Miss Bates has always struck me as pitiable and ridiculous, a character thrown into the novel largely for comic effect. But Deresiewicz has a different angle. He argues that Miss Bates lives "the novel's highest lesson of all": that it is the little things of everyday—the sorts of things talked over repeatedly by Miss Bates—of which real life is made.
Deresiewicz contrasts the small talk of Miss Bates (and of Austen's novels in general) with the conversations he used to have with his friends, and with the modernist literature he read. They were all about "the big issues—politics, social justice, the future" etc. Serious stuff. Nothing like the chick lit represented by Austen. But then he began to notice that
ultimately, all that [big] talk was just theoretical, no more real in the feelings it involved than Emma's ideas for rearranging the lives of the people around her. Austen taught me a new kind of moral seriousness—taught me what moral seriousness really means. It means taking responsibility for the little world, not the big one. It means taking responsibility for yourself.
Elsewhere Deresiewicz speaks of small talk as a way of attaching oneself to life and to other people, a way of "weaving the web of community, one strand of conversation at a time."
Perhaps Deresiewicz overstates his point. No doubt there is such a thing as mindless chatter and destructive gossip, and perhaps Miss Bates frequently engages in it (I'll have to reread Emma to be sure). Still, I think he is basically right. Just as a lot of business gets done spontaneously, in hallways and coffee shops, so relationships are often established and deepened over small-talk. To avoid it (or, as in my case, to have no talent for it) is often to be disconnected from the people around you.
Moreover, small talk is often not small at all. Events that are unimportant on a large scale, or issues that are trivial to one person, can loom large for another. Being aware of and sensitive to this is a way of putting personalism in practice. Underneath the unending chatter of Miss Bates lies an undeniable goodness, a genuine interest in and concern for others. This explains, as Deresiewicz reminds us, the positive way in which Austen introduces her to the reader:
Her youth had passed without distinction, and her middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible. And yet she was a happy woman… She loved every body, was interested in every body's happiness, quick-sighted to every body's merits; thought herself a most fortunate creature, and surrounded with blessings…
Emma is much more intelligent, beautiful, etc., than Miss Bates. She knows how to talk and behave. But until the very end of the novel she is cut off from the people around her, and cut off from herself too. She can even be downright cruel, as in the well-known scene in which she mocks Miss Bates for being unable to limit herself to saying only three dull things. The reader, though sympathetic to Emma and sharing her view of Miss Bates, can only agree with Mr. Knightly that it was "badly done indeed!" And that is exactly the effect Austen hopes for. It is her way of making us feel the shabbiness of an attitude we sometimes share. It was an eye-opener for Deresiewicz:
By creating a heroine who felt exactly as I did, and who behaved precisely as I would have in her situation, she was showing me my own ugly face. I couldn't deplore Emma's disdain for Miss Bates, or her boredom with the whole commonplace Highbury world, without simultaneously condemning my own.
I'm looking forward to the rest of the book.