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Towards the beginning of Emma by Jane Austen, Mrs. Bates is mentioned as living with her daughter in "a very small way":

Mrs. Bates, the widow of a former vicar of Highbury, was a very old lady, almost past every thing but tea and quadrille. She lived with her single daughter in a very small way, and was considered with all the regard and respect which a harmless old lady, under such untoward circumstances, can excite. Her daughter enjoyed a most uncommon degree of popularity for a woman neither young, handsome, rich, nor married. Miss Bates stood in the very worst predicament in the world for having much of the public favour; and she had no intellectual superiority to make atonement to herself, or frighten those who might hate her into outward respect.
Emma, volume I, chapter 3

I'm not familiar with this turn of phrase, and I'm a bit confused as to what this is supposed to mean. My initial impression was that she doesn't impose too much on her daughter, but that doesn't quite seem to fit the context.

What does this mean to live with "...her single daughter in a very small way"?

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2 Answers 2

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It means that - in comparison to most of the characters in the novel - they live a relatively meagre lifestyle. In this case, it's due to comparative poverty, as Mr Knightley makes clear to Emma later in the novel:

[Miss Bates] "is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and if she live to old age must probably sink more."

I'll avoid spoilers but Miss Bates' lack of means is an important plot point in the novel. It's also a useful way for the author to communicate the realities of poverty - particularly female poverty - to her largely genteel audience: note how she has Mr Knightley remind us that old age held particular horrors in that regard.

"Living in a small way" is certainly an unusual way to communicate this but it's not entirely unknown in British English, especially at that time. To be accurate, as user @Nat points out, it generally refers to lifestyle rather than wealth: in theory, it's possible for someone to hoard money while living "in a small way".

I found the following in a 1934 history book, Victorian London - Houses and Housing - Homes and Habits, quoting an 1830s book called The Cook's Oracle. This has the further advantage of illustrating that the phrase does not mean poverty as such, but rather a lack of luxuries.

The Cook's Oracle family consisted of three in the parlour, two maids, and a man, and allowance is made for a dinner-party once a month, the table of expenses being 'for people living in a small way' in a household 'where there is plenty of good provisions, but no affectation of profusion'.

Also, it's worth noting that the opposite mode of life, in comfort and wealth, is still known in slang as "living it large".

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    @Nat thanks - I have edited to make that clear.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 9:29
  • @MattThrower: additionally, you might want to make it bold. I think that "lifestyle rather than wealth" is the primary meaning of the "idiom" and the intended meaning in the context. I think that we can say that the owner of IKEA "lived small" (compared to other rich people), although he was significantly wealthy. See cnbc.com/2018/01/29/…
    – virolino
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 9:47
  • @virolino I edited the intro rather than bolding.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 9:57
  • @MattThrower: it makes no much difference. Before the clarification, you used the word "poverty" 3 times and " lack of means" once. As a result, "lifestyle rather than wealth" is mostly drowned and invisible - and that is why I recommended the "bold".
    – virolino
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 10:01
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It means they live very close to poverty, and in a rather inconspicuous manner. Here is a definition from the Free Dictionary:

in a small way
In an [sic] way that is not elaborate or significant.
She doesn't want to have a big birthday party, so we're just going to celebrate in a small way this weekend.

The key words that capture the Bates's situation are "not elaborate or significant." When the late Mr Bates was vicar, they would naturally be a family of some significance in Highbury. Consider how Mr Elton is regarded socially in the village: though not independently wealty, he is invited as an equal to the homes of the rich and powerful, such as Mr Woodhouse and Mr Knightley; he sets his sights on marrying Emma, the girl in the village with the most money and the highest social status; that potential match is considered unsurprising for the most part (except, of course, by Emma herself, who considers him beneath her); and he does in fact eventually marry a wealthy if vulgar woman, whose marriage to him is considered a step up socially for her, because her family made its money in (eek) trade rather than inherited real property.

The death of Mr Bates would mean the loss of any income from his role as vicar, so they have to make do with very little money. From their relatively exalted position, therefore, the Bateses have fallen into poverty. Their means do not match their social status any more, and rather than trying to keep up with their former income and consequence, they live in a small way.

The heartbreak of Miss Bates's situation, in particular, is noted by Mr Knightley when he remonstrates with Emma for having mocked her to her face:

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. [emphasis added]

There was a time when to be taken notice of by Miss Bates was considered an honor; now, she lives inconspicuously, in a small way, having lost the means to live honorably in any other way.

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