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?

Hardbacks or Paperbacks? The Problem with Jane Austen

We’re… still… indoors! Not under lockdown, just waiting for the vaccine. All over the world manufacturers are accumulating the following curious ingredients:

Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and owlet's wing...

But more important, we are facing a Jane Austen problem.

The plan was simple: we would reorganize our books in alphabetical order by author. And then we discovered Jane Austen dominated the “A” shelf.

A newish Modern Library edition and a Penguin Deluxe Classic,

We have acquired multiple copies of Jane Austen’s books over the years, perhaps due to the JASNA influence. During a phase of profligate spending, I ordered a partial Jane Austen set from the Folio Society.

Folio Society editions

The sad thing is I do not admire the illustrations in all of the Folio Society editions. Some in Persuasion are colorful and fun, others are a little grotesque. Why do the women have such pouty lips? It’s not how I see them.

In so many ways I prefer the Penguin, Modern Library editions, and occasional Signets, which leave the appearance of characters to our imagination. I admit the Folio Society editions are more durable, and the paper in paperbacks has a limited shelf life, but I certainly can’t take the big hardcover on a bike trip.

An illustration from the Folio Society edition of “Persuasion”

And yet one shouldn’t donate the Folio Society to the book sales, because you drop them through a slot in a shabby building, and somehow they are bent and disheveled at the sales.

Perhaps all our hardcover Austen classics should go together on a bookcase, leaving the paperbacks on their own.

But any organization is better than the lack of system we’ve had.

When You Can’t Get Enough Jane Austen & Literary Links

When you can’t get enough Jane Austen, you turn to essays and criticism.  I just read a splendid essay at The Silver Petticoat Review, “Anne and Catherine at 200: Celebrating Two Centuries of Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.”  Somehow I missed this anniversary last year. Here is a brief excerpt from The Silver Petticoat Review.

Six months after Jane Austen’s death, the first book EVER listing Jane Austen as its author was published. Persuasion and Northanger Abbey – a four-volume work – hit the market in late December 1817, although the title page lists 1818 as the publishing year. So here they were, two of Austen’s heretofore unpublished works, two completed novels by the master’s hand published together, and the first to ever openly name Jane Austen as their author. During her lifetime, all of Austen’s works were published anonymously, variously “By a Lady” or “By the Author of …”

In many ways, the novels are apt bookends to Austen’s authorship. Northanger Abbey is one of Austen’s early works, a novel she’d already been working on during the 1790s, the same period that she was writing Sense and Sensibility (her first published novel) and Pride and Prejudice (her second published novel). In fact, Northanger Abbey was the first novel Jane Austen submitted for publication back in 1803. She sold the publishing rights to a bookseller, who never did publish it, just sat on it, refusing to return it and threatening legal repercussions should Austen seek publication elsewhere. Eventually, the publisher relented and said that Austen could purchase the rights back. In 1816, her brother did just that, and Austen edited it extensively before her death, including changing the main character’s name from Susan to Catherine.

Virginia Woolf

2. If you’ve ever encountered readers who refuse to finish a classic because they disagree with a fictional character, you’ll want to read Brian Morton’s essay at The New York Times, “Virginia Woolf? Snob! Richard Wright? Sexist! Dostoyevsky? Anti-Semite!” His brilliant approach to opening readers’ minds to the literary past involves (mental) time travel.

He writes,

…The passion for social justice that many students feel — a beautiful passion for social justice — leads them to be keenly aware of the distasteful opinions held by many writers of earlier generations. When they discover the anti-Semitism of Wharton or Dostoyevsky, the racism of Walt Whitman or Joseph Conrad, the sexism of Ernest Hemingway or Richard Wright, the class snobbery of E. M. Forster or Virginia Woolf, not all of them express their repugnance as dramatically as the student I talked to, but many perform an equivalent exercise, dumping the offending books into a trash basket in their imaginations.

…I think it’s a general misunderstanding, not just his. It’s as if we imagine an old book to be a time machine that brings the writer to us. We buy a book and take it home, and the writer appears before us, asking to be admitted into our company. If we find that the writer’s views are ethnocentric or sexist or racist, we reject the application, and we bar his or her entry into the present.

Morton points out that we readers are the ones doing the time travel.  Do read the essay!

3.  Can you read 30 books in a week?  Here’s what happened when Lois Beckett unplugged for a week and tried to read the entire National Book Award longlist.   The essay was published at The Guardian, “Unplugged: what I learned by logging off and reading 12 books in a week.”

Are You an Upstart? Emma vs. Mrs. Elton

Are you ready for winter reading?  Not a single flake has stuck to the ground, but the mix of mushy rain-snow is unpleasant.  And so I did a LOT of laundry today, and then retreated into a 19th-century novel.  Jane Austen’s Emma soon obliterated the gloom.

Each time I read Emma, I  focus on a different aspect, and this time  I was struck by the rivalry between Emma Woodhouse and the nouveau riche Mrs. Elton.  Mr. Elton, the vicar, married Augusta on the rebound after Emma rejected his proposal of marriage.   The first meeting between Emma and Mrs. Elton is awkward.  Mrs. Elton marks her territory:  she insists that Emma’s stately home, Hartfield, is exactly like her brother Mr. Suckling’s estate, Maple Grove.   She is  determined to rival Emma in society, and does not recognize their class differences.  (Should I say, “Good for her,” or “How annoying”?)

Mrs. Elton (Juliet Stevenson) and Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming) in “Emma” (1996)

Nobody likes bossy, vulgar Mrs. Elton. Emma considers her an upstart, Knightley thinks her manners deplorable, and the brilliant Jane Fairfax, Emma’s only real rival in terms of education and talent (Jane surpasses her), must bear Mrs. Elton’s condescension as long as she lives with her impoverished aunt and grandmother.  Mrs. Elton assumes that a ball in Highbury has been put on for her, though it was planned before Mrs.Elton moved to Highbury.  But the best people, though they despise Mrs. Elton,  have such excellent manners that Mrs. Weston urges her husband to open the ball with Mrs. Elton.  (It should have been Emma and Frank Churchill, we learn.)

Mrs. Elton is a kind of shadow Emma. She does good works with less grace:  Emma has befriended Harriet Smith, a young woman of unknown birth; Mrs. Elton has befriended, or more like dominated, the superior Jane  Fairfax.   Ironically Mrs. Elton “has a horror of upstarts.” When Mr. Weston explains that his son’s aunt, Mrs. Churchill, is not well-born but soon outdid  Churchill family in snobbery, Mrs. Elton says,
.

Only think! well, that must be infinitely provoking! I have quite a horror of upstarts. Maple Grove has given me a thorough disgust to people of that sort; for there is a family in that neighborhood who are such an annoyance to my brother and sister from the airs they give themselves! Your description of Mrs. Churchill made me think of them directly. People of the name of Tupman, very lately settled there, and encumbered with many low connexions, but giving themselves immense airs, and expecting to be on a footing with the old established families.”

We have all known social climbers,  but the brazen Mrs. Elton thinks she has no need to climb.  That’s much more American than English, isn’t it? Am I an upstart?  I don’t know many upstarts,  because I am no use to them in their clawing to the top!

 

How the Internet Ruined Jane Austen

The internet ruined  Jane Austen.

It has ruined:  attention spans, rock album playlists (I’m sure the songs on albums were deliberately arranged in a certain order), newspapers, book reviews, and respect for expertise.  That’s what happens when you depend on Facebook.

I’m  not exaggerating about Austen.  When I first got wifi, I joined a Janeites group.

Fanny Price (Billie Piper) and Henry Crawford (Joseph Beattie) in TV movie “Mansfield Park”

And what a long, strange trip that was.  Though there are many brilliant fans and scholars in the group, some read Austen like Georgette Heyer.  I was never crazy about Mr. Darcy, but all romance fans “heart” Mr. Darcy.  Mind you, I’m not a fan of Austen’s heroes anyway.  My favorite is the immoral Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park.  I know he’d  make a horrible husband, but I can’t help it:  he’s so much fun!

My real problem is not with Mr. Darcy, though.  It’s with the more literal readings of Emma, my favorite Austen.

I fell in love with Emma in college.   The 19th-century lit professor dismissed a timid student who asked why we weren’t doing Pride and Prejudice:  “It is so much done.”  She was right, though we hadn’t done it much!

And we all loved Emma.  She is witty and her misconceptions are hilarious.   Though the marriage plot is in earnest, as always, Emma is more independent than most of Austen’s heroines.  She is handsome, clever, and rich, as Austen says in the first sentence, and since she doesn’t have to marry, she can do as she likes.

The professor thought Austen was a  horrible snob and couldn’t see any satire in the book.  I find Emma comical from beginning to end:  Emma’s kindness to her ridiculous but sweet valetudinarian father, her conviction that her friend Harriet must be the bastard daughter of a well-connected gentleman, thinking Mr. Elton is in love with Harriet rather than with herself, and complete misunderstanding of the characters of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax.

I am not saying my reading of Emma is the “right” one.  Even Jane Austen wrote, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”  Yes, Emma has faults but I can’t imagine  thinking her malicious, as some Janeites do.  She is conceited, often mistaken, and gossips like most young women, but becomes a nicer person by the end of the book.  So why the wrath?

For a few years after reading the Janeites posts, I  could not read Austen.  And the 200th anniversary of her death in 2017 was so much written about in both professional and amateur publications that I overdosed on Austen.  (I now limit the number of online publications I read, because, what am I, a media critic?)

Austen and I recently got back together, now that I’ve had a break from the internet.  She is the greatest writer, well, except for Charlotte Bronte maybe.

So perhaps I’ll read Austen as my women’s fiction this Thanksgiving. Nothing like reading a good book while the guys are watching football…