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Monday, June 6, 2011

The Revd. Benjamin William Portal and.....Mr. Darcy

I continue to examine the fascinating question of the meaning of the allusions to the Revd. Benjamin Portal in JA's fiction and letters. Besides the allusion to Portal in the character of Edmund Bertram which Anielka pointed out last week, and the allusion to Portal in the character of Edward Ferrars which I have pointed out, and then expanded upon, during the past several days, I now see a _third_ Austenian hero as a representation of Portal in Loiterer #30, one of the two solely authored by Portal himself:

Loiterer #30 is a shortish, generally mild philippic on the subject of good and bad conversation, with the latter being broken down by Portal, as to the types of offenders, into two groups, male and female. In reading the following two passages which particularly caught my eye, keep in mind that Portal was 21 when he offered the world the following two pearls of wisdom:

"Perhaps the pleasure of conversation is often exclusive of any actual wit or sense contained in it; for who but has listened with pleasure to the bewitching nothings of a pretty woman, and thought her periods sufficiently rounded by a sweet and voluble utterance, and sufficiently pointed by a piercing eye?"

"But above all in folly is she, whom the weak of both sexes term a /sensible woman /. To complement her is an impeachment of her understanding; to argue with her, an insult to her charms. If a man contradicts him, she openly affronts him; if he assent, she secretly despises him. She is fastidious to shew her judgement, and sarcastic to exercise her wit. If the company is gay, she is all gravity and reserve; if serious, all vivacity and levity; She is invariably careful never to join in the prevailing topic, at which she is ever disposed to sneer, as too superficial, or too profound. — If a character of this description be of an age verging on thirty, and yet of the sisterhood of virgins (which not infrequently happens) she becomes particularly troublesome to the men, whose company she avowedly affects, declaiming on the inanity of her own sex; a preference, for which the one feels little gratitude, and the other little concern. — Such a character is generally a very extensive and excursive reader. Her favourite volume is a thin folio, which takes up much room and contains little matter. One subject is not more /difficult/ to her than another, except as it employs a greater number of pages, and if a sentence be but fairly printed, she seldom finds any /obscurity /. — There is a very literary lady, esteemed a great ornament to our family, who often lays down Reid and Horsley, and runs over the Loiterer without the least remission of the wisdom which on these occasions she summons into her countenance. Under the pressure of most of the mortifications of life, I preserve a tolerable balance of temper; but I confess this circumstance sometimes sways me from my wonted equability."


Portal was all of 21 when he wrote this, so perhaps it might seem unfair to infer that Portal continued to hew to these ridiculously sexist, simple-minded, and condescending attitudes toward women even when he was 32, and JA referred to his good looks in Letter 27 (as I suggested in my earlier post, to tease Cassandra by suggesting Portal as a good match for Cassandra). But that's where the allusions in JA's novels, only one of which (S&S) was published before Portal's early death in 1812, kick in. JA's making fun of Portal in Loiterer #45 is one thing--JA's _still_ making fun of Portal more than two decades later, in novels published right before, and right after, his death, are quite another, they point to the importance of this man in JA's artistic imagination, and in my view it is, on balance, a negative judgment on him as a person.

Anyway, my Subject Line reveals why these passages particularly caught my eye, and I would guess that most Janeites reading this post recognize the same strong echoes of these two passages to the character of Mr. Darcy, to wit:

Darcy is described as being "bewitched" by Lizzy, both her repartee and her fine eyes, and of course Caroline Bingley jokes about Mrs. Bennet as a wit. But note the reversal by JA in P&P. Portal refers to the "bewitching nothings of a pretty woman", suggesting that even an imbecilic woman can be listened to with pleasure by an intelligent sophisticated man, if she is pretty and saucy. Whereas Darcy, jerk that he is at the Meryton assembly, and then again at the ball and in the salon at Netherfield, nonetheless recognizes, and admires, that Lizzy is very intelligent. This is what turns him on, not just her fine eyes, but her sharp and witty tongue. The consciousness raising that Darcy experiences during the second half of the novel has nothing to do with learning to admire a woman's intellect, which he has always found stimulating.

And that brings us to the second, even more telling, excerpt from Portal's Loiterer #30. In Portal's sneering indictment of the "sensible woman", he portrays the dreadful horrors (from his point of view) of a woman who dares to contradict a man's opinion, who frustrates a man's narcissistic need to be yessed to death; a spinster who dares to presume to entitlement to participate in male (i.e., intellectual) conversation. In this context, it is part of the sensible woman's crime that she "is generally a very extensive and excursive reader". Of course, to a man like Portal, this is a form of pollution that is simply not to be borne.

And note, again, the contrast to even the Darcy of the first half of P&P. Darcy is not threatened by a woman who is very well read. Quite the contrary, he famously and emphatically makes that the final and most important attribute of the truly accomplished woman.

These (reversed) correspondences between Loiterer #30 and Mr. Darcy in P&P only add to my claim that JA saw the Revd. Portal as an object worthy of extended and varied criticism.

[I posted the above in Janeites and Austen L, and then, shortly thereafter, posted this followup]


As I just reread my post of a half hour ago under this same Subject Line, I realized one final connecting of dots which I had noted but failed, in my haste, to articulate, i.e., that JA did not wait till publishing the final version of P&P in 1813 to make a veiled allusion to Benjamin Portal's sexist joke about a vapid woman's "bewitching" "piercing eyes". Here's the rest of this little story (which does not require reference to my prior posts to get the gist of).

In a post over this just past weekend, I had taken note of JA's referring to Benjamin Portal in Letter 1 ("His eyes are handsome as ever") and suggested that this was part of JA's teasing CEA about CEA's (not JA) being attracted to Benjamin Portal. I still hold to that interpretation.

However, in light of what I just wrote about Darcy as a reverse image of Portal in my previous post, I now see this reference to Portal's handsome eyes in Letter 1 from 1796 as a _private_ joke shared only with CEA. It was a wink pointing toward Portal's Loiterer #30 essay about "conversation", with its sneer at women's bewitching eyes, an essay which JA and CEA had probably laughed about many times since 1789, whenever Benjamin Portal came up in conversation, or was met by one or both of them in person. So any reference to Portal and attractive eyes would immediately be recognized by CEA as a coded reference back to that familiar old private joke between the sisters.

And, given that I have identified so many instances in JA's letters that we've read together so far, in which JA was veiledly pointing toward First Impressions, which JA appears to me to have been revising from an epistolary novel into the kind of narrative P&P became, on an ongoing basis during 1798-1800, I now also suspect that JA must have chosen to insert that _private_ joke into First Impressions at that very moment, in the form of Darcy's admiration for Lizzy's fine eyes, and how this admiration unnerves the jealous Caroline Bingley.

And clearly, this joke, whether my guess is correct as to when it was inserted into what became P&P, _did_ make the final cut in 1812----just after Portal's death---and became one of JA's most memorable _public_ jokes.

And, stepping back one logical level, I finish by pointing out that this little exegesis is exactly analogous to what I've been claiming recently about JA, in Loiterer #45 with its mockery of the personified "letter F", first sending up Portal, who signed both Loiterer #26 and #30 as "F", and then, over a decade later, recycling that private joke by putting in the very memorable joke about "the letter F" in S&S.


This sort of blending of private and public joke, adapting a private joke with CEA into a memorable public joke in one of her novels, is the quintessence of The Jane Austen Code which JA invented, and I was lucky enough to discover.

Cheers, ARNIE

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