Mr. Darcy may steal more women’s hearts, but Mr. Knightley, the romantic hero of Emma, surely ranks as one of the most appealing of Jane Austen’s male characters. Austen describes him as “sensible,” “cheerful,” and a man who has “nothing of ceremony about him.” He’s a bit of a tease. He smiles a lot. He’s sociable, although he enjoys living alone at Donwell Abbey. He can be a bit peevish at times, especially when he’s suffering from jealousy, but that just proves he’s human.
Mr. Knightley is honest. He never hesitates to tell Emma the truth, especially about her misguided attempts to meddle in others’ affairs: “He was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them.” At one point late in the novel, Emma assures him that his guidance has benefited her.
He’s compassionate and generous. When Mr. Elton snubs Harriet at the ball, Mr. Knightley steps in and asks her to dance, even though he doesn’t like dancing. He gives Mrs. and Miss Bates the last of his stored apples, and is willing to move in with his father-in-law for Emma’s sake.
Indeed, Mr. Knightley, the ideal gentleman, was one of Jane Austen’s favorite characters, and she acknowledged that he and Edmund Bertram (of Mansfield Park), another favorite, were “very far from being what I know English gentlemen often are.”
Who says nice guys finish last?