In praise of Miss Bates

Image via Penguin
Cover images via Penguin

As every politician knows, the trick is to push – but not too much.

You want to hit that sweet spot between keeping people comfortable, and stirring them up.

Jane Austen understood this.

But okay, first things first. Having mentioned Austen, I need to say that her writing is gorgeous, her characters finely drawn, her irony pitch-perfect. But of course we know all that.

What I’ve been thinking about, as I re-read Emma over the past few weeks, is how Austen makes things possible. Which reminded me that Hetty Bates – the dittery, chattery spinster of Emma – is one of my fictional heroes. Because she’s all about possibility.

Miss Bates is, to my mind at least, the most interesting – and amusing – character in this book. She’s poor, unmarried, and lives with her (partially deaf) mother in pretty humble circumstances. But she loves everyone, and is generally loved back – in spite of her tendency to go on somewhat. For example:

“So very obliging of you! – No rain at all. Nothing to signify. I do not care for myself. Quite thick shoes. And Jane declares – ”

Oh, it’s lovely writing. The pauses – the gaps – the way Austen captures the breathless joy and squirrel-like distractibility of a lady who finds goodness in everything: well, it makes me happy.

Now I wouldn’t be the first to point out that Miss Bates, like Austen herself, is the daughter of a clergyman; that she also, like Austen, finds herself unmarried; and that this status gives her a position sufficiently outside of the expected (ie, married) path for women that she’s able to observe, and occasionally offend, without serious consequence. After all, Miss Bates has fallen pretty far down the social ladder – there’s not much more she could do to injure herself.  We’re therefore free to enjoy her social blunders – such as when she lets on that she, along with probably the rest of town, is well aware that the pompous Mr Elton once had designs on our heroine, Emma Woodhouse:

“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’ – […] 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.”

No indeed, Miss Bates would not offend: but she frequently sees, and says, more than she’s meant to. Throughout the course of the novel – just to give you a sample – Miss Bates ‘accidentally on purpose’ lets on:

  • That she ignores the advice of Mr Woodhouse (Emma’s father, and patriarch of Highbury) and bakes apples only twice (a deeply serious matter for the food-paranoid Mr Woodhouse);
  • That she and her niece, Jane Fairfax, often speak of the “charming” Frank Churchill (who we later learn is Miss Fairfax’s secret fiancé);
  • That Miss Fairfax and Mr Churchill have been secretly writing to one another (though this revelation is indirect, and apparently unintended).

But in the study guides (which were the pick of the Emma books I gratefully checked out from my municipal library), Miss Bates is perhaps best known for her role in Emma’s journey to self-knowledge. Full of impatient pride, Emma insults Miss Bates at a picnic. Emma’s repentance is of course a central plot point in the novel, but that’s not what I find most interesting about this exchange. What draws my eye is Miss Bates’s response:

“Ah! – well – to be sure. Yes, I see what she means (turning to Mr Knightley,) and I will try to hold my tongue. I must make myself very disagreeable, or she would not have said such a thing to an old friend.”

This is a dignified reply from a woman who boasts ‘neither beauty nor cleverness’. But we absolutely believe it. I, for one, can very clearly hear her saying it (and not only because I’ve seen one or two movie adaptations). We see that Mis Bates is ridiculous – we know we’re supposed to sneer, just a little bit, at her spinster status, and the small-mindedness of her incessant chatter – but we sympathise with her, and we learn to trust what she tells us. She’s a kind of comic Cassandra.[1]

How, then, has Austen made this possible? How has she placed an ‘old maid’ of low status among the ‘best families’, and not only made her respectable – but admirable?

Well, I’d say it’s all about balance.

In a sense, Austen gives us two spinsters in Emma – Miss Bates and Emma herself, who declares that she’ll never marry (though of course by the end of the book, she has). As Emma tells a friend, a single woman of fortune need not be ‘comtemptible’ – she may even enjoy some measure of independence. In this way, Emma stretches the norm, but only just so far – she has money (and youth) to cushion her. Miss Bates, of course, has neither money, nor youth – but she has a ‘gift of happiness’. She accepts her situation, is interested in others, and receives charity cheerfully.  She’s neither completely cowed by her circumstance, nor resentful of it. She’s therefore acceptable enough (a bit silly, without ambition above her station) to be allowed to speak her own turn and behave, in some ways, as an independent woman. Which – when you consider that Emma was written around the time that Mary Wollstonecraft was fighting the frippery of women’s domestic lives, and 90-odd years before Australian women were allowed to vote – is an achievement.

So Austen has pushed things, but not too much. I might add that I see a similar pattern at work in Emma’s marriage to Mr Knightley – after all, it’s a bit unusual, given the time and place, that he moves in with her. But of course everything evens up, to make it possible: it’s all to pacify her father; she’s attained some degree of equal intellectual footing with her husband-to-be (but not too much); and the house, after all, will ultimately belong to Mr Knightley. Sure, some of today’s readers may feel disappointed that Emma has given herself to marriage, and turned away from independence; but mostly, we’re happy for her.  We’re able to close this book, ready to smile with her at the misunderstandings and misjudgments the future will undoubtedly bring, knowing that whatever happens, Emma will be a woman who – in her own time, and place – knows herself.[2]

Miss Bates, meanwhile, is heading for a future in which her beloved niece Jane is comfortably married (to the secret fiancé), and the Bateses continue to hold an esteemed place in Highbury society. Everyone who should be married, is suitably settled; and everyone who deserves respect, is given it in appropriate measure.

As the lady herself would say: “Excellently contrived, upon my word. Nothing wanting.”




[1] Well … sort of. Readers who clicked the link will see that I’ve stretched the metaphor somewhat – but she does have a strange kind of insight and is, in her own way, a bit of a tragic figure. (I also note that others have also made the connection).

[2] In other words, Emma, within the bounds of convention and society, will remain resolutely ‘herself’. Harold Bloom put this rather more eloquently when he wrote that Austen “understood that the function of convention was to liberate the will, even if convention’s tendency was to stifle individuality, without which the will was inconsequential.” From The Western Canon, Papermac, 1996, p258