Panning for Gold: Why Should We Listen to Miss Bates?

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.

Intellectual Equals: Why Mr. Knightley Needs to be Wrong

Emma and Knightley’s relationship changes significantly in chapter 38 of the novel, when both admit they have been wrong and have misread others. Emma’s apology here is fuller than it had been before, and she admits that she was “completely mistaken” about Elton, when Knightley had discovered his “littleness.” She concludes this acknowledgement without fully admitting her own culpability in the matter: “I was fully convinced of his being in love with Harriet. It was through a series of strange blunders!” (222). Her apology, which places the cause of her misperception in the passive voice, and references equally ambiguous “strange blunders” does not, perhaps, take full ownership of her mistake. But, at this point, this is perhaps the best we can expect from Emma, and it does show a trajectory of character growth.

More remarkable than Emma’s apology, however, is Knightley’s apology that follows. He says, “And, in return for your acknowledging so much, I will do you the justice to say, that you would have chosen for him [Elton] better than he has chosen for himself. Harriet Smith has some first-rate qualities…An unpretending, single-minded, artless girl– infinitely to be preferred by any man of sense and taste to such a woman as Mrs. Elton” (222). With this statement, he revises his earlier judgment that Harriet “is not a sensible girl, nor a girl of any information. She has been taught nothing useful, and is too young and too simple to have acquired any thing herself. At her age she can have no experience, and with her little wit, is not very likely ever to have any that can avail her. She is pretty, and she is good tempered, and that is all.” By acknowledging his own failure to judge Harriet well, Knightley reveals that he, too, is wrong (and this is the first of several misperceptions that he owns by the end of the novel– including the misperception that Emma cared for Frank; once freed from jealousy, he also allows for Frank’s potential and admits that jealousy has blinded him).

Why does it matter that Knightley is wrong, especially when Emma provides such an immature contrast? I argue that the novel’s key problem– set up in the first chapter– is Emma’s quest for an intellectual equal. Emma begins “handsome, clever, and rich,” but she also starts out by losing a friend. Miss Taylor/Mrs. Weston had been her intellectual equal, but even she has not challenged Emma enough; Knightley criticizes her for being too indulgent of Emma’s whims. Harriet Smith is too admiring and sycophantic to be an equal, and Jane Fairfax (who by all accounts should be friends with Emma) is too reserved. Yet at the beginning of the novel, Knightley is also not Emma’s equal. He does not value Emma’s opinion, and sees himself as her intellectual superior.

Knightley’s belief that he is superior to Emma keeps him from filling the heroine’s lack, and he must admit that he is wrong in order to level the playing ground. After their disagreement about Harriet and Mr. Martin, Emma complains, “To be sure—our discordancies must always arise from my being in the wrong.” “Yes,” said he, smiling—“and reason good. I was sixteen years old when you were born.” She replies, “Does not the lapse of one-and-twenty years bring our understandings a good deal nearer?” Though Knightley acknowledges that their judgments are now “nearer,” Emma points out that they are “not near enough to give me a chance of being right, if we think differently.” This scene clearly sets up that Knightley sees himself as sixteen years older, and Emma is both “a pretty young woman and a spoiled child.”

To make himself fit for Emma, then, Knightley’s acknowledgements of wrong are key. They show his transformation from the superior mentor to the eligible marriage partner. He fulfills a need that Emma is unable to find in her female community: someone who is able to match her intelligence, while at the same time forming an honest recognition of her faults and his own.

The World Was Not Necessary to Me: The Dubious Claim of Mrs. Elton

How independent should one be of society?

This question echoes throughout Emma, and a blog post doesn’t give quite enough space to cover it fully, but I’d like to begin thinking about it in connection to some specific statements of Mrs. Elton, that social climber/butterfly. At various points Mrs. Elton asserts her independence from society, saying “Blessed with so many resources within myself, the world was not necessary to me” and “a woman cannot have too many resources—and I feel very thankful that I have so many myself as to be quite independent of society” (253, 276). We are not really meant to like Mrs. Elton (forgive the understatement!), so are we to dismiss her statements out of hand? Or are there elements of truth hidden in them, about independence and the value of society?

Because our dear narrator is tricky and embraces tensions, I think we should err on a more nuanced take on these statements. Parsing Mrs. Elton’s statement, the first thing to establish is that she does not in fact have many inner resources (this is just another example of her words running contrary to reality—see also her claims about Mr. Knightley and Mr. Elton being great friends). But that does not necessarily negate her general pronouncement. This raises more questions: If one has inner resources, does one need society? Is it good to be independent of society? Can one be independent of society?

Mr. Knightley, our (supposed) paragon of virtue and moral center, does have inner resources, as shown in his ability to move in a different direction from the crowd and from others (see his resistance to Mrs. Elton in the arrangements about the strawberry picking on pages 310-312). He carves out a position of independence, and yet he nevertheless takes part in the social events and is an active member of the community (he arranges carriages for women without them, protects Jane from singing too much, attends dinner parties, and even dances when absolutely required by duty). This independence yet participation in society actually seems to contribute to his weighty place in society and the approbation of its members, a conclusion he seems to suggest when he discusses duty and independence from others’ demands. When talking of Frank Churchill, he says that he should assert his independence and visit his father—if he does, then the people around him would end up respecting him more and “their little minds would bend to his” (161). And yet even Mr. Knightley’s independence is attenuated by his connection to Emma. Because of her opinions, he reexamines the evidence and shifts his opinion about Miss Smith, which the novel seems to applaud (398).

Is he independent of society, then? If we deem society the world outside of the home, then he is not (but perhaps could be, if he wanted, unlike Mrs. Elton). Yet a tension develops at the end of the novel, when he ends up incorporating the most important people to him into a home: when he and Emma, he agrees to move in with her and her father. But we are given no indication that he will turn out like Mr. John Knightley, surly at anything that removes him from his domestic comforts.

Mr. Knightley, then, has inner resources—he is well-read, intelligent, and even wise. Yet he seeks out the companionship of others, and even commits to the small society of a home while remaining integrated into the larger society of the town.

The questions of independence and society are vitally important to the novel, because Emma is set up from the start as the story of Emma and her relationship to the people around her. The tension between society and independence also connects to other themes of the text—outward appearances versus interiority and the inner life, relationships with others, social status and ranking, and even to knowledge (what people know about you matters; who you know affects your knowledge; sharing knowledge is important). Emma seems potentially about how an individual navigates the tensions between self and others and how he or she can become incorporated into society rather than continually asserting his or her independence. Mr. Knightley has already done so.

Applying these ideas to our title character, Emma has to learn to use her inner resources and independence wisely (see especially Harriet Smith and Miss Bates) and in a way that promotes the well-being of the society at large. For example, in the first few pages, we learn that because her governess has married she is “in great danger of suffering from intellectual solitude” and Highbury can give her “no equals” (56).  She also permanently aligns herself with Mr. Knightley and marriage, and their individual, independent lives become combined. While marriage is not exactly incorporation into society writ large, it does entail less independence—but both Mr. Knightley and Emma see it as worth the cost and seem to think that pooling one’s “inner resources” with another enriches life. Nonetheless, they are very much part of the social life of the town, and Austen spends some time on society’s opinions of their match.

Perhaps the novel suggests it is important to develop one’s self and to have those inner resources, but to do so while acknowledging the importance of others. Mrs. Elton’s assertion of independence, then, is flawed both because she has no inner resources and because it seems to value a type of disconnect from the world—although independence is valuable, it is not an absolute good. Playing one’s role in society is equally important.