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Friday, September 7, 2012

The Mysterious Stuffed Shirt in Katha Pollitt's 1989 poem Rereading Jane Austen

The following 1989 poem by Katha Pollitt has been making the rounds today on the Austen Internet:

Rereading Jane Austen's novels  

This time round, they didn't seem so comic.
Mama is foolish, dim or dead, Papa's
a sort of genial, pampered lunatic.
No one thinks of anything but class.

Talk about rural idiocy! Imagine
a life of tea with Mrs and Miss Bates,
of fancy work and Mr Elton's sermons!
No wonder lively girls get into states –

no school, no friends. A man might dash to town
just to have his hair cut in the fashion
while she can't walk five miles on her own.
Past twenty, she conceives a modest crush on

some local stuffed shirt in a riding cloak
who's twice her age and maybe half as bright.
At least he's got some land and gets a joke –
but will her jokes survive the wedding night?

The happy end ends all. Beneath the blotter
the author slides her page, and shakes her head,
and goes to supper – Sunday's joint warmed over,
followed by whist, and family prayers, and bed.

In Austen-L, the following exchange occurred today between Ellen Moody and Christy Somer: 

Ellen:  I like it but I can't figure out who is the woman who falls in love with the local stuffed shirt?

Christy: Probably…..Mr. Knightley, Ellen. Only two of the heroes in her fictions answer to ‘twice her age’.

Ellen:  I see it's Mr Knightley. Thank you. But who else could it be? who is the other male twice the heroine's age?

I responded as follows:

I don't agree with either of you---I think Pollitt is pointing very slyly to Mr. Darcy, and here's why.

1. As P&P begins, Darcy is a total stuffed shirt, he is in fact the biggest stuffed shirt in the entire Austen canon.

2.  Darcy's got some land (to put it mildly--as we know, seeing his land has quite the impact on Lizzy).

3. Darcy is 6-7 years older than Lizzy, which may not be "twice as old", but is strongly in that direction, given Lizzy's youth.

4.  Lizzy is indeed the only heroine who cracks jokes around the hero all the time, including after they are engaged. But Lizzy, as engaged woman, is already becoming cautious about continuing to tweak Darcy's beard, so to speak.

5. And last but certainly not least, there is a fair question at the end of P&P as to whether Darcy's miraculous, sudden transformation from Mr. Sourpuss to Mr. Easygoing is going to last, especially, as Pollitt so wisely speculates, once the enormous pressure of the sexual attraction he has been feeling for Lizzy for most of the novel has been vented, which will occur (as Pollitt so aptly puts it) on their wedding night. What will happen 18 months later, when he finds himself alone in London on business, while Lizzy is knocked up back at Pemberley with a newborn underfoot as well. It might well be that Lizzy won't be cracking jokes anymore, but will be very worried about what her husband is doing in the great den of dissipation and vice.

So while the one point that is clearly off in Pollitt's precis is that Darcy's every bit as bright as Lizzy, and more knowledgeable than she about a lot of things, the rest fits him like one of Frank Churchill's beaver gloves.


Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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