In Jane Austen's Emma, when Miss Bates is talking about Mr. Elton's recent engagement, she mentions that Jane is curious to see him, which is then followed by a narrator statement about Jane's curiosity:

'A new neighbour for us all, Miss Woodhouse!' said Miss Bates joyfully; 'my mother is so pleased!—she says she cannot bear to have the poor old Vicarage without a mistress. This is great news, indeed. Jane, you have never seen Mr Elton!—no wonder that you have such a curiosity to see him.'
Jane's curiosity did not appear of that absorbing nature as wholly to occupy her.
'No, I have never seen Mr Elton,' she replied, starting on this appeal; 'is he—is he a tall man?'
Emma, chapter XXI

Is this phrasing of "Jane's curiosity did not appear of that absorbing nature as wholly to occupy her" a comment on Jane's style of curiosity as a whole, i.e. that she doesn't generally become very curious as a character trait? Or is this just a comment on this particular instance, that she doesn't appear very interested in Mr. Elton at all and this is just Miss Bates assuming things?

1 Answer 1


The narrator is being ironic at Miss Bates's expense. The good-natured gossip Miss Bates, eternally interested in the affairs of her neighbors, is naturally agog with excitement about Mr Elton's engagement. Jane Fairfax, who has enough problems of her own without needing to worry about the love life of some rando she's never met, is equally naturally taken by surprise when her aunt assumes that she, too, finds this news exciting, and that she must be looking forward to meeting Mr Elton. The narrator therefore wryly comments:

Jane's curiosity did not appear of that absorbing nature as wholly to occupy her.

This is antenantiosis: by saying Jane's curiosity did not wholly occupy her, the narrator means that Jane was not the least bit curious.

It would, however, be quite rude for Jane to contradict her aunt and say that she doesn't give a flying fig about Mr Elton. So she casts about for something, anything, that could express interest in Mr Elton and his doings, and on the spur of the moment can only come up with the very weak query:

"Is he—is he a tall man?"

This line has always struck me as exceedingly funny.

Part of the delight of Emma is such gems, but it's more than just a funny line. In context, Miss Bates, Jane Fairfax, and Miss Hawkins are all commentaries on Emma:

  • Like Miss Bates, Emma has taken entirely too much interest in Mr Elton's marriage, trying to get him engaged to Harriet Smith. Unlike hers, however, Emma's interest is not precisely good-natured; it's egotistic.
  • Like Miss Hawkins, Emma is a wealthy young woman to whom the prepossessing Mr Elton has proposed marriage after only a brief acquaintance. Unlike her, however, Miss Hawkins has accepted him
  • Like Jane, it's assumed that Emma must be interested in another man she has never met. Unlike Jane, who shows absolutely no interest in Mr Elton, Emma is far too interested in Frank Churchill. Recall that she has spent the previous chapter pumping Jane for information about his looks, to no avail.

As this scene shows, Emma is a hall of mirrors, endlessly reflecting its eponymous heroine; but each mirror is just slightly distorted, both suggesting the heroine's narcissism and undercutting it by revealing her imperfections, which by the end become clear to herself as well as the reader.

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