A Matter of Age

No wonder Jane Austen and her sister never married . If your imagination
keeps giving birth to amazing, charming, deserving young men, how can it be possible
to avoid the inevitable disappoint of harsh reality? Much better to end up an old maid.
Emma’s Mr Knightley is another Mr Perfect of Jane Austen’s fine gallery of men: rich, sensible, caring, sporty, quite the gentleman and if it were not enough, even handsome.
However, there is something not fully convincing about him, let’s call it a slight
imperfection especially at the eyes of a modern reader: the question of his age. At 37
he might be with reason considered too old as a life partner for Emma who is only 21.

In the previous post I explained Jane Austen’s choice of an experienced man at the side of her heroine with the necessity of a guide for a spoilt and still childish young woman
like Emma, and, of course, it has been rightly pointed out among the comments that such a difference of age in a married couple was not at all not something extraordinary at those times. By the way, the fact that this difference somehow mattered can be noticed in the passage where a possible attachment between Jane Fairfax, who is more and less Emma’s age, and Mr Knightley is talked of with positive remarks upon the whole, but for their difference of age, an issue that, of course, would have been easily overcome, considering who he was.

A modern reader might also turn up his nose at the point when Mr Knightley confesses he had been in love with her at least since she was thirteen. Thirteen?! Well then, when she was 13, he must have been 29, and nowadays there is a precise word to spot such an
interest toward a young girl and laws to protect her, but let’s leave this hero
safely to his time, we wouldn’t wish to ruin his impeccable reputation of righteous,
trustworthy gentleman. After all,these kind of matches did happen and even among well-known people. An example? Edgar Allan Poe.

If you are still wondering about Mr Knightley’s feelings toward a girl of 13, who was also his
sister-in-law, well, you should know that at the age of 26 Poe married his cousin,Virginia Eliza Clemm, and she was 13! Virginia was only seven years old when she met him the first time, that is, when her widowed mother Maria had then allowed Poe, who was 20 then, to stay with her family. Virginia saw her cousin with the girlish eyes of love and spent a lot of time with him. She even helped him in his love affairs delivering his letters of ardent admiration to a neighbor, until one day, his affections for her little cousin changed and decided to marry her.

Reality is always quite different from fiction. Of course, there was not the general approval at the announcement ( and if I do remember well, neither John Knightley was that enthusiastic once received the happy news from his  brother) as her mother Maria didn’t approve the match because of their age difference, and besides, Poe was practically penniless.  Regardless of family ‘s opposition, the couple did follow the example of many characters of Austen’s novels and eloped in Baltimore on September 22, 1835 to be married  in Richmond, Virginia, on May 16, 1836. The wedding was held at a boarding house, where the couple and Virginia’s mother stayed the night: a desperate attempt to preserve her daughter’s reputation.

What kind of marriage was it? Confused. The couple never had any children and it seems that their bond was more like brother and sister than husband and wife. By the way, Virginia adored him, but he was not indifferent to women’s charm and she was fine with it. Of course he was a women’s favourite. Poe’s friendship with the married 34-year-old poet Frances Sargent Osgood, for example, turned on the jealousy of another woman, Elizabeth F. Ellet, a fellow poet who had a crush on him, so that she started to spread rumors about their affair and Poe’s “lunacy.” The scandal which followed affected Virginia so deeply that on her deathbed she declared Elizabeth Ellet her murderer. Virginia died at the age of 25 of tuberculosis after 11 years of marriage and her afflicted husband “ used to cry over her grave every day and kept it green with flowers.”  It seems he had loved her very much, in his way, of course, which is not the way Jane Austen would have ever dreamed of, but it was intense, maybe selfish and desperately real.

30 thoughts on “A Matter of Age

  1. Without being creepy about it or condoning, George Knightley being “in love” with the 13-year-old Emma only appears scandalous to an age haunted by and sometimes obsessed with paedophilia. Being “in love”, what would that mean in the case of someone so upright (and slightly uptight) like Mr Knightley? That he admired her for her character, her intelligence and her confident manner, or that he lusted after her and harboured unhealthy thoughts about her? Jane doesn’t really tell us plainly, but everything he says to her implies admiration tempered by disappointment when she makes a faux pas. And that she is somebody of the same social standing and sensibilities as him and therefore most eligible will be a huge recommendation of course!

  2. Following on my remarks in the earlier post, I am inclined to think that our modern society has a sickness in the way it has created hypersensitivity about paedophiles even to the extent of suggesting that people like Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) were that way inclined. I do know, however, that many sensitive and lonely men find an affinity with young girls more on the lines of enjoying the company of kittens or puppies rather than having any ‘improper’ urges. Why girls? They generally have a softer and sweeter nature.
    It should also be borne in mind that many girls are not only physically but also emotionally developed beyond childhood at ages that young.

  3. What fascinating stories about age differentials and love… my second husband of 45 years was ten years older than I, and now in my late seventies my new partner is fifteen years younger… and we have a riotous time together. Age is all a matter of perspective to me…
    And I so agree with wonderful Colonialist’s comments…

  4. Love is love, and a difference in age doesn’t change that. Love is also different from lust. I am glad that our culture legally enforces the boundaries for young girls, because girls need protection. Even in a case of true love, thirteen is too young to make a decision about one’s life partner. But a man like Mr. Knightley was a person of character. Rather than selfishly pursuing his own interests with Emma, he waited for her to grow up and decide for herself.

  5. Hello Mrs.Tink, 13 years old….. that is a bit freaky in my book.
    Glad you stopped by,I’m trying to catch up with you all, but it seems impossible.
    You have to get me out of this town and bring me to some cool location in Italy

  6. A fascinating post! I’m not keen on Austen’s heroes these days, but Emma is my favorite heroine and I’ve long been uneasy about Knightley. The age gap is too great, as you point out. Perhaps there was nobody else for her? But Knightley must have had SOME past. At least in Sense and Sensibility we know that Elinor and Marianne’s beaux have had other girlfriends!

    • The only explanation I have to offer is what I wrote in the previous post abiut Emma. Mr Knightley is a father figure, a guide Emma still needs and father figures are asexual, that’s why we know nothing about his past, not a word, but we know that women are attracted to him, so he must have had his chances.🙆
      Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting.
      Stefy 🙋

  7. Stefy you have quite the conversation corner going on in the comments here. My Dad was 8 years older than my Mom although they met when she was 18. The age difference didn’t seem to matter until their later years. She became his caregiver and perhaps it was good that she was younger with more energy to do so.

    • Hi Sue! Just like my mother and father. Their age difference was exactly 8 years and even the end of the story was the same. My mother has always been more lively , I have always thought it was because of her character but maybe because she was younger too.

  8. I don’t often comment on your posts . . . this one is interesting because — for me — the topic speaks more of differences in the equality of women (in terms of rights and station) than in changing mores. Take the case of an underage girl; she is not the guardian of herself, and hence cannot be a reliable agent for her own welfare.

    Adult women are more so the agents of their own actions, but not everywhere and often not equal to men (as in many religious societies). Whenever one has that kind of inequality, situations are rarely favorable to the person so hampered. It then stands to reason one might fantasize about the honorable and well-to-do person as a rescuer of sorts, but the reality of the situation is that even if given a “choice,” those women work within the framework of a disadvantaged position. An illusion of choice, if you will.

    Unfortunately, the men described in those books are few and far between . . . if they even exist at all, and I speak both of modern times and times past. To wit, men of influence and financial success are — by all observable evidence — for the most part, not known for their ethics, morals, and characters. The presence of those qualities make it difficult to compete and win in today’s world, ergo, as is often the case, individuals lacking those qualities generally prevail over others (with a lack of scruples, one enjoys greater success).

    Back to the age differential, the few exception aside, it seems to me that kind of attraction resembles more yet another manifestation of acquiring that which is deemed of value by society (unfortunately) as property, as distinct from a desire to form a bond. A few exceptions aside, too much of a disparity in age has the inherent problem of a lack of shared experiences, common vision, similar or at least complementary interests, and even the capacity for understanding concerns, fears, and doubts associated with various points in one’s life.

    I then don’t see a desire to form an emotional bond with each other, but rather a desire for something else, be it relating to appearances, station, wealth, security, and so on. In other words, those unions are formed for reasons different to those that are openly stated and are thus, unsurprisingly, troubled.

    As a final comment, in this day and age, I see no excuse for much older adults to covet a relationship with individuals not only significantly younger but also emotionally and cognitively immature and unable to fully evaluate the full significance of such relationships.

    One can speak to “kids” these days being relatively more mature than kids even twenty years ago (thanks, Internet), but there’s no question — because we know — their brains are still forming and developing. A rough age of 25 is given as the age at which most of the brain’s pathways “settle” and firm up to become an “adult” brain, whatever that means.

    I will stress, again, one can certainly point to exceptions where mature decision are made by ostensibly immature people (I even know of some through people in our circles — and no, they don’t work out), but we don’t write laws or plan our lives based on exceptions. At least, some of us don’t.

    • As I mention, there are exceptions, as there must be in the width and breadth of the human experience.

      I did mention in passing the importance of shared life experiences but neglected to mention emotional connections (beyond wealth, lust, hobbies, etc.)

      I don’t know enough about them to comment, but I would imagine their relationship spans various common points of interest. That said, I hope they survive the pressure of being in the public eye.

      There’s another thing that I should have mentioned and can also be a delicate and contentious subject. The idea of an older woman and an underage boy (or teen).

      I shake my head when I read of teachers or counselors who go to jail for “traumatizing” some teenage boy. I’ve never met a man who would hold to the notion of being a teen and being traumatized by having sex with an older woman. They are probably out there, but I’ve not met them.

      I do believe laws should be applied equally — and I might be charged with sexism for saying the following — but the emotional load associated with a boy having sex with an older woman is not the same as that of a girl. I can’t speak for all (or any) girls, of course, but I’m fairly confident in speaking for (most) men. Again, the law should be applied equally, but whenever I hear “traumatized” I shake my head.

      Sadly, this is in part associated with how society treats the “stigma”. A girl is (often) unjustly seen as “damaged goods” (that idea of women as property or prizes) whereas the boy would likely be — and often is — lauded by his peers if not outright envied, perhaps even strengthening his “manly” reputation. I’m no mental health expert, but this is likely somewhat to do with how girls and boys might approach the experience (i.e. I think for boys it’s seldom emotionally binding beyond the lust-driven moment).

      Again, I don’t have a wide number or personal examples to draw from other than comments from other men throughout the years.

  9. I have to admit to having much more admiration for Miss Bates than Emma. Emma’s life has been a plentiful and largely self indulgent experience but Miss Bates has had much to cope with but still retains her feminine equilibrium. Emma gives way to annoyance at the poor elderly lady and shows a serious lack of compassion. I thought it might well have been a warning sign for the staid and sensible Knightly tonight keep clear of her but understandably he is overcome by feminine charm.
    What a wonderful thing it would be to discuss this with the brilliant Miss Austin who left us all such a marvellous legacy.
    It is a tragic that the innocent beauty of young girls can no longer be admired by older men without suspicion.

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