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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Mysterious Whisperer

Someone named Shoshi asked the following question in Janeites this morning:

“In Vol3 Ch12, there is a paragraph which describes Elizabeth`s urgent expectation for Darcy`s approaching. "The gentlemen came; and she thought he looked as if he would have answered her hopes; but, alas! the ladies had crowded round the table, where Miss Bennet was making tea, and Elizabeth pouring out the coffee, in so close a confederacy, that there was not a single vacancy near her, which would admit a chair. And on the gentlemen`s approaching, one of the girls moved closer than ever, and said, in a whisper, `The men shan`t come and part us, I am determined. We want none of them; do we?`"
Is the "one of the girls" Jane Bennet? Why did Austen write in such an ambiguous tone?”

Shoshi, everything I know about JA tells me that this is a giant clue, and I commend you for spotting it. [And now that I have completed writing this message, I know that my hunch was correct—read on!]

First, it’s not only that we hear about “one of the girls” in the one passage you quoted. If we read a little further in that scene, we come to the following passage:

“[Lizzy] could think of nothing more to say; but if [Darcy] wished to converse with her, he might have better success. He stood by her, however, for some minutes in silence; and, at last, ON THE YOUNG LADY’S WHISPERING TO ELIZABETH AGAIN, he walked away.”

One mention of an anonymous whisperer could possibly be “filler”--- but two in the same scene, both of them involving a girl who does not speak but WHISPERS??? THAT’S a hint!

But how are we to make sense of this hint? I start by recalling the following famous passage in JA’s Letter, talking about the recently published P&P:

"There are a few Typical errors--& a 'said he' or a 'said she' would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear--but 'I do not write for such dull Elves As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.'"

JA is telling CEA that JA DELIBERATELY left the identity of the speaker of certain dialogue in the novel UNCLEAR, so as to prompt the reader not to be dull and passively skim by without asking the question.

And isn’t this passage exactly the kind of passage that JA wrote about to CEA? So, I claim that JA wanted her readers to do as Shoshi did, and seek to apply “ingenuity” to figure out who it could be, and to ask WHY JA might have deliberately left THAT passage unclear.

The first clue I see is that the unnamed girl knows Lizzy well enough so as to feel privileged to sit on the couch with Lizzy and Jane, and also to whisper to Lizzy, not once but twice.

I will get to the guest list in a moment, but first I checked to see if any female had, during the course of the novel, ever previously whispered to Lizzy.

I saw that Charlotte whispered to Lizzy---but it seems unlikely that she should be in Meryton, at that moment when she is expecting, and impossible that she should be there at Longbourn and Lizzy not be talking to her at length, and being mentioned by the narrator. No, that is not possible.

I also saw that Lydia whispered to Lizzy--but Lydia has only just left Longbourn with Wickham, so it is clearly not her.

So they are very UNpromising leads. No, I think the most promising candidate is the THIRD prior whisperer to Lizzy, whose whisperings we actually hear in Chapter 47, just after the news has arrived that Lydia and Wickham are to be married:

“As for MARY, she was mistress enough of herself to WHISPER to Elizabeth, with a countenance of grave reflection, soon after they were seated at table -- "This is a most unfortunate affair; and will probably be much talked of. But we must stem the tide of malice, and pour into the wounded bosoms of each other the balm of sisterly consolation."

Then, perceiving in Elizabeth no inclination of replying, she added, "Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable -- that one false step involves her in endless ruin -- that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful -- and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex."

Elizabeth lifted up her eyes in amazement, but was too much oppressed to make any reply. Mary, however, continued to console herself with such kind of moral extractions from the evil before them.”

By the way, I had not realized before that Mary whispers these pious comments to Lizzy—is that how it has been portrayed in the film adaptations?

What is very significant, I believe, is that Mary’s whispering is not merely pious cant-there is an unmistakable positive message of female solidarity there as well—“the balm of sisterly consolation”. It just comes out in a smarmy unpleasant way, but Mary’s intentions are good.

Don’t Mary’s earlier whispered comments sound like the conduct book translation of “The men shan`t come and part us, I am determined. We want none of them; do we?`" It’s almost like the identical statement, but in two different languages!

Speaking of different languages, I checked to see if anyone else in the novel had ever used the word “shan’t. The results are shocking, and very interesting indeed—“shan’t” is a word that appears a grand total of only EIGHT times in all of JA’s novels combined. I.e., extremely rare, and therefore of extra special interest.

In the other five novels, it is spoken once by Miss Bates (in her most famous line, at Box Hill), once by Mrs. Jennings (being pushy), and twice by Lucy Steele (being Lucy). This narrow group of speakers suggests to me that this was an old fashioned word that JA considered might be used by a woman who might have street smarts, but who had not refined her speech with extensive reading.

In P&P, that pattern continues. The word “shan’t” is spoken by Mrs. Bennet twice, and the last usage is by our mysterious whisperer.

Here is what Mrs. Bennet says, speaking to Mr. Bennet in Chapter 53—i.e., the immediately preceding chapter:

“"Well, all I know is, that it will be abominably rude if you do not wait on him. But, however, that SHAN'T prevent my asking him to dine here, I am determined. We must have Mrs. Long and the Gouldings soon. That will make thirteen with ourselves, so there will be just room at the table for him."

Of course, Mrs. Bennet cannot possibly be the whisperer, she could not in any way be one of “the girls”—but perhaps this is a clue that the whisperer IS one of the Bennet girls, because, after all, children learn to speak from their parents!

Is it possible that, in the aftermath of Mr. Collins marrying Charlotte, Mary has realized that she needs a new act, a new way of presenting herself in the world of courtship, and so Mary has been spending a lot of time with the Professor of Courtship, i.e., her mother, trying to learn to speak this new language? Even down to “dumbing down” her speech, using a word she, being very literate, would never ordinarily use? Mary spoke in Chapter 47 about the necessity of being “guarded” around untrustworthy men. Has she now awakened to the necessity of being “guarded” about her level of intelligence around men in general?

But some of you think I have jumped the gun in claiming Mary is the whisperer, and that I am forgetting the other Bennet sister whom I have not accounted for at all, i.e., Kitty? Kitty would seem to be a very likely person to say the word “shan’t” without a design to disguise a high level of literacy.

Kitty might seem like a possibility, because it is she who is the one who tells the family that she has spotted Darcy from the window in Chapter 53, when she says:

"There is a gentleman with [Bingley], mamma," said Kitty; "who can it be?,,, "La!" replied Kitty, "it looks just like that man that used to be with him before -- Mr. What's-his-name. That tall, proud man."

It does not sound to me like Kitty is enamored of Darcy, and so, even though Kitty would be very receptive to courtship by a handsome man, I just don’t get the feeling that she would suddenly turn around and see Darcy as marriage material for herself. She prefers a redcoat, right?

So, all things considered, I am still focused on Mary as the whisperer. But let’s now turn to the non-Bennets at the party.

It is strikingly noteworthy that one of the two places where Mrs. Bennet uses the word “shan’t” is in the single passage where we are told, by Mrs. Bennet, not only how many people will be there, but also WHO they will be:

Mr. & Mrs. Bennet (2)

Lizzy, Mary and Kitty (3)

Bingley (1) [note that Darcy is NOT expected among the 13 counted by Mrs. Bennet!]

Mrs. Long (1)

The Gouldings (?)

The Gouldings, we learned in Chapter 50, occupy Haye Park, which Mrs. Bennet considers to be grand enough for Bingley and Jane. We also know that families in JA’s time were large, especially as we know that the Gouldings have been married a while, as they have at least some young adult, but unmarried, children. We also know that there is at least one Goulding son—William, he one whom Lydia flashes her wedding ring at in Chapter 51 as he rides by in his curricle.

So if the Gouldings bring along 4 children, that would add up to 13. Mrs. Bennet has not mentioned any other invited guests, so it must be that they bring 4 children.

By the way, was 13 considered an unlucky number in JA’s day?

Assuming the Gouldings have some daughters, we hear absolutely nothing about any of them other than what I have written above, unless I have overlooked some other passage in the text which obliquely refers to them.

So, based on the above, we actually have a very limited choice--the whisperer is either one of the Goulding girls (with a tip of the hat to Betty White) or Mary Bennet or Kitty Bennet. The first option is not very interesting, because we have been told nothing about those girls, so it really is a dead end. The last option is possible, but also not very interesting….

However, if it is Mary, as I claim it is, then her whispering becomes extraordinarily interesting.

Look at the context? We have at least two single young men present who (as far as Mary is aware) are not attached—Mr. Darcy and William Goulding. And there may be another Goulding boy or two present as well. And we know that Mary was trying, in her own quite way, to get close to Mr. Collins before Charlotte, recognizing Mary as competition, swooped in and snatched him away from right under her nose.

So we are in a courtship situation—and how then to explain why Mary might choose to organize a playful confederacy of girls where no boys are allowed?

One possible explanation might be that Mary is new at this game and suddenly gets shy, and, panicking, wants to avoid the embarrassment of personal conversation with one of the young men.

But that’s where the SECOND whisper comes into play. The whisperer chooses to join Lizzy and Darcy standing off to the side , during an awkward silence, and to whisper to Lizzy, which prompts Darcy to walk away from Lizzy.

So, is this a rescue, by a tactful sister, spotting the awkwardness, and bailing Lizzy and Darcy out of their obvious discomfort? Or is this an invasion, by a female looking to make time with Darcy herself, intervening during the awkward silence precisely so as to prevent Lizzy and Darcy from overcoming the awkwardness?

Are we seeing a version of Harriet Smith aspiring to marry Mr. Knightley? That catches Emma completely by surprise, and I am sure that Lizzy would be astonished if she believed that Mary was trying to get close to Darcy!

And there is one more twist---as the party progresses, it is Mrs. Bennet who waylays Darcy for her whist table, thereby depriving Lizzy of any opportunity to speak in any sort of personal way with Darcy for the rest of the evening.

But we don’t hear who are the other two players at the whist table. Is it Mrs. Long, or Mr. or Mrs. Goulding? Or is it possible that one of the players is Mary??????

I think so. Why? Because in Chapter 16, we hear about another whist table, where we know the identity of three of the players—Mrs. Bennet, Mrs. Phillips, and Mr. Collins (who comically explains why he is playing)—but who is the fourth??? Judging from how I believe Mary tries to get close to Mr. Collins whenever she gets a chance, I think that it’s she, at both of these widely-separated whist games, and for the same reason—i.e., to get close to a man, and to show herself to best advantage, in a game that requires intelligence, and therefore gives Mary the chance for display of her assets to best advantage.

Which suggests to me to that Mary whispers twice to keep Lizzy and Darcy at a distance—and that she is doing this with the full encouragement and support of Mrs. Bennet! It would appear to me that Mrs. Bennet is quietly trying to promote a match between Darcy and Mary, and it never occurs to her that Lizzy is interested in Darcy, so she does not hesitate to push Mary to inject herself into the mix with Darcy and, in effect, shoulder Lizzy out of the way, whom they both think has no interest whatsoever in Darcy!

Now I will be curious to hear the cries and whispers that perhaps will be prompted by what I have suggested.

Thanks again, Shoshi, very much, for raising this extraordinarily interesting question.


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