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

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The La Rochefoucauldian playfulness and epigrammatism of Jane Austen’s general style – especially---but not exclusively---in Pride & Prejudice

I am not the first Austen scholar to note the striking parallelism between the very famous and influential maxims of La Rochefoucauld, on the one hand, and the “epigrammatism” of Jane Austen’s “general style”, on the other. However, I will in this post be the first scholar to land that plane, so to speak, and definitively claim, and then prove by overwhelming circumstantial textual evidence, that this was not an accidental or unconscious parallelism on JA’s part. Instead, I will show that Jane Austen’s own epigrammatism—and not just in her most epigrammatic novel, P&P--was very consciously based upon that of the grandmaster French epigrammatist.

JA of course referred to her own “epigrammatism” in those playful above-quoted words, in her very famous “too light, bright, and sparkling” 1813 letter to sister Cassandra, in which she wrote what any alert reader will recognized as “solemn specious nonsense” about her recently published “darling child”, Pride & Prejudice, supposedly being “too light, bright, and sparkling”.


The earliest scholarly recognition I can find of synchronicity between JA and La Rochefoucauld (who was also a favorite of many other famous writers in many different languages who came after him, including England’s Lord Chesterfield, who was himself a source for Jane Austen’s writing) is in “Style and Judgment in JA’s Novels” by Frank Bradbrook, Cambridge Journal Vol. 4, #9 (1951) ppg 515-37, at p. 517:

“Directness and brevity find their appropriate consummation in the epigram, and here JA reminds us of La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyere, and their English imitators, Lord Halifax, Swift, and Lord Chesterfield, as much as of Dr. Johnson.  Comments such as ‘A large income is the best receipt for happiness, I ever heard of.’ ‘We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing’, “Selfishness must always be forgiven you know, because there is no hope of a cure’ abound. A character such as Mr. Bennet is a personification of this trait: the apparent cynicism of his reflections, and the characteristic irony with which they are expressed, correspond to a permanent attitude in Jane Austen…”

Bradbrook did not appear to recognize that JA was very consciously and specifically alluding to La Rochefoucauld. However, when Bradbrook quoted, as an example of JA’s epigrammatism, Elizabeth Bennet’s cynical, almost Zen Buddhist, comment spoken to sister Jane in P&P Ch. 54, “We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing”, I’m pretty sure Bradbrook subconsciously had in mind La Rochefoucauld’s famous Maxim 377:   “We may bestow advice, but we cannot inspire the conduct.”

From Bradbrook, we move ahead over 40 years to Jane Austen's Novels: The Art of Clarity  by Roger Gard (1994), in which Gard quotes Willoughby…
 “I do not mean to justify myself, but at the same time cannot leave you to suppose that I have nothing to urge—that because she was injured she was irreproachable, and because I was a libertine, SHE must be a saint. If the violence of her passions, the weakness of her understanding”
…and then comments:
 “This has a whiff of La Rochefoucauld, a whiff of the writer of Lady Susan; it at once lifts us out of identification with Elinor’s point of view, and at the same time enhances our respect for her ability to cope with such truths.”
Again, the scholarly timidity, the failure to walk through the door that is already wide open.

And then a few years after Gard, there was still no clear acknowledgment of JA’s intentionality of allusion to La Rochefoucauld in Rachel Brownstein’s 1997 chapter in The Cambridge Companion to JA, in which Brownstein begins by quoting Mr. Bennet’s most famous epigram  “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?" and then observes: 
“It is tempting to read Mr. Bennet’s remark as a self-conscious gesture by the novelist….One of her acquaintances [Charlotte Maria Middleton] recalled of Austen that ‘her keen sense of humour …oozed out very much in Mr. Bennett’s style”, and his accents, or the most cynical tones of La Rochefoucauld, are audible in a gossipy letter she wrote to CEA in 1799:  “Whenever I fall into misfortune, how many jokes it ought to furnish to my acquaintance in general, or I shall die dreadfully in their debt for entertainment. “

Brownstein, like Bradbrook and Gard, clearly had in mind, at least subconsciously, La Rochefoucauld, in this case the famous Maxim 31: “If we had no faults, we should not take so much pleasure in noting those of others.”  
Bravo to Brownstein for catching the connection between JA’s 1799 letter and Mr. Bennet, but still, Brownstein is one more scholar who doesn’t trust their intuition, and does not seem to realize that La Rochefoucauld is not just “in the air”, but is behind both of them.

And now here is the fourth and last scholarly connection of JA with La Rochefoucauld that I found-in Jon Elster’s  Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions (1999)  at p. 121:
“[JA’s] dialogues and authorial asides contain observations that could have come straight from La Rochefoucauld or La Bruyere. In Chapter 9 of P&P, for instance, we find an exchange that mirrors La Rochefoucauld’s comment on how absence affects love of varying degrees of strength.” 

This is the best of the four, and hats off to Elster for coming closest to acknowledging JA’s intentionality in alluding to La Rochefoucauld. Elster first quotes this passage of Elizabeth and Darcy’s repartee…
“"I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love," said Darcy.
"Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Everything nourishes what is STRONG already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of INCLINATION, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away."
Darcy only smiled…”
….and Elster’s excellent summary makes it easy to locate La Rochefoucauld’s Maxim 269 as the source: 
“Absence weakens the minor passions and increases the great ones, as the wind blows out a candle and fans a fire. “

This example is particularly wonderful, because it is not a literal quotation, but is Elizabeth’s (and therefore obviously JA’s) brilliant ad libbed paraphrase, translating La Rochefoucauld’s metaphor of wind as feeding fire to a riff on Darcy’s metaphor of poetry as food feeding love.


Based on the above, I didn’t need any further prompting to begin skimming through La Rochefoucauld’s many maxims myself, and the following are what I found (and I’d be willing to bet that these are still not all there are hidden in JA’s varied, subtle palette of “epigrammatism”:

Maxim 386. What makes the vanity of others insufferable to us is that it wounds our own.
Maxim 33: Pride indemnifies itself and loses nothing even when it casts away vanity.

It’s obvious that Jane Austen had both of these maxims in mind, in tandem, when she wrote the following famous passage in Chapter 5 of P&P, in which first Elizabeth, and then Mary, channel La Rochefoucauld:

"His pride," said Miss Lucas, "does not offend me so much as pride often does, because there is an excuse for it. One cannot wonder that so very fine a young man, with family, fortune, everything in his favour, should think highly of himself. If I may so express it, he has a right to be proud."
"That is very true," replied Elizabeth, "and I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine."
"Pride," observed Mary, who piqued herself upon the solidity of her reflections, "is a very common failing, I believe. By all that I have ever read, I am convinced that it is very common indeed; that human nature is particularly prone to it, and that there are very few of us who do not cherish a feeling of self-complacency on the score of some quality or other, real or imaginary. Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us."

Now  you see what I meant by overwhelming circumstantial proof.

And how about this one?  Turns out that Mr. Darcy also read his La Rochefoucauld:

“A refusal of praise is a desire to be praised twice.”

This is clearly the source for this repartee between Bingley and Darcy:

"My ideas flow so rapidly that I have not time to express them—by which means my letters sometimes convey no ideas at all to my correspondents."
"Your humility, Mr. Bingley," said Elizabeth, "must disarm reproof."
"Nothing is more deceitful," said Darcy, "than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast."
"And which of the two do you call my little recent piece of modesty?"
"The indirect boast; for you are really proud of your defects in writing, because you consider them as proceeding from a rapidity of thought and carelessness of execution, which, if not estimable, you think at least highly interesting. The power of doing anything with quickness is always prized much by the possessor, and often without any attention to the imperfection of the performance.

And it’s not just Mr. Bennet, Elizabeth, and Mary…..


At the beginning of this post, I claimed that JA did not only have La Rochefoucauld in mind while writing P&P, she also alluded to him in other novels.

First, here is Reflection 139:  “One of the reasons that we find so few persons rational and agreeable in conversation is there is hardly a person who does not think more of what he wants to say than of his answer to what is said. The most clever and polite are content with only seeming attentive while we perceive in their mind and eyes that at the very time they are wandering from what is said and desire to return to what they want to say. Instead of considering that the worst way to persuade or please others is to try thus strongly to please ourselves, and that to listen well and to answer well are some of the greatest charms we can have in conversation.”

Isn’t it obvious that Reflection 139 is the minds of both Anne Elliot and Cousin Elliot when they provide the best company to each other?:

"My idea of good company, Mr Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company."
"You are mistaken," said he gently, "that is not good company; that is the best.

And then we have Maxim 245: “The height of cleverness is to be able to conceal it.”

Isn’t it obvious that Henry Tilney is showing off his literary erudition when he channels La Rochefoucauld as follows?:

“Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.
The advantages of natural folly in a beautiful girl have been already set forth by the capital pen of a sister author; and to her treatment of the subject I will only add, in justice to men, that though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire anything more in woman than ignorance. “

It’s no coincidence that the narrator of NA then goes on to speak wittily and epigrammatically about side-screens, perspectives, and other metaphors of visual art that translate readily into their  equivalents in words, in this case, JA’s infinitely subtle art of allusion to La Rochefoucauld.

And that being a ready an easy step to silence, I will bring this post to a close now.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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