An Austen Sighting! ~ Mr. Knightley’s Gaiters

One often finds Jane Austen popping up in the oddest places; and this one that I stumbled upon the other day points out a scene in Emma that one can so easily pass by without much notice [Austen being such an expert at this – and the reason for repeated readings!] – this time in a book on of all things, “Buttons”!

Nina Edwards new book, On the Button: The Significance of an Ordinary Item (London: Tauris, 2012), has this little gem in the introduction:

In Jane Austen’s Emma, when Emma contrives to find out if Mr. Knightley is considering Jane Austen romantically, buttons both betray his real affections to the reader and come to his aid by concealing his distress from Emma herself: (xix-xx, I have added a bit to the quoted text]

“I know how highly you think of Jane Fairfax,” said Emma. Little Henry was in her thoughts, and a mixture of alarm and delicacy made her irresolute what else to say.

“Yes,” he replied, “any body may know how highly I think of her.”

“And yet,” said Emma, beginning hastily and with an arch look, but soon stopping — it was better, however, to know the worst at once — she hurried on — “And yet, perhaps, you may hardly be aware yourself how highly it is. The extent of your admiration may take you by surprize some day or other.”

Mr. Knightley was hard at work upon the lower buttons of his thick leather gaiters, and either the exertion of getting them together, or some other cause, brought the colour into his face, as he answered,

“Oh! are you there? But you are miserably behindhand. Mr. Cole gave me a hint of it six weeks ago.”

He stopped. Emma felt her foot pressed by Mrs. Weston, and did not herself know what to think. In a moment he went on —

“That will never be, however, I can assure you. Miss Fairfax, I dare say, would not have me if I were to ask her; and I am very sure I shall never ask her.”

Emma returned her friend’s pressure with interest; and was pleased enough to exclaim,

“You are not vain, Mr. Knightley. I will say that for you.”

He seemed hardly to hear her; he was thoughtful, and in a manner which shewed him not pleased, soon afterwards said,

“So you have been settling that I should marry Jane Fairfax.”

                                                                                          (Emma, Vol. II, Ch. XV)

Here the gaiters seen to represent his morally dependable (but compared with the dashing Henry Crawford*) unexciting character; the buttons provide a refuge, the simple task of buttoning masking his emotion.


what Mr. Knightley was so busily buttoning
image: Gaiters, 1805-10, British, the

(*I think she must mean Frank Churchill here, as Mansfield Park is nowhere in sight…!)

Isn’t this a wonderful passage? – one forgets how clearly Austen has strewn clues throughout the book as to Knightley’s true affections. Significant indeed! And it harks back to the scene with Emma contriving to repair her broken boot-lace to aid Mr. Elton and Harriet in their “courtship.”

Any thoughts?

The book, by the way, for anyone who has an  interest in fashion and its cultural history, and especially the all-important button, looks quite wonderful:

What do you use every day that is small and large, worthless and beyond price? It’s easily found in the gutter, yet you may never be able to replace it. You are always losing it, but it faithfully protects you; sexy and uptight, it is knitted in to your affections or it may give you nightmares. It has led to conflict, fostered and repressed political and religious change, and epitomizes the great aesthetic movements. It’s Eurocentric, and is found all over the world.

On the Button is an inventive and unusual exploration of the cultural history of the button, illustrated with a multiplicity of buttons in black and white and color. It tells tales of a huge variety of the button’s forms and functions, its sometimes uncompromising glamour, its stronghold in fashion and literature, its place in the visual arts, its association with crime and death, and its tender call to nostalgia and the sentimental. There have been works addressed to the button collector and general cultural histories, but On the Buttonlinks the two, revealing why we are so attracted to buttons, and how they punch way above their weight.You can view it here:
c2012 Jane Austen in Vermont

11 thoughts on “An Austen Sighting! ~ Mr. Knightley’s Gaiters

    • Hi Michele, – I wondered too about the Crawford reference, other than that the author has a thing for Henry and couldn’t resist the comparison! – can we mix the books up like that?! – I hate to point out such an obvious error in what looks like a terrific book – but it was right there in the middle of the quoted text so hard to avoid!

      Glad you stopped by – hope the weather is not completely depressing everyone – but who is to complain when there are snowmen to be made in early November?
      hope to see you at the Tea!


      • I just found your great site – and am delighted you came across the reference – but mortified I got the dashing men confused. I am very keen on Austen and cross with myself – somehow it got past editor and proof reader until it met ‘Jane Austen in Vermont’! If I get a chance I shall correct it and acknowledge your help. So, thank you, and I apologise for my mistake,
        Nina p.s. I loved seeing those gaiters.


      • Hello Nina, Lovely to hear from you! – I did feel badly about having to comment on that error, but knew it would confuse the hoards who know their Jane Austen backwards and forwards! – it is an easy mistake to make – all her baddies are of the same cloth we could say!

        I have been wanting to buy this book, so very glad you stopped by and gave me a much-needed reminder. I LOVE buttons – and loved finding this passage about Mr. Knightley – one of those clues so often missed as to what was really going on in his head and heart…

        Best to you, and thank you for commenting,


  1. What a great find!!! I love it when I read an Austen novel (re-read at this point) for the umpteenth time, and some little nugget like that pops out was always passed over before. (One of my favorites was the line in P&P when Lizzy has to walk to Netherfield to visit sick Jane, and it says she was “no horsewoman” — that gave me an entire plot for a couple of stories!)

    Who would have thought a button could be so revealing? What fun!


  2. “Oh! are you there? (imagine the shock in his voice being discovered) But you are miserably behindhand. Mr. Cole gave me a hint of it six weeks ago.”

    He stopped. Emma felt her foot pressed by Mrs. Weston, and did not herself know what to think. ”

    Oh come on Deb. poor Mr Knightly has not been caught doing up his gators. he has been caught doing up his flies. That would bring the colour to his cheeks for sure.. Why else is Emma Woodlouse engaging in all that foot pressing with Mrs Weston. The two women must be beside themselves and do not ,”know what to think.”


    • Oh Tony – just what I expected from you! – but you are forgetting the previous scene between Mrs. Weston and Emma where the former alerts Emma to what she sees as Knightley’s growing affection for Jane Fairfax – hence all the foot action – Mrs. Weston saying “I told you so!” – always a problem taking Austen out of context – why-ever would Mr. Knightley be doing up his fly buttons all of a sudden after sitting there and talking to the two of them for a good bit – Knightley in all his talk is just really telling Emma that she does not value Jane enough – and the chapter ends with Mrs. Weston saying:

      “Why really , dear Emma, I say that he is so very much occupied by the idea of not being in love with her, that I should not wonder if it were to end in his being so at last. Do not beat me.”

      More food for thought for Emma!

      Knightley was doing up his gaiters with the intention of leaving after what had become a quite heated conversation…

      Besides, I just don’t think men of the early 19th century did their fly buttons in the presence of Ladies…!

      So, I have to assume you are pulling my leg!
      Thanks as always for visiting Tony!


  3. Of course I am!!!!!!!! Just my warped sense of humour..
    Have a great day..

    However, it has been known for a gentleman to forget to do up his flies when putting on his trousers and later, lets say whilst sitting and talking next to ladies realising,, shock horror, that he is all undone. (I jest of course Deb.)



  4. Pingback: Maggie Lane on Understanding Austen: Key Concepts in the Six Novels « Jane Austen in Vermont

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