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

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Re-reading P&P: Mary Bennet the Good Satan of Longbourne

“Can it be Mary Bennet?”

Shoshi, if you read the message I wrote yesterday under the subject line “The Mysterious Whisperer”, you will see my first shot at the argument that the most likely interpretation is that the Mysterious Whisperer is indeed Mary Bennet, impersonating the voice of her mother, seeking, not once but twice, to prevent Lizzy and Darcy from connecting.

In that earlier message, I ascribed to Mary the Harriet Smith-like hubris of aspiring to attract the attention of Darcy for herself. I subsequently wrote a message under the subject line “The Mysterious Whisperer REDUX: Mrs. Long and her Nieces”, in which I explored the alternative possibility of the whisperer being one of those nieces, but then I still preferred Mary Bennet.

Later last night, I looked still further at this very interesting question, and now I am still convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that the whisperer IS Mary Bennet.

The reason I am so utterly convinced is that I now see a much more powerful, plausible, and interesting motivation for Mary to intervene twice (actually, thrice, if you include my guess that Mary makes the fourth for the whist table with her mother, Mr. Darcy and Mrs. Long) so as to prevent Lizzy and Darcy from connecting that entire evening—it is not that Mary wishes to snare Darcy for herself, but it is that Mary wishes to PROTECT her sister Lizzy from harm! It ties all the pieces of this little puzzle together in a very satisfying whole—please read on and see the convergent strands of evidence which support this interpretation.

First, recall the advice that Mary whispers (again, a hint that it is a coded message) to Lizzy several chapters earlier:

"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."

Everybody always reads this as Mary being an insensitive prig, who is seizing upon the near-disaster for the Bennet family as an excuse to show off with some more intellectualized unfeeling moralistic spouting. If memory serves me right, in all the movie adaptations, we hear Mary declaim these comments loudly to everyone in the room, instead of depicting it correctly as a whisper for Lizzy’s ears only.

I am now suggesting that this is a profound error of translation of the novel text to the screen, because these words truly are directed by Mary solely at Lizzy! It is a revealing error of translation, though, because it shows that because Lizzy does not realize that this is a message for her ears only, so, too, the adaptors, and also pretty much all readers of the novel, have not realized it either!

But what if Mary really DOES get the full picture?! What if Mary means exactly what she says in that last sentence, and sees not only the great danger to which Lydia has recklessly exposed herself AND all her sisters, but also the great danger to which LIZZY may be exposing HERSELF if she is not guarded enough in HER behavior towards a man who is entirely undeserving of the love of a good woman.
After all, Lizzy has conveniently forgotten that SHE was the FIRST Bennet sister to fall under the spell of Wickham. And who knows how far her budding romance with Wickham might have advanced had Darcy not thrown in a monkey wrench in a variety of ways by scaring Wickham off from the ball at Lucas Lodge, which perhaps led Wickham to abandon his subtle wooing of Elizabeth and instead to accelerate his (ultimately failed) attempt to marry the heiress Miss King. Lizzy might well have been badly burned by Wickham.

And so I see that whispered comment at Longbourn as part and parcel of the same message. The key is to step outside the box, and think about the scene from MARY’s perspective, instead of Lizzy’s. Lizzy’s perspective (like Emma’s) can be so overpowering, because the reader is always so charmed by, and also so identified with, Lizzy. It prevents us from seeing a more objective view of what transpires around Lizzy, unless we consciously pull outselves out of Lizzy’s head and attempt to reconstruct what things look like to other characters. And that is especially true of Mary, because her point of view, of all the other characters in the book, is so consistently ignored, demeaned and ridiculed. Hers is the last point of view we are prompted to consider.

So, as Mary sees it, in the moment, here Darcy of all people has shown up unexpectedly, and lo and behold, Mary can observe with her own eyes and see that Lizzy is interested in Darcy. Lizzy is unaware of being observed, she is so focused like a laser beam on Darcy’s every move, that she does not realize that this can be observed. But surely Lizzy keeps glancing over at Darcy, and is trying, probably not very successfully, not to look agitated.

And as far as Mary has reason to be aware, Darcy is very rich and PROUD (Kitty reminds everyone of that, as she spies Darcy from the window), and is not a very nice guy…but he’s also very good looking. As the robot says in that old TV show---DANGER, DANGER, WARNING WARNING! Mary has read in her conduct books about the dangers to young women who are charmed by wealth and good looks. But much more important, Mary also KNOWS that Lizzy has been vulnerable before! And Mary also can recall Jane’s sad experiences, both as a young teen in London (surely Mrs. Bennet has repeated that tale over and over again, misguidedly trying to boost Jane’s stock in the marriage market). And Mary has also more recently had occasion to observe with her own eyes that Jane had been left high and dry by Bingley for many months, before Bingley mysteriously shows up again here and now. And Mary may also have observed (or overheard her sisters and her mother talking about) the friendship between Darcy and Bingley, and surely Mary is aware that Darcy is the “boss” in that friendship.

So perhaps Mary, being an analytical, observant person, who spends plenty of time alone playing music and reading, undistracted by flirtation, is coolly speculating that the only reason why Bingley has come back, is that Darcy wanted an excuse to come back and romance Lizzy-with no guarantee, once HE has “gotten what he wants”, that he, a super-rich man, will overlook Lizzy’s lack of a suitable dowry and actually propose marriage to her.

But Mary is pragmatic, and she saw how Lizzy ignored her whispered advice not so long before, and so she thinks fast and she realizes that this is the moment for a new tack, because there is no time to lose and she may only have this one chance to intervene. Mary observed how Charlotte Lucas “accidentally” swooped in and snared Collins, by audacious and quick action in the moment of truth.

Mary sees how Lizzy is so focused on Darcy, even as she pours coffee for the ladies, and therefore is oblivious to everyone else—it’s as if Lizzy is in a trance, and so Mary might have a rare opportunity to get her message across to Lizzy without Lizzy realizing it is Mary delivering it. And so Mary seizes the moment and adopts a completely different style of speaking than her normal sententious one. Unlike Fanny Price who refuses to perform, Mary improvises and adopts the role of an Isabella Thorpe, and attempts to quietly convey to Lizzy, in the guise of coquetry, a strong message of female solidarity as an alternative to being seduced by a man’s charms.
Mary whispers also because she knows very well that if anybody else (such as Kitty, who often says aloud what others are thinking but don’t want to say) hears her speaking in so out of character a manner, they would surely comment on it, and Lizzy might snap out of her trance and perceive Mary as meddling, and therefore reject the message.

In one sense, Mary succeeds, because Lizzy never notices that it is Mary who is speaking to her. THAT is why the Mysterious Whisperer is never named—because we are in Lizzy’s head, and Lizzy never notices!

But in the more important sense, Mary is UNSUCCESSFUL in her attempt, because Lizzy never stops focusing on Darcy, and in the end, she winds up with Darcy. And of course you will all say that it is a very good thing that Mary does not succeed, because it is the general consensus, obviously, that Darcy is a worthy man for Lizzy.

Before concluding, one more very important point. I just realized as I was writing this message that this scene is JA’s masterfully sly rewrite of the most famous scene in Paradise Lost, when Satan whispers in Eve’s ear while Eve is asleep, tempting Eve (successfully) to take a bite of the apple. JA has turned Milton topsy turvy. Mary here is a GOOD FEMALE Satan in Milton’s Garden, whispering a message of female solidarity in Lizzy’s (Eve’s) ear, as Lizzy is “asleep” to the danger posed by Darcy, as Mary tries to divert her vulnerable sister from falling prey to a seductive man. Ironically, Mary tries to convey “knowledge” to Lizzy, but Lizzy does NOT take a bite.

Mary Bennet as a well-intentioned Satan—how cool is that! Isn’t it so that Milton’s Satan has the power to assume a pleasing shape, and to alter his appearance and voice in order to tempt his victims? Here we have JA’s corrective of Milton’s sexism, showing how women can stand together and help each other resist dangerous temptations!

And before going further, apropos my claim that Mary mimicks her mother’s voice, I also noticed last night that Mary’s mimicry is even more obvious than I had at first realized. Look at two statements that Mrs. Bennet makes, followed by the Mysterious Whisperer’s words, and pay attention to the words in ALL CAPS:
Mrs. Bennet in Chapter 40: For my part, I AM DETERMINED never to speak of it again to anybody.

Mrs. Bennet in Chapter 53: But, however, that SHAN’T prevent my asking him to dine here, I AM DETERMINED. We must have Mrs. Long and the Gouldings soon.
The Mysterious Whisperer in Chapter 54: THE MEN SHAN’T come and part us, I AM DETERMINED. We want none of them; do we?"

Isn’t that amazing??? And there’s even more strong textual evidence to support my interpretation from outside P&P as well. When Nancy wrote yesterday “That sentence sounds exactly like Isabel Thorpe of NA when she is pretending not to pay attention to the men and pretending she doesn't want the men or a man to notice her”, I would suggest that Nancy, who has a good ear for echoes, was responding to something real, without fully realizing the significance of that echo. Indeed, Isabella Thorpe is a female Satan who really does have bad intentions, as she masquerades under a false mask of female solidarity united against male abuse.

Look at the (highly intentional) echo of the phrase “the men” (which is one used by Mary the Mysterious Whisperer) in what Isabella says to Catherine not once but THREE times:

“I think her as BEAUTIFUL as an ANGEL, and I am so vexed with THE MEN for not admiring her!...THE MEN think us incapable of real friendship, you know, and I am determined to show them the difference….Now, if I were to hear anybody speak slightingly of you, I should fire up in a moment: but that is not at all likely, for you are just the kind of girl to be a great favourite with THE MEN."…THE MEN take notice of that sometimes, you know."…

Isabella is Satan trying to tempt Catherine to fall prey to her even more Satanic brother John Thorpe, and so it is no accident that Isabella refers to a “beautiful” “angel”!

And I conclude by pointing out that I checked, and learned that the words of the Mysterious Whisperer (aka Mary Bennet) HAVE been noticed by a handful of Austen scholars, and have been subject to some very interesting analysis by them, but (because none of them found the parallel passages I found, and none of them had any idea of a shadow story in P&P) they were unable to interpret what they had seen the way I have done in this message.

Cheers,
Arnie

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