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

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

“There might as well have been no suppers at Longbourn…”

I’ve just noticed something very curious for the first time in Jane Austen’s Letter #80 to sister Cassandra dated Feb. 4, 1813, re the then very recent publication of Pride & Prejudice. That is the letter which contains the very famous “light, bright, and sparkling” passage, listing JA’s (to me clearly) ironic, mock-self-deprecations about the supposed shortcomings of P&P. That famous passage, which mock-laments the absence of Napoleon and Scott, is immediately followed by a passage which has been rarely noticed, and that is my topic today:

“The greatest blunder in the Printing that I have met with is in Page 220—Vol. 3. Where two speeches are made into one—There might as well have been no suppers at Longbourn, but I suppose it was the remains of Mrs. Bennet’s old Meryton habits.”

My focus in this post, as my Subject Line indicates, is the latter of those two sentences.

If you look at the 1813 first edition, you see that it is on Page 218, not Page 220, that we read the following passage, which seems to me to be the very one JA had in mind when she wrote about Mrs. Bennet’s “old Meryton habits”:

“Mrs. Bennet had designed to keep the two Netherfield gentlemen to supper; but their carriage was unluckily ordered before any of the others, and she had no opportunity of detaining them.”

It seems to me that this is the passage JA refers to, because while suppers are mentioned elsewhere in P&P, that is the single, solitary reference to supper (as opposed to dinner) at Longbourn  in the entire novel.

So it would appear at first glance that the printing blunder on P. 220 was not connected to the passage describing Mrs. Bennet’s supper designs. I.e., JA appears to mention these two points consecutively in her letter to CEA merely because she had just been scanning that portion of Vol. 3 of the first edition of P&P, checking for mistakes, and she had noticed two independent errors which happened to be closely proximate to each other in the text. I.e., whatever concern JA  has about suppers at Longbourn, it is not associated with a printing blunder, but with some other sort of blunder.

So what does JA mean regarding suppers at Longbourn? Maggie Lane’s Jane Austen and Food, at page 52, discusses this supper passage, and, indeed, does not mention a printing blunder at all:

“Mrs. Bennet…offers supper, and is disappointed when the party from Netherfield will not stay for it. Between the writing of P&P and its publication, mealtimes and manners changed and JA herself realized that she had slipped up a little. [quote]…It  could be that while families continued to take some light refreshment at the end of the day, this would be done in what Jane elsewhere calls ‘unpretending privacy’, and that to offer supper to dinner guests (who had probably, anyway, eaten a more substantial dinner  than usual) was the faux pas of Mrs. Bennet.”

Assuming for purposes of this post that Lane is correct in treating the printing blunder and JA’s concern about suppers at Meryton as unrelated, I remain unsatisfied with Lane’s explanation of the latter as a faux pas by the old-fashioned Mrs. Bennet. Why would “[t]here might as well have been no suppers at Longbourn”? 

Try as I may, I can’t make the dots logically connect between Mrs. Bennet wishing to serve dinner when it is gauche to do so, and JA’s equating that gaucheness to there being no suppers at all at Longbourn—if  anything, it ought to  be the opposite, i.e.,  if Lane is correct about  Mrs. Bennet serving supper when she  oughtn’t, JA ought then to have written “There might as well have been daily suppers at Longbourn.”

Lane’s interpretation is actually one of only two modern ones I can find on the Internet—many other modern Austen scholars have quoted that cryptic passage from JA’s Feb. 4, 1813 letter, but without any attempt at explanation. Those other scholars appear to me to be exercising scholarly discretion rather than scholarly valor, because they knew they could not explain JA’s meaning, so they just left it alone!

But if we go back more than a century, to 1896, Mrs. Charles Malden (what was her own Christian name?), in her bio of JA, quotes that cryptic passage alongside the famous passage about Napoleon and Scott, and then writes:

“We may all rejoice that Jane Austen did not improve P&P in the way she half ironically suggests; but it is wonderful that she avoided doing so, for in her day a novel was invariably thought to require some such "padding," and it was one of her boldest strokes to depart from this established rule…”

Malden seems to be referring only to the Napoleon & Scott passage which fits with the idea of “padding”, but Malden’s above comment made me realize that Lane’s error lies in reading JA’s comment straight, instead of ironically! I.e., coming at the end of a series of faux-modest statements about supposed deficiencies in P&P, which JA clearly does not mean at all, it is reasonable to infer that the reference to Mrs. Bennet’s suppers is also ironic in the same way, and also refers to something faultily left out of P&P by JA.

So what could JA have meant, if we read now read JA’s comment about Mrs. Bennet’s suppers as ironic?

Here is where the other modern interpretation kicks in. It is by Roger Sales, in his JA and Representations of Regency England which I regularly cite with approval:

“Although difficult to interpret, it appears as though she is conscious that the novel does not represent the Bennet family at mealtimes.”

Sales seems (to me) to be clearly be on the right track, as JA does indeed seem to be regretting her having omitted depictions of supper at Longbourn. Perhaps this was a criticism actually directed to her by a “helpful” early reader of P&P. And we can sympathize with that criticism, because the Bennet family interactions are so entertaining, we all wish for more of it.

But it’s only when we read JA’s comment as ironic that this fits perfectly with her immediately preceding “failure” to include passages about Napoleon and Scott. In short, JA is having a private laugh, shared by her with her knowing sister-- who was very familiar with JA’s penchant for mock irony, just as Jane was familiar with the same trait in Lizzy-- at the expense of all the early readers of P&P who criticized it for what it was missing. Too light bright and sparkling, no Scott or Bonaparte, and even, it seems, not enough suppers at Longbourn either!

How do we know this to be JA’s true meaning? Because we also see it in the Opinions which JA so carefully collected from friends and family, about MP and Emma. JA clearly enjoyed being misunderstood, in very entertaining ways, by the dull elves for whom she was not writing.

My favorite example is Fanny Knight wishing to know more about Jane Fairfax, who is exactly whom Emma (who is based on Fanny Knight) wants to know more about! Talk about a Trojan Horse Moment!

As was invariably the case with JA as a writer, she left out many things in her novels which allowed her to create all manner of tantalizing ambiguities, which would be noticed, sooner or later, by those readers ingenious enough to look for the meaning behind the words on the page. Whereas, the dull elves, lacking ingenuity, would simply bemoan what was left out, which forced  them to have to work as readers, and struggle to figure out  JA’s intentions.

As JA advised niece and budding author Anna:  “I hope when you have written a great deal more, you will be equal to scratching out some of the past.”

JA showed herself, a thousand times, to be equal to scratching out just enough of the past, and of the  present and the future as well, in order to achieve her extraordinary authorial goals—ambiguity was the god she worshipped.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: It may have occurred to some of you that the logical extension of reading JA’s Feb. 4, 1813 comments about P&P ironically, might also apply to the supposed misprint on Page 220 of Vol. 3 of P&P.

After all, it is a fact  that despite JA’s noticing it on Feb. 4, 1813, the “misprint” persisted in both the second and third editions of P&P, both published by Egerton later during  JA’s lifetime. Even though JA had sold the rights to P&P to Egerton in early 1813, one would think that if she had written to him shortly after publication of the first edition, and had alerted him to a misprint on P. 220, Egerton would have had no reason to ignore her correction. And yet, no “correction” was made until Bentley’s edition in 1833, and no mention is made of same in any of JA’s surviving subsequent letters. And we also know that JA successfully made corrections and alterations in a later edition of MP.

But again, more on that subject another time.


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