(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Bates apartment is upstairs from a shop for sale of WHAT????

In Janeites, the following exchange has just occurred:

Jane Fox: "Now, why would [Knightley] be so active in the Highbury parish? I'm going to guess he owned land in the Highbury parish."

Me:  "Like....the walkup tenement that Miss Bates lived in!"

Nancy Mayer:  "She didn't live in a tenement. She lived in an apartment-- a flat over a shop where the owner probably had lived before buying a separate house. If Knightley owned it, he probably charged a peppercorn rent."

And Nancy’s post prompted me to research and write the following:

You're right, Nancy, I was not careful in my description, and the reality is more interesting and complicated --with Jane Austen it is ALWAYS a good idea to go back to the text to resolve any such question. I hope you enjoy where my followup took me, after walking up a pretty long narrow dark inferential “staircase”……  ;)

First, it's true that the Bateses don't live in a tenement, the kind of multistory building intended (whether from the start or after renovation) for multifamily habitation, as we see in slum areas of many cities. But it's also clear that the neighborhood the Bateses live is not a good one.

Recall my 2013 posts about Miss Bates's solicitude for Emma's and Harriet's shoes after they've walked there from Hartfield, meaning, she’s worried they've gotten poop on their shoes walking through the poor side of Highbury! The house is at a stage of its useful life in which the economic status of the residents is much lower than was the case many years earlier, when it was presumably originally occupied by a single family of means--perhaps a family like the Coles.

We know that the Bates women have no real income to speak of (at most I can imagine Miss Bates making a very small income the way Mrs. Smith did in Persuasion), and therefore they utterly depend on largesse from Hartfield and Donwell Abbey (and maybe also from Mrs. Goddard?) to have enough to eat on an ongoing basis.

The good news is that there must indeed be some personal relationship between them and their unnamed landlord, that has led to their being allowed to live there basically rent-free (as a real estate attorney, I never heard the expression “peppercorn rent”, which Wikipedia tells me is from a 1960 American legal opinion).

But the bad news, again, is that the place must be a dump. And it's noteworthy—and, I think, significant, that Emma seems to have no idea whatsoever who the landlord is—this ignorance arises from the deadly combination of (i) Emma's utter lack of curiosity about the real lives of other people, except when she sees them as dolls she can  make matches for, plus (ii) a calculated decision by those in charge of her education to NOT tell her ANYthing about the wider world which would disrupt her own private fantasy world.

As for the house in which the Bateses live, I believe the following are the only four chapters describing  Emma’s three visits to the Bates residence, and therefore these are the primary descriptions thereof that we have to work with (unless some other passage also obliquely shed light on same?):

Ch. 19: "[Emma and Harriet] were just approaching the house where lived Mrs. and Miss Bates...all the horror of being in danger of falling in with the second-rate and third-rate of Highbury, who were calling on them for ever, and therefore she seldom went near them. But now she made the sudden resolution of not passing their door without going in—observing, as she proposed it to Harriet, that, as well as she could calculate, they were just now quite safe from any letter from Jane Fairfax.
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, anxious inquiries after Mr. Woodhouse's health..."

Ch. 27: "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.
"Pray take care, Mrs. Weston, there is a step at the turning. Pray take care, Miss Woodhouse, ours is rather a dark staircase—rather darker and narrower than one could wish. Miss Smith, pray take care. Miss Woodhouse, I am quite concerned, I am sure you hit your foot. Miss Smith, the step at the turning." ..."

Ch. 28: "[Miss Bates] was in the adjoining chamber while she still spoke, and opening the casement there, immediately called Mr. Knightley's attention, and every syllable of their conversation was as distinctly heard by the others, as if it had passed within the same apartment."

Ch. 44:  "The ladies were all at home." She had never rejoiced at the sound before, nor ever before entered the passage, nor walked up the stairs, with any wish of giving pleasure, but in conferring obligation, or of deriving it, except in subsequent ridicule.
There was a bustle on her approach; a good deal of moving and talking. She heard Miss Bates's voice, something was to be done in a hurry; the maid looked frightened and awkward; hoped she would be pleased to wait a moment, and then ushered her in too soon. The aunt and niece seemed both escaping into the adjoining room. Jane she had a distinct glimpse of, looking extremely ill; and, before the door had shut them out, she heard Miss Bates saying, "Well, my dear, I shall say you are laid down upon the bed, and I am sure you are ill enough."

First of all, I wondered about the precise meaning of a "drawing room apartment", and Wikipedia enlightened me:  "A drawing room is a room in a house where visitors may be entertained. The name is derived from the 16th-century terms withdrawing room and withdrawing chamber....In a large 16th- to early 18th-century English house, a withdrawing room was a room to which the owner of the house, his wife, or a distinguished guest who was occupying one of the main apartments in the house could "withdraw" for more privacy... It was often off the great chamber (or the great chamber's descendant, the state room or salon) and usually led to a formal, or "state" bedroom...In 18th-century London, the royal morning receptions...were called "drawing rooms", with the sense originally that the privileged members of court would gather in the drawing room outside the king's bedroom, where he would make his first formal public appearance of the day."

So....let's see what we can deduce from the skimpy data JA has provided us. Here's what I come up with for starters, I would love it if others would chime in with additional observations:

1. The Bates apartment seems to consist of 2 rooms shared by the three generations of Bates women, plus Patty the maid-which means that there’d have been doubling up of sleeping arrangements in both rooms. Pretty cramped quarters! And would there have been any sort of water closet, or was there a lot of carrying of chamberpots down and up those narrow stairs?

2. The dark staircase leading up to the Bates apartment sounds like a late-stage INTERNAL renovation (if the stairs were outside, they would not be dark). Why would the house have been originally constructed with a dark, narrow staircase leading up to the drawing-room and bedroom?

But what "passage" is it that visitors passed through before reaching the staircase? Can anyone with a better grasp of house architecture than my own suggest a plausible explanation for the construction of  such a passage? Is it a closed-off passage leading off to the side after entering by the front door through the ground floor portion of the house?  Why exactly would it have been closed off? To provide privacy to visitors, by quickly shielding them from public view once they entered it?

Whatever the passage and staircase consist of, they sound to me like they were part of a relatively recent internal renovation of the house, in order to convert what was originally a single-family residence into two sub-units, each with its own private access.

3. Now, here's perhaps the most curious aspect of this house, and it’s in the same vein as the dog that DIDN’T bark. Nancy has inferred that it is a shop, but, unless I've missed something, the occupant of the ground floor unit, and whether it is for residential or commercial use, is NEVER described in the novel!

Since we see pretty much everything in the novel through Emma's eyes, this must mean that she never notices the rest of the house--which is a little bizarre, even for Emma --this is EXTREME lack of awareness of her surroundings!  How could she fail to register what sort of shop was there, if there was a shop there. Remember, she is the one who prides herself on being an acute observer of the passing parade in Highbury:

“Much could not be hoped from the traffic of even the busiest part of Highbury;—Mr. Perry walking hastily by, Mr. William Cox letting himself in at the office-door, Mr. Cole's carriage-horses returning from exercise, or a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule, were the liveliest objects she could presume to expect; and when her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker's little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough still to stand at the door. A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer.”

And yet, she who is obsessed with curiosity about Jane Fairfax, never never notices what is downstairs from the Bates apartment where Jane lives for 6 months?

Given how sheltered Emma has been for the 21 years of her life, I infer from this lack of awareness on Emma's part that it is more of the same I described above. I.e., she has never been told anything about that other occupant-perhaps deliberately so, because it was information that it was considered undesirable for Emma to know. And she lacks real empathic curiosity about the lives of other people.

And some of you can perhaps now guess from my Subject Line where the above chain of inferences has led me ---- what would be a usage of the ground floor of a residential home that would have little or no foot traffic coming in or going out during daylight hours, but which would come alive at night when Emma was never there to observe?

Of course this would fit perfectly with the notion of the ground floor as a shop for the sale of (as Jane Fairfax so eloquently puts it) “human flesh”---and I don’t mean governessing in the conventional sense!

And…that gives me another idea, even more disturbing than that---what if Miss Bates DOES pay rent for her walkup apartment after all?---not in cash, but in KIND---i.e., by rendering services as…..the madam of the brothel downstairs?

And…given my 2010 posts about the unmistakably allusion in Emma to the “Mrs. Cole” who is a madam in the brothel where Cleland’s Fanny Hill ends up, I now wonder if Miss Bates’s landlords are……Mr. & Mrs. Cole! If it was a profitable brothel—and perhaps one of a chain of them---that would explain their prosperity “in business”!

And I will conclude these speculations on an optimistic note---I believe that after Jane and Frank discreetly break off their sham engagement in November, Jane will do the right thing and sell the Churchill family jewels she received (remember, the ones that Frank said were going to be put in the form of a head ornament), and use the substantial cash proceeds to be expected therefrom, in order to move her aunt and grandmamma to a better part of Highbury where solicitude for their visitors’s shoes and stairway safety will no longer be required, and where Miss Bates would be freed from “slavery” to her landlord!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: Jane posted the following while I was composing the above post:

Jane: "It was not a tenement, even in the broader sense of the word. Frank describes it as "a brick house, sashed windows below, and casements above."

Jane, that is firstrate stuff that you picked up on the above passage from Frank's Chapter 50 letter, which does indeed dovetail perfectly with the passage from Ch. 27 that I quoted above about Miss Bates opening a "casement" window in order to speak to Mr. Knightley riding by on horseback.

Like so much of this novel about “nothing”, this appears to be only an irrelevant bit of background noise. But those are invariably the most important details when you read the novel, as I do, against the grain, in order to access the shadow story. I believe it is an additional clue as to the history of the house's renovations, given the following explanation by Wikipedia that "in the UK, casement windows were the most common house window before the sash window was introduced."

It sounds to me like we being given an additional hint that at the time the house was divided into two units, the downstairs portion of the house was renovated with the more advanced sash windows, while the upstairs was given its substandard narrow and dangerous staircase, but left with the more antiquated casement windows.

Jane: "Anyway, "The house belonged to people in business." Presumable they ran their business on the ground floor. The Bateses lived on the "parlour floor," which would be one floor up. By the way, I've been told that, in town, the parlour floor was one floor up in purely residential houses (thus the high stoops of Brooklyn brownstones) because this distanced people from the horse manure featured in your earlier posts."

And that falls in the “great minds think alike” category, I had no idea about that fact! And I just noticed the following passage in that same vein in Chapter 45, when Emma attempts to visit Jane, but is intercepted:   “Miss Bates came to the carriage door, all gratitude, and agreeing with her most earnestly in thinking an airing might be of the greatest service….”

“We may read “an AIRING might be of the greatest service” in more than one way!  ;)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is totally ridiculous. Highbury, as Jane Austen told her nephew, is based on Leatherhead. From the clues in the novel we know that the Bates's lodging is above the shop on the south west corner of the main crossroads of the town. It is opposite The Crown which is on the north east side of the crossroads and corresponds to The Swan in Leatherhead (we are told it is only a stone's throw away). On the south east corner of the main crossroads is Fords shop. Therefore we can deduce that the Bates's lodging is above another shop.

It is highly unlikely that the prime retail space in the exact centre of the town under the Bates's lodgings would be used as a brothel, and if it was, it would be immediately closed down by the town council if it was in such a prominent position bang in the middle of the town. This is preposterous.