And then after all the no-holds-barred skewering of the follies, foibles, and sheer self-centredness of the rich, you get Austen’s introductory portrait of Miss Bates, a glorious example of telling over showing**. It starts off as the portrait of a woman utterly without distinction, and ends up as something entirely different.
[Mrs. Bates’s] daughter enjoyed a most uncommon degree of popularity for a woman neither young, handsome, rich, nor married. Miss Bates stood in the very worst predicament in the world for having much of the public favour; and she had no intellectual superiority to make atonement to herself, or frighten those who might hate her into outward respect. She had never boasted either beauty or cleverness. Her youth had passed without distinction, and her middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible. And yet she was a happy woman, and a woman whom no one named without good-will. It was her own universal good-will and contented temper which worked such wonders. She loved every body, was interested in every body's happiness, quicksighted to every body's merits; thought herself a most fortunate creature, and surrounded with blessings in such an excellent mother, and so many good neighbours and friends, and a home that wanted for nothing. The simplicity and cheerfulness of her nature, her contented and grateful spirit, were a recommendation to every body, and a mine of felicity to herself.
Miss Bates is that rare creature, an Austen character who is genuinely without side and without agenda. She has simultaneously nothing and everything to recommend her. Poor and silly she may be, but her worth as portrayed here is undeniable.
I’ve just reached Emma and Mr Knightley’s row over Harriet Smith and Robert Martin in chapter 8 in which it strikes me that, in addition to the biases existing on either side,*** surely a substantial part of the disagreement is owed to the fact that Mr Knightley, having heard Martin’s intentions, thinks in the midst of it to the effect that “Emma will be pleased by this”, trots up to Hartfield as soon as he has a moment, gets rid of Mr Woodhouse in preparation for a shared gossip – and finds that his highly-prized news is not only outdated, but disdained. No wonder he sees red; this wasn’t how the conversation was supposed to go, and while he may not yet have recognised the reason that he wants to impress Emma, he suffers all the disappointments of not doing so.
*I had a remarkably fine set of A-level texts, A Winter’s Tale and Howard's End notwithstanding. Even though three of them had also been done by my parents
**Miss Bates is terribly hard done by in adaptations.
***One of the great things about Austen is that, while Emma is absolutely in the wrong in terms of the specific situation, a number of her general points to Mr Knightley are in fact right, and his to her concerning Harriet, wrong.
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