On the Character of Frank Churchill

In the first volume of Austen’s Emma, Frank Churchill is a character often mentioned and never met. The little town (village?) of Highbury “boasts” of him as one of their own (Vol. I, Ch. II), and he is a popular subject among the gossiping residents, including our heroine and the perfect Mr. Knightly, who’s judge of character is highly respected by all (especially by Emma herself). Slightly ironic, then, is Mr. Knightly’s insistent determination to dislike Frank Churchill before their meeting, which we are led to see is uncharacteristic, even “unworthy” (Vol. 1, Ch. XVIII), of him. Consequently, here at the beginning of volume II I feel we are being called to judge Frank Churchill for ourselves, with the understanding that both of our main sources of judgement (Emma and Mr. Knightly) are too biased to completely trust.

Emma eventually learns her own feelings for Frank Churchill and calms herself to the point where they are just friends in her eyes, and two chapters in volume III from Mr. Knightly’s perspective (Chapters V and VI) nicely explain that, while he is biased, he also has legitimate concerns over Mr. Frank Churchill’s actions toward his two favorite people, Jane Fairfax and Emma Woodhouse, and has reason to suspect him of “double dealing” (Vol. III, Ch V). By this time, we have watched Frank be cruel towards Jane with Emma, with the two of them laughing over her and creating rumors over her supposed unrequited love with Mr. Dixon (oh, Emma and her grand fantasies). Frank Churchill has also demanded Jane play more music when she is recovering from a cold, which make the gallant Mr. Knightly angry on her behalf (Vol. II, Ch. VIII). It comes as quite a shock, then, when we all discover that Jane and Frank are secretly engaged (Vol. III, Ch. X).

Forcing Jane to keep an engagement secret is one thing – everyone can agree that it was an unreasonable decision (Mr. Knightly being the most credible source on the matter, of course (Vol. III, Ch. XIII)). Openly flirting with another woman in front of her, however, is nothing short of cruel, especially when much of this flirting is gossiping about Jane in general. There is also the point of the piano-forte. Frank Churchill sent Jane a rather extravagant gift, but because he sent it anonymously she could not refuse it and send it back, which he knew she would want to do (Vol. III, Ch. XIV). Perhaps in comparison with his flagrant flirting the piano-forte is a small slight, but the fact of the matter is he refused to give her the option of declining the gift. He made her uncomfortable and did so knowingly. I cannot forgive him.

Emma has a realization concerning the difference between Mrs. Churchill and Jane Fairfax and their “importance in the world….one was everything, the other nothing” (Vol. III, Ch. VIII). Though she does not really consider Frank’s opinions in relation to this thought, it is a response to Frank’s sudden quitting of Highbury to return to his sickly aunt, which we later realize was a snub toward sickly Jane (the parallels between Mrs. Churchill and Jane Fairfax really highlight their differences). I think it illustrates where Jane Fairfax falls in Frank Churchill’s affections, and while I cannot blame him for being worried about money, I also cannot forgive him for worrying about it to the point of neglecting his sick fiancee when he has already purposely hurt her.

Frank Churchill is young, and perhaps he will grow to be a better person after a bildungsroman of his own, especially with a friend like Emma, who is determined to be better and do better by Jane, and who he regards as a sort of sister. For now, however, I find myself disappointed, and wish that there were more consequences for his actions that affected him, when so many affected Jane.

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