Yesterday, it occurred to me to follow up on my earlier post about Lizzy’s and Darcy’s unconscious attraction in P&P...
...by seeing what came up if I looked at P&P through the lens of “protesting too much”. That is, of course, the very famous line spoken by Queen Gertrude about the Player Queen in the Mousetrap scene in Hamlet, which has come to be the universal idiom to express the idea of a person working extra hard to repress and in effect shout down an idea he or she finds too disturbing. And one brilliant way that Jane Austen shows Lizzy and Darcy being unconsciously attracted to each other is how much they each protest how much they hate the other, over a long stretch of the novel!
As I Googled, I was led to an article I had read a long while ago, Nora Stovel’s “Famous Last Words: Elizabeth Bennet PROTESTS too Much.” The Talk in Jane Austen. Ed. Bruce Stovel and Lynn Weinglass Gregg. Edmonton: U Alberta P, 2002.
Most of this chapter can be read at Google Books, and I urge anyone who is interested in this topic to read the accessible pages, as Stovel beautifully lays out the case, even without recourse to the way JA used wordplay to enhance this theme.
What I will do for the remainder of this post is to focus on JA’s brilliant wordplay in P&P on the word “protest” and its variants, which all supports that overarching motif in the novel:
First, in the following passage in Chapter 14, I think the whole world would agree that Mr. Collins PROTESTS way too much about how wonderful Lady Catherine is—is it possible that he could actually believe a quarter of it, or has this poor man convinced himself of all this in a desperate attempt to avoid consciously acknowledging what a horror she really is?:
“During dinner, Mr. Bennet scarcely spoke at all; but when the servants were withdrawn, he thought it time to have some conversation with his guest, and therefore started a subject in which he expected him to shine, by observing that he seemed very fortunate in his patroness. Lady Catherine de Bourgh's attention to his wishes, and consideration for his comfort, appeared very remarkable. Mr. Bennet could not have chosen better. Mr. Collins was eloquent in her praise. The subject elevated him to more than usual solemnity of manner, and with a most important aspect he PROTESTED that "he had never in his life witnessed such behaviour in a person of rank—such affability and condescension, as he had himself experienced from Lady Catherine. She had been graciously pleased to approve of both of the discourses which he had already had the honour of preaching before her. She had also asked him twice to dine at Rosings, and had sent for him only the Saturday before, to make up her pool of quadrille in the evening. Lady Catherine was reckoned proud by many people he knew, but he had never seen anything but affability in her. She had always spoken to him as she would to any other gentleman; she made not the smallest objection to his joining in the society of the neighbourhood nor to his leaving the parish occasionally for a week or two, to visit his relations. She had even condescended to advise him to marry as soon as he could, provided he chose with discretion; and had once paid him a visit in his humble parsonage, where she had perfectly approved all the alterations he had been making, and had even vouchsafed to suggest some herself—some shelves in the closet up stairs."
And a short time after that, Mr. Collins takes his aversion to novels beyond all reasonable bounds:
"...Mr. Bennet's expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and, except in an occasional glance at Elizabeth, requiring no partner in his pleasure. By tea-time, however, the dose had been enough, and Mr. Bennet was glad to take his guest into the drawing- room again, and, when tea was over, glad to invite him to read aloud to the ladies. Mr. Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but, on beholding it (for everything announced it to be from a circulating library), he started back, and begging pardon, PROTESTED that he never read novels."
So far so good, but now we come to the most peculiar of the usages of “protest” in P&P, three of them in a short space in Chapters 15 & 16, which relate to the otherwise nearly invisible Mrs. Philips (of course the sister of Mrs. Bennet, married to a lawyer). For some reason never explained in the text, Mrs. Philips and Mr. Collins take _quite _ a shine to each other, as you will note. I get the strongest feeling that both Mrs. Philips are protesting way too much about how wonderful they each are, and also how they did not know each other before. Makes me wonder, especially given that Mr. Collins’s mammoth importance in the lives of the Bennets hinges on a point of _law_ that Lady Catherine herself decries, i.e., the entail away from the female line. As I said, it makes me wonder, what sort of communication has there been between Mr. Collins and _Mr._ Philips???
“Mrs. Phillips was always glad to see her nieces; and the two eldest, from their recent absence, were particularly welcome, and she was eagerly expressing her surprise at their sudden return home, which, as their own carriage had not fetched them, she should have known nothing about, if she had not happened to see Mr. Jones's shop-boy in the street, who had told her that they were not to send any more draughts to Netherfield because the Miss Bennets were come away, when her civility was claimed towards Mr. Collins by Jane's introduction of him. She received him with her very best politeness, which he returned with as much more, apologising for his intrusion, without any previous acquaintance with her, which he could not help flattering himself, however, might be justified by his relationship to the young ladies who introduced him to her notice. Mrs. Phillips was quite awed by such an excess of good breeding; but her contemplation of one stranger was soon put to an end by exclamations and inquiries about the other; of whom, however, she could only tell her nieces what they already knew, that Mr. Denny had brought him from London, and that he was to have a lieutenant's commission in the —shire. She had been watching him the last hour, she said, as he walked up and down the street, and had Mr. Wickham appeared, Kitty and Lydia would certainly have continued the occupation, but unluckily no one passed windows now except a few of the officers, who, in comparison with the stranger, were become "stupid, disagreeable fellows." Some of them were to dine with the Phillipses the next day, and their aunt promised to make her husband call on Mr. Wickham, and give him an invitation also, if the family from Longbourn would come in the evening. This was agreed to, and Mrs. Phillips PROTESTED that they would have a nice comfortable noisy game of lottery tickets, and a little bit of hot supper afterwards. The prospect of such delights was very cheering, and they parted in mutual good spirits. Mr. Collins repeated his apologies in quitting the room, and was assured with unwearying civility that they were perfectly needless. As they walked home, Elizabeth related to Jane what she had seen pass between the two gentlemen; but though Jane would have defended either or both, had they appeared to be in the wrong, she could no more explain such behaviour than her sister. Mr. Collins on his return highly gratified Mrs. Bennet by admiring Mrs. Phillips's manners and politeness. He PROTESTED that, except Lady Catherine and her daughter, he had never seen a more elegant woman; for she had not only received him with the utmost civility, but even pointedly included him in her invitation for the next evening, although utterly unknown to her before. Something, he supposed, might be attributed to his connection with them, but yet he had never met with so much attention in the whole course of his life.”
“Elizabeth allowed that he had given a very rational account of it, and they continued talking together, with mutual satisfaction till supper put an end to cards, and gave the rest of the ladies their share of Mr. Wickham's attentions. There could be no conversation in the noise of Mrs. Phillips's supper party, but his manners recommended him to everybody. Whatever he said, was said well; and whatever he did, done gracefully. Elizabeth went away with her head full of him. She could think of nothing but of Mr. Wickham, and of what he had told her, all the way home; but there was not time for her even to mention his name as they went, for neither Lydia nor Mr. Collins were once silent. Lydia talked incessantly of lottery tickets, of the fish she had lost and the fish she had won; and Mr. Collins in describing the civility of Mr. and Mrs. Phillips, PROTESTING that he did not in the least regard his losses at whist, enumerating all the dishes at supper, and repeatedly fearing that he crowded his cousins, had more to say than he could well manage before the carriage stopped at Longbourn House.”
Then in Chapter 20 we have the droll humor of Mrs. Bennet imagining that Elizabeth was protesting too much against Collins’s proposals, as evidence in Mrs. Bennet’s mind that Elizabeth really was attracted to Mr. Collins and that was why she was being so negative on the surface.
“This information, however, startled Mrs. Bennet; she would have been glad to be equally satisfied that her daughter had meant to encourage him by PROTESTING against his proposals, but she dared not believe it, and could not help saying so.”
And next in Chapter 23, we have Mrs. Bennet protesting too much against the assertion that Mr. Collins had just turned around and gotten engaged to Charlotte:
“Elizabeth was sitting with her mother and sisters, reflecting on what she had heard, and doubting whether she was authorised to mention it, when Sir William Lucas himself appeared, sent by his daughter, to announce her engagement to the family. With many compliments to them, and much self-gratulation on the prospect of a connection between the houses, he unfolded the matter—to an audience not merely wondering, but incredulous; for Mrs. Bennet, with more perseverance than politeness, PROTESTED he must be entirely mistaken; and Lydia, always unguarded and often uncivil, boisterously exclaimed: "Good Lord! Sir William, how can you tell such a story? Do not you know that Mr. Collins wants to marry Lizzy?"
But my most favorite of all the usages of “protest” in P&P, the quintessential example, is the following, when Lizzy has finished her first reading of Darcy’s letter, in Chapter 36:
“But when this subject was succeeded by his account of Mr. Wickham—when she read with somewhat clearer attention a relation of events which, if true, must overthrow every cherished opinion of his worth, and which bore so alarming an affinity to his own history of himself—her feelings were yet more acutely painful and more difficult of definition. Astonishment, apprehension, and even horror, oppressed her. She wished to discredit it entirely, repeatedly exclaiming, "This must be false! This cannot be! This must be the grossest falsehood!"—and when she had gone through the whole letter, though scarcely knowing anything of the last page or two, put it hastily away, PROTESTING that she would not regard it, that she would never look in it again.”
There we have Lizzy protesting, in extreme terms, that she would never look at Darcy’s letter again. But how long does “never” last? Only till the next _sentence!:
“In this perturbed state of mind, with thoughts that could rest on nothing, she walked on; but it would not do; in half a minute the letter was unfolded again, and collecting herself as well as she could, she again began the mortifying perusal of all that related to Wickham, and commanded herself so far as to examine the meaning of every sentence. “
There could not be a better example of protesting too much what is already subconsciously known!
And then in Chapter 50, we have Mr. Bennet protesting he will not pay for Lydia’s wedding clothes, but I feel safe in claiming that pretty much all Janeites expect that before the matter is resolved, Mrs. Bennet will prevail on this point, and Mr. Bennet truly will have been protesting too much in the most futile way.
“A long dispute followed this declaration; but Mr. Bennet was firm. It soon led to another; and Mrs. Bennet found, with amazement and horror, that her husband would not advance a guinea to buy clothes for his daughter. He PROTESTED that she should receive from him no mark of affection whatever on the occasion. Mrs. Bennet could hardly comprehend it.”
And finally in Chapter 54, we have the inverse of Lizzy’s short lived protest against rereading and accepting Darcy’s letter, and also of Mr. Collins’s misunderstanding Lizzy’s protests against his proposal, when Lizzy, now desperate for Darcy’s attentions, worries that Darcy would protest against making a second proposal to her.
“Darcy had walked away to another part of the room. She followed him with her eyes, envied everyone to whom he spoke, had scarcely patience enough to help anybody to coffee; and then was enraged against herself for being so silly! "A man who has once been refused! How could I ever be foolish enough to expect a renewal of his love? Is there one among the sex, who would not PROTEST against such a weakness as a second proposal to the same woman? There is no indignity so abhorrent to their feelings!" “
So, I assert that all of the above are a far flung matrix of subliminal textual support for the theme of Lizzy and Darcy protesting too much in their negative responses to each other during the first half of the novel, as Stovel so thoroughly argued in her article, and as I have bolstered with my analysis of how “unconscious” Lizzy is about her own feelings for Darcy.
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