When Emma and Knightley marry at the end of Jane Austen's Emma, Emma is a very young 21 or 22 years old. While she has been mistress of her father's house for a number of years, she has never had to balance her role as a daughter caring for her (hypochondriac) father with her new role as Mr. Knightley's wife. I for one always wondered how their relationship continued to develop after the close of Austen's novel.
Fortunately for us, Rachel Billington's novel Emma & Knightley: Perfect Happiness in Highbury: A Sequel to Jane Austen's Emma brings the reader into Emma and Knightley's life after their marriage.
As is usual, I am sure, the Knightleys have their little difficulties adjusting to married life. Knightley has agreed to live to live at Hartfield, rather than his home of Donwell Abbey, so that Mr. Woodhouse will not be disturbed too much. Emma is trying to figure out how to relate to Knightley as her husband, rather than the beloved older neighbor. And he is trying, as always, to help Emma continue to grow into a well-rounded, thoughtful lady, and to help her see him as the love of her life, not just a loving familiar face.
Their lives are further complicated by the difficulties of those around them. Mrs. Bates has died, leaving poor Miss Bates alone. Jane Fairfax Churchill dies, leaving a bereaved (and half-mad) Frank Churchill with a newborn. Knightley's brother John has major financial difficulties, which they hide, for a time, from Emma's sister Isabella. And, it seems as if every couple is having children, except the Knightleys.
I confess, while I love Emma, it is probably my least favorite of Jane Austen's novels, partly because Emma does not seem to grow as much as a person as the other Austen heroines do. That's why I am delighted that Billington did such an excellent job on Emma & Knightley. Her novel continues Emma's growth as a human being and a woman, rather than a girl, and shows how the Knightleys figure out how to relate to eachother as spouses and settle into their marriage.
Billington also did a good job continuing the secondary characters Austen wrote. The Westons are lovely and, naturally, expanding their family. Miss Bates is her usual chatty self, but ends up providing perfect companionship for Mr. Woodhouse. Frank Churchill is a selfish cad and causes Emma difficulties. Billington also introduces new characters, including Mrs. Philomena Tidmarsh, who challenges some of Emma's ideas.
I was also happy with the fact that Billington did not try to change the characters or make them behave in ways inconsistent with their Austen-written characters. The plot was well-developed and satisfying.
Emma & Knightley is a delightful continuation of a beloved book. I recommend it for any Austen fan and anyone interested in following the development of Emma and Knightley's marriage. You can find it at any bookstore or through Amazon.com.
Book Information: Emma & Knightley: Perfect Happiness in Highbury: A Sequel to Jane Austen's Emma by Rachel Billington (Sourcebooks Landmark; ISBN: 1-4022-1207-0; $14.95; 368 pages; paperback)