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

Friday, December 30, 2011

“We neither of us perform to strangers": The Dry Wit of Mr. Darcy Amazes....the Attentive Connoisseur?

In the 1997 Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, Rachel Brownstein, beginning at p. 51, discusses Lizzy's teasing of Darcy:

"When Elizabeth, dancing with the silent, awkward Darcy, teases him in Henry Tilney's engaging, disengaged manner ("It is _your_ turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy.--_I_ talked about the dance, and _you_ ought to make some kind of remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples.'), she jokes that they are both 'unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the eclat of a proverb.'

Brownstein goes on to point out that "Mr. Bennet and his favorite daughter do not do all the laughing in this comic novel," as Miss Bingley and Lydia Bennet also dearly enjoy a laugh, in ways that are not so different from Lizzy's laughter. However unlike _their unsavory laughter, Elizabeth is not moved to laughter by gross deviations from arbitrary standards or norms."

Later still, Brownstein goes on to note that although Lizzy enjoys laughing at Darcy in the first half of the novel, by the end "she remembered that he had yet to learn to be laught at, and it was rather too early to begin."

That's all fine, no one would dispute any of those points, but what is curious to me is that there is not a single word in Brownstein's entire essay about _Darcy_ laughing or having a sense of humor. And I have found that Brownstein is pretty typical of Austen scholars in this regard, in giving Darcy no credit for having a sense of humor, either on the giving or the receiving end. Even John Wiltshire, who spoke at the Chawton House conference in July 2009 on the subject of "Mr. Darcy's
Smiles" [which he followed up on with an essay of that title in a collection edited by David Monaghan]--a title which gave promise of some insight into Darcy's sense of humor---does _not_ given even a whiff of a suggestion that Darcy's smiles are evidence of his being a funny guy, either on the giving or the receiving end.

How many Janeites share that opinion with Brownstein and Wiltshire? I suspect, most. But I'd like to suggest that any such opinion is deeply misguided, because it fails to account for one of the many consequences of having so much of the narration in P&P filtered through the often clueless mind of Elizabeth Bennet--I will argue, below, that Darcy's sense of humor is actually _too_ subtle for Lizzy to catch when _he_ is laughing at _her_! I.e., while she has correctly described herself as
wishing to amaze the whole room with "eclat", she has entirely missed the thrust of Darcy's very different--indeed, antithetical--kind of sense of humor, which begins and ends with _understatement_.

What prompted me to articulate this argument was rereading the following exchange in Ch. 17 of P&P, which occurs only a half dozen lines after the scene described by Brownstein, above. Lizzy continues to press her teasing, merry attack on what she perceives to be Darcy's Achilles heel-- his sour, humorless egotism:

[Lizzy] "I do not think we were speaking at all. Sir William could not have interrupted two people in the room who had less to say for themselves. We have tried two or three subjects already without success, and what we are to talk of next I cannot imagine."

"What think you of books?" said [Darcy], smiling.

"Books—oh! no. I am sure we never read the same, or not with the same feelings."

"I am sorry you think so; but if that be the case, there can at least be no want of subject. We may compare our different opinions."

"No—I cannot talk of books in a ball-room; my head is always full of something else."

So where is the wit in Darcy's repartee? I claim that the key clue is that word "smiling", which alerts us to ask ourselves the question that it never occurs to Lizzy to ask herself--why does Darcy suddenly launch into an apparent non sequitur about books, and why does he smile as he asks this question?

The answer should be clear if you reflect back on the following famous conversation at Netherfield not so very long before, in Chapter 8:

"On entering the drawing-room [Elizabeth] found the whole party at loo, and was immediately invited to join them; but suspecting them to be playing high she declined it, and making her sister the excuse, said she would amuse herself for the short time she could stay below, with a book. Mr. Hurst looked at her with astonishment.

"Do you prefer reading to cards?" said he; "that is rather singular."

"Miss Eliza Bennet," said Miss Bingley, "despises cards. She is a great reader, and has no pleasure in anything else."

"I deserve neither such praise nor such censure," cried Elizabeth; "I am not a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things."

The conversation eventually turns to the topic of female accomplishment, and Darcy's opinion about extensive reading as a crucial component thereof, which leads to this outcome:

[Lizzy] "I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any."

[Darcy] "Are you so severe upon your own sex as to doubt the possibility of all this?"

[Lizzy] "I never saw such a woman. I never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe united."

I say that Darcy, very quick on his feet, verbally as well as in dance steps, has decided that one good turn deserves another, and so he turns the teasing tables on Elizabeth, and surprises her with a sudden thrust at _her_ weak point--her discomfort with not being as well read as the truly accomplished woman of Darcy's dreams. In Chapter 8, she said she never saw such a woman, but I think she's been thinking about Darcy's setting the bar so high, and worrying that she does not quite make the cut. After all, she knows she's a country girl, who's never had any formal education, and quick witted and clever as she is, she has never encountered such a formidable sparring partner as Darcy. So, on some level, her attack on Darcy is motivated as much by her own feelings of cultural inferiority, which she keeps trying to stuff down, as by her love of laughing at pretension. The young lady doth protest too much how much fun she's having making fun of Darcy--and I think Darcy's thrust shows that he has grasped this vulnerability on Lizzy's part, and he has
found a way to give as good as he gets.

And so here, seemingly out of the blue, is Darcy laughing at Lizzy---and she doesn't even (consciously) realize it! And, as I suggested above, because she does not realize it, it becomes almost invisible to the reader as well---unless, that is, we pay attention to JA's subtle cues, like that smile of Darcy's that Wiltshire did not decipher.

And in hindsight, this reminds me of one of the many subtle beauties of Colin Firth's portrayal of Darcy---which was largely lacking in David Rintoul's portrayal---i.e., that little twinkle in the eye that tells you that Darcy is not _quite_ as Aspergery as his words might literally suggest. It is not only Caroline Bingley, the desperate flatterer, who finds humor in Darcy's bon mot about Mrs. Bennet as a wit, we do as well.

But Darcy's disingenuous inquiry about Lizzy's attitude toward books shows he is capable of much more subtle, sophisticated understated wit, which is not intended to amaze the room, but achieves its goal if it brings a wry smile to the face of the attentive connoisseur.

In conclusion, then, Elizabeth Bennet is, along with Beatrice, at the top of the comic pantheon of female humor. Darcy, I claim, above, has been vastly underrated for his own subtle sense of humor. And I finish by pointing out the obvious--both Lizzy and Darcy are fictional creatures born out of the imagination of the same awesome comic genius, who could, in this one novel alone, give us three such high-powered examples of wit--Mr. Bennet, Lizzy, and Mr. Darcy, each very different,
but all reflecting the Protean sense of humor of Jane Austen herself.

Cheers, ARNIE

1 comment:

Arnie Perlstein said...

Diane Reynolds responded:

"Elizabeth notes early on that Darcy has "a very satirical eye" and "if I do not begin by being impertinent myself, I shall soon grow afraid of him." So when she appears ostensibly clueless in front of the Darcy who "smiles" as he is, I agree, making a sly, satirical allusion to the former discussion about Lizzy's "bookishness," I would imagine her
response to arise not from cluelessness but a determination not to reveal nervousness."

First, _excellent_ catch, Diane, indeed in that scene at Lucas Lodge in Chapter 6, the subject of Darcy's sense of humor does come up. I half-agree with your take on it. I suggest that it's even more nuanced than you say--here is a fuller textual context, with my comments interspersed, in brackets:

"But if he does it any more [i.e., eavesdrops on Lizzy] I shall certainly let him know that I see what he is about. He has a very satirical eye, and if I do not begin by being impertinent myself, I shall soon grow afraid of him."

[I say it's not clear whether Lizzy _really_ thinks he has a satirical eye, or she is just saying that in a playful way without meaning it. My sense is that _consciously_ she tells herself she's just horsing around,
but _sub_consciously she really has sensed his satirical eye and it's really true, as you suggest, that he makes her nervous, and she does not like that feeling---she has grown up in a house where a man has made a marital career out of watching his wife with a satirical eye, and she's now starting to get an idea of what it feels like to be her mother, and it
ain't fun! Such a subtle scene!]

On his approaching them soon afterwards, though without seeming to have any intention of speaking, Miss Lucas defied her friend to mention such a subject to him; which immediately provoking Elizabeth to do it, she turned
to him and said: "Did you not think, Mr. Darcy, that I expressed myself uncommonly well just now, when I was teasing Colonel Forster to give us a ball at Meryton?"

[So much is implicitly expressed, as Lydia might put it, in the lines
under the words in this rich mysterious text!]

"With great energy; but it is always a subject which makes a lady energetic."

"You are severe on us."

"It will be her turn soon to be teased," said Miss Lucas. "I am going to open the instrument, Eliza, and you know what follows." END QUOTE

We all read that last sentence as Charlotte teasing Lizzy by putting her on the spot to play the piano, and that is a valid interpretation.
However, in a way, JA is _also_ speaking through her creature, Charlotte, and telling us, the readers, that "it will be Lizzy's turn soon to be Darcy as well!"

So I would say that by the time we get to the scene at Netherfield when Darcy reveals his idea of the truly accomplished woman, Lizzy is feeling even more on the spot, more nervous, more insecure about her own accomplishments, than she has ever felt in her life--in the Bennet household, her only competitor in the raillery department was Mr. Bennet, and she is his favourite, so she has never felt like a bug under a microscope before. And Darcy is doing this purposely, I suggest, he enjoys
exercising power over a woman who says "No!" to him, exactly the same way that Henry Crawford gets bored with Maria and Julia throwing themselves at him, and turns instead to the more piquant challenge of making a hole in
the heart of the most virtuous, prudish girl on the planet.

And that's the setup to Darcy's smiling jab of a question about
books---Lizzy is feeling way too nervous and insecure to find any humor in it, or to jab back--she's been wounded by an arrow from Cupid, with a whiff of arsenic on the tip. ;)

Thanks again for the very thought provoking response, Diane!