Two of my most favorite domains of interpretation of JA's writing happily converge in this post:
1. her frequent, but mostly veiled, allusions to the Bible, Anglican
liturgy & theology, and sermons and prayers related thereto; and
2. her frequent exploitation of the ambiguity of words in order to
reflect the ambiguity of human experience.
And my topic for today, which combines both of those strands in a
particularly interesting way, is the word "miserable" and its variants
(such as “misery”), as they appear in JA's writings. The "punch line" at
the end of this post is worth the wait, I promise you!
This topic became salient to me as I continued to read along VERY slowly
in the last volume of P&P, trawling for textual subtleties which might
have eluded me during previous faster and/or fragmented rereads.
Yesterday it was the phrase “thinking so ill” that caught my eye, and
today I came to another abrupt halt at the following paragraph in
Chapter 49, which contains the word "miserable" which I have put in all
caps (and hence the first part of my playful Subject Line):
"If [Mr. Bennet] were ever able to learn what Wickham's debts have
been," said Elizabeth, "and how much is settled on his side on our
sister, we shall exactly know what Mr. Gardiner has done for them,
because Wickham has not sixpence of his own. The kindness of my uncle
and aunt can never be requited. Their taking her home, and affording her
their personal protection and countenance, is such a sacrifice to her
advantage as years of gratitude cannot enough acknowledge. By this time
she is actually with them! If such goodness does not make her MISERABLE
now, she will never deserve to be happy! What a meeting for her, when
she first sees my aunt!"
I was caught up short because I could not make sense of Lizzy's
speculations about Lydia’s becoming extremely distressed or unhappy (the
definition of "miserable" in modern English). Why would Lydia’s being
the beneficiary of the goodness of the Gardiners in keeping her at their
home during the banns prior to Lydia's wedding to Wickham make Lydia
very unhappy, such that Lydia would thereby deserve to be happy? Yes, we
know that Lydia, by her own report after the fact, was “miserable” about
being confined in virtual house arrest at the Gardiner’s London
home---but Lydia’s unrepentant misery clearly was not the sense of
“miserable” Lizzy had in mind—quite the opposite, it was a misery that
rendered her most UNdeserving of happiness.
And that anomaly was my clue to realize that there had to be some
alternative meaning of the word "miserable" in Lizzy’s mind, which
_would_ make sense in the above context. Examination of the context
provided by the entirety of Lizzy's speech, and further reflection on
Lydia’s having not a repentant bone in her body, led me to suss it out,
i.e., “miserable” must, in Lizzy's mind, have meant something like
_repentant_ or _penitent_---the exact opposite of what Lydia was
And that’s what Lizzy meant---if observing the goodness, and willingness
to sacrifice, on the part of the Gardiners, was not enough to shame
Lydia into an epiphany as to the error of her reckless, sinful ways, and
to repent for them, then Lydia would _never_ be worthy of happiness in
marriage to Wickham.
It was clear by this point that I had wandered into the realm of
Christian theology, and then the phrase "miserable sinner" popped into
my head. Some quick Googling confirmed to me that this was indeed a
phrase that would have been on the lips of many practicing English
Christians during JA’s lifetime, as in the phrase repeated a dozen times
in the Litany in the Book of Common Prayer....
"O God the [various laudatory adjectives]: have mercy upon us MISERABLE
And the following passage is also representative of recommended prayers
from JA’s lifetime in connection with confession of sins:
"Look on me with the eyes of mercy, O God, and blot out all my sins;
forgive me what is past, and through the bowels of thy infinite
goodness, secure me by thy most efficacious grace, against all my wonted
failings for the time to come. O how slothful and careless have I
hitherto been! I have deferred my REPENTANCE, rejected thy helps,
contemned thy visits, been deaf to thy calls; and now, Lord, what shall
I do? and what course shall I take? It truly grieves me from the bottom
of my heart that ever I have offended thee; but do thou vouchsafe to
have mercy on me. Sovereign Lord of my life, behold thou seest there is
nothing good in me, nor health in my soul: I am MISERABLE and blind; and
without thee, O God, I can do nothing."
So, perhaps surprisingly to some, the irreverent Lizzy Bennet, for all
that she modestly claimed not to be a great reader, was channeling some
of her own religious learning, standing in moral judgment on her wild
little sister Lydia!
Of course the next question I had was, how is the word “miserable” used
in the _rest_ of JA’s writings? To lay out all the textual evidence I
gathered today in this regard would mean a _very_ long post, but it will
suffice to summarize that evidence as follows:
ONE: Lizzy’s rumination about Lydia is the _only_ usage I found in all
of JA’s writings which only makes sense with the religious meaning of
TWO: There are about two dozen usages of“miserable” and “misery”
scattered through all the novels (but with the greatest concentration,
not coincidentally, in the theologically-drenched Mansfield Park) which
use that word _only_ in the modern non-theological sense; but, most
THREE: In about a dozen instances, there is ambiguity, i.e., the word
“miserable” can plausibly be read to have either the modern meaning _or_
the religious meaning!
So, for example, coming back to P&P, look at the following little bit of
narration in the _first_ volume of P&P describing Mrs. Bennet's feelings
about Jane's illness while being nursed at Netherfield:
"Had she found Jane in any apparent danger, Mrs. Bennet would have been
very MISERABLE; but being satisfied on seeing her that her illness was
not alarming, she had no wish of her recovering immediately, as her
restoration to health would probably remove her from Netherfield."
I would wager that pretty much all Janeites read this passage to mean
that Mrs. Bennet, like any worried mother, would have been very upset
and distressed had she found Jane very sick at Netherfield. However, it
deepens our sense of Mrs. Bennet’s character, and takes her out of the
realm of cliché or caricature, if we _also_ think about her feeling
_repentant_ about having coerced Jane into an exposed ride to
Netherfield in the pouring rain, thereby (as Mr. Bennet so accurately
observes) nearly costing her eldest daughter her life, in pursuit of a
If we take that latter meaning, Mrs. Bennet’s ordinary maternal distress
would be increased exponentially, to refer to her strong feelings of
remorse if Jane was dying because Jane had obeyed her mother’s insistent
demands to expose herself to a serious health risk!
And there are, as I said, about a dozen such passages, in total,
scattered through all of JA’s novels, which, similarly, take on
surprising additional significance, when the religious sense of
“miserable” as “repentant” is plugged into the text, as an additional
layer of description of the experience of the “miserable” character.
In conclusion, it makes perfect sense that the ultra-literate daughter
of an ultra-literate country clergyman, Revd. Austen, whose library at
Steventon perhaps rivaled the fictional library of Mr. Bennet at
Longbourn, would be just the author to play with this ambiguity between
the secular and religious meanings of a common word, “miserable”.
And by the way, if you were wondering, there are also a handful of
usages of that word in JA’s _letters_, and one of them, it turns out, is
startlingly and significantly altered in meaning by that same ambiguity.
To wit: Letter 59, 10/14-15/08 to CEA, written upon the tragic occasion
of the death in childbirth of Elizabeth Austen Knight, reads, in part,
“…& poor Edward restless in MISERY**going from one room to the
other…perhaps not seldom upstairs to see all that remains of his
Elizabeth—Dearest Fanny must now look upon herself as his prime source
of comfort, his dearest friend…”
Surely all Janeites who’ve read that passage about Edward’s “misery”
have interpreted that misery as describing the predictable grief of any
husband upon the sudden death, in agony, of any prematurely deceased
wife. But I believe, based on the ambiguous usages of “miserable” and
“misery” in JA’s novels, that JA, in October 1808, intended it to also
include that added layer of “repentance”. I.e., JA’s moral judgment was
that Edward’s expected grief ought to have been magnified by his
knowledge that Elizabeth had died because _he_ had made her pregnant for
the dozenth time during her all-too-short life! This interpretation is
especially likely in light of JA’s well documented hobby horse about
women dying in childbirth which I have written about countless times,
and which, I’ve asserted for over three years now, is the core theme of
the shadow story of Northanger Abbey and its ghostly heroine, Mrs. Tilney.
And so, in a very real sense, Edward Austen was the “Mrs. Bennet” of
this real life horror story, having been the reckless instigator of his
wife’s premature death, and Elizabeth was the victimized “Jane”! And, as
I write this, it gives me a shiver to connect the dots from this textual
interpretation to another longstanding interpretation, whereby a woman
getting caught in the rain was a Freudian metaphor (entirely intentional
on JA’s part) for a woman getting pregnant! So, this ambiguity of the
word “misery” supports the claim I made to the SW California branch of
JASNA last December, which is that Jane Bennet’s “illness” was caused by
“rain” which dropped from a man, not from the sky--and hence the second
part of my cryptic Subject Line!
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter
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