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

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Veiled Allusion to Twelfth Night in Jane Austen's Letter 85....and Pride & Prejudice!: Make of it WHAT YOU WILL

In the above three posts by me posted in my blog during the past two weeks, I outlined different aspects of my argument that "Mrs. Bingley's portrait" (as described in detail by Jane Austen in Letter 85 written in late May, 1813, four months after publication of P&P) was intended by Jane Austen (1) to wink at Jane Bennet as a representation of both the notorious Regency Era courtesan Harriette Wilson and also a Mrs. Quentin (or Quintin), a mistress of the Prince Regent, and also (2) to wink at Mr. Darcy as a representation of the Prince himself.

[While those three posts will provide interesting background for what I will discuss, below, it is not necessary to read them first in order to follow my below argument.]

One point I followed up on after the above 3 posts was to attempt to "decode" Jane Austen's (to me, obviously) hinting & teasing comments about colors in that portrait, as follows:

" Mrs. Bingley’s is exactly like herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a WHITE gown, with GREEN ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that GREEN was a favorite colour with her. I dare say Mrs. Darcy will be in YELLOW.”

Everything I've learned over the past decade about what I call "the Jane Austen Code" was telling me that Jane Austen, somehow, some way, was hinting and winking to CEA about those colors in an allusive code, i.e. ,where the colors mentioned were clues pointing to some allusive source known to both Austen sisters, which would, when identified, shed additional light on the aforementioned subtextual pointing in P&P to the Prince Regent and two of his illicit sexual partners.

And so, I started Googling various combinations of the words "yellow" and "green" in conjunction with some of JA's frequent, tried and true, allusive sources. So it did not take me long to Google the following search term combination:

yellow + green + Shakespeare

And when I did, look where Google took me on a magic carpet ride at the speed of light: Twelfth Night Act 2, Scene 4:

Duke Orsino and Viola (cross dressed in disguise as Cesario) are debating the relative strength of love in men and women, and then we read the following speech by Viola, in answer to Orsino's question as to the history of the daughter of Viola's father---of course referring, in code, to herself:


A blank, my lord. She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i' the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought,
She sat like patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?
We men may say more, swear more: but indeed
Our shows are more than will; for still we prove
Much in our vows, but little in our love.

Many, if not all, of you reading this will probably respond by pointing out that this is surely a coincidence, as yellow and green are the _extremely_ common names of extremely common colors. And, if all I was relying on were the juxtaposition of the above description of "Mrs. Bingley" in Letter 85 with the above description of "Viola's daughter" in Twelfth Night, then I'd be the first to agree with you--that'd be quite a stretch.

But that is far, far from all I am relying on, and I will briefly outline for you now what an extraordinarily unlikely coincidence this juxtaposition actually is:

First, I immediately recognized that the above speech by Viola is one which JA _explicitly_ alluded to in Northanger Abbey, Chapter 1, where we read about Catherine Morland's home "library":

"And from Shakespeare she gained a great store of information — amongst the rest, that —….a young woman in love always looks —“like Patience on a monument“Smiling at Grief.”

What's noteworthy is that the narrator of NA makes a very misleading interpretation of Viola's speech, because Viola, in full context, is saying that only a young woman whose love is _unrequited_ (like her own) will look this way. JA has deliberately misled the reader here, and does so by omitting the previous four lines.

Second, I also recalled that many Austen scholars have noted that the above speech by Viola is also _implicitly_ alluded to in the penultimate chapter of Persuasion by Anne Elliot in her famous debate with Harville about the differences between the way men and women love, and surely those Austen scholars are correct.

So, this establishes first that Jane Austen not only knew the above speech by Viola very well--well enough to cleverly and deliberately _mis_interpret it--- it was (if memory serves me right) the only passage in all of Shakespeare which is alluded to _twice_ in Jane Austen's novels. So this is not just Shakespeare in JA's constitution, as Henry Crawford suggested, but Shakespeare in JA's heart of hearts.

And finally, getting back to Jane Bennet, does not "Patience on a monument, smiling at grief" describe Jane to a "T" (or perhaps better, a "V"?) during the entire long middle section of the novel? In the conventional reading of P&P, Jane pines for Bingley's love until all hope is gone, before it is rekindled. And, to show how obsessively careful JA was about using particular words to reinforce veiled allusions, the word "patient" is used to describe Jane in several instances in P&P, but the word "_im_patient is used numerous times to describe Lizzy, Lydia and Mrs. Bennet---but _never_ Jane. So, is that striking parallel between the character of Viola (who does not reveal her love to Orsino) and Jane (who does not reveal her love to Bingley) just a coincidence too?

But that's only the beginning.

Next, I immediately recalled that some Austen scholars had preceded me in noting that there is a _thinly_ veiled allusion to Twelfth Night in Chapter 9 of P&P:

"And so ended his affection," said Elizabeth impatiently. "There has been many a one, I fancy, overcome in the same way. I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love!"
"I have been used to consider POETRY AS THE _FOOD_ OF LOVE," said Darcy.
"Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away."

Even the tinniest of ears can hear the allusion to the first three lines in Duke Orsino's speech which is the very first and most famous speech in Twelfth Night:

Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.

But what those Austen scholars did not realize, but I did several years ago, was that the allusion to Twelfth Night began in the paragraph immediately preceding Darcy's and Lizzy's famous exchange:

"I do not like to boast of my own child, but to be sure, Jane—one does not often see anybody better looking. It is what everybody says. I do not trust my own partiality. When she was only fifteen, there was a man at my brother Gardiner's in town so much in love with her that my sister-in-law was sure he would make her an offer before we came away. But, however, he did not. Perhaps he thought her too young. However, he wrote some verses on her, and very pretty they were."

It was several years ago that the idea popped into my head that the unnamed older suitor of Jane Bennet who "wrote some pretty verses on her" was none other than.......Mr. Darcy himself! Crazy? So imagine my delight this past week when I realized that the veiled allusion to Twelfth Night that I discerned in Letter 85's references to "Mrs. Bingley's portrait" were so perfectly in alignment with the veiled allusion to Twelfth Night that I discerned several years ago in Ch. 9 of P&P!

But, if veiled allusion be the food of the Jane Austen Code, read on......because there is even more!


In P&P, Mr. Collins, at least when writing to Mr. Bennet, is particularly fond of one particular symbol--an olive branch--in two different letters spread widely apart in the novel:

First, we read the following earlier in the novel:

[Mr. Collins writes to Mr. Bennet] "...As a clergyman, moreover, I feel it my duty to promote and establish the blessing of peace in all families within the reach of my influence; and on these grounds I flatter myself that my present overtures are highly commendable, and that the circumstance of my being next in the entail of Longbourn estate will be kindly overlooked on your side, and not lead you to reject the offered OLIVE-BRANCH...." and then we read: "In point of composition," said Mary, "the letter does not seem defective. The idea of the OLIVE-BRANCH perhaps is not wholly new, yet I think it is well expressed."

Then, much later, Mr. Bennet reports on another letter received from Mr. Collins:

"The rest of his letter is only about his dear Charlotte's situation, and his expectation of a young OLIVE-BRANCH.

So what, you say? Well, is it just coincidence that _Viola_ speaks the following line to Olivia (yes, OLIV-IA!) in Twelfth Night, Act 1, Scene 5, explaining the mission she's come to Olivia for, on Orsino's behalf:

"It alone concerns your ear. I bring no overture of war, no taxation of homage: I hold THE OLIVE in my hand; my words are as full of peace as matter."

Just coincidence again? Sure, there are _other_ sources for Mr. Collins's olive branch--in the Bible, in Richardson's novels---but I have learned that JA was particularly fond of _layered_ allusive symbols, which echo down through the literary millenia.

So I suggest that JA has here given us a _third_ broad wink and hint that Twelfth Night is alluded to in a pervasive way in P&P, and the particular parallel to observe is Viola and Orsino, vis a vis _Jane_ and Darcy.

And that is a very good place to stop--of course this is only the first part of a multi-stage argument in support of the intentionality of this allusion by JA, but I've given enough to those who read literature as I do, to savor the miracle of the Jane Austen Code.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: I just checked in my files, and see that Jocelyn Harris wrote the following in a 2010 article about the great 18th century actress Dorothy Jordan and the ways Harris believed JA alluded to the great Shakespearean heroines played by Jordan, including (who else?) Viola from Twelfth Night:

"[Charles Lamb wrote] There is no giving an account of how she delivered the disguised story of her love for Orsino. It was no set speech, that she had foreseen, so as to weave it into an harmonious period . . . but, when she had declared her sister’s history to be a ‘‘blank,’’ and that she ‘‘never told her love,’’ there was a pause, as if the story had ended _ and then the image of the ‘‘worm in the bud’’ came up as a new suggestion _ and the heightened image of ‘‘Patience’’ still followed after that, as by some growing (and not mechanical) process, thought springing up after thought, I would almost say, as they were watered by her tears. (Hogan 5.1.cxxi)
Like Viola (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night 29.971), Elizabeth cannot tell her love. Her mother’s attack on Darcy consequently causes her a ‘‘misery of shame’’, Lady Catherine’s visit forces her into ‘‘a little falsehood’’, and her father’s raillery mortifies her most cruelly (Pride and Prejudice 337, 359, 363_64). And if the disguised Viola says to Orsino, ‘‘I am a Gentleman’’ (Twelfth Night 5.554), Elizabeth says to Lady Catherine, ‘‘I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal’’ (Pride and Prejudice 356). Like Jordan, then, Elizabeth combines the arch and the serious. She hopes she never ridicules what is wise or good, even as she teases Mr Darcy (57). Her vivacity is always underpinned with heartfelt sentiment, like Jordan’s.When Mr Bennet reminds her that she has always hated Darcy, she replies with tears in her eyes, ‘‘I do, I do like him’’, and, ‘‘I love him’’ (376)."

I would suggest that Viola is indeed alluded to in the character of Lizzy in one way of reading P&P, but in the character of _Jane_ in the other way of reading P&P!


Diane said...


Bravo. Excellent. I had honed in immediately to the green and yellow in letter 85 as alluding to something--good job with the sleuthing and teasing out a meaning--I would say "the" meaning, but with JA we usually, as you well know, find layers. A trace back to Shakespeare, however, is always a good idea with her!

A quibble and a question: I think you're stretching things to equate the olive branch directly to Olivia--and you don't need that for your argument. The question: when did Lamb, always so perceptive, write his comments?

I look forward to reading your book.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Diane, I have a good answer to your good question, and will post a new post later tonight.