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

Monday, September 24, 2012

What did Lady Catherine stop herself from saying to Lizzy Bennet at Rosings?

 As Lady Catherine cross-examines Lizzy at Rosings about this and that, every Janeite recalls the following exchange as part of it:

"Your father's estate is entailed on Mr. Collins, I think. For your sake," turning to Charlotte, "I am glad of it; but otherwise I see no occasion for entailing estates from the female line. It was not thought necessary in Sir Lewis de Bourgh's family. Do you play and sing, Miss Bennet?" "A little."

"Oh! then—some time or other we shall be happy to hear you. Our instrument is a capital one, probably superior to——You shall try it some day. Do your sisters play and sing?" "One of them does."

We all know this passage, and, aside from noting that Lady C, for all her unpleasant personality traits, is something of a proto-feminist when it comes to property rights, it is a passage that would seem to merit no special attention.

Well, if you read through this message to the end, perhaps you'll agree with me that it's an especially interesting passage. Why? Because, as I was just reading that exchange today for the umpteenth time, for the first time it occurred to me that Lady Catherine never finished _one_ sentence that she started there......and, upon examination and reflection, I think I know _why_ Lady C thought better of her originally intended completion of that sentence--and it's a reason you will want to hear about as well!

Before I go on, though, I will raise two possible answers I _don't_ agree with, and explain why:

First, someone is going to suggest that this is not an incomplete sentence at all, but simply is a reflection of Jane Austen's authorial compliance with the 18th-19th literary convention of not naming real-world names. And, indeed, in P&P itself, we read in several places about the "--Shire" militia, which would seem to support that interpretation.

Except that JA was very fond of reflecting half-completed spoken sentences in exactly the same format as we see in Lady C's speech---indeed, the majority of Miss Bate's spoken sentences are partial sentences, and there is a great deal of mystery as to what endings Miss Bates was so frequently leaving unspoken.....

So, at most, I believe that JA was deliberately playing with that literary convention of unnamed names--in this case, perhaps the name of a particular maker of pianofortes---as an ambiguous cover for a very very explosive completion of that sentence. Read on.....

Second, someone will acknowledge that it was an incomplete sentence, but will suggest that Lady C's original thought was:

"Our instrument is a capital one, probably superior to the instrument at _Longbourn_."

At first, that bland completion would seem to fit the circumstances. After all, Lady C has just been quizzing Lizzy about the _Longbourn_ entail, and Lady C (we learn a minute later) was laboring under the assumption (incorrect, as it turned out) that the Bennet household staff included a governess. So it would fit with that context and that assumption that since Lady C had established that Lizzy played and sang a little, it followed that there had to be a fairly decent pianoforte at Longbourn, and _that_ , therefore, was the very one to which Lady C was about to compare the Rosings pianoforte.

But, I claim, that interpretation crumbles under closer scrutiny and consideration. First of all, isn't it totally out of character for Lady Catherine to think twice about saying _anything_ that pops into her head, let alone to actually _change_, on a dime, what she was going to say? I can't recall any other speech of hers in the entire novel where we get the tiniest suggestion that this could ever occur--quite the contrary, Lady C. repeatedly takes a patent delight in saying _whatever_ she wants to say, to whomever she wants to say it, regardless of whether it might make that person uncomfortable. When we think about the great confrontation in the wilderness at Longbourn in particular, the very notion of Lady Catherine, 25 chapters earlier, being deferential to and solicitous of Lizzy Bennet's delicate class-based feelings--completely absurd!

And that's not all...isn't it also totally out of character for Lady Catherine to consider any valuable object associated with herself--a deity walking on earth---to be even remotely comparable to the same object associated with ordinary human beings?

In particular, is it plausible in any way to imagine that Lady Catherine would use the word "probably" before the word "superior" in that sentence, in describing a pianoforte at the Bennet household in relation to the pianoforte at Rosings?

No, that is even more absurd than Lady Catherine thinking twice. No, there is only one plausible ending to that sentence, it rings out to us from the depths of the text of the novel, like a thundering crescendo, and here it is:

"Our instrument is a capital one, probably superior to the instrument at _Pemberley_" !!!

Contrast that completion in stark contrast to the "straw man" pianoforte at Longbourn.

First, it is _readily_ imaginable that Lady Catherine would have been highly sensitive to delicate points of status superiority between her own estate, Rosings, and the great estate of her late sister Lady Darcy--Pemberley. Lady C would not have blithely dismissed the pianoforte at Pemberley---even she was not so narcissistic as to imagine Rosings to be a greater estate than Pemberley.

And second, we already know that Lady C had an especially generous dollop of personal vanity associated with music:

There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient. And so would Anne, if her health had allowed her to apply. I am confident that she would have performed delightfully. How does Georgiana get on, Darcy?" Mr. Darcy spoke with affectionate praise of his sister's proficiency. "I am very glad to hear such a good account of her," said Lady Catherine; "and pray tell her from me, that she cannot expect to excel if she does not practice a good deal." "I assure you, madam," he replied, "that she does not need such advice. She practises very constantly."

And there we have Lady C. speaking implicitly about that same Pemberley pianoforte.

So....if I am correct, and Jane Austen wished her careful readers to ask the question of my Subject Line, and then to work through the analysis to get to the end point I have reached, the next question is significantly more explosive:

Why in the world would Lady C. have been about to carelessly let slip that she considered it totally _normal_ that Lizzy Bennet would know anything at all about the pianoforte at Pemberley, in order to assess Lady C's comparison?

And...the followup bombshell question rushes upon us---does this strange apparent belief of Lady Catherine regarding Lizzy Bennet being familiar with the Pemberley pianoforte have anything to do with the most famous crux in all of Jane Austen's novels---i.e., who fed Lady Catherine the false gossip about Lizzy and Darcy being engaged, which famously boomeranged into their becoming actually engaged?

I will briefly reopen Pandora's Box and provide the answer to that last question first provided by Kim Damstra in the late 1990's, and then later independently rediscovered by myself in 2004, with about an 80% correspondence between his and my textual clues that led us both to the same basic conclusion--that answer being _Charlotte_ _Lucas_.

But as neither Kim Damstra, myself, nor anyone else, has previously noticed Lady Catherine's incomplete sentence before I did so this evening, it adds a burst of fuel to the fire----here, in Chapter 29, almost half a novel earlier, we have evidence that Lady Catherine thinks better of revealing that she sees Lizzy Bennet in her mind's eye charming the shades of Pemberley with her singing and playing!

Is it possible that Aldous Huxley really was onto something when he, in the screenplay for P&P1, shows us a Lady Catherine who is actually a deliberate but covert matchmaker between Lizzy and Darcy?

I told you it was something you'd want to read to the end!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


Arnie Perlstein said...

After I posted the above in Janeites & Austen L, I received the following interesting response from Meg Case....

Meg: "Every time I've ever read this passage, I've filled in the blank with "Pemberley." (It just fits so perfectly everything we know about Lady Catherine's pride. I loved Arnie's explanations along those lines.) But I don't think LC stops in mid-sentence because she suspects any attachment between Lizzie and Darcy.
The way I read it, it's Lady C's very smugness (i.e., her certitude in her uncontaminated classist world) that stops her in mid sentence. One doesn't insult family with such comparisons, especially family with whom one intends to inter-marry.
Arnie already canvassed that line of thought. But consider further.
Further Interpretive Grist that LC doesn't suspect a LIzzie-Darcy attachment early:
(1) Lady Catherine's assumption that Darcy will marry her daughter is so smugly solid.
(2) If LC suspected she would be pre-disposed to dislike Lizzie. Instead, she is so generally non-threatened & non-threatenable early on. Her reactions to Lizzie are based on the natural sparks between two such dissimilar personalities. It's this contrast that makes the later Longbourne scene so jolly. Moreoever, LC's discomfort with Lizzie is directly in reaction to Lizzie's own startling pronouncements (about younger sisters being "out" before eldest are married, and so on). There's no "extra" venom early on. (This explains why the venom grows -- but not as much as it would if she suspected anything -- as Lizzie continues to spark against LC's classist / inhumane assumptions.)
(3) Dramatic Irony: We readers know there's something a brewin'. But LC doesn't. Ah the fun.
(4) Add psychological acuity to dramatic irony. LC's utter shock later (when she harangues Lizzy at Longbourne) shows all the signs of someone in the early throes of cognitive dissonance.
That contrast between LC's early self-satisfied pride and her later flustered & angry prejudice is what makes the Longbourne scene so delicious.

I then responded to Meg as follows:

So if I am understanding you correctly, Meg, you think that LC stops mid-sentence because she realizes that it would be impolitic to insult Darcy by letting slip that she thinks she's got a better piano at Rosings than the one he's got at Pemberley--and she believes she's got the best, due to her own impeccable discriminating taste in all things, right? If I've heard you right, then I grant you, you have indeed provided a plausible alternative explanation for even the likes of a Lady C deciding to stop mid-sentence, as to which Lizzy's involvement is only incidental. gut tells me that Lizzy is _not_ peripheral, and that Jane Austen has deployed this particular "interrupted sentence" for an additional, covert purpose---and I think that is especially so when the
novel is being REread, and the reader already knows that Lady C at some point or another during the ensuing 25 chapters is going to act and speak as if Lizzy and Darcy are engaged. All my experience of long distance linkages within JA's novels tells me that we are meant to connect these disparate dots, and to try to make sense of the connection.

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to note how long after this Darcy actually buys [Giorgiana] a new pianoforte