In Jane Austen’s novel, Emma (1816) we meet Emma Woodhouse and watch her failed attempts at matchmaking for herself and others. Although Emma is undoubtedly the center of Austen’s novel, the men in her life cannot be ignored when looking at Emma through the lens of British Romanticism. Mr. Woodhouse, Mr. Frank Churchill, Mr. Elton, and Mr. Knightley all represent very different kinds of men, especially in Emma’s eyes. To understand them helps us better realize the intentions of Austen thematically and characteristically.
These characters are significant when looking at them as products of the literary movement, British Romanticism. One word in particular gives us a way to measure the men of Emma, and that word is “gallant.” Gallant meant something far different when Austen used it to describe several of the characters in Emma. In the introduction, George Justice tells us, “Both flirting and gallantry are aggressive tricks of the young that mark out their youth; flirting and gallantry are the backdrop for the crime against a fellow woman, and against humanity, that Emma commits when she mocks Miss Bates for her silliness and age.” (xxvi) This point of view on gallantry as a form of crime is shared by Emma. In a conversation with Harriet regarding a poem that Mr. Elton has written she describes gallantry as a “charade,” which is a play on words where charade’s second meaning is a type of riddle/poem. (57)
Austen has quite the history with making her male characters gallant. She uses the word gallant (or gallantly) in Pride and Prejudice ten times; she uses it to describe Sir William, Mr. Bingley, Mr. Collins, and Mr Wickham. Notably, Mr. Darcy is not described as gallant. In Northanger Abbey she uses it four times to describe General Tilney and Captain Frederick Tilney. In Sense and Sensibility she uses it once to describe Mr. Willoughby. Of course, gallantry isn't limited to Austen. It can also be seen in Matthew Gregory Lewis' The Monk, another British Romantic novel. The word gallant is used no less than five times in the text, and the word gallantry is used twice in reference to Don Christoval, and to Durandarte (the slain Knight from Rosario's poem.) In all cases it is a thinly veiled sentiment toward the foolhardy. This is not a coincidence.
It is no surprise that Emma is peppered with the term gallant, like her other works it is used throughout the novel - including in reference to nearly all of the men in Emma, but not all of them. Mr. Knightley is assuredly not gallant. However, everyone else in the novel is described by this word at some point including Mr. Woodhouse, Emma’s esteemed father. It is important to look at what ways these characters are gallant and what the significance of being gallant is (especially since Mr. Knightley, the least gallant of them all, is the one who gets the girl.) Mr. Woodhouse, who Emma holds in regard, is described by Emma as having “the tenderest spirit of gallantry towards us all!” (57) This makes our definition of gallantry a little more complex. Emma respects her father in spite of his inclination toward the ridiculous. This is apparent when she loses interest in Frank Churchill after her father tells her that he is “not quite the thing.” (172)
Now we can see that gallantry in the male figure in Emma does not necessarily cancel out goodness or value in the eyes of Emma herself, but rather that of the author. It seems to be Austen who satirizes gallantry in the men of Emma, rewarding the single individual without any “gallant” characteristics with Emma’s hand in marriage. Is this punishment for Mr. Knightley, to be with a character Austen tells us “no one but myself will much like?” Not at all. Mr. Knightley is the prize in this novel, a prize that Emma wins because she becomes less gallant as the plot progresses. By the end she has lost much of what made her gallant in the beginning, and thus evolves into Mr. Knightley’s match.