The Other Miss Bates is the second book in the Highbury series, in which I explore the possibilities of life for the inhabitants of that quiet Surrey town thirty years before they are brought to life by Jane Austen in Emma.
Usually, writing a book involves taking separate strands of story – character, plot, setting and theme – and weaving them together to make a seamless fabric of narrative. Writing a prequel is quite different. I had to unravel Miss Austen’s beautiful tapestry into its constituent threads and trace them back to their beginnings to see how and why they might have arrived where she took them up.
Jane Bates does not appear in Emma but we know she existed. She gets a scant paragraph of introduction and dismissal.
The marriage of Lieut. Fairfax of the – regiment of infantry, and Miss Jane Bates, had had its day of fame and pleasure, hope and interest; but nothing now remained of it save the melancholy remembrance of him dying in action abroad, of his widow sinking under consumption and grief soon afterwards, and this girl.
She is important, though, as the mother of the elegant and accomplished Jane Fairfax, and I found her interesting in herself. Would she be another wittering woman like her sister Hetty, or altogether different? I wanted so much more for her; intelligence, wit, opportunities, romance and adventure. I wanted, in her short life, to make good the deficit that poor Hetty is left with. You’ll have to read the book to see how she manifested herself to me as I wrote but to say that Jane and Hetty are chalk and cheese is something of an understatement!
The only other characters who appear in my book as well as Jane Austen’s are Mrs Bates and Lieutenant (later Captain, then plain Mister) Weston. Mrs Bates is the subject of Mrs Bates of Highbury and you can read there about how different this entirely silent and almost impossibly elderly lady was thirty years before Emma. It is easy to look at elderly people and not see the passion and vitality they might have had as younger people, harder still to imagine, sometimes, that within the frail corporal remnant, their former vigour remains unabated. I think that if you do read Mrs Bates of Highbury and this book, and then go back to Emma, you might see the little old lady swathed in shawls, ‘past everything but tea and quadrille’ with new eyes.
James Hazeldine and Robert Bathurst as Mr Weston.
Mr Weston was more difficult to regress back to his younger iteration, since he is a much more important and thoroughly developed character in the later work; I needed to be sure that my Weston grew seamlessly into Miss Austen’s. His key characteristic is his easy-going nature; he is described as ‘a general favourite’, with ‘a warm heart and sweet temper’, much more likely to go along with what others want than to insist on his own way. And, despite his birth, he is a gentleman; courteous, gallant, polite, patient. These qualities gave me the key to his role in my plot and, more importantly, to Miss Churchill’s. We know from Emma that he was amazed and grateful that Miss Churchill chose to marry him against the wishes of her family. How far, I wondered, might she presume upon his good nature to get her own way?
Of course I needed to invent a whole population to throng Brighton along with the folks from Highbury and to create a vivid impression of Brighton itself; that was enormous fun. Come and meet the dark and dangerous Arthur Sealy, the limp and helpless Lady Cecily and the portly gourmand Captain Bates. Stroll on the Styne to see the militia practice their manoeuvres, attend the Assembly or visit the Rookery, a pleasure pavilion where ladies and gentlemen don’t always behave as they should.
Jane’s stay in Brighton is a revelation after the parochialism of Highbury; it opens her eyes to the wider world. It breaks her heart and then restores it again. Who knew that life could hold so much in store for the other Miss Bates?
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