‘Untoward circumstances’: Miss Bates and her father’s clerk

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published in 1759, Adam Smith explores the roots of greed and ambition:

It is because mankind are disposed to sympathize more entirely with our joy than with our sorrow, that we make parade of our riches, and conceal our poverty. Nothing is so mortifying as to be obliged to expose our distress to the view of the public, and to feel, that though our situation is open to the eyes of all mankind, no mortal conceives for us the half of what we suffer. Nay, it is chiefly from this regard to the sentiments of mankind, that we pursue riches and avoid poverty.

Since, in his opinion, the lowest paid workers can afford the necessaries of life, the prosperous are proud of their wealth mostly because of the prestige it confers, whereas

the poor man, … is ashamed of his poverty. He feels that it either places him out of the sight of mankind, or, that if they take any notice of him, they have, however, scarce any fellow-feeling with the misery and distress which he suffers. He is mortified upon both accounts.

Unless Mr Smith had been an extremely frugal man, the accuracy of his observations on the living standards of the lower orders might be called into question. But quite apart from this rather controversial view, he does confront us with a few unpleasant truths about human nature.

Whether or not Mr Knightley has read his essay, he seems to care little about status symbols. He neither keeps horses, nor uses his carriage as often as Emma thinks he ought to. He does arrive in it at the Coles’ party, however:

‘This is coming as you should do,’ said she; ‘like a gentleman.–I am quite glad to see you.’

He thanked her, observing, ‘How lucky that we should arrive at the same moment! for, if we had met first in the drawing-room, I doubt whether you would have discerned me to be more of a gentleman than usual.–You might not have distinguished how I came, by my look or manner.’

But he is fully aware of what loss of home or income might mean in terms of social standing. Emma’s contemptuous treatment of Miss Bates at Box Hill prompts his resolute rebuke:

How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?–Emma, I had not thought it possible …She felt your full meaning. She has talked of it since. I wish you could have heard how she talked of it–with what candour and generosity. I wish you could have heard her honouring your forbearance, in being able to pay her such attentions, as she was for ever receiving from yourself and your father, when her society must be so irksome.

Emma tries to extenuate herself:

‘I know there is not a better creature in the world: but you must allow, that what is good and what is ridiculous are most unfortunately blended in her.’

‘They are blended,’ said he, ‘I acknowledge; and, were she prosperous, I could allow much for the occasional prevalence of the ridiculous over the good. Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation–but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed! You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her–and before her niece, too–and before others, many of whom (certainly some,) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.’

miss bates
Image from http://www.mollands.net

Miss Bates is one of my favourite Austen characters. Mr Knightley insightfully realises she is not as silly as she is made out to be. She does go on a bit about trivial matters, but the intelligence she provides helps us get a better picture of everyday life in Highbury – what can be more delightful than her ‘harmless gossip’? The seemingly inconsequential flow of important and mundane information found in Jane Austen’s letters often reminds us of her. Yet Cassandra must have relished every detail, and fans as well as scholars joyfully strive to make sense of it all. And, unlike so many foolish people, Miss Bates knows she is not clever: ‘I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I?’

In her Opinions of Emma, the author records that Miss Isabella Herries believed she had been modelled on an acquaintance of hers, whom Jane Austen had not even met. Her story was a familiar one, however, and her contemporaries must have recognised in it the plight of many other impoverished spinsters. In a previous post I mentioned Miss Benn, the Austens’ Chawton neighbour.

Unlike Adam Smith, Jane Austen describes the material consequences of economic hardship. The vicarage in which the Bateses used to live, though not so old at the time, was ‘not a very good house.’ But on the incumbent’s death they were forced to move out, and now rent a first floor opposite the Crown and can afford only one servant. The place is comparatively small, with no more than three bedrooms, ‘a very moderate-sized apartment’ that is ‘everything to them,’ and a downstairs kitchen presumably adjoining Patty’s humble quarters. In chapter 28 we learn that Mrs Bates’s chamber is situated next to the sitting-room, while in chapter 45 Mr Perry complains that his patient Jane Fairfax is ‘confined always to one room.’

The good people of Highbury, however, do not seem to look down on either her grandmother or her aunt. The former is ‘considered with all the regard and respect which a harmless old lady, under such untoward circumstances, can excite,’ whereas the latter is quite popular for a middle-aged old maid that is neither affluent nor handsome. Though not among ‘the chosen and the best,’ they are often invited for an evening at Hartfield, and conveyed there and back home in Mr Woodhouse’s carriage. Mrs Bates is even asked to dine with him on the day of the Coles’ party. Emma believes that

a single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls, but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as any body else …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 every body.

As she looks after her mother and struggles to make ends meet, their neighbours are ready to help. Mr Knightley supplies apples from his orchard, which Mrs Wallis is good enough to bake for them, and Mr Woodhouse sends a pork hind-quarter. Mr Perry offers free health care, while Emma dispatches some high-quality arrowroot. Her father regrets ‘that their circumstances should be so confined! … I have often wished–but it is so little one can venture to do–small, trifling presents, of any thing uncommon.’ He seems to think that excessive zeal in this respect might be perceived as tactlessly patronising … Mr Knightley fears that Miss Bates’s predicament might worsen as she grows older, implying perhaps that she might be currently spending her capital, or need to resort to it in future. Yet it is not her but ‘her situation’ that elicits his compassion.

'The Parish Clerk' (Edward Orpin, Parish Clerk of Bradford-upon-Avon) c.1760-70 by Thomas Gainsborough 1727-1788
‘The Parish Clerk’ (Edward Orpin, Parish Clerk of Bradford-upon-Avon) c.1760-70 Thomas Gainsborough 1727-1788 Purchased 1876 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00760

There was no welfare provision for clergymen’s widows or daughters in Jane Austen’s time, but the destitute were entitled to a parish allowance financed by the poor rates levied on wealthier households. The system was run by the overseers of the poor, usually churchwardens or members of the parish vestry, under the supervision of a magistrate. Boasting about her husband’s influence in the community, Mrs Elton mentions them: ‘the magistrates, and overseers, and churchwardens, are always wanting his opinion.’  As we know, the magistrate is Mr Knightley, the local landowner, hardly the kind of man who would ‘seem not able to do any thing without’ Mr E. But others might consider it expedient to consult him, as Miss Bates informs us:

Mr. Elton was called out of the room before tea, old John Abdy’s son wanted to speak with him. Poor old John, I have a great regard for him; he was clerk to my poor father twenty-seven years; and now, poor old man, he is bed-ridden, and very poorly with the rheumatic gout in his joints–I must go and see him to-day; and so will Jane, I am sure, if she gets out at all. And poor John’s son came to talk to Mr. Elton about relief from the parish; he is very well to do himself, you know, being head man at the Crown, ostler, and every thing of that sort, but still he cannot keep his father without some help; and so, when Mr. Elton came back, he told us what John ostler had been telling him.

We do not know who the overseer is. His duties might even be performed by one of the gentlemen, probably members of the vestry, who discuss parish business after dinner in chapter 26 – Mr Weston, Mr Cox, the Highbury lawyer, and their host Mr Cole. In chapter 52, Mrs Elton mentions her husband, Mr Weston, and Mr Cole among those who will attend a regular parish meeting at the Crown. But Mr Abdy’s son might have thought it wise to enlist the vicar first, or seek his advice on the best way to proceed.

By the 18th century the parish clerk was a layman, chosen from among the locals, whose job it was to record baptisms, marriages, and burials. He also assisted the officiating minister during church services, leading the responses and the singing, or singing alone. His social status was definitely lower than that of the parson: Revd James Woodforde’s clerk sat in the kitchen with the servants, and is mentioned among the ‘poor old men’ who dined at his house ‘as usual’ on Christmas Day 1782. Mr Abdy’s son is an ostler, so clearly they are no gentlemen.

As his office was usually held for life, it would appear that it was the father’s ill health that at some point prevented him from carrying it out. The son, who may have a growing family of his own, says he can no longer support him without some financial help. Kind Miss Bates plans to visit the old man – more than once she must have thought the time might come when she would be in need of poor relief herself … Surely Frank and Jane Churchill will never let that happen. But Highbury rate payers would no doubt remind them of their obligations should they ever attempt to avoid them.

Miss Bates loves everybody and is always ready to see their merits. She would not have expressed her high opinion of John Abdy, however, if he had been one of those drunk, irreverent clerks whose contemporaries sometimes complain about. All the more reason to trust that, whoever the overseer may be, either he or Mr Knightley will make sure he is properly looked after. The magistrate is so sensitive and fair, and Emma is, on the whole, such a feel-good novel, that anything else would be almost unimaginable.

The book is, among other things, about a rural community. Though not directly drawn from life, its members must have been, in many respects, pretty much like Jane Austen’s neighbours. Some of them were impoverished squires or spinsters, others may have applied for parish relief. ‘It has been terrible for her during the late storms of wind & rain,’ she says, writing about Miss Benn’s ‘wretched abode’. Unlike Adam Smith, she knows her friend would have slept more comfortably in a more expensive house.

Adam Smith. The Muir portrait


Emma text quoted from www.mollands.net

Adkins, Roy and Lesley. 2014. Jane Austen’s England. Daily Life in the Georgian and Regency Periods. New York: Penguin Books.

Austen, Jane. Opinions of Emma. Retrieved from http://www.janeausten.ac.uk/manuscripts/blopinions/9.html

Bowden, Martha F. 2007. Yorick’s Congregation. The Church of England in the Time of Laurence Sterne. Newark: University of Delaware Press.

Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. 2011.Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.

London Lives 1690-1800 . Parish Relief. Retrieved from http://www.londonlives.org/static/ParishRelief.jsp

Savage, William. 2016. The Complicated Lives of the Poor. Retrieved from https://penandpension.com/2016/02/16/the-complicated-lives-of-the-poor-part-1/

Smith, Adam. 1759. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Retrieved from


Tomalin, Claire 1999. Jane Austen. A Life. New York: Vintage Books.

Woodforde, James. (1999) The Diary of a Country Parson 1758-1802. Norwich: The Canterbury Press.

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