Chapter three begins with yet another justification of Mr. Woodhouse. He likes company "in his own way" and to have friends "come and see him" (11). His horror of late nights means he is limited to company who would visit him "on his own terms," but fortunately he can "command" visits due, in large part to "his fortune, his house, and his daughter" (11).
That Emma is treated rhetorically here as another of Woodhouse's possessions is apparent. Lest we miss the point, we are told in the next paragraph that while "real, long-standing regard brought the Westons and Mr. Knightley" to visit, Mr. Elton came largely to enjoy Woodhouse's drawing room and "the smiles of his lovely daughter" (11).
Once again, though, potential criticism of Woodhouse is defrayed by and placed onto his daughter.
The company of Elton, Knightley, and the Westons is not sufficient to meet Woodhouse's desire for fellowship "on his own terms" and so a "second set" of acquaintances is cultivated. This set includes Mrs. and Miss Bates and Mrs. Godard, acquaintances whose company Emma "fearfully anticipate[s]" (13). Their "quiet posings" make for a long, dull evening. Why then does she cultivate them? "Happy she was, for her father's sake [...] she was delighted to see her father look comfortable [....]" (12). Knightley has suggested that by marrying, Miss Taylor went from having to please two people (Emma and Mr. Woodhouse) to having to please only one (Mr. Woodhouse). This chapter, however, suggests that pleasing Mr. Woodhouse means that Emma must please a much larger circle. Her environment is starting to look a little more constricting than it might appear at first glance.
Miss Bates, like Emma, is taking care of an elderly parent, but she has none of Emma's advantages. She was "neither young, handsome, rich, nor married" (11). She is, however, "happy" (12). We are told this astonishing fact point blank by the narrator, but it is slipped into the middle of the paragraph and hence easy to dismiss. "She loved everybody, was interested in every body's happiness [...] thought herself a most fortunate creature, and surrounded with blessings..." (12). Even the language here echoes the opening paragraph, inviting us to see her as a foil for Emma. The word "blessings" here harkens back to Chapter 1 where we are told Emma seemed to unite some of the "best blessings" of existence. There is no "seemed" here. Or is there? We are not told, actually, that Miss Bates was a fortunate creature but only that she "thought herself" one and that conjunction also suggests that she "thought herself" surrounded with blessings.
One could perhaps read this as saying one's frame of mind is more important than one's circumstances. Anything can be a blessing if one can only see it as one. I tend to think, however, that the narrator is being non-definitive here because she wants to place a choice before us. Do we accept them as blessings? Do we think of Miss Bates as fortunate? We have as much trouble thinking of Miss Bates as fortunate as we do thinking of Emma as unfortunate. Might we suspect, on some level, that an orthodox Christian valuation of blessings and evils is just rhetoric, that "blessed are the meek" is a bone thrown to those who missed out on the blessings we would choose for ourselves?
No one names Miss Bates "without good will," which is not quite the same thing as saying everyone felt good will towards her. Is there, in this subtle distinction, a hint that everyone knows they are supposed to like her more than they do? Later Emma will confess that she can't quite figure out why she doesn't feel more affinity for Jane Fairfax. Miss Bates's chattering tongue provides an easy peg on which to hang the dislike Emma feels for her. And she is tedious. But might some of Emma's dislike of Bates be explained in the same way Knightley characterizes her motivation for disliking Jane? Might Emma see in Miss Bates's felicity an accomplishment she herself, with more advantages, cannot attain?
We are told twice in her description that Miss Bates is "harmless." If part of noblesse oblige, reaching back to the age of chivalry is to treat the weak with the respect they (unlike Mr Woodhouse) cannot command, then Miss Bates's harmless nature marks her almost immediately as a person, like Harriet, whose acquaintance places greater moral demands on Emma than does that of a self-sufficient friend or powerful adversary. Miss Bates and Mrs. Goddard are described as ladies of a type that Emma "found herself very frequently able to collect" (12). The word "collect" suggests a patronizing, impersonal attitude. The phrase "found herself" suggests that the exercise of her own power is not something Emma has yet examined, even if she has cultivated and refined it. Once again we get a glimpse that Emma's social development and manners are fairly keen, but morally and intellectually she is still in a formative stage.
For more close readings of Emma, simply click on the hotlink label at the bottom of this post.