Wednesday, February 17, 2010

George Knightley, Esquire: Charity Envieth Not by Barbara Cornthwaite

Book One of George Knightley, Esquire is probably the best Emma retelling I have read, my former top runner (not including Joan Austen-Leigh's books about Mrs. Goddard, which stand alone) being Joan Ellen Delman's Lovers' Perjuries: Or, The Clandestine Courtship of Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill. I would have to reread the latter text to be certain which I prefer, but with the prospect of a whole additional novel from Barbara Cornthwaite on the horizon, I fear Ms. Delman has little chance of regaining her standing. Besides, Mr. Knightley is an infinitely more fascinating subject than either Jane Fairfax or Frank Churchill.

Charity Envieth Not recounts Emma from Mr. Knightley's perspective until the point when Frank Chruchill's initial visit to Highbury comes to an end, shortly before the arrival of the new Mrs. Elton. Ms. Cornthwaite has meticulously dissected the original text, creating Mr. Knightley's entire world - much more expansive than Emma's - out of the tiny hints Austen drops here and there. The accuracy with which she adheres to the novel is impressive, resulting in a beutifully fleshed out George Knightley who is everything devotees could wish him to be: the piercingly perceptive, unvaryingly kind, and totally besotted hero.

I love how Emma shines through Mr. Knightley's eyes. Yes, she is the same old Emma, officious and egotistical, but I challenge those who despise her to not be charmed by Ms. Cornthwaite's depiction. Mr. John Knightley also benefits from this treatment. When viewed as an affectionate father and younger brother he is far easier to love. The letters he and Mr. Knightley exchange provide reliable comic relief throughout the course of the book, such as this one (Madam Duval is the long, white-haired cat foisted upon Mr. Knighltey by his niece):
14th January
Wellyn House

Dear George,

I wonder if you might spare us a short visit when the quarter sessions have finished with you. We are not far from Newington, after all, and there is a matter on which I should like your advice.

Bella would like to know who is going to comb Madam Duval while you are away at the quarter sessions. Isabella would like to know if William Larkins' sister and all her children are well. John and Henry would like to know if you ever found the painted horse that they brought to Donwell to show you one day and left behind. I, however, don't want to know anything except whether we may expect you next week.

Your uninquisitive brother,

You will come, won't you?
Most Emma adaptations focus on life in Highbury, Austen's most detailed neighborhood. Ms. Cornthwaite, while also providing those comfortable glimpses of the familiar town, necessarily focuses on the residents of Donwell, with it's own parish, attending rector (Dr. Hughes), a new curate, our old friends the Martins, William Larkins, and an array of colorful tenants. The world she depicts is as alive in my mind as Highbury after reading this book. While incorporating the masculine experience and perspective, Ms. Cornwaithe maintains that microscopic feeling of Austen's "two inches of ivory", a place where humdrum human interactions reveal great truths about mankind. I believe that the best Austen inspired literature provides commentary on those original six, blessed novels, enhancing the joy we experience as we read, reread, and then read them yet again. In that sense, Charity Envieth Not is a triumph.


  1. Meredith said... Beautiful review!!!!!

    I'm so glad you liked it as much as I did. Now that I just finished rereading Emma I have a whole new sense of appreciation for Ms. Cornthwaite's meticulous accuracy and clever expansion of Mr. Knightley's world. I loved the excerpt you chose. Their correspondence was wonderfully humorous!

    The book is indeed a triumph and one I shall treasure always!

  2. Thanks Meredith. I was rereading Emma when this book came in the mail and ended up reading them smultaneously, noticing so many details of Emma that really never stood out before as a result. Now we just have to wait what appears to be an abominably long time to see what happens next - as if we don't know! I can't wait to hear Mr. Knightley's perspective on Mrs. Elton.

  3. The waiting is going to be hard, that's for sure!

  4. Excellent review (you've said it all brilliantly) - and funny that I'd actually read this one online (and loved it). I, too, can't wait for the conclusion (and am glad there's only one book, and not a bloody trilogy).

  5. Hi ibmiller! Yes, a trilogy is a dreadful thing, but that's no reason to employ such language! Remember we are mostly ladies at this forum, whose gentle ears are unaccustomed to such vulgarities. Of course I'm kidding, but it was fun. Being the only gentleman who has ever commented (as far as I can ascertain), you must be prepared to be made sport of, at least on occasion.

    Thank you for your kind words - "brilliantly" is a pretty awesome appellation.

  6. What do we live for, eh?

    And I try not to use "bloody" or "bugger" on my British blogger friends' blogs - but you're not one of them! Ha!