Becoming Miss Bates: How Old Is She Anyway?

Nothing has happened for a year, so we now chat on the phone about fictional characters. And somehow we are on to minor characters in Jane Austen.

I have never identified with Miss Bates, the babbling spinster in Jane Austen’s superb Emma. In fact, nobody relates to Miss Bates.

“I talk a lot about personal stuff, but not THAT much,” I said to my good friend Janet on a landline. We are on landline phones because if we did Zoom or a video chat, we’d (a) have to clean the house and arrange the bookshelves, and (b) groom our post-apocalyptic hair, which at this point resembles the hairdo of the neighbor’s sheltie.

“I feel sorry for Miss Bates, but we’re too young to be her,”Janet said. “Emma is the one we’d hang out with.”

“We’ll never be older than Emma.”

And that did make us giggle, because we’ve identified with Emma for so long the relationship begins to feel rather vampiric.

“Emma is always 21, and we are forever thirty-nine,” Janet said.

“That’s true.”

Tamsin Grieg as Miss Bates

But how old is Miss Bates? The first time I had an inkling that Miss Bates might be youngish was when Tamsin Grieg played her in the 2009 Masterpiece series of Emma. Grieg, 42 then, looked to be in her thirties, and interpreted Miss Bates less as a caricature than her predecessors did. I liked her interpretation of plain Miss Bates: she is rather sweet, not too bright, wears unbecoming caps and bonnets, and her prattle comes across as a gentle literary Tourette’s. All of the dramatic interpretations of Miss Bates seem very good to me, but Miss Bates seems different here, because she is younger.

Prunella Scales as Miss Bates (1996 TV movie)

I am perhaps fondest of the 1996 TV movie (starring Kate Beckinsale as Emma). The wonderful character actress Prunella Scales was 64 when she played Miss Bates, but had the forty- or fiftysomething energy that expresses my idea of Miss Bates. I’ve always thought Miss Bates should be middle-aged.

Sophie Thompson as Miss Bates (movie 1996)

In the 1996 theatrical movie of Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma, Sophie Thompson played Miss Bates. This ebullient actress, then 32, hides behind goggly glasses, plain dresses, and bonnets. I saw this film so long ago that I do not remember Thompson’s performance, but she looks as though she is throwing herself into the part. Is this the scene where Emma mocks her?

It would be easier for us to become Miss Bates. if we knew her age. On the surface, I am completely unlike her: I don’t brag about my nieces, and I am married. But we have all had a Miss Bates moment: we misspeak, accidentally wear a sweater backwards, knock over a pile of books at a bookstore, and someone is there to mock. It is so much easier to be handsome, clever, rich Emma than poor, babbling, dull Miss Bates.

As far as I know, Jane does not reveal Miss Bates’s age. Any guesses?

14 thoughts on “Becoming Miss Bates: How Old Is She Anyway?”

  1. I have often identified with Miss Bates. I didn’t think you needed to be old to identity with her: just very socially awkward, making mistakes all the time, vulnerable to humiliation, not doing well in life. I took her to be in her 50s with her mother in her 70s. Someone in their 70s in the 18th century would be considered quite old and probably realized in a fiction in the way Austen realizes Mrs Bates — so out of it, so lost to many abilities she sits there by the fire unable to say very much. Ellen Moody

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    1. Someone in their 70s in the 18th century would be considered very old.
      I was alarmed to discover that Count Fosco in The Woman in White is described as “aged” in his late fifties – a mere whipper-snapper by contemporary standards – or my standards, at least. Perhaps villainy and obesity wear you out sooner.

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      1. I must get back to Wilkie Collins. Yes, It’s hard to know how old “aged” is in our age of longevity. I think the characters in Kingsley Amin’s ‘ “The Old Devils” are in their sixties, and some of them seem much older. Well, they’re all drunk!

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        1. Ellen, Yes, Miss Bates is frightened, really needing the food sent by Knightley and Emma, and not quite accepted in their circle though she is of good family. A very good character, who can be interpreted so many ways.

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              1. Sorting out a friend’s books I came across Ending Up and reread it – it was originally my copy, but I lent it and never got it back!
                Amis was more sentimental when he wrote The Old Devils. It’s always amused me both that Amis claimed to hate stylistic experimentalism and that critics believed him. His later style – as the critics will put it – is much looser, almost as if he was speaking rather than writing. He uses a pretence of imprecision as a device to depict his characters.

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                1. Why don’t people give books back? It is a mystery, worth an anthropological study. I’ve always enjoyed Amis’s style, and NYRB has reissued many of his books. They keep turning up at book sales, or I should say “turned up!” I really like the idea of a normal life again, though somehow I see us all wearing burkas in the future. I do hope I’m wrong (and prob am).

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  2. When I first read Emma, I was a teenager. Miss Bates was certainly in her thirties. As I reread Emma, Miss Bates remained reassuringly older than me–she was in her forties; her fifties, and so on.
    Now that I am very old, and Miss Bates sounds like a nervous schoolgirl.

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  3. So nice to see Miss Bates claiming centre stage, at least in your blog post. And it IS interesting how we continue to associate her with someone older while “we” are enduringly young and charming (mostly) Emma.

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