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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

P.S. re Miss Bates's Revenge

A very good and very smart friend of mine to whom I forwarded my message posted earlier entitled "Miss Bates's Revenge", wrote me back something extraordinarily interesting today, which casts Miss Bate's three SHARP things spoken to Emma in an even deeper and more complex light than I had first argued. Here's what she wrote to me:

"Mrs. Elton, Mrs. Cole and Mrs. Perry are all rude enough to barge in and force Miss Bates hand. Miss Bates knows that Emma could not possibly act as they do or she would be seen as equally barbaric, wanting to get in on the Jane Fairfax Cause Celebre."

That comment immediately made me think of Mr. Collins and his Schadenfreude Moment in P&P, when Collins, in his letter, "condoles' with Mr. Bennet about Lydia.

But, it turned out that my friend was WAY ahead of me, and already had had exactly that same idea:

"The desire to be left alone after some public trauma runs through Austen, think of Elizabeth's disgust at Mr. Collins wanting to condole with them after the Lydia debacle. Sometimes the best thing you can do as a friend is to let someone alone. "

I then responded to my friend that she had in her first sentence already made me realize that Miss Bates was covertly appealing to Emma to overcome her own inner Mr. Collins, exemplified by what he wrote to Mr. Bennet after Lydia's elopement became known:

".... you are grievously to be pitied; in which opinion I am not only joined by Mrs. Collins, but likewise by Lady Catherine and her daughter, to whom I have related the affair. They agree with me in apprehending that this false step in one daughter will be injurious to the fortunes of all the others; for who, as Lady Catherine herself condescendingly says, will connect themselves with such a family? And this consideration leads me moreover to reflect, with augmented satisfaction, on a certain event of last November; for had it been otherwise, I must have been
involved in all your sorrow and disgrace...."

But my friend had gotten the novel confused with Davies's film adaptation---unless I am mistaken, I don't believe that Collins actually comes to Longbourne in the novel. Rather it was Andrew Davies [perhaps having been indirectly or subconsciously inspired by Miss Bates's speech to Emma?---he did, after all, adapt Emma next, but I don't believe he presented a knowing Miss Bates], who saw the dramatic potential of Mr. Collins's "self protection" b.s. in his letter, and chose to have him
actually show up in person at Longbourne, so that he could give Lizzy powerfully ironic lines related, but different from, those that Miss Bates speaks to Emma, i.e., warning Collins, in effect, that he had better get out of Longbourne quick, before some of the skunk smell got in his clothes, so to speak.

All the same, my friend's drawing that parallel between P&P and Emma is, I think, an inspired insight.

So, what to make of the uncomfortable echo of Mr. Collins in Emma's visit to Jane? Does her motivation consist solely of genuine contrition and compassion for Jane, or is there a whiff of unconscious Collinsian schadenfreude in her head? Arguments can be made both ways on that point, I think.

But what I really I love is the added depth this veiled allusion to Mr. Collins brings to my interpretation of the shadow Miss Bates as being fully aware of the effect on Emma of her words. As my friend so aptly put it, this can be construed as a moral test being administered to Emma by Miss Bates--by mentioning the three women in Highbury whom Emma would LEAST like to resemble--in fact, whom it would horrify her to resemble---Miss Bates gives Emma the chance to understand that it's the
thought that counts, and that by NOT pushing herself in, she is being a better person, than if she does push her way in.

So, in addition to taking Emma's ego down three pegs, Miss Bates simultaneously gives Emma a complex moral lesson. Mrs. Elton, Mrs. Perry and Mrs. Cole are , at least in Emma's mind, Emma's social inferiors AND ALSO pushy rude women. So even as Emma's sense of her own STATUS takes three hits in a row, she also learns that she is capable of being superior to those three women in BEHAVIOR. She begins to learn that the only status worth having is the one that is based on the respect earned by doing the right thing.

In a nutshell, Davies's Lizzy Bennet deliberately brings out Mr. Collins's worst, in order to get his odious presence out of Longboure ASAP, whereas the shadow Miss Bates administers to Emma a much-needed ego deflation, but at the same time, having, FOR ONCE, gotten Emma's undivided attention, is appealing to Emma's truly condoling spirit. And she does not waste the opportunity.

A very powerful moment, when viewed in this complex light, which I see as the exact counterpoise of the very powerful moment at Box Hill, when Emma humiliates Miss Bates, and its immediate aftermath, i.e., Knightley's reprimand. It's as though these two scenes are two halves of a large arch, but half the arch is in the light, and half is in the shadow---but when you shine a bright light on the half formerly in the shadow, you suddenly see a full and majestic arch, in all its glory--the
two scenes being, in a real sense, dependent on each other to bear the full "weight" of each of them. The moral education of Emma Woodhouse in two parts.

So Edmund Wilson's reference to Emma as the "Parthenon of Fiction" is an even apter metaphor than I ever previously realized, although perhaps he might better have called Emma the "Chartres Cathedral of Fiction" in order to take into account both the idea of a Gothic arch and also of Gothic fiction.

Cheers, ARNIE

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