Chapter 10 of Volume I has one of the better known speeches from the novel. When Harriet expresses surprise that Emma is not married, our heroine replies:
I have none of the usual inducements to marry. Were I to fall in love, indeed,
it would be a different thing! but I never have been in love; it is not my way,
or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall. And without love, I am sure I
should be a fool to change such a situation as mine. Fortune I do not want: I
believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband's house as
I am of Hartfield; and never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and
important; so always first and always right in any man's eyes as I am in my
The questions raised by this monologue are ones of self awareness. Does Emma really think she is mistress at Hartfield? We have seen in several chapters already how her father exercises a benign dominion over her. Also puzzling is her claim in the preceding paragraph that to fall in love she must see "somebody very superior to any one I have seen yet" (55) and that she does not want to be "tempted" by seeing such a person.
"Tempted" seems to move the speech from the purely descriptive to an expression of of desire. To admit that such a person (a "superior" person who might make Emma fall in love) is someone she does not wish to meet, someone who would be a temptation, is to admit that Emma has a preference to being mistress of her own house, that Emma's desire to remain single is an active preference and not merely the result of an absence.
Emma's speech, using Miss Bates as an example, about how it is only poverty that makes an old maid contemptible is humorous in its irony. She is so (falsely) certain of Elton's affections for Harriet that we might even forget to wonder how her speech must come across to Harriet who (through Emma's prompting) has given up two of the usual inducements to marry (financial security and a person she loves) and now has Emma holding out a bleak picture of solitude that is much more applicable to someone in her position than Emma's.
Emma goes on to say that a narrow income has a tendency to "contract the mind and sour the temper" (56). Her logic is that such an income forces one to live in inferior society where she may develop habits that go unchecked and hence gradually become "illiberal and cross" (56). This is followed by perhaps the oddest statement in her rumination: "This does not apply, however to Miss Bates; she is only too good natured and too silly to suit me; but in general, she is very much to the taste of everybody, though single and though poor. Poverty certainly has not contracted her mind..." (56).
In essence, this speech has begun with Emma postulating that she could never be like Miss Bates because she (Emma) has money but then holds up Miss Bates as an exception to the rule of how the lack of money must operate on an old maid to make her contemptible. Here are a couple of ways we might process Emma's garbled thoughts here:
1) The defense of Miss Bates is an afterthought. Emma realizes she has overstepped charity in her criticism and reflexively but untruthfully claims the opposite of what she believes. In fact, her defense (such as it is) at Box Hill, will suggest that she very much does believe that poverty (or something) has contracted Miss Bates's mind, that "too silly" is merely a polite way of saying "ridiculous" or "contemptible."
2) Emma can't bear to be crossed or contradicted even by her own logic. When a train of thought--in this case expressed out loud to Harriet--leads her towards an uncomfortable conclusion (or even implication), she cuts it short through an assertion of will. In other words, she does with her own thoughts or logic what she has done with Knightley's--she denies them through a proclamation that rests on her own assertion rather than logic or evidence.
3) Emma's postulate doesn't hold. It is the possession of money (and with it the power to have too much one's own way) that leads to the contraction of one's mind and spirits.
I can't help but think in reference to this latter point that the comparison that is really floating around in Emma's mind is not between Miss Bates and her own, hypothetical old maid status but between her own vision of old age and the picture of her father. If there is any other character of whom we can say his (or her) mind has been contracted, it is Mr. Woodhouse. Is it possible on some level that the resentment and dislike Emma feels for Miss Bates is transference? That repressed or sublimated irritation at her father (who is silly but loved due to his "good nature") is finding a target in Miss Bates because it cannot be expressed at Mr. Woodhouse?
In his essay "Special Gift and Special Burden: Views of Old Age in the Early Church," Rowan A. Greer outlines some of the special gifts and advantages old age brings in a Christian culture (at least as practiced by the early church) and then turns to some problems or vices to which people in that stage of life might be particularly susceptible. He says: "The virtues of old age ought to be the crown of a lifelong quest; nevertheless, there are vices that can be specifically associated with the elderly. The old can, for example be garrulous" (33). Later he also suggests, "[...] old people sometimes rest on their laurels and become slothful" (33). Of course, these are qualities that can be found in the young as well as the aged; Rowan only suggests that because of culture (and perhaps biology) that they are particular temptations for the elderly. Garrulousness might develop in part because the culture accords respect to the elderly and hence makes others less likely to interrupt or quiet them.
The point I think worth making about these two traits is that I think one pretty clearly applies to Miss Bates (garrulousness) and the other to Mr. Woodhouse (sloth) and--more importantly--it is the latter that appears to be more easily related to a "contracted" mind. Miss Bates, if anything, comes across as a person who is too easily stimulated or overstimulated; Mr. Woodhouse is the one whose world (internal as well as external) is contracted. And if in fact this contraction of the mind is what is really worrying Emma (and, I suspect, Austen, but that's another matter entirely), then the witness of those around her/closest to her is that the possession of money is not really that much of a buttress against the effect of aging that most frightens her.
I think some of this interpretation is borne out by the subsequent paragraph in which Harriet asks Emma how she will employ herself when she grows old. In her reply Emma suggests that the "usual occupations" of "eye and hand and mind" (56) that occupy women's time will be open to her. She seems to recognize in her own disposition a temperament of animation and activity that makes sloth less of a probability in her case. (Perhaps, too, that explains her indulgence of her father and dislike of Miss Bates since human nature often tends to be most critical of those who openly display the faults we struggle with in our own character.) Emma then goes on to talk about what is "in truth" the great point of inferiority in remaining single--objects of affection. She answers this problem by suggesting that she will have ample nieces and nephews on whom to lavish her affection. More telling, though, is what she feels the children will provide her (or, at least, the hypothetical spinster that she imagines herself to be in the future): "There will be enough of them, in all probability, to supply every sort of sensation that declining life can need" (56).
What the children would provide is not care--her money would allow her to care for herself. Rather, they provide sensation. There will be an interest in her attachment and in their lives and activities that will mitigate against sloth.
Is that what Emma provides for her father? Not really. She enables his sloth more than mitigating it. This may, of course, be an appropriate response if we understand that Emma and her father have, on some levels, different temperaments that make what they want and need from their children (from life, really) different. I do find it telling, however, that Emma's idealized conception of old age is one which is not only diametrically opposed to the life Miss Bates (who was supposed to be the picture against which Emma was contrasting) is living but also to the life her father is living. (It's also somewhat different to the life Knightley is settling into and likely to live if he remains unmarried...but more on that [perhaps] later.)
Greer, Rowan A. "Special Gift and Special Burden: Views of Old Age in the Early Church." Growing Old in Christ. Ed. Stanley Hauerwas, et al. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.
[For more close readings of Emma, click on one of the post labels below.]