Welcome to the Bates Motel for Meekness & Mindfulness
I read Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ in 1985, and at the time, I’d have happily swapped it for a quarter of cola cubes, or even just one. I blame my teacher Mrs Powell, who, in keeping with the school’s English Literature policy on killing and dissecting books, drained the life out of it then spat out the entrails.
Returning to ‘Emma’ thirty years on has been an enlightening experience. Away from the tedious scrutiny of the classroom, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I love that Emma has a flawed character. I could relate to her, although I did wince at her behaviour at times. I’m now older than many of the characters in the novel and I think that and the intervening years have changed my attitude towards them.
Mr Knightley, once a stuffy old stick, is now thoughtful, a man of integrity, silent but wise. Having a better understanding of her limited future options, I have only sympathy for the powerlessness and apparent ‘stuck-up-ness’ of Jane Fairfax. At school Frank Churchill was presented as a stock character, a typical cad – how many school essays did I write about the plausible rogue? But now I think his character is far more subtly drawn than that. Being so self-centred, he’s totally unconscious of the suffering he causes Jane, despite her future and her reputation lying entirely in his clumsy hands. As a teen, my world was still peopled by the good and the bad, I still hadn’t sussed out that we’re all a mix of both, and often the worse suffering is caused by those blindly oblivious to the fact, which rather complicates things.
My biggest surprise was my total love and devotion to Miss Bates. She might be a chatterbox, forgetting that that constant train of thought is actually coming out of her mouth and is not just in her head, but she manages to always see the good in everything despite what life throws at her. Her relentless optimism in the face of impoverishment and circumstances that will only get worse for her is an act of bravery that really moved me. I don’t think people are born with that kind of sunny disposition, they have to work at it and faced with her bleak future, that takes grit.
All ends well for Emma and Knightley, Jane and Frank, and even Harriet and Mr Martin, but what of Miss Bates? She only has a lonely future to look forward to, caring for her elderly mother, while reliant on the kindness and friendship of others. Like a Zen master, she rises above her suffering, choosing to only see the positive, vehemently shaking her contented fist in the face of despair. If she was around now, she would have bona fide Guru status. She could hold retreats in her Centre for Meekness and Mindfulness, sell her own brand of teas and chant CDs. She’d make a mint and I’d be glad, as then she could take everyone in the village out for rides in her fleet of Barouches-landau* without feeling any need whatsoever to apologise for herself, and rightly so.