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

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Did Jane Austen Meet Darcy's Test of Female Accomplishment?



I was just rereading the following immortal passage in P&P for the umpteenth time, when a novel (ha ha) question occurred to me, which I have used as my Subject Line:

[Bingley] "Yes, all of them, I think. They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses. I scarcely know anyone who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time,
without being informed that she was very accomplished."

"Your list of the common extent of accomplishments," said Darcy, "has too much truth. The word is applied to many a woman who deserves it no otherwise than by netting a purse or covering a screen. But I am very far from agreeing with you in your estimation of ladies in general. I cannot boast of knowing more than half-a-dozen, in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are really accomplished."

"Nor I, I am sure," said Miss Bingley.

"Then," observed Elizabeth, "you must comprehend a great deal in your idea of an accomplished woman."

"Yes, I do comprehend a great deal in it."

"Oh! certainly," cried his faithful assistant, "no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved."

"All this she must possess," added Darcy, "and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading."

"I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any."

"Are you so severe upon your own sex as to doubt the possibility of all this?"

"I never saw such a woman. I never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe united."

Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley both cried out against the injustice of her implied doubt, and were both protesting that they knew many women who answered this description, when Mr. Hurst called them to order, with bitter complaints of their inattention to what was going forward. As all conversation was thereby at an end, Elizabeth soon afterwards left the room.

It's my sense that the above passage is, when viewed from a proper metafictional perspective, Jane Austen's very sophisticated authorial version of a (very) indirect boast, because I believe she more  than amply met Darcy's test of female accomplishment, and--here's where the boast comes into it---she KNEW she met the test, and then some.

Elizabeth Bennet, young poorly educated and fairly unsophisticated country girl that she was, was being honest in acknowledging that she never saw  such capacity, taste, application, and elegance combined in one woman---but Jane Austen, long before she published P&P at age 38, had attained that  extraordinary unity. And who knows, maybe Lizzy is  Jane's self  portrait, reflecting back on her own self seventeen years earlier??

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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