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

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Jane Bennet sings Les Miz and Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head

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 actually feeling!

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 SINNERS"

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 “repentant”; whereas

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 interestingly,

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 rich husband!

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, as follows:

“…& 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!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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