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The ‘Great Talker’: Spinster Stereotypes in Emma

“She was a great talker upon little matters, which exactly suited Mr. Woodhouse, full of trivial communications and harmless gossip.”
                                                                            —Jane Austen, Emma

As constant reminders of marital failure, spinsters can be puzzling characters in Austen’s matrimonial success stories. Generally her single women are kind-hearted, motherly characters, but their moments of dialogue also reveal an endless and comical nervousness. In a patriarchal society so focused on marriage, an unmarried woman must presumably either vie for power or find herself powerless. This dichotomy is depicted throughout the literature of Britain’s long eighteenth century, where representations of single women fluctuate between the opportunistic, hideous old maid and the undervalued yet valuable maiden aunt. Austen, a spinster herself, finds a position between these poles, treating her unmarried female characters with everything from pity to mild mockery. Although Austen does not necessarily abuse spinsters as harshly as some of her predecessors, she also does not glorify them. Her novel Emma especially keeps the loquacious spinster stereotype alive with the long-winded Miss Bates. While Miss Bates is a character easily belittled (even Emma cannot help doing so), she also has a certain power in her narrative and her social network. She effectively contributes to the novel by controlling the narrative for stretches of time, and she is a central figure who connects many people of different ranks in her fictional neighborhood. Austen’s chatty spinster is both an object of gentle satire and an arbiter of important narrative and social information. As the novel shows us, Miss Bates should not be underestimated.

Scholars such as Susan S. Lanser point out that during the long eighteenth century, representations of single women varied on a continuum between the repulsive, shrewish old maid and the humble, virtuous spinster. For instance, Daniel Defoe writes in 1723 that spinsters are “Amazonian Cannibals” and “the Terror and Aversion of all Mankind” (Defoe qtd. in Lanser 302). Contrastingly, a few writers assert the value of spinsterhood during this period. Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694-97) and Sarah Scott’s A Description of Millennium Hall (1762) both call for an academy or utopian space where single women can replace the confines of matrimony with the freedom of education. Other authors treat spinsters with pity and sympathy, but most spinster characters appear as comic stock characters and caricatures. While the public perception of spinsterhood in the long eighteenth century varied, one thing is for certain: single women faced a good deal of criticism.

William Hayley’s A Philosophical, Historical and Moral Essay on Old Maids (1785) highlights many of the stereotypes that existed regarding spinsters in Austen’s lifetime. Hayley stresses in his chapter titles that the four faults of old maids are the following: “Curiosity,” “Credulity,” “Affectation,” and “Envy and Ill-nature” (ix). Spinsters are stereotyped as meddling, gullible sexual monsters. The virtues of old maids, which Hayley declares are “Ingenuity,” “Charity,” and “Patience,” actually work to reassert hegemony (ix). As Katharine Kittredge points out, Hayley’s discussion of an old maid’s “positive” traits “eulogizes those who surrender their power,” and his “virtues” involve an intense “negation of self” (47; 49). The unacceptable old maid possesses too much power, while the ideal spinster holds none at all. Austen confronts these stereotypes through her character of Miss Bates. On the surface the Highbury spinster seems too ineffective, but an examination of how her voice contributes to the novel and her social network demonstrates that she actually does occupy a position of authority.

Unlike some other characters who attempt to talk ad nauseam in Austen’s novels, Miss Bates’s prolixity proves useful. Miss Bates is allowed so much dialogue in Emmabecause she utilizes her words to provide vital information about the members of  her society. Marylea Meyersohn suggests that Austen “uses garrulity as an example of irrational social discourse,” and that she “derides in females their absence of linguistic power . . . through the overproduction of words” (35-36). While many Austen readers may automatically group Miss Bates’s speech acts into this category of “irrational social discourse,” the reality is more nuanced. The vulgar Mrs. Elton fits well into this “irrational” model; her babble is narcissistic and therefore unbearable. Her lengthy speeches are tasteless attempts at exerting power. For instance, when Mrs. Elton first visits Hartfield, all she can do is point out the ways in which Hartfield is “extremely like Maple Grove!” (Austen 250). Her garrulity is almost always all about her. Miss Bates breaks from Meyerson’s generalization, though. Miss Bates’s discourse is motivated by entirely different purposes—she simply wants to keep everyone interconnected. Her ramblings are a source of village information, not just information about herself or her thoughts. Unlike Mrs. Elton who speaks without end solely in an attempt to have her voice heard, Miss Bates’s moments of dialogue have a selfless purpose: to serve her society.

Tempting as it is to dismiss Miss Bates as another flat, comic character of Highbury alongside Mr. Woodhouse or Mrs. Elton, she actually possesses great complexity and even centrality. For example, she takes control of the trajectory of the novel for full pages at a time. As the “one voice and two ladies” of Miss Bates and Mrs. Weston meet Emma and Harriet in the shop across the way from Miss Bates’s home, Miss Bates launches into a speech that then occupies the next three or so pages, breathlessly emitting approximately 1500 words in this scene alone (Austen 224). In a move uncharacteristic of Austen, the narrator disappears. The narratorial voice only interrupts Miss Bates three times to signal the physical movement of the characters or to give a quick glimpse into Emma’s “wonder[ing] on what, of all the medley, she would fix” when Miss Bates herself forgets halfway through “‘What was I talking of?’” (225). This passage does include the undesirable traits of a spinster such as tedious and rambling speech on the minutiae of an uninteresting life and a style riddled with repetition and intensifiers, yet unlike her predecessors who may simply ignore this unpleasant spinster, Austen gives her narrative purpose and her own narrative space.

Miss Bates’s copious ramblings represent Austen’s attempt at empowering her spinster characters. The very existence of this passage is something to be considered. Instead of simply alluding to the talk of a wordy character, Austen removes the spinster character from the shadows and thrusts her onto center stage. She even has the power to silence her surrounding characters and halt their movement. Over the course of this long speech, the women only tranverse a very short space, going from the shop to Miss Bates’s staircase. In fact, Miss Bates’s audience moves freely and at their own pace only when they walk “up stairs without having any regular narration to attend to, [they are] pursued only by the sounds of [Miss Bates’s] desultory good-will” (Austen 227). Miss Bates warrants a great deal of respect. Regardless of whether her audience gives their full attention to her prattle, they at least appear as if they are earnestly listening. The other women only allow themselves to walk at a quicker pace and divert their attention from Miss Bates once she moves from relaying Highbury gossip and personal news to simply filling the air with warnings to watch one’s step. One may argue that nothing Miss Bates utters is important, but the reactions she garners from her audience say otherwise.

Miss Bates’s narratorial dominance discredits the notion that an unmarried woman has nothing to say and therefore deserves little attention. While the marginalized spinster cannot go so far as to be the heroine of a novel, she should not molder away silently in the dark corners of the sitting room. In her discussion of spinsters in relation to plot, Stephanie Oppenheim stresses that “beginning with Richardson’s major novels of the 1740s, . . . what is clearly missing [from eighteenth-century fiction] is an autonomousfemale plot—one that is not determined by erotic events, not fulfilled by marriage or defloration and death” (1). Throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, some female writers hint at this idea of a “spinster plot,” as Oppenheim calls this idea of an “autonomous female plot”, but it is never fulfilled (1). Austen certainly avoids carrying out a spinster plot in Emma both for Miss Bates and Emma. While the triumph of the marriage plot in the end helps reinforce the idea that spinsterhood equals failure, I believe Miss Bates’s passage can be thought of as a certain proto-spinster plot, a practice run at having a spinster in the narrative spotlight. Because she does not articulate her thoughts in a clear manner and only relates trivial tidbits, this experiment proves somewhat unsuccessful. A full novel of Miss Bates’s dialogue sounds more like Virginia Woolf novel than one of Austen’s refined stories. But, speaking of Austen’s tendency to meticulously edit her works, the sheer fact that this passage exists in the final draft of Emma marks it as significant. Why is it here if not to give a voice to the alienated spinster?

Despite being a poor and dependent character, Miss Bates occupies an important place in her fictional community network. Her long-winded speeches and constant anxiety about the well being of others show how dedicated she is to her family and friends. Although she cannot play the role of a biological mother, Miss Bates takes on other maternal roles. She cares for her ailing mother, and it should not be forgotten that Miss Bates acts as one of Jane Fairfax’s three surrogate mothers, alongside Mrs. Bates and Mrs. Campbell. Miss Bates has adopted a larger mothering role as well: the role of keeping Highbury’s social network interconnected. This spinster mothers her community more than any married woman, for she has plenty of time to devote to others. Everyone has a friend in Miss Bates, a woman who “enjoyed a most uncommon degree of popularity for a woman neither young, handsome, rich, nor married” (Austen 67).

An examination of Miss Bates’s position in her village shows where the spinster holds a great deal of value. A return to the narrative takeover analyzed above readily illustrates her importance. Within these few pages of dialogue, Miss Bates mentions sixteen neighborhood people (not including herself). The people she mentions range from the high-ranking Mr. Knightley down to more common villagers like John Saunders and the Wallis family, characters who never receive mention anywhere else in the novel. Eight of them can be classified as gentry: Emma, Harriet Smith, Mrs. Weston, Frank Churchill, Jane Fairfax, Mrs. Bates, Mr. Woodhouse, and Mr. Knightley. Eight hold a status lower than the gentry, for they all work for a living: Mr. Perry, John Saunders, Patty, Mrs. Wallis and her boy, Mrs. Ford, William Larkins, and Mrs. Hodges. If one were to map out all of these connections between the characters that Miss Bates mentions, it is clear that she is the central node that keeps all classes of the neighborhood connected. Emma probably does not give much thought to the Wallis family or John Saunders without Miss Bates’s mention of them. What Mrs. Hodges, the housekeeper at Donwell Abbey, thinks about Mr. Knightley’s ability to “have another apple-tart this spring” probably does not cross Mrs. Weston’s mind without the catalyst of Miss Bates’s discussion of such a thing (Austen 227).

As Miss Bates’s interesting position between the ranks show, she manipulates her liminal social status in order to keep her society connected. While Miss Bates was born into the gentry, since her father was the vicar of Highbury, she “has sunk,” as Mr. Knightley puts it (Austen 326). Her impecuniosity aligns her with a lower rank, even as she continues to participate in the gentry network surrounding Hartfield. Distinctions of rank usually confine genteel characters and working characters within their social circles, but Miss Bates’s peculiar stance allows her to keep the differing ranks connected. Although she leaves the matchmaking to Emma, Miss Bates acts as Highbury’s resident yenta by monitoring the lives of a diverse group of people and updating citizens about each other regardless of if they desire such information. In a sense, just as her status as a poor, genteel spinster has blurred rank definitions for her own identity, Miss Bates blurs the boundaries of social rank in her small village. Perhaps this power to break firm divisions was yet another threat spinsters presented to the British population. Miss Bates has the power to unite people of different distinctions and inspire them to care about one another’s lives. While I do not suggest that Austen confers revolutionary power on Miss Bates, it is nonetheless progressive and disruptive of Austen to highlight that the socially marginalized spinster is centrally important to her community.

In this scene of the novel, Miss Bates not only takes charge of the actual narrative, but she also demonstrates the command she has over her social network. Unlike characters who have few connections because of boundaries such as rank, Miss Bates links a great many people together and therefore holds a good deal of leverage. This power goes against conventional spinster stereotypes of the day in some surprising ways. For example, Miss Bates’s centrality in her social network reveals a popularity that contradicts the comical surface of her character. Emma may consider herself the most important figure in Highbury, but this scene refutes her assumption. Emma would only claim a social connection to nine people here, whereas Miss Bates would admit a social connection to all sixteen. Going by the numbers, Miss Bates is more socially popular than Emma. It is also crucial to realize that although there are other candidates for this central position in the neighborhood, Miss Bates is the one who takes on the responsibility. Austen might have employed figures such as the shopkeeper Mrs. Ford or the apothecary Mr. Perry as the central node in this information highway, for they have the same ability to connect people of all distinctions. Yet, instead of having characters who are not “failures” in the patriarchy (i.e. a married woman or a learned man) fulfill the duty of controlling communication, Austen sees to it that a spinster occupies this significant role.

A spinster cannot be an active member of society through wifehood and motherhood, but she can contribute to her community through this unofficial yet essential civic function of keeping everyone informed. Even as her loquacious tendencies superficially match her to the standard stereotypes of the day, by acting as a central figure narratively and socially, Miss Bates is of great value to both her narrative and the society within it.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Emma. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2004. Print.
  • Hayley, William. A Philosophical, Historical, and Moral Essay on Old Maids. By a Friend to the Sisterhood. In Three Volumes.  . . .  Vol. 1. London: printed for T. Cadell, 1785. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Web. 8 Mar. 2015.
  • Kittredge, Katharine Ottaway. “Tabby Cats Lead Apes in Hell”: Spinsters in Eighteenth Century Life and Fiction. Diss. State University of New York at Binghamton, 1992. Ann Arbor: UMI, 2003. Print.
  • Lanser, Susan S. “Singular Politics: The Rise of the British Nation and the Production of the Old Maid.” Singlewomen in the European Past, 1250-1800. Ed. Judith M. Bennett and Amy M. Froide. P hiladelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1999. 297-323. Print.
  • Meyersohn, Marylea. “Jane Austen’s Garrulous Speakers: Social Criticism in Sense and SensibilityEmma, and Persuasion.” Reading and Writing Women’s Lives: A Study of the Novel of Manners. Ed. Bege K. Bowers and Barbara Brothers. Ann Arbor: UMI Research, 1990. 35-48. Print.
  • Oppenheim, Stephanie. Spinning their Wheels: Spinsters and Narrative in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century British Women’s Fiction. Diss. The City University of New York, 2003. Ann Arbor: UMI, 2003. Print.
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