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

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The "real truth" in Pride and Prejudice

As part of my recent meanderings through Pride and Prejudice, locating passages which are ambiguous in interesting ways, I just stumbled across the _mother_ (or perhaps I should say rather, the _aunt_) of all ambiguous passages in the novel, this one being in Chapter 46. It is directly connected to the others I have been discussing, all having to do, in some way or another, with Mrs. Gardiner's perceptions and conjectures regarding Lizzy and Darcy.

Here it is, it is very short, it occurs right after the Gardiners have been hastily recalled to the Lambton Inn where Lizzy has been reduced to emotional rubble by the one-two punch of reading Jane's letters, and then being unable to avoid blurting out the whole Lydia nightmare to Darcy. Aunt Gardiner is also shocked, and then we read:

"But what is to be done about Pemberley?" cried Mrs. Gardiner. "John told us Mr. Darcy was here when you sent for us; was it so?"

"Yes; and I told him we should not be able to keep our engagement. /That/ is all settled."

"What is all settled?" repeated the other, as she ran into her room to prepare. "And are they upon such terms as for her to disclose the real truth? Oh, that I knew how it was!"

But wishes were vain, or at least could only serve to amuse her in the hurry and confusion of the following hour."

Can you see the humongous, stupefyingly gargantuan ambiguity in this passage?

Hint--think about what Mrs. Gardiner means about Lizzy disclosing "the real truth"? And why does she ask what is "all settled"? Once you come up with _one_ answer, keep thinking about it till you come up with a _second_ answer!

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I believe that almost all Janeites who have read this passage and thought about what Mrs. Gardiner means, have concluded that Mrs. Gardiner is wondering whether Lizzy has disclosed _to Darcy_ the real truth about Lydia's elopement with Wickham, and they are not incorrect, as that is an eminently plausible, indeed compelling interpretation---there would seem to be no reason to look beyond it.

Except....that another interpretation invaded my brain as I reread that passage earlier this evening, while sitting in a medical waiting room killing time on my IPhone, and it was even more compelling--which is that Mrs. Gardiner can, with equal if not greater plausibility, also be read as wondering whether Lizzy is upon such terms with Darcy as to disclose the real truth _to Mrs. Gardiner_, which is the "real truth" of Lizzy and Darcy's (conjectured by Mrs. Gardiner, but not real) _engagement_ be married!

I urge you to go back now and reread the passage a few times, and while doing so keep in mind that both before and after that passage, Mrs. Gardiner explicitly wonders about the nature of Lizzy and Darcy's relationship. In particular, think about Mrs. Gardiner's letter to Lizzy written a few chapters later, in which she quite explicitly expresses her puzzlement to Lizzy as to Lizzy's being in the dark about the resolution of the Lydia-Wickham fracas. And most of all keep in mind the climactic scene of the novel, the confrontation between Lizzy and Lady Catherine, which arises precisely because Lady Catherine believes (as Mrs. Gardiner also believes) that Lizzy and Darcy are........ _engaged_!

Jane Austen is such a mistress of hiding things in plain sight, that she herself, as an author, can get away with "disclosing" the word "engagement" in a sentence concerning Lizzy and Darcy, with all that context, and yet have practically no Janeites for 200 years ever notice the double meaning of "engagement" in regard to them!

By the way, I wrote "practically no Janeites' because, after a diligent search in all my usual nooks and crannies on the Internet, I found no scholarly interpretations to the effect of what I came up with, above, but I did manage to find _one_ non-scholarly but very sharp Janeite who saw the double meaning of "engagement" in Lizzy's words, just as I did, in another discussion group several years ago, so she has priority and I have duly noted this.

So, what do you think?

Cheers, ARNIE


There is one last wonderful irony in the alternative interpretation I have presented, which is that we can upon next _rereading_ of P&P now see a whole new significance in the following passage from Chapter 26:

"In short, my dear aunt, I should be very sorry to be the means of making any of you unhappy; but since we see every day that where there is affection, young people are seldom withheld by immediate want of fortune from entering into _engagements_ with each other, how can I promise to be wiser than so many of my fellow-creatures if I am tempted, or how am I even to know that it would be wisdom to resist? All that I can promise you, therefore, is not to be in a hurry. I will not be in a hurry to believe myself his first object. When I am in company with him, I will not be wishing. In short, I will do my best."

Lizzy was talking about Wickham in Chapter 26, but Aunt Gardiner thought Lizzy was talking about _Darcy_ in Chapter 46!

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