Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Reflections on Emma: Miss Bates

In honor of the US premier of the new Emma mini-series, I have been rereading the book (for what must be the fiftieth time). The great thing about Austen is that there is always something new to discover in her books, even once they become so familiar you can practically recite them. What I noticed as I commenced reading this time is how skillfully Austen introduces Miss Bates - who I consider the most lovable of her comic caricatures. She is first mentioned in the second chapter, although she isn't properly introduced until the third, in this phenomenal passage:
Now, upon his father's marriage, it was very generally proposed, as a most proper attention, that the visit should take place. There was not a dissentient voice on the subject, either when Mrs. Perry drank tea with Mrs. and Miss Bates, or when Mrs. and Miss Bates returned the visit. Now was the time for Mr. Frank Churchill to come among them; and the hope strengthened when it was understood that he had written to his new mother on the occasion. For a few days, every morning visit in Highbury included some mention of the handsome letter Mrs. Weston had received. "I suppose you have heard of the handsome letter Mr. Frank Churchill has written to Mrs. Weston? I understand it was a very handsome letter, indeed. Mr. Woodhouse told me of it. Mr. Woodhouse saw the letter, and he says he never saw such a handsome letter in his life."
Clearly, the speaker is Miss Bates (her style of speech is unmistakable, isn't it?), but here Austen has made her the representative voice of Highbury. It is our introduction to the small confines of Highbury society. The implication is that "every morning visit" includes Miss Bates and indeed, most of what we learn about the other members of Highbury's small society (outside of the Hartfield intimates) is through Miss Bates. She is as essential to the plot of the story as she is to the town - the bringer of news and the voice of the people. Emma may be at the pinnacle of Highbury's social order ("The Woodhouses were first in consequence there.") but it is Miss Bates who is at its core. This is emphasized when she is properly introduced in chapter three:
Miss Bates stood in the very worst predicament in the world for having much of the public favour; and she had no intellectual superiority to make atonement to herself, or frighten those who might hate her into outward respect. She had never boasted either beauty or cleverness. Her youth had passed without distinction, and her middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible. And yet she was a happy woman, and a woman whom no one named without good-will. It was her own universal good-will and contented temper which worked such wonders. She loved every body, was interested in every body's happiness, quicksighted to every body's merits; thought herself a most fortunate creature, and surrounded with blessings in such an excellent mother, and so many good neighbours and friends, and a home that wanted for nothing. The simplicity and cheerfulness of her nature, her contented and grateful spirit, were a recommendation to every body, and a mine of felicity to herself. She was a great talker upon little matters, which exactly suited Mr. Woodhouse, full of trivial communications and harmless gossip.
Everyone likes Miss Bates (except, perhaps, Emma) despite her social position. As our heroine rather callously puts it: "A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls ...." But this is not the life Miss Bates leads. The only one who sees fit to make sport of her is Emma herself during the disastrous trip to Box Hill, and quickly she learns how wrong is her estimation of how that lady should be treated. It could be argued that she is still just such a girl making sport of an old maid, endowed with the cruelty children so innocently inflict. After Box Hill she becomes an adult, sensitive to the needs and cares of others.

I do not share the common hatred of Emma that so many express. Her faults are far too much like my own for me to hold them against her and she learns from her mistakes, the hallmark of an Austenian heroine. But I think this hatred so many feel has a lot to do with Miss Bates. Readers are infuriated with Emma, just like Mr. Knightly, for her cruelty at Box Hill. But Mr. Knightly forgives her, as does Miss Bates, so why can't readers? I'm looking forward to hearing the responses to the new film and seeing if Romola Garai's portrayal doesn't soften this animosity. She feels much more youthful and less self-assured than either Gwyneth Paltrow or Kate Bekinsale did in their performances. Also, Tamsin Greig's Miss Bates is very different than the previous portrayals of this character: less happy-go-lucky and far more pathetic. I'm not sure if this will increase or decrease audience sympathy for Miss Bates. I can see it going either way.

I'm going to leave off with a snippet from one of my favorite scenes with Miss Bates (she gives so many fabulously ridiculous speeches that it is hard to choose the best - for those interested in gaining more sympathy for Emma, try listening to someone read the longer ones out loud). The back and forth between Miss Bates and Mr. Woodhouse is absolutely hilarious, while the moment emphasizes my point about Miss Bates being the voice of Highbury:

"Oh! my dear sir, how are you this morning? My dear Miss Woodhouse--I come quite over-powered. Such a beautiful hind-quarter of pork! You are too bountiful! Have you heard the news? Mr. Elton is going to be married."

Emma had not had time even to think of Mr. Elton, and she was so completely surprized that she could not avoid a little start, and a little blush, at the sound.

"There is my news:--I thought it would interest you," said Mr. Knightley, with a smile which implied a conviction of some part of what had passed between them.

"But where could you hear it?" cried Miss Bates. "Where could you possibly hear it, Mr. Knightley? For it is not five minutes since I received Mrs. Cole's note--no, it cannot be more than five--or at least ten--for I had got my bonnet and spencer on, just ready to come out--I was only gone down to speak to Patty again about the pork--Jane was standing in the passage--were not you, Jane?--for my mother was so afraid that we had not any salting-pan large enough. So I said I would go down and see, and Jane said, 'Shall I go down instead? for I think you have a little cold, and Patty has been washing the kitchen.'--'Oh! my dear,' said I--well, and just then came the note. A Miss Hawkins--that's all I know. A Miss Hawkins of Bath. But, Mr. Knightley, how could you possibly have heard it? for the very moment Mr. Cole told Mrs. Cole of it, she sat down and wrote to me. A Miss Hawkins--"

"I was with Mr. Cole on business an hour and a half ago. He had just read Elton's letter as I was shewn in, and handed it to me directly."

"Well! that is quite--I suppose there never was a piece of news more generally interesting. My dear sir, you really are too bountiful. My mother desires her very best compliments and regards, and a thousand thanks, and says you really quite oppress her."

"We consider our Hartfield pork," replied Mr. Woodhouse--"indeed it certainly is, so very superior to all other pork ..."

Happy Emma watching everybody!


  1. Isn't it funny how one character can receive so much criticism from readers? I wonder what Jane would think. I don't know how it is for you, but it seems that characters evolve on their own, and Jane probably let Emma evolve as she was meant to.

    We all have faults, and sometimes, I like the characters that are less than perfect for that very reason. They easier to relate to.

    I enjoyed this post, as I do all your posts. :-)

  2. Thanks Ruth. I always find it puzzling - Austen fans adore Lizzy, who is really a lot like Emma (they share the same conceits regarding their superior judgment) only with less money/social power. They also like Mary Crawford, for some totally inexplicable reason, but Emma, with all her good qualities (incredible social acumen, charitable nature, and devoted daughter)gets abused. I don't get it.

    Austen once said, "And pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked". It's a wonderful quote.

  3. You have put the idea in my head about rereading Emma while watching the new adaption and now after thinking about for a day or two. I am making Emma the next book I read after I finish Darcy and Anne. Thanks for the lovely post. My favorite adaption is the GP and JN one. I love all the characters. Sophie Thompson was a wonderful Miss Bates!

  4. Hi Meredith. It's my favorite version too. Sophie Thompson is much more my ides of Miss Bates than Tamsin Greig and Gwyneth Paltrow, for me, is the ultimate Emma: "oh! what a bloom of full health, and such a pretty height and size; such a firm and upright figure! There is health, not merely in her bloom, but in her air, her head, her glance." If Romola Garai would consent to stand up straight, she would fit this description better. Happy reading and watching!

  5. If you can spare the time, watch the BBC 1972 series on YouTube. It may be slow for today's standard's, especially Episode 1, and the actor playing Mr Knightley is a trifle too old, but you're well rewarded. Superb acting by Donald Eccles as Mr Wodehouse.

    1. I love the 1972 version! My favorite Emma, and my favorite Mr. Woodhouse! Check out my Emma mashup for proof (tab above). I own a copy and watch it about once a year.