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

Sunday, April 6, 2014

My Answer to the Textual Scavenger Hunt re a very significant thread in the shadow story of Pride & Prejudice

 ALERT!: This post is ONLY for those who enjoy Austenian shadow story subtext, all others should ignore!

I will now give my answers to the quiz I posed Friday, when I began thusly:

“Think of Pride & Prejudice as a vast network of textual riddles which, when solved, collectively point toward a coherent, radically alternative version of the storyline (which I call the “shadow story”) in a variety of significant ways. In that light, I bring you one of those riddles today in the form of a quiz, and suggest to you that there is a common thread among all the following EIGHT groups of passages in P&P, which at first may seem to have absolutely nothing to do with each other. However, I claim they are connected  clues in a literary scavenger hunt, deliberately left scattered in the text of the novel by JA so that puzzle loving readers would eventually, upon a sufficient number of rereadings, glimmer upon the common denominator among these passages and solve that particular riddle…”

I will begin my answer globally, and then move to the specific sets of clues which support that global interpretation. And so, the common thread that I see running through both the overt and the shadow stories of P&P is THE ENTAIL of Longbourn.

Now, the way this thread plays out in the version of P&P that everyone knows does not require any explanation at all—indeed, you may be thinking I have made much ado about nothing in this quiz. We begin hearing about the horrors of the entail from Mrs. Bennet as soon as we meet her, and we don’t stop hearing about it thereafter for very long for about ¾ of the novel—it’s not just Mrs. Bennet—it ‘s also Mr. Bennet, Mr. Collins and (most curiously) even Lady Catherine, too.  So what’s the big deal?

Well, the beginning of the mystery is that in the whirlwind of marriages that sweeps up the Bennet family in the final volume, and leaves three Bennet girls married by the end of it, the entail of Longbourn, once so central, seems to get strangely lost in the shuffle during the climax. This is especially so in the final chapters, when the narrator tidies up the plot in a dozen or more ways, yet there is not (unless I have missed it?) even a sentence about the entail, not  even to say, as one  might have expected at a minimum,
that the entail no longer mattered, because if  Mr. Bennet died, it was obvious that Lizzy and Jane would provide comfortable homes to Mrs. Bennet and any unmarried daughter for the rest of their lives.

Strangest of all, Mrs. Bennet, she who was most persistently upset about the entail, and who was  ready at the drop of a mobcap to make all sorts of inappropriate, boasting pronouncements which embarrassed Elizabeth in the extreme, does NOT say something like, “Now we need never worry again about being thrown out  of Longbourn if your poor father should die”. Not a word about it. Strange, but, like so many strange things in P&P, completely unnoted by the narrator.

Now I will walk you through the clues which, I will argue, provide some explanation for all this strangeness. But this time I will present the clues in a logical progression, to allow the overall reading to emerge organically, step by step.

CLUE ONE: The passages in Chapters 15 and 29, which (I claimed in my post yesterday) are evidence of Mr. Collins being JA’s version of Bottom, and Lady Catherine JA’s version of Titania,  Bottom and Titania being of course, the brief, absurdly incongruous, spell-bound “lovers” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

CLUE ONE, DECODED: Viewing the marriage of Mr. Collins and Charlotte through the lens of Bottom and Titania’s  brief strange romance made me much of my previous research about  P&P in a fresh light, in particular the absurdity of the match between Collins and Charlotte. And just as Shakespeare scholars and directors have for centuries debated whether or not Bottom and Titania “do it” in her bower before he is  turned back from a jackass to a human being, so too have I wondered about  Charlotte and Collins in that same vein. Which brings me to…

CLUE SEVEN: These two passages in Chapters 17 and 57 regarding two letters written by Mr. Collins to Mr. Bennet, (curiously) almost exactly one year apart (in mid-October of two consecutive years):
“…As a clergyman, moreover, I feel it my duty to promote and establish the blessing of peace in all families within the reach of my influence; and on these grounds I flatter myself that my present overtures are highly commendable, and that the circumstance of my being next in the entail of Longbourn estate will be kindly overlooked on your side, and not lead you to reject the offered olive-branch. I cannot be otherwise than concerned at being the means of injuring your amiable daughters, and beg leave to apologise for it, as well as to assure you of my readiness to make them every possible amends—but of this hereafter.”  …. "In point of composition," said Mary, "the letter does not seem defective. The idea of the olive-branch perhaps is not wholly new, yet I think it is well expressed."

“The rest of his letter is only about his dear Charlotte's situation, and his expectation of a young olive-branch.”

SIGNIFICANCE OF CLUE SEVEN: It has long been recognized that “expectation of a young olive-branch” refers to Charlotte being pregnant, a fact which has a very high ick quotient for many readers. Ruth Perry in her 2000 Persuasions Online article “Sleeping With Mr. Collins” writes the following:

““That they share the conjugal embrace is proved by their “‘expectation of a young olive-branch’”.  There is not the slightest whiff of sexual disgust about the matter: not from Charlotte, nor from Elizabeth, nor the narrator….the physical repugnance that we in the present century feel at the idea of sleeping with Mr. Collins is entirely absent in Jane Austen’s treatment of the matter.  The “better feelings” that Charlotte Lucas is said to have sacrificed do not, apparently, include squeamishness about sex with a pompous and sycophantic man.”

What occurred to me in early 2006, i.e., within a year of my realizing that Mrs. Weston was not the biological mother of Anna Weston, was that Charlotte Lucas was NOT really pregnant, either, she was only pretending to be---therefore, Charlotte never really had to sleep with Mr. Collins after all, he was a foolish enough man that I can readily imagine Charlotte convincing this foolish, naive man that a non-penetrative form of physical intimacy was sufficient to cause pregnancy.

But was it merely sexual disgust at having sex with such a man as Mr. Collins, or fear of death in pregnancy, that would have motivated Charlotte Lucas not to want to have sex with Collins?  I have long understood Charlotte’s not sleeping with Collins as ALSO being driven by a third reason why Charlotte in particular would feel sexual disgust at actually having sex with Mr. Collins, which some of you have already guessed is…

CLUE TWO: My previous claims that numerous passages in P&P point to Charlotte Lucas as being (romantically) in love with Elizabeth Bennet, i.e., Charlotte is a lesbian. That is why Charlotte agrees to marry the sexless Mr. Collins, and that is also why Charlotte, via Mr. Collins, plants the false rumor of Darcy and Elizabeth being engaged in Lady Catherine’s mind, so that Lady Catherine will be hoist on her own petard, when she succeeds only in driving Darcy and Elizabeth into each other’s arms. Think in particular about the implications of the above for Charlotte’s marriage to Mr. Collins.

So, now, if the “olive-branch” was taken from another female tree, who was the mother?

Had you asked me the question in 2006, my answer would have been Anne de Burgh, because her oft-noted sickliness reminds of Jane Fairfax’s telltale illness in Emma. But it was in 2009, i.e., four years ago, that another, far more disturbing possibility occurred to me, which I now am firmly convinced is the interpretation Jane Austen intended---Jane Bennet!

I first spoke publicly about this interpretation in 2010 when I spoke about it to the JASNA chapter in LA, and the evidence I’ve gathered in support of this reading is, while not nearly as extensive as the case for Jane Fairfax’s concealed pregnancy, still highly probative. I will today only give you a brief sampler.
The full argumennt is for another time.

CLUE THREE: These two passages from Chapters 47 (when Elizabeth returns to Longbourn) and 49 (when Elizabeth and Jane become aware that Mr. Bennet has received a letter from Mr. Gardiner), respectively:
“Elizabeth jumped out; and, after giving each of them a hasty kiss, hurried into the vestibule, where Jane, who came running down from her mother's apartment, immediately met her.”
“Jane, who was not so light nor so much in the habit of running as Elizabeth, soon lagged behind, while her sister, panting for breath, came up with him, and eagerly cried out…”

CLUE THREE, DECODED: JA makes a point of showing us TWICE in Chapter 47, that Jane, who at this point is about to give birth to her baby, is unable to run without panting for breath.

And I will now also add another clue set which pervades P&P:  

CLUE SET NINE: All the passages in P&P  which contain the word “expect” or variants thereof  (especially “expectation”) and which associate that word with Mrs. Bennet, Jane Bennet, and Charlotte Lucas both before and after she becomes Charlotte Collins. These  are classic Jane Austen Code usages, designed to subliminally wink at the theme of pregnancy in the Bennet family.

But, what about  the scandalous implications that Jane Bennet, she of the purest and saintly character, might have gotten pregnant out  of wedlock?  How about this….

CLUE EIGHT: Last but not least, this passage from JA’s Letter 85 dated May 24, 1813, or 4 months after publication of P&P, in which JA describes a painting which reminds her of Jane after she has married Bingley:
“…very well pleased – particularly (pray tell Fanny) with a small portrait of Mrs. Bingley, excessively like her; I went in hopes of seeing one of her Sisters, but there was no Mrs. Darcy; — perhaps however, I may find her in the Great Exhibitions which we shall go to, if we have time;… Mrs. Bingley’s is exactly like herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness.  

CLUE EIGHT DECODED: What I discovered four years ago was that the portrait Jane Austen very likely was referring to was one which was associated with the famous Regency Era courtesan, Harriette Wilson!

But now some of you are asking, what does all of this have to do with the entail of Longbourn?  Because at some point during the story the accident of Jane’s pregnancy was recognized by various female characters (Jane herself, Mrs. Bennet, Charlotte Lucas, and Mrs. Gardiner) as an opportunity for solving the entail problem once and for all—IF…..Jane’s baby turned out to be a boy!

Which brings me to…

CLUE FOUR: These two passages about Mrs. Bennet, in Chapters 47 and 50, respectively:
“…And, above all, keep Mr. Bennet from fighting. Tell him what a dreadful state I am in, that I am frighted out of my wits—and have such tremblings, such flutterings, all over me—such spasms in my side and pains in my head, and such beatings at heart, that I can get no rest by night nor by day….”
 “When first Mr. Bennet had married, economy was held to be perfectly useless, for, of course, they were to have a son. The son was to join in cutting off the entail, as soon as he should be of age, and the widow and younger children would by that means be provided for. Five daughters successively entered the world, but yet the son was to come; and Mrs. Bennet, for many years after Lydia's birth, had been certain that he would. This event had at last been despaired of, but it was then too late to be saving. Mrs. Bennet had no turn for economy, and her husband's love of independence had alone prevented their exceeding their income.”

I believe that Mrs. Bennet, in her reference to her own “tremblings” and “flutterings” and “spasms” was laying the groundwork for the possibility of “revealing” that a baby boy was actually her own baby!

Which brings me to…

CLUE SIX:  A fiction in the Regency Era law of entails which was described in an article in a past issue of  Persuasions, the JASNA journal, which created a curious loophole.

CLUE SIX, DECODED: In Persuasions #11 1989 Luanne Bethke Redmond “Land, Law and Love” , we read: “Mr. Collins could not do anything about the entail during Mr. Bennet’s life either, because he had a future interest which was not vested.  “Vesting” is a legal concept which is hard to define; in this case it means that Mr. Collins had no right to take Longbourn and treat it as his own until Mr. Bennet died without having had a son.
Jane Austen tells us that the Bennets had despaired of having a son.  However, at common law there was no such thing as menopause.  Both men and women were held legally able to have children until death.  As evidence for this rule, judges often quoted the example of Sarah in the Bible, who conceived and gave birth to Isaac when she was 90 years old.”

I think you see the connection without further explanation by me, except I will add that this “bed-trick” was in part inspired by Helena’s bedtrick in Shakespeare’s Alls Well That Ends Well, to which JA slyly alludes in several key passages in P&P.

And I conclude with…

FIVE: This passage from Chapter 61:
“Mary was the only daughter who remained at home; and she was necessarily drawn from the pursuit of accomplishments by Mrs. Bennet's being quite unable to sit alone. Mary was obliged to mix more with the world, but she could still moralize over every morning visit; and as she was no longer mortified by comparisons between her sisters' beauty and her own, it was suspected by her father that she submitted to the change without much reluctance.

I suggest to you that Mrs. Bennet has not stopped thinking about that entail of Longbourn, because she knows that strange things happen in the world, such as sons (or  sons-in-law) inexplicably and inexcusably not taking care of their mother and sisters after the death of a father resulting in loss of home (e.g., what happened after Reverend Austen died, for starters!), and hence she still has a backup plan to hold on to Longbourn till she dies—I for one am worried about  “the change” to which Mary is submitting “without much reluctance”!

And there I will leave off.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode onTwitter

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