Jane Austen & the Spirit of Chivalry

OrThe Box Hill Dialogues

Emma-picnic box hill

Although the idea of privilege is rather over used at times it is a thing and it does have significance. It is, moreover, a universal phenomenon. There is no human society of which we know where privilege did not exist, if only that which accrues to the strong over the weak, the healthy over the sick, the quick-witted over the slower thinker. What is more unusual is the existence of a powerful social norm which enforces the downward obligations of privilege as well as its rights. Of upward obligations, the lesser warlord to the greater, the smaller landholder to the King, there is no shortage but of obligations towards those who can give the privileged nothing but thanks at the most there is a much lesser incidence in human history and in human societies.

One such exception arose in Christian Europe during the Christian Middle Ages to which the word ‘chivalry’ was applied. Chivalric notions having appeared endured for centuries and even now have not wholly vanished. In Jane Austen’s novel Emma the aptly named Mr Knightley acts as a spokesperson for the most central of these values in the course of a dramatic (for Austen) series of dialogues during a picnic at the English beauty spot of Box Hill.

Emma Woodhouse is the eponymous heroine of the novel. She is the epitome of privilege- young, wealthy, clever, beautiful, spoilt, adored- her ability to be redeemed rests upon her essential good nature and the fact that she has been well brought up and taught to value those things which are of ultimate importance. Her impetuosity and inflated opinion of herself may carry her into acts she should not commit or words she should not say but conscience and the willingness to listen with an open ear to honest rebuke and to reflect upon it enable her to course-correct when necessary.

One of her neighbours is Miss Bates, an older woman, whose chief characteristics are kindness and gentleness but whose most noticeable characteristic is stream-of-consciousness monologues. When she begins to speak much time elapses before she stops, or even slows down slightly. During the aforementioned picnic one of the party, Mr Frank Churchill, proposes a diversion to perk things up a bit in which everyone is invited to say ‘one thing very clever, be it prose or verse, original or repeated—or two things moderately clever—or three things very dull indeed.’ And here we reach the place where Emma exercises her rights of privilege having forgotten her obligations-

“Oh! very well,” exclaimed Miss Bates, “then I need not be uneasy. ‘Three things very dull indeed.’ That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I?—(looking round with the most good-humoured dependence on every body’s assent)—Do not you all think I shall?”
Emma could not resist.
“Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once.”
Miss Bates, deceived by the mock ceremony of her manner, did not immediately catch her meaning; but, when it burst on her, it could not anger, though a slight blush shewed that it could pain her.

Emma has insulted what, in those days, would have been called a distressed gentlewoman. There was nothing to stop her doing so she, Emma, had all the power and privilege, Miss Bates had nothing in comparison to it, neither did her family, neither did most of the members of the party. With one exception. Mr Knightley an older man, an old friend, and a substantial landholder in his own right was Emma’s equal and he could, if he chose, speak out on behalf of Miss Bates. The principles of chivalry demanded that he do so, but they also demanded that as he was powerful vis-à-vis Emma he must not publicly shame her because then he would be falling into her error, so later in the day he took her aside.

I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?—Emma, I had not thought it possible.”
Emma recollected, blushed, was sorry, but tried to laugh it off.
“Nay, how could I help saying what I did?—Nobody could have helped it. It was not so very bad. I dare say she did not understand me.”
“I assure you she did. She felt your full meaning. She has talked of it since. I wish you could have heard how she talked of it—with what candour and generosity. I wish you could have heard her honouring your forbearance, in being able to pay her such attentions, as she was for ever receiving from yourself and your father, when her society must be so irksome.

Why should Emma not make fun of the laughable Miss Bates? And why should Mr Knightley care about it? Here we reach the heart of the matter-

“Oh!” cried Emma, “I know there is not a better creature in the world: but you must allow, that what is good and what is ridiculous are most unfortunately blended in her.”
“They are blended,” said he, “I acknowledge; and, were she prosperous, I could allow much for the occasional prevalence of the ridiculous over the good. Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation—but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed!—You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her—and before her niece, too—and before others, many of whom (certainly some,) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.

It is precisely because Emma is rich and Miss Bates poor, that one is powerful and impossible to ignore and the other powerless, that the young lady is a role model to local society and the older lady dependent on it’s good graces for her happiness that Emma should remember the obligations of privilege. The poverty of Miss Bates and, indeed, her status as a victim of declining circumstance, are the most potent claims which she has on the goodwill of those whom fortune has more highly favoured. That is the chivalric notion right there, strength confers an obligation in a world in which weakness is endemic. And why does it confer such an obligation? For the medieval knights and for the Regency Mr Knightley it was doubtless because their God, the Christian God, had become Himself one of the weak, from being the strongest of the strong, in order not only that the weak should be liberated from death but also that the strong should have a salutary example set for them.

The word ‘privilege’ does itself appear in the Box Hill dialogues. Mr Knightley uses it “Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do: a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it” What he is referring to is the freedom that he has to speak truth to power, that is, to correct Emma when she errs. The obligation chivalry imposes upon him becomes the privilege she grants to him. These are not abstract notions ‘privilege’ and ‘obligation’ nor are they things that operate merely at the level of the State or of society. They are personal, they affect how we and others behave and should behave in the world. Given that no re-ordering of human society will totally eliminate the category ‘privileged’ we should make the utmost of efforts to ensure that no re-ordering of human values eliminates the category of ‘obligation.’ It is not possible to lose the first but we can lose the second. And that, for the Miss Bates of this world, would be a tragedy.


The Jane Austen quotes come from Emma, Book III, Chapter 7 (also known as Chapter 43)

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