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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Topsy-Turvy Elizabeth Bennet as the Bewitching Slave Girl of Pride & Prejudice



Diana Birchall wrote the following brilliant observation today in Janeites & Austen-L:
“Enjoyed your student's interesting mashup of P & P and Uncle Tom's  Cabin, Diane - I'm sure such a thing has never been attempted before, and  it was imaginatively done.  However, I read the last line, Elizabeth saying  "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man of fortune must be in
want of a wife," as, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man of fortune must be in want of a SLAVE." Perhaps that's the truth that we get from a P & P/UTC mashup?”

Yes, Diana, that was indeed precisely the hidden truth that Stowe saw in Pride & Prejudice! Diane was spot-on in spotting the connection, and that’s all I needed to take her catch and run with it and flesh out her brilliant intuition.

In regard to fleshing out (if you’ll forgive another pun), I’ve been working on a followup post re UTC and and P&P, in which I go one step further beyond my claim that St. Clare is Mr. Bennet, and his wife is Mrs. Bennet.

Here’s the kicker---- UTC’s slave girl Topsy is…… Elizabeth Bennet, the Creole!!!

I’ve felt for some time that Elizabeth Bennet was a Creole, but never realized till this past week that Stowe picked up on this in UTC. First, let’s recap the passages in P&P that suggest Lizzy’s being biracial. When we read this passage about Darcy moving past his initial negative first impression of Elizabeth at the Meryton assembly…

“But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she HARDLY HAD A GOOD FEATURE IN HER FACE, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of HER DARK EYES.”

….this is code for Darcy learning to look past her Creole features (which would be unattractive to a racially prejudiced white man), and it reminds us of a passage in another Austen novel where exactly the same code is used to describe white observers learning to like the looks of a dark skinned person of the opposite sex:

“Her brother was not handsome: no, when they first saw him he was absolutely plain, black and plain; but still he was the gentleman, with a pleasing address. The second meeting proved him not so very plain: he was plain, to be sure, but then he had so much countenance, and his teeth were so good, and he was so well made, that one soon forgot he was plain; and after a third interview, after dining in company with him at the Parsonage, he was no longer allowed to be called so by anybody. He was, in fact, the most agreeable young man the sisters had ever known, and they were equally delighted with him. Miss Bertram's engagement made him in equity the property of Julia, of which Julia was fully aware; and before he had been at Mansfield a week, she was quite ready to be fallen in love with.”

Of course this is Henry Crawford, whom I have long considered to be biracial. But…I only noticed this time around the sharp irony of the line “made him in equity the property of Julia”---- a human being as “property” indeed—Jane Fairfax’s sale of human flesh!

And that same ironic joke is played upon in the other direction in P&P in a much more famous iteration of it: “he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.” That is the idea behind Lady Catherine’s accusing Lizzy of bewitching Darcy, taking possession of his soul and body by “black” magic!

And….that’s just the beginning—all of the teasing of Darcy by Caroline Bingley can readily be read as racist innuendo, all circling around Lizzy’s “dark eyes” as code for “dark SKIN”.

"I am afraid, Mr. Darcy," observed Miss Bingley in a half whisper, "that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of her fine eyes."
"Not at all," he replied; "they were BRIGHTENED by the exercise."

In other words, Darcy’s saying that Elizabeth’s skin color looks WHITER, as in the racist expression “That’s white of you.”

And Carolyn misses no opportunity to emphasize Lizzy’s dark skin coloration:

”How very ill Miss Eliza Bennet looks this morning, Mr. Darcy," she cried; "I never in my life saw anyone so much altered as she is since the winter. She is grown SO BROWN and coarse! Louisa and I were agreeing that we should not have known her again."
However little Mr. Darcy might have liked such an address, he contented himself with coolly replying that he perceived no other alteration than her being rather tanned, no miraculous consequence of travelling in the summer.
"For my own part," she rejoined, "I must confess that I never could see any beauty in her. Her face is too thin; her COMPLEXION has no brilliancy; and her features are not at all handsome. Her nose wants character—there is nothing marked in its lines. Her TEETH are tolerable, but not out of the common way; and as for her eyes, which have sometimes been called so fine, I could never see anything extraordinary in them. They have a sharp, shrewish look, which I do not like at all; and in her air altogether there is a self-sufficiency without fashion, which is intolerable."

This is the language of the slave auction!

And finally, all the references to the “mud” on Lizzy’s shoes and petticoat, which I demonstrated last year were code for feces (human and animal), fit perfectly with the white racist conflation of black skin color with the color of waste. Crude, disgusting, abhorrent racism---and exactly what many white people of that era believed!

And this is definitely what Stowe picked up on in P&P, and (as I will be posting in the near future) gave us Topsy to show her awareness----and, last but not least, that also goes for the other transformation of Elizabeth Bennet in a very famous later 19th century novel, a character created nearly 3 decades after Topsy, by a close friend of Harriet Beecher Stowe--- Louisa May Alcott’s topsy-turvy Jo March in Little Women!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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