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Saturday, September 19, 2015

“Our lot is cast in a goodly heritage”—Miss Bates’s proverbial psalm of….defiance and outrage!



In Chapter 21 of Emma, we read the morning-after debriefing at Hartfield of the visit there the previous evening by the Bates ladies, on the occasion of Jane’s arrival in Highbury. Emma and her father discuss the “small, trifling present” that Emma has just made to Miss Bates of a whole hind-quarter from the recently slaughtered Hartfield “porker”, while Mr. Knightley enjoys Emma’s attentions to Jane. That is  when they are interrupted by Miss Bates’s sudden bursting on the scene, with Jane in tow. After Miss Bates scoops Knightley on the news of the engagement of Mr. Elton to Miss Hawkins, we then hear the following brief exchange about the gift before the return of the hot topic of the Elton engagement:

“…My dear sir, you really are too bountiful. My mother desires her very best compliments and regards, and a thousand thanks, and says you really quite oppress her."
"We consider our Hartfield pork," replied Mr. Woodhouse—"indeed it certainly is, so very superior to all other pork, that Emma and I cannot have a greater pleasure than—"
"Oh! my dear sir, as my mother says, our friends are only too good to us. If ever there were people who, without having great wealth themselves, had every thing they could wish for, I am sure it is us. We may well say that 'our lot is cast in a goodly heritage’….."  END QUOTE

The universally acknowledged correct reading of Miss Bates’s obviously Biblical comment is R.W. Chapman’s in his 1933 Notes on Emma, when he suggests that Miss Bates has inadvertently slightly misquoted Psalm 16:6, and also has recalled that verse as translated in the Prayer Book version...

5 The Lord himself is the portion of mine inheritance, and of my cup; thou shalt maintain MY LOT.
6  THE LOT is fallen unto me in a fair ground: yea, I have a GOOD HERITAGE”

…rather than the less similar King James Bible version: “

5 The Lord is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup: thou maintainest MY LOT.
6 THE LINES are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have A GOODLY HERITAGE.

Chapman has been universally followed by every published Austen scholarly comment, including Tandon’s 2012 edition of Emma, Baker’s 2008 Critical Companion to JA, Littlewood’s 1997 Critical Assessments, Doody’s new book, & Mooneyham White’s 2013 Jane Austen’s Anglicanism. And Tucker took them all one step further, by entitling his 1983 history of the Austen family A Goodly Heritage.

Universally, that is, by all except myself. In 2011, in Janeites, I wrote:  “…as I see Miss Bates as a self portrait of JA , this reaffirms what I already believed, which is that Miss Bates only pretends to be content with the "goodly heritage" that has fallen to her, while she works behind the scenes to even the score a bit for herself and Jane. Wickedly satirical, yes--but justified? Yes!”

In other words, as I’ve often opined, I see Miss Bates, on this and other occasions, as only pretending to be grateful to the Woodhouses for the scraps they toss her way from their bountiful table, while she covertly (ergo, safely), satirically vents her spleen at them, taking cover from their universal disrespect and ignoring of the deeper meanings concealed beneath her abundant flow of “silly” words.

Today, with 4 more years of Austen sleuthing under my belt, and readier to look back at JA’s allusive sources for her veiled quotations in full original context, I revisit my 2011 opinion, and show how Miss Bates, Jane Austen’s alter ego, used her superior Biblical knowledge to have it both ways—i.e., to defy and indict Mr. Woodhouse and Emma for their hypocritical show of “generosity” to the poor Bates household, even as she retains deniability of any such subversive meaning.

On the surface, Miss Bates seems to flatter Knightley and Mr. Woodhouse for their generosity, in synch with the context of the apparent source, Psalms Chapter 16, which goes as follows:

1 Preserve me, O God: for in thee do I put my trust.
2 O my soul, thou hast said unto the Lord, Thou art my Lord: my goodness extendeth not to thee;
3 But to the saints that are in the earth, and to the excellent, in whom is all my delight.
4 Their sorrows shall be multiplied that hasten after another god: their drink offerings of blood will I not offer, nor take up their names into my lips.
5 The Lord is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup: thou maintainest MY LOT.
6 The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have A GOODLY HERITAGE.
7 I will bless the Lord, who hath given me counsel: my reins also instruct me in the night seasons.
8 I have set the Lord always before me: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
9 Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope.
10 For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.
11 Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.

There is no trace of irony, no ;cloud of doubt, in this ode of thanksgiving for the joy and everlasting pleasure of a life lived in piety and grateful worship of God. And so, this is what Emma and her father take as an effusion of thanks to them for their (in Mr. Woodhouse’s humble bragging) ‘trifling gift”.

But under the surface, I maintain that Miss Bates, via her “misquotation”, is actually drawing on two other Biblical passages, which indicate a subversion, a thumbing of her nose at the “generosity” she is expected to be effusively thankful for--- and a veiled threat that it is she who will end up in God’s favor, not her “benefactors”!

Specifically, her statement that “Our lot is CAST…” rather than “Our lot is FALLEN”, takes us to another Chapter 16 in the Writings portion of the Bible—not Psalms, but Proverbs! Here is are the relevant passages in Proverbs Chapter 16, with the key words and phrases in italics and/or ALL CAPS for easy visibility (including the very famous and often quoted/paraphrased Verse 18)

5 Every one that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord: though hand join in hand, he shall not be unpunished.
6 By mercy and truth iniquity is purged: and by the fear of the Lord men depart from evil.
7 When a man's ways please the Lord, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.
8 Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues without right.
9 A man's heart deviseth his way: but the Lord directeth his steps.
10 A divine sentence is in the lips of the king: his mouth transgresseth not in judgment.
11 Ajust weight and balance are the Lord's: all the weights of the bag are his work.
12 It is an abomination to kings to commit wickedness: for the throne is established by righteousness.
13 Righteous lips are the delight of kings; and they love him that speaketh right.
14  The wrath of a king is as messengers of death: but a wise man will pacify it.
15 In the light of the king's countenance is life; and his favour is as a cloud of the latter rain.
16 How much better is it to get wisdom than gold! and to get understanding rather to be chosen than silver!
17 The highway of the upright is to depart from evil: he that keepeth his way preserveth his soul.
18 Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.
19 Better it is to be of an humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud.
31 The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness.
32  He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.
33  THE LOT IS CAST into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord.

Notice that Verse 33 refers to a lot being cast, which is exactly how Miss Bates puts it. And how much closer to the context of Miss Bates’s quotation, in apparent giving of thanks to the Woodhouses, is Chapter 16 of Proverbs than is Chapter 16 of Psalms! I.e., Verses 7-8, 12-16, 18-19, and 31-32 are all about the relationship between the poor and the rich & mighty-how it’s dangerous to incur a king’s wrath, and wise to attract his favor. But also how it is better to gain wisdom than to gain gold, and to avoid the fall and destruction that can ensue from pride and a haughty spirit.  Proverbs 16 is morally complex, in a way that Psalms 16 is not.

And that final Verse 33, the one that Miss Bates tags, is the punch line of Chapter 16. The lot cast into the lap of the Bates family, in terms of material wealth, is what we’d today call the “short straw”-- but (that “but” is crucial) the reference to “the whole diposing thereof” being “of the Lord, is a warning to the rich and powerful—the Lord will judge everyone in the end according to how wisely and righteously one has lived one’s life, not by their material wealth!

And I did mention a third Biblical source which Miss Bates slyly alluded to, and it is another passage which has attracted puzzled responses from some close Janeite readers. Have you ever been caught up short by Miss Bates, in that same little speech, reporting Mrs. Bates’s message to Mr. Woodhouse?:
“You quite oppress her.”  Most Janeites slide right by this comment, taking it as another example of Miss Bates’s tendency to misuse the English language. I.e., she goes overboard in effusing how great is her mother’s gratitude toward her old friend Mr. Woodhouse for his generosity—whereas a more careful speaker might have said “You quite overwhelm her” or “She is at a loss for words .”

But those two alternative  word choices would not have pointed the Biblically savvy reader to yet another passage in Biblical Writings—Psalms Chapter 12:

1 Help, Lord; for the godly man ceaseth; for the faithful fail from among the children of men.
2 They speak vanity every one with his neighbour: with flattering lips and with a double heart do they speak.
3 The Lord shall cut off all flattering lips, and the tongue that speaketh proud things:
4 Who have said, With our tongue will we prevail; our lips are our own: who is lord over us?
5 For the OPPRESSION of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, saith the Lord; I will set him in safety from him that puffeth at him.

I read Miss Bates, by her clever “misuse” of the word “oppress”, as saying, in code, “I am flattering you Woodhouses, and am speaking with a double heart, because I have no other choice if I want the Bates women to survive their hardship. But the real hypocrisy is yours, in wearing the mask of generosity while you feast and we starve, and for that “oppression of the poor”, rest assured that the Lord will set us in safety—and beware what punishment you will suffer.” That’s the same defiant, righteously angry tone that I have suggested Jane Austen struck in her final written words,; those of the poem she dictated to Cassandra from her deathbed, “Winchester Races” less than a year and a half after Emma was published.

And finally, speaking of “oppression”, there are three more usages in Emma, and each one fits in a different way with my above reading of Miss Bates’s usage:

First, during the idyllic (at least for Emma) day at Donwell Abbey, Emma muses: “It was a sweet view—sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being OPPRESSIVE.” In her privileged world, she feels no oppression.

Contrast that to what Jane says to Frank, in code, at Box Hill:  "I was only going to observe, that though such unfortunate circumstances do sometimes occur both to men and women, I cannot imagine them to be very frequent. A hasty and imprudent attachment may arise—but there is generally time to recover from it afterwards. I would be understood to mean, that it can be only weak, irresolute characters, (whose happiness must be always at the mercy of chance,) who will suffer an unfortunate acquaintance to be an inconvenience, an OPPRESSION for ever." It is interesting to read Jane’s stirring words as they apply to her aunt, as I read it as Miss Bates’s rallying cry, her defiant unwillingness to suffer her acquaintance with the Woodhouses as “an oppression for ever”!

And finally, as Emma and Knightley jest with each other about their upcoming marriage, we read: "Oh!" she cried with more thorough gaiety, "if you fancy your brother does not do me justice, only wait till my dear father is in the secret, and hear his opinion. Depend upon it, he will be much farther from doing you justice. He will think all the happiness, all the advantage, on your side of the question; all the merit on mine. I wish I may not sink into 'poor Emma' with him at once.—His tender compassion towards OPPRESSED worth can go no farther."  Emma jokes about her soon to be double brother in law’s attitude toward herself, but it is the lack of genuinely “tender compassion towards oppressed worth” that the Woodhouses and Knightleys show toward the Bateses that has all too finite limits.

And all of the above illustrates that the “goodly heritage” of JA’s novels and letters is the inheritance or “lot” which all Janeites find cast into our laps, once we delve deeply into JA’s writing and world.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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