George Knightley is a main character in Jane Austen's Emma. He is the older brother of John Knightley, and knows the Woodhouse family of Hartfield very closely. He is a wealthy landowner, whose seat is Donwell Abbey, a mile away from the village of Highbury and Hartfield estate.
A kind and compassionate person, Mr Knightley portrays good judgment, high moral character and maturity in contrast to Emma's adolescent personality. He's the most hard-working of Austen's heroes but also the most modest in regard to his position as he doesn't like to use his carriage horses. As the owner of the largest estate in the area (Donwell Abbey) this makes his down to earth manners all the more remarkable.
One incident which displays his kindness and high moral is his disappointment when he sees Emma insult Miss Bates, a spinster of modest means. Mr. Knightley's later reprimand of Emma also demonstrates his affection and esteem for her as a friend. Another incident which shows his quality is his anger with Emma for persuading Harriet Smith to refuse Robert Martin's proposal of marriage, Martin being in Knightley's eyes an eminently suitable mate for Harriet.
In the course of the story, Emma becomes infatuated with a young, handsome man named Frank Churchill. Mr. Knightley's jealousy is implied, and he makes several negative remarks about Churchill. It is later revealed that Mr. Knightley is in love with Emma himself and was afraid that Frank has had a negative influence on her.
“On his side, there had been a long-standing jealousy', old as the arrival, or even the expectation, of Frank Churchill.–He had been in love with Emma, and jealous of Frank Churchill, from about the same period, one sentiment having probably enlightened him as to the other. It was his jealousy of Frank Churchill that had taken him from the country.–The Box Hill party had decided him on going away. He would save himself from witnessing again such permitted, encouraged attentions.”
Although he is mostly rational, he can also act more impulsively at the cause of Emma. When Frank Churchill's guardian—his aunt—dies, and he is free to publicize his engagement to Jane Fairfax, which had been kept secret to avoid his aunt's disapproval, Knightley - thinking Emma must be hurt by the news - instinctively runs on horse under the rain from London to Hartfield to console her.
"He had ridden home through the rain; and had walked up directly after dinner, to see how this sweetest and best of all creatures, faultless in spite of all her faults, bore the discovery."
However, Emma is shocked by the news but realizes she had never really had romantic sentiments towards Frank Churchill. Upon hearing that, Knightley confesses his own feelings for her only hoping she'd allow him to court her, and without really expecting her to love him back. When he discovers that she actually is in love with him, the two happily decide to marry.
"Mr. Knightley could not impute to Emma a more relenting heart than she possessed, or a heart more disposed to accept of his. He had, in fact, been wholly unsuspicious of his own influence. He had followed her into the shrubbery with no idea of trying it. He had come, in his anxiety to see how she bore Frank Churchill's engagement, with no selfish view, no view at all, but of endeavouring, if she allowed him an opening, to soothe or to counsel her.--The rest had been the work of the moment, the immediate effect of what he heard, on his feelings. The delightful assurance of her total indifference towards Frank Churchill, of her having a heart completely disengaged from him, had given birth to the hope, that, in time, he might gain her affection himself;--but it had been no present hope--he had only, in the momentary conquest of eagerness over judgment, aspired to be told that she did not forbid his attempt to attach her.--The superior hopes which gradually opened were so much the more enchanting.-- The affection, which he had been asking to be allowed to create, if he could, was already his!--Within half an hour, he had passed from a thoroughly distressed state of mind, to something so like perfect happiness, that it could bear no other name".
While in some respects serving as a conduct book mentor for Emma, Knightley has critical thinking about his behavior as it makes him feel doubtful she has any reason to love him back since he feels he had always been an "indifferent lover" who mostly lectured her. He learns from his own desire for Emma and his jealousy-fuelled blunders - which brings the characters into a more realistic, egalitarian relationship.
His kindness is also displayed by his decision to live at Hartfield after the wedding because he understands Emma doesn't want to leave her father and he cannot bear to cause her and her father any pain.
Notes and references
- Emma, Volume I, Chapter 1
- At end of book.
- John Carson in the 1972 TV serial.
- Paul Rudd in the adaptation, Clueless
- Jeremy Northam in the 1996 American movie.
- Mark Strong in the 1996 British TV film
- Jonny Lee Miller in the 2009 TV series.
- Abhay Deol in the 2010 Hindi adaptation, Aisha
- Brent Bailey in the 2013 YouTube web series, Emma Approved
- Johnny Flynn in the 2020 movie, Emma.