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

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Mr. Bennet & Mrs. Bennet’s tete-a-tete at the beginning of P&P is part of a larger inter-novel pattern

 The new issue of Persuasions Online came out yesterday, and I had a chance to start browsing in it. I will be posting some reactions to what I find there during the next week or two.

To begin, I found a remarkable insight in Kevin Alan Wells’s article….
…entitled  “First Impressions: The Control of Readers’ Cognitions in the First Chapter of Pride and Prejudice

Wells spotted something extraordinary about one of the most famous and most frequently reread first chapters in the history of English literature, something I don’t believe has ever been noticed before, and it prompted me to some fresh insights into not only P&P, but to a larger, inter-novel pattern.

Here is what Wells wrote that really caught my attention:

“Mr. Bennet ironically mocks his wife’s idea of the wealthy newcomer marrying one of the women of his family by calling forth the least likely candidate.  While Mr. Bennet intends for this to wryly communicate disagreement with his wife’s proposition, Mrs. Bennet misperceives her husband’s irony as flattery.  She is clearly excluded from the camaraderie shared by an inner circle of the reader, narrator, and Mr. Bennet.  Led by the example and wit of these latter two, the reader may feel in good company to dismiss Mrs. Bennet and her ideas as silly.
 Something else is going on with Mr. Bennet’s lady, too.  Search the chapter:  nowhere is Mrs. Bennet properly named.  Mr. Bennet is named.  Sir William and Lady Lucas are named.  Bingley is named.  Netherfield Park is named.  Even the property agent of Netherfield, a man who never appears in the story, is named.  Never, though, a “Mrs. Bennet.” “  END QUOTE

Wells attributes Mrs. Bennet’s namelessness to her husband’s and the narrator’s lack of respect for her:

“Empirical research conducted by psychologists A. J. Sanford, K. Moar, and S. C. Garrod reveals the significance of Mrs. Bennet’s namelessness.  Their study demonstrated that readers assign more prominence to characters in literature referred to by proper names than characters referred to by descriptors.  “His lady,” “she,” “his wife,” “‘my dear,’” “‘you’”—neither the narrator nor Mr. Bennet have the decency to introduce Mrs. Bennet to readers by any more proper noun.  This side-stepping of Mrs. Bennet’s name achieves two goals.  It keeps readers cognitively engaged with the narrative as they search to reinstate the proper referent of the descriptors, and it continues the devaluation of Mrs. Bennet in readers’ minds.  By the time readers reach the final paragraph of this chapter, the capsule description of Mrs. Bennet’s mentality summarizes what readers are ready to believe about her:  “Her mind was less difficult to develope.  She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper.  When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous.  The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news”  “  END QUOTE

I agree with Wells that this is one of the several ways that Mr. Bennet shows disrespect for his wife,  and I also think Wells is even more spot-on in his description of how Jane Austen “tees up” that final narrative precis about Mrs. Bennet’s foibles, via Mrs. Bennet’s namelessness throughout the entire chapter.

And that would be reason enough for this post. But Wells also indirectly caused me to recognize something else in Chapter 1 that I never noticed before—it is a tete-a-tete between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, i.e., none of their daughters is present!

So what? Well, that makes it the ‘missing link” that fits into the pattern I first identified a few years ago, which is that several of Austen’s novels, within the first five chapters, devote most or all of a chapter to a tete-a-tete between two adult “policy makers”, in which there is minimal narration. Here is my most recent summary of that pattern:

And here is a brief recap of the other early tete-a-tetes:

Chapter 2 of S&S, when Fanny & John Dashwood have a tete-a-tete in their carriage, and discuss, in their horrible way, the welfare of John’s sisters and stepmother.

Chapter 5 of Emma, when Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley have a tete-a-tete at Randalls, and discuss Emma in a very enigmatic way.

Chapter 1 of MP, when Mrs. Norris and Sir Thomas (with Lady Bertram present but not speaking much) have a tete a tete at Mansfield Park, which also reflects their reprehensible characters.

But I never did spot the tete-a-tete in Chapter 1 of P&P before, and part of the reason for that, I now realize (and just verified in YouTube) is that neither the 1980 P&P nor the 1995 film P&P, the two I have seen many times each, depicts Mr. and Mrs. Bennet having that initial conversation alone.

Faye Weldon’s 1980 BBC version has excised that entire scene, and displaces the famous opening line of narration to a tete-a-tete between Elizabeth and Charlotte. And the 1995 Davies P&P has Mr. and Mrs. Bennet having that conversation while walking home from church, following closely by their daughters, who are listening to the entire conversation, with their parents’s full awareness of being overheard.

Interestingly the 2005 P&P (which in many ways is offbase in its adaptation of the novel, without the redeeming quality of being sensitive to the shadow story) is most faithful in this instance, as it depicts Elizabeth overhearing the beginning of the tete-a-tete between Mr. &Mrs. Bennet through an open window to the outside, and when Lizzy enters the home, she finds her three sisters eavesdropping on their parents!

Which is where my seeing Chapter 1 of P&P as part of a consistent pattern through all four of the JA novels that were published during her lifetime becomes highly relevant. I.e., the existence of that pattern through four novels suggests to me that this was a true tete-a-tete between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, just like those other three scenes which clearly are not overheard by the heroine or by anyone else.

And that pattern also fits with something else remarkable about Chapter 1 of P&P, which is the same as in those other three early scenes depicting tete-a-tetes. I.e., those scenes in the other novels, like Chapter 1 of P&P, have almost no narration at all.

What this pattern means is open to speculation and interpretation. Any thoughts?

I see it in part as JA setting a theatrical tone in all four of those novels, in having the novels begin almost as if they were plays and not novels. And it’s also no coincidence that these are all tete-a-tetes in which the heroine’s romantic future is part of the agenda under secret discussion.

But it’s also as if JA, before getting very far into each of these novels which will be quickly and permanently be almost completely dominated by the subjective consciousness of the heroine, gives the reader a vivid contrast to that dominance to come, by having a scene where the heroine is not present, and there is therefore no consciousness to mediate any substantive narration.

I.e., it’s quite interesting that JA does not overt report the thoughts of either Mr. or Mrs. Bennet in Chapter 1 of P&P, nor does she enter the mind of either John or Fanny Dashwood, nor, with a couple of exceptions, of Mrs. Weston or Kningtley, or of Mrs. Norris or Sir Thomas, in these scenes.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and now that I have shown these scenes recur in all of the novels that were clearly finished from JA’s point of view, it tells us that JA would have expected at least some readers of all four to eventually spot the pattern.

And so, by all of the above, JA is simultaneously sending the metafictional message to her alert readers that each Austen novel will be as much an exercise in literary epistemology as it is a sophisticated love story, cautionary tale, and comedy of manners.

Just as Wells was correct in attributing to JA an unspoken but implied message about how the reader ought to feel about Mrs. Bennet, so too does this pattern of early tete-a-tetes send an unspoken but implied message to the reader about how a Jane Austen novel is to be fully and properly understood.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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