Miss Bates is famously verbose, a quality Emma dislikes and occasionally ridicules. Miss Bates’s speech is limited more often by her need to take a breath than by effective interruptions or concerns about her listeners. Her ramblings are often confusing and fragmented, as Emma mimics after Mrs. Weston suggests to her that Mr. Knightley might love Jane Fairfax: “’So very kind and obliging!—But he always had been such a very kind neighbour!’ And then fly off, through half a sentence, to her mother’s old petticoat. ‘Not that it was such a very old petticoat either‘” (217). Much of what she says is empty and little is clearly stated. So why is she allowed so much space to ramble in the novel itself? Character-space is limited, particularly in a novel this short, so Miss Bates’s allotted space must be significant.
Austen does not represent all characters’ speeches at length, even when they are important. For example, Mr. Elton’s marriage proposal to Emma is rendered in description, rather than dialogue:
“she found her subject cut up—her hand seized—her attention demanded, and Mr. Elton actually making violent love to her: availing himself of the precious opportunity, declaring sentiments which must be already well known, hoping—fearing—adoring—ready to die if she refused him; but flattering himself that his ardent attachment and unequalled love and unexampled passion could not fail of having some effect, and in short, very much resolved on being seriously accepted as soon as possible” (149).
Letters that might otherwise be interposed into the text are often presented, instead, though Miss Bates’s description of what is in them, and her speech even pushes Emma herself out of the way on occasion. For example, when Miss Bates comes to Ford’s to invite Emma and Harriet to visit alongside Frank Churchill and Mrs. Weston, a 497-word paragraph of Miss Bates’s idiosyncratic storytelling is followed by:
“Emma would be ‘very happy to wait on Mrs. Bates, &c.,’ and they did at last move out of the shop, with no farther delay from Miss Bates than, ‘How do you do, Mrs. Ford? I beg your pardon. I did not see you before. I hear you have a charming collection of new ribbons from town. Jane came back delighted yesterday. Thank ye, the gloves do very well—only a little too large about the wrist; but Jane is taking them in’” (225).
Emma’s words are reduced to an “&c,” while Miss Bates continues on apace. Miss Bates is certainly not always present in the novel, but when she is present, she has an unusual ability to take over the narrative space.
One reason for the inclusion of Miss Bates’s rambling is that it often stands in place of longer narration, allowing for a perspective besides Emma’s. Though the perspectives of other characters are elided when Miss Bates explains their letters rather than reading them, obscuring other perspectives, her rambling at the ball allows us to construct the scene through her perspective, allowing us to see more clearly: “Here is your tippet. Mrs. Weston begs you to put on your tippet . . . My dear Jane, indeed you must. Mr. Churchill, oh! you are too obliging! – How well you put it on! – so gratified!” (291). As she talks to Frank, we know where he is and what he’s doing – putting on Jane’s tippet, offering both Jane and Miss Bates his arm to go through the passage to dinner, and helping the ladies get seated – but we experience it not through Emma’s perspective, but through Miss Bates’s. The absence of Emma’s perspective allows us to read Frank’s actions without Emma’s assumptions obscuring them. Miss Bates’s fragmentary narrative does not render his actions clearly, but it allows the audience a different perspective.
Miss Bates’s rambling also hides information about the town’s activities that Emma does not pick up on, allowing the audience a fuller understanding of things. As she announces Mr. Elton’s upcoming marriage, she says:
“Well, I had always rather fancied it would be some young lady hereabouts; not that I ever—Mrs. Cole once whispered to me—but I immediately said, ‘No, Mr. Elton is a most worthy young man—but’—In short, I do not think I am particularly quick at those sort of discoveries. I do not pretend to it. What is before me, I see. At the same time, nobody could wonder if Mr. Elton should have aspired—Miss Woodhouse lets me chatter on, so good-humouredly. She knows I would not offend for the world” (181).
It is clear that the townspeople have been engaged in some matchmaking gossip of their own, discussing Mr. Elton’s “aspirations” and never quite saying what those were “whispered” to be. Emma cannot read what Miss Bates says because she is not listening, but the audience can put together clues about what has been going on in town and realize that Emma is not as clever or unique as she pretends. Emma makes several assumptions about what “everybody” must think, but Miss Bates allows us to see other options, leading us to question Emma’s assertions.