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

Friday, September 3, 2010

Miss Eliot and Miss Bennet Regret

In the past week, I've made a variety of claims regarding textual mysteries in various scenes in P&P involving Mary Bennet, including the following two:

1. That it is Darcy who at the Meryton assembly tells Caroline Bingley about "the most accomplished girl in the room" and further that Caroline believes that Darcy is referring to Lizzy Bennet, when he actually mean to refer to Mary Bennet.

2. That it is Mary Bennet who at Longbourn, during the visit there by Bingley and Darcy, whispers twice in Lizzy's ear, and who also takes the fourth seat in the whist game that Darcy plays with Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Long, thereby interfering with Lizzy's being able to speak privately with Darcy.

It is also one of my fundamental tenets that JA often deliberately echoes scenes between her novels, in such a way as to shed light on the shadows of both novels involved. I have now, by my usual means, found scenes strikingly parallel to the above scenes in P&P in two of the three novels that JA wrote from scratch after P&P was published, which do indeed shed light in both directions.

I will begin with the less significant of the two parallels:


In Chapter 29 of MP, we read the following as Lady Bertram and Fanny debrief the previous evening's ball:

"[Lady Bertram] could not recollect what it was that she had heard about one of the Miss Maddoxes, or what it was that Lady Prescott had noticed in Fanny: she was not sure whether Colonel Harrison had been talking of Mr Crawford or of William WHEN HE SAID HE WAS THE FINEST YOUNG MAN IN THE ROOM -- SOMEBODY HAD WHISPERED SOMETHING TO HER; she had forgot to ask Sir Thomas what it could be."

Here we have an example of where a male character at a ball makes an ambiguous comment to a female character about a THIRD attendee at the ball being the local nonpareil in regard to some positive attribute, but the female character is confused as to which of two persons is the intended object of that praise. Plus...a whisper by an unnamed person is the reason WHY the listening female character becomes confused.

I find this very suggestive that JA is filling in the blank for what could have happened at the Meryton assembly to cause Miss Bingley to misunderstand who Darcy was praising.

Furthermore, noting the whisper and the way JA deploys that motif in the scene in Longbourn (which I will be discussing further below), a further question is being raised, implicitly, by JA, as to WHO was the unnamed whisperer in Lady Bertram's ear? Who at the ball (the gender of the whisperer is not stated) might have wished to distract Lady Bertram at that moment, and for what purpose? Interesting question! At the moment, I have no answer, but I will give it further thought.

Regardless of the answer, what IS clear to me is that JA is raising this question for a reason, and is repeating the same cues she deployed in P&P, to alert the reader that this is not a trivial background detail at all.

The second parallel scene I see is, I think, much more significant than the first one described above. When I searched "whispered" in the JA novels other than P&P, I was led to the scene at Uppercross in Chapter 8 of Persuasion, when Anne endures the suffering of watching Wentworth flirt with the Musgrove girls, particularly Louisa, boasting about his naval exploits in response to the eager questions of the girls.

Immediately, I was struck by how parallel that scene is to that very same scene in Chapter 54 of P&P that I described last week. Both Anne Eliot and Lizzy Bennet are aching emotionally, overwhelmed by powerful regret, each feeling they have permanently squandered a precious opportunity for true love by rejecting a proposal from the man they now know they love. And now they are both tortured by being forced to watch the man they each wish they could be with forever, in close proximity, feeling the faint hope that somehow they might repair the damage, but finding themselves unable to find the magic words to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.

I am astonished that I have not seen the parallel before, and also that I cannot recall this parallel ever having been discussed in these groups, or in any scholarly commentaries I have read. After all, isn't a significant part of the reason why P&P and Persuasion are widely considered the most romantic of JA’s novels, precisely because the heroines have this special feeling of regret that the other JA heroines do not have? But how easy it is to overlook the parallel, because we hear repeatedly how Anne rejected Wentworth’s proposal eight years earlier, and how Lady Russell persuaded her to reject him. With Lizzy, the rejection was only a matter of MONTHS earlier, and the only “advice” that Lizzy receives in regard to same are her mother’s expressions of defiant mockery directed at Darcy at Netherfield.
Aside from this powerful thematic parallel, though, what is most remarkable to me is how JA also parallels the WAYS that the heroine is obstructed from getting close to the hero in these scenes at close quarters inside a room. In both cases, whispering by a female character interfere with the heroine’s being able to get comfortable speaking with the hero. In both cases, a seemingly random event keeps them PHYSICALLY separated—in Persuasion, it is Mrs. Musgrove sitting on the couch in between Anne and Wentworth, making it impossible for Anne to even see Wentworth. In P&P it is the whist table Darcy sits at, that Lizzy must watch at a distance. The devil is always in the details, and JA’s attention to such details is always impeccable.

I will not go into all the implications of these parallels, but I believe I have given sufficient evidence to show that JA used a very subtle and large toolkit in order to create her complex, compelling fictions.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: At my address to the JASNA NYC branch on May 1, I outlined how the scene in Chapter 8 of Persuasion in which Wentworth boasts to the Musgrove girls was actually a complex coded conversation among Wentworth, Louisa and Admiral Croft, in which Wentworth covertly vents his anger at Anne, and shows his flirting with Louisa to be motivated by his desire to hurt Anne the way she hurt him by rejecting his proposal eight years earlier. In particular, I pointed out the vulgar sexual overtones of Wentworth’s references to the “OLD ASP”.

I mention this now because I only realized today for the first time, in exactly the same vein, that Mrs. Musgrove is a very sly lady indeed when she says the following:

"Oh! but, Charles, tell Captain Wentworth, he need not be afraid of mentioning POOR DICK before me, for it would be rather a pleasure to hear him talked of by such a good friend."

It never occurred to me till today that the multiple hints that the narrator keeps giving us that Mrs. Musgrove’s grieving for her son are out of proportion to what she has expressed previously are there to alert us that Mrs. Musgrove really isn’t grieving at all, she has an ulterior motive for this sudden obsession!

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