Miss Bates, the pitied yet somewhat popular spinster of Austen’s Emma, is undeniably a comic character. Along with Mr Woodhouse and Mrs Elton, Miss Bates provides the reader with a diversion from the more sombre matters of the novel, and is almost certainly intended to be, in part, a figure of fun. Her never-ending garrulous chatter and tendency to be besotted by gossip mark her as one of Austen’s many amusing characters. However, can that be her only function in the “flawless” novel? Austen is certainly not one to waste words, let alone waste characters, and so it is indubitable that Miss Bates was not created simply for comic value, but rather to qualify and accentuate the characteristics of the heroine, and to aid the story in its progression. Like a Shakespearean fool, Miss Bates is intended to not only make the reader laugh, but also to develop the plot.
A character’s speech is often what indicates their intelligence or comic value in an Austen novel. Persuasion’s Anne Elliot and Sense and Sensibility’s Elinor Dashwood both speak in very clear and full sentences, whereas the speech of Miss Bates or Northanger Abbey’s Mrs Allen is much more broken up and imprecise, and this is one of Austen’s famous tricks. For example Miss Bates, after hearing about Mr Elton’s engagement, addresses Mr Knightley in very fragmented sentences:
“‘…For it is not five minutes since I received Mrs Cole’s note – no, it cannot be more than five – or at least ten – for I had to get my bonnet and spencer on, just ready to come out – I was only gone out to speak to Patty again about the pork – Jane was standing in the passage – were not you, Jane?’”
These broken up phrases suggest that Miss Bates is one of the less intelligent characters of the novel, and this again makes her more of a comic figure. Miss Bates’s garrulity is clearly displayed again in Chapter One of Volume Two, when Emma and Harriet visit Mrs and Miss Bates. Upon Emma’s enquiry about Jane Fairfax, Miss Bates proceeds to talk about her niece for over three pages, giving Emma only the occasional sentence before she continues to ramble on. Furthermore, in Volume Three Austen writes, comically: “Miss Bates was out, which accounted for the previous tranquillity.” The reader is amused by Miss Bates, who is oblivious to the fact that she might be boring people, and whose chatter seems endless. The reader also feels some sympathy for Emma, who loathes visiting Miss Bates, an excursion she sees as a “waste of time”. We, like Emma, feel overwhelmed by Miss Bates, who is dramatized by Austen’s hyperbolic writing, and although we are averse to Emma’s selfish characteristics, we still experience some sympathy for her. All of this is supported by the narrator’s description of Miss Bates as “a great talker upon little matters… full of trivial communications and gossip.”
However, there are a number of telling clues that suggest that Miss Bates is not only a figure of fun. It is rather peculiar that Miss Bates should be invited to almost every social event held in Highbury, the isolated town in which Emma takes place. She is described by the narrator as part of a “second set”, and yet she is constantly invited to Hartfield and other social gatherings, such as the Coles’ party. The reader infers from this that Austen did not have Miss Bates invited simply as a comic character, but rather as a moral compass. The reader also notices that, while Mrs Elton, another comic character, is being constantly criticised by the narrator, Miss Bates escapes this bad treatment. For example, Austen opens Chapter Four of Volume Two with:
“Nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of.”
Not only does this suggest their bad opinion of Mr Elton for so rapidly finding a wife in Bath, but it also indicates their distaste for Mrs Elton. Through Emma’s own thoughts, which we sympathise with, Mrs Elton is depicted as an insolent and vulgar woman, with few merits other than her wealth. Austen writes: “Emma could have wished Mrs Elton elsewhere.” Miss Bates, on the other hand, is depicted as a lovely woman whose only true downfall is her position in society. Austen tells the reader that she “loved everybody” and that she was “a woman whom no one named without good-will”. Clearly she is described with such a positive approach so that the reader compares her with Emma as a bastion of morality and good-will. In this way, Miss Bates could certainly be labelled a moral compass, as she reveals Emma’s less commendable attitudes. This contrast between the two is particularly clear in Chapter One of Volume Two, when Emma visits Mrs and Miss Bates. While Emma is loathe to make the visit, and sees it as “very disagreeable”, Miss Bates is described as welcoming her guests “most cordially and even gratefully”, and overpowering them “with care and kindness”. Miss Bates’s accolade of virtue paints an even worse picture of Emma. Moreover, Austen’s employment of the word ‘grateful’ serves to accentuate Emma’s ungratefulness for Miss Bates’s kindness. Miss Bates is also a moral compass for Emma in that the two characters are almost polar opposites. For example, Emma Woodhouse is “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home…”, whereas Miss Bates is “neither young, handsome, rich, nor married”, and with “no intellectual superiority”. The Bateses are describes as living in “a very small way”, and this only serves to emphasise their position in the lower class. Where Emma lacks good intention and selflessness, Miss Bates lacks money and intelligence – Austen is not only using Miss Bates’s admirable qualities to point out Emma’s faults, but she is also saying a lot about the society in which she herself lived. Austen encourages the reader to ask the question: would Emma be so loved in Highbury if she herself were of the “second rate”? Would she, like Miss Bates, be invited to all of Highbury’s social gatherings if her wealth and situation were not considered?
One cannot judge Emma’s virtue without discussing the infamous Box Hill outing, as it is the pre-eminent example of Emma’s flaws. Austen writes: “Emma could not resist.” Not only does this suggest Emma’s occasional lack of sense, in that she cannot hold her tongue even when she knows she ought to, but it also tells us about Emma’s true character. Austen’s phrase indicates that Emma would often be tempted to say such things, but that in order to hold Higbury’s respect and good opinion, she kept quiet. It implies that Emma’s seemingly good nature is only a façade, and that it is kept up for social reasons rather than moral one. This idea is supported by Emma’s remorsefulness after the incident. Emma shows no true concern for Miss Bates’s feelings until Mr Knightley shows his; only then does she regret what she said, not on account of upsetting Miss Bates, but because it has lowered Mr Knightley’s opinion of her. Although the narrator (talking in Emma’s voice) writes: “How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates!” she also writes: “How could she have exposed herself to such ill opinion in any one she valued!” and this reveals Emma’s true feelings. She has little concern for Miss Bates’s feelings, and is only worried about her own circumstances; in this way, Miss Bates can be seen as a moral compass, revealing Emma’s characteristics as egotistical and self-concerned.
Emma’s harsh words are seen as particularly cruel because they are directed at Miss Bates, who is depicted as one of the most kind-hearted characters in the novel. Mr Knightley, who is said to often express Austen’s feelings, chastises Emma for being so unpleasant to a woman of Miss Bates’s situation:
“‘Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance… Were she your equal in situation – but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor…’”
Emma’s ridiculing of Miss Bates is depicted as extremely cruel, not only because of Miss Bates’s good nature, but also because it was said so openly. Mr Knightley is particularly angry at Emma for saying it in front of Miss Bates’s niece, and indeed in front of the majority of Highbury, “‘many of whom (certainly some,) would be entirely guided’” by Emma’s treatment of Miss Bates. This emphasises Emma’s lack of compassion and concern for those who are in a worse position than herself.
Mr Knightley is seen as one of the most, if not the most admirable characters of the novel. He is more often than not in the right, and is one of the only characters to ever find fault in the heroine. He is described as “a sensible man”, and Austen writes: “Mr Knightley, in fact, was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them.” Mr Knightley’s high regard and reverence of Miss Bates, and indeed others in her position, not only supports his kind-hearted nature, but it also contrasts him with Emma, who has less concern for Miss Bates. For example, both Mrs Weston and Mr Knightley offer to ferry Miss Bates, Mrs Bates and Miss Fairfax around in their carriages; unsurprisingly, Emma did not offer her assistance. Furthermore, through his caring, protective and sympathetic response to Miss Bates at Box Hill, Emma and Mr Knightley’s characters are even more polarised. This is backed up by the constant theme of Mr Knightley being like an elder brother to Emma, teaching her morals and principles. For example, Emma says to Mr Knightley: “‘I was very often influenced rightly by you… I am very sure you did me good.’” Knightley reminisces about Emma as a child, and this reinforces his role as a moral teacher. His role is so set in stone that Emma finds it impossible to call him anything but ‘Mr Knightley’. Overall, Mr Knightley’s attitudes towards Miss Bates signal Emma’s moral tendencies to be selfish and egotistical; Miss Bates, acting as a moral compass, presents opportunities for Emma to show her character, and thus allows Mr Knightley to set her straight.
Not only does Miss Bates set a shining moral example of courtesy and kindness for Emma to follow, but she also presents numerous opportunities for Emma to be uncaring and selfish, thus revealing her true personality to the reader. In this way, Miss Bates can be seen as the moral compass of Austen’s Emma. It is certainly true that Miss Bates was intended to be a comic figure, and that the reader finds her eternal chattering extremely amusing, but her role as a moral compass is indubitably more significant in the progression of the novel. Without a character like Miss Bates, it is possible that many of Miss Woodhouse’s flaws would be overlooked and forgotten.