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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The bounteous sack of Miss Bates and Falstaff

Four years ago….… I wrote about Jane Austen’s Miss Bates at Box Hill as Falstaff humiliated by Hal at Gad’s Hill, and expounded a bit about the implications of that veiled allusion.

Today, at the Tweeting recommendation of literary critic Ron Rosenbaum, I’ve just watched Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, and have been asking myself how I could have managed not to see it before, when it is clearly (as RR suggests) one of the greatest adaptations of Shakespeare ever filmed.
Welles is at the absolute top of his game, a triple threat as screenplay adaptor, director, and above all lead actor playing Falstaff, whom he was born to play. And imagine having the luxury of supporting actors of genius such as John Gielgud as Henry IV, and Margaret Rutherford as Mistress Quickly, and all the other players impeccable, too!

Anyway, I was prompted by this sequence of events to briefly revisit my above linked post of 4 years ago, and to dig up and pass on to you a few more Austenian winks at Falstaff via her alter ego, Miss Bates.

First, if there is one word which is most Falstaffian, it must be “sack”, which is a relentless drumbeat throughout all the plays he appears in, such as in this sampler of speeches:

HAL: Thou art so fat-witted, with drinking of old SACK and unbuttoning thee after supper and sleeping upon benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten to demand that truly which thou wouldst truly know. What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day? Unless hours were cups of SACK and minutes capons and clocks the tongues of bawds and dials the signs of leaping-houses and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in flame-coloured taffeta, I see no reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time of the day.

FALSTAFF: Go, hang thyself in thine own heir-apparent garters! If I be ta'en, I'll peach for this. An I
have not ballads made on you all and sung to filthy tunes, let a cup of SACK be my poison: when a jest
is so forward, and afoot too! I hate it.

HAL: O villain, thou stolest a cup of SACK eighteen years ago, and wert taken with the manner, and ever since thou hast blushed extempore. Thou hadst fire and sword on thy side, and yet thou rannest away: what instinct hadst thou for it?

FALSTAFF: Well, an the fire of grace be not quite out of thee, now shalt thou be moved. Give me a cup of SACK to make my eyes look red, that it may be thought I have wept; for I must speak in passion, and I will do it in King Cambyses' vein.

On a hunch, I searched the word “sack” in Jane Austen’s novels, and, wouldn’t you know it, it only appears twice, and both of those usages can be found in a single speech by (who else?) Miss Bates, a speech which would have done Falstaff proud!:

"I declare I cannot recollect what I was talking of. Oh! my mother's spectacles. So very obliging of Mr. Frank Churchill! 'Oh!' said he, 'I do think I can fasten the rivet; I like a job of this kind excessively.' Which you know shewed him to be so very -- Indeed I must say that, much as I had heard of him before and much as I had expected, he very far exceeds any thing -- I do congratulate you, Mrs. Weston, most warmly. He seems every thing the fondest parent could -- 'Oh!', said he, 'I can fasten the rivet. I like a job of that sort excessively.' I never shall forget his manner. And when I brought out the baked apples from the closet, and hoped our friends would be so very obliging as to take some, 'Oh!' said he, directly, 'there is nothing in the way of fruit half so good, and these are the finest looking home-baked apples I ever saw in my life.' That, you know, was so very -- And I am sure, by his manner, it was no compliment. Indeed they are very delightful apples, and Mrs. Wallis does them full justice -- only we do not have them baked more than twice, and Mr. Woodhouse made us promise to have them done three times -- but Miss Woodhouse will be so good as not to mention it. The apples themselves are the very finest sort for baking, beyond a doubt; all from Donwell -- some of Mr. Knightley's most liberal supply. HE SENDS US A SACK EVERY YEAR; and certainly there never was such a keeping apple any where as one of his trees -- I believe there is two of them. My mother says the orchard was always famous in her younger days. But I was really quite shocked the other day -- for Mr. Knightley called one morning, and Jane was eating these apples, and we talked about them and said how much she enjoyed them, and he asked whether we were not got to the end of our stock. 'I am sure you must be,' said he, 'and I will send you another supply; for I have a great many more than I can ever use. William Larkins let me keep a larger quantity than usual this year. I will send you some more, before they get good for nothing.' So I begged he would not -- for really as to ours being gone, I could not absolutely say that we had a great many left -- it was but half a dozen indeed; but they should be all kept for Jane; and I could not at all bear that he should be sending us more, so liberal as he had been already; and Jane said the same. And when he was gone, she almost quarrelled with me -- No, I should not say quarrelled, for we never had a quarrel in our lives; but she was quite distressed that I had owned the apples were so nearly gone; she wished I had made him believe we had a great many left. Oh! said I, my dear, I did say as much as I could. However, the very same evening William Larkins came over with a large basket of apples, the same sort of apples, a bushel at least, and I was very much obliged, and went down and spoke to William Larkins and said every thing, as you may suppose. William Larkins is such an old acquaintance! I am always glad to see him. But, however, I found afterwards from Patty, that William said it was all the apples of that sort his master had; he had brought them all -- and now his master had not one left to bake or boil. William did not seem to mind it himself, he was so pleased to think his master had sold so many; for William, you know, thinks more of his master's profit than any thing; but Mrs. Hodges, he said, was quite displeased at their being all sent away. She could not bear that her master should not be able to have another apple-tart this spring. He told Patty this, but bid her not mind it, and be sure not to say any thing to us about it, for Mrs. Hodges would be cross sometimes, and AS LONG AS SO MANY SACKS WERE SOLD, it did not signify who ate the remainder. And so Patty told me, and I was excessively shocked indeed! I would not have Mr. Knightley know any thing about it for the world! He would be so very -- I wanted to keep it from Jane's knowledge; but unluckily, I had mentioned it before I was aware."

But so what, you may say, what does it signify? I suggest there is a poignant, Falstaffian irony behind this speech, because we never stop hearing about how fat Falstaff is, in The Henriad and in Merry Wives, and what a glutton he is. And yet, Miss Bates’s torrent of words about apples (as Diane Reynolds and I have both argued in the recent past) is at the center of Jane Austen’s very dark homage to Swift’s Modest Proposal in Emma—Miss Bates, her mother, and her (pregnant) niece Jane are all on the edge of serious malnutrition, at the very least. So, how dark is Jane Austen’s irony to raise, via the repetition of the Falstaffian word “sack”, subliminal echoes of fat, gluttonous Jack Falstaff in Miss Bates’s speech!
Especially in her novel which, as I have recently been posting quite a bit, contains a biting satire on the Prince of WHALES, another obese glutton who was the very opposite of Falstaff—he was a man of power who abused that power over those under his control.

And, I also wonder whether Miss Bates does not have more than a trace of the bawdy heart-of-gold innkeeper Mistress Quickly, when we read the following introductory passage about Miss Bates:

“Miss Bates stood in the very worst predicament in the world for having much of the public favour; and she had no intellectual superiority to make atonement to herself, or frighten those who might hate her into outward respect. She had never boasted either beauty or cleverness. Her youth had passed without distinction, and her middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible. And yet she was a happy woman, and a woman whom no one named without good-will. It was her own universal good-will and contented temper which worked such wonders. She loved every body, was interested in every body's happiness, QUICKsighted to every body's merits; thought herself a most fortunate creature, and surrounded with blessings in such an excellent mother, and so many good neighbours and friends, and a home that wanted for nothing. The simplicity and cheerfulness of her nature, her contented and grateful spirit, were a recommendation to every body, and a mine of felicity to herself. She was a great talker upon little matters, which exactly suited Mr. Woodhouse, full of trivial communications and harmless gossip.”

And that’s not even taking into account my recent claims that Miss Bates’s house in Highbury was a brothel which she was forced to run in order to survive!

And finally, read Knightley’s speech to Emma in which he speaks of Miss Bates’s fall from grace in Highbury, and consider how closely her situation really does mirror Falstaff’s at the moment Prince Hal takes the throne, and disowns his erstwhile “father”:

"They are blended," said he, "I acknowledge; and, were she prosperous, I could allow much for the occasional prevalence of the ridiculous over the good. Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation—but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed! 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.—This is not pleasant to you, Emma—and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will,—I will tell you truths while I can; satisfied with proving myself your friend by very faithful counsel, and trusting that you will some time or other do me greater justice than you can do now."

Falstaff was not merely the cause of wit in others, he spoke truth to power, like Lear’s fool, with a smile and a tear in his eye—he is the voice of imagination, art, and love in a cold, cruel, mercenary world in which money and violence are the currency. And that is the exact same role that Miss Bates plays in the world of Emma—treated as an object of ridicule by those of stunted soul and wit, like Emma, but recognized by those with clear vision as a prophet of the best in humankind, a true “Queen” in the only “kingdom” that really matters.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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