Review by Allison T.
With this promising opening sentence—“Emma Knightley, handsome, clever and rich, with a husband whose affection for her was only equaled by her affection for him, had passed upward of a year of marriage in what may be described as perfect happiness….”—Rachel BIllington explores the challenges of early married life in Emma & Knightley; Perfect Happiness in Highbury. Emma has little to vex her, at least at first. But there are clouds on the horizon.
Poor Jane Churchill has died in childbed and the distraught and half-mad Frank is roaming the countryside talking wildly of suicide. Both Mrs. Weston, Mrs. Robert Martin (Harriet), and Mrs. John Knightley (Isabella) are all expecting—why isn’t Emma pregnant, too? Then comes bad news about John Knightley’s financial affairs. Emma travels to London to support Isabella in the last weeks of her pregnancy and meets there the exotic and somewhat peculiar Philomena Tidmarsh and her young step-son, the Rev. Tidmarsh. What is Philomena’s relationship with the Foundling Hospital? She plays the harp as divinely as Mary Crawford, but is she really a lady?
But Emma’s biggest heartbreak and challenge comes when she believes that her husband is turning away from her. Is he bored with her? Has she lost his love? Does he regret leaving Donwell Abbey to live at Hartfield? Is he intrigued by the married Harriet’s improved charms? What’s going on with Frank Churchill? Proud and willful Emma doesn’t know how to get Mr. Knightley to stop treating her like a child, while Mr. Knightley wants his bride to love him as an equal, not as an elder brother.
Billington paints a believable picture of a newly-married couple struggling to understand each other better. We greet again old friends like Miss Bates and Mrs. Weston, and finally meet the much talked-of Mr. and Mrs. Suckling, of Maple Grove fame, and attend a ball given in their honor. Billington expands Isabella’s simple character, and even John Knightley learns some valuable lessons that improve him as a husband and father.
But here’s the problem—and it’s a big one that had me gritting my teeth from the moment I picked up the book. As the title reveals, Emma thinks of, and talks to and of Mr. Knightley as—Knightley, sans the customary honorific, in a dreadful, Mrs. Eltonesque way. Knightley! (At least it isn’t “Mr. K.” or “caro sposo!”)
This solecism—so at odds with Austen’s own work and the conventions of the time—made it difficult for me to enter as whole-heartedly into the story as it deserved. It is obvious why Billington did it—in the last pages, Emma finally calls her husband “George,” and this change in name signifies a change in their relationship, as they become equal partners both sexually and emotionally. (I’m not giving much away, Gentle Reader—you didn’t really think that they’d get divorced, did you?) But the usage grates on the ear and serves no purpose save to distract the reader: if Emma had (correctly) called her husband Mr. Knightley throughout the book and then, finally, George, the signal would have been the same and it would have spared this reviewer much mental anguish. (Not to mention the dentist’s bill.)
This quibble aside, Emma & Knightley is a worthy entrant to the field of Austen sequels.