Tag Archives: Emma

UnaBated Admiration

 Miss Bates enjoyed a most uncommon degree of popularity for a woman neither young, handsome, rich, nor married.

Emma, 1816, Jane Austen                  


Okay, so Miss Bates prattles. I wouldn’t want to be stuck with her on a jammed elevator. But even if she is a little ridiculous, she is embraced by the community at Highbury. Why? Possibly it is because she used to be significant. We learn that Miss Bates used to be well-off, and is now living in reduced circumstances. But it can’t be only that.

Miss Bates is, for all her inescapable babble, kind. She “keeps no record of wrongs.” When Emma insults her at Box Hill, Miss Bates is self-conscious, but doesn’t even think to be angry at Emma for the insult. Miss Bates never complains about her reduced circumstances. She never complains of her silent mother. (Mind, the mother couldn’t get a word in edgewise if she tried.) I always wondered, is Miss Bates oblivious, or forcibly determined to make the best of things?

I think of that scene on Box Hill. I would rather spend my time among boring, well-meaning people like Miss Bates than witty, cutting people, ready to pounce on my faults, like Frank Churchill. I fancy that I am a little like Miss Bates: “sure to say three very boring things as soon as I open my mouth.” Every time I find myself talking about the weather, I am having a Miss Bates moment. I just need something to say, so I inject a great deal of enthusiasm into something of no importance. Indeed, at some social functions I discover I have adamant opinions about things I never had opinions about before. The best stinky candle scent. Hot sauce. Zip codes. Sometimes, the less we have to say, the more zealously we say it.

Jane Austen recognized better than anyone both the stupidity and necessity of idle chatter. Some readers find her boring for this very reason. “Nothing happens,” they complain. What they don’t understand is that “busy nothings” are the fuel of society. And that sometimes, like Miss Bates, what we say is not nearly as important as the attitude in which we say it, and the attitude with which is it received. Who has not had a pointless conversation with a friend that would never have earned an airing on NPR, but cemented your friendship because it made you both giggle for no reason?

Dear Lord, let me have patience with the Miss Bateses in my life. Open my ears to the human being behind the prattle. Let me see them as you see them. And let others see beyond me own Miss Bateness, when I have nothing interesting to say but so want to contribute to the conversation.

And then, Lord, after listening patiently, let me escape the conversation in a reasonable amount of time.


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The Good, The Bad, and the Funny: Proposals in Jane Austen (Part 2)

"But there was no doing anything with Mr ...

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I meant to reveal my nomination for the worst proposal in Austen today, but I am sidetracked because I forgot to present the runner-up for funniest proposal:

In a very honorable second place:

Mr. Elton to Emma Woodhouse in Emma.

I thought about categorizing this as a bad proposal. But the proposal itself is not bad. It earns perhaps a 6.5 out of 10 on both artistry and technical merit.  Mr. Elton says some sweet ( if exaggerated) things. As you will recall, Mr. Elton has finagled a private carriage for himself and Emma on the way home from a Christmas party.  He is “hoping—fearing—adoring—ready to die if she refused him.”  He seizes her hand, calls
her charming, tells her he has thought of no one else for weeks.

Indeed, there’s only one thing wrong with this very fine specimen of a marriage proposal:

He’s proposing to the wrong woman.

As with Mr. Collins, it is Austen’s setup in the chapters leading up to this scene that makes the proposal so tragically funny. Emma has been trying to set Mr. Elton up with her friend, Harriet Smith.  Only here in the carriage does Austen reveal how her characters interpreted and misinterpreted the situation.  I think those who imagine Jane Austen as a detective (as seen in some spin-offs) are not so far off:   Tiny hints planted earlier are revealed and explained here in a new light, rather like the payoff in Agatha Christie.  Mr. Elton was praising Emma’s drawing, not Harriet as her subject.  His charade (riddle) about courtship might have been added to Harriet’s collection, it was Emma who asked him for a submission and it was for Emma he intended the hint.  The proposal reveals a good deal about character and twists the plot in a whole new direction, all in the  ¾ mile ride from Randalls to Hartfield.  Austen is, as ever, economic.

And funny.  Emma mistakes Mr. Elton’s first professions as inspired by too much Christmas wine.  And Elton, taking a page from Mr. Collins, is a hard suitor to unsuit.  Even after Emma assures him he is utterly mistaken in her feelings, as she sits in shocked silence, he takes another stab at matrimony:

“Two moments of silence being ample encouragement for Mr. Elton’s sanguine state of mind, he tried to take her hand again, as he joyously exclaimed: ‘Charming Miss Woodhouse!  Allow me to interpret this interesting silence.  It confesses that you have long understood me.’”

Ah, yet again the brilliance of Austen.  Pairing together just the right words.  Interesting silence.  Two words strung together, if they are exactly the right words, speak volumes. If only I could learn to edit myself like Austen!

So are there any lessons the Christian reader can take from this scene?  Certainly.

  1. Things are not always as they appear.
  2. The successful matchmakers in scripture tend to be older than those whose lives they are arranging.  Naomi did a pretty good job with Ruth and Boaz. Lots of useful man-catching hints about the use of perfume, good clothing, and gleaning.  But if you are in the same age group as your victims – er – the lucky recipients of your interference, you may be mistaken for a primary player instead of a Yenta. Matchmaking, as we see in Sense and Sensibility, is an old woman’s game.
  3. Don’t make important life decisions after nipping at the Christmas wine. Even if your judgment is not impaired, people might assume it is.


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