The sparkling repartee in Chapter 18 between Darcy and Elizabeth as they dance with each other at the Netherfield Ball surely ranks at or near the top of favorite scenes in Austen novels among Janeites, and its fame extends even outside purely literary circles. I came across it recently in the writings of the late great sociologist of the small, Erving Goffman. Goffman, prompted by an unpublished essay by one of his students, Stephanie Rothman, quoted from that Darcy-Elizabeth exchange in his classic 1961 text Encounters, and then observed: ‘The phenomenon of ‘making’ a situation is not, of course, restricted to New York hipsters. Jane Austen provides a contrast, illustrating at the same time how the structure of a focused gathering itself can be introduced conversationally as a means of attacking the frame and discomfiting participants”.
That short paragraph appears to have at least in part inspired at least 3 subsequent analyses of Jane Austen’s writings through a Goffmanian lens---by Tony Tanner in 1985, by David Southward in 1996, and most recently by Charles Thompson in 2015.
I will post another time about my own recent delvings into Goffman with JA in mind, but for now, I want to mention one purely Austenian connection I made for the first time while reflecting on Goffman/ Rothman’s choice of the Netherfield Ball repartee as an illustration of a participant in a tete a tete abruptly breaking the frame of the conversation, and turning the implicit rules of conversation into verbal barbs fired with ironic satirical intent.
What occurred to me was the striking resemblance, which far outweighs the differences, between the dancing (in both senses of the word) repartee between Lizzy and Darcy at the Netherfield Ball, and its “double”, i.e., the dancing (albeit mostly one sided) repartee between Catherine and Henry at the Pump Room in Bath in Chapter 10 of Northanger Abbey.
I urge the Janeite looking for a fresh source of delight in JA’s fiction to read those two passages one after the other, and then, if so moved, to reflect on the parallels and contrasts, and what they mean for our understanding of each of these two love stories.
What was most salient to my eyes was the gender switch which perhaps has obscured the resonance between these scenes-i.e., in P&P, the straight man is Darcy, and the one who gets the deliver the punch lines is Lizzy. Whereas, in NA, the wise alec is of course Henry, who takes delight in rhetorically dancing in and around Catherine a dozen times, while she mostly stands in place. It is indeed a very different sort of dance we see—and yet, I also know from my studies of both of these novels that in the end of the day, Catherine is in some ways a sharper elf than Lizzy—most of all perhaps in her self knowledge. So perhaps Lizzy dances so much precisely because she is a moth dancing around a dangerous flame—Darcy.
From Goffman’s perspective, we see that Henry takes delight in breaking the frame of the ritual of dancing, and we may see the roots of both Lizzy’s and Henry’s inspired wit in Shakespearean characters like Hamlet, Rosalind, and most of all Beatrice and Benedick.
Jane Fox: “As someone who has danced English country dances, I'm impressed by Austen's characters being so adept at the dance that they can carry on conversations while dancing. To be sure, English, with its long sets, is easier than Scottish country, but it still requires attention to your where you are going if you don't have huge amounts of practice. Much of each conversation appears to take place while the speakers are actually moving. Try it some time. …”
Jane, thank you very much for your reply to my above post. My short answer to your above comment is that Jane Austen was clearly taking poetic license in having Lizzy and Darcy, and Henry and Catherine multitask so well, as both couples engage in such memorable verbal repartee while executing complicated dance steps. What I love most about those parallel scenes is that I’d imagine that most readers don’t consciously realize that the verbal repartee is a form of verbal dancing, which is going on simultaneously with, and therefore, in some sense in coordination with, the physical dancing.
I think Andrew Davies perfectly captured that “harmony” between word and step in the above video segment from P&P2 ---and, in light of your comment, I wonder how many different takes were spliced together in order to produce that entire 6 minute scene!
So, without further ado, here are the two passages, to save you the trouble of tracking them down yourself. I would love to hear your thoughts after you read the two together.---Cheers, ARNIE
P&P Chapter 18:
“…she found herself suddenly addressed by Mr. Darcy who took her so much by surprise in his application for her hand, that, without knowing what she did, she accepted him. He walked away again immediately, and she was left to fret over her own want of presence of mind; Charlotte tried to console her: "I dare say you will find him very agreeable."
"Heaven forbid! That would be the greatest misfortune of all! To find a man agreeable whom one is determined to hate! Do not wish me such an evil."
…They stood for some time without speaking a word; and she began to imagine that their silence was to last through the two dances, and at first was resolved not to break it; till suddenly fancying that it would be the greater punishment to her partner to oblige him to talk, she made some slight observation on the dance. He replied, and was again silent. After a pause of some minutes, she addressed him a second time with:—"It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy. I talked about the dance, and you ought to make some sort of remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples."
He smiled, and assured her that whatever she wished him to say should be said.
"Very well. That reply will do for the present. Perhaps by and by I may observe that private balls are much pleasanter than public ones. But now we may be silent."
"Do you talk by rule, then, while you are dancing?"
"Sometimes. One must speak a little, you know. It would look odd to be entirely silent for half an hour together; and yet for the advantage of some, conversation ought to be so arranged, as that they may have the trouble of saying as little as possible."
"Are you consulting your own feelings in the present case, or do you imagine that you are gratifying mine?"
"Both," replied Elizabeth archly; "for I have always seen a great similarity in the turn of our minds. We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the eclat of a proverb."
"This is no very striking resemblance of your own character, I am sure," said he. "How near it may be to mine, I cannot pretend to say. You think it a faithful portrait undoubtedly."
"I must not decide on my own performance."
He made no answer, and they were again silent till they had gone down the dance, when he asked her if she and her sisters did not very often walk to Meryton. She answered in the affirmative, and, unable to resist the temptation, added, "When you met us there the other day, we had just been forming a new acquaintance."
The effect was immediate. A deeper shade of hauteur overspread his features, but he said not a word, and Elizabeth, though blaming herself for her own weakness, could not go on. At length Darcy spoke, and in a constrained manner said, "Mr. Wickham is blessed with such happy manners as may ensure his making friends—whether he may be equally capable of retaining them, is less certain."
"He has been so unlucky as to lose your friendship," replied Elizabeth with emphasis, "and in a manner which he is likely to suffer from all his life."
Darcy made no answer, and seemed desirous of changing the subject. At that moment, Sir William Lucas appeared close to them…The latter part of this address was scarcely heard by Darcy; but Sir William's allusion to his friend seemed to strike him forcibly, and his eyes were directed with a very serious expression towards Bingley and Jane, who were dancing together. Recovering himself, however, shortly, he turned to his partner, and said, "Sir William's interruption has made me forget what we were talking of."
"I do not think we were speaking at all. Sir William could not have interrupted two people in the room who had less to say for themselves. We have tried two or three subjects already without success, and what we are to talk of next I cannot imagine."
"What think you of books?" said he, smiling.
"Books—oh! no. I am sure we never read the same, or not with the same feelings."
"I am sorry you think so; but if that be the case, there can at least be no want of subject. We may compare our different opinions."
"No—I cannot talk of books in a ball-room; my head is always full of something else."
"The present always occupies you in such scenes—does it?" said he, with a look of doubt.
"Yes, always," she replied, without knowing what she said, for her thoughts had wandered far from the subject, as soon afterwards appeared by her suddenly exclaiming, "I remember hearing you once say, Mr. Darcy, that you hardly ever forgave, that your resentment once created was unappeasable. You are very cautious, I suppose, as to its being created."
"I am," said he, with a firm voice.
"And never allow yourself to be blinded by prejudice?"
"I hope not."
"It is particularly incumbent on those who never change their opinion, to be secure of judging properly at first."
"May I ask to what these questions tend?"
"Merely to the illustration of your character," said she, endeavouring to shake off her gravity. "I am trying to make it out."
"And what is your success?"
She shook her head. "I do not get on at all. I hear such different accounts of you as puzzle me exceedingly."
"I can readily believe," answered he gravely, "that reports may vary greatly with respect to me; and I could wish, Miss Bennet, that you were not to sketch my character at the present moment, as there is reason to fear that the performance would reflect no credit on either."
"But if I do not take your likeness now, I may never have another opportunity."
"I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours," he coldly replied. She said no more, and they went down the other dance and parted in silence; and on each side dissatisfied, though not to an equal degree, for in Darcy's breast there was a tolerably powerful feeling towards her, which soon procured her pardon, and directed all his anger against another.”
NA Chapter 10:
“This was the last sentence by which [Thorpe] could weary Catherine's attention, for he was just then borne off by the resistless pressure of a long string of passing ladies. Her partner now drew near, and said, "That gentleman would have put me out of patience, had he stayed with you half a minute longer. He has no business to withdraw the attention of my partner from me. We have entered into a contract of mutual agreeableness for the space of an evening, and all our agreeableness belongs solely to each other for that time. Nobody can fasten themselves on the notice of one, without injuring the rights of the other. I consider a country-dance as an emblem of marriage. Fidelity and complaisance are the principal duties of both; and those men who do not choose to dance or marry themselves, have no business with the partners or wives of their neighbours."
"But they are such very different things!"
"—That you think they cannot be compared together."
"To be sure not. People that marry can never part, but must go and keep house together. People that dance only stand opposite each other in a long room for half an hour."
"And such is your definition of matrimony and dancing. Taken in that light certainly, their resemblance is not striking; but I think I could place them in such a view. You will allow, that in both, man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal; that in both, it is an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each; and that when once entered into, they belong exclusively to each other till the moment of its dissolution; that it is their duty, each to endeavour to give the other no cause for wishing that he or she had bestowed themselves elsewhere, and their best interest to keep their own imaginations from wandering towards the perfections of their neighbours, or fancying that they should have been better off with anyone else. You will allow all this?"
"Yes, to be sure, as you state it, all this sounds very well; but still they are so very different. I cannot look upon them at all in the same light, nor think the same duties belong to them."
"In one respect, there certainly is a difference. In marriage, the man is supposed to provide for the support of the woman, the woman to make the home agreeable to the man; he is to purvey, and she is to smile. But in dancing, their duties are exactly changed; the agreeableness, the compliance are expected from him, while she furnishes the fan and the lavender water. That, I suppose, was the difference of duties which struck you, as rendering the conditions incapable of comparison."
"No, indeed, I never thought of that."
"Then I am quite at a loss. One thing, however, I must observe. This disposition on your side is rather alarming. You totally disallow any similarity in the obligations; and may I not thence infer that your notions of the duties of the dancing state are not so strict as your partner might wish? Have I not reason to fear that if the gentleman who spoke to you just now were to return, or if any other gentleman were to address you, there would be nothing to restrain you from conversing with him as long as you chose?"
"Mr. Thorpe is such a very particular friend of my brother's, that if he talks to me, I must talk to him again; but there are hardly three young men in the room besides him that I have any acquaintance with."
"And is that to be my only security? Alas, alas!"
"Nay, I am sure you cannot have a better; for if I do not know anybody, it is impossible for me to talk to them; and, besides, I do not want to talk to anybody."
"Now you have given me a security worth having; and I shall proceed with courage. Do you find Bath as agreeable as when I had the honour of making the inquiry before?"
"Yes, quite—more so, indeed."
"More so! Take care, or you will forget to be tired of it at the proper time. You ought to be tired at the end of six weeks."
"I do not think I should be tired, if I were to stay here six months."
"Bath, compared with London, has little variety, and so everybody finds out every year. 'For six weeks, I allow Bath is pleasant enough; but beyond that, it is the most tiresome place in the world.' You would be told so by people of all descriptions, who come regularly every winter, lengthen their six weeks into ten or twelve, and go away at last because they can afford to stay no longer."
"Well, other people must judge for themselves, and those who go to London may think nothing of Bath. But I, who live in a small retired village in the country, can never find greater sameness in such a place as this than in my own home; for here are a variety of amusements, a variety of things to be seen and done all day long, which I can know nothing of there."
"You are not fond of the country."
"Yes, I am. I have always lived there, and always been very happy. But certainly there is much more sameness in a country life than in a Bath life. One day in the country is exactly like another."
"But then you spend your time so much more rationally in the country."
"Do you not?"
"I do not believe there is much difference."
"Here you are in pursuit only of amusement all day long."
"And so I am at home—only I do not find so much of it. I walk about here, and so I do there; but here I see a variety of people in every street, and there I can only go and call on Mrs. Allen."
Mr. Tilney was very much amused.
"Only go and call on Mrs. Allen!" he repeated. "What a picture of intellectual poverty! However, when you sink into this abyss again, you will have more to say. You will be able to talk of Bath, and of all that you did here."
"Oh! Yes. I shall never be in want of something to talk of again to Mrs. Allen, or anybody else. I really believe I shall always be talking of Bath, when I am at home again—I do like it so very much. If I could but have Papa and Mamma, and the rest of them here, I suppose I should be too happy! James's coming (my eldest brother) is quite delightful—and especially as it turns out that the very family we are just got so intimate with are his intimate friends already. Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath?"
"Not those who bring such fresh feelings of every sort to it as you do. But papas and mammas, and brothers, and intimate friends are a good deal gone by, to most of the frequenters of Bath—and the honest relish of balls and plays, and everyday sights, is past with them." Here their conversation closed, the demands of the dance becoming now too importunate for a divided attention.