Donwell: ‘It was just what it ought to be, and looked what it was’.

Here at BookTalk we are very much looking forward to our second ever online event, which discusses Jane Austen’s Emma.

Emma is a text full of surprises. Today on the Blog, Dr Lyn Dawes introduces us to a crucial moment in the novel. In Chapter 42, several characters from Highbury make an excursion to Mr Knightley’s estate, Donwell Abbey, to pick strawberries. Up until this point, Knightley has generally been an insensitive voice of reason to our heroine Emma Woodhouse, challenging her romanticised views of the world around her and often directly criticising her actions. Although Austen’s Emma is firmly based in Surrey, and indeed, the protagonist does not leave that county, the locations the characters move between are still highly significant (even if only a few miles apart). The visit to Donwell signals a change in Emma’s view, and our view, of Mr Knightley… 

Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn) in Emma (dir: Autumn de Wilde, 2020)

Our visit to Mr Knightley’s home of Donwell Abbey takes place in Chapter 42, three-quarters of the way through the fifty-five Chapters of Emma, when we are familiar with all the residents of and visitors to Highbury, and understand their concerns. Donwell Abbey is a rambling mansion one mile from Highbury and a similar distance from Hartfield, and about half a mile from Randalls – near enough for Mrs Weston to walk there – and Emma hasn’t visited for ‘so long’. Its history as an Abbey implies a sanctity, healing and calm and indeed it seems to offer retreat; for Mr Knightley, his home is a place of ‘coolness and solitude’. What influence does the strawberry picking interlude have on our perception of Highbury society? 

Emma loves Donwell, takes pride in the house and gardens, and feels some ownership in it since it will eventually belong to her nephew, John and Isabella’s first son Henry. Donwell is larger than Hartfield ‘and totally unlike it’, rambling and irregular rather than upright and precise. Emma respects Donwell as the residence of a family of true gentility. ‘It was just what it ought to be, and looked what it was’.   

The visit takes place near midsummer’s day with the June weather warm and settled; Mr Knightley is bounced into offering this look around his home and grounds by Mrs Elton, distressed because her visitors had deferred coming till Autumn and because the Box Hill trip is delayed by ‘a lame carriage horse’. As any assiduous estate owner in June, he must have had the pressing matter of harvesting strawberries on his mind. His casual offer to host a visit is eagerly taken up. Mr Knightley easily brushes off Mrs Elton’s attempts to control who is invited and who will host the day, and ignores her ludicrous suggestions about what she will wear and carry – but unable to resist, he picks up her idea of arriving by donkey and offers to organise that for her. We hear no more about the donkey. 

The cast assembled at Donwell for strawberry picking are: 

Mr Knightley 

Emma, Mr Woodhouse and Harriet 

Mrs Weston and Mr Weston – and arriving late, Frank Churchill, invited by Mr Weston 

Mrs Elton 

Jane Fairfax 

Implied but not included in the chapter’s depictions of walks around the grounds, the cold buffet or the conversation, are Mr Elton and Miss Bates. Mr Elton has done enough in disturbing Emma by proposing to her, then providing Highbury with Mrs Elton; he has nothing to do on this day. Mr Knightley has told us that he will call on Miss Bates especially to invite her and Jane, so we assume that Miss Bates is present but we don’t hear from her. She will have her moment during the following day’s trip to Box Hill (fortunately the carriage horse was showing signs of recovery). 

Also present in spirit are Robert Martin – Emma thinks of him since Abbey Mill Farm is visible as they stroll around the grounds of Donwell – and the ever fretful Mrs Churchill. Will she allow Frank to ride over from Richmond? 

Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Harriet (Mia Goth) in Emma (dir: Autumn de Wilde, 2020)

During the morning Mrs Weston keeps Mr Woodhouse company indoors. Mrs Elton snubs Emma and monopolises Jane, publicly humiliating her by forcing her to both consider and accept a position as a governess. Jane resists but is far too well-mannered to deal effectively with Mrs Elton’s practised coercion. 

Emma walks with Mr Weston; Mr Knightley walks with Harriet, talking to her of ‘modes of agriculture’. Emma feels that this is ‘an odd tete a tete’ but likes Mr Knightley’s paying attention to her friend. After lunch, Emma stays indoors with Mr Woodhouse while everyone else visits the fish ponds. Indoors on this day is civilised, cool and gracious; outdoors is rather too warm and a little difficult in a variety of ways.  

We do not go outside again. 

As Mr Knightley shepherds his guests, and us, around his impressive house and grounds we recognise him as a serious person with great authority. Even his visitors are there ostensibly to take on the task of strawberry picking. Because strawberries are ephemeral, sweet and luxurious, this activity has an idyllic aspect to it which Mrs Elton wishes to evoke with her large bonnet, her little basket and ‘simple and natural’ table under the trees; she plans to be play-farming like Marie Antoinette. We witness Mr Knightley as a good organiser who knows better and lays his plans; although they do not converse or walk together, it is evident that his main aim is to ensure that both Emma and Mr Woodhouse enjoy the day. This is gratifying; Mr Knightley, freed from the constraints of drawing rooms, in this setting becomes himself and seems to have much more to him than has so far been apparent. Can Donwell show us that he is not simply judgemental and rather terse, but something more attractive altogether? 

Mr Elton (Josh O’Connor) and Mrs Elton (Tanya Reynolds) in Emma (dir: Autumn de Wilde, 2020)

Emma takes a break from her father to look at the view from the hall, where she suddenly bumps into Jane Fairfax who shows more emotion in two minutes that we see in the rest of the book; she is hot and tired and longing to be alone. Once she explains herself clearly, Emma understands and helps Jane to do just what she wants, which is to set off and walk the mile home on her own. Emma always likes it when Jane is open and honest. Emma dutifully rejoins her father. Fifteen minutes later, Frank Churchill arrives. He is out of sorts, far too hot and unsure why his father has insisted that he must ride so far; he met Jane walking away as he arrived which has made him angry; it is ‘madness in such weather!’ 

Emma’s response to this? She reflects: 

‘Some people were always cross when they were hot.’ 

We see Frank now through Emma’s eyes, a grumpy young man having a kind of temper tantrum because things don’t suit him, put out by low blood sugar and dehydration. But she does not care enough for him to be adversely influenced by his disturbed state of mind. She advises him to eat and drink and congratulates herself on no longer ‘being in love with’ him since he is so immature as to be badly affected by the heat. He goes on to talk about leaving England – this is a step into another universe for Emma, who has never even seen the sea; she points out to him that his dissatisfaction may well be due to inactivity, and that he is both prosperous and indulged. Frank disagrees, seeing himself as only unfortunate and thwarted in his wishes. It is clear that they do not understand one another, but neither of them minds that very much. 

Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Harriet (Mia Goth) in Emma (dir: Autumn de Wilde, 2020)

Shortly before the Donwell day Mr Knightley, anxious about Emma’s attachment to Frank, has asked her to think about Frank’s relationship to Jane. Emma does not see duplicity in others and remains blind to the secret engagement, blithely continuing her plans for Frank and Harriet. And earlier still, she had dismissed Mrs Weston’s idea that Mr Knightley might marry Jane as imprudent, mad, evil, shameful, degrading to him, and unfair to little Henry. She is beyond being horrified by the idea; she cannot countenance it. We have to agree with her. Mr Knightley shows no sign of wanting to be married. And here in the cool rooms at Donwell we see both Jane and Frank as similarly frustrated and dependent on the most querulous and difficult people, linked by their despair, and separately reaching the end of their tethers. We see Mr Knightley as owner and organiser of rationality, gracefulness and stability, whilst Frank becomes irrational and incomprehensible. We also note Harriet collecting evidence for her growing misconception of Mr Knightley’s special feeling for her, and Emma remaining what she thinks is emotionally detached although highly interested in everyone but herself.  

But perhaps there is some visceral effect of Donwell Abbey on Emma? Elizabeth Bennett playfully but seriously dates her falling in love with Mr Darcy from ‘first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley’; has this happened to Emma? Emma is no Lizzie. She has her own beautiful home and grounds which she enjoys managing, her own income and no pressure to find a home for herself and security for her family through marriage. Her rejection of Mr Elton shows that she knows her worth and is not especially interested in having the status of a married woman. Despite Mrs Elton’s unpleasant exploitation of this right of superiority in their small local society, Emma has no regrets. Hartfield can always be her home. So she simply considers Donwell with proprietorial calm: the house will not be lost to the family if Mr Knightley has no heir, so will always be accessible to her. And interestingly, the thought that Mr Knightley might become lost to her is barred from her mind. And although we judge everything through Emma’s eyes, and see the concerns of her friends as she sees them, there is a disconnect now, since we can see Mr Knightley more clearly in the setting of his home. 

What actually happens is that it is not Emma but us, the reader, who falls a little in love with Mr Knightley on this summer visit to his lovely, well run home with its wonderful gardens. Until we have this glimpse of his surroundings, we have only seen Mr Knightley as a visitor to other settings, someone who can provide a measured response to the inconsequential comings and goings of Frank Churchill and the turbulence of Harriet; the epitome of a gentleman, aloof, sensible, independent and always leaving when he chooses. He may well be charming but until we are at Donwell, he is a little unsubstantial; the voice of Emma’s conscience, a family friend whose kindness is matched by his abrasiveness. Visiting Donwell Abbey places Mr Knightley in his real setting and suddenly presents him to us as Emma’s equal. He is handsome, clever and rich with a comfortable home. We are impressed. As for his disposition, though it might not be simply summed up as ‘happy’, it is impossible to fault Mr Knightley. He has the endearing habit of reproving himself for any minor thing that we might find amiss. From Chapter 56 onwards, we are like Emma, still unaware, but we care deeply what he thinks; we are in love. 

Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn) in Emma (dir: Autumn de Wilde, 2020)

And Emma, in her social way, has insisted that Frank attend the trip to Box Hill on the next day. The stage is set for a contrast to the beauty and serenity of Donwell Abbey, an outdoor day of tension, misunderstanding and fracture.

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