‘It is the ambient air of Highbury which most charms us in this book. The little town and its inhabitants are so real, so actual, that it is hard to believe we have never been there. The very cobbles, glistening after a sharp shower, are nearly solid enough to walk on….Miss Bates is somehow a vehicle of this ambience.’ —Margaret Kennedy, ‘Jane Austen‘
In my reading life, I am never far from Jane Austen. Even when reading the works of other authors, there she is. While reading a novel that might seem completely unrelated to Jane Austen—she appears. The hero or heroine is reading her, or refers to her, and the narrative device thus employed is almost always used as a character statement of approbation. That last word, by the way—approbation—entered my vocabulary by way of Jane Austen.
In social media, there is Jane, looking fresh and updated. This morning my newsfeed greeted me with the happy declaration that a movie adaptation of Sanditon is currently being filmed. Lady Susan is on its way to a theater near me. I am very excited about Sanditon—with the usual caveats and hoverings of motherly concern. How will they cast the indomitable hypochondriac Diana Parker? Or the robustly sickish Arthur? Sidney with an ‘i’ had better be good…we’ve waited a long time to meet him. (It’s very important to get it right; this is the novel Jane was working on just before she died.)
Were I inclined to be interested in zombies and vampires, there too, even so, I would find Jane.
“One man’s style must not be the rule of another’s.” Mr. Knightley, Emma
Most prefer finding Jane via the usual routes. Her words. As if millions didn’t already know this…her words are superb.
Recently, I’ve been revisiting her novel, Emma, in both annotated and abridged forms. The annotated was by treating myself to this beautiful edition, pictured here. (published by Harvard University Press.)
Plus I’ve just finished the absolutely stellar audio version of Emma read by Jeremy Northam. This is an abridged version, (sad to say) but so worth feeling cheated! His rendering of Mrs. Elton, …“Maple Grove…” “….barouche landau…” gave me many laugh out loud moments.
A very good reason to brush up on my Emma is the lovely series going on right now at sarahemsley.com. Called Emma In The Snow, it is in celebration of the fact that this year marks 200 years since the publication of Emma. There are fascinating angles from a wide range of authors being discussed on Sarah’s blog, and even a diehard ‘Janeite’ will find new insights and reasons to love her novels.
For me, Emma has many attractions. One of them seems undervalued by many, and that even goes as far back as Austen’s lifetime, when Emma was first published.
‘…the faults [of Emma] are said to lie in the minute detail of the plan, and in a certain tedium in the presentment of such ‘characters of folly kind simplicity ‘ as Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates.’ (Quarterly, Jan. 1816)
While Austin Dobson wrote, in his forward to the novel:
‘Yet a genuine admirer may perhaps allow that some of the excellent Miss Bates’s speeches, even though they should be taken by the reader in double-quick time, would no be the worse for curtailment.’
Oh, but we could not have it so! The charms of Miss Bates are certainly more appealing given the distance of 200 years and the fact that she’s not in my living room right now swallowing up all breathable air. Yet, she is, for all that, ‘a loveable creature’. When Emma hurts her in a fit of spite, we feel it keenly.
But in terms of plot device? Miss Bates is extraordinary. In her, Jane Austen has created an efficient information delivery system. The kindly old spinster is to the ordinary chatterbox what the diesel engine is to the electric toy train. With rushing speed, a lot of ground is covered. Much vital information is conveyed, to those who are actually paying attention. This is the secret to Miss Bates. She is a brilliant contrivance and her effect cannot be reduced by a single syllable.
“So very obliging of you!—No rain at all. Nothing to signify. I do not care for myself. Quite thick shoes.”
On a side note, this style of running conversation, which is honed to perfection in Emma, Jane Austen also gives to Mrs. Augusta Elton. In Augusta’s case, though, it is more of a self-congratulatory rodomontade, and she reveals mostly her own self in ways that do not flatter her. Again, a brilliant device for helping us get to know the ‘charms’ of the new bride in the briefest possible time.
Miss Bates is all about other people and her lively interest in the goings on of Highbury. A useful person for the narrative, indeed, when you have clever little deceit mongers afoot like Frank Churchill, or the murky, convoluted doings of the superbly self-deceived Emma.
To be honest, the first time I read Emma, I was inclined to read over these verbal passages swiftly, anxious to get back to the ‘action’. I have had real life talkers in my family that could give Miss Bates a run for her money, so I am used to the exasperated tune outs one must resort to in an effort to keep things moving. It’s only in recent years and retrospect that I have begun to appreciate this clever literary device used by Austen.
Recently, while enjoying Margaret Kennedy’s discussion of Jane Austen’s works, I was delighted to read of her own thoughts in this regard. Margaret Kennedy calls Miss Bates ‘a vehicle’ of the marvelous ambiance Austen has created in Highbury.
Kennedy took the time to list some of the information that Miss Bates conveyed during her two monologues at the Highbury ball. An impressive feat. Miss Bates, we’ll remember, comes in excitedly talking: (I’ve left Ms. Kennedy’s intensively worded paragraph as is because it is something of a marvel, in itself!):
‘[Miss Bates] is frequently used by Austen to convey the scene and to tell us what everybody else is doing so that her speeches are highly informative although a general impression of triviality and incoherence is preserved. One monologue from her saves pages of narrative. She makes, for instance, two long speeches during the ball at the Crown, during which we learn that: It is raining. That the landlady of the Crown is standing in the passage to watch the guests come in. That Mrs. Weston is probably expecting a baby. That Miss Bates’s mother is spending the evening with Emma’s father. That it is in order to hold an umbrella over herself and Jane Fairfax that Frank Churchill has been hanging round in the passage all this time. That he has spent much of the day with them under the convenient and standing excuse of mending old Mrs. Bates’ spectacles. We learn also the names of many of the guests and that Mr. Elton is not the only clergyman present, the names of Jane’s partners for the first four dances and that none of them has been Frank Churchill because he means to secure her for supper and must not be dancing with her too often. That the long passage to the supper room has been covered with matting and a draughty door nailed up. That Frank Churchill is so eager to put Jane’s tippet on her shoulders and march her off to the corner he has selected in the supper room that he nearly takes her out before anybody else. That Mrs. Elton will have none of this and firmly takes place of everybody. That Mrs. Elton is still wearing her bridal lace and consequently claims a brides’ privileges. That Frank does maneuver Jane into his chosen corner at supper. That the Hartfield supper has consisted of tea, baked apples, biscuits, wine, and a fricassee of sweetbreads with asparagus which poor Mrs. Bates has not been allowed to eat because of Mr. Woodhouse thought it indigestible. That the two old people played backgammon. That Miss Bates herself for all her chatter has managed to slip out unobserved after the first four dances, has run through the rain in thick shoes to Hartfield, taken her old mother home, put her to bed and returned without disturbing anybody.
‘If people had ever listened to Miss Bates they would have known a great deal more of what was happening at Highbury.’
You see how useful Miss Bates is?
Margaret Kennedy concludes her marvelous summation with the opinion:
‘Emma is not a better book than Mansfield Park but it is a worthy successor. It has a smaller canvas, a less ambitious theme, but it has this almost miraculous reality.’