Margaret C. Sullivan is the author of Jane Austen Cover to Cover and The Jane Austen Handbook. She wrote about “The Manipulations of Henry and Mary Crawford” for the celebration I hosted in honour of Mansfield Park, and I’m delighted to introduce her guest post for Emma in the Snow.
Maggie is the Editrix of AustenBlog.com, where she has been, in her words, “holding forth on Jane Austen and popular culture since 2004.” She recently flew across the United States in the teeth of a blizzard to see Love & Friendship, the upcoming adaptation of Austen’s Lady Susan, at the Sundance Film Festival. She says she didn’t meet anyone famous at the Festival, “not even Faux Bradley Cooper,” but she saw “lots of stunning snow-covered mountains, which was way better.” Love & Friendship received the Official AustenBlog Seal of Approval. Maggie blogs at This Delightful Habit of Journaling as well as at AustenBlog. Here’s a photo from her trip to Utah.
I came to Jane Austen later in life than many, in my late 20s—that is, seven or eight years older than Miss Woodhouse. The first Austen I read was Emma. I was in a mall drugstore, looking for something to read, when a remaindered copy of Emma caught my eye, marked down to $2. People had been telling me for years that I should read Jane Austen, and the price was right, so I bought the book.
Somehow I had it in my mind that Austen had been living and writing in the early 20th century about an earlier time period. When I reached the scene where the guests were arriving for the Westons’ ball at the Crown, in particular Miss Bates’ arrival and her monologue that filled several pages of the paperback, I was so taken with the scene I suddenly wanted to know more about the author. I flipped to the little author mini-bio at the front of the book, and was astonished to learn that Austen had lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The humor and the brutally honest portrayal of the various characters felt very modern to me.
When Sarah asked me to participate in her “Emma in the Snow” event, that passage—Miss Bates’ monologue as she arrives at the ball—sprang to mind immediately, for lots of reasons. Because it was the first scene in Austen’s work that I remember absolutely loving as I read it; because it’s just darned funny; and maybe because I identify with Miss Bates a little bit, being a middle-aged spinster myself, and someone who, with the best of intentions, bores people at length about my odd interests like European royalty (and their tiaras … especially the tiaras) and tech devices and, oh yeah, Jane Austen. I suppose we’re all guilty, now and then, of saying “three things very dull indeed.”
But really there’s quite a lot going on in this short passage. On the surface it’s just hilarious, and the portrayal of Miss Bates as a garrulous middle-aged spinster is extremely fine, but there is more to it. Here is the passage, from Volume 3, Chapter 2 (Chapter 38), with apologies in advance for the length:
Miss Bates and Miss Fairfax, escorted by the two gentlemen, walked into the room; and Mrs. Elton seemed to think it as much her duty as Mrs. Weston’s to receive them. Her gestures and movements might be understood by any one who looked on like Emma, but her words, every body’s words, were soon lost under the incessant flow of Miss Bates, who came in talking, and had not finished her speech under many minutes after her being admitted into the circle at the fire. As the door opened she was heard,
“So very obliging of you!—No rain at all. Nothing to signify. I do not care for myself. Quite thick shoes. And Jane declares—Well!—(as soon as she was within the door) Well! This is brilliant indeed!—This is admirable!—Excellently contrived, upon my word. Nothing wanting. Could not have imagined it.—So well lighted up.—Jane, Jane, look—did you ever see any thing? Oh! Mr. Weston, you must really have had Aladdin’s lamp. Good Mrs. Stokes would not know her own room again. I saw her as I came in; she was standing in the entrance. ‘Oh! Mrs. Stokes,’ said I—but I had not time for more.”—She was now met by Mrs. Weston.—“Very well, I thank you ma’am. I hope you are quite well. Very happy to hear it. So afraid you might have a headache!—seeing you pass by so often, and knowing how much trouble you must have. Delighted to hear it indeed. Ah! dear Mrs. Elton, so obliged to you for the carriage!—excellent time.—Jane and I quite ready. Did not keep the horses a moment. Most comfortable carriage.—Oh! and I am sure our thanks are due to you, Mrs. Weston, on that score.—Mrs. Elton had most kindly sent Jane a note, or we should have been.—But two such offers in one day!—Never were such neighbours. I said to my mother, ‘Upon my word, ma’am⸺,’ Thank you, my mother is remarkably well. Gone to Mr. Woodhouse’s. I made her take her shawl—for the evenings are not warm—her large new shawl—Mrs. Dixon’s wedding-present.—So kind of her to think of my mother! Bought at Weymouth, you know—Mr. Dixon’s choice. There were three others, Jane says, which they hesitated about some time. Colonel Campbell rather preferred an olive. My dear Jane, are you sure you did not wet your feet?—It was but a drop or two, but I am so afraid:—but Mr. Frank Churchill was so extremely—and there was a mat to step upon—I shall never forget his extreme politeness.—Oh! Mr. Frank Churchill, I must tell you my mother’s spectacles have never been in fault since; the rivet never came out again. My mother often talks of your good-nature. Does not she, Jane?—Do not we often talk of Mr. Frank Churchill?—Ah! here’s Miss Woodhouse.—Dear Miss Woodhouse, how do you do?—Very well I thank you, quite well. This is meeting quite in fairy-land!—Such a transformation!—Must not compliment, I know (eyeing Emma most complacently)—that would be rude—but upon my word, Miss Woodhouse, you do look—how do you like Jane’s hair?—You are a judge.—She did it all herself. Quite wonderful how she does her hair!—No hairdresser from London I think could.—Ah! Dr. Hughes I declare—and Mrs. Hughes. Must go and speak to Dr. and Mrs. Hughes for a moment.—How do you do? How do you do?—Very well, I thank you. This is delightful, is not it?—Where’s dear Mr. Richard?—Oh! there he is. Don’t disturb him. Much better employed talking to the young ladies. How do you do, Mr. Richard?—I saw you the other day as you rode through the town—Mrs. Otway, I protest!—and good Mr. Otway, and Miss Otway and Miss Caroline.—Such a host of friends!—and Mr. George and Mr. Arthur!—How do you do? How do you all do?—Quite well, I am much obliged to you. Never better.—Don’t I hear another carriage?—Who can this be?—very likely the worthy Coles.—Upon my word, this is charming to be standing about among such friends!—And such a noble fire!—I am quite roasted. No coffee, I thank you, for me—never take coffee.—A little tea if you please, sir, by and bye,—no hurry—Oh! here it comes. Every thing so good!”
(This passage is a lot of fun to read aloud. I once did so for a book group to which I used to belong, with many dramatic flourishes. I hope they enjoyed it as much as I did. I was gasping for air at the end, too!)
Throughout the book, it feels like we’re supposed to feel sorry for Miss Bates. Mr. Knightley certainly means Emma to feel sorry for her—or at least feel compassion for her. However, here she is at a ball, not stuck at Hartfield with Mr. Woodhouse and her mother and unable to enjoy the yummy treats. Miss Bates has come to the ball to enjoy herself, and the enjoying starts the second she walks in. Frank Churchill has already expressed that sentiment: “though he did not say much, his eyes declared that he meant to have a delightful evening.” Miss Bates does not need her eyes to do any declaring; her mouth is more than up to the job.
She passes through the room and speaks to several friends: first Mrs. Stokes, “standing in the entrance”; Mrs. Weston, Mrs. Elton, Frank Churchill, Emma herself, Dr. and Mrs. Hughes, Mr. and Mrs. Otway, their (presumably) two daughters and two sons, the Coles are heard coming in and no doubt will be greeted in their turn, and Mr. Richard Hughes even leaves the young ladies to come over and pay his compliments. Such a host of friends! Such a noble fire! Tea, almost the instant she asks for it, though she was in no hurry for it! No wonder she exclaims, “This is delightful, is not it?” and “Every thing so good!”
There is so much consideration for her comfort. Mrs. Weston sent a note, offering to have their carriage pick up Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax; Emma and Harriet stopped to offer them a ride; the Eltons forgot them at first, but the carriage is immediately sent for them. Frank Churchill knows Miss Bates (and her charge) should not be forgotten, and waits with an umbrella. Her friends gather around her, and tea is brought. Ladies’ gowns and hair are admired with true enjoyment. She is very well, she assures each friend who asks how she does; quite well; never better.
Miss Bates is determined to have a good time, and determined to not let her circumstances get her down, and we can all learn from that. At middle age, life has passed her by. Did she ever have a lover, one wonders? Perhaps someone like Robert Martin, a yeoman farmer, not considered eligible for the vicar’s daughter (and, one notes, not invited to the ball, nor are his sisters, apparently), but who could perhaps have given the former Hetty Bates a comfortable home at least, and her mother and niece as well? A home where she might not be obliged to depend upon gifts of a hind-quarter of pork or a bushel of apples from neighbors, or even rides in their carriages? That is likely a subject that Jane Austen had meditated upon, having passed up such a home offered by Harris Bigg-Wither.
But Mr. Bigg-Wither was certainly of a social standing to be invited to balls given by his neighbors. Miss Bates may have had to give that up, if she “married down,” as Harriet Smith will have had to give up being visited by Miss Woodhouse (though perhaps not by Mrs. Knightley, not completely) when she marries Robert Martin. I wonder which of those choices Miss Bates would pick with the benefit of hindsight. No matter what it was, she would have made the best of it, and maybe that’s the message we’re supposed to take away from this.
Carpe diem, says Miss Bates. Live in the moment, and you will be quite well; never better. Even a middle-aged spinster can enjoy herself at a ball, writes (almost) middle-aged spinster Jane Austen. In 1813, not long before she started writing Emma, Austen wrote in a letter to her sister, “By the bye, as I must leave off being young, I find many Douceurs in being a sort of Chaperon for I am put on the Sofa near the Fire & can drink as much wine as I like” (6 November 1813). Or tea, one presumes.
I’m thrilled for Miss Bates and her enjoyment at the ball. Her arrival and conversation provide fun for the reader, but Jane Austen’s characters come so vividly to life that one cannot help but sometimes think of them as real people, and wonder about their inner lives. This scene is hilarious, but it also provides a different kind of enjoyment: that of knowing that Hetty Bates had at least one night in fairy-land. Don’t we all deserve that?
Quotations are from the Penguin edition of Emma, edited and with an introduction by Juliette Wells (2015), and the Oxford edition of Jane Austen’s Letters, edited by Deirdre Le Faye (4th edition, 2011).
Twentieth in a series of blog posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Emma. To read more about all the posts in the series, visit Emma in the Snow. Coming soon: guest posts by Cinthia Garcia Soria, Carol Chernega, and Sarah Woodberry.