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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Must not compliment...that would be rude

In _Those Elegant Decorums: the Concept of Propriety in Jane Austen's Novels_, Jane Nardin writes the following at P. 113:

“Emma dislikes Miss Bates and the whole reason for this cannot be found in Miss Bates’s tediousness, for Emma’s beloved father and sister are at least equally vapid, if not quite so verbose. Miss Bates admires Emma greatly, but it is always clear to Emma that Jane Fairfax, whom she regards as a threatening rival, holds the first place in Miss Bates’s affection and esteem. The sort of admiration Miss Bates bestow on Emma—for example, at the Crown ball, ‘Upon my word Miss Woodhouse, you do look—how do you like Jane’s hair?...She did it all herself. Quite wonderful how she does her hair’ “—is neither focused enough, nor, more important, exclusive enough, to
please one who is always so eager to be first. But Emma’s interaction with Miss Bates is unsatisfactory primarily because it focuses so exclusively on Jane. Every time Emma sees Miss Bates, some ego-deflating reminder of Jane’s superior virtues and accomplishments is ‘forced on her against her will’—and probably it is doubly
humiliating to Emma that anyone so dull as Miss Bates should possess this power to unsettle her.”

I think Nardin is onto something very important, which fits very nicely with my recent posts about Miss Bates’s covert revenge in thrice denying Emma entrance to see Jane. The above-quoted passage seems to me to suggest that Miss Bates’s listing, for Emma's benefit, the three women whom she DID allow to see Jane, is not merely revenge on Emma for her attack on Miss Bates at Box Hill---the above passage occurs PRIOR to Box Hill.

Mainly, I find there is pointed, and piquant, irony in Nardin’s notion that Emma, for all her professed boredom at Miss Bates’s long speeches, might in spite of herself be wanting, even yearning, to be complimented by her—that in some way the praise Emma gets from her father feels to her as thin as the gruel he eats, and Mr. Knightley rarely bestows unadulterated praise on Emma, whereas Miss Bates’s praise of Jane is always rich and satisfying, her cup truly runs over while doting on Jane. Perhaps at these moments, Emma , unconsciously, feels her lack of a mother most acutely?

Anyway, here is everything Miss Bates says to Emma at that moment, it’s interesting to see the full context:

“Ah! here's Miss Woodhouse. Dear Miss Woodhouse, how do you do? Very well I thank you, quite well. This is meeting quite in fairy-land! Such a transformation! Must not compliment, I know -- (eyeing Emma most complacently) -- that would be rude -- but upon my word, Miss Woodhouse, you do look -- how do you like Jane's hair? You are a judge. She did it all herself. Quite wonderful how she does her hair! No hairdresser from London I think could.”

So we see Miss Bates start to give Emma a compliment but then she stops. And what does she mean by “must not compliment…that would be rude”? Must not compliment Emma? That would be rude to whom, Emma? Perhaps the idea is that it’s vulgar to be too complimentary? But certainly, Emma must be disconcerted by Miss Bates first starting to compliment her, then dropping it completely and abruptly in favor of a compliment to Jane, even asking Emma to join in the compliment to Jane, and then talking to a few other people, never returning to Emma.. This seems to me to be another example of Miss Bates taking Emma down a peg.

Cheers, ARNIE

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