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“Even Miss Bates Has Mind”: A Cognitive Historicist Reading of Emma’s Miss Bates

In an 1890 review of Jane Austen’s Emma, British historian and journalist Goldwin Smith dismisses the character of Miss Bates, a common practice in early receptions of the single, older daughter of Highbury’s late vicar.1  Smith argues that Austen’s “genius is shown in making the familiar and commonplace intensely interesting and amusing,” noting her ability to entertain her readers.  But in writing that Miss Bates has “no hidden meaning” and that her character does not necessitate “elaborate interpretation” (190), he denies Austen’s more “minor” characters interpretive space and a sense of individual interiority.  Smith’s review is not unique; both past and recent criticism identifies Miss Bates’s role in the novel as simply an agent of an Emma-centered plot.  Following the Enlightenment’s interest in the mind and empirical observation, Romanticism’s pursuit of what lies “beneath the surface” provides sociohistorical context for Smith’s claim and his desire to know more about what is “hidden” from view, though he does not see Miss Bates as a character worthy of exploring.

This nineteenth-century review of Austen’s novel, and of Miss Bates in particular, seems to position itself alongside a growing cultural longing for literary characters with greater depth, a category in which critics have not typically placed the spinster.  Margaret Oliphant, another contemporaneous reviewer of Emma, writes, “The broken stream of talk, the jumbled ideas, and everlasting repetitions of the village busybody, touch us with an affectionate amusement” (232).  The seeming flatness and “affectionate amusement” that Oliphant and Smith found in characters like Miss Bates was reiterated by many literary scholars in the twenty-first century, who in their work identify Miss Bates as a shallow place-holder for Austen herself or as a deliberate contrast to the novel’s heroine, secondary (or even tertiary) to the primacy of Emma’s story.  Though these readings of Miss Bates marginalize her character, a cognitive literary approach finds her to be more than what is “on the surface.”2 

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Recent research in the fields of cognitive science and neuroscience provides models for understanding the embodied mind and cognitive experience of emotion, which are represented textually in novels like Emma.  Mark J. Bruhn notes in his 2013 article “Mind Out of Time: Wordsworth and Neurophenomenology” that cognitive theories regarding “everyday cognition” may “have much to tell us about structures of literary expression” and could also, in turn, benefit from literary studies (422).  Cognitive science, an interdisciplinary endeavor, has called some literary critics’ attention to the development of Romantic-era interest in the brain, spurring interest in the scientific and philosophical discourses with which authors like Austen may have been familiar.  “Cognitive historicism” enables the reader and literary critic to view Miss Bates in a different light:  to probe beyond the surface and to situate her speech in cognitive structures that may be connected to her historical, social, and gendered narrative. 

Cognitive literary theory, “cognitive historicism” in particular, an approach developed by Alan Richardson, considers the ways in which literature emerges from and articulates cognitive structures.  Cognitive historicist interpretations explore texts alongside contemporaneous scientific, philosophical, and political discourses; they mark the role that these discourses’ mutual engagement plays in socially constructed culture.  Cognitive literary criticism thinks “beyond dichotomies of the cultural and biological,” beyond the dualist approach to the mind and body that Romantic thinkers also began to question (Richardson, Neural Sublime 3).  Neurophenomenologists, and literary critics inspired by their work, have begun to take a closer look at the role of feeling and emotion “within an embodied and ecological understanding of mind and culture” (Richardson British Romanticism 90–91), an approach successfully adopted by Mark Bruhn in his study of Wordsworth’s poetic structures (424).  Cognitive literary theory has enabled us to address Romantic theories of body and mind as articulated in literature.  By examining this embodied interconnectedness, literary critics can achieve a fuller comprehension of human experiences and authors’ representations of them. 

This paper does not suggest that Austen predicted specific modern cognitive scientific theory in her text; instead it uses cognitive historicist theory to provide a new reading of Miss Bates, drawing attention to the discourses of Austen’s world and adding complexity to the ways in which Miss Bates’s character can be understood.  Alan Richardson makes this important distinction clear when he writes that cognitive approaches to literature open up space for new readings of literary and non-literary discourses “on mind and language, not because earlier notions somehow ‘anticipate’ current ones, but because new interests, concepts, terms, and methods bring with them new perspectives” (“Studies” 23). 

Ellen Spolsky argues that the twenty first century has moved cognitive literary theory into its second generation, with new interests in gender, historicism, and metaphor (vii).  Innovative studies done by literary critics such as Mary Crane, Mark Turner, Lisa Zunshine, as well as Spolsky and Richardson, have dissected cognitive literary theory and investigated the complex structures upon which recent science has shed light, addressing the tensions and gaps in this critical approach.3  Doing so has allowed them to read literature in alternative and engaging ways.  This essay will build on their work, but more particularly on Mark J. Bruhn’s consideration of the phenomenological experience of human consciousness and his application of Wallace Chafe’s “intonation unit” model of spoken discourse to Wordsworth’s poetry. 

Bruhn’s efforts to display the convergence between Wordsworth’s “spots of time” and neurophenomenological theory have inspired me to consider the modern analog to the Prelude’s “spots,” which he identifies as “intonation units,” as consistent with Austen’s construction of Miss Bates.  Critics define Wordsworthian “spots of time,” at their most basic level, as processes of memory as well as the poetic structure the poet created in order to convey particular experiences of memory and imagination (Davis 1).  These units find resonance in Romantic ideas of the embodied mind and the role of emotion within it (Bruhn 431).  Further, Bruhn’s tracing of Wordsworth’s conforming to and deviation from “cognitively conditioned discourse constraints” (432) is particularly useful in analyzing Miss Bates’s pausing, flustered language.  Her halting speech connects not only to cognitive discourses contemporary to Austen but also to specifically female anxiety. 

Cognitive science has begun to think about temporality through internal phenomenological experiences, which work through perceptual processes at the neurological level but which also, importantly for this essay, are initiated in response to external, social discourse contexts.  Linguist Vyvyan Evans has proposed that perceptual processes, or “intonation units” are “modeled by our conceptual systems to serve our communicative and cultural needs” (Durst 419).  Many neurophenomenologists are interested in how the subjective expression of these phenomenological, temporal experiences, particularly through language, is similar to emotional expression.  The communicative and cultural needs of which Evans and other cognitive scientists speak are represented in literature like Austen’s. 

Wallace Chafe, whose research provides the framework for Bruhn’s study, best explains the cognitive functioning that occurs through intonation units.  Chafe explains that most intonation units can be categorized as “substantive intonation units,” or expressions that consist of a single clause or phrase, including up to four words in English, while others might be “regulatory” or “fragmentary” (69).  According to Chafe, regulatory units are typically one word long—usually a particle, such as the “well” in “Well, isn’t she healthy?”  Fragmentary units do not have a specified length, while substantive units may be thought of as a clause, part of a clause, or about four words in English.  In the previous example, the clause “isn’t she healthy?” works as a substantive unit (Chafe 63–69).  Ronald Langacker explains that a writer’s punctuation and sentence structure imitate “cognitive grammar,” which emphasizes cognitive structures in the formation of language and discourse (144).  Thus, writing is produced in intonation units. 

Violation of the constraints of those intonation units, then, opens interpretive room for cognitive literary studies.  Bruhn refers to these violations as “negative encounters,” or moments of defamiliarization.  There are a few main constraints from which expression can deviate; these include the “light subject constraint” and the “one new idea” constraint (430).  The “light subject constraint” stipulates that “the grammatical subject of a clause or starting point of an intonation unit tends not to be entirely new” relative to its context, whereas the “one new idea constraint” prescribes that each intonation unit or clause introduces only one new idea, and not in the subject position (430).  In his essay, Bruhn examines moments from Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude, reproducing them as intonation units and locating the places in which the poet violates the norms of everyday discourse—these constraints. 

One instance of Bruhn’s reading of Wordsworth occurs with this excerpt from the Prelude, in which Wordsworth recalls an experience from his childhood.  Chafe finds that for the most part, the poet follows the light subject and new idea constraints.  There are, however, a few important places where he does strategically violate them to create particular cognitive effects.  In the example below, Bruhn reproduces the original text as numbered intonation units on separate lines, marked by pauses or closures created by punctuation.  Plain text marks “active information (i.e., evoked within the preceding intonation unit), italicized text for semi-active information (i.e., recently evoked within the discourse), underlined text for accessible information (i.e., not previously evoked but contextually salient . . .), and bold text for new information” (431). 

At a time7 
When scarcely
I8 was then not six years old
My hand could hold a bridle
with proud hopes
I mounted
and we9 rode towards the hills
We were a pair of horsemen
honest James
Was with me
my encourager and guide10 
We had not travelled long ere some mischance 
Disjoined me from my comrade 
And through fear 
Dismounting 
down the rough and stony moor 
I led my horse, 
and stumbling on
at length 
Came to a bottom where in former times 
A murderer had been hung in iron chains.  (Prelude 11.278–89; Bruhn 431) 

Bruhn acknowledges that there are different types of intonation units, but focuses his analysis on the constraints and violations of them.  While most of the grammatical subjects of the clauses, such as “I,” “my hand,” “I,” “we,” “we,” “honest James,” “we,” and “I,” follow the light subject constraint, “some mischance” and “a murderer” work as “new and unexpected information” and therefore deviate from it (432).  Bruhn argues that by introducing two new subjects, relative to their context, Wordsworth communicates “shocks of surprise analogous to those experienced by the child” when he realizes he has been separated from his companion and is at the scene of a terrible crime (432).  This sudden change in subjects suggests an “emotional trajectory” from happiness to fear. The excerpt concludes with “two breathless intonation units,” each of which violates the one new idea constraint, with the second also violating the light subject constraint.  Wordsworth introduces two new ideas—“former times” and “a murderer” who was hung in the exact space to which he comes.  The passive construction of the second line also suggests an unknown subject, different from the previous “I” and “we.”  Bruhn claims that these violations work to disorient the reader, enacting a particular cognitive experience through the poetic construction. 

Like Bruhn’s analysis of Wordsworth’s poetry, this essay will explore the ways in which Miss Bates’s speech breaks cognitive constraints.  Bruhn examines these “negative encounters” as part of Wordsworth’s intentional poetics to achieve a specific “cognitive affective end” by manipulating the audience’s experience (435).  I argue, however, that Miss Bates’s violations differ in that through them Austen is not creating a particular cognitive experience in the reader but rather is representing the dynamics between emotion, cognition, and language in her character’s speech acts.  Rather than constructing moments of dissonance for a desired effect in the reader, Austen’s representation of Miss Bates’s deviance is generated by emotional experience and speaks to the character’s individual anxiety, despite the narrator’s description of Miss Bates as contented (E 20).  Austen is less interested in affecting the reader’s cognition, and more interested in capturing the speech of a woman whose anxiety is constantly beneath the surface.  While Austen and her contemporaries would not have known what we now understand as cognitive grammar constraints, her well-known powers of observation and an awareness of Romantic scientific discourse find resonance in modern day theory and demonstrate that she was alive to moments of defamiliarization.  Analyzing Miss Bates’s speech as it violates cognitive discourse constraints concretizes what Romantic thinkers were beginning to be aware of—the correspondences between the mind, emotion, and speech.  It also puts into clearer focus the importance of Miss Bates’s plight to better understanding the situation of a single, poor woman in Austen’s time. 

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In scientific and philosophical literature of the Romantic period, theories about the relationships between mind, body, and emotion were shaped by Enlightenment figures like Locke, Hartley, Smith, and Hume; their skepticism and dedication to empirical observation contributed to Austen’s education and writing.  Peter Knox-Shaw’s Jane Austen and the Enlightenment focuses on the contribution of Enlightenment thinking to Austen and her intellectual and social milieu.  Knox-Shaw argues, “Jane Austen did not have to focus on scientific matters with any rigour to experience the impact of explanations that had penetrated her world” (17).  Laying contemporary scientific theory alongside the Enlightenment discourses with which Austen might have been familiar and performing a close reading of her fiction is the kind of “elaborate interpretation” that Godwin Smith called for in his 1890 review of Emma

The discourses that Austen could have perceived in the early nineteenth century include Enlightenment philosophies of science, just beginning to transition from being mechanistically to biologically based, a turn that is integral to the resonances between recent cognitive science and that of the Romantic period.  Jane Austen’s father, George Austen, has been described as a “true son of the Enlightenment,” a rector and a dedicated reader, “a keen classicist,” and “a dabbler in science,” creating at Steventon rectory an intellectually stimulating environment from which Jane Austen would have benefited (Knox-Shaw 8).  Though initially sent out to school, Austen returned home at a relatively young age to complete her education at home under the tutelage of her brothers and her father, the latter of whom was “of the sect that delighted in the many new—and still opening—fields of inquiry” (Knox-Shaw 8).  Peter Knox-Shaw provides a comprehensive survey of the Enlightenment culture in which Austen was immersed, although his treatment of Austen’s relationship to Romantic scientific discourse is limited and does not include much explicit reference to theories of brain science. 

Austen may also have drawn inspiration from her brothers’ absorption of the period’s scientific dialogue.  The Loiterer, a periodical paper that Austen’s brothers James and Henry produced for a year beginning in 1789, published satiric essays, pieces on science, and guest-written articles by local empirical thinkers.  Knox-Shaw argues that “science is among The Loiterer’s strongest suits” (19).  One article shared by an anonymous author describes a “fantastic machine that turns heads transparent, a variant on Addison’s spectatorial device that causes emotions to be as visible in the breast as bees in a dioptric hive” (Knox-Shaw 20).  Austen’s reading likely included her brothers’ periodical; this particular article speaks to interest among her contemporaries in the human mental and emotional life beneath the surface.  Her elder brother Edward also gifted her Thomas Percival’s Tales, Fables, and Reflections (1775), “a manual on science and liberal opinion disguised as a conduct book” (Knox-Shaw 17).  The book references David Hartley, whose theories of associationism consider phenomena such as memory and consciousness.  His work was critiqued but contributed to the Romantic era’s investigation of the relationship between mind and brain.  Austen’s ownership of Percival’s manual is valuable to a cognitive historicist reading of Miss Bates, providing evidence for her potential awareness of scientific culture. 

An 1805 letter written by Austen in Bath to her sister Cassandra records the author’s awareness of mental activity.  Knox-Shaw notes the hints of David Hume’s Dialogues in her remarks upon changes in “every feeling of one’s mind” over time (8–11 April 1805); he argues that her observation “ha[s] a philosophical ring” to it.  Knox-Shaw connects her words to Hume’s proposal that “new passions, new feelings arise” continually to “diversify the mental scene” in a “rapid succession” (13).  The nineteenth-century theory that “every feeling” changes temporally, in “rapid succession,” bears an intriguing resemblance to Chafe’s intonation units.  In his Dialogues, Hume contends that discourse consists of “separate episodes”; however, he also finds that an individual cannot “think exactly alike at any two different periods of time,” which for Knox-Shaw “explains the inexhaustible freshness of the imaginative life” and is “the material base of the mind” (Knox-Shaw 13).4  While not the equivalent of modern cognitive theory, Austen’s observations about the connection between mind and emotion certainly find resonance in Romantic era scientific discourse, which served as an early seed for recent brain science. 

Alan Richardson’s reading of Romantic-era discourses on brain injury provide even more evidence for Austen’s active existence in a world of changing scientific views.  In “Of Heartache and Head Injury: Reading Minds in Persuasion,” Richardson addresses uncertainty among literary critics regarding the “connection Austen poses between nerves and character, head trauma and mental alteration” (146).  Louisa Musgrove’s character transformation after her fall at Lyme, when read in its scientific historical context, demonstrates “that the relation between bodies and minds is of more consequence, at least in Persuasion, than critics of Austen have wanted to acknowledge” (146).  Persuasion considers “the embodied notion of mind, the fragmentation of the subject, and the greater appreciation of unconscious mental life, all characteristic of the new Romantic psychologies” (Richardson 148–49).  Richardson argues that the novel’s heroine and anti-heroine, Anne and Louisa, exemplify two rival Romantic “notions of mind-body relations, one unabashedly dualistic . . . the other aligning mental acts with discrete brain functions,” which ultimately converge in Anne to demonstrate the growing belief that mind and body, “control and passionate feeling,” cannot be separated (148).  I extend this argument that Austen displays awareness of Romantic psychologies to my reading of Miss Bates and the relationship between the mind, emotion, and speech. 

According to some literary critics, Anne’s efforts to maintain an impossible division are enacted in a change in Austen’s writing style, a change that I would date even earlier, to Miss Bates’s language in Emma (Page 263).  Marilyn Butler marks Persuasion as the beginning of Austen’s “experiment with a new subjective style of writing,” characterizing her syntax as “nervous” (227).  A. Walton Litz argues that the writing in Persuasion is constructed to “imitate the bombardment of impressions upon the mind” (43).  The concept of a “nervous” subjective style, resembling the kind of “rapid succession” of thought that Hume proposes in his Dialogues, is a productive one for my own analysis.  I would argue that Austen begins to develop this innovation in Emma; Miss Bates’s halting sentences, thoughts interrupting one another in a quick “bombardment of impressions,” precede the presence of such a style in Austen’s later novel. 

Miss Bates’s speech works as a sign of anxiety and as a way to recover from her transgression, or near transgression, of social boundaries as she struggles to remain in the “phenomenological Now” (Bruhn 430).  In his introduction to Jane Austen and the Body John Wiltshire describes the ways in which “cultural meanings are inscribed” on the body in Austen’s novels.  He explains that the nerves of Pride and Prejudice’s Mrs. Bennet function “in two ways—as real distress, the result of anger, humiliation, and powerlessness—and as modes of recuperation—an attempt to rescue herself as a center of attention, if not of actual authority” (20).  Similarly, the cultural meaning of being a poor, single, dependent woman is “inscribed” on Miss Bates’s speech and is illustrated by cognitive analysis. 

In a famous lecture on “Round versus Flat characters,” E. M. Forster points to other nineteenth-century critics who “infelicitously described” Austen as “a miniaturist,” someone who “carves cherry stones” (15).  But, Forster argues, because Austen is so detail-oriented, “even Miss Bates has a mind, even Elizabeth Eliot has a heart.  Discovery that Lady Bertram has a moral outlook shocked me at first.  I had not realized the solidity of an art which kept such an aspect in reverse, and placed her always on the sofa with a pug” (15–16).  Miss Bates’s mind is made more visible through the evidence provided through cognitive historicism and through modern cognitive analysis. 

The narrator describes Miss Bates as a “happy woman,” later referring to her as “contented” and “grateful” with a “simplicity” of nature (E 20).  While Miss Bates might be grateful, she is not “simple.”  Kenneth Morefield argues that the narrator’s introduction of Miss Bates makes it “easy to dismiss” her (11).  She is said to be quite different from the novel’s heroine, “neither young, handsome, rich, nor married” (E 20); yet the narrator “states this astonishing fact point blank,” slipping it “into the middle of the paragraph” (Morefield 11).  Morefield contends that the narrator’s ambiguity regarding Miss Bates’s fortune is intentional.  His claim might be pushed even further by considering that the narrator’s dismissal of Miss Bates’s discontent reflects the cultural treatment of poor, single women.  Further, the way in which Miss Bates’s happiness is buried in the rest of her introduction is representative of the way in which Miss Bates insists on her happiness in a rush of anxious discourse. 

In the analysis that follows, I will consider how Miss Bates’s speech conforms to and deviates from traditional cognitive constraints, or constraints of consciousness.  The original text has been reproduced as numbered intonation units on separate lines, marked by pauses or closures created by punctuation.  In keeping with Bruhn’s strategy, plain text will be used to mark “active information (i.e., evoked within the preceding intonation unit), italicized text for semi-active information (i.e., recently evoked within the discourse), underlined text for accessible information (i.e., not previously evoked but contextually salient . . .), and bold text for new information” (431).  Below is the first excerpt from Miss Bates’s anxious and careful speech.  Visiting Emma Woodhouse and her father, Miss Bates discusses Mr. Elton’s recent engagement and the likelihood of his marrying a local woman; she says that their neighbor, Mrs. Cole 

once whispered to me—1
but I immediately said2
No, Mr. Elton is a most worthy man—3
but’——
In short, I do not think I am particularly quick at those sort of discoveries.4
I do not pretend to it.5
What is before me, I see.6  (188) 

Miss Bates quickly cuts herself off when she realizes that her conversation with Mrs. Cole regarding Mr. Elton’s marital aspirations might be inappropriate.  Chafean cognitive theory identifies intonational pausing as the result of self-interruptions.  Afraid of offending Emma Woodhouse, the daughter of a prominent resident, and of risking her own honor, so insecurely balanced on her late father’s reputation, Miss Bates interrupts herself.  The pauses, used once to assure Miss Bates’s listeners that she would never entertain Mrs. Cole’s ideas and again to stop herself from sharing too much of her opinion, separate Miss Bates’s thoughts into brief intonation units.  Here, Miss Bates does not violate the light subject or one new idea constraints, as she seems to be highly aware both of her desire to share the contents of her conversation and of the potential to offend her listeners by doing so.  In this situation, Miss Bates continually puts herself in check for fear of upsetting the balance. 

There are other passages in which Miss Bates’s immediate circumstances are even busier and more frantic than in the scene just quoted; in these instances, her discourse transgresses cognitive constraints and puts her at odds with “everyday discourse expectations” (Bruhn 433).  The next passage, from the ball at the Crown Inn, is evidence: 

Jane, Jane, my dear Jane, where are you?1
Here is your tippet.2
Mrs. Weston begs you to put on your tippet.3
She says she is afraid there will be draughts in the passage,
though every thing has been done4
One door nailed up5
Quantities of matting6
My dear Jane, indeed you must.7
Mr. Churchill, oh! you are too obliging!8
How well you put it on!9
so gratified!10
Excellent dancing indeed!11
Yes, my dear, I ran home, as I said I should, to help grandmamma to bed, and got back again, and nobody missed me. . . .12
Well, where shall we sit?13
where shall we sit?14
Any where, so that Jane is not in a draught.15
Where I sit is of no consequence.16  (355–56) 

In this longer speech, Miss Bates finds herself in a much more anxiety-inducing situation, moving physically and mentally among her roles as aunt, neighbor, and caretaker.  The increased number of intonation units, sixteen as opposed to six, reflects the “rapid succession” of her thoughts and feelings.  Austen punctuates many of these units with dashes, as Miss Bates herself dashes between different subjects and almost overflows linguistically, as she is “[f]ull of thanks, and full of news” once again (185). 

Miss Bates has a number of ideas fighting for primacy in the “phenomenological Now” (Bruhn 430).  In units 11–13, Miss Bates violates the light subject constraint; she flits from discussing the dancing, to her experience running home to care for her mother, and finally to wondering where she and her niece should sit.  Each unit has a new grammatical subject; however, successive intonation units tend not to have entirely new ones.  Miss Bates does not remain on one subject for long; often she does not do so for longer than one unit.  Further, in unit 12, she deviates from the one new subject constraint, moving from running home, to helping her mother to bed, to returning, and finally to observing that “nobody missed [her].”  In this one intonation unit, and in the one that follows—“Well, where shall we sit?”—Miss Bates demonstrates her acute anxiety over fulfilling many roles and doing so without offending anyone.  She must explain her absence to her niece, take care of her elderly mother, hope that no one notices her leaving the ball, particularly its hosts, and finally, ensure that her niece is comfortable in the midst of a large crowd.  Though her remark that “nobody missed [her]” is meant to be an expression of relief, a feminist analysis would detect beneath the surface a fear that she is inconsequential, irrelevant to her neighbors.  Her violation of the cognitive constraints strengthens this reading, as her inability to stay within bounds suggests that feeling—here, anxiety—is not separate from the mind, and therefore from language. 

Miss Bates’s sense of her own “consequence” in Highbury society is limited; yet, she keenly feels the weight of responsibility as a daughter and aunt, as displayed in her response earlier in the novel to Jane’s imminent arrival.  Relating the news to Emma, Miss Bates says: 

“And so she is to come to us next Friday or Saturday,1
and the Campbells leave town in their way to Holyhead the Monday following2
as you will find from Jane’s letter.3
So sudden!4
You may guess, dear Miss Woodhouse, what a flurry it has thrown me in!5
If it was not for the drawback of her illness6
but I am afraid we must expect to see her grown thin, and looking very poorly.7
I must tell you what an unlucky thing happened to me, as to that.8
I always make a point of reading Jane’s letters through to myself first, before I read them aloud to my mother, you know, for fear of there being any thing in them to distress her.9
Jane desired me to do it, so I always do:10
and so I began to-day with my usual caution;11
but no sooner did I come to the mention of her being unwell, than I burst out quite frightened with, ‘Bless me! poor Jane is ill!’—12
which my mother, being on the watch, heard distinctly, and was sadly alarmed at.13
However, when I read on, I found it was not near so bad as I fancied at first;14
and I make so light ofitnow to her, that she does not think much about it.15
But I cannot imagine how I could be so off my guard!”16  (172–73) 

Miss Bates largely conforms to the light subject constraint in this speech.  The grammatical subjects are “she,” “the Campbells,” “you,” “I,” “I,” “I,” “Jane,” “I,” “I,” “my mother,” “I,” “I.”  Only “the Campbells,” and “my mother” serve as new information, and their sudden appearance mirrors the unexpected break in Miss Bates’s insular world.  Jane’s letter puts Miss Bates into a “flurry,” so much so that she forgets her mother’s presence in the room and violates her own rule—to read Jane’s letters and avoid communicating any potentially disturbing information to her mother.  Miss Bates has been caught up in the suddenness of Jane’s news and her worry over her niece’s health, as well as of how she can host a guest with so little time to prepare and in such straitened circumstances; even her narration of the story focuses on her own anxiety, failing to introduce her mother in the story until this cognitive violation.  Mrs. Bates’s alarm at the news alerts Miss Bates to her error, and subsequently her “I’s” are no longer directed at her expectation of Jane and Jane’s health, but are full of guilt.  As she breaks her own rule as dutiful daughter and caretaker and processes her anxiety and self-reproach, her discourse follows suit and deviates from cognitive convention. 

Miss Bates experiences another moment of extreme self-consciousness and anxiety when Emma insults her at Box Hill, making her highly aware of her own language.  After Frank proposes a game of wit, Emma comments that Miss Bates would be challenged by the requirement that she say only three dull things; Miss Bates responds: 

Ah!1
well2
to be sure.3
Yes, I see what she means, . . .4
and I will try to hold my tongue.5
I must make myself very disagreeable,6
or she would not have said such a thing to an old friend.”7  (403) 

miss batesThis speech act is much shorter than Miss Bates’s other ones, consisting of fewer intonation units and demonstrating the cognitive effect of being insulted.  Miss Bates’s immediate reaction is telling; the first two regulatory intonation units consist only of single words, “Ah” and “well,” followed by a third with only three, “to be sure.”  Her shock leaves her unable to complete her thoughts, sputtering for words.  By units 4–7, Miss Bates has begun to register her hurt, commenting that she would “hold [her] tongue” from that point on.  Miss Bates’s intonation units become restrained and honor the light subject and one new subject constraints.  Austen writes that a “slight blush” appears on Miss Bates’s face as the “pain” sinks in (403); her language follows the arc of her emotional, cognitive experience, moving from clipped, expressive words like “Ah!” to independent clauses with ending punctuation.  Emma, “an old friend,” has overstepped the boundaries of respect, particularly in regard to a woman who has come down in social standing.  Miss Bates has been made aware of her diminished socioeconomic status and imagines that her “tongue” is an annoyance to those around her.  Through this speech act, Austen represents Miss Bates’s constant fear of being a burden to others and her pain at being the subject of ridicule. 

Later in the novel, after her niece and Frank Churchill reveal their engagement to their family, Miss Bates is beset by more confusion, though in this case, happy confusion; she once again interrupts herself and even omits the subjects of her intonation units in an attempt to keep the engagement secret from others.  During Emma’s visit to the Bates home, the flustered Miss Bates answers her general inquiries with “perplexity,” due to “doubt of what might be said, and impatience to say everything” (496).  She exclaims: 

Thank you, dear Miss Woodhouse, you are all kindness.—1
It is impossible to say2
Yes, indeed, I quite understand3
dearest Jane’s prospects4
that is, I do not mean.5
But she is charmingly recovered.6
How is Mr. Woodhouse?7
I am so glad.—8
Quite out of my power.9
Such a happy little circle as you find us here.10
Yes, indeed.11
Charming young man!—12
that is13
so very friendly;14
I mean good Mr. Perry!15
such attention to Jane!”16  (496) 

Miss Bates, head full of her niece’s engagement, cannot help herself from talking about “Jane’s prospects,” their “happy little circle” at home, and the “charming” and “very friendly” Frank.  Unsure of who knows what information and wanting desperately to share this important and celebratory news, Miss Bates expresses a number of incomplete thoughts, illustrated by the thirteen dashes that mark this passage.  In an effort to maintain secrecy, she erases the grammatical subject of intonation units 12–14, praising Frank without mentioning him by name; in unit 15 she pretends that she had been talking about their doctor, Mr. Perry, though both Emma and the reader know the truth.  Still, she obeys the two main discourse constraints.  Perhaps the surety of Jane’s upcoming marriage allows her to better control her speech.  Tasked with an important, but not emotionally distressing responsibility—being the bearer of a happy secret—Miss Bates finds she is at the center of the Highbury circle.  Yet this time, she is not the object of disdain; the excitement she feels still has a cognitive effect on her language, and requires effort to control, but here that effort is less wearying, less anxiety-ridden.  Miss Bates must “hold [her] tongue,” but there is no real danger to her socioeconomic standing; in fact, this charge gives her more prominence than she has had in previous interactions with Emma Woodhouse. 

Miss Bates admits that she only sees what is before her; however, what is before her is not always pleasant.  Her fear of disrupting the careful balance of respect, gratitude, and responsibility that she has maintained is deeply real and cognitively present.  Cognitive historicist research indicates that Austen was aware of Romantic discourses about the mind, body, and emotion.  Highly observant of the people around her and the “feeling of [her] mind,” and in touch with the status of a single, dependent woman, Austen translates her experiences into Miss Bates’s speech.  Attention to those moments of disruption in her speech gives readers and critics a better understanding of the woman whom once Emma imagines with horror “‘haunting the Abbey’” (243).  Rather, this essay’s lens allows us to see the ways in which Miss Bates haunts the pages of Austen’s novel with the precariousness of her uniquely female experience.

 

NOTES



1Smith writes:  “There is no hidden meaning in her; no philosophy beneath the surface for profound scrutiny to bring to light; nothing calling in any way for elaborate interpretation. . . . Jane Austen’s characters typify nothing, for their doings and sayings are familiar and commonplace (190). 

2Nancy Armstrong is one such critic.  She contends that Miss Bates “is all on the surface, her meaning too readily apparent” (155). 

3Turner is the author of an early book on the ways in which literary critics could adopt cognitive science.  He suggests that we must reestablish the link between criticism and everyday life by considering the relationship between the human brain, language, and literature.  Crane investigates the ways in which cognitive and cultural determinants interact in Shakespeare’s texts to shape the subject and the embodied self.  Zunshine’s book is a compilation of essays by authors like Richardson and Crane, among others; her project is an examination of how human cognitive processing is related to cultural and historical contexts. 

4In her letter, Austen observes the change in the society around her since the death of her father and friend Anna Lefroy; prompted by memory, she writes, “But seven years I suppose are enough to change every pore of one’s skin, & every feeling of one’s mind” (8–11 April 1805, qtd. in Knox-Shaw 12).  Knox-Shaw argues that this last clause parallels Hume’s hypothesis that the soul of man consists of 

a composition of various faculties, passions, sentiments, ideas; united, into one self or person, but still distinct from each other. . . . [N]ew opinions, new passions, new affections, new feelings arise, which continually diversify the mental scene, and produce in it the greatest variety, and most rapid succession imaginable. (qtd. in Knox-Shaw 13) 

This excerpt is part of Hume’s definition of discourse; he also “mak[es] provisions for the bonding effects of memory and habit” (Knox-Shaw 13).  These episodes of “passions,” “sentiments,” and “ideas,” succeeding one another and affected by memory, are similar to Chafe’s intonation units.  Chafe concludes that language cannot be understood independent of memory, emotion, and social interaction—the “totality of human experience,” which finds resonance in Austen’s representation of Miss Bates (21).

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