I first read Emma when I studied it for ‘A’ level some forty years ago. I was alone in the class in not warming to the title character even towards the end of the book, and you can imagine what heated debates ensued.
Later, personal circumstances brought me back to the peculiar plight of Jane Fairfax; that poor girl, harbouring such a dangerous secret, consumed with love for a young man who seemed almost untouched by the agony of their secret engagement.
I began to explore their story but found that to really understand it I had to take it back many years, to their parents and grandparents.
Mrs Bates scarcely utters a syllable in Jane Austen’s novel. She is very elderly, with failing sight (she wears spectacles). Her garrulous daughter Miss Bates thinks she is deaf but then admits that her mother can hear others very well indeed. We never see Mrs Bates without her daughter but we know that she does have some independence – she goes to play backgammon with Mr Woodhouse while Miss Bates attends the ball at the Crown – so she cannot have any significant degree of senility or incapacity. The reader concludes that Mrs Bates has simply given up the battle against her daughter, who talks to her, for her, over her and about her with such relentlessness that to interject or contradict is simply impossible.
To a certain extent Mrs Bates is a comedic foil to Miss Bates, the straight woman, the butt of her humour and the receptacle for Hetty’s endless diatribe of conjecture and observation. But of course she had a life before old age crept in. She was married to the vicar of Highbury before his death made her homeless and all-but destitute. As the wife of the incumbent she occupied a very elevated and respected position in Highbury society. George Knightley tells Emma that at one time it would have been an honour for Emma to be recognised by her. She had two daughters, one of whom we never meet in Jane Austen’s novel – she is named just once, her name was Jane. All this intrigued me – the life of Mrs Bates we never get to know but which matters, especially in the way it plays out in the lives of her daughters and granddaughter, Jane Fairfax.
I guess this is the beauty – and the privilege – of being a writer, to conjure from a cameo a three-dimensional character who lives and loves and has substance. It is something I am quite used to. As I explained in my last post, many of my characters and my stories have their roots in the merest snippet of overheard dialogue or a snatch of gossip. I trace backwards to the genesis and forward to the revelation, making a beginning, middle and end. Here, Jane Austen gave me the end; an elderly lady helplessly yoked to her loquacious ninny of a daughter, allowed hardly a moment’s respite from her endless diatribe of chatter. No wonder she feigned deafness! But what did she think about while her daughter droned on and on? What memories entertained her, what vestiges of passion did she recall? Who, beneath the shawls and neatly crocheted knee-blankets, was Mrs Bates?
I wanted to know, and Mrs Bates of Highbury is the result.
For this weekend I will be discounting Mrs Bates of Highbury to half its normal price in print format and only 99p/c in digital format, so do go along and get your copy quickly. When you have read it, don’t forget to go back to Amazon and use your Goodreads account to leave a short review. You know how important these are!
In the meantime, here is a short excerpt to whet your appetite.
Here, the reader and Mrs Bates meet the new lady of Highbury vicarage for the first time.
Reverend Winwood, his wife and several daughters came to take up residence at the vicarage and Mrs Bates was not behind-hand in making her call. It was difficult to knock on the dear old door and wait for admittance. It was more difficult still to see new furniture where her familiar things had stood, different pictures on the walls, to feel like a stranger. Mrs Bates was glad she had called alone – it would have been too distressing for her girls.
Mrs Winwood was a large-structured lady with a very dignified air indeed. She received Mrs Bates in the drawing room where a multitude of small tables, glazed cabinets and shelves displayed a plethora of fussy ornaments and gaudy trinkets. There was an astonishing number of chairs, many draped with fabric carefully arranged to give the impression of having been casually strewn. Every antimacassar, cushion and footstool was excessively ornamented with pom-poms, frills and braids. Cross-stitched pictures and embroidered screens were in abundance. Altogether the room had a markedly cluttered, almost claustrophobic air which left Marie feeling quite breathless.
Presently there was a commotion in the hallway outside the door, loud whispering, a scuffle, a muted shriek and the Winwood girls filed into the room.
‘My daughters,’ Mrs Winwood intoned. ‘Hermia, Sophia, Ursula, Cordelia and Arabella. The little ones are in the nursery. My husband is from home. He visits the Bishop.’
The girls made their curtseys and took up seats around the room.
‘Your daughters are clearly very fine needlewomen,’ Marie said. ‘Their diligence and skill is displayed in every delightful ornamentation I see. How proud you must be of them, ma’am.’
Mrs Winwood waved away Mrs Bates’ compliment and pointed to the fireplace. ‘The fire in this room smokes,’ she said, as though it was in some way Mrs Bates’ fault.
‘Oh yes, I am afraid so, and as a result we only used this room in the summer time. The fire in the morning room is very good.’
‘A family of nine cannot live in a morning room. We can barely be accommodated in this room. Where is Ursula to practice her music? And the dining room – well! I quite despair of it.’
Mrs Bates looked around her. The removal of half the supernumerary chairs and all of the side tables would have doubled the useful space, she thought, but kept this observation to herself.
‘It takes one a while to accustom oneself to a new place,’ she remarked. ‘Your previous residence was large?’
‘Much larger than this,’ Mrs Winwood replied bitterly. ‘There will have to be alterations. I have stipulated that quite definitely as a condition of my staying here. Winwood is in no doubt of what must occur.’
This seemed like no business of hers to pursue. Mrs Bates said, ‘You will find Highbury a very friendly place.’
Mrs Winwood sniffed, as though she very much doubted it.
‘You have received several calls already, I am sure.’
‘A lady by the name of Snell,’ Mrs Winwood admitted, at last, with a lip distinctly curled. ‘She is the lawyer’s wife, I apprehend. In general I find lawyers are upstarts and rogues. I cannot speak for Mr Snell, however. He may be a perfectly respectable gentleman. Another couple came – the Westons. They are in trade I hear.’
‘Very prosperously so,’ Mrs Bates replied, ‘and Mrs Snell is a very genteel lady. Her father was…’
But Mrs Winwood had no interest of the genealogy of Mrs Snell. ‘Mr Knightley has so far declined to do us the honour of a visit,’ she lamented. ‘Likewise the Claytons. By all accounts they are the kind of families one feels one could meet without a blush.’
‘I think there is not a family in Highbury I would be ashamed to acknowledge acquaintance with,’ Mrs Bates said.
‘Even the Coxes?’ Mrs Winwood thundered.
‘Even the Coxes. They are not in our first circle, but they are honest and hard-working.’
‘He is a clerk. Their children run quite wild, I understand.’
‘Their children are healthy and energetic. They enjoy the countryside. Now Mrs Winwood I feel I have taken up too much of your valuable time. I will bid you good morning.’
Thank you for reading!