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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Miss Bates's Solicitude for their Shoes & Jane Fairfax's Declaration about Thick Shoes: The Poop of Highbury

In Austen L and Janeites, Diane Reynolds responded to all my Austen poop posts as follows:

"Yes, I agree with Arnie and Diana about the poop. In Lizzie's case it is probably horse poop. In  Emma, and in Persuasion, in Bath especially, in a poor section, it could be human poop and probably was, as sanitation was hardly sophisticated. One of the issues that comes up in Victorian novels--ie, by Mrs. Gaskell-- was what was called "stepping in ashes" in the poor parts of big cities--the "ashes" were human feces, covered over in ashes and Gaskell was calling out the living conditions. People lived in increasingly crowded conditions (JA is at the cusp of these changes), there are no flush toilets, no trash removal ... these are problems. The smell must have been horrid."

That fits perfectly, doesn't it? I only wonder whether Gaskell, who of course knew Austen's writing very well indeed, picked up on this subtext of urban poop in Persuasion and Emma?

And now I would like to add what I believe will be my final evidence in support of this subtext, which is the curious preoccupation with shoes at various “random” places in the text of Emma.

First in Chapter 15, we have Isabella being surprisingly pragmatic and flexible about doing whatever it takes to get back to Hartfield from Randalls as the snow begins to fall:

"You had better order the carriage directly, my love," said [Isabella]; "I dare say we shall be able to get along, if we set off directly; and if we do come to any thing very bad, I can get out and walk. I am not at all afraid. I should not mind walking half the way. I could change my shoes, you know, the moment I got home; and it is not the sort of thing that gives me cold."

Sure it could be snow that would make it desirable to take off her shoes as soon as she got home, but I wonder whether it might be a very unpleasant cocktail of snow and horse poop that would be trebly nasty to get on one’s shoes!

 Then in Chapter 19, we have narration describing Miss Bates’s extreme hospitality when visited by Emma and Harriet:

“The house belonged to people in business. Mrs. and Miss Bates occupied the drawing-room floor; and there, in the very moderate sized apartment, which was every thing to them, the visitors were most cordially and even gratefully welcomed; the quiet neat old lady, who with her knitting was seated in the warmest corner, wanting even to give up her place to Miss Woodhouse, and her more active, talking daughter, almost ready to overpower them with care and kindness, thanks for their visit, solicitude for their shoes....

It can’t be wet shoes that Miss Bates expresses solicitude for, because it hasn’t been raining—”Emma and Harriet had been walking together one morning…They were just approaching the house where lived Mrs. and Miss Bates….” So, it’s clear that Miss Bates is no fool, and is obsequiously acknowledging to Emma in particular the “condescension” that Emma shows by being willing to walk through poop and sacrifice her shoes’s cleanness in order to get to the Bates residence.

And then in Chapter 27, Miss Bates adopts yet another strategy to blunt the effect of walking through poop from Ford’s over to the Bates residence—nonstop talking, as a distraction, which begins precisely when they reach the street, and ends precisely when they get inside the Bates residence!:

"What was I talking of?" said she, beginning again when they were all in the street.
Emma wondered on what, of all the medley, she would fix.
"I declare I cannot recollect what I was talking of.—Oh! my mother's spectacles….[a LOT of talking!]… I wanted to keep it from Jane's knowledge; but, unluckily, I had mentioned it before I was aware."
Miss Bates had just done as Patty opened the door; and her visitors walked upstairs without having any regular narration to attend to, pursued only by the sounds of her desultory good-will.”  

And finally, perhaps the best of all in this short series, in Chapter 38:

“As the door opened she was heard, "So very obliging of you! No rain at all. Nothing to signify. I do not care for myself. Quite thick shoes. And Jane declares -- Well!...”

Here Emma hears Miss Bates arrive at the ball at the Crown Inn, and of course we hear first about her “thick shoes” (the better to keep wet poop mush away from one’s feet). But Miss Bates, with her big mouth, starts to let everyone know what Jane declares about the efficacy of thick shoes to keep out mushy poop, and I think you’ll agree, Jane did not have something very positive to declare on that disgusting subject. So Miss Bates, as she always does, stops in midsentence, and then pauses with “Well!” before launching in another verbal direction entirely.

Just as the dog that doesn’t bark (which is an insight that Sherlock Holmes stole from Homer’s Odysseus) is very revealing, so too is the Miss Bates sentence that doesn’t get finished.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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