Monday, August 30, 2010

Review: George Knightley, Esquire

I begin to think that the best way to understand one novel is to read all possible fictional variations on it. It's a much more hands-on method than reading essays about the novel, and much more entertaining. Reading Barbara Cornthwaite's Emma-variation, George Knightley, Esquire: Charity Envieth Not, has given me a much better understanding of the structure of Emma, especially as it compares to other Jane Austen novels. Fair warning: I can't imagine you're still reading my Emma musings if you haven't read Emma, but I'm going to assume knowledge of the plot, and spoil the ending.

Moving the point of view of a story such as Emma, where the point of view is so important to the conflict, necessarily changes the story. In Emma, the main source of conflict and suspense through the first third of the book is the misunderstanding between Emma, Harriet, and Mr. Elton. But if you're telling the story from Knightley's point of view, this becomes much less suspenseful--Knightley knows Elton wants to marry Emma. The conflict then has to come from Knightley watching the situation and wondering how it will all work out. In fact, the conflict throughout Emma comes from the interaction between Emma's assumptions and the realities. Emma's point of view is thoroughly tied to the way the story works. It's certainly worth doing to take a closer look at Knightley's part in the story--he's in the background a surprising amount during Emma--but it does make it a different kind of book. On the other hand, in Pride and Prejudice, for example, neither Elizabeth nor Darcy see everything clearly, and conflict more often comes from outside sources, so changing the POV has less effect on structure. Of course, with any retelling, you go into it knowing the story so there's less suspense no matter what.

This is something that is both highlighted by George Knightley, Esquire, and that must be kept in mind while reading it. Charity Envieth Not is book one of two, ending about the middle of Emma just after Frank Churchill is recalled to Yorkshire and the ball at the Crown is canceled. I was quite impressed by how well this stands as a single book, and this seems a very natural ending for the first half of Mr. Knightley's story, not long after he realizes he is in love with Emma. I thought the method of his realization was fabulous, set up well in advance. Emma is the sort of book that gives the reader a very satisfying "I know something you don't know" feeling, and this is preserved in Mr. Knightley's slow discovery of his love for Emma.

The trick of retelling a story from a different point of view is to make it different enough to be worth reading. We see so little of Mr. Knightley's time during Emma that this ought not to be difficult, though I'm sure it's a huge temptation to just retell the story without adding anything new. Amanda Grange's Mr. Knightley's Diary had a tendency to do this, probably made even worse by the diary format. Mr. Knightley, of course, is such an ordinary fellow, that it's hard to make many of his doings very interesting without changing what we know of his character. Knightley's previously unseen life is never very surprising, as I recall Darcy's being in Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman. I confess I sometimes wanted it to be, but then Emma is a very different book, much more confined. Knightley is perfectly satisfied with his country life, and so we must be too, but if that didn't bother us in Emma it ought not to bother us here.

Charity Envieth Not does add something new. It is not just a less-skillful repeat of Emma, as some such books are. Jane Austen helps by leaving out parts of conversations in the original, and Barbara Cornthwaite has stepped in to give us the conversations Jane Austen doesn't, skating over the conversations we already know. With the excellent addition of various new characters (Mr. Spencer was my favourite) and deeper exploration of already established relationships (with John Knightley, for example), this has become a new story without losing Emma or become absurd. I particularly liked how Emma's presence in this story parallels Knightley's presence in Emma. When I last reread Emma I was surprised by how unobtrusive Knightley is during the early parts of the book. Here Emma, if not unobtrusive (she's the sort of character who makes herself known), is at least not excessively present. Knightley has a life entirely separate from Hartfield, and we see it.

So this is a very good retelling. If you read one Emma spin-off (not counting Old Friends and New Fancies, which isn't really about Emma), read this one. I am very much looking forward to book two.

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