My somewhat cryptic Subject Line refers to the twenty clever ways in which Jane Austen, in Pride & Prejudice, detected, expanded, and (veiledly) commented on, Shakespeare’s comic riff on the hyperbolic word “twenty” in As You Like It. First, though, some background context, to show and remind that this is just one strand of a vast and intricate web of Shakespearean allusion in JA’s novels.
Six months ago, for the first time I consolidated and publicly aired my thoughts, dating back to 2005, about the complex allusion to As You Like It that I see in Emma…
….and which I discovered in 2005 was hidden in plain sight in Mrs. Elton’s unwitting echoing of Shakespeare in the following words which are actually Jane Austen’s Satan-like way of whispering “Shakespeare” in her readers’ ears:
"That's quite unnecessary; I see Jane every day:—but AS YOU LIKE. IT is to be a morning scheme, you know, Knightley; quite a simple thing….”
Before me, there was, to the best of my knowledge after diligent search, no scholarly or lay awareness whatsoever of the allusion to As You Like It in Emma. However, scholars have been aware of an allusion to As You Like It in P&P for a long time, and it’s easy to see why:
ONE: About 70 years ago, the late Elizabeth Bowen referred in passing to Elizabeth Bennet as “a Rosalind or Beatrice”;
TWO: A few years later, the late G.B. Stern similarly wrote “I have often affirmed that Elizabeth Bennet and Shakespeare’s Rosalind are the two most bewitching heroines in all English literature”;
THREE: Juliet McMaster touched on this parallelism obliquely for a few pages in her 1978 book Jane Austen On Love); and finally
FOUR: In his 2005 edition of P&P, Harold Bloom (who first noted the allusion in print in 1998) spent a few generalized paragraphs, without giving any supporting textual examples that I could see online, in that same vein, i.e., that Lizzy and Jane Austen herself were Rosalinds.
Easy to see, because Rosalind shares with her Shakespearean “sister” Beatrice the same “light bright and sparkling” wit and elan that clearly inspired Jane Austen to create her most charismatic heroine, Lizzy Bennet.
With all of that as prelude, today I am here to put some textual meat on the bones of those prior scholarly intuitions, which all treat the allusion as if it were merely about Lizzy as a latter day Rosalind and nothing more. As you will see, it is much much more.
Those who follow me know that this is just the latest in a series of comparable posts of mine about JA’s allusions to Shakespeare—most recently focused on the veiled allusions to Much Ado in P&P and in Persuasion—where I go into the actual texts of the novels and the plays to prove my claims, which go far beyond the conventional wisdom.
My offering today will focus, as I always do, on the kind of characteristic word play by JA that invariably accompanies her allusions-her textual bread crumbs that tell the knowing reader that, yes, that allusion is really there, and also provide a wormhole that leads to rich thematic depths. Let’s begin.
In As You Like It, the word “twenty” is used by Shakespeare three times as hyperbole. As you’ll see, below, Jane Austen picked up on all three of them, and gave each of them a great deal of thematic TLC.
First, in Act 1, Scene 1, Orlando, aggrieved at his brother Oliver having given him the shaft, in terms of family inheritance, makes the following speech to Oliver while he knows he has his attention, because he has Oliver in a headlock!:
“Ay, better than him I am before knows me. I know you are my eldest brother; and, in the gentle condition of blood, you should so know me. The courtesy of nations allows you my better, in that you are the first-born; but the same tradition takes not away my blood, WERE THERE TWENTY BROTHERS BETWEEN US. I have as much of my father in me as you; albeit, I confess, your coming before me is
nearer to his reverence.”
nearer to his reverence.”
I hear distinct echoes of the above passage (which is in the very first scene of As You Like It) in the following part of (not coincidentally) the very first scene depicted in P&P :
"You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration THESE LAST TWENTY YEARS AT LEAST."
"Ah, you do not know what I suffer."
"But I hope you will get over it, and live to see many young men of four thousand a year come into the neighbourhood."
"It will be no use to us, IF TWENTY SUCH SHOULD COME, since you will not visit them."
"Depend upon it, my dear, that WHEN THERE ARE TWENTY, I will visit them all."
Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of THREE-AND-TWENTY years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character.
In that short exchange, the word “twenty” is used by JA four times (including that last reference to “three-and-twenty”) in exactly that same hyperbolic sense that Orlando used it:
first as to how LONG Mr. Bennet has BORNE the “friendship” of Mrs. Bennet’s nerves; then…
….his supposedly dumb wife quick-wittedly returns his hyperbole regarding a hypothetical flood of twenty suitors coming to Meryton; and then…
….he in turn demonstrates to the knowing reader that he actually respects his wife’s quick wit, by as quickly volleying back at her the best riff of all on “twenty”, the memorable epigram which we’ve all seen quoted a hundred times by Janeites.
So far so good, I think, but I’ve only just begun to convince.
Consider next that Jane Austen alluded to that very same speech by Orlando to Oliver later in P&P as well—perhaps some of you noticed it? It’s equally striking. I refer to Lizzy’s thrilling and also often-requoted standing up to Lady Catherine at the end of P&P:
"In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal."
Can you not hear this as an echo of another part of Orlando’s equally thrilling standing up to his horrible older brother, in which Orlando, like Lizzy, stakes his claim to gentle status equal to and as worthy as that of the first born Oliver!?
And note now a third allusion to that same speech of Orlando’s in P&P. I.e., Oliver’s denial of a gentleman’s education to Orlando, leaving him to fend for himself in gathering knowledge of the wider world, is clearly intended by JA to be echoed ironically by Lady Catherine’s concern about the lack of a governess in the Bennet household. In the following passage, Lady C may as well have been testifying as an expert witness in a case brought by Orlando against Oliver for criminal neglect of the duty to educate a young relative properly!:
"Has your governess left you?"
"We never had any governess."
"No governess! How was that possible? Five daughters brought up at home without a governess! I never heard of such a thing. Your mother must have been quite a slave to your education."
Elizabeth could hardly help smiling as she assured her that had not been the case.
"Then, who taught you? who attended to you? Without a governess, you must have been neglected."
"Compared with some families, I believe we were; but such of us as wished to learn never wanted the means. We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle, certainly might."
"Aye, no doubt; but that is what a governess will prevent, and if I had known your mother, I should have advised her most strenuously to engage one. I always say that nothing is to be done in education without steady and regular instruction, and nobody but a governess can give it.”
So in the combination of these last two allusions to Orlando’s speech, we see JA allowing Lady C to hoist herself on her own petard vis a vis that first scene in As You Like It. First, Lady C, like Orlando, decries the denial of education to a gentleman’s child. But then, later on, she sounds like the Oliver of that first scene, casting Lizzy in the role of slutty, unrefined country girl, in effect now the prosecutor convicting Lizzy of the “crime” for which Lizzy is blameless.
All of the above accomplished so subtly and inobtrusively, and yet, once recognized, so obviously. It’s only the widespread belief that Jane Austen did not do such things as an author, that has obscured these marvelous allusions, and prevented them from being noticed, analyzed, and savored.
And it’s not just about Lizzy’s lack of education. Don’t Oliver and Orlando in that first scene sound exactly like Wickham’s version of his relationship with Darcy? You bet! It’s no accident that one of the sins Wickham specifically accuses Darcy of, and which Darcy is at pains to rebut in his letter to Lizzy, is the denial of what exactly? A proper gentleman’s education to Wickham!!!
In general, it’s noteworthy—and troubling--that Orlando, the hero of the play, is “Wickham” in that parallel. It’s even more noteworthy that Darcy rehabilitates himself very abruptly in the latter part of the novel, just as Oliver miraculously turns from horrible older brother to overall good guy near the end of the play.
It should make us wonder why JA would go to such lengths to make Darcy look like Oliver, and not the hero Orlando. But that is not a topic for this post, so for now, I hope you’ll agree by that all of the above resonance to just that first-quoted speech by Orlando makes it clear that the associated wordplay on “twenty” and other passages in P&P, constitute a series of subtly coordinated broad winks to that single passage, which are entirely intentional on JA’s part. But I am not even close to being done.
Now on to the second of Jane Austen’s echoes on Shakespeare’s “twenty” usages in AYLI. It is the following passage involving “twenty” as a measure of distance in AYLI Act 1, Scene 3….
Within these ten days if that thou be'st found
So near our public court AS TWENTY MILES,
Thou diest for it.
Within these ten days if that thou be'st found
So near our public court AS TWENTY MILES,
Thou diest for it.
…which I claim is echoed by Lizzy’s unexpectedly crossing paths with Darcy at Pemberley:
“They were within TWENTY yards of each other, and so abrupt was his appearance, that it was impossible to avoid his sight.”
There is irony in this wordplay that Lizzy and Darcy both travel more than twenty miles deep into the countryside and far from Lizzy’s hometown before their romantic connection is solidified, just as is the case with Rosalind and Orlando deep in the Forest of Arden (“You must allow me to tell you how ARDENtly I admire and love you.") . But more significantly, I think, we hear an unmistakable echo of Duke Frederick’s banishment of Rosalind in Mr. Bennet’s desire (temporarily thwarted by his wife, of course) to banish Lydia and Wickham from Longbourn:
“His daughter's request, for such it might be considered, of being admitted into her family again before she set off for the North, received at first an absolute negative. But Jane and Elizabeth, who agreed in wishing, for the sake of their sister's feelings and consequence, that she should be noticed on her marriage by her parents, urged him so earnestly yet so rationally and so mildly, to receive her and her husband at Longbourn, as soon as they were married, that he was prevailed on to think as they thought, and act as they wished. And their mother had the satisfaction of knowing that she would be able to show her married daughter in the neighbourhood before SHE WAS BANISHED TO THE NORTH.”
Mr. Bennet as Duke Frederick—food for thought, isn’t it? After all, there is behind all of the conflict in AYLI the deep and bitter feud between the Duke and his brother, and there is behind the inheritance crisis at Longbourn the apparently bitter but murky feud between Mr. Bennet and his cousin Mr. Collins’s father. I suggest it is JA’s subversive intent to jar our comfortable sense of Mr. Bennet as a good man.
Even more disturbing, though, is Jane Austen’s making the negative character Lydia the “echo twin in banishment” of the heroine Rosalind. And Lydia does indeed share with both Rosalind and Lizzy a really big mouth, doesn’t she?
So now, let’s take a count. Mr. Bennet as Duke Frederick, Lydia as Rosalind, are now added to Darcy as Oliver, Wickham as Orlando, Lady Catherine as Orlando---and that’s not the end of the list by any means---what might Jane Austen be suggesting to us about the offstage actions and motivations of her characters by these repeated apparent mismatchings of good and bad characters? I suggest, a great deal!
But again, today’s not the day to discuss those sorts of broader implications, there’s still more textual ore to be mined here, the third and perhaps the best echo of all.
In Act 4, Scene 1, Rosalind, disguised as the young man Ganymede, invites Orlando to practice wooing “Rosalind” and we read:
Even if we didn’t have the allusion in Chapter 1 of P&P to Orlando’s use of “twenty” while choking Oliver, the allusion of Mr. Bennet’s words to the above words of Rosalind would be enough to establish Jane Austen’s “catch” of the ironic significance of the word “twenty” in Shakespeare’s play. It is even more on point. Don’t you, too, hear in Rosalind’s words about twenty suitors for her hand in marriage, the source for Jane Austen’s characteristic ironic wit when she wrote Mr. Bennet’s witty riposte about twenty suitors being just the impetus he’d need in order to get up off his duff to visit one?
And there are still more layers to peel back. When she speaks those words, Rosalind is pretending to be a young man pretending to be herself! And Mr. Bennet is pretending that it would take 20 suitors to motivate him to do his paternal duties, when he alone in the room knows that he already visited the first suitor, Bingley! And then Jane Austen in her famous letter to Cassandra pretends to be writing witty dialog that is “too light, bright and sparkling”, as if she didn’t know how much more she was doing in P&P!!! Pretense all the way down---this is a perfect example of why I claim that Michael Chwe’s wonderful new book is missing its most important chapter—the one about Jane Austen’s strategic thinking as an author!
But….I’m still not done--- there’s even more subversive irony here in Shakespeare’s third usage of a hyperbolic “twenty” that JA is tapping into.
While Rosalind’s statement at first seems to be positive hyperbole (paraphrased as “I love you so much that even if there were twenty Orlandos, I’d love all twenty”), upon second thought, it actually begins to sound like damning with very faint praise! I.e., it can be construed as Rosalind seeing Orlando as a kind of generic suitor, interchangeable with twenty other suitors who might’ve shown up at that moment in her life, whose advances she would apparently have accepted instead of Orlando! All of a sudden, the large number is turned upside down, instead of loving Orlando twenty times as much, he’s now just one among twenty! Which one does Rosalind mean? Or is it a little bit of both?
Sounds far-fetched to you? Then explain to me why that subversive interpretation fits so well with the Epilogue, spoken by the (male) actor who played Rosalind, who says to the audience:
“If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, complexions that liked me, and breaths that I defied not….”
In the clever guise of a performer shamelessly begging for wider audience approval, Shakespeare manages to slip in a striking echo of Rosalind’s ironically promiscuous ”Ay and twenty such”.
And that subversive idea of interchangeable marital partners, of claiming to marry for love but actually marrying less romantically—does this not remind us of Charlotte Lucas, and also of Mr.Wickham, and all those who do not marry for love, but for mercenary and/or prudent motives?
But finally--and much more disturbingly--does this not also resonate with Lizzy’s playful riposte to Jane’s question about the precise moment when Lizzy fell in love with Darcy?:
"It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley."
I have for some time believed that Sir Walter Scott right, and that Lizzy was speaking more truthfully than she realized or meant to reveal to Jane. I believe that Lizzy’s echoing such a covertly subversive lines spoken by Rosalind in As You Like It is unwitting on Lizzyy’s part but intentional on Jane Austen’s part. It suggests that Jane Austen was hinting to her readers that P&P is also meant to be read “as you like it”, i.e., either believing, or not believing, that Lizzy understood her own heart as well as she believed she did, when she spoke those memorable words to Jane. How to choose between the two?
And there are a whole lot more than twenty such allusions in JA’s novels. And there is no irony whatsoever in that claim.
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