Mrs Bates of Highbury - A prequel inspired by Jane Austen's 'Emma'

I have loved Jane Austen’s books since I first read them in my late teens. I like her sense of humour and her elegant language. Some of her characters have such a dry and witty turn of phrase and Austen’s authorial voice often betrays the quivering lip of barely suppressed laughter. The manners and social etiquette of Jane Austen’s world are also deeply fascinating. Who wouldn’t have liked to have lived in those graceful times? - So long as one could have been a member of the upper classes. I don’t suppose it was much fun for the kitchen maids.

Jane Austen only wrote six complete novels but I often find myself trawling the shelves of the book shop just in case one more has turned up, and I don’t think I am alone. Some writers have addressed the shortage by completing her unfinished and juvenile works and there are hundreds of spin-off books inspired by Austen’s characters and stories. The most famous of these was Death Come to Pemberley by PD James. Like the majority of other JAFF (Jane Austen Fan Fiction) writers, PD James took Pride and Prejudice as her base novel and embroidered it by imagining what might have happened next. Other writers have taken Darcy and Elizabeth buccaneering on the high seas, ranching in Texas and even doing whatever people do in Middle Earth.

I haven’t read very much Jane Austen inspired fiction but I have lately been thrilled (and very flattered) to have my writing compared to hers. It must have been a subconscious thing - I never deliberately emulated her in the past. But it got me wondering whether, if I really tried, I might be able to make a decent stab at it.

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Emma is my favourite Jane Austen novel. I was taught it at ‘A’ level by the wonderful Mr Trees and found myself doing battle with him and the rest of the class because I could not forgive Emma her meddling. I could not believe that, in the future, being the wife of Mr Knightley would not go right to her head and make her feel that she had the right to interfere wherever she saw fit.

Other characters in Emma of whom I do approve wholeheartedly are Mrs Bates and her talkative daughter Miss Bates. Mrs Bates is a very elderly lady in Emma, entirely silent whenever her daughter is present and yet clearly able to speak (and play Backgammon) when given a blessed hour away from the relentless diatribe of her daughter. What kind of woman was she when she was younger? What was the great change in circumstances which took her from being a person of note and respect in Highbury to being a recipient of charity and pity? Miss Bates is the only spinster in Jane Austen’s main canon of work. Did she never receive a proposal? And if she had, how many paragraphs of verbiage would it have taken her to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’?

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Mrs Bates and Miss Bates in the 1996 production of Emma,
played by Phyllida Law and Sophie Thompson

Mrs Bates of Highbury sets out to answer these questions. It is set some thirty years before the beginning of Emma. We meet Miss Bates in her late forties, just recently widowed. Miss Bates - she is named just once in Emma, her name is Hetty - is as talkative aged twenty nine as she is in her later iteration. Jane, the other Bates girl, is just seventeen, eager to leave Highbury, all unknowing that in Emma her only significance will be as the long-dead mother of Jane Fairfax.

Mrs Bates of Highbury is the first of three books I plan which will trace the pre-history of Emma and then run in parallel to it. Fans of Jane Austen need have no fear; I have no intention of deviating from her plot and in the end she and I will be on exactly the same page. For those readers unfamiliar with Emma, I hope Mrs Bates of Highbury will be enjoyable as a stand-alone novel.