What is today, December 16, 2013, to Janeites? Of course, as you all have probably been reminded several times already by emails, it is Jane Austen's 238th birthday, our favorite novelist having been born on December 16, 1775. And it is a special Jane Austen birthday, because it signals the impending end of the bicentennial of her most famous, most popular, most beloved novel—Pride & Prejudice.
So today, in recognition of such a portentous intersection of Jane Austen’s real life and Jane Austen’s fiction, I’d like to bring you something really special, a subtextual treat that has been brewing in my imagination for the past few days, which came to a boil this morning when I woke up, as often is the case with my adventures with the Jane Austen Code.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus explains why dreaming is so integral to understanding of subtextually rich, suggestive art like Jane Austen’s fiction:
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact
Today I will share with you the result of my own seething brain’s fruitful fantasies last night! More specifically I will show how the hidden “vingt-un” code of P&P unlocks the deepest secrets of Pride & Prejudice, and reveals that Elizabeth Bennet is much more like Fanny Burney’s Cecilia than has ever previously been understood, because Elizabeth, too, is an orphan/heiress.
I was prompted to investigate this motif by a recent thread in another online Austen venue, in which the following curious dialog between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy to Elizabeth in Chapter 32 was scrutinized:
[Elizabeth] "I do not mean to say that a woman may not be settled too near her family. The far and the near must be relative, and depend on many varying circumstances. Where there is fortune to make the expenses of travelling unimportant, distance becomes no evil. But that is not the case here. Mr. and Mrs. Collins have a comfortable income, but not such a one as will allow of frequent journeys—and I am persuaded my friend would not call herself near her family under less than half the present distance."
Mr. Darcy drew his chair a little towards her, and said, "You cannot have a right to such very strong local attachment. You cannot have been always at Longbourn."
Elizabeth looked surprised. The gentleman experienced some change of feeling .... END QUOTE
Discussants speculated as to what Mr. Darcy meant by the second of these two sentences, which seems literally to contemplate the possibility that Lizzy has not lived her whole life at Longbourn. However, the consensus emerged that Darcy wasn’t really looking backwards asking for a literal answer about Lizzy’s Longbourn tenure, so much as looking forward in time, as per the first sentence, seeking reassurance that Lizzy wouldn’t mind living far away from Longbourn at say….Pemberley! I.e., Darcy’s first sentence would be the relevant one, the second one being superfluous, a wild extrapolation which Darcy’s anxious mind plucks out of the air, as a hypothetical circumstance in which Lizzy might not have formed a very strong local attachment to her current home, i.e., because she had not lived there very long.
Darcy presumably has no knowledge of Bennet family history, and therefore would not assume that Lizzy had been BORN (and therefore had not lived that LONG) at LongBOURN (and surely the name of the Bennet estate is in some way a pun on those very words cleverly designed by Jane Austen).
Perhaps the Bennets had moved into Longbourn when Lizzy was, e.g., 9 years old, exactly the way that the Dashwoods moved into Norland after the death of the unmarried cousin Mr. Dashwood, when the three Dashwood girls were between the ages of 3 and 11. Indeed, that parallel to S&S rings eerily apt, as the very event which Mrs. Bennet fears most, i.e., the death of Mr. Bennet and the resultant expulsion of herself and her five daughters from Longbourn, is exactly what does befall the Dashwood females after the death of husband/father Mr. Dashwood!
So Darcy’s hope that Lizzy was not a Longbourn resident from birth would seem to rest on a speculative but plausible extrapolation from actual family histories in JA’s era in which inheritance of estates leads to relocation of families, sometimes for serendipitously good and sometimes for calamitously bad.
And the possibility of the Bennet family having taken possession of Longbourn ten (as opposed to 20 or 25) years earlier would also go a long way toward explaining the way the five Bennet girls matured in such strikingly different ways—the two eldest, Jane and Lizzy are so different from the two youngest, Lydia and Kitty, and this would make perfect sense, from a modern psychological perspective, if one major developmental factor were very different between the two opposing groups (Mary being the transitional figure)---i.e., what if Jane and Lizzy, who have modest expectations in general, grew to their early teens in an earlier, much more humble pre-inheritance Bennet residence, while the much more entitled Kitty and Lydia grew to their early teens in a much more privileged post-inheritance environment at Longbourn.
And, taking that line of reasoning a plausible step further, perhaps Mrs. Bennet’s jittery “nerves” were “born” during that earlier Bennet family era, when, perhaps, the young family was living on the financial edge, waiting for an elderly relative to die in order to vest Mr. Bennet in Longbourn? And, taking that line of reasoning still further, perhaps the bitter enmity between Mr. Collins’s father and Mr. Bennet could have been the sour grapes (or olives) of the former directed at the latter, in regard to the inheritance of Longbourn, whereby Mr. Bennet’s inheritance of Longbourn was a bitter pill for Mr. Collins’s father to swallow—perhaps a preferential bequest to the former at the expense of the latter?
In any event, so many mysteries explained so well by one simple assumption—maybe it’s not so crazy a line of reasoning?
But let’s now return to Darcy and Elizabeth at Rosings, when Darcy suddenly pulls his chair in closer to Elizabeth before asking his two questions. Why would he do this? Is it that he is so overcome with emotion that he unconsciously draws in closer to her, feeling a need for the greater intimacy of physical proximity, even perhaps invading Elizabeth’s personal space? Or maybe, reading more suspiciously, does he move in closer so that he can then speak sotto voce, out of a desire not to be overheard by one of the servants in the Collins residence, who, Darcy seems to worry, might be eavesdropping?
Either of these motivations would be consistent with his revealing by his words an interest in marrying Elizabeth, which of course, in hindsight, would fit perfectly, as he proposes to Elizabeth only three chapters later! In Chapter 35, we hear Darcy himself express his wrenching ambivalence about proposing to Lizzy, so it would fit that he would wish to be very secretive in Chapter 32, and not let the cat out of the bag to nosy third parties, while he was still, in his careful, almost lawyerly way, carefully testing the waters.
THE INTERPRETIVE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
But, even though that is certainly a plausible and satisfying explanation for Mr. Darcy’s inquiry….let’s take a second, off-center perspective on Darcy’s curiously leading question before considering the matter conclusively settled. I say “curiously”, because his question reminds me of the kind of leading question that clever lawyers pose during cross-examination, in an effort to trip up hostile witnesses in a courtroom trial. At a climactic moment, after first softening up the hostile witness for a while, Perry Mason might suddenly spring a surprising question like, “You cannot have always been in love with the deceased…” which is designed to provoke a confession as to a key fact the witness has previously been unwilling to admit.
With Jane Austen, once one has a passage like this in mind, I’ve found that the best solution is to start by thinking about other passages in the same novel which seem resonant in some way. And that’s what happened as I was falling asleep last night, I was mulling over this particular passage, and hoping that upon rising I would find inspiration on my pillow-and luckily, so it went!
I realized that I needed to think about what comes up elsewhere in P&P when we ask whether Darcy might have had some reason—unknown to Elizabeth and therefore also unknown to the reader—for thinking that Lizzy has not lived her whole life at Longbourn. Might this seemingly significant question posed so anxiously to Elizabeth have a deeper meaning?
Thinking about how long Lizzy has lived at Longbourn led me straight to the key clue, which is that only three chapters earlier, in Chapter 29, Lizzy has been cross-examined in a more direct way by Lady Catherine, on a curiously similar topic:
"Upon my word," said her ladyship, "you give your opinion very decidedly for so young a person. Pray, WHAT IS YOUR AGE?"
"With three younger sisters grown up," replied Elizabeth, smiling, "your ladyship can hardly expect me to own it."
Lady Catherine seemed quite astonished at not receiving a direct answer; and Elizabeth suspected herself to be the first creature who had ever dared to trifle with so much dignified impertinence.
"You CANNOT BE MORE THAN TWENTY, I am sure, therefore you need not conceal your age."
"I am NOT ONE-AND-TWENTY."
While it could be that Lady Catherine really was prompted to inquire after Elizabeth’s age by Elizabeth’s brash opinion-giving, it also could be the case that Lady Catherine has some specific, but undisclosed, motivation for wanting to know exactly how old Elizabeth is, and has used Lizzy’s brashness as a “cover story” to allow Lady Catherine to persist in seeking an answer to a question that has peculiar meaning to Lady Catherine that she is not disclosing to Elizabeth.
And now, that speculation about Lady C’s concealed motivation makes me wonder--perhaps Darcy also has asked Lizzy the question about Lizzy always living at Longbourn, out of a similar curiosity born of motives also not disclosed to Lizzy?
Is it starting to sound like an Agatha Christie novel to you? I hope so, because I am convinced that this is exactly the line of inquiry that JA wished her readers to pursue, to see where else it leads!
So, the reader of P&P who has just read the above passage ought to be reminded of Lady Catherine’s question when we read Mr. Darcy’s question, also posed to Elizabeth, a short while later. And reading the above two passages in this shared light in turn got me thinking about other passages in P&P which also seem to focus on a time period of just over twenty years.
And that’s when I was reminded of the post I wrote 3 months ago…
…in which I demonstrated that the motif of the number “twenty” as an exaggerated amount is repeated early and often in both As You Like It and in P&P. (The hardcore amongst you will now want to take a pause in reading my current post to go back and read that earlier one, but it is not required to do so in order to understand my point today.)
And that’s what made me realize that the number “twenty” is the key to solving the puzzle of Darcy’s and Lady Catherine’s cross examinations of Elizabeth about the duration of her life and of her residency at Longbourn, respectively---now I see that they are intimately connected via that number, which not only points back to similarly thematic usage in Shakespeare’s romantic comedy which provides so much allusive background to P&P, but also shines light into the shadows of the backstory (and the climax) of P&P! Read on for the payoff!
First, think back to Chapter 1:
"Mr. Bennet, how can you abuse your own children in such a way? You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion for my poor nerves." "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.
So in the above passage, isn’t it interesting that Mr. Bennet chooses as the beginning of his acquaintance with Mrs. Bennet’s nerves a time period of just over twenty years, even though the narrator almost immediately informs us that they have been married 23 years? What reason could there be for this three year gap? Is Mr. Bennet being imprecise about a gap of three years, or…..was Mrs. Bennet not a nervous wreck during the first three years of their marriage? If so, why not? What changed 20 years (and a bit more) earlier? Was it Lizzy’s birth?
But there’s even more suggestive smoke in the text of P&P---now look at this passage near the end of P&P, in Chapter 58:
[Darcy] “…Unfortunately an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father, particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing; to care for none beyond my own family
circle; to think meanly of all the rest of the world; to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, FROM EIGHT TO EIGHT AND TWENTY; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled.
Think about it—Darcy is 28, and for some reason he measures the commencement of his being spoiled from when he was eight years old, which just happens to be the identical starting point for (a) Lizzy’s life and for (b) Mr. Bennet’s acquaintance with Mrs. Bennet’s nerves.
So….just like the unexplained quadruple coincidence (or if you will, the “quadrille”) that supposedly, without any prior planning or scheming on anyone’s part, brings all four of the closely mutually interconnected Mr. Collins, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Wickham, and Mrs. Gardiner “dancing” into direct contact with Elizabeth at almost the same time, I now suggest an additional unexplained triple coincidence involving the three time periods of just over twenty years, involving Mr. & Mrs. Bennet, Elizabeth, and Mr. Darcy, which I’ve just outlined for you.
And here’s the piece de resistance in this literary game-playing on “just over twenty”---even beyond the examples of “twenty” in P&P that I discussed in my earlier blog post, now I see that JA has winked at us further with one final textual bread crumb, diabolically dropped into the reader’s unwitting mind under the disguise of another anguage, in Chapter 6:
"Yes; these four evenings have enabled them to ascertain that they both like VINGT-UN better than Commerce; but with respect to any other leading characteristic, I do not imagine that much has been unfolded."
Why diabolical? Because of the central rule of vingt-un (known today in English as twenty-one or blackjack), which is described in the following Wikipedia entry:
“Blackjack's precursor was twenty-one, a game of unknown origin. The first written reference is found in a book by...Cervantes [who] was a gambler, and the main characters of his tale Rinconete y Cortadillo, from Novelas Ejemplares, are a couple of cheats working in Seville. They are proficient at cheating at ventiuna (Spanish for twenty-one), and state that the object of the game is to reach 21 points without going over and that the ace values 1 or 11….This short story was written between 1601 and 1602, implying that ventiuna was played in Castilla since the beginning of the 17th century or earlier. Later references to this game are found in France and Spain.” END QUOTE
So, in vingt-un the winner, as between player and house/dealer, is the one gets closest to 21 without exceeding 21, with all ties being victories for the latter. So, absent a tie, a player who actually scores 21 and no more will win.
Now…follow me in one last conceit---if we think of the action of P&P as a kind of “game” being played by many “players”, each with his or her own complex and concealed goals or ways of “winning”—and I think that JA clearly meant for us to think that—then what would constitute “winning” upon reaching 21 years of age?
Or, to paraphrase Darcy, my inner lawyer puts it this way, in the form of a leading question: you cannot be so wedded to the idea that there is no hidden meaning in P&P, that you cannot see how attaining the age of 21 might constitute “winning” for someone like Elizabeth Bennet.
By this devious means, I think I have already suggested to you the answer I am “fishing” for, which is that 21 was in Jane Austen’s era, as in our own, a frequently chosen age milestone, upon which an heir received his or her inheritance! And somehow Lizzy’s inheritance could be Pemberley itself, because something happened in Darcy’s life when he was eight—and that “something” might just have been Lizzy, the true heir of Pemberley, being sent away from home in order for Darcy to remain the heir?
Think I’m completely off the wall? Well, at the JASNA AGM I attended in late September in Minneapolis, one of the highlights for me was the presentation by my friend Prof. Elaine Bander, who spoke about parallels and contrasts between Pride & Prejudice and Fanny Burney’s Cecilia:
Here, in fact, is the link to Elaine’s paper just published today in Persuasions Online:
And here is the excerpt from Elaine’s article that is most germane to my speculations in this post:
“Apart from the common phrase, then, Cecilia and Pride and Prejudice share only two elements. First, both heroines are courted by a man whose family pride revolts against their match, and second, both novels offer an ironic version of a moral. So far they are equal. In Cecilia, Dr. Lyster pronounces this ironic moral to the penitent lovers. Austen is similarly playful in uniting her lovers, although without a magisterial Dr. Lyster to negotiate a truce. Instead, Elizabeth Bennet herself characteristically mocks conventional novel moralizing in her teasing conversation with her new fiancé, Fitzwilliam Darcy, while Darcy, like Dr. Lyster, suggests that the faulty behavior of those who had tried to separate the lovers has also served to unite them: “‘The moral will be perfectly fair,’” he assures Elizabeth. “‘Lady Catherine’s unjustifiable endeavours to separate us, were the means of removing all my doubts’” (423).
Apart from these two similarities, however, the differences of plot and character are striking. Thus Cecilia is heiress to a great fortune while Elizabeth is practically portionless. Cecilia is an orphan whereas Elizabeth is blessed with a beloved sister and burdened with a large, embarrassing family. Elizabeth despises Darcy until at least halfway through the novel while Cecilia early on admires and loves Mortimer. Mortimer is caught between his love for Cecilia and his duty to his parents while Darcy contends only with his own pride. Cecilia herself is scrupulously deferential to the Mortimer family’s opposition to their marriage, extolling the virtues of filial obedience. She is therefore vulnerable to anyone who invokes claims of duty, honor, and gratitude, and she promises Mrs. Delvile never to marry Mortimer. Elizabeth, in contrast, wittily defies Lady Catherine’s snobbish intervention, refusing to give such a promise, declaring, “‘Neither duty, nor honour, nor gratitude . . . have any possible claim on me, in the present instance. No principle of either, would be violated by my marriage with Mr. Darcy’” (397).” END QUOTE
I would like to propose the following codicil to Elaine’s first-rate article, by suggesting that the “vingt-un” code in Pride & Prejudice shows us that in Austen’s shadow story, Cecilia and Elizabeth are the same, and I can best show this byrewriting one key part of Ellen’s analysis as follows:
“Apart from these two similarities, however, the differences of plot and character are striking, BUT ONLY ON THE SURFACE AS TO ONE CRUCIAL POINT. Thus Cecilia is heiress to a great fortune while Elizabeth APPEARS TO BE practically portionless, BUT ACTUALLY IS ALSO AN HEIRESS, ATTRACTING THE SAME BUZZING BAND OF SUITORS AS CECIILIA. Cecilia is an orphan whereas Elizabeth APPEARS TO BE blessed with a beloved sister and burdened with a large, embarrassing family, BUT ACTUALLY IS ALSO AN ORPHAN.”
In other words, I am suggesting that, in reading the subtext of P&P, we think about Cecilia, who will inherit an income of 3,000 pounds per year, together with a lump sum payment of 10,000 pounds, upon reaching the age of 21, and realize that THIS is the explanation for why all the bees are suddenly buzzing around Elizabeth when she is approaching her 21st birthday, and why everyone is so focused on a moment in family history a little more than 20 years ago, i.e., right around the time that Elizabeth Bennet was born! Mrs. Bennet’s nerves came to unfortunate prominence at that exact moment when the orphan Elizabeth was brought to the Bennet residence house under cover of night!
Final Note re Mr. Darcy & Tom Lefroy:
I conclude with a final resonance of the “20 but not quite 21” code of P&P that I’ve outlined above. In real life, JA turned 21 on December 16, 1796, exactly 217 years ago today. Interestingly, Jane Austen’s first surviving letters are from January, 1796, when JA was the very same age as Elizabeth Bennet was when she was cross examined by Lady Catherine and then Mr. Darcy at Rosings. At that time, all of the following was true of Jane Austen, just as it was true of Elizabeth Bennet:
(a) Being the age of 20 and not quite 21,
(b) Spending time dancing and sparring/flirting wittily with an ambitious young man from out of town,
And the following is also true of both Mr. Darcy and Tom Lefroy:
(c) Each is linked by JA’s writing to Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, and
(d) Each had recently arrived in the “heroine’s” rural neighbourhood from far away (Ireland being of course much further away from Steventon than Pemberley was from Longbourn).
I am far from the first to suggest parallels between JA’s and Tom Lefroy’s mysterious romantic interlude in Steventon, and the one between Lizzy and Darcy in Meryton. I think it fair to say that the consensus is that this parallel makes P&P a wish fulfillment, in which the marriage that JA presumably wished for with Tom Lefroy, but was cruelly denied because she was considered a poor marriage option for Tom Lefroy by his family, is enacted in the most dramatic and romantically satisfying way in P&P.
And that’s why I think it is no coincidence that JA was not quite 21 when she had her marriage chances with Tom Lefroy, and why JA memorialized that chronological fact in P&P with its literary “game” of “vingt-un”.
Does this mean that P&P is then also a wish fulfillment fantasy of Jane Austen’s, which is that she imagined what it would be like had she been a secret heiress courted by men from all over Great Britain?
As much as I’d enjoy keeping going, I’ll leave off there!
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter
P.S.: Apropos the word game on “twenty” in P&P, here’s a final gem of wit courtesy of JA--note how Mr. Bennet reflects the change in his attitude as a parent to a much sterner mode, by his in effect halving his hyperbolic assertions, from his habitual twenty in Chapter 1, down to ten by Chapter 48:
“…And you are never to stir out of doors till you can prove that you have spent TEN minutes of every day in a rational manner."
Kitty, who took all these threats in a serious light, began to cry.
"Well, well," said he, "do not make yourself unhappy. If you are a good girl for the next TEN years, I will take you to a review at the end of them."
P.P.S.: Before posting this post today, I checked in the usual places online to see whether any other Janeites might have already taken a step or two down this road I have just gone down today, and I did find a post by Anielka Briggs from 10/1/12 about mysteries and riddles scattered through all of JA’s novels which post included the following 2 questions, from among about 15 questions in total:
“…How old, then is Elizabeth Bennet who is NOT "one-and-twenty"?
Why have Mrs. Bennet's nerves been particularly taxed for twenty years at least?...”
Anielka has ingeniously suggested that Elizabeth Bennet, by saying to Lady Catherine that she was
“not one-and-twenty”, has left open the possibility of being any other age than 21. Today, I’ve
taken that phrase at its more commonly attributed meaning, and still have been able to give answers
to those 2 excellent questions of Anielka’s, answers which show those 2 questions, and their answers,
to be connected, via the issue of Elizabeth Bennet, secret heiress, who, unbeknownst to her, will
inherit a fortune at “one-and-twenty”!