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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.
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