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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

“Prudence forbad the disclosure” is undercut by “Selfishness is prudence”: Elizabeth Bennet unwittingly hoists herself on her own rhetorical petard!



 In followup to my two preceding posts about Elizabeth Bennet’s selfish rationalizations for not telling sister Jane about Darcy’s interference…
…I dug around in my files and found a snippet from a 2004 law review article written by a law professor named Rosanna Cavallaro, which discussed Pride & Prejudice from the point of view of legal rules of evidence and proof. In the following two paragraphs, Cavallaro shows herself to be the only Austen scholar prior to myself to have any awareness that Elizabeth had other valid options open to her besides withholding (from Jane) Darcy’s disclosure to Elizabeth about his having interfered between Bingley and Jane:

Austen explores the notion of privilege…when she permits Elizabeth to withhold from Jane not only Darcy’s secret regarding his sister, but also the details of Darcy’s role in thwarting Charles Bingley’s feelings for Jane….Austen does not condemn Elizabeth for withholding the ignoble role that her own lover has played in dividing Bingley from Jane. Instead, she permits the reader to approve the balancing of confidentiality against the free flow of information, facilitating the central match of this marriage comedy, even as it thwarts fulfillment of the secondary match. Jane is never permitted to learn of or to express anger about Darcy’s meddling, although Elizabeth accuses him of being “the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister.”  Instead, Austen writes of Elizabeth:  “The tumult of Elizabeth’s mind was allayed by this conversation. She had got rid of two of the secrets which had weighed on her for a fortnight, and was certain of a willing listener in Jane, whenever she might wish to talk again of either. But there was still something lurking behind, of which prudence forbad the disclosure. She dared not relate the other half of Mr Darcy’s letter, nor explain to her sister how sincerely she had been valued by his friend. Here was knowledge in which no one could partake; and she was sensible that nothing less than a perfect understanding between the parties could justify her in throwing off this last incumbrance of mystery. “And then,” said she, “if that very improbable event should ever take place, I shall merely be able to tell what Bingley may tell in a much more agreeable manner himself. The liberty of communication cannot be mine till it has lost all value!”
In ruminating over how to proceed with this important confidence, Elizabeth here overlooks a critical aspect of the “knowledge” that she withholds: It is not that Bingley indeed loves Jane, but that Darcy has persuaded him that Jane does not love him. Indeed, so far from being condemned for his meddling, Darcy himself is credited with righting things by reassuring Bingley that Jane reciprocates his feelings for her.  He does not even share the credit with Elizabeth, who had first put him on notice of his own error of judgment as to Jane’s feelings.  Nor does he thank her for keeping his “absurd and impertinent” “interference” a secret from Jane. The connection is simply reestablished, with surprise and joy on the part of both Jane and Bingley, and the novel ends with two marriages...”  END QUOTE FROM CAVALLARO ARTICLE

From my perspective, Cavallaro has opened the door wide with this brilliant analysis—and she zeroes in on that very passage in Chapter 40 which I flagged in my first post, the crucial passage in which Elizabeth rationalizes (like Perry Mason’s casuistry in representing a guilty client) that “prudence forbad the disclosure”. But Cavallaro lacked the crucial knowledge that there was a shadow story (parallel fictional universe version) of P&P in which Jane Austen meant for her knowing readers to view Elizabeth in a very negative light for this decision, and not (as has been the conventional Austen scholarly response) as evidence of Elizabeth’s admirable independence and courage.  All the same, big kudos to Cavallaro for even reaching this question in the first place a decade ago!

I was also thinking some more overnight about the theme of Elizabeth’s rationalizing selfishness in P&P, and I did a quick search of the word “selfish” in the novel, to see what else might pop up as additional ironic shadowing by JA, and I found the mother lode immediately in the following passage in Chapter 24, when Elizabeth responds with great vitriol to Aunt Gardiner about Charlotte’s decision to marry Mr. Collins, and appears particularly triggered by her aunt’s saying “Consider Mr. Collins's respectability, and Charlotte's steady, PRUDENT character.”:

"To oblige you, I would try to believe almost anything, but no one else could be benefited by such a belief as this; for were I persuaded that Charlotte had any regard for him, I should only think worse of her understanding than I now do of her heart. My dear Jane, Mr. Collins is a conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man; you know he is, as well as I do; and you must feel, as well as I do, that the woman who married him cannot have a proper way of thinking. You shall not defend her, though it is Charlotte Lucas. You shall not, for the sake of one individual, change the meaning of principle and integrity, nor endeavour to persuade yourself or me, that SELFISHNESS IS PRUDENCE, and insensibility of danger security for happiness."

This might just be the biggest textual irony of all the ones I’ve catalogued in these three posts—why? Because, in this passage in Chapter 24, Elizabeth condemns Charlotte harshly for calling herself “prudent” as a “pretty face” to cover the ugly “selfishness” of the decision. Austen scholars and ordinary Janeites alike have long been at a loss to explain how exactly Charlotte was being “selfish” in marrying Mr. Collins.

But JA’s deeper intention in putting this speech in Elizabeth’s mouth is now clear—this speech actually functions as Lizzy’s own unwitting condemnation of her own rationalizing in Chapter 40 (when Lizzy actually thinks “PRUDENCE forbad the disclosure”), and, for that matter, of Lizzy’s decision to accept Darcy’s second proposal not long afterwards!  To demonstrate this, with a minimum of editing, I will turn that fiery little speech into what Mary Bennet (the “whisperer”  who tried in vain to warn Elizabeth to beware of Darcy’s seductive charms) might have said to Mr. Bennet at the end of the novel, if Mr. Bennet had tried to defend Lizzy’s acceptance of Darcy’s proposal:

"To oblige you, I would try to believe almost anything, but no one else could be benefited by such a belief as this; for were I persuaded that Elizabeth had any regard for him, I should only think worse of her understanding than I now do of her heart. My dear FATHER, Mr. DARCY is a conceited, SELFISH, narrow-minded, MACHIAVELLIAN man; you know he is, as well as I do; and you must feel, as well as I do, that the woman who married him cannot have a proper way of thinking. You shall not defend her, though it is YOUR BELOVED LIZZY. You shall not, for the sake of one individual, change the meaning of principle and integrity, nor endeavour to persuade yourself or me, that SELFISHNESS IS PRUDENCE, and insensibility of danger security for happiness."

That all of the textual points I’ve laid out in these three posts have never been properly understood before as a package intentionally embedded in the text of P&P by the Machiavellian art of Jane Austen, is only a sign of how brilliantly she hid it all in plain sight for two centuries!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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