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

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Another intriguingly ambiguous passage in Ch. 48 of P&P

I have intermittently been following up on my post of several days ago about the passage in Ch. 52 of P&P regarding Lizzy's "pleasure though mixed with regret" regarding her aunt & uncle's perception that she and Darcy were already involved....

http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2011/07/miss-elizabeth-bennet-regrets-web-of.html

... in which I concluded that Lizzy's "regret" was ambiguous, and could be plausibly understood in two very different ways.

In that regard I was just rereading Ch. 48 and came across _another_ passage which I found very difficult--and intriguing-- to interpret, and which, after I worked it out, I _also_ believe to be (intentionally) ambiguous.

But I warn you, this message will only be intriguing to those obsessives (like myself) who enjoy minute analysis of textual intricacy and ambiguity, and are willing to invest sufficient time and attention to get a handle on the intricacy. Otherwise, it will drive you crazy!

Here is the relevant passage in Chapter 48, consisting of two short paragraphs:

"Mrs. Gardiner went away in all the perplexity about Elizabeth and her Derbyshire friend that had attended her from that part of the world. His name had never been voluntarily mentioned before them by her niece; and the kind of half-expectation which Mrs. Gardiner had formed, of their being followed by a letter from him, had ended in nothing. Elizabeth had received none since her return that could come from Pemberley.

The present unhappy state of the family rendered any other excuse for the lowness of her spirits unnecessary; nothing, therefore, could be fairly conjectured from /that/, though Elizabeth, who was by this time tolerably well acquainted with her own feelings, was perfectly aware that, had she known nothing of Darcy, she could have borne the dread of Lydia's infamy somewhat better. It would have spared her, she thought, one sleepless night out of two." END OF EXCERPT

The first paragraph describes Mrs. Gardiner's continuing perplexity regarding the relationship between Lizzy and Darcy, and it all seems very straightforward, except for the curious turn of phrase "Elizabeth had received [no letter from Darcy] since her return that _could come_ from Pemberley".

What I infer from JA's writing "could come" rather than "came" is that Mrs. Gardiner has been quietly _spying_ on Lizzy! Aunt Gardiner for some reason does not want to simply ask Lizzy if she has received any letters from Darcy, and the reason seems to be that Aunt Gardiner does not believe Lizzy will tell her, even if Lizzy _has_ received a letter from Darcy! Think about it.....Aunt Gardiner must have been watching all the mail deliveries like a hawk as they arrive, perhaps also checking in with Hill or the other servants as well, and that is how she knows that Lizzy _could not_ have secretly received any letter from Darcy unbeknownst to the family, or, at least, unbeknownst to Aunt Gardiner.

While we all know that Aunt Gardiner is like a second mother to Lizzy, very loving and involved in her life, and therefore she has every reason to be extremely interested in Lizzy's conjectured secret relationship with Darcy, this strikes a slightly jarring note, doesn't it, to think that Aunt Gardiner would engage in such a covert surveillance operation as this on Lizzy? Keep that in mind as we now turn to the second paragraph, which is where I detect a major ambiguity.


The second paragraph is one of the many passages in P&P that I think JA had very specifically in mind when she wrote to CEA upon publication of P&P:

"There are a few Typical errors--& a 'said he' or a 'said she' would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear--but 'I do not write for such dull Elves As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.'"

This is a case where some ingenuity is required in order to correctly match up each"her" and "she" with the right woman in each instance.

Here is my best attempt at a normative interpretation of the second paragraph, with my attributions and rephrasings in brackets:

"The present unhappy state of the family rendered any other excuse [i.e., explanation] for the lowness of her [i.e., Lizzy's] spirits unnecessary; nothing, therefore, could be fairly conjectured from /that/, though Elizabeth, who was by this time tolerably well acquainted with her own [i.e. Mrs. Gardiner's] feelings, was [therefore] perfectly aware that, had she [i.e., Mrs. Gardiner] known nothing of Darcy, she [i.e., Lizzy] could have borne the dread of Lydia's infamy somewhat better. It would have spared her [i.e., Lizzy], she [i.e., Mrs. Gardiner] thought, one sleepless night out of two."

This passage, as I have decoded it, above, is a kind of syntactical Chinese Box, with Aunt Gardiner first conjecturing that Lizzy understood that Aunt Gardiner believed Lizzy and Darcy were already involved, and therefore (so Aunt Gardiner continues to conjecture about LIzzy's thoughts) Lizzy's sleeplessness over Lydia's elopement must have been _exacerbated_ by Lizzy's knowing that Aunt Gardiner believed LIzzy and Darcy were already involved. Whew!

Very intricate syntactically, but in the end, very straightforward and consistent in terms of the content. Aunt Gardiner is concerned about Lizzy's low spirits, and feels badly that Lizzy's knowing Aunt Gardiner has seen Lizzy and Darcy together--and has been bowled over by Darcy's positive transformation---would make Lizzy now feel even worse, because Lydia's infamy has now closed that door for Lizzy forever. Mr. Bennet jokes about this very point in an insensitive way that makes him quite hateful in that moment, but Aunt Gardiner is the opposite of her brother in law--she is very empathic and feels regret that she has inadvertently added to Lizzy's distress, by its being extended to include Aunt Gardiner, albeit in this totally innocent way. And this empathy is what justifies Aunt Gardiner in her own mind for engaging in a surveillance operation, she worries that somehow Lizzy is getting herself into an intrigue with Darcy that will end badly in some way, and she feels she needs to help Lizzy whether Lizzy asks for help or not.

This straightforward, consistent interpretation is only accessible to the reader who stops and works all of it out step by step, like solving a math equation! Whereas the breeziness of the language inclines almost all readers to blow right by this passage quickly without even noticing the intricacy.

Such is the miracle of P&P--which is both light bright and sparkling, and _also_ Byzantine in its secret complexity, but.....that's not _all_ I see in that second excerpted paragraph!

As a result of my struggles to decode this passage, I was also able to come up with a _second_ interpretation, with a very different, and much more mysterious, meaning, which would go as follows:

"The present unhappy state of the family rendered any other excuse [i.e., explanation] for the lowness of her [i.e., Mrs. Gardiner's] spirits unnecessary; nothing, therefore, could be fairly conjectured from /that/, though Elizabeth, who was by this time tolerably well acquainted with her own [i.e. Mrs. Gardiner's] feelings, was [therefore] perfectly aware that, had she [i.e., Lizzy] known nothing of Darcy, she [i.e., Mrs Gardiner] could have borne the dread of Lydia's infamy somewhat better. It would have spared her [i.e., Mrs. Gardiner], she [i.e., Mrs. Gardiner] thought, one sleepless night out of two."

That second interpretation would turn this paragraph topsy-turvy, from being entirely about Aunt Gardiner's conjectures about Lizzy and Darcy, into an acutely self-conscious meditation by Mrs. Gardiner, in which her somewhat nosy conjectures about Lizzy and Darcy have abruptly morphed into Aunt Gardiner wondering whether Lizzy is, in turn, making conjectures about Aunt Gardiner's low spirits!

In this interpretation, it's as though Aunt Gardiner was concealing something from Lizzy, something that Aunt Gardiner is very upset about, and she is worried that Lizzy might figure it out, or, even worse, might already know about? In this reading, it is Aunt Gardiner, too, and not merely Lizzy, who has been unable to sleep the past two nights, because it is Aunt Gardiner, too, and not merely Lizzy, who is experiencing dread over Lydia's infamy, and Aunt Gardiner believes that Lizzy is aware of Aunt Gardiner's feelings in this regard.

And...for some reason known to Aunt Gardiner but unknown to Lizzy--or to the reader---Lizzy's having a relationship with Darcy is making Aunt Gardiner's ability to bear the dread of Lydia's infamy a _lot_ harder! And perhaps this unknown reason is what really motivates Aunt Gardiner to spy on Lizzy's incoming mail?

And there I will stop......

Cheers, ARNIE

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