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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Miss Bates's Revenge

In Chapter 45 [of Emma], I never really noticed before how many times, and in how many ways, in the space of a few short paragraphs, Jane (via Miss Bates) rejects Emma's repeated attempts to make up for 6 months of ignoring Jane, and suddenly starts trying to show Jane some major "condescension"--only to be rebuffed and rebuffed, etc etc. But as is so often the case, once I looked closely at this passage, I felt like Alice falling down a deep wormhole into a parallel universe:

[And, by the way, my purpose in citing this passage is NOT to point to the many clues in Chapter 45 which point to Jane's concealed pregnancy--I note this merely in passing, and then leave it to those so inclined to take note of them, and to everyone else to ignore them.]

This rat-a-tat of rapid-fire repeated rejections by Jane of Emma's friendly overtures is so delicately handled by JA that the tone never crosses the line into absurdist humor--instead, at this point in the novel, as at so many others, the tone sits exquisitely poised on a razor's edge between poignancy and burlesque. But some of it is just flat-out comical--and the part that strikes me particularly funny---and very significant thematically-- is the following:

"Emma wished she could have seen [Jane], and tried her own powers; but, almost before she could hint the wish, Miss Bates made it appear that she had promised her niece on no account to let Miss Woodhouse in. "Indeed, the truth was, that poor dear Jane could not bear to see anybody -- anybody at all -- Mrs. Elton, indeed, could not be denied -- and Mrs. Cole had made such a point -- and Mrs. Perry had said so much -- but, except them, Jane would really see nobody."

Think about what that narration is actually saying--Emma, for just a second, flirts with the unthinkable thought that Jane has instructed Miss Bates to keep away Emma AND EMMA ALONE! And look at how Miss Bates conveys that message, unmistakably, while taking great pains to seem to be apologetic every step of the way--it's a cavalcade of indirect humiliation for Emma, as Miss Bates, with the delicate touch of a brain surgeon, takes Emma down one peg at a time--first Mrs. Elton, then Mrs. Cole, THEN Mrs. Perry. Each of these women has at one or more points in the novel been, in the theater of Emma's mind, at the butt-end of Emma's snobbish, elitist sense of social superiority. Now suddenly ALL three of these "social climbers" have easy entree to Jane's inner sanctum, but Emma, only Emma, apparently does not. Like a foursome of twentysomethings trying to crash a trendy, in-crowd dance club, and the three nerds get in, but, inexplicably, the uber-snob, the one who thought she'd be the one to help her "loser" friends get in, winds up alone on the sidewalk cooling her high heels, whining to the bouncer, who politely makes it clear, in a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare, that she's NEVER getting in!

And for all these reasons, it is difficult for me to escape the amazing possibility that this is actually Miss Bates's intentional revenge on Emma, but one which is delivered with infinitely more subtle wit than Emma's heavy joke at Miss Bates's expense up on Box Hill. Look at Emma's "bon mot" which she thinks is so clever and funny:

"Ah! ma'am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me, but you will be limited as to number -- only THREE [dull things] at once."

Ha ha ha. Not very funny, and not very nice. And here, two chapters later, is it just a coincidence that we have Miss Bates delivering not one, not two, but THREE very clever rapier thrusts (Mrs. Elton---Mrs. Cole---Mrs. Perry) deep into Emma's snobbish heart? And Emma never even knows that it's intentional. Talk about ultimate karmic payback.....

And in that light, think of the tremendous irony of that last clause: "...Jane would really see nobody"--

In this case, Jane literally would really see ALL the 'nobodies', but pointedly will NOT see the only female "somebody" in Highbury!

And where else have we heard "nobody" personified?

How about when Emma herself, in Chapter 8, attempts to rationalize to Knightley that it is Harriet who would be marrying a social inferior in Mr. Martin, but then her own unconscious snobbery gets the better of her, and undercuts her own argument:
"As to the circumstances of her birth, THOUGH IN A LEGAL SENSE SHE MAY BE CALLED NOBODY, it will not hold in common sense."

And in another JA novel, of course, we have Sir Walter, the king of social put-downs, who himself is forced by circumstances beyond his control to refine his earlier relegation of Wentworth to the land of Nobodies:

"Captain Wentworth, with five-and-twenty thousand pounds, and as high in his profession as merit and activity could place him, WAS NO LONGER NOBODY."

And so JA has put into the mouth of Miss Bates the veiled statement that at this moment at least, Jane has the power to see all the "nobodies" she wants, and to refuse to see the one "somebody" who is so doggedly insistent on her right to "pay attention" to Jane. Like Anne Elliot taking a stand and going to see "a Mrs. Smith" instead of the great Dalrymples. In that sense, Emma is like Persuasion, if it had been told from the point of view of Elizabeth Elliot.

And, to cap all of this off, lest we be tempted to feel too sorry for Emma, because perhaps Miss Bates has actually drawn too much blood with her sharp-edged wit, JA turns the screw one additional turn, when she even invites us to question the genuineness of Emma's contrition, when we read her reactions to all of the above in the last paragraph of that Chapter 45:

"When Emma afterwards heard that Jane Fairfax had been seen wandering about the meadows, at some distance from Highbury, on the afternoon of the very day on which she had, under the plea of being unequal to any exercise, so peremptorily refused to go out with her in the carriage, she could have no doubt -- PUTTING EVERY THING TOGETHER -- that Jane was resolved to receive no kindness from _her_. She was sorry, very sorry. Her heart was grieved for a state which seemed but the more pitiable from this sort of irritation of spirits, inconsistency of action, and inequality of powers; and it mortified her that she was given so little credit for proper feeling, or esteemed so little worthy as a friend: but SHE HAD THE CONSOLATION of knowing that her intentions were good, and of being able to say to herself, that COULD MR. KNIGHTLEY HAVE BEEN PRIVY to all her attempts of assisting Jane Fairfax, could he even have seen into her heart, he would not, on this occasion, have found any thing to reprove."

First, there is the humor of Emma thinking she is some Regency Era Miss Marple, "putting every thing together"--this shows how dull Emma really can be when her narcissism is activated, that she has somehow not realized long before Jane's final refusal "that Jane was resolved to receive no kindness from her." In the words of Homer Simpson--DOH!!!!!!!!! Talk about a narcissistic injury of Brobdingnagian proportions! But in the end of the day, Emma winds up feeling sorry for herself, her sympathy with Jane has evaporated, and all that is left is the sad little girl who wants Mr. Knightley to pat her on the head and say "Well done."

The genius of JA has never been more omnipresent than in this passage which is so easy to flip past in order to get to the "real action".

Emma is indeed the Parthenon (indeed, the Colossus) of fiction.
As a quick p.s. to my previous message which, in part, was about Miss Bates's comment about Jane and "nobody", I just checked, and found that the word "nobody" appears 73 times in Emma, 54 times in MP, but not more than 20 times in any of the other four novels.

Food for thought, in terms of why Emma, but also MP, would stand out in that curious way, given that you'd ordinarily expect a very common generic word like "nobody" to appear with equal frequency throughout all her fiction.

The short answer is, I think, that even a word like "nobody" could take on special meaning for JA in a given novel or two.

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