Emma: A treasure trove of village ‘characters’
In continuing my light survey of humor in Jane Austen’s books, I am now up to Emma.
Having reread different parts of Emma multiple times over the last few months as I work on my Highbury Variation novels, I can see why it is some people’s favorite! Some readers can’t stand Emma as a character–which I understand–but goodness is she funny! Sometimes unintentionally, through her short-sighted view of the world, but often intentionally! But more than Emma, there are so many fantastic and funny supporting characters. Mr. Woodhouse, Mrs. Elton, Miss Bates…!
I love Jane Austen’s ability to create humor in her own narrative voice and in the voice of her characters, each according to their nature. So here are some of my favorite witty and humorous quotes from Emma. (And my poor attempts to organize my thoughts about them!)
Emma: I think much of what we love about her is her honesty! Despite being proud, spoiled, and interfering, she knows these things about herself and claims them. She needs to mature and grow in humility, but her intelligent understanding of her own flawed nature is full of humor and wit.
“I always deserve the best treatment because I never put up with any other.”
“Concession must be out of the question; but it was time to appear to forget that they had ever quarrelled.”
Mrs. Elton: Oh, Mrs. Elton and the joy of a terrible character! I think I tend to not put enough of these people in my stories. She is so vain, so grasping, so puffed up in her own importance. And we love to read her for it! She is so much of herself, all her blind self-centeredness is enjoyable in its way.
“I always take the part of my own sex. I do indeed. I give you notice–You will find me a formidable antagonist on that point. I always stand up for women.’
“Donwell was famous for its strawberry-beds, which seemed a plea for the invitation: but no plea was necessary; cabbage-beds would have been enough to tempt the lady, who only wanted to be going somewhere.”
“Without music, life would be a blank to me.”
Mr. Woodhouse: What would this story be without hypochondriacal Mr. Woodhouse? I love him in pretty much every movie iteration. He is so generous, yet so worried! So fussy, yet so kind! I just love him. And he is an excellent reminder not to forget the ridiculous, over-the-top characters in my writing. We can’t all be intelligent, self-reflective heroines, after all!
“Mrs. Bates, let me propose your venturing on one of these eggs. An egg boiled very soft is not unwholesome. Serle understands boiling an egg better than any body. I would not recommend an egg boiled by any body else; but you need not be afraid, they are very small, you see—one of our small eggs will not hurt you. Miss Bates, let Emma help you to a little bit of tart— a very little bit. Ours are all apple-tarts. You need not be afraid of unwholesome preserves here. do not advise the custard. Mrs. Goddard, what say you to half a glass of wine? A small half-glass, put into a tumbler of water? I do not think it could disagree with you.”
“But it is never safe to sit out of doors, my dear.”
“Yes, certainly—I cannot deny that Mrs. Weston, poor Mrs. Weston, does come and see us pretty often—but then—she is always obliged to go away again.”
Yes, we can all only aspire to be as witty as Jane, but to wrap up, here is a little excerpt from my latest novel, From Highbury with Love. I didn’t pull any quotes from Miss Bates for today’s post, but she is such a treasure as well! In this chapter, I dip into her perspective after she loses her mother, Mrs. Bates, and Jane Fairfax and Lizzy Bennet are with her. Miss Bates is so relentlessly cheerful, she is a pleasure to write.
Miss Bates, middle-aged, plain, and poor, considered herself a fortunate woman.
She was certainly known everywhere as a happy woman. Happy disposition, happy manners, happy countenance.
But as she rose from her bed that evening, after resting most of the afternoon, she still felt slightly feverish. Her skin was warm but her body cold.
Miss Bates hadn’t been able to eat much for dinner. Now her mouth was quite dry, and a dreadful taste lay on her tongue. Some good hot tea would be delightful, once she was fit to be seen. She heard low voices in the parlor; Lizzy and Jane must be there.
She blew her nose firmly in her handkerchief and forced herself to wash her face in the basin, though the water had been sitting out all day and was cold. It felt even more bitterly cold to her flushed face, but she knew she looked a fright and must make an effort to cleanse herself. She found her spectacles, where she had set them next to her washbasin and perched them on her nose.
The looking glass in her room was yellow and rippled, but that was no matter, for she only needed to make sure her hair was tidy. Nothing like lying down for most of the day to leave oneself sadly crushed and tangled. She’d put the better-looking glass in Jane’s room, of course, for Jane was young and beautiful and ought to see herself clearly. That good glass had come from Emma, when she had received a beautiful new one from her father last summer.
The second-best glass was in Miss Bates’s mother’s room, but that remained empty for now. Miss Bates had not yet rearranged anything from the way it had been before her mother, the elderly Mrs. Bates, had passed away.
She felt tears pricking her eyes. It was most unexpected to lose her mother, even at her age, and it had left Miss Bates feeling quite the orphan. She resolutely wiped her eyes.
How providential that Miss Lizzy Bennet had offered to come for a time! Otherwise Miss Bates would be leaving poor Jane quite alone and untended! And Miss Lizzy was so cheerful, so active, so friendly! She did not stand on ceremony but treated them quite as family, in a most respectful way. Miss Bates was quite pleased with her.
What had she ever done to deserve such kind family connections?
When she came out into the low light of the parlor, lit by two candles and the fireplace, Jane and Lizzy were both present. Jane was near the fire, wrapped in a shawl, and Lizzy sat near the small table with the candles, reading aloud from a book.
“What a picture you two make,” Miss Bates said. “Such lovely young ladies; such a warm fire; such a cozy, domestic moment! It could be a painting, do you not think, Jane? It would be a lovely painting.”
“How are you feeling this evening, Aunt?” Jane asked. She was looking sadly pale, but always so brave!
“Quite well. In fact, I think I must be on the mend. Dear Jane, how do you find yourself? If Miss Lizzy were not here, I should always reproach myself for failing you when you are unwell!”
“No, no. I, too, am feeling perfectly fine. Miss Bennet and I were on the brink of having tea. She has been so kind as to read aloud, but I am sure she is feeling dry.”
“I will just go down now,” Lizzy said. “I spoke with Patty and she is also going to send up some light toast and two boiled eggs. I think both of you ought to try to eat a little, if you are feeling so well. You both ate nothing earlier.”
“Lovely, lovely.” Miss Bates sank into the chair across from Jane. “Thank you, my dear. We should be so dull if you were not here.”
Lizzy’s footsteps disappeared down the stairs, and Miss Bates again felt tears welling up in her eyes. “Oh, goodness me. I do not know what is the matter. I am perfectly fine.” She was compelled to search for the hidden pocket in her waistband in which she tucked her extra handkerchief.
Jane leaned forward to squeeze her forearm gently. “I think perhaps you and I are getting out a lifetime of tears in just a few weeks.”
“I don’t know what I should have to cry about in my life.” Miss Bates sniffed and wiped her cheeks, though tears still ran. “I have so many friends. It is such comfort to live in a town where one knows everybody! It is few who are fortunate to have such a community. Though you, Jane, yes. Your poor mother and father! And I do not like the idea of you becoming a governess. Excessively kind of the Campbells to help you on in that way, but… Oh no, please do not cry.”
For Jane was also beginning to weep. Her cheeks and nose wrinkled as she fought it back. “I do not know why I cry either. I have every reason to look forward to my future, if only I could tell you—but then, it is better not to count on what may not happen.” She fetched her own handkerchief. “What a pair we are. How I have missed you.”
“And I have missed you, my dearest Jane.”
Lizzy returned just then and looked at them with comical dismay. “When I left, you were both assuring each other of your perfect wellness. Yet I come back to this?”
Jane gave a watery chuckle. “We are a sight, no doubt, Miss Bennet. But not everyone can laugh as you do, and when we cannot laugh, sometimes we must cry.”
“I did not mean to belittle your feelings,” Lizzy said. “In fact, if you desire me to, I will skip ahead several chapters in our book to the baby’s funeral. Lydia and Kitty always cry buckets over it, and my own eyes do not stay precisely dry. Then we may all weep copiously and sleep the better for it.”
Miss Bates laughed and shook her head. “You are so witty! Is she not witty, Jane? But no, no baby’s funeral if you please. I am sure I am already a watering pot enough without it. I do say, isn’t it funny that a crying woman should be called a watering pot, when watering pots are such useful things? But no, please, no funerals.”
“Very well, but only if you will both promise to at least attempt a boiled egg and a piece of toast.”
And now, if you made it this far: the cover to my next novel! This will be Book 2 in my Highbury Variation series, focusing on Jane Fairfax, and–of course!–Lizzy Bennet. Thanks for reading!
What are some of your favorite Emma quotes?