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

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Science of Elective Affinities and Attractions in Pride and Prejudice

I was telling my wife this morning about JA's allusion to the Lavoisier Preface, and made the point that even though the domains of chemistry and romantic love in a novel like P&P are far distant from each other, there can still be resonance between them. At that point, my very clever wife responded that the essence of the romance in P&P is about the "chemistry" that spontaneously arises between Darcy and Lizzy in spite of themselves, as if they were subject to some mysterious attractive force from the realm of physics, like gravity. I knew immediately that she had flashed upon exactly the fresh perspective that would take JA's allusion to Lavoisier to a much more interesting level than I had argued for last night.

As I have delved into the text of both Lavoisier and P&P this morning, I find that this fresh perspective has led to a very rich lode of textual ore, which will take more time than I have during the next few days to do justice to in full. However, I would like to at least give a taste of where it leads.

First, I took note of the following passage from that same Preface by Lavoisier:

"The rigorous law from which I have never deviated, of forming no conclusions which are not fully warranted by experiment, and of never supplying the absence of facts, has prevented me from comprehending in this work the branch of chemistry which treats of affinities, although it is perhaps the best calculated of any part of chemistry for being reduced into a completely systematic body. [Many other chemists] have collected a number of particular facts upon this subject, which only wait for a proper arrangement; but the principal data are still wanting, or, at least, those we have are either not sufficiently defined, or not sufficiently proved, to become the foundation upon which to build so very important a branch of chemistry. THIS SCIENCE OF AFFINITIES, OR ELECTIVE ATTRACTIONS, holds the same place with regard to the other branches of chemistry, as the higher or transcendental geometry does with respect to the simpler and elementary part; and I thought it improper to involve those simple and plain elements, which I flatter myself the greatest part of my readers will easily understand, in the obscurities and difficulties which still attend that other very useful and necessary branch of chemical science."

The ALL CAPS phrase is what I used to construct my Subject Line for this message, and those of you, like Ellen, familiar with contemporary novels JA would have known, will recognize that I have slyly been pointing toward the following (blurb courtesy of Wikipedia):

"ELECTIVE AFFINITIES, also translated under the title Kindred by Choice, is the third novel by Goethe, PUBLISHED IN 1809. The title is taken from a scientific term once used to describe the tendency of chemical species to combine with certain substances or species in preference to others. THE NOVEL IS BASED ON THE METAPHOR OF HUMAN PASSIONS BEING GOVERNED BY THE LAWS OF CHEMICAL AFFINITY, and examines whether or not the science and laws of chemistry undermine or uphold the institution of marriage, as well as other human social relations....Goethe’s main characters are Eduard and Charlotte, an aristocratic couple both in their second marriage, enjoying an idyllic but semi-dull life on the grounds of their rural estate. They invite the Captain, Eduard’s childhood friend, and Ottilie, the beautiful, orphaned, coming-of-age niece of Charlotte, to live with them. The decision to invite Ottilie and the Captain is described as an "experiment" and this is exactly what it is. The house and its surrounding gardens are described as "a chemical retort in which the human elements are brought together for the reader to observe the resulting reaction."

Austen scholars have noted the interesting parallels between the story of Elective Affinities and Mansfield Park, but I have a strong feeling that, when I am done with my followup on this point, I will have found even more interesting parallels between Elective Affinities and P&P--again, because the "affinity" between Lizzy and Darcy is perhaps the greatest and most romantic depiction in all of literature of such a mysterious process in the realm of the human heart.
Sparks flew when my wife and I met 16 1/2 years ago, and our elective affinity has never waned, so it was only fitting that she should make this "gift" to my project on this very point. ;)

Cheers, ARNIE

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