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Monday, January 7, 2013

Proverbs 30: Miss Bates takes things into her own hands



In Austen L, Anielka Briggs recently brought forward an exciting discovery, i.e., that Jane Austen alludes to Proverbs 30 in Emma.  I wish to respond in this post to a question that she posed to the group: 
Anielka: "So Essentially when Miss Bates says: ‘THREE THINGS very dull indeed.' That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan't I?’ She is actually saying at an anagogical level ‘Of course I completely agree with the “three things” of Proverbs’ and accidentally condemning herself out of her own mouth But when Emma says “"Ah! ma'am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me, but you will be LIMITED as to number -- only three at once."” She (Emma) points at the very specific verse at which Agur/Solomon says one CANNOT have a fourth thing. And that fourth thing is, very, very specifically “an handmaid that is heir to her mistress.” This is the thing that somehow upsets Miss Bates  Surely SOMEONE can work it out now? Diane? Alicia? Elissa? Arnie?"  END QUOTE

Anielka, an hour ago, I answered your questions regarding three of the four things described in verses 21-23 of Proverbs 30. But, as soon as I sent that message, I got the idea that the four things described in verses 24-28 were, in one very important way, an even better fit with Emma's limitation of Miss Bates to “three things” but not the fourth.  Let’s see if I can convince you.

Here are verses 24-28:

There be four things which are little upon the earth, but they are exceeding wise:
The ants are a people not strong, yet they prepare their meat in the summer;
The conies are but a feeble folk, yet make they their houses in the rocks;
The locusts have no king, yet go they forth all of them by bands;
The spider taketh hold with her hands, and is in kings' palaces.

Now, there's something very intriguing about the category of "things which are little upon the earth, but they are exceedingly wise"---that, to me, perfectly expresses Jane Austen's view of woman in English society--women are not only physically smaller, they are also treated as "smaller" by English law and custom, as I articulated recently here:

http://lists.mcgill.ca/scripts/wa.exe?A2=ind1209C&L=AUSTEN-L&P=R2180&I=-3

In particular I wrote:

"But of course, if we reflect still further, Bingley's premise is ridiculous on its face in either instance, because in any sane society past the caveman stage of human evolution, the height and size of a person's body should have absolutely no bearing whatsoever on whether that person's arguments are given greater weight. And that's the feminist "Gotcha!" in Bingley's (and Jane Austen's) punning conceit---because it happened to be the case in Jane Austen's society that the comparative height and size of two persons did decisively impact on the weight given to those persons in an argument between them in one common class of interactions---when the smaller people (i.e., the women) were paid much less deference than the larger people (i.e., the men)! That was the story Jane Austen kept returning to over and over, particularly in the Defence of the Novel in NA and in Ann Elliot's "holding the pen" speech in Persuasion---in the strange society known as England during Jane Austen's lifetime, the smaller people, i.e., the women, were routinely ignored and silenced, whereas the larger people, i.e., the men, held not only the pen but also the wheels of power and the center of the stage. And all sorts of arguments were presented (mostly by the larger people) justifying this peculiar imbalance. All of a sudden, we find ourselves in Swiftian terrain---in Lilliput and Brobdignag, where a seemingly silly, trivial bit of absurdity turns out to hold great significance. So my guess is that Bingley, for all his self-presentation as an impulsive, shallow thinker, actually read Gulliver's Travels and believed that the arguments of "short people" should be given extra weight. ;)"

So...I assert that Jane Austen would read "things which are little upon the earth" in Proverbs 30:24  as "women"!

And as to the "exceeding wise" part, isn't that the heart of Emma's insult of Miss Bates, because Emma believes Miss Bates is the opposite of "exceeding wise"--she considers her "exceeding stupid"!

But, as I've argued a hundred times, Miss Bates, in the shadow story, is indeed "exceeding wise".

And that’s where Emma’s limitation comes in. Emma is always wrong, so when she limits Miss Bates, she could be said to be speaking within the exclusionary rule of verses 21-23. But Emma didn't realize that the more apt stanza was verses 25-27, where there was no such limit on the fourth thing, therefore the fourth thing should be the one that Miss Bates could justly say.  And look, the first three things describes ants, conies, and locusts---I don’t see anything in those verses that resonates to any character in Emma. But verse 28, describing that fourth thing, is the jackpot:

“The spider taketh hold with her hands, and is in kings' palaces.”

That verse resonates like Big Ben’s bell to Miss Bates! I am 100% convinced that in the shadows of Highbury, Miss Bates operates exactly like a spider, spinning her web into every corner of the community--not only encompassing the poorer folk and single women like herself, but also “in king’s palaces”, i.e., she moves easily in the first circle (Dantean meaning included) of Highbury, invited to all functions of the elite: the Woodhouses , Mr. Knightley, and the Coles.

And as I imagine Miss Bates’s covert actions, she truly does take matters into her own hands. She invisibly influences the pressing of the levers of power in a very Biblical way, behind the scenes, the way Sarah, Rebecca , Leah and Rachel, Tamar, etc all get their way in Genesis.

As I've been saying all along, Jane Austen's six novels are a female Torah (or, technically, a Heptateuch), and now i can add, it is written in letters of silk.

And perhaps that's why Jane Austen has the "odious" Mrs. Elton make the following comment at the very end of the novel, after Miss Bates the spider woman has saved Jane Fairfax from the evil clutches of the venomous Mrs. Elton:

"Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business!"  

Of course, satin was made from silk!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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