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

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Last summer in Ramsgate: Darcy’s clever (& successful) cover story masking his officious (& unrepentant) triumph over Jane Bennet

In my post the other day, I presented three passages from the middle of Pride & Prejudice, which all involve Lizzy being informed of events of the summer preceding the action of the novel:

Chapter 33: Colonel Fitzwilliam recounts Darcy’s feelings of triumph after saving a friend from an imprudent marriage, including mentioning that Bingley and Darcy spent the summer together;

Chapter 35: Darcy’s letter recounts Wickham’s near-successful attempt to seduce and elope with Georgiana at Ramsgate during the summer;

Chapter 37: Lady Catherine’s recounts Georgiana’s visiting Ramsgate during the summer accompanied by two men-servants.

I suggested there is more to see than meets the eye initially, when those three passages are all viewed in relation to each other, as different perspectives bearing on the same events. I’ve delayed my followup post, while I pored over those 3 passages—not coincidentally, like Elizabeth Bennet poring over Darcy’s letter. I’ve conjured up, and then entertained, various theories as to what Austen intended by all of this. And yesterday, an elegant, simple explanation finally came to me, which fits perfectly with my longstanding interpretation of the double story structure of P&P, as I’ll now explain.

That anamorphic, double structure teeters on the fulcrum of Darcy’s first proposal. I.e., when Eliza turns Darcy down, the doors to two parallel fictional universes open up for the reader to walk through. In one, Darcy, at heart a decent man, genuinely reforms and repents; and that gives us the overt story we all know and love, a great female wish fulfilment fantasy. In the other, Darcy, a hard-wired narcissist, only pretends to repent and reform, while immediately mounting a clever (and successful) campaign of manipulation of Eliza’s perception of Darcy’s character, such that Eliza’s initially courageous resistance to his power is destroyed by feelings of shame and regret Darcy has consciously inculcated in her; and that is the shadow story, the ultimate cautionary tale against wish fulfilment fantasies.

As I’ve argued many times, I believe JA’s ultimate point in all of this was not to idly torment her readers, but to provide practice in the study of character to her (mostly female) readers, to assist them in developing the psychological flexibility to steer a pragmatic middle course between fantasy and cynicism in the realm of matrimony.

In the remainder of this post, I’ll be focused only on the shadow story found beyond Door #2, as I interpret the above referenced 3 passages in relation to the unrepentant Don Giovanni, Darcy. All I ask is that you walk through Door #2 with me—holding your nose, if you wish---and then briefly and hypothetically entertain my heresies, as if you were not already certain that Darcy does reform, and see what happens. You may be surprised.

My argument begins with Colonel Fitzwilliam’s account to Elizabeth of Darcy’s gloating triumph after his successful matchbreaking machinations, as to which it is unclear from Fitzwilliam’s report whether Darcy’s interference occurred the previous summer when Darcy and Bingley were together, or during their first extended stay at Netherfield Park in the fall.

I’ve previously described Eliza’s shock and anger when she gets the scoop from Fitzwilliam, as she assumes that Bingley is the friend whom Darcy saves from an imprudent marriage to Jane. That assumption is based mainly on Eliza having no information regarding any other friend of Darcy whom he might have “saved” the preceding summer; plus her prior, deep puzzlement at why Bingley so abruptly left Meryton. It’s understandable that Eliza assumes that the smoke she was already aware of, was the source of the fire that so upset her. And that makes the salt rubbed in her wound by Fitzwilliam’s callous musings sting all the more, because Jane seems to be that objectionable lady, treated as if she were not really a person, but a defective chattel to be cavalierly rejected.

And it only gets worse from there. Darcy, when he shows up without warning at the parsonage to propose, has no idea that Fitzwilliam has just revealed his earlier mean-spirited gloating to Eliza. Plus, as I’ve explained in a number of prior posts, he has, over a period of time, felt led on by Elizabeth’s numerous (unwittingly) ambiguous reactions to him, at both Netherfield and Rosings, to believe that she is as attracted to him as he is to her. And all of that is why he is so shocked and dumbfounded when she not only rejects him, but does so with fury, and accusing him of having destroyed Jane’s romantic prospects with Bingley. He’s like General Custer at Little Big Horn when he hears the following:

“...But I have other provocations. You know I have. Had not my feelings decided against you—had they been indifferent, or had they even been favourable, do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?...I have every reason in the world to think ill of you. No motive can excuse the unjust and ungenerous part you acted there. You dare not, you cannot deny, that you have been the principal, if not the only means of dividing them from each other—of exposing one to the censure of the world for caprice and instability, and the other to its derision for disappointed hopes, and involving them both in misery of the acutest kind."
She paused, and saw with no slight indignation that he was listening with an air which proved him wholly unmoved by any feeling of remorse. He even looked at her with a smile of affected incredulity.
"Can you deny that you have done it?" she repeated. “

Now, let’s pause there and speculate about what Darcy is thinking right before he responds to that last aggressive question. He is shocked not only at Eliza’s anger, but also at her certainty—“You dare not, you cannot deny….” And being a narcissist, when accused of wrongdoing, he doesn’t apologize, he digs his heels in, and adds even more insult to injury, like a spoiled boy, as he defiantly defends his sacred right to be a cruel jerk. And I believe he’s also relieved, for a moment, not to have to wear the mask of civility any longer, a mask that was apparently an uncomfortable fit from the get-go, especially vis a vis a woman beneath him in status who has had the temerity, as he sees it, to bewitch him, then reject him.

“With assumed tranquillity he then replied: "I have no wish of denying that I did everything in my power to separate my friend from your sister, or that I rejoice in my success. Towards him I have been kinder than towards myself."

Most importantly, and at that moment unknown to Darcy, when he defiantly “rejoices” in his “success”, he unwittingly exhibits to Eliza exactly the same cruel pleasure in his triumph that Fitzwilliam reported to Elizabeth. His tranquility is assumed, not genuine—beneath the surface, he is boiling with aggrieved anger, and therefore he is not thinking clearly.

But now we enter interpretive terra incognita. While the narration tells us everything about what Elizabeth is thinking and feeling in the twelve hours after their epic confrontation, it tells us absolutely nothing about what Darcy is thinking and feeling, once he has a chance to cool down and reflect on what went so very wrong. All we have is his letter.

I suggest that when he does calm down and look back on the day’s events, that’s when he asks himself the crucial question he was too angry to think of at the parsonage: “How exactly did Elizabeth reach such a level of certainty about my interference between Bingley and Jane? Who told her?” And as soon as he asks himself this question, he knows the answer, by simple process of elimination---Colonel Fitzwilliam! If Darcy didn’t know before that Fitzwilliam had met and spoken with Eliza while out for his usual tour of the Rosings estate (where Darcy himself had often encountered Elizabeth), he had only to confront his cousin, to find out that the Colonel had blabbed way too much to Elizabeth at exactly the wrong moment.

And it would then not have taken Darcy long to pull out of Fitzwilliam two key facts: (1) that Fitzwilliam had specifically reported Darcy’s gloating over his matchbreaking “triumph”, and (2) that Eliza had been particularly interested in whether Darcy believed there was affection between Jane and Bingley.

Now, the Darcy of the shadow story is a man who cannot take no for an answer, especially from a woman, and therefore, he is not content to just write Eliza off as a failure, even though there are so many other fish in the sea who keep swimming up to him and begging him to catch them. There’s no rejoicing in that sort of easy conquest. But no, like Henry Crawford, Darcy relishes a challenge, and nobody says no to Mr. Darcy of Pemberley---and tells him off in the process----and gets away with it. And that is when Darcy hatches the plan to heal the massive narcissistic injury he has suffered. Some way, somehow, Elizabeth Bennet must be induced, without her realizing she has been managed, to change her “No!” to “Yes, pretty please!”. That is the only remedy for what ails Darcy’s wounded ego.

And so the first order of business, then, is to write her a letter before he and Fitzwilliam leave Rosings, and to do some major damage control about the “triumph” fracas (as well as the Wickham mess that Eliza has directly confronted him about). But how? And could Darcy somehow kill these two inconvenient birds with one deceptive stone?

Darcy has to give Elizabeth some reason for NOT attributing that story of his triumph to Jane and Bingley, which was so toxic (and rightly so) to Eliza, but also for seeing Wickham with jaundiced eyes. Darcy has extracted from a sheepish Fitzwilliam the exact words the latter spoke to Eliza, including that Fitzwilliam tells Darcy he told Eliza that Darcy and Bingley had spent the summer together. Since Eliza trusts Fitzwilliam, could this be a way of using Fitzwilliam’s own words to induce Eliza to believe that it was a different “friend” whom Darcy saved from an imprudent marriage….with Wickham?

Which brings us to the tale of Wickham’s attempted seduction of Georgiana at Ramsgate the previous summer. There are two possibilities regarding the affair that Darcy describes in his letter, and asks Eliza to keep secret—either it really did happen as Darcy wrote about it, or it never happened, but was concocted by him out of whole cloth as a convincing source for Fitzwilliam’s blabbing.

Either way, if the “friend” Darcy saved was his own kid sister Georgiana, as to whom a marriage with Wickham would have been quite “objectionable”, then Darcy’s triumphing in preventing such a marriage, especially to a fortune hunter like Wickham, would make Darcy a hero, not a jerk, and explain Darcy’s hostility toward Wickham. I.e., Darcy was betting that if he could trick Elizabeth into reinterpreting Fitzwilliam’s revelations as having nothing to do with Bingley and Jane, perhaps Lizzy would also forget Darcy’s boastful “rejoicing” in his “success” with Jane and Bingley. Darcy’s goal was to defuse the bomb planted in Eliza’s mind by Fitzwilliam, as to which Darcy had lit the fuse himself. And I hope I’ve made it clear that Darcy’s letter has been carefully crafted by him with its specific content tailored to fit every word that Fitzwilliam and Eliza on their stroll outside.  Reread it and see.

And how do we know that Darcy’s trick succeeded?  Because in the very next chapter, when Lizzy is poring over Darcy’s letter and thinking about it, the narrator, having full access to Lizzy’s thoughts and feelings, tells us so—and I bet that most, if not all of you reading this post have never understood the true significance of the cryptic narration in this regard that I will now explain:

“But, alas! the story which followed, of [Wickham’s] designs on Miss Darcy, received some confirmation from what had passed between Colonel Fitzwilliam and herself only the morning before; and at last she was referred for the truth of every particular to Colonel Fitzwilliam himself—from whom she had previously received the information of his near concern in all his cousin's affairs, and whose character she had no reason to question. At one time she had almost resolved on applying to him, but the idea was checked by the awkwardness of the application, and at length wholly banished by the conviction that Mr. Darcy would never have hazarded such a proposal, if he had not been well assured of his cousin's corroboration.”

Note how successful Darcy was. Elizabeth, when sufficiently softened up by the rest of Darcy’s letter, now finds in Darcy’s tale of Wickham’s attempt to seduce Georgiana “some confirmation” not only of Wickham being a bad guy, but also of the identity of the unnamed friend whom Darcy “saved from an imprudent marriage.” It wasn’t Bingley after all---or so it now seems to Lizzy. And that leaves space for Eliza to then accept Darcy’s explanation in his letter that his interference in separating Bingley from Jane was not a matter of cruel triumph, but was based on his sincere belief that there was no real affection between them and that he was doing Bingley a real favor.

I’ve diligently searched, and cannot find a single Austen scholarly book or article, or any post in the various Austen online discussion venue archives, in which the narrative reference to “some confirmation” is even discussed, let alone properly understood as I’ve just explained. Isn’t that very interesting? It reveals the power of expectation and assumption to shape perception.

And the best touch on this point is Darcy’s daring bluff---his invitation to Eliza to verify the details re Wickham with Fitzwilliam—how convenient that Fitzwilliam, for all that he had supposedly waited a really long time for Eliza to return before he and Darcy left Rosings, was no longer around when Lizzy got back to the parsonage. Darcy has played the same game with Lizzy that Lucy Steele played with Elinor in S&S---he “reveals” a confidential secret which cannot be corroborated as truthful.

And JA gives her readers one final wink on this masterful adjustment of Elizabeth’s reality by Darcy, when she revisits it in the much later scene at Pemberley, by which time Eliza has totally adopted Darcy’s version of reality as her own. When Caroline Bingley makes her snide comment about the absence of Wickham’s regiment, Eliza believes she sees evidence of the actuality of the Wickham-Georgiana near elopement in Georgiana’s appearing to be “overcome with confusion” and her apparent “inability to lift up her eyes”.

However, it’s important to recognize that, in the absence of any words actually spoken by Georgiana, her ambiguous nonverbal behavior could be explained in a half dozen other equally plausible ways, such as that, e.g., Georgiana missed Wickham, and thought well of him as a kind of brother with whom she had only had pristine, platonic brother-sister interactions, but whom she no longer saw because of bad blood between Wickham and Darcy.

So, I hope that your short turn about the room after walking through Door #2 has been refreshing, and that you’ll browse in my blog for more of the same real soon.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


Diane said...

Intriguing post. It will send me back to that part of the text. Given that Elizabeth is as clueless as Emma, it will be interesting to reread this section!


Diana Oaks said...

Hmmmm. I can see where you're going with this, but I can't fully reconcile Colonel Fitzwilliam's narrative to Elizabeth with your theory. In particular, when Elizabeth questioned him about why Darcy had interfered, Fitzwilliam's response was "I understood that there were some very strong objections against the lady."

If the imprudent marriage of their discussion was actually a covert reference to Wickham, the objections would certainly not have been against the lady. The other thing that doesn't really fit your narrative is that the Colonel claims that he doesn't know all the particulars and he is only assuming it to be Bingley that Darcy helped. Since Fitzwilliam is co-guardian to Georgiana, would he not have been informed of the events at Ramsgate? If that was the actual "imprudent marriage" referenced, why would the Colonel assume it to be related to Bingley?

I'm not convinced on this one, although I will mull it over.