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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Jane Austen & Miss Bates the Queens of Fairyland

It’s an old story by now, that I consider (and Diane Reynolds agrees) Miss Bates to be the most telling self portrait JA ever wrote. Well, today I found another important jigsaw puzzle piece that helps fill in and flesh out that portrait still further.

Recall first how Miss Bates first addresses Emma after arriving at the Crown Inn ball:

“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—…”

I thought immediately of the above passage, among others involving Miss Bates, when I read the following description by JEAL in his Memoir of his aunt’s way with her nieces and nephews:

“… Her first charm to children was great sweetness of manner.  She seemed to love you, and you loved her in return. This, as well as I can now recollect, was what I felt in my early days, before I was old enough to be amused by her cleverness.  But soon came the delight of her playful talk.  She could make everything amusing to a child.  Then, as I got older, when cousins came to share the entertainment, she would tell us the most delightful stories, chiefly of Fairyland, and her fairies had all characters of their own.  The tale was invented, I am sure, at the moment, and was continued for two or three days, if occasion served.’… “

And then:  

“...Very similar is the testimony of another niece:—‘Aunt Jane was the general favourite with children; her ways with them being so playful, and her long circumstantial stories so delightful.  These were continued from time to time, and were begged for on all possible and impossible occasions; woven, as she proceeded, out of nothing but her own happy talent for invention.  Ah! If but one of them could be recovered!..”

Which then sends me right back to Emma, when Knightley chastises Emma for humiliating Miss Bates:

“You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her—and before her niece, too—and before others, many of whom (certainly some,) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her….”

And there we have Fanny Knight, who must in 1815, at age 21, have already shown JA the kind of casual snobbish disrespect that prompted JA to portray it in Emma.

And when you think about it, Emma is indeed the ultimate “fairy story”—long , circumstantial, delightful, playful, woven out of JA’s own (infinitely) happy talent for invention, and (as a winking punning bonus), with its own eponymous “fairy” –Mr. Perry aka the imaginary “peri” of  the novel!

Emma is also the ultimate sophisticated literary “charade”, written by Jane Austen, the Queen of Fairyland:

“…Mr. Woodhouse came in, and very soon led to the subject again, by the recurrence of his very frequent inquiry of "Well, my dears, how does your book go on?—Have you got any thing fresh?"
"Yes, papa; we have something to read you, something quite fresh. A piece of paper was found on the table this morning—(dropt, we suppose, by a fairy)—containing a very pretty charade, and we have just copied it in."
She read it to him, just as he liked to have any thing read, slowly and distinctly, and two or three times over, with explanations of every part as she proceeded—and he was very much pleased, and, as she had foreseen, especially struck with the complimentary conclusion.
"Aye, that's very just, indeed, that's very properly said. Very true. 'Woman, lovely woman.' It is such a pretty charade, my dear, that I can easily guess what fairy brought it.—Nobody could have written so prettily, but you, Emma."
Emma only nodded, and smiled….”

And I can only nod and smile as well at these (to me, obvious) self referential tips of the mobcap by JA to herself. JA knew that she had surpassed her triumph with P&P, and that she had written the fairy story that would, like Scheherazade, last 1001….years.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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