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.