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

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

“We have caught her, madam” “What fire is in mine ears?”: Lizzy Bennet: Her Fine, Picturesque Eyes, Her Sharp, Burning Ears, & Her Shocking Matchmaker

It seems that I am now officially on a roll with detecting fresh aspects of the Shakespearean allusions in Pride & Prejudice, because as I was writing my previous post about the parallels between Hermia’s eyes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Lizzy’s eyes in Pride & Prejudice….

….which was itself a followup to my next preceding post about Darcy and Demetrius….

…I was lucky enough, like one of the misgraff’d lovers wandering around the forest in MND, to suddenly happen upon a subtle but unmistakable hint in Pride & Prejudice, a hint which points to another Shakespearean comedy which JA alluded to very prominently in P&P, as I’ve previously blogged….

….i.e., Much Ado About Nothing!  

And this last discovery really might be the best of the three, because it shines unexpected (even by me) bright light on what is really going on in a seemingly inconsequential scene in P&P that, I will argue below, has always been read with blind eyes. And understanding what is going on in that little scene turns out to be a wormhole deep into the shadows of P&P, and the man holding the torch providing that extra illumination is none other than William Shakespeare himself!

And as usual, I have given you some hints in my Subject Line to what I am leading up to, I promise you this one you will want to read to the very end!


My little epiphany has to do with the following-quoted passage at the end of Chapter 10 of P&P, which takes place outdoors at Netherfield. Those of you who are familiar with Much Ado About Nothing may wish to read this P&P passage and then, before reading the rest of this post, pause, close your eyes, and see if you can spot the allusion to MAAN hidden in plain sight in this scene in P&P (I’ve hinted at it in several ways in my Subject Line):

“Miss Bingley saw, or suspected enough to be jealous; and her great anxiety for the recovery of her dear friend Jane received some assistance from her desire of getting rid of Elizabeth.
She often tried to provoke Darcy into disliking her guest, by talking of their supposed marriage, and planning his happiness in such an alliance.
"I hope," said she, as they were walking together in the shrubbery the next day, "you will give your mother-in-law a few hints, when this desirable event takes place, as to the advantage of holding her tongue; and if you can compass it, do cure the younger girls of running after officers. And, if I may mention so delicate a subject, endeavour to check that little something, bordering on conceit and impertinence, which your lady possesses."
"Have you anything else to propose for my domestic felicity?"
"Oh! yes. Do let the portraits of your uncle and aunt Phillips be placed in the gallery at Pemberley. Put them next to your great-uncle the judge. They are in the same profession, you know, only in different lines. As for your Elizabeth's picture, you must not have it taken, for what painter could do justice to those beautiful eyes?"
"It would not be easy, indeed, to catch their expression, but their colour and shape, and the eyelashes, so remarkably fine, might be copied."
At that moment they were met from another walk by Mrs. Hurst and Elizabeth herself.
"I did not know that you intended to walk," said Miss Bingley, in some confusion, lest they had been overheard.
"You used us abominably ill," answered Mrs. Hurst, "running away without telling us that you were coming out."
Then taking the disengaged arm of Mr. Darcy, she left Elizabeth to walk by herself. The path just admitted three. Mr. Darcy felt their rudeness, and immediately said:
"This walk is not wide enough for our party. We had better go into the avenue."
But Elizabeth, who had not the least inclination to remain with them, laughingly answered:
"No, no; stay where you are. You are charmingly grouped, and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth. Good-bye."
She then ran gaily off, rejoicing as she rambled about, in the hope of being at home again in a day or two. Jane was already so much recovered as to intend leaving her room for a couple of hours that evening.”

Did you see it? It’s absolutely obvious once you pick up on the textual hints, even though Jane Austen’s secret has hidden in plain sight for just over 200 years now……..c’mon, give it a try, I bet you’ll see it if you stay with it long enough…but if at any point you are ready to cry Uncle! (or Aunt!, if you prefer), then just scroll down for the answer.

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What caught my eye for the first time today in this often-reread passage, as I was collecting all the references in P&P to Darcy’s reactions to Lizzy’s eyes for my previous post, was the curious parallelism between Darcy & Miss Bingley discussing the fancifully imagined “picture” of Elizabeth in the Pemberley portrait gallery, on the one hand, and Lizzy’s famous veiled allusion to Gilpin’s equally famous description of the “picturesque” aspects of various groupings of cows, on the other.

My first thought was, OMG, is Lizzy’s talking about the picturesque, right after Darcy and Caroline have been discussing pictures at Pemberley, just a coincidence? Or is the sharp elf reader meant to infer that Elizabeth’s ears have been burning, i.e., that she has actually overheard Darcy and Miss Bingley talking about her, and Lizzy had in her Beatrice-like witty way, come up with a quietly learned quip about Gilpin to imply, without actually saying it explicitly, that she had indeed overheard them?  It took me about 30 seconds to verify that this was exactly what we are supposed to realize! Read on and I will explain why.

In a nutshell, the scene-setting hint is that we learn that this conversation has occurred in the shrubbery at Netherfield, as Lizzy and Mrs. Hurst were strolling down one lane therein, and Darcy and Caroline were strolling down another.  Shrubberies are places where people can be in very close proximity to each other and can hear each other,  yet cannot see each other.

This clearly points to the two famous “staged eavesdropping” shrubbery scenes in Much Ado About Nothing (and also, for that matter, to the “box-tree” scene in Twelfth Night):

In Leonato’s orchard, in Act 2, Scene 3, when Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato all conspire together to make Benedick overheard them as they discuss how much Beatrice loves Benedick, all appearances to the contrary; and

In Leonato’s garden, in Act 3, Scene 1, when Hero, Ursula, and Margaret all play exactly the same trick on Beatrice, to make her overhear them as they discuss how much Benedick loves Beatrice, again, all appearances to the contrary.

And when you reread the above passage with the above in mind, suddenly it becomes perfectly clear why
Caroline (successfully) “provoked” Darcy into talking about “their supposed marriage”; why she led him out into the shrubbery and then, as Mrs. Hurst points out, "running away without telling us that you were coming out." –the better to be overheard in the shrubbery, my dear; and then turning the conversation specifically to the one topic where she could have predicted a positive response from Darcy, Lizzy’s eyes.

In other words, what catching this allusion suggests to us is something shocking about Pride & Prejudice, i.e., that Caroline Bingley and her sister, Mrs. Hurst, have actually conspired with each other, unsuspected by Lizzy and apparently also by Darcy, in order to stage an overhearing of Darcy by Elizabeth,  an overhearing in which Elizabeth learns that Darcy actually admires her eyes a great deal, which is news to Elizabeth!

Could it be that Caroline (aided by her sister) is wearing the mask of a matchbreaker but is actually a covert matchmaker---like all the merry matchmaking conspirators in those two scenes from MAAN, i.e., actually trying to promote Lizzy and Darcy getting together? Why would Jane Austen go to this trouble to raise a subliminal echo of those two Shakespearean scenes, if not to subliminally suggest that perhaps Lizzy misjudges Caroline’s true motives all along?

And here’s more—this should also remind you of the scene early in P&P when Lizzy overhears Darcy dissing her at the Meryton assembly. This scene in Chapter 10, properly understood, then functions as a bookend to that earlier scene. I.e., Lizzy’s mortification, which she tries to hide, at having her looks be damned by Darcy’s very faint praise, is now rectified, in spades, when she overhears that he really does admire her looks after all!

And there’s still more----does this interpretation of Caroline’s hidden motives remind you of Aldous Huxley’s seemingly off-the-wall take on Lady Catherine’s confrontation of Elizabeth in the 1939 Pride & Prejudice, in which the audience sees Darcy and Lady Catherine conspiring together about her confrontation with Lizzy? I have believed since I watched that film version 7 years ago that Huxley was spot-on, and was picking up on Jane Austen’s intent to subliminally paint even Lady Catherine as a secret matchmaker!

And finally, one last benefit from this interpretation….if Elizabeth did overhear this unexpected compliment, what does it tell us about the fact that  Elizabeth “ran gaily off” after making her learned Gilpin witticism? I suggest it provides key evidence in the Great Debate about whether Lizzy is attracted to Darcy prior to his first proposal. It tells us that Elizabeth, even as early as the end of Chapter 10, and even though she apparently does not consciously  realize it, derives great happiness merely from hearing that Darcy admires the expression, colour, and shape of her eyes, and also even her fine eyelashes.

And now that I’ve parsed the above, I also now recall that I had inadvertently tiptoed right up to the edge of realizing the above two years ago, when I wrote the following blog post about Lizzy’s reactions to the art she sees hanging on the walls at Pemberley:

I understood at that time that there was a connection between the portraits Lizzy gazes upon at Pemberley, and Lizzy’s clear knowledge of Gilpin’s theories of the picturesque as reflected in Chapter 10. What I lacked at that time was the awareness of the eavesdropping that Lizzy is led to do in the shrubbery at Netherfield, which now shines a very bright light on the full “picture” painted by Jane Austen in this remarkably learned and subtle novel, masquerading as “merely” a witty romantic comedy, P&P.

And, as I suggested back at the beginning of this post, this interpretation also opens the door wide to a reevaluation of many other aspects of P&P, far beyond the scope of this post, once you see Caroline Bingley in a different light.


I cannot find any evidence of any other scholar detecting this alternative reading of that scene at the end of Chapter 10 of P&P, but there is nonetheless some interest in what I did find from past delvings into the overt and well-recognized overhearing and eavesdropping in P&P.

In 2002 Ann Gaylin wrote an entire chapter of her book about eavesdropping in Pride & Prejudice, but she apparently did not realize either that Much Ado was part of the allusive subtext informing that aspect of P&P, nor did she realize that any sort of overhearing, staged or otherwise,  might have occurred in the Netherfield shrubbery.

In 1983, Karen Newman wrote a very interesting article, “Can This Marriage Be Saved: Jane Austen Makes Sense of an Ending” in ELH, Vol. 50, No. 4. (Winter, 1983), pp. 693-710, in which, in relevant part, she wrote the following interesting comments:

“Austen is at pains from early in the novel to show us Elizabeth’s response to Darcy’s wealth. When she is at Netherfield nursing her sister, Austen unfolds a scene in which Elizabeth overhears a conversation between Darcy and Miss Bingley about his property in Derbyshire:
“…On entering the drawing-room she found the whole party at loo, and was immediately invited to join them; but suspecting them to be playing high she declined it, and making her sister the excuse, said she would amuse herself for the short time she could stay below, with a book. Mr. Hurst looked at her with astonishment.
"Do you prefer reading to cards?" said he; "that is rather singular."
"Miss Eliza Bennet," said Miss Bingley, "despises cards. She is a great reader, and has no pleasure in anything else."
"I deserve neither such praise nor such censure," cried Elizabeth; "I am not a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things."
"In nursing your sister I am sure you have pleasure," said Bingley; "and I hope it will be soon increased by seeing her quite well."
Elizabeth thanked him from her heart, and then walked towards the table where a few books were lying. He immediately offered to fetch her others—all that his library afforded.
"And I wish my collection were larger for your benefit and my own credit; but I am an idle fellow, and though I have not many, I have more than I ever looked into."
Elizabeth assured him that she could suit herself perfectly with those in the room.
"I am astonished," said Miss Bingley, "that my father should have left so small a collection of books. What a delightful library you have at Pemberley, Mr. Darcy!"
"It ought to be good," he replied, "it has been the work of many generations."
"And then you have added so much to it yourself, you are always buying books."
"I cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in such days as these."
"Neglect! I am sure you neglect nothing that can add to the beauties of that noble place. Charles, when you build your house, I wish it may be half as delightful as Pemberley."
"I wish it may."
"But I would really advise you to make your purchase in that neighbourhood, and take Pemberley for a kind of model. There is not a finer county in England than Derbyshire."
"With all my heart; I will buy Pemberley itself if Darcy will sell it."
"I am talking of possibilities, Charles."
"Upon my word, Caroline, I should think it more possible to get Pemberley by purchase than by imitation."  END OF INTERNAL QUOTATION FROM P&P
The function of the scene is not simply to introduce and describe Darcy’s property or to show Miss Bingley’s clear interest in it; its function is explained by the description of Elizabeth’s behavior that follows the conversation: “Elizabeth was so much caught with what passed, as to leave her very little attention for her book; and soon laying it wholly aside, she drew near the card-table, and stationed herself between Mr. Bingley and his eldest sister, to observe the game.”  
Clearly the motivator for Elizabeth’s action is not the ironic one given by the narrator, ‘to observe the game,’ but to hear more on the subject of Darcy’s estate. Elizabeth was so much caught by what passed.”

Newman was absolutely spot-on in this analysis of Elizabeth’s overhearing about Darcy’s library, but it never dawned on her that this might have been Caroline Bingley again baiting the hook to suck Elizabeth into paying attention to Darcy, under the perfect disguise of the Jealous Witch. Just as Emma never suspects Harriet might be playing her, so too, Elizabeth never suspects that Caroline might be playing her, too, with the opposite intention to what appears to be the case.


To conclude with a bang, it turns out that Karen Newman’s noticing the key word “caught” could not be more apt, because it is the verbal key that turns the lock that opens the allusive door to the center of Much Ado, Act 3, Scene 1, when Beatrice is caught by the bait of overhearing:

Exeunt HERO and URSULA

And now you know why I included those two quotes in my Subject Line!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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