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

Sunday, June 9, 2013

"have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?"

"have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?"

It just occurred to me yesterday, after umpteen readings of Pride & Prejudice, that it is very odd that nobody (not the narrator, nor any character) ever says a single word about who lived at Netherfield prior to Bingley's renting it.

It appears from the words "at last" that Netherfield has been vacant for a while (unless Mrs. Bennet is being hyperbolic, and that for her in her impatience for a single man of good fortune to show up in the neighbourhood, "at last" refers to a period of, say, two months!). Either way, I would still think that there'd be some conversation at some point early in the story about the prior resident(s) of Netherfield, and what happened to him/her/them. It would be a natural topic to be raised, especially by the gossipy Mrs. Bennet or the tactless Lydia….and yet not a word on that subject.

What sort of event would cause such an estate (which seems to me to be something like Hartfield, without any sort of agricultural, timber or other business being conducted on its grounds) to fall vacant? The death of the last surviving member of a noble family?

I woke up today thinking about a Sir Walter Elliot type of character as a possible prior occupant of
Netherfield. As I reflected on that,  I realized that this thought occurred to me, because Jane Austen so often repeated motifs between two or more of her novels. [this was also suggested in one of the replies I received in Janeites to my initial inquiry on this subject)

Am I correct in now asserting that the only two examples in JA's novels of (1) an estate falling vacant and then (2) being rented out,  are Kellynch and Netherfield?  What about in her Juvenilia?

If so, then it would fit JA's modus operandi, as I have found to be the case repeatedly, to have what was explicit in one novel (vis a vis Kellynch in Persuasion) be implicit vis a another novel (vis a vis Netherfield in Pride & Prejudice). And if so, then this parallelism leads to (at least) two further questions, if we pursue the analogy between the renting of Kellynch and the renting of Netherfield:

FIRST: Mr. Shepherd, Sir Walter’s lawyer, is the prime mover who brings the Crofts to Kellynch. Who would be Mr. Shepherd’s counterpart in P&P? Of course, Mr. Phillips! Would he have been the attorney for the never-mentioned owner/resident of Netherfield? Seems likely to me!

Would that account for why Mrs. Phillips seems, on a repeated basis, to be such a key node in the gossip network of Meryton? I.e., is she consistently getting some (or most) of her inside information from her husband, Mr. Phillips the lawyer, or from someone working in her husband’s office?

SECOND: The great coincidence of Persuasion is that Mrs. Croft is the sister of Wentworth, i.e., the renting of Kellynch to the Crofts is the cause of bringing the hero into renewed contact with the heroine.

This ought to ring a bell to the even greater coincidence of P&P, which is that three male strangers all come to Meryton at practically the same time, where two of them (Wickham and Collins) are each closely connected to the third (Darcy), and who all three woo the same heroine. And one of them, the hero, Darcy, the central node of their little network, comes to Meryton because of… the rental of Netherfield by his best friend, Bingley.

Now, the final question I leave you with is, was Jane Austen the kind of writer who would repeatedly rely upon the same sort of courtship coincidence in order to propel the central action of her two most romantic novels, completed over three years apart?

Not my Jane Austen. I believe that the above parallelism was meant by JA to be recognized by any reader who has read both P&P and Persuasion, and that JA, in writing Persuasion, was leading that reader to revisit P&P with fresh eyes, and to speculate about the circumstances behind the rentals of a high-tone estate.

I have long believed that the rental of Kellynch by the Crofts is not a coincidence at all, but is the result of covert and entirely intentional actions in concert between Mr. Shepherd and the Crofts. Now I would add to that belief the tandem belief that the rental of Netherfield by Bingley is also not a coincidence at all, but is the result of covert and entirely intentional actions in concert between Mr. Phillips and…..Mr. Darcy!

More on that train of speculation will have to await my book! 

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: I just checked various archives, and I see that Beth Wagner (in Austen L in 1999) speculated about what would have happened had Bingley rented Netherfield Park instead of Kellynch, which triggered an interesting thread.

However nobody gave thought to possible parallels re the circumstances of the rental, as I have done in this current post of mine.

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