The Characters of Mr.Woodhouse and Miss Bates in Emma
The immediate impression one gets of Miss Bates is that of a loquacious old biddy, one of Emma's more annoying personalities. But Miss Bates offers a refreshing contrast to the other characters in the novel, many of whom harbor hidden agendas and thinly veiled animosities toward perceived rivals. If "every major character in Emma [is] a snob", we might consider Miss Bates the anti-snob. Her very artlessness serves as a foil for those in the novel whom present contrived images of themselves or whom look down their noses at others. When she compliments others' concern and generosity, as she is constantly found doing, there can be no doubt that her sentiments are genuine, if somewhat misplaced. She always speaks her mind -- but then, her mind is always occupied with the good, making her lack of cant pleasant rather than overbearing.
In the first part of the book, Miss Bates serves not only as the anti-snob, but also the anti-Emma. Whereas Emma is described at the outset as being "handsome, clever, and rich," Miss Bates "enjoy[s] a most uncommon degree of popularity for a woman neither young, handsome, rich, nor married." Nor, obviously, clever. Life has denied her everything that Emma has been granted; and how does Emma treat her, and speak of her to others? Shabbily, of course. "If I thought I should ever be like Miss Bates," Emma tells Harriet, who has expressed concern about Emma's choice to remain unmarried, "so silly, so satisfied, so smiling, so prosing, so undistinguishing and unfastidious, and so apt to tell everything relative to everybody about me, I would marry to-morrow." She neglects to visit the Bateses often because of "all the horror of being in danger of falling in with the second rate and third rate of Highbury." To Mrs. Weston, at the Coles' party, she delivers a scathingly accurate impression of Miss Bates' flighty speech.
Never having learned to think before she speaks, Miss Bates is quite defenseless to Emma's verbal parry on Box Hill. Had anyone else been the target of Emma's wit, we would not be so stricken by the magnitude of Emma's thoughtlessness. It is Emma's shame that really marks the end of her career as a supercilious little snoot. She has been forced, through Knightley's admonition, to see Miss Bates not as a caricature but a real human being, one as capable of pain as Emma herself. (Austen means this as a revelation for her readers, too -- too bad Sir Walter Scott didn't pick up on it.)
Other characters' reactions to Miss Bates are telling, as well. Frank Churchill's rather flippant characterization of her as "the talking aunt" prefigures his future weaseliness. Having established Miss Bates' forthright nature, Austen mischievously places Jane Fairfax under the same roof. Jane's need for secrecy must make it a torment to share society with one as garrulous as Miss Bates.
The Bateses don't really seem to occupy any definite rung on...