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

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Darcy's Smiles: It takes one to know one

[Tracy in Austen L]: "Anyone in eastern Mass. going to John Wiltshire's talk today? Since I have been a bit obsessively pointing out how often Darcy smiles in the book but not in the P&P films, I'm curious what Wiltshire has to say and why he chose Mr. Darcy's Smile as his topic."

[Ellen in Austen L]: "Tracy, WIltshire's essay is in _The cinematic Jane Austen_ so one could get the answer to your question from that book. But going to a lecture involves much more; I'd feel it a real privilege to hear this man speak. Lucky you"

John Wiltshire was one of the principal speakers at the epic July 2009 Chawton House conference on New Directions in Austen Studies which I was privileged to also speak at, and the topic of his talk was the same as the one he is giving in Boston today. He is an excellent speaker--urbane, witty, and insightful, so I am sure he will do a similarly good job today.

I can't recall the details of what he had to say at Chawton House, but I assume they are pretty much the same as those he expressed about Darcy's smiles in the book Ellen mentioned--his chapter is partially readable in Google Books, not at all in, and I have just reviewed the online-accessible portions of his chapter.

Wiltshire does best, actually, when he endorses Ariane Hudelet's very insightful comments about smiles in JA's novels which are contained in an earlier chapter in that same book, at ppg. 63-4, where she describes how a "...system of communication, looks, smiles, and all other movements constitute a discreet but omnipresent grammar of the relationships between the characters. Jane Austen uses this bodily grammar in a very precise manner, and makes it resonate with verbal language. The two main elements are the look and the smile, boht associated with diverse expressions. They are often associated with adjectives, adverbs or complements which compose a wide range of expressions or intentions....The frequency and diversity of qualifiers is...varied for the term "smile"...We can also find the phrases "with half a smile", or references to 'repressed or hidden smiles", in which expression can be so subtle that it becomes almost imperceptible, and is supposed above all to signal intention, sentiment. can also appear on its own, without qualifiers, and then reader then needs to decode it according to the situation between the characters....So, a great proportion of what is expressed by the characters does not lie just in the words [of dialog], but also in these bodily signs which are inconspicuously disseminated in the text so that the reader hardly notices them. We read them as quickly and unconsciously as stage directions in a play."

What Hudelet does not mention--I'd like to think she'd agree with me--is a factor which I claim DOUBLES the interpretive task of the reader--is that so much of the narration in JA's novels can be read as either (i) objective, or (ii) colored, to varying degrees, by the SUBJECTIVE-and therefore, potentially mistaken--perceptions and judgments of the heroine.

For example, focusing on Darcy's smiles in particular, look at these examples from the text of P&P where the narration makes it EXPLICIT that Lizzy is INTERPRETING Darcy's smile, and therefore is not necessarily correct in her intepretation:

Chapter 10: "MR. DARCY SMILED, but ELIZABETH THOUGHT SHE COULD PERCEIVE that he was rather offended, and therefore checked her laugh. Miss Bingley warmly resented the indignity he had received, in an expostulation with her brother for talking such nonsense."

Darcy has smiled after hearing Bingley's depiction, in farcical terms (Bingley is clever in his own way, to do this requires some wit), of Darcy's greater physical height as making him an "awful object" to Bingley. Lizzy speculates to herself that Darcy has taken offense at Bingley's jesting comments, and is smiling to disguise that feeling. Is she correct? Very likely not. Bingley and Darcy have apparently spent many a Sunday evening together with "nothing to do", and Bingley might very well be alluding discreetly to some particular recent Sunday evening when something happened of significance to them, and Darcy is acknowledging with his smile. Lizzy has no idea, and so she fills in the "blank" with her own interpretation, based on her sense of Darcy as a proud man who does not tolerate teasing very well.

Chapter 32: "It is a proof of your own attachment to Hertfordshire. Any thing beyond the very neighbourhood of Longbourn, I suppose, would appear far"...As he spoke there was a sort of smile, WHICH ELIZABETH FANCIED SHE UNDERSTOOD; HE MUST BE supposing her to be thinking of Jane and Netherfield..."

Of course, the conventional interpretation of this passage upon rereading is that Darcy will shortly be proposing to Lizzy.

But what's most curious about Darcy's smiles in the novel is that the above are the only two smiles of Darcy's where there is any qualifier or nuance attached to it--all his other smiles are "naked" of qualifiers, and therefore are COMPLETELY OPEN to interpretation as to what his smiles mean--they are inscrutable, unless the reader digs behind the story and attempts to penetrate his thought processes.

I conclude by reporting that I did find one particuarly lovely--and, I claim, significant--irony on the subject of Darcy and smiles, which is that Darcy makes two very very famous statements ABOUT another person smiling in the novel--Jane Bennet:

Chapter 3: "...You [Bingley] had better return to your partner and ENJOY HER SMILES, for you are wasting your time with me."

Chapter 4: Miss Bennet he acknowledged to be pretty, but SHE SMILED TOO MUCH.

So here we have Darcy clearly suggesting TWICE that Jane is insincere in her smiling "too much", the implication being that she does so in order to entrap Bingley. Which, given Darcy's own propensity to frequent smiling, makes me think that Darcy lacks the self-awareness to realize that he is guilty of the same "crime"! And a Freudian might go further and suggest that it is DARCY who "doth protest too much" that Jane smiles too much, precisely because his own smiles are not sincere, either, and that he is engaged in a campaign of denial when he asserts:

"disguise of every sort is my abhorrence."

We might interpret this as an unconscious admission by Darcy that he abhors something about his OWN behavior, and attempts to project it out onto a suitable proxy over-smiler, i.e., Jane. I.e., it takes one to know one.

Cheers, ARNIE

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