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

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The parade of “performances” to “strangers” in Pride & Prejudice

 This post is a followup to the post I wrote a while back on the auspicious occasion of the bicentennial of the publication of Pride & Prejudice, “Darcy's "We neither of us perform to strangers": a Radical New Interpretation”:

The bottom line of my radical new interpretation 2 years ago, as I presented my final textual evidence, was as follows:

"My fingers," said Elizabeth, "do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women's do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I will not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman's of superior execution."
As I have previously suggested, Darcy hears that as an over-the-top sexual come-on, requiring only that the literate Darcy hear “instrument” according to Cleland’s euphemistic use of that word in Fanny Hill—and otherwise Lizzy’s fingers literally do all the walking, so  to speak. At this point, Darcy is no longer puzzled at Lizzy’s seeming deep ambivalence about him. He flashes on the notion that Lizzy is intentionally engaging in very audacious sexual repartee, and is strongly implying to him that she is not going to explicitly tell him how much she desires him sexually, so she is taking the next best step, and intentionally hinting at it repeatedly.
And that’s what he means by “we neither perform to strangers”---i.e., he smiles  because he gives her exactly what he believes she wants to hear, a coded acknowledgment that he “gets” her coded sexual messages! Their mutual coded exchange of sexual messages is for their mutual ears only, and is not intended to be understood by anyone else present, most of all the nosy matchmaking wannabe “stranger “ Lady Catherine, seated a dozen feet away.
And, final inspired touch, “No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you can think anything wanting” is a coded version of  “I, Darcy, by virtue of having finally taken all your hints, have now been admitted to the privilege of really hearing what your coded  innuendoes are saying to me, and now I know that I no longer  think anything wanting in terms of the sexual partner I want—you! 
The only problem is—Darcy’s wrong!  Lizzy is not consciously leading him on, she is only “leaking” her  intense attraction to him, which she is working overtime to repress.
Sound vaguely familiar? It should! This is a reiteration of what we read more than a dozen chapters earlier, when Mr. Collins proposed to Lizzy, and he misinterpreted her negative response as a kind of conduct-book implication of acceptance. Some Austen scholars have previously noted veiled parodic parallels between Darcy and Collins as suitors—but this one tops them all!
And Darcy’s overconfident misinterpretation of Lizzy’s verbal repartee is one very important reason why Darcy is so astonished when Lizzy rejects his first proposal in Chapter 34. Yes, he’s also shocked in part simply because he is an arrogant jerk who just assumes that women will swoon for him—that’s his bad. But it’s also partly because Lizzy has been giving him so many unconscious come-ons, culminating in that Chapter 31 exchange, which cumulatively and reasonably lead him to believe she really wants him to make his move, and soon---and that’s her bad, even if she did it unconsciously and without intent to cause him pain---her actual words spoken to him when she rejects his proposal, are spoken by her without understanding half of their full import.” END QUOTE FROM MY 1/25/13 POST

If the above (together with all the many, less subtextual interpretations of Darcy’s memorable aphorism that have been made over the last few decades by other Austen scholars) were all there was to find in “we neither perform to strangers”, that (as with the Passover recitation of the plagues) would be enough…to establish Jane Austen as a writer of unbelievably subtle skill and genius.

However, that is actually only the beginning, as I will now use this same textual example to demonstrate how tightly and complexly interwoven all the threads of this superficially “light bright and sparkling” novel really are. It turns out that if we follow the words “perform” and “stranger”, they lead us to the growing realization that, hidden in plain textual sight, Darcy’s aphorism turns out to be the hub of a wheel of intricate meaning and wordplay that runs from the beginning of the novel to the end!

For the remainder of this post, then, let me take you for one turn round the wheel that is Pride & Prejudice, and at each point along the circumference I will show you another interesting spoke on the wheel of wordplay.

Chapter 3: Before we know anything about him, Bingley is the man in question when we read that after the Meryton Assembly, Mr. Bennet "had rather hoped that his wife's views on the STRANGER would be disappointed; but he soon found out that he had a different story to hear.". This means that he perversely had rather hoped Bingley would be completely uninterested in any of the Bennet girls, even though Mr. Bennet had previously performed his duties to his daughters by visiting Bingley secretly.

Chapter 6: Lizzy tells Charlotte "You are a very STRANGE creature by way of a friend!—always wanting me to play and sing before anybody and everybody!". I.e., Elizabeth calls Charlotte a "strange" (meaning, not very good) friend, for having put Elizabeth on the spot, compelling her to perform to the strangers who’ve just come to Meryton!

Chapter 10: " Mrs. Hurst sang with her sister, and while they were thus employed, Elizabeth could not help observing, as she turned over some music-books that lay on the instrument, how frequently Mr. Darcy's eyes were fixed on her. She hardly knew how to suppose that she could be an object of admiration to so great a man; and yet that he should look at her because he disliked her, was still more STRANGE. ". Here we have a foreshadowing of the famous Ch. 31 scene at Rosings, in that Lizzy feels like she is onstage with Darcy as the audience, even though she is only in proximity to the piano, leafing through music books, while the Bingley sisters perform.

Chapter 13: Mr. Collins is teasingly identified by Mr. Bennet as a stranger (leading his wife to mistakenly infer that he is again talking about Bingley, who you recall was the “stranger” in Chapter 3!). Then Mr. Bennet in effect performs to the new stranger, Mr. Collins, by pretending to admire Collins's flattery technique, while all the same (shades of the scheming, almost cruel tricksters in Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night) actually amusing himself (and Lizzy) by giving Mr. Collins the cues he requires in order to parade his own absurdity, as the narrator tells us Mr. Bennet hoped for. And Mr. Collins unwittingly adds an echo, by speaking about his eagerness to “perform” his duties as a cleric in Hunsford to the strangers who will become his congregants.

Chapter 15: This time it’s Wickham who is identified as a handsome stranger when Lizzy first sees him and has no idea who he is--and it does not take long before Wickham charms Lizzy. He performs to her, whom he barely knows and therefore is still a stranger to her, the role of aggrieved victim, as Lizzy eventually realizes (see Chapter 36, below).

Chapter 18: Mary Bennet pushes forward to perform for strangers, as well as friends and family, at the Netherfield ball, but gets shot down by her father so humiliatingly that even Elizabeth is chagrined.

In this same Chapter 18, that’s when the faithfulness of Elizabeth’s “performance” in drawing the “portrait” of Darcy’s character is debated by the two of them, and he then famously fears that her “performance” would reflect no credit on either. Clearly Darcy wittily alludes to this repartee when they next spar at Rosings in Chapter 31.

And then Collins once again, as in Chapter 13, unwittingly chimes in by performing his self-styled “duty” to perform his flattery dance for Darcy this time around.

Chapter 20: Mr. Bennet performs his greatest zinger at his wife, and again, the word “stranger” creeps in as he issues Lizzy his fateful faux-edict:
From this day you must be a STRANGER to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do."

Chapter 29: Lady Catherine finds it “very strange” that Eliza and her sisters were not taught to perform on the  pianoforte.

Chapter 31: The hub of the wheel, as explained above, and nearly exactly halfway through the novel.

Chapter 36 is the passage I mentioned earlier in my discussion of Chapter 15, when Eliza reflects in hindsight on how Wickham gave her way Too Much Information too soon:
She was now struck with the impropriety of such communications to a STRANGER, and wondered it had escaped her before.”

Chapter 43: In many ways, this is the most interesting, as it quirkily echoes Mr. Bennet’s Chapter 20 edict to Eliza, in that, as she now strolls around Pemberley, she suddenly repeatedly thinks of herself as a “stranger” there in a kind of strange land. And, an added echo, she sees his family portraits, which reminds us of her repartee with Darcy in Chapter 18 about her “performance” in taking his “portrait”. This subliminal wordplay reminds us that now her “performance” gives him all the credit he wants, and then some!

Chapter 49: Uncle Gardiner announces that if Mr. Bennet “performs” the modest famous payment obligations agreed upon with Wickham, then the very strange marriage of Lydia and Wickham will occur.

Chapter 51: It is Eliza who this time refers to Darcy as a stranger to the Bennet family who has mysteriously performed astonishing actions on its behalf:
"You may readily comprehend…what my curiosity must be to know how a person unconnected with any of us, and (comparatively speaking) a STRANGER to our family, should have been amongst you at such a time….."

Chapter 52: Then, when Eliza tells Wickham about Lady Catherine, she returns to the same meaning of “strange” that she applied to Charlotte way back in Chapter 6:
"And what did [Lady Catherine] say?"
"That you were gone into the army, and she was afraid had—not turned out well. At such a distance as that, you know, things are STRANGELY misrepresented."
"Certainly," he replied, biting his lips. Elizabeth hoped she had silenced him…..”

Chapter 57: And finally, we have Elizabeth reacting to her father’s wit (recalling his performance with Collins back in Chapter 13, we one more time get that word “strange”:
“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?"
"Oh!" cried Elizabeth, "I am excessively diverted. But it is so STRANGE!"

Now, why is it that mainstream Austen scholarship contains so little of the kind of textual analysis that I have just laid out for you, above? I claim that it’s because even the best Austen scholars have grossly underestimated the intricacy and subtlety of her literary genius. It’s as if musicologists had been writing analysis of the masterworks of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, et al, for two centuries, and yet none of them realized they ought to include in their analysis the most basic musical level of specific notes, themes and motifs, and to show how they are varied in a multitude of ways which provides both unity and infinite variety.

In Jane Austen, there has been far too little analysis of the words and phrases in her novels, and how she varies them throughout each novel—indeed, between novels as well!—to achieve higher level effects.

And that brings me to perhaps is the final richest irony hidden inside Darcy’s epigram. We may fairly say that Jane Austen the writer took the greatest delight in “performing” to the “strangers” who would read her novels! And how poignant yet thrilling it is to realize that more readers are reading Jane Austen today than the sum total of all her readers from publication through, say, 1980—and we may expect that number to keep growing worldwide at a steady pace for many decades to come.

But that authorial “performance” which inspires such fanatical devotion among so many of us Janeites is anything but simple—on one level, she is entertaining us; on another, enlightening us; on still another, moving us emotionally. And, unlike Eliza, JA must have practiced her “performance” a great deal, especially during the 15 years between her initial writing of First Impressions, and the final production of Pride & Prejudice. When you’re a great genius, autodidacticism is the route to mastery—she didn’t need a “governess” to teach her how to write, as Lady Catherine might have suggested had she thought novel writing a proper accomplishment of a young lady---Jane Austen learned from the only role model on her level who had something to teach her that she could not figure out herself—Shakespeare.

But on the deepest level, I assert that in constructing all her novels as double stories, she in effect “performs” in the same sense that Mr. Bennet “performs” to Mr. Collins---she baits and seduces us into reading her novels one way, while hoping that one day, upon rereading, we will realize that we’ve been had by her disingenuous performance as a writer-and that’s when we really see her shadow stories (or rather hear the polyphony of the combination of her overt and shadow stories) for the amazing creations that they are.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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