Thirty years before the beginning of 'Emma' Mrs Bates is entirely different from the elderly, silent figure familiar to fans of Jane Austen’s fourth novel. She is comparatively young and beautiful, widowed - but ready to love again. She is the lynch-pin of Highbury society until the appalling Mrs Winwood arrives, very determined to hold sway over that ordered little town.
Miss Bates is as talkative aged twenty nine as she is in her later iteration, with a ghoulish fancy, seeing disaster in every cloud. When young Mr Woodhouse arrives looking for a plot for his new house, the two strike up a relationship characterised by their shared hypochondria, personal chariness and horror of draughts.
Jane, the other Miss Bates, is just seventeen and eager to leave the parochialism of Highbury behind her until handsome Lieutenant Weston comes home on furlough from the militia and sweeps her - quite literally - off her feet.
Mrs Bates of Highbury is the first of three novels which trace the pre-history of Emma and then run in parallel to it.
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Reverend Winwood, his wife and several daughters came to take up residence at the vicarage and Mrs Bates was not behind-hand in making her call. It was difficult to knock on the dear old door and wait for admittance. It was more difficult still to see new furniture where her familiar things had stood, different pictures on the walls, to feel like a stranger. Mrs Bates was glad she had called alone - it would have been too distressing for her girls.
Mrs Winwood was a large-structured lady with a very dignified air indeed. She received Mrs Bates in the drawing room where a multitude of small tables, glazed cabinets and shelves displayed a plethora of fussy ornaments and gaudy trinkets. There were an astonishing number of chairs, many draped with fabric carefully arranged to give the impression of having been casually strewn. Every antimacassar, cushion and footstool was excessively ornamented with pom-poms, frills and braids. Cross-stitched pictures and embroidered screens were in abundance. Altogether the room had a markedly cluttered, almost claustrophobic air which left Marie feeling quite breathless.
Presently there was a commotion in the hallway outside the door, loud whispering, a scuffle, a muted shriek and the Winwood girls filed into the room.
‘My daughters,’ Mrs Winwood intoned. ‘Hermia, Sophia, Ursula, Cordelia and Arabella. The little ones are in the nursery. My husband is from home. He visits the Bishop.’
The girls made their curtseys and took up seats around the room.
‘Your daughters are clearly very fine needlewomen,’ Marie said. ‘Their diligence and skill is displayed in every delightful ornamentation I see. How proud you must be of them, ma’am.’
Mrs Winwood waved away Mrs Bates’ compliment and pointed to the fireplace. ‘The fire in this room smokes,’ she said, as though it was in some way Mrs Bates’ fault.
‘Oh yes, I am afraid so, and as a result we only used this room in the summer time. The fire in the morning room is very good.’
‘A family of nine cannot live in a morning room. We can barely be accommodated in this room. Where is Ursula to practice her music? And the dining room - well! I quite despair of it.’
Mrs Bates looked around her. The removal of half the supernumerary chairs and all of the side tables would have doubled the useful space, she thought, but kept this observation to herself.
‘It takes one a while to accustom oneself to a new place,’ she remarked. ‘Your previous residence was large?’
‘Much larger than this,’ Mrs Winwood replied, bitterly. ‘There will have to be alterations. I have stipulated that quite definitely as a condition of my staying here. Winwood is in no doubt of what must occur.
This seemed like no business of hers to pursue. Mrs Bates said, ‘You will find Highbury a very friendly place.’
Mrs Winwood sniffed, as though she very much doubted it.
‘You have received several calls already, I am sure.’
‘A lady by the name of Snell,’ Mrs Winwood admitted, at last, with a lip distinctly curled. ‘She is the lawyer’s wife, I apprehend. In general I find lawyers are upstarts and rogues. I cannot speak for Mr Snell, however. He may be a perfectly respectable gentleman. Another couple came - the Westons. They are in trade I hear.’
‘Very prosperously so,’ Mrs Bates replied, ‘and Mrs Snell is a very genteel lady. Her father was…’
But Mrs Winwood had no interest of the genealogy of Mrs Snell. ‘Mr Knightley has so far declined to do us the honour of a visit,’ she lamented. ‘Likewise the Claytons. By all accounts they are the kind of families one feels one could meet without a blush.’
‘I think there is not a family in Highbury I would be ashamed to acknowledge acquaintance with,’ Mrs Bates said.
‘Even the Coxes?’ Mrs Winwood thundered.
‘Even the Coxes. They are not in our first circle, but they are honest and hard-working.’
‘He is a clerk. Their children run quite wild, I understand.’
‘Their children are healthy and energetic. They enjoy the countryside. Now Mrs Winwood I feel I have taken up too much of your valuable time. I will bid you good morning.’