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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Saturday, January 4, 2020

The subtle pun in Pride & Prejudice that Maria Edgeworth paid homage to in Patronage

Today I serendipitously came upon another one of Jane Austen’s remarkable puns – always a special treat – and, as I’ll explain tomorrow in Part Two, I owe my discovery to someone who, in May 1813, was among the first readers of P&P – Maria Edgeworth!

PART ONE: The Subtle Pun in Pride & Prejudice  

The pun occurs at the end of Mr. Collins’s courtship career in Meryton, but first, some setup. After pursuing Elizabeth so persistently and obliviously for a half dozen chapters, the new rector of Hunsford finally gets the memo that she’s not that into him, and she is greatly relieved. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, Elizabeth’s dearest friend, Charlotte, swoops in and snags the red-blooded rector before he cools down from Eliza’s rejection of his delicate wooing.

Here’s how Elizabeth feels in Chapter 22 right after Charlotte personally delivers her the shocking news:

“…Charlotte did not stay much longer, and Elizabeth was then left to reflect on what she had heard. It was a long time before she became at all reconciled to the idea of so unsuitable a match. The strangeness of Mr. Collins’s making two offers of marriage within three days was nothing in comparison of his being now accepted. She had always felt that Charlotte’s opinion of matrimony was not exactly like her own, but she had not supposed it to be possible that, when called into action, she would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage. Charlotte the wife of Mr. Collins was a most humiliating picture! And to the pang of a friend disgracing herself and sunk in her esteem, was added the distressing conviction that it was impossible for that friend to be tolerably happy in the lot she had chosen….”

Since 2010, I’ve been arguing that the magnitude of Elizabeth’s distress is disproportionate to ordinary concern for her friend’s marital future with a husband like Mr. Collins. Instead it also reflects her painful sense of betrayal arising from the abrupt severing of her longstanding quasi-romantic attachment to Charlotte. Elizabeth isn’t consciously aware of the romantic part, but Charlotte most assuredly is, and always has been – and ultimately, it’s Charlotte’s oblique but relentless pursuit of her beloved Elizabeth that drives the rest of the plot of the shadow story of the novel.

But that lesbian subtext in the shadow story of P&P is not my topic today– it’s the pun. To get to it, let’s look next at how Elizabeth feels after she’s had a chance to sleep on this shocking news. We see a clear deepening of Elizabeth’s emotional withdrawal from Charlotte in Chapter 23, pulling back in pain:

“Between Elizabeth and Charlotte there was a restraint which kept them mutually silent on the subject; and Elizabeth felt persuaded that no real confidence could ever subsist between them again. Her disappointment in Charlotte made her turn with fonder regard to her sister, of whose rectitude and delicacy she was sure her opinion could never be shaken, and for whose happiness she grew daily more anxious, as Bingley had now been gone a week and nothing more was heard of his return.”

And now we’ve come to the point – in that paragraph of narration, see if you can spot the subtle pun in it. To help, I gave you an additional hint in my initial exposition. Try to spot it, or when you’ve had enough of puzzling, scroll down a bit to read my take:



The pun is in the very unusual word “rectitude”, which only appears twice in all six Austen novels put together – in Chapter 23 of P&P, and in a passage in S&S. That “rectitude” is a pun on the “rector” of Hunsford, Mr. Collins, who is, in a real sense, a “rector” who lacks “rectitude”!

But that’s only the first layer of the punny onion. What makes this pun more than just superficial wit is the character psychology behind it. Elizabeth has begun to contemplate the permanent loss of Charlotte, who has been one of the two pillars of female intimacy in her life. So it is only natural that, in reaction, Eliza doubles down on the other of the two – her dearest sister Jane.

Look at the two words which come to Elizabeth’s mind as she pictures her sister: “rectitude” and “delicacy”. These are words which have not previously been associated with Jane in the novel -- indeed, we only read of Jane’s delicacy once later on, far ahead in Chapter 61. So, why do these two words occur to Elizabeth? Because, I suggest to you, by negative implication these are two positive qualities that Elizabeth now believes are absent in Charlotte, in the aftermath of Charlotte’s having “sunk” in Elizabeth’s “esteem”.

And why would those two qualities be lacking in Charlotte? Here we have Austen’s subtle masterful artistry on full display; because these two words have, for the previous ten chapters, been associated repeatedly with the person whom Charlotte has now chosen as her life partner – Mr. Collins.  In short, he’s the suitor whose false “delicacy” in unctuous flattery, and fake ‘rectitude” in his pious platitudes, has been giving Elizabeth a very bad case of heartburn! So now, in Eliza’s mind, Charlotte is yoked to her new husband’s defining, worst character traits!

To fully appreciate this psychological effect, look now at how JA has subliminally prepared her readers for this particular turn of phrase in a half dozen earlier passages:

Chapter 13: “About a month ago I received this letter; and about a fortnight ago I answered it, for I thought it a case of some DELICACY, and requiring early attention. It is from my cousin, Mr. Collins, who, when I am dead, may turn you all out of this house as soon as he pleases.”
…‘…I have been so fortunate as to be distinguished by the patronage of the RIGHT Honourable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, widow of Sir Lewis de Bourgh, whose bounty and beneficence has preferred me to the valuable RECTORY of this parish…”

Chapter 14: “…you may imagine that I am happy on every occasion to offer those little DELICATE compliments which are always acceptable to ladies…These are the kind of little things which please her ladyship, and it is a sort of attention which I conceive myself peculiarly bound to pay.”
“You judge very properly,” said Mr. Bennet, “and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with DELICACY. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?”

Chapter 15: A fortunate chance had recommended him to Lady Catherine de Bourgh when the living of Hunsford was vacant; and the respect which he felt for her high rank, and his veneration for her as his patroness, mingling with a very good opinion of himself, of his authority as a clergyman, and his RIGHT as a RECTOR, made him altogether a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility.

Chapter 18:” …I do not mean, however, to assert that we can be justified in devoting too much of our time to music, for there are certainly other things to be attended to. The RECTOR of a parish has much to do….”
…He assured her, that as to dancing, he was perfectly indifferent to it; that his chief object was by DELICATE attentions to recommend himself to her and that he should therefore make a point of remaining close to her the whole evening. There was no arguing upon such a project. She owed her greatest relief to her friend Miss Lucas, who often joined them, and good-naturedly engaged Mr. Collins’s conversation to herself….”

Chapter 19: “…You can hardly doubt the purport of my discourse, however your natural DELICACY may lead you to dissemble; my attentions have been too marked to be mistaken. Almost as soon as I entered the house, I singled you out as the companion of my future life…”
…“…In making me the offer, you must have satisfied the DELICACY of your feelings with regard to my family, and may take possession of Longbourn estate whenever it falls, without any self-reproach. This matter may be considered, therefore, as finally settled.”
“….I am far from accusing you of cruelty at present, because I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application, and perhaps you have even now said as much to encourage my suit as would be consistent with the true DELICACY of the female character.”

Chapter 20: Mr. Collins received and returned these felicitations with equal pleasure, and then proceeded to relate the particulars of their interview, with the result of which he trusted he had every reason to be satisfied, since the refusal which his cousin had steadfastly given him would naturally flow from her bashful modesty and the genuine DELICACY of her character.

Again, Mr. Collins, the rector with false delicacy and fake rectitude. The effect is subliminal – the words ring a faint bell, and the reader must pause and think about it, to know why they ring so true. Charlotte’s character has been tainted by this shocking new association with Mr. Collins, and so of course Elizabeth will ascribe to her dear sister Jane the very qualities which Mr. (and now, also Mrs.) Collins merely pretends to have.

And Jane Austen cannot resist a brief reminder of this pun near the end of the novel, in Chapter 57, when we read Mr. Collins’ highly indelicate, theologically incorrect verdict on Lydia:

“ ‘… I must not, however, neglect the duties of my station, or refrain from declaring my amazement at hearing that you received the young couple into your house as soon as they were married. It was an encouragement of vice; and had I been the RECTOR of Longbourn, I should very strenuously have opposed it. You ought certainly to forgive them, as a Christian, but never to admit them in your sight, or allow their names to be mentioned in your hearing.’ That is his notion of Christian forgiveness!...”

But take note that Mr. Collins’s false notion of “rectitude” is no more harsh than Elizabeth’s writing off of Charlotte back in Chapter 23! JA hates pictures of imperfection, too, and so she elects to unnerve us with a subtle suggestion that he is not as bad, nor is Elizabeth as good, as we might like to think.

And there is an even deeper meaning in Elizabeth contrasting Charlotte to Jane, which casts an even darker shade on Elizabeth’s character. It’s not only that she is too quick to write Charlotte off – after all, that turns out to be short-term, because she does come visit Charlotte at Hunsford, and is sorry to leave her  to return to Meryton.

Let’s take a second look:
“Her disappointment in Charlotte made her turn with fonder regard to her sister, of whose rectitude and delicacy she was sure her opinion could never be shaken, and for whose happiness she grew daily more anxious, as Bingley had now been gone a week and nothing more was heard of his return.”

Yes, consciously Elizabeth tells herself she is anxious for Jane; but unconsciously, I suggest that Jane’s reassuring “rectitude and delicacy” arises not so much from Jane’s impeccable character, so much as from Jane’s bleak romantic prospects with Bingley – i.e., Jane will not marry and abruptly vanish from Eliza’s life, as Charlotte’s did!

And this ties in with one of the great conundra of P&P – why is it that Eliza never tells Jane about Darcy’s interference? Sure, she rationalizes keeping this secret all along, but there is a piece of this, I suggest, which is Elizabeth’s jealousy of the “more beautiful, almost saintly” Jane. And part of that jealousy is what is behind Jane’s “rectitude and delicacy” in her misery.

And note that all of this complex insight is the fruit of that one subtle little pun.

I will post Part Two tomorrow, which is amazing, in a different way.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Friday, January 3, 2020

The Bride of Northanger by Diana Birchall

I blogged the other day about seeing a fabulous stage performance of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, the brilliant sequel to Pride & Prejudice written by Gunderson and Meldoc. I’m back today with a rave review of another recent, high quality work of Austen-inspired fiction, The Bride of Northanger, by my great friend, Diana Birchall.

This will be the first of two posts by me about Diana’s novel, because I will be writing a second report a few weeks from now, which will be replete with major spoilers for the deft and satisfying plot twists that Diana so expertly unfolds for the reader’s delight in the final chapters.

What I wish to say today that is no spoiler for anyone familiar with Diana’s writing style, is that this is perhaps Diana’s best work so far (and I loved her In Defense of Mrs. Elton pastiche from two decades  ago when I first met her virtually in the Janeites group). Diana, like Gunderson and Meldoc, perfectly understands that it would be a fool’s errand to try to mimic Austen’s unique style – instead, Diana has reached a high level of expertise in her own unique, witty way of turning phrases, building and lowering tension, and bringing a smile on every page. Inspired by Austen perfectly described what Diana does, and that is a wonderful thing, that is rarely done as well as she does it.

Bride picks up shortly after the end of the action of Northanger Abbey, and the primary focus, as you would hope and expect, is on the early married life of Catherine and Henry, as Diana imagines it. But this is no domestic melodrama – very quickly, the action takes a decidedly Gothic turn, and then keeps us in suspense every step of the way thereafter, as to how it will turn out – but it never gets lost in the Gothic, it’s always about character.

I particularly love that Diana gives us a Catherine who is not just moral and good, but also smart and steadily growing in life wisdom. She also brings in most of the other main players from Northanger Abbey, and each one gets a chance to show us who they are – with no punches pulled for certain of them, as you could imagine.

What I will address in my followup post before the end of January, which will, as indicated above, contain major spoilers, are the several literary and historical allusions which Diana deftly inserts beneath the surface of the action, which those who follow me know is the stuff I love most about Austen. Lots of food for thought beneath Diana’s elegant, delightful prose.

I do not hesitate to recommend The Bride of Northanger to anyone who enjoys high quality Austen-inspired fiction by an experienced purveyor of such goodness at the top of her game! So head over to and get your copy now! Then return here in a few weeks, and see if you saw some of the same stuff I did!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

‘They found Mary, as usual, deep in the study of thorough-bass and human nature’: Mary, the ‘well-tempered’ Bennet sister in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (and elsewhere)

I recently saw Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, and found the following rave review to be spot-on:  It’s easy to understand why this play has been staged all over the country in both 2018 and 2019, and bids fair to become an annual national holiday tradition. And it didn’t hurt that all the performers in this recently concluded Portland production, but most of all Mary as played by the force of nature known as Lauren Modica, were uniformly excellent.

This is that rare sequel to a beloved original which creates its own independent vivid dramatic reality, and doesn’t rely on frequent winks at highlights from the original for its force and appeal. The winks (as when Mary expresses snarky pride at her piano playing, her playful riposte to the public humiliation she suffers at the hands of her sarcastic father) are few and far between, and are carefully chosen for most telling effect. Lauren Gunderson (who co-wrote this play with Margot Melcon) is justifiably already famous as a very gifted young playwright; and, as a rabid Shakespeare lover, I’m sorry I missed The Book of Will at OSF this past summer, and hope it’ll have another run soon somewhere I can go see it).

Miss Bennet reflects the authors’ canny sense of plot construction and pace, and reliably consistent, even (yes, I’ll say it) Austenesque, sharp wit. And I felt throughout the play, in plot twists like the misdirected love notes, the subliminal presence of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. That demonstrates that Gunderson and Melcon really did their homework – I can’t be offbase in inferring that they recognized (as Sir Walter Scott was the first to suggest 2 centuries ago) Shakespeare’s most beloved romantic comedy as a key source for Austen’s most beloved romantic comedy; and their reboot of that “merry war”, but this time with their own original sparring lovers, Mary and Arthur, is a worthy successor.

In choosing Mary Bennet as their heroine, they avoid the trend of typical P&P fanfic sequels, which apply variations to the original story, with little or no basis in the original text. Instead, Gunderson and Melcon follow in the footsteps of Prof. Steven A. Scott, whose 2002 essay, "Making room in the middle: Mary in Pride and Prejudice”, was the first to make a case that there was more to Austen’s Mary Bennet than met the eye; and then, in 2008, the late Colleen McCullough’s The Independence of Mary Bennet, which presented Mary as a heroine in a sequel that takes her far afield from Longbourn and Pemberley. So, there’s both textual justification and precedent for elevating Mary to the unlikely status as heroine.

I also have a horse in the Alt-Mary race. In 2010, I first presented my own alternative view of Mary, as one cog in what I call the “shadow story” (or alternative fictional universe) of P&P that I claim Austen  deliberately created. The primary means of access (to each of Austen’s six shadow stories) is by reading most of the narration in the novel not as objective reality (as they’re generally read), but as a subjective reality filtered and distorted through the proud, prejudiced and therefore fallible mind of the focalizing heroine. So Eliza Bennet, in that alternative plausible interpretation, is still a smart, but nonetheless essentially clueless, young woman, from one end of the novel to the other.

So I say it’s up to the reader to figure out who the shadow Mary is, by avoiding getting trapped inside Elizabeth’s often jealous, dismissive, uncharitable view of her. And here’s the crux. In the shadow story of P&P, Mr. Darcy does not actually reform and repent from his selfish ways after Elizabeth rejects his first proposal, he merely pretends to do so. And in that dark alternative reality, I see Mary as a feminist, selfless, would-be protector of her elder sister Elizabeth; Mary is (like her creator, Jane Austen, as characterized long ago by Mary Russell Mitford) the “sharp poker” sitting quietly by the fire unnoticed, the sharp eyed observer who sees through Darcy’s sham reformation, and tries her best, albeit unsuccessfully, to warn her all-too-trickable Elizabeth off from his dangerous charms.

So I believe it is Mary who is the unnamed girl at Longbourn, who, when Darcy shows up there for the first time near the end of the novel, and Elizabeth wonders whether he still has feelings for her, whispers in Elizabeth’s ear the line in the novel you never hear in any of the film adaptations:
“The men shan’t come and part us, I am determined. We want none of them; do we?”

But, alas, Elizabeth by then has had her resistance so thoroughly shattered by Darcy’s relentless manipulations and stage management, including her “unplanned” visit to Pemberley, and his “accidentally” meeting her there,  and so she does desperately, even cravenly, want Darcy, and is deaf to Mary’s whispered warning.

As you might have guessed by now, there are a dozen other major differences between the great love story of P&P that everybody knows and loves, and the shadow story of that same novel that I believe was Austen’s greatest cautionary tale. But the shadow story is also a love story--- although n a very different way, in that it centers not on Mary, but on another unlikely heroine - Charlotte Lucas  (who, notably, is utterly absent from Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley) and her undying, highly romantic love for her beloved, Elizabeth! But that is another story……. ;)

So although Gunderson’s and Melcon’s vision of Mary is a departure from the normative reading of Mary, it is not the Mary of the shadow story I see. Let’s call it an “upgrade” of the Mary of the overt story. Nonetheless, I don’t hold that as a flaw at all, because (as I said at the start) Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is an authentic, successful work of sophisticated romantic comedy entirely in its own right! In other words, it would be great theater to watch and enjoy even if Pride and Prejudice had never been written --- although, of course, it would surely not be selling out theaters around the country if not for its unique pedigree!

As to that independent reality of Miss Bennet, perhaps the best aspect for me was that this sequel to Pride and Prejudice presented us with an organic family dynamic that is convincingly enacted by the ensemble. That Mary and Arthur are both engrossed by the theories of Lamarck which preceded Darwin’s, in regard to the effect of the environment on heredity, is, it is clear, a metafictional wink by the authors at the complex family ecosystem which they have successfully set spinning onstage.

[SPOILERS follow for the ending of Miss Bennet, although not shocking spoilers, for those who have not seen the play yet]


The end point of that evolutionary process is reflected as the curtain falls on the unexpected, heart-warming harmony that prevails among Lydia, Mary, Jane, and Elizabeth, and the men who belong to the latter three. Lydia comes around to wanting to be a real sister, and in a surprisingly plausible way; and Elizabeth and Lydia show newfound respect and admiration for Mary.

So it is not only that Mary emerges from the wings of Austen’s novel to take center stage. It’s that we also see her as the catalyst who sparks this positive revolution in the Bennet family. This new Bennet family happy ending brings to mind a bit of wit in P&P about Lady Catherine --- she who would, by self-profession, have been “a great proficient” in music:
“…whenever any of the cottagers were disposed to be quarrelsome, discontented, or too poor, she sallied forth into the village to settle their differences, silence their complaints, and scold them into HARMONY and plenty.
In short, Gunderson and Melcon are skilled enough as theatrical “composers” that they did not need to scold their characters into plenty of familial harmony, because that harmony arises organically, as it does in Austen’s original, through an artfully constructed chain of plausible character interactions.

One last point, which I hinted at in my Subject Line, before I close. Being a hardcore pun-nerd, I was particularly struck by one early exchange between Mary and her future husband, Arthur, which I now quote here (no, I don’t have perfect recall, I found an online version of the play text in Google Books!). This is the moment when the leading man haltingly begins to court the leading lady:

ARTHUR: ….And. That is to say…I do hope to hear more from you. You are so very full of SONG.
MARY: Sometimes I am. And sometimes I am full of things much less pretty.
ARTHUR: You see to me…enough of.. prettiness.
MARY: I mean my TEMPER. I know I have one and I have yet to learn how to MANAGE it.
ARTHUR: The Beethoven’s a good start.
She smiles.
MARY: You are wittier than you think, Mr. de Bourgh.
ARTHUR: I don’t know if one can take credit for unconscious wit.
MARY: And yet people take credit for things far less compelling.

While watching, I asked myself why Mary smiled, and what “wit” Arthur was so modest about? Upon quick reflection, I found this to be a subtle pun, as Mary’s struggle to manage her own “temper” surely relates to the ‘well tempered clavier’ that Mary repeatedly plays during the play, during her Beethovenian struggles with her tumultuous feelings. (Here’s a link to a great explanation of what this musical term means: https://www.piano  )

That got me thinking…when I got home, I checked, and saw that the word “temper” is a subtle but pervasive keyword (get it?) in P&P (as it is in all of Austen’s novels --- not surprising given that there are major characters who play the piano in 4 of the canonical 6!), in that it refers to the contrasting tempers of certain characters, most notably the unforgiving temper of Mr. Darcy, versus the easy, pliant tempers of Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley.

And so, with that Bachian pun in mind, I had to laugh at the following early assessment of Mr. Darcy by Elizabeth Bennet as she learns about him from Mr. Wickham, which I now read with new eyes:

“I should take him, even on my slight acquaintance, to be an ILL-TEMPERED man.”

I.e., not a “well-tempered” man at all! And that’s another way of stating the fork in the road that divides the paths to the overt story and the shadow story. In a nutshell, the question is whether Darcy’s character will be, or not be, brought into harmony after Elizabeth rejects him the first time, or will it instead remain in dark dissonance.

Given the profundity of the musical metaphors that echo throughout the entirety of P&P (most of all in the salon at Rosings when Darcy’s and Elizabeth’s merry war of words about her piano playing and his people skills reaches a peak), we can also read, with new, admiring eyes, Elizabeth’s earlier, sarcastic snap judgment on her sister:

‘They found Mary, as usual, deep in the study of thorough-bass and human nature’

When we recognize that it was Jane Austen herself who was usually deep in the study of these same endlessly fascinating subjects, including most of all the difficulty of knowing the hearts of other people and ourselves, it is fitting that we see Mary as a self-portrait more in harmony with her creator than her more flamboyant sister Elizabeth.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter