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: