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Saturday, February 2, 2013

Letter 94 and Emma: Miss Milles, Miss Bates, and Miss (Jane) Austen: All (Not so) Foolishly Minute




 During our group read of Jane Austen’s letters in Austen L and Janeites, Diana Birchall made the following observation the other day about a passage in Letter 94:

Diana: "Mrs. Milles was a very elderly widow, then ninety years old, and lives in rented houses with her daughter, who is quite the garrulous one, a regular "Jane Austen character": "Miss Milles was queer as usual & provided us with plenty to laugh at. She undertook in three words to give us the history of Mrs. Scudamore's reconciliation, & then talked on about it for half an hour, using such odd expressions & so foolishly minute that I could hardly keep my countenance." No, Jane's kind side isn't showing, but her observant and amused one is, and perhaps here we are seeing her at the work of coolly examining her neighbors, which helps her to obtain "two strong twigs and a half" toward a work of her own."  END QUOTE

Of course that character is Miss Bates, Diana, especially when we read the following later in that paragraph in Letter 94: "We may guess how that point will be discussed, evening after evening."

I think it's fascinating that JA chose Miss Milles as a "mask" for herself in Emma, and I would guess that Miss Milles, for all her garrulousness, was no fool, and that JA liked her a lot, for all her laughing at her with CEA--the key point is that JA would not have insulted Miss Milles to her face, as Emma did to Miss Bates.

I think JA was well aware of Miss Milles, aka Miss Bates, being on the ball: "Of course that character is Miss Bates, especially when we read the following later in the letter: "We may guess how that point will be discussed, evening after evening." I think it's fascinating that JA chose Miss Milles as a "mask" for herself in Emma, and I would guess that Miss Milles, for all her garrulousness, was no fool, and that JA liked her a lot, for all her laughing at her with CEA--the key point is that JA would not have insulted Miss Milles to her face, as Emma did to Miss Bates." JA was aware that there were many in her world who, like Sir Walter vis a vis Mrs. Smith, looked upon her (i.e., JA herself) as a "mere spinster aunt". And JA knew that Miss Milles was capable of trumping others, and that's why JA finessed the spirit of Miss Milles into Miss Bates!"

I previously found very precise textual verification of the very conscious connection that JA was making among Miss Milles, her new creation Miss Bates (the action of Emma actually begins on almost exactly the same date as Letter 94, and JA surely had already started dreaming about Emma even as she was not quite done getting MP out in print), and herself.

The key words in this verification are "foolishly minute", and here's where we see them:

ONE: In Letter 94 dated October 26, 1813, re Miss Milles: "Miss Milles was queer as usual, and provided us with plenty to laugh at. She undertook in three words to give us the history of Mrs. Scudamore's reconciliation, and then talked on about it for half-an-hour, using such odd expressions, and so FOOLISHLY MINUTE, that I could hardly keep my countenance."

Note that JA herself underscores Miss Milles's "three words", which of course reminds us, not coincidentally of Miss Bates saying "I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan't I?" .

TWO: In Letter 96 dated November 6, 1813: "I will give you some account of the last two days. And yet, what is there to be told? I shall get FOOLISHLY MINUTE unless I cut the matter short.....I liked her for being in a hurry to have the concert over and get away, and for getting away at last with a great deal of decision and promptness, not waiting to compliment and dawdle and fuss about seeing /dear Fanny/, who was half the evening in another part of the room with her friends the Plumptres. I am growing TOO MINUTE, so I will go to breakfast.

So, in one letter to CEA, JA refers to Miss Milles as "foolishly minute", and then, in a second letter to CEA, written only 11 days later, JA refers to herself as "foolishly minute", and then again calls herself "too minute" a few lines later.

Clearly JA is thinking of herself in parallel with Miss Milles, and I suggest that this is perhaps the instant when JA first decides to model Miss Bates on herself wearing the mask of Miss Milles! And JA's clearly having a really good time thinking about this, and bubbling over about it in a clever satirical way in her letters to CEA at that time.

THREE: And here is further evidence of all this in the text of Emma:

Emma, Chapter 3, re Miss Bates: "She was a great talker upon little matters..."

And of course Knightley's pithy aphorism on the subject of minuteness:

"Your friend Harriet will make a much longer history when you see her.—She will give you all the MINUTE PARTICULARS, which only woman's language can make interesting.—In our communications we deal only in the great."

Indeed, the language of JA the woman makes everything, including all the minute particulars which collectively give us the miracle of Emma, very interesting indeed!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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