Mr. Knightley and Jane Austen’s concept of the gentleman ideal

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

19 Pages, Grade: 2 (B)




I. The development of the gentleman ideal from Chaucer to Jane Austen

II. The embodiment of the gentleman ideal in Mr. Knightley
1. Mr. Knightley and Emma
2. Mr. Knightley’s social behaviour and attitude
3. Mr. Knightley vs. Frank Churchill

III. Conclusion



Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775 at Steventon, near Basingstoke, the seventh child of the rector of the parish.

She began to write stories wen she was a girl, but only four of her novels were published during her lifetime.[1] Among them was Emma published in the year 1816.

Although Jane Austen chooses women as her heroines, there are also different types of men represented. They extend from the villain to the polite gentleman.

The following term paper will try to examine Jane Austen’s gentleman ideal in her novel Emma with a representative English gentleman. This is Mr. George Knightley.

The virtues that Emma praises in Robert Martin’s letter are all those which can be associated with the traditional age of chivalry:

There were merely no grammatical errors, but as a composition it would not have disgraced a gentleman; the language, though plain, was strong and unaffected, and the sentiments it conveyed very much to the credit of the writer. It was short, but expressed good sense, warm attachment, liberality, propriety, even delicacy of feeling.[2]

The name „Knightley“ reveals already parts of the meaning. It contains the word „knight“ who used to play an important role in Chaucer’s poetry. In Chaucer’s knight and Squire, for instance, is the knightly honour represented and Mr.Knightley embodies this. However, Jane Austen takes Chaucer’s knight with his characteristics as a point of departure but she modernizes this image. While honourable young men dedicated themselves to courtly love, they do not so in Jane Austen’s novels.

Mr. Knightley as the representative English gentleman in the novel Emme will be looked at and analysed throughout the novel.

The main emphasis will be in his development from the beginning till the end and the characteristics which make him a gentleman.

I. The development of the gentleman ideal from Chaucer to Jane Austen

The beginnings of the gentleman’s origin are revealed in Chaucer ( c. 1343-1400), especially in „The Canterbury Tales“ (1386/87) where pilgrims from the middle-class with different degrees tell tales. The tales are corresponded to their degree. The knight tells a tale of actions of arms and courtly love. The essence of courtly love was that its devotee vowed himself to the service and adoration of a high-born lady by deeds and eloquent words. He tried to win her by the virtues proper to a gentleman which were „being virtuous, witty, hospitable and courteous to all women“. Besides he had to be noble in spirit and by birth.[3]

The main point is that Chaucer’s perfect gentleman is the knight who was the embodiment of true love, proper behaviour towards women, chivalry, truth, honour and courtesy.[4]

Another crucial point in the development of the gentleman ideal is „The Book of the Courtier“ by Baldesar Castiglione which was published in Italy in 1528. „Courtier“ does not mean the same as „gentleman“ but at that time the two ideals were not so far apart. A courtier was simply a gentleman with the ambition to be employed at the court. Before it was translated into English it is referred to in a similar book by Sir Thomas Elyot’s „The Governor“.

Castiglione’s book consists of several discussions about the perfect courtier. Above all, he had to be of noble birth and he had to have good qualities which had to be developed by training. Among these qualities were the use of weapons, the understanding of the roles of the duel, an excellent horsemanship and a good performance of dancing and other kinds of sports. Apart from this he should be open and frank, gentle to everyone, modest, reserved and he should avoid pretentious display and insolent praise of himself.[5]

Nonetheless, Castiglione’s courtier is very different from Chaucer’s knight although there are similarities in admiring mental and bodily excellence. But Chaucer’s perfect knight is courteous to inferiors and especially to women. The quality of being „gentil“ is that he is generous, magnanimous to the defeated and to the poor.

There is not much about these virtues in The Courtier. It must be noted that these differences emanate from cultural differences between England and Italy.

In England the 17th century did not add much to the concept of the gentleman. But in France appeared a conscious attempt to define a standard of conduct. This was called the cult of honnêté[6] . Men of letters and of fashion met in salons, amused themselves by music and dancing and established standards of taste and behaviour for themselves. The aim was to give pleasure to other members of the cult.[7] In any case, its memory was of influence both in France and in England. In particular, it seems important to mention its influence on Lord Chesterfield’s experiment to create a perfect living gentleman. He was a diplomat and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and had an illegitimate son of an affair with a French lady. But at least he married Petronilla Melusina who was very rich indeed. It seems natural that men wished their sons to grow up like themselves, but often had been disappointed. This was in fact Lord Chesterfield’s case who expected too much and put too much pressure on him. „By virtue, he meant good behaviour in respect of vices of the heart, lying, fraud, envy, malice and detraction [...]“.[8]

Mason emphasizes Lord Chesterfield’s attitude by some extracts of his letters to his son: „Study a man’s aversions and weaknesses and remember them and do not put him out by forgetting that he may have an aversion to, let us say, cats or cheese [...] Flatter a man by complimenting him on his foibles, not on the subject in which he knows himself to excel [...].[9] These rigid and strict arguments failed their effect, since his son had no name or fortune of his own.

Lord Chesterfiel’s methods were far from Chaucer’s concept of the gentleman and the troubadours. Concerning women he thought that they were only „children of a larger growth“, and „a man of sense only trifles with them , plays with them, humours and flatters them as he does with a sprightly forward child“.[10] Most people at that time might well have concluded that he was not quite a gentleman himself.

It was not long after this that Jane Austen’s (1775-1817) novels contributed considerably to the gentleman ideal at her time and to the Victorians. She wrote from the point of view of a lady of the lesser gentry at the end of that century and, embraced in her novels, are pictures which illustrate to perfection the ideas which that century left to the Victorians as to the proper behaviour of a gentleman. Besides, her thoughts on love and marriage are connected with thoughts on good taste, on elegance, on gentility and on principles. Since her reflections on one display her views on the other, she must be also looked on in a social and historical context.

At the beginning of the century England was governed by a strict hierarchy. The basis of wealth, status and power in nineteenth-century England was fundamentally land, as it had been for centuries. At the very top were the landed aristocracy with hereditary titles and large estates. This kind of landownership also included rewards such as political power, social influence, the pleasure of managing a great estate, rental income from tenant farmers, and the fun of shooting and hunting.[11]

Next in rank came the gentry who had less land than the landed aristocracy. They consisted mainly of squires, the clergy, baronets and knights with properties not as great as those of the landed aristocracy but large enough to have tenants.[12] It is the gentry from whom Jane Austen draws most of her characters. They are educated, comfortably well-off and do not work themselves but oversee the work of others and spend their time planning how to marry off their children or seeking to elevate their social standing.

Below the gentry were the yeoman, or gentleman farmers who were independent landowners with small or large holdings. Nonetheless, many gentlemen farmers were prosperous enough to maintain a life-style like that of the gentry. But as the century wore on, more and more of the attributes of status fell into the category of behaviour to be avoided - and things that could be „acquired“. One had to avoid doing manual labour, and also one could not be „in trade.“[13] If you were well-off, you had to possess a carriage and servants, land, an ancient family and a title. Carriages for example were an enormous status symbol. Daniel Pool points this up: „(...) The easiest way to be in this enviable position was to have a huge estate, the sort of property that went with all old feudal families and obviated the necessity for working because you simply collected the rents from your tenant farmers“.[14] Education and upbringing were also important to gentlemanly status.


[1] Jane Austen: Emma (1816), ed. by Fiona Stafford, Harmondsworth, 1996, (Penguin Classics Pb.), p.1.

[2] Jane Austen: Emma (1816), ed. by Fiona Stafford, Hammondsworth, 1996, (Penguin Classics Pb.), p. 44. (All further references in the text are to this edition)

[3] „[...]But Chaucer has no doubt that good birth by itself does not always mean true courtesy and all that he means by „gentillesse [...]“ (Philip Mason: The English Gentleman, The Rise and Fall of an Ideal, London, 1982, p. 37.)

[4] Mason, p. 37.

[5] Mason, p. 54.

[6] „A word that did not mean at all what an Englishman is inclined to expect, nor what it means in current French“ (Mason, p. 61.)

[7] „[...] the true honnête homme seeks to please simply for the sake of giving pleasure.“ (in: Mason, p. 62)

[8] Mason, p. 64.

[9] Mason, p.65.

[10] Mason, p. 67.

[11] Daniel Pool: What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist - The Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England, New York, 1993, p. 163.

[12] Pool, p. 163.

[13] Pool, p. 48.

[14] Pool, p. 49.

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Mr. Knightley and Jane Austen’s concept of the gentleman ideal
University of Marburg  (Anglistics)
jane austen
2 (B)
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jane austen, gentleman ideal
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Emel Deyneli (Author), 2002, Mr. Knightley and Jane Austen’s concept of the gentleman ideal, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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