding across the lawn on his usual shortcut to the French windows, at the back of the house.
‘Knightley!’ Henry Woodhouse welcomed in tremulous tones, ‘its good of you to visit us. I’m afraid you’ll find us poor company tonight however, now that poor Miss Taylor has left us…’ George Knightley and Emma exchanged a tolerant smile over the head of her father, and set to trying to cheer the old man.
Emma relaxed gratefully as George Knightley willing shared the burden of bolstering her father’s spirits. George patiently repeated the same advise as Emma had imparted. Miss Taylor was but half a mile distant, and she had promised to visit Hartfield most every day. Emma would drive Mr. Woodhouse over to Randalls whenever the fancy took him, and after all (treading on more dangerous grounds here), Miss Taylor could not realistically be thought of as ‘poor’ Miss Taylor. Anne had, in fact, traded her place as an employee, albeit a highly valued one, to being an independent woman, married to a caring and devoted husband with a home to call her own. Although Mr. Knightley had to agree, begrudgingly, with Mr. Woodhouse that Randalls was only a third the size of Hartfield,
‘Yet, old friend, you must agree that Miss Taylor is materially blessed by having a home to call her own’ George Knightley pursued with a faint twitch of his lips as he caught Emma’s eye. Her look clearly expressed that she had no hope of her father admitting to this premise, at least for the foreseeable future. Emma jumped up and fussed around her father for a few minutes to distract his thoughts. She pummeled cushions and organised his side table suggesting that he might like a cup of hot chocolate, the low fat type, of course, to help him to sleep.
‘It’s been a long day Papa, you must be tired I think’ Emma suggested scurrying off to the kitchen to collect the ready prepared tray (By Mrs. Wright, the daily help). ‘Here Papa’ Emma set down the tray beside his armchair and invited George Knightley to join them in a nightcap before he took his leave.
‘Thank you Emma, I’ll pour my own. Can I tempt you to a small glass? Of wine perhaps?’ he hovered by the drinks cabinet selecting glasses and poured himself a glass of red wine already opened, probably as a result of the wedding party. Emma smiled her thanks and agreed to a glass of whatever was open, if there were anything, otherwise, she said, she was not bothered.
‘I had champagne earlier, to celebrate…’ her face looked the total opposite of one that was in a celebratory mood. George Knightley’s grey eyes creased at the corner, as he inspected Emma’s face kindly. Emma was certainly going to miss the regular company of Anne Taylor, or more correctly, Anne Weston, as she had chosen to take her new husband’s name.
‘He’ll come around’ George assured Emma, handing her a small glass of red and settling himself next to her on the sofa opposite Mr. Woodhouse.
‘Hm I know he will, in time’ Emma agreed with a small shrug and an upward glance under her lashes at Knightley. ‘I just wished I had not interfered and made the match, it all seemed such a delightful plan that I didn’t think beyond the happy event…’
‘Emma’ George Knightley hesitated to chastise her, as he could see that she was tired, and in a rather depressed state from her normal ebullient nature. Yet he, of all her circle, was the only person likely to caution Emma’s impetuous behaviour and correct her belief in her own omnipotence. ‘Emma, I know that you congratulate yourself on your match making skills. Yet I will, I must, disabuse you of this skill. That ‘you made the match’ implies some sort of endeavor on your part, but it seems clear to me that you made a lucky guess. It is not within the power of any mortal to make another two people be attracted to each other. It doesn’t work that way.’
‘I knew that you would say that’ Emma’s chin lifted along with her spirits, of all things she liked friendly badinage with George, whom she these days regarded as an older brother figure, ‘yet it was me that spotted his first interest, and, if it hadn’t been for me throwing them together whenever I could accomplish it, I daresay that Geoffrey Weston’s admiration would have remained just that; a distant appreciation of Anne’s beauty, of her good nature and intelligence.’ Emma met George’s eyes with a look of her own, a defiant yet rather flirty one, and, noticing that his brows drew together in a frown of disapprobation. She raised her hand to stay his interruption and pressed her advantage, ‘it is true’ Emma rejoined vivaciously, ‘they never would have started without a push from me.’
‘What’s that your saying Emma?’ Mr. Woodhouse stirred from his slumber, ‘what does Emma say George?’
‘Nothing of importance Papa, George was telling me off as usual’ she flashed an amused glance at her interlocutor, ‘he still thinks I’m a little girl to be chastised for being cheeky’ she explained to her father, certain of him defending her.
‘Tell you off? No that cannot be possible my Emma, I’m sure that my old friend thinks that you are as perfect as I do, as all of us think you, the best and sweetest girl in the world.’ Even Emma was aware that this was too high praise. She looked askance at George Knightley and giggled demurely.
‘There Mr. Knightley, you have your answer, how could I possibly not be right?’ George Knightley rolled his eyes in exasperation and moved to say goodnight to the father. The two men shook hands warmly and Emma stood to escort him to the French window for him to exit his usual route home to Donwell Abbey.
‘Well Emma as you were right I hope that you do not have too many occasions to regret it’ George was provoked to say in parting, though he followed his remark with a conciliatory smile, ‘come let’s not quarrel Emma as we will all miss Anne Taylor’s presence here, perhaps you most of all.’
‘Yes I believe I shall’ Emma answered, her voice devoid of playfulness, ‘its not always so great to be right.’ George Knightley raised his hand as though to stroke her face,
‘Poor Emma’ he substituted empathetically, his hand dropping to pat her on the shoulder in a brotherly show of affection, ‘I’ll call in again soon to see that you are all right. What you need is a distraction, something to occupy your time.’ George Knightley had long thought that for a woman of Emma’s age to be housebound, looking after her elderly father was not enough to occupy the lively intelligence that Emma had inherited from her mother.
George had soon, however, reason to regret his innocent remark.