It is a truth universally acknowledged that the phrase "it is a truth universally acknowledged" is one of the most overused book phrases of all time.
It would have been Jane Austen's 238th birthday today, but though she has been dead for many years, the cult of Pride and Prejudice lives on.
In my opinion, this has to do mostly with the fact that Mr. Darcy seems to be every single woman's dreamboat and, for some reason, the romance between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy has been deemed one of the greatest (fictional) love stories of all time.
Readers, I admit that, at one time, Mr. Darcy was my dreamboat, too. I have read Pride and Prejudice more times than I'd care to admit, and I own almost every adaptation that has been done of the book. Who can resist the reformed bad boy that is Fitzwilliam Darcy?
But upon a recent rereading of Austen's other classic, Emma, I discovered that Mr. Knightley is just so much better than Mr. Darcy. Not only is he better, but the romance itself is better (not to mention, much more realistic. I am beginning to think that the idea of the reformed bad boy is nothing more than a myth from film and literature. Have you ever met one?)
One reason for the greater popularity of the Pride and Prejudice romance seems to be that Elizabeth Bennet is a far more likable character than Emma Woodhouse. Before beginning the writing of Emma, Jane Austen wrote, "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like." Emma is a snobby, arrogant, self-satisfied know-it-all (hm, sounds kind of like Darcy), while Elizabeth is a witty, friendly character who, though judgmental, is judgmental about things the reader tends to agree about (therefore making them okay).
Knightley is the nice guy; Darcy is the reformed bad boy. For some reason, nice guys can seem ridiculously unappealing. I used to be really disgusted/turned off at the idea of nice guys. A lot of my friends were, too. Perhaps I was getting actual nice guys mixed up with "nice guys": the guys who complain about not being able to get a date because they are nice, when, in actuality, the reason they can't get a date is that they're complete douchebags. Knightley is an actual nice guy, not a "nice guy."
I'll be the first person to admit that I have some selfish reasons for thinking that Knightley is better than Darcy. I have dated my fair share of Darcys (they're never truly reformed for long. Trust me. There's a reason Austen finished the story pretty much at the beginning point of their relationship). And my current boyfriend's resemblance to Jeremy Northam's Knightley in the 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow Emma adaptation is absolutely uncanny (see? I told you).
But you know what? I stand my my claim. Because it is accurate.
In honor of Jane Austen's birthday, here are nine reasons Emma's Mr. Knightly is far superior to Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Darcy (a controversial stance, I know).
1. Mr. Knightley is a nice guy; Darcy isn't.
Knightley is friends with people who are considered lower class than he is (of Mr. Martin, the farmer Harriet ends up marrying, he says: "I never hear better sense from any one than Robert Martin... he is an excellent young man"). He often invites Miss Bates to events, though she is extremely annoying and talks too much. Darcy, on the other hand, turns up his nose at every single person he sees. Austen notes: "He was at the same time haughty, reserved, and fastidious, and his manners, though well-bred, were not inviting... Darcy was continually giving offense." Later, Elizabeth comments on "his selfish disdain of the feelings of others." Also, please don't forget the comment that he makes about Elizabeth upon first seeing her: "She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me." Yikes.
2. Romances bred from friendships make the best relationships.
Knightley and Emma have been friends for years at the point that he proposes to her. They know each other's virtues, but they also know each other's flaws. They know what it's like to fight with each other, as they have had many a quarrel. They already know that they are compatible because they have been friends for so long. Darcy and Elizabeth, on the other hand, barely know each other at all!
3. Knightly's values are better than Darcy's.
Knightley values humility, kindness and being a good person; Darcy values pride, money and being from a good family. Enough said.
4. Knightley isn't snobby; Darcy definitely is.
Knightley constantly chides Emma for her snobbery. When Emma makes a mean remark about Miss Bates, Knightley is shocked and embarrassed by it. He confronts her about it: "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." Darcy, on the other hand, thinks he is better than practically everyone. He notes that most people's definitions of an "accomplished woman" are far too lenient, and that he has much higher standards about such things than the common person. Darcy looks down on Elizabeth's entire family, as well as her entire town. He assumes her sister, Jane, wants to marry his friend Bingley for money because she is poor. He thinks less of nearly every person with less money than he has.
5. Knightley's true character has been firmly established to Emma. Darcy's really hasn't.
Come on, y'all. How well does Elizabeth even really know Darcy? They've carried on some witty banter. But by the end of the book, how much time have they actually spent together? Altogether, about a week? Even a week might be stretching it. (I know the book takes place over about the course of a year or so, but the two go for long periods without talking, so those don't really count.) Getting engaged after only really getting to know each other for a week isn't romantic, my friends; it's CRAZY. Sure, Darcy seems to have changed, for the moment. He seems to have realized the errors of his ways. But a lot of people say, "Of course I'll change!" and then never do. It would probably be advisable to wait and see if Darcy actually maintains his newfound good boy persona for more than a few months. Conversely, Emma has known Knightley for years. He is a staple at family events and functions, as his younger brother is married to Emma's sister. Emma knows exactly who Mr. Knightley is.
6. Knightley is a much better communicator than Darcy is.
Knightley tells Emma exactly how he feels about her behavior, and exactly how he feels about her, all the time. He is straightforward with her. Darcy, on the other hand, is an awful communicator. He sort of tries to flirt with Elizabeth when she visits Bingley's home, but does a really horrible job of it and comes off looking like an ass (as he does for most of the book). His fist confession of love for her ends up being far more insulting than endearing, and in order to get any of his true feelings out at all accurately, he has to write her a letter. Is he going to have to write her a letter every single time they get into a big fight?
7. Knightley has Emma's best interests at heart, more so than his own.
Mr. Knightley constantly tries to give Emma good advice, mostly unheeded. He warns her away from matchmaking, but she doesn't listen. He ends up, obviously, being right when several people end up brokenhearted (including her dear friend, Harriet). He advises that she should let Harriet make her own decisions when it comes to her romantic situations, rather than be persuaded by Emma. He warns her about Frank Churchill (I know this IS partly out of jealousy, but he is ultimately right), and he also tries to comfort Emma after Frank announces his marriage to Jane Fairfax. The root of all this is not some weird fatherly feeling; it's because he cares about her development as a person and he wants her to be the best possible version of herself. He is fearful at the end that his lectures and criticisms of her will lend to her not returning his romantic interests. But he also knows that at her core, Emma is a good person (despite how annoying she is to the reader) and that she almost needs him to help bring out the best in her (as well-matched couples tend to do). Darcy, on the other hand, is very self-centered. He has his own interest at heart for 75 percent of the book, and I'm not convinced that his charitable, giving ways will last past the end of the book. He has feelings for Elizabeth early in the book, but he doesn't WANT to have them. He states, "In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed." Is he trying to repress his feelings because he feels that HE doesn't deserve HER? Nope. He doesn't think SHE deserves HIM. How romantic.
8. Knightley likes Emma's family, and vice versa.
Sometimes it's easy to underestimate how important liking someone's family is (or at least pretending you do at the beginning). Certainly, it's not essential. We don't get to choose our families. But am I the only one who thought it was absolutely awful how Darcy just openly trashed Elizabeth's family? Sure, they're not the best. But they're still her family. She is the only one who is allowed to trash her family, NOT anyone unrelated! Knightley expresses only the utmost respect for Emma's father, even though he's a grumpy, curmudgeonly old man. Despite Mr. Woodhouse being semi-unlikable, if Knightley has any unkind opinions about him, he keeps them to himself (as he should!).
9. Though it is indeed arguable that Darcy and Elizabeth's relationship is extremely exciting, when it comes time to face the facts, they are not a good match in the long term. Emma and Knightley are.
Darcy and Elizabeth are very similar. They are both proud, obstinate, stubborn. They both seem willing to budge momentarily, but will that really hold out in the long run? Who is going to be the one to compromise during fights? Emma and Knightley are great together. Though their fights get heated, one of them always comes around in the end. By the end of the book, Emma has learned to not be so stubborn, and to take some of Mr. Knightley's well-given advice. He has brought her down from the pedestal she has placed herself on, and she has learned that it is possible, sometimes, that she is wrong about things. They have an open, trusting relationship, and communicate well. They are not afraid to speak their minds to each other. They are a match well made.