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Monday, August 13, 2012

Sir Walter Scott's Skeptical Reading of Pride & Prejudice

Today in Janeites and Austen-L, Anielka Briggs wrote the following:

"I'm sorry to disappoint you, Elissa but [Darcy] is blacker than black....The year was 1975, the antagonist was my mother. Swiftly joined by my sister in 1981, the two waged a continual war of attrition on my firmly held belief that Darcy was a thoroughly unpleasant man and EB had sold out in order to marry him. And good luck to her."





I responded as follows:

For those who are unaware (and/or for those, like Nancy, who think that some modern subtexters, like me, read too much into JA's writing) the first reader of P&P to suggest in print that Lizzy Bennet sold out in order to marry Darcy was actually Sir Walter Scott, way, way, way back in 1816 (or only 3 years after the publication of P&P!):

".....The story of the piece [P&P] consists chiefly in the fates of the second sister, to whom a man of high birth, large fortune, but haughty and reserved manners, becomes attached, in spite of the discredit thrown upon the object of his affection by the vulgarity and ill-conduct of her relations. The lady, on the contrary, hurt at the contempt of her connections, which the lover does not even attempt to suppress, and prejudiced against him on other accounts, refuses the hand which he ungraciously offers, and does not perceive that she has done a foolish thing until she accidentally visits a very handsome seat and grounds belonging to her admirer. They chance to meet exactly as her prudence had begun to subdue her prejudice; and after some essential services rendered to her family, the lover becomes encouraged to renew his addresses, and the novel ends happily.....

...[Scott’s concluding paragraph] One word, however, we must say in behalf of that once powerful divinity, Cupid, king of gods and men, who in these times of revolution, has been assailed, even in his own kingdom of romance, by the authors who were formerly his devoted priests. We are quite aware that there are few instances of first attachment being brought to a happy conclusion, and that it seldom can be so in a state of society so highly advanced as to render early marriages among the better class, acts, generally speaking, of imprudence. But the youth of this realm need not at present be taught the doctrine of selfishness. It is by no means their error to give the world or the good things of the world all for love; and before the authors of moral fiction couple Cupid indivisibly with calculating prudence, we would have them reflect, that they may sometimes lend their aid to substitute more mean, more sordid, and more selfish motives of conduct, for the romantic feelings which their predecessors perhaps fanned into too powerful a flame. Who is it, that in his youth has felt a virtuous attachment, however romantic or however unfortunate, but can trace back to its influence much that his character may possess of what is honourable, dignified, and disinterested? If he recollects hours wasted in unavailing hope, or saddened by doubt and disappointment; he may also dwell on many which have been snatched from folly or libertinism, and dedicated to studies which might render him worthy of the object of his affection, or pave the way perhaps to that distinction necessary to raise him to an equality with her. Even the habitual indulgence of feelings totally unconnected with ourself and our own immediate interest, softens, graces, and amends the human mind; and after the pain of disappointment is past, those who survive (and by good fortune those are the greater number) are neither less wise nor less worthy members of society for having felt, for a time, the influence of a passion which has been well qualified as the "tenderest, noblest and best."

I have not read any of Scott's novels, but I love Scott's above-quoted drolly ironic critical writing, he shows himself to be an extremely acute reader of JA's subleties. In particular I love the brilliantly witty cynical epigrammatism of "They chance to meet exactly as her prudence had begun to subdue her prejudice"!!-- it is positively....Austenian!

And he concludes his longish essay (in which he has a number of other interesting things to say about JA's writing) with the second above quoted paragraph,  and my favorite line in it is:

"before the authors of moral fiction couple Cupid indivisibly with calculating prudence, we would have them reflect, that they may sometimes lend their aid to substitute more mean, more sordid, and more selfish motives of conduct, for the romantic feelings which their predecessors perhaps fanned into too powerful a flame."

I love that he detects in the climax of P&P a long overdue curative for circulating libraries full of novels which flame over with gushing romantic endings---but he also understands that JA is not at the other extreme, suggesting that marriage is _only_ about money, but that JA has avoided both extremes, and has presented a balanced, nuanced portrayal of the marriage dance in which shades of grey prevail, and intelligent readers must be on their toes to avoid  either extreme.


To the best of my knowledge after diligent research, among those modern Austen scholars who have commented on Scott's above quoted verdict on the hero and heroine of P&P, none has agreed with Scott's Audenesque appraisal of Darcy and Elizabeth---some, staggered by the implications of what he was suggesting, have concluded that _he_ was just kidding. And all the others have concluded that he was just plain wrong.

Whereas I think Scott knew exactly what he was saying and I also believe he was spot-on in discerning that JA intended her readers to look a whole lot more skeptically at Lizzy's "joking" about falling in love when she first saw Pemberley.  As JA (and Scott) well understood, sometimes people kid themselves into thinking they're only joking, when they're really not joking at all, but are confessing an inconvenient or painful truth without having to be honest (with themselves or with others) about it.

Is Lizzy only joking? _That_, as Hamlet might have said, is the question.....JA wanted her readers to struggle with!


Anielka wrote: "It is our own black hearts that relish the story of the underdog raised to power, glory, wealth and even earthly happiness. We are all luxurious by our wealth and greedier still**. Austen knew it and allows us to deceive ourselves. ... **Milton, of course. Shakespeare is so 2011, people."

Anielka, indeed, that is absolutely true that Austen constantly allows us to deceive ourselves...and yes, it's also true that Satan (and also Comus, as I believe you were hinting in your first post in this thread) are lurking there quietly in the enigmatic mind of Mr. Darcy as well.......but I hope you are kidding about Shakespeare, given that Shakespeare never had a bigger fan than Milton himself!

Cheers, ARNIE
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