Living intensely with this story (for several months now!) one of the things that’s kept thrilling me—and kept me at it—is one of the themes lying at the heart of Emma. In short: charity.
Charity is really a type of love, but of a specific kind. For a definition, charity is a “provision of help or relief to the poor…benevolence or generosity toward others…an indulgence or forbearance (a goodwill) in judging others.” Most importantly, it’s a love directed (primarily) towards “one’s neighbors as objects of God’s love.” And I think that’s where Emma starts getting highly exciting!
So what does charity look like?
Beginning as a heart attitude, it’s solid—which means it’s action, whether that action takes shape in speaking or doing. It doesn’t mean we can’t make definitive judgments—or that we’re obliged to agree with everyone else—but it is a daily love extending over the many little frictions tending to occur most often between us and those closest to us (in the home, or in a wider circle of similarly very familiar faces).
Peter Leithart says in his book on Austen (Miniatures and Morals) that by placing Emma in the context of a “closely knit and unchanging community, Austen raises questions about truth and charity in social life. …In a town whose chief characteristic is sameness, old provocations will constantly reappear—unless they are dealt with by truth and love. …G.K. Chesterton once commented on the importance of the fact that God commanded us to love our neighbors. We can choose our friends… Our neighbors, however, are simply given, simply there, and that challenges our love.”
Interestingly (and quoting yet again from Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters), we learn that, “(Jane’s) needlework was nearly always a garment for the poor; though she had also by her some satin stitch ready to take up in case of the appearance of company. The nature of the work will help to contradict an extraordinary misconception—namely, that she was indifferent to the needs and claims of the poor: an idea probably based on the fact that she never used them as 'copy.' Nothing could be further from the truth. She was of course quite ignorant of the conditions of life in the great towns, and she had but little money to give, but work, teaching, and sympathy were freely bestowed on rustic neighbours. A very good criterion of her attitude towards her own characters is often furnished by their relations with the poor around them. Instances of this may be found in Darcy's care of his tenants and servants, in Anne Elliot's farewell visits to nearly all the inhabitants of Kellynch, and in Emma's benevolence and good sense when assisting her poorer neighbours.”
Hearkening back to an earlier point, charity is the oil that’s to keep daily life running smoothly. It can’t possibly be a solely inward virtue and (by definition) it can’t be turning inward even on its own particular circle of friends. While running deep, it’s also to run broad and full—spilling out and extending to everyone we touch.
Leithart says about Emma and Knightley’s romance at one point, “The ball scene…is an important symbol of the kind of match that Emma and Knightley will make. The dance is obviously a communal event. Like a feast, a dance is a picture of a community’s life. There is organization and intersection of various people. They are ordered. Each plays a unique part in the dance, but the dance is a social event, greater than the sum of the people involved.” (When Elton slights Harriet and Mr. Knightley rescues her), “It is clear that this is as much for Emma as for Harriet. Afterward, Knightley and Emma engage in a conversation whose simplicity belies its passion. There is no need for communication at first except by eyes and countenance. Knightley’s love for Emma does not break up the dance. He does not take Emma off into a corner and he does not operate by tricks and charades. Rather his love for Emma overflows in general charity toward his neighbor.”
In Emma, clear lines are drawn. Mr. Knightley isn’t blind—he knows foolish behavior when he sees it. At the same time, he is constantly championing charity. Leithart again: “Knightley’s…instruction (leads) Emma on the path to self-knowledge…also reordering Emma’s preferences and loves. Knightley is not just a teacher of truth, but a teacher who leads Emma to charity. Knightley’s qualifications for this position arise from his own constant charitableness.”
Charity in Emma isn’t a sugary sweetness. It doesn’t prohibit confrontation. True loving concern for another sometimes involves speaking hard truths. When someone is going severely astray to their own (and other’s) hurt, it’s unloving to let them continue on their wayward path. Yet the confrontation is always done with the best interests and good of the other person held forefront.
So charity is love at the daily testing point. It’s a largeness of vision to see around circumstances, allowing for growth and change. And—always ready with genuine kindness—charity springs from a heart of grace.