During a walk, Emma has little success turning Harriet’s thoughts from Mr. Elton and therefore decides that they should call on Mrs. and Miss Bates, a duty that Emma usually shuns. During their visit, they are forced to hear about Mr. Elton and his travels, and though Emma has tried to time her visit so as to avoid hearing about Miss Bates’s niece, Jane Fairfax, Miss Bates produces a letter from Jane, who lives with her guardians, Colonel and Mrs. Campbell. The Campbells are about to visit their newly married daughter, Mrs. Dixon, in Ireland, which means that Jane will be coming for an extended visit in Highbury in a week’s time. Based on slight evidence, Emma suspects that there has been a romance between Jane and the Campbells’ daughter’s husband, Mr. Dixon, and that this is the reason that Jane is missing the trip to Ireland.
Jane’s history is given, starting from how, at age three, she became an orphan after her father was killed in battle and her mother died of consumption and grief. Jane lived with her aunt and grandmother in Highbury until she was eight years old. Then, a friend of her father’s, Colonel Campbell, took an interest in her well-being and made her part of his household. He provided her with an education, but, since he would be unable to give her an inheritance, it was understood that when Jane came of age she would become a governess. Meanwhile, Jane became dear to the Campbell family and enjoyed the pleasures of elegant society in London. Her stay in Highbury constitutes her last taste of freedom before becoming a governess.
Jane arrives, and Emma greets the girl’s return after two years’ absence with mixed feelings. She has never liked Jane, for reasons she cannot fully explain (Mr. Knightley suggests to her that she is jealous), but Jane’s beauty impresses her, and she feels compassion for her impending fate. Soon the dullness of Jane’s companions, along with Jane’s reserve, confirms Emma’s dislike. Emma discovers that Jane has known Frank Churchill in Weymouth, but Jane divulges little information about him.
Just as Mr. Knightley is about to give Emma some news, the Bateses arrive with Jane to thank the Woodhouses for the hindquarter of pork they have sent; they manage to precede Knightley in divulging that Mr. Elton is to marry a Miss Hawkins. Emma is caught off guard, and Mr. Knightley’s looks suggest he knows something of what has transpired between them. However, she soon regains enough composure to make another failed attempt to engage Jane in conversation. The company departs, and Harriet bursts in with news that she has run into Mr. Martin and his sister in town. She relates that after some awkwardness, the pair greeted her with kindness, leaving Harriet flustered. Emma is impressed by the Martins’ behavior and briefly second-guesses her judgment of them, but she concludes that their station in life is still too low for Harriet. She is only able to distract Harriet from the episode by sharing the news of Mr. Elton’s impending marriage.
Miss Bates’s repetitious speeches, and the mileage she can get from a single letter or piece of news from someone outside of Highbury, strongly reinforce our sense of the claustrophobia of village life. Though the character of Miss Bates is considered a comic masterpiece, there is also a pathetic and even alarming quality to the narrowness of her experience. In contrast to more sophisticated and calculating characters such as Emma and Mr. Knightley, who conceal or reveal what they are thinking depending upon the appropriateness of the situation and the effect they wish to produce, Miss Bates narrates everything that passes through her head, all of it more or less harmless.
With a more developed sense of Miss Bates’s character, Austen provides some distinctly different views of women’s experience in Highbury. She makes an implicit statement about intelligence and its potential for creating hardship when she contrasts Emma and Miss Bates. For instance, Miss Bates speaks in absurdly long, digressive sentences, interrupting herself frequently and often forgetting her point. In one example, she says:
I was reading [Jane’s letter] to Mrs. Cole, and, since she went away, I was reading it again to my mother, for it is such a pleasure to her—a letter from Jane—that she can never hear it often enough; so I knew it could not be far off, and here it is, only just under my housewife—and since you are so kind as to wish to hear what she says—but, first of all, I really must, in justice to Jane, apologise for her writing so short a letter—only two pages, you see hardly two, and in general she fills the whole paper and crosses half.
Forced to read these complex and boring details, we share Emma’s impatience with Miss Bates but suspect, with Mr. Knightley, that Emma should greet Miss Bates with greater charity and less irritation. Margaret Drabble, in an introductory essay on the novel, suggests that Miss Bates might be read as a stand-in for Austen herself. Single, middle-aged, dependent, caring for an elderly mother, Miss Bates’s situation in life is much closer to Austen’s at the time she was writing the novel than is Emma’s. Of course, Austen is much more intelligent than the character she creates, so perhaps Miss Bates exemplifies Austen’s imagination of what her life would be like without her intellect. The picture is somewhat alarming, because Miss Bates’s ignorance means that she is perfectly contented with the life she leads. Perhaps Austen means for us to understand that intelligence, at least for a woman in the early nineteenth century, can be as much a source of suffering as of solace.
Once she has sworn off her aggressive matchmaking, Emma compensates by reconstructing what she thinks must be the interesting and provocative circumstances that brought Jane to Highbury. While Emma has learned, at least for the time being, not to orchestrate the love lives of those around her, the restlessness of her mind ignites her imagination and endangers her ability to observe others accurately. She bases her suspicion that Jane and Mr. Dixon had an attachment before his marriage to Mrs. Campbell on the slightest circumstantial evidence, and this mistaken impression of Jane will have greater negative consequences. Though Austen must understand imagination to be a gift, in particular the gift that makes it possible for her to write, here she suggests that a careless exercise of the imagination can be dangerous.