In followup to my posts the other day about Jane Austen’s punning on variants of the word “common” in P&P with respect to social class, I was just browsing in Emma, which perhaps is the Austen novel most pervasively concerned with matters of social class – mainly because Emma is, far and away, the Austen heroine most obsessed with such matters, and in the snobbiest way imaginable! I figured there has to be some revisiting of that punning somewhere in Emma, and as you’ll see, below, there is.
My eye was quickly caught by the following passage in Chapter 3:
“Mrs. Bates, the widow of a former vicar of Highbury, was a very old lady, almost past every thing but tea and quadrille. She lived with her single daughter in a very small way, and was considered with all the regard and respect which a harmless old lady, under such untoward circumstances, can excite. Her daughter enjoyed A MOST UNCOMMON DEGREE OF POPULARITY for a woman neither young, handsome, rich, nor married.”
While the surface meaning of “uncommon” as “unusual” is perfectly intelligible, I also detect that alternative, punny meaning of “uncommon” as “not a commoner” as having been intended by JA. Here we have JA setting Miss Bates (whom JA doesn’t even name beyond “her single daughter”, so as to subtly emphasize her being “nobody”, in Emma’s terminology) in the context of her social world. So this is precisely where a pun on status would be most appropriate and telling.
The whiff of royalty in that punning “most uncommon” also reminded me of Princess Caroline, who was very popular among the English people despite her all-too-public missteps, and I believe JA meant for the unfortunate Princess to come to mind for her contemporary readers as well, when reading those introductory words about Miss Bates. This is especially so, given (as I wrote not long ago) that JA, later in the novel, covertly, but unmistakably, alludes to Princess Caroline and her open letter to her husband the Prince Regent strenuously objecting to being denied parental access to her own daughter, Princess Charlotte.
I went on searching in Emma for further punning on “common” vis a vis Miss Bates, and look what I found next, in this noblesse oblige passage in Chapter 21:
“Emma saw [Knightley’s] anxiety, and wishing to appease it, at least for the present, said, and with a sincerity which no one could question—"[Jane] is a sort of elegant creature that one cannot keep one's eyes from. I am always watching her to admire; and I do pity her from my heart."
Mr. Knightley looked as if he were more gratified than he cared to express; and before he could make any reply, Mr. Woodhouse, whose thoughts were on the Bates's, said—"It is a great pity that their circumstances should be so confined! a great pity indeed! and I have often wished—but it is so little one can venture to do—small, trifling presents, of ANY THING UNCOMMON—Now we have killed a porker, and Emma thinks of sending them a loin or a leg…”
This passage is all about the condescension of the (self-styled) great to the little people, and so it is a wry irony indeed for Mr. Woodhouse to refer to his own hypocritical self congratulation via the word “uncommon”!
Based on those two examples, we cannot be surprised to find a third at the very end of the Box Hill episode in Chapter 43, as Emma reflects on her own behavior:
“She felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates! How could she have exposed herself to such ill opinion in any one she valued! And how suffer him to leave her without saying one word of gratitude, of concurrence, OF COMMON KINDNESS!”
But then, two chapters later, “common” pops up again in the context of Emma’s attempts to repair the classist damage she caused at Box Hill:
“…Dear Emma has been to call on Mrs. and Miss Bates, Mr. Knightley, as I told you before. She is always so attentive to them!"
Emma's colour was heightened by this unjust praise; and with a smile, and shake of the head, which spoke much, she looked at Mr. Knightley.—It seemed as if there were an instantaneous impression in her favour, as if his eyes received the truth from hers, and all that had passed of good in her feelings were at once caught and honoured.--He looked at her with a glow of regard. She was warmly gratified—and in another moment still more so, by a little movement of more than COMMON FRIENDLINESS on his part.—He took her hand…”
In Chapter 52, we read one of Miss Bates’s shorter effusions, which includes the word “commonly”:
"Thank you, dear Miss Woodhouse, you are all kindness.—It is impossible to say—Yes, indeed, I quite understand—dearest Jane's prospects—that is, I do not mean.—But she is charmingly recovered.—How is Mr. Woodhouse?—I am so glad.—Quite out of my power.—Such a happy little circle as you find us here.—Yes, indeed.—Charming young man!—that is—so very friendly; I mean good Mr. Perry!—such attention to Jane!"—And from her great, her MORE THAN COMMONLY THANKFUL DELIGHT towards Mrs. Elton for being there, Emma guessed that there had been a little show of resentment towards Jane, from the vicarage quarter, which was now graciously overcome.”
It’s very interesting to see the phrase “more than commonly” used to describe the thankfulness expressed by Miss Bates to Mrs. Elton for visiting. Emma guesses that this is Miss Bates’s response to some prior expression of resentment not witnessed by Emma, arising from Jane’s ultimate rejection of Mrs. Elton’s endless parade of noblesse oblige, in seeking to strand Jane in a governessing position. Once more the word “common” has been used with respect to Miss Bates in a context saturated with interclass relations.
And finally, in Chapter 54, we get an echo of Darcy’s and Eliza’s “uncommon” repartee at the Netherfield Ball (which I wrote about the other day), when Frank speaks to Emma about his now unconcealed fiancée Jane:
“…Emma was delighted, and only wanted him to go on in the same style; but [Frank’s] mind was the next moment in his own concerns and with his own Jane, and his next words were, "Did you ever see such a skin?—such smoothness! such delicacy!—and yet without being actually fair.—One cannot call her fair. It is A MOST UNCOMMON COMPLEXION, with her dark eye-lashes and hair—A MOST DISTINGUISHING COMPLEXION! SO PECULIARLY THE LADY IN IT.—Just colour enough for beauty."
“So peculiarly the lady in it”--- the pun on class in “uncommon” is in this final iteration in Emma subtly but clearly foregrounded by Frank explicitly suggesting that Jane’s delicate beauty gives her a free pass into the higher class. The arc begun with emphasis on the lowness of Miss Bates has now been turned topsy turvy, as her beloved niece is now not only “nobody” anymore, but is expected to shortly become the great lady of Enscombe, taking the place recently occupied by Frank’s imperious aunt – so in that sense, we may expect Miss Bates to join her niece at Enscombe, whereupon we may channel Mr. Weston and say that Miss Bates will regain and even outstrip her long-lost social elevation, and thereby out-Churchill the late great Mrs. Churchill! ;)
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