Occasional Papers, NO.3 (Fall 1999)
The Cassandra of Highbury: Miss Bates on Film

Sue Parrill (email: is Professor of English at Southeastern Louisiana University, where she teaches nineteenth-century British literature. Recent publications include articles on Pride and Prejudice in Literature/Film Quarterly (1999) and on Emma and Clueless in Persuasion On-Line (1999).

In Jane Austen's novel Emma, the narrator captures Miss Bates's character in the phrase, "a great talker upon little matters" (21). Miss Bates is a pivotal character in the novel. She inhabits the novel from the beginning until the climax, in which she plays a central role. To the reader she is a source of humor and a source of the discomfort that comes from listening to a bore. Through her, Jane Austen manipulates the metaphor of speech/silence to convey an ironic sense of truth spoken but not heard and of truth spoken unawares. As Mary Lascelles has pointed out, Miss Bates's monologue is often the key to the reader's understanding the reality of the situation, but she may reveal the truth without being fully aware of what she is revealing (93). She is the comic Cassandra of Highbury.

Since 1972, Emma has been made into four cinematic versions.1 The first, entitled Emma, was produced by the BBC in 1972. Paramount released the second, Clueless, to theatres in 1995. The second and third, both entitled Emma, appeared in 1996, one on the A&E Television Network and the other released to theatres by Miramax. With the exception of Clueless, which is set in the 1990's, these cinematic versions of the novel retain the period setting of the novel. The BBC production has the advantage for the lover of the novel that it follows the plot of the novel faithfully and develops its characters fully. Both of the other, shorter versions set in the nineteenth century sacrifice many details of the plot and diminish the roles of characters such as Frank Churchill, Jane Fairfax, and even Miss Bates. Clueless sacrifices the Miss Bates character entirely. In the BBC, A&E, and Miramax versions, however, the filmmakers have recognized the thematic importance of the role of Miss Bates, have cast this character appropriately, and have used her effectively.

The actresses who played Miss Bates have interpreted the role in interestingly different ways. Sophie Thompson (Miramax) (the sister of Emma Thompson) is the youngest of these, and the most endearingly funny. She is and appears to be in her thirties. Constance Chapman (BBC) and Prunella Scales (A&E) both appear considerably older,2 and thus might be thought more appropriate to the role of Miss Bates, who is described in the novel as in her middle years. All three consistently dress in clothing that is dowdy and nondescript, in keeping with the habits of a woman who lacks the money to dress in style. In the Miramax film, Miss Bates wears a variety of dresses, but all are highnecked, drab, and shapeless.3 In the A&E version, Miss Bates has four different dresses--two plain, dark day dresses worn with a white lace collar, a tea dress, and an evening gown (Birtwistle 50).

In Austen’s novel, the narrator describes Miss Bates as "neither young, handsome, rich, nor married"(21), with "neither beauty or cleverness" (21), and with "no intellectual superiority"(21). However, to her credit, she is "a happy woman," she likes everyone, and she has a "contented temper" (21). Although a vicar's daughter, Miss Bates is now very poor and will probably become even poorer. She and her mother live in a small upstairs apartment in Highbury and depend for luxuries on the largesse of the Woodhouses and Mr. Knightley.

D. W. Harding classifies Miss Bates as a "caricature," a term that he defines as "a form of the stereotype, which . . . isolates and exaggerates a few features"(89). According to Harding, one of the distinguishing marks of the caricature is long speeches with no give and take (86). I maintain, however, that Miss Bates in the novel is far too complicated a character to be called either a stereotype or a caricature. Although she is not as fully developed as Emma or Mr. Knightley, her personality is clearly sketched and delineated. Even more significant, she is a very human, very real character. In the cinematic versions, Miss Bates appears all the more real—in the flesh, in motion, and, particularly, in voice.

In the novel, Miss Bates is invited everywhere in Highbury and is generally liked for her cheerfulness and lack of pretension. Although Emma’s father values her company, Emma finds her "too good natured" and "too silly" to suit her (85). In the cinematic versions, however, other characters reveal their impatience with her chatter. In the BBC film, Mrs. Goddard (Mollie Sugden) complains to Harriet (Debbie Bowen) that Miss Bates cornered her and spent half an hour talking about Jane's dress and another half an hour about the food served at the ball. In the same version, Frank (Robert East) tells Emma that she should have warned him about the "talking aunt." In the novel and in all of the cinematic versions, Harriet points to Miss Bates as the epitome of that which every girl fears to become, an "Old Maid." In the novel, Emma says, "‘A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable, old maid . . . but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else’"(85). Here and in the cinematic versions, Emma contrasts Miss Bates with herself as she would be if she remained single.

Emma is contemptuous of Miss Bates because of her lack of social consequence, her excessive admiration for her niece (whom Emma envies), and her boring conversation. This contempt is mirrored in Emma's treatment of Miss Bates. In the Miramax film, when Emma and Harriet (Toni Collette) see and hear Miss Bates coming, they put their open parasols in front of them so that she will not see them and stop to talk. The cinematic versions enable viewers to see characters relating to each other even when they are not heard. In the novel as well as in the films, Mr. Knightley is pointedly attentive and courteous to Miss Bates, in contrast to Emma's more cavalier treatment of her. In the Miramax film, at the party at Hartfield, Emma looks beyond Miss Bates while Miss Bates talks to her and twice cuts off Miss Bates's effusions in order to speak to someone else. Unlike Mr. Knightley (Jeremy Northam), Emma never gives Miss Bates her full attention. Mr. Knightley's attention to the Bateses prepares the viewer for his later criticism of Emma after she insults Miss Bates at Box Hill. Miss Bates becomes the test case for Emma, whereby her grasp of only the superficial aspects of conduct towards one's social inferiors is contrasted with Mr. Knightley's true gentility.

In the novel and in the cinematic versions, Miss Bates's tendency to rattle on is a prime source of humor. As soon as Miss Bates appears in the novel, she bursts into speech and ceases only when she is interrupted or when she pauses to attend to her guests’ needs. Often the filmmakers open scenes with Miss Bates talking in voice-over even before she appears. In the BBC version, Miss Bates is heard before she is seen arriving at the ball. She is exclaiming about how wet it is, how her shoes are sturdy enough for the rain not to matter, but how wet Jane (Olivia Williams) will be. In the Miramax film, Miss Bates enters the parlor at Hartfield expressing her gratitude for being invited and for the Woodhouses’ gift of a hindquarter of pork.

Miss Bates's speech in the novel and in the cinematic versions is characterized by excessive repetition. A typical example of this repetitiveness occurs in Volume II, Chapter Nine, as Miss Bates, with Mrs. Weston, seeks out Emma in Ford's shop. Miss Bates interrupts Emma's query about Mrs. Bates's and Jane's health, to stray over various topics but to belabor Frank's valuable service in repairing Mrs. Bates's spectacles and to exult over the delightful apples which Mr. Knightley had sent. Miss Bates's habitual repetitiveness can be explained partly by the necessity for her to repeat everything she says so that her deaf mother can understand her. It is ironic that the talkative Miss Bates must live with a person who can hear little of what she says.

Another striking characteristic of Miss Bates's speech is what Lascelles calls its "limpid confusion" (94). While seeming confused, her speech reveals the truth clearly to a careful listener. The passage in Volume II, Chapter Two, in which Miss Bates speaks of Mr. Elton's marriage illustrates both her fragmented speech and the paradoxical connection of apparently disparate statements:

"Well, I had always rather fancied it would be some young lady hereabouts; not that I ever—Mrs. Cole once whispered to me—but I immediately said, 'No, Mr. Elton is a most worthy young man—but'—In short, I do not think I am particularly quick at those sort of discoveries. . . . What is before me, I see. At the same time nobody could wonder if Mr. Elton should have aspired. . . ." (176)

This speech reveals to the reader and to Emma that Miss Bates and Mrs. Cole have suspected Mr. Elton's attachment for Emma. It also contains astute self-analysis, for indeed Miss Bates sees a great deal and is very quick to report what she sees, whether or not she understands its significance.

In the BBC version, Miss Bates makes this speech in her own home in the presence of only Mrs. Bates, Jane (Olivia Williams), Emma, and Harriet, and she makes it after Emma and Harriet have already learned of the engagement. The other filmmakers have not included such a scene, conveying in other ways that some of Emma's friends were aware of Mr. Elton's preference for Emma.

The impact on the reader of Miss Bates's lengthy, disjointed speeches is similar to their impact on Emma and on other characters. The reader tends to hasten through them to get to something more interesting. Not until I listened to the unabridged Emma on audio-tape did I realize how excruciating those speeches can be to a listener. In all of the cinematic versions, the speeches are much abbreviated. Even so, they cause the viewer to smile—and squirm. Just as I resisted listening to them carefully, Emma tends to tune them out. Mr. Knightley, however, shows not only courtesy but kindness by being attentive to Miss Bates's speeches. In Volume III, Chapter Five, after Frank surprises his father by mentioning that Mr. Perry intends to set up a carriage, Miss Bates reveals that she knew of Perry's intention, and that, although it is supposed to be a secret, she may have mentioned it. She says,

"I am rather a talker; and now and then I have let a thing escape me which I should not. I am not like Jane. . . .I will answer for it she never betrayed the least thing in the world." (346)

Here the careful reader/listener will understand that Jane had heard about Perry's intention from her aunt and had conveyed this news to Frank by letter. We have already learned that, after Frank has left Highbury, Jane makes it her business to pick up the mail each day. Obviously she and Frank have been corresponding. Miss Bates's comment about Jane's never betraying anything is also relevant, since Jane's secret engagement to Frank has required her to be discreet. Frank, however, has been indiscreet, and he has made Jane uneasy with his hints and innuendoes. When Mr. Knightley observes Frank trying to catch Jane's eye, he becomes suspicious concerning their relationship. On this occasion, Emma has been present only to hear Frank wonder about Perry's plans, but not to hear Miss Bates's comment.

Frank's mention of Perry's plans to set up a carriage appears only in the BBC and the A&E versions. In the BBC version, in a scene in which Emma, Mr. Knightley, Mr. Weston (Raymond Adamson), and Frank are visiting Jane and the Bateses, Frank comments that apparently Perry has not yet set up his carriage. Mr. Weston exclaims that he has never heard of these plans and that he did not tell this news to Frank. Miss Bates then says that Mrs. Cole told it to her in strictest confidence and looks to her mother and to Jane for confirmation. Jane looks down, saying that she does not remember. While Emma does not pick up on this clue that someone in this family has been corresponding with Frank, Mr. Knightley (John Carson) appears suspicious.

In the A&E version, Frank (Raymond Coulihard) mentions Perry's plans to set up a carriage as he, Mr. Knightley (Mark Strong), Emma, Jane, Harriet, Mrs. Elton (Lucy Robinson), Miss Bates, and Mr. Weston (James Hazeldine) walk up Box Hill. After Mr. Weston denies being the source of Frank's information, Frank says that he must have dreamed it. Jane looks uncomfortable. Shortly after, Mr. Knightley tells Emma that he suspects that Frank and Jane have more of an acquaintance than they admit. Emma disparages this idea. Later Miss Bates is heard to say that it is strange that Mr. Churchill had dreamed of Perry's carriage since it was a secret that only she, her mother, and Jane knew. Emma is entirely unaware of the significance of this comment.

The Box Hill episode represents the climax of the novel and of all three cinematic versions. Indeed, Director Douglas McGrath calls it "the emotional center" of his film (76). Until the Box Hill picnic, Emma has been on relatively good behavior in her speech and demeanor with Miss Bates, but now she makes fun of Miss Bates. In the novel, Frank has called upon the company to say "‘one thing very clever’" or "‘two things moderately clever—or three things very dull indeed. . ."(370). Miss Bates says, "'Three things very dull indeed.' That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan't I?’" Emma says, "‘Ah, ma'am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once’" (370). Miss Bates is slow to catch her meaning, but when she does she says to Mr. Knightley, "‘I will try to hold my tongue. I must make myself very disagreeable, or she would not have said such a thing to an old friend’"(370). Mr. Weston then proposes a conundrum. Later, as they all prepare to leave Box Hill, Mr. Knightley chides Emma for exercising her wit on Miss Bates.

All of the cinematic versions keep very close to the dialogue of the novel in their treatment of Emma's insult to Miss Bates. They differ mainly in how they show the reactions of the others at the picnic. In the BBC version, Mr. Knightley looks grim as Miss Bates looks hurt. (Jane and Mrs. Weston are not present in this version.) Mr. Weston laughs and poses a conundrum in praise of Emma. Emma appears unaware that her quip has been unseemly until Mr. Knightley tells her after the others have gone to the carriages. In the Miramax film, Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston (Greta Scacchi) both look disapproving. Emma seems to be aware of their disapproval, but later she appears surprised at the heat of Mr. Knightley's criticism. The A&E version shows disapproval on the faces of both the Westons and Mr. Knightley, focuses more than the other versions on Miss Bates's look of chagrin and unhappiness, and reveals Emma looking very uncomfortable. This version emphasizes Emma's immediate consciousness of error and focuses on the disapproval of others besides Mr. Knightley.

Throughout the novel, Emma has seen her matchmaking efforts fail and has been forced to revise her opinions of people. Although Emma considers her motives to be disinterested and caring, Mr. Knightley shows the reader and Emma that she has really been selfish and inconsiderate. Mr. Knightley's harsh words to Emma at Box Hill figure as the last of a series of critiques of her irresponsible social behavior. His criticism at Box Hill produces a chastened Emma, who calls upon Miss Bates the very next day to apologize. In the novel, we are told that on this occasion Miss Bates's manner toward Emma is less open than usual, but after Emma inquires about Jane, Miss Bates responds volubly about Jane's decision to take a governess's position.

In all of the cinematic versions, Emma calls on Miss Bates the next day to apologize. In the Miramax film, as Emma is admitted she sees Miss Bates and Jane disappearing into another room. In the other two versions, Miss Bates receives Emma kindly and apologizes for Jane, who she says is too ill to see Emma. Emma makes her apology for wounding Miss Bates's feelings, and Miss Bates attempts to deny that she was hurt. As in the novel, Miss Bates is preoccupied with Jane's plans for the future.

In the final scene in which Miss Bates figures in the novel, Emma visits the Bateses and Jane to congratulate Jane on her engagement to Frank Churchill. In the distressing predicament of wishing to talk about the news but doubting what she might safely say, Miss Bates falters, and her speech is even more disjointed than usual. Only the BBC Emma shows Emma visiting the Bateses after learning the news of Jane's engagement. In this scene, Miss Bates is talking and fluttering about while serving cake to Emma and Mrs. Elton.

In the cinematic versions of Emma, the "talking aunt" has been a source of humor and a source of information. Her function is largely ironic, because, although she knows and tells secrets, she talks so much and in such a disjointed way that, except for Mr. Knightley, nobody, including the film audience, pays much attention to what she says. The BBC version makes the fullest use of Miss Bates; however, Sophie Thompson's Miss Bates is by far the most memorable rendering of the character. Thompson brings the character to life by blending the comic and pathetic. Her mannerisms are comic—the constant smile, the myopic peering, the hesitations in her speech, and the nervous giggle. Yet, her delight at the thought of food, her concern for her niece and for her mother, and her pain at Emma's jest are rendered with feeling. In all of the cinematic versions, Miss Bates comes across as a very real person, with a life and feelings that are her own. She is the village Cassandra, but a pathetic and comic figure rather than a tragic one.


1 Andrew Wright cites two earlier versions of Emma produced by the BBC, neither of which is available for viewing. See Works Cited.

2 Make-up artist for the A&E film, Mary Hillman, yielded to the director’s view that Miss Bates is a "menopausal survivor" and consequently made her look older than the actress actually is. Ms. Scales wore a grey wig and her front teeth were stained brown (Birtwistle 53). Director John Glenister chose Constance Chapman for the role in the BBC version because of her "marvellous, sad comic quality" and because her plumpness contrasted with Mr. Woodhouse’s thin fragility (Lauritzen 118).

3 Douglas McGrath described Miss Bates’s costume at the ball as "a thin blue dress, a brown shawl so drab it borders on a shroud, and a coral necklace. The coral is obviously the nicest thing she owns, so she has to wear it, even though it matches nothing else she has on" (77).


Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Emma. 1816. Read by Michael Page. Audiocassette. Brilliance. 17 hours (unabridged). Emma. Writer and Director Douglas McGrath. With Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam. Miramax, 1996.
Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933. Emma. Adapted by Vincent Tilsley. Prod. Campbell Logan. BBC TV. 6 parts. 26 February-1 April, 1960. With Diana Fairfax, Paul Daneman, Gillian Lind, and Raymond Young.
Birtwistle, Sue, and Susie Conklin. The Making of Jane Austen’s Emma. London: Penguin, 1996. Harding, D. W. "Character and Caricature in Jane Austen." Critical Essays on Jane Austen. Ed. B. C. Southam. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968.
Clueless. Writer and director Amy Heckerling. With Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd. Paramount, 1995. Lascelles, Mary. Jane Austen and her Art. London: Oxford, 1939.
Emma. Adapted by Judy Campbell. Produced by Michael Barry. With Judy Campbell, Ralph Michael, Gillian Lind, and Richard Hurndall. BBC TV 25 May 1948. Lauritzen, Monica. Jane Austen’s Emma on Television: A Study of a BBC Classic Serial. Gothenburg Studies in English 48. Gothenburg, Sweden. 1981.
Emma. Adapted by Denis Canstanduros. Director John Glenister. With Doran Godwin and John Carson. BBC TV, 1972. McGrath, Douglas. "Raising Jane: A Diary of the Making of Emma." Premiere, Sept. 1996: 74-77+.
Emma. Writer Andrew Davies. Director Diarmuid Lawrence. With Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong. Meridian-ITV/A&E, 1996. Wright, Andrew. "Jane Austen Adapted," Nineteenth Century Fiction. 30 (1975): 421-453.

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