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

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The many (in)direct boasts of Pride & Prejudice

Pride & Prejudice, even more than Jane Austen’s other novels, is a kind of encyclopedia of dramatized interpersonal dynamics and personality theory---or, as Jane Austen put it, the study of character. Pride, prejudice, vanity, reputation, prudence, and numerous other intertwined psychological traits are enacted, foregrounded, and minutely examined via explicit dialogue and narration, all of which invites and challenges readers to (re)consider our own opinions on these psychological and moral subjects, which  of course are the stuff of our own lives as well.

The special genius of P&P in this regard is that JA makes this study so witty, entertaining and moving at the same time, that it must be a very stupid reader indeed who does not get hooked into coming back to the same scenes over and over again in never-ending rereading----not because we’re coerced, but because we’re seduced, to do so. We see JA’s brilliant didactic strategy in action. She demonstrates her great skill at teaching what is worth knowing about human nature and morality, not by tedious, sententious, sexist lectures, a la Fordyce’s sermons, but by a stream of teasing provocations of the reader toward subversive autodidactic exploration of complexity beyond simplistic maxims. And Jane Austen book clubs and societies like JASNA are, we can see in hindsight, the natural evolutionary endpoint of this process, as the greatest pleasure is to share that exploration in the best company of like-minded lovers of her writing.

One of the less obvious examples in P&P of this provocation to knowledge, is the subject of boasting. I hope to tempt you to give this topic fresh consideration that you may not have previously given to it. The scene that comes to mind first for Janeites regarding boasting is surely the lively exchange in Chapter 10 in the Netherfield drawing-room, which begins when Bingley attempts to explain away his haphazard method of letter-writing, and Darcy pounces, attacking him with cold, incisive logic:

"My ideas flow so rapidly that I have not time to express them—by which means my letters sometimes convey no ideas at all to my correspondents."
"Your humility, Mr. Bingley," said Elizabeth, "must disarm reproof."
"Nothing is more deceitful," said Darcy, "than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect BOAST."
"And which of the two do you call my little recent piece of modesty?"
"The indirect BOAST; for you are really proud of your defects in writing, because you consider them as proceeding from a rapidity of thought and carelessness of execution, which, if not estimable, you think at least highly interesting. The power of doing anything with quickness is always prized much by the possessor, and often without any attention to the imperfection of the performance. When you told Mrs. Bennet this morning that if you ever resolved upon quitting Netherfield you should be gone in five minutes, you meant it to be a sort of panegyric, of compliment to yourself—and yet what is there so very laudable in a precipitance which must leave very necessary business undone, and can be of no real advantage to yourself or anyone else?"

An hour could be profitably and enjoyably spent just discussing the pros and cons of Darcy’s lawyer-like analysis, and of his companions’s responses—especially Eliza’s “Your humility, Mr. Bingley, must disarm reproof”, a witty, poetic epigram Shakespeare himself would have been proud to have composed---but today I will instead draw your attention to the surprisingly large number of other passages in P&P, in which boasting is either explicitly or implicitly presented, and to show that many of them were skillfully written by JA so as to subliminally echo and reignite the debate explicitly initiated by Darcy in  the above-quoted famous passage.

The first one I find is actually an earlier scene in the Netherfield drawing room, in Chapter 8, when Darcy, curmudgeonly mounting one of his other hobby horses, takes aim at the sacred cow of female “accomplishment” posed by Miss Bingley.

"Your list of the common extent of accomplishments," said Darcy, "has too much truth. The word is applied to many a woman who deserves it no otherwise than by netting a purse or covering a screen. But I am very far from agreeing with you in your estimation of ladies in general. I cannot BOAST of knowing more than half-a-dozen, in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are really accomplished.”

It only occurred to me for the first time today, that Darcy is actually guilty here of  the very sort of indirect boast that he accuses Bingley of two chapters later! He adopts a rhetorical stance of false humility, when he says he “cannot boast” of knowing more than six really accomplished women, according to his exalted standards. To her great credit, Elizabeth quickly and brilliantly exposes and punctures Dardy’s self-inflating indirect boast as follows:

"I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any."
"Are you so severe upon your own sex as to doubt the possibility of all this?"
"I never saw such a woman. I never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe united."

So, isn’t it wonderful that when we view the famous Chapter 10 scene through the lens of this Chapter 8 scene, it becomes clear that Darcy suffered embarrassment—indeed, a narcissistic injury--when Lizzy exposed his indirect boast, which he couldn’t get out of his mind, and so that is why Darcy seized the moment when Bingley rationalized his own lack of accomplishment in letter-writing, and then Elizabeth let Bingley completely off the hook --- it was as if Darcy childishly wanted to say to Eliza, “Hey, no fair! If you won’t let me get away with an indirect boast, then you must do the same  to Bingley!”

This must be the umpteenth example of the utter mastery of hidden structure in P&P, where a keyword (in this case “boast”) turns out to be the key that opens the door to an interconnection between two or more scenes in the novel, which turns out to give startling new explanation for the behavior of the characters.

And it’s only just the first variation on this theme of Darcy’s own indirect boasting. Only one chapter after he accuses Bingley of doing what he himself did not long before, Darcy repeats this same offense in Chapter 11 in the following famous passage:

"No," said Darcy, "I have made no such pretension. I have faults enough, but they are not, I hope, of understanding. My temper I dare not vouch for. It is, I believe, too little yielding—certainly too little for the convenience of the world. I cannot forget the follies and vices of others so soon as I ought, nor their offenses against myself. My feelings are not puffed about with every attempt to move them. My temper would perhaps be called resentful. My good opinion once lost, is lost forever."
"That is a failing indeed!" cried Elizabeth. "Implacable resentment is a shade in a character. But you have chosen your fault well. I really cannot laugh at it. You are safe from me."

Once again, he starts out by seeming to confess to having “faults enough”, in particular his resentful unforgiving temper, only to undo his confession by justifying and in effect boasting about this very same trait, his resentful character. And JA gives an extra hint that she has put these phony words into Darcy’s mouth, when Eliza, in Chapter 16, recalls this very speech of Darcy’s to Wickham as yet another indirect boast on Darcy’s part:

"I do remember his BOASTING  one day, at Netherfield, of the implacability of his resentments, of his having an unforgiving temper. His disposition must be dreadful."

I just checked and saw that I was preceded in this catch by Mary Waldron in 1999 (who was then echoed, without attribution, by David Shapard in his 2013 annotated P&P), who described that same speech of Darcy’s very similarly to mine, above:

“…we find that far from modifying Elizabeth’s spontaneity, [Darcy] renders himself extremely vulnerable to it, ending by informing the company of his faults in a way he has seen fit to reprove Bingley about earlier…In his conversation with Elizabeth at the end of chapter 11, he has to resort to the indirect boast himself, after Elizabeth has expressed herself ‘perfectly convinced that Mr. Darcy has no defect. He owns it himself without disguise.”…There is a sense of self-defence here---Darcy has been boxed into a corner…His remarks are not, as Marilyn Butler has described them, ‘careful, scrupulous, truthful’, but pretentious and intended to inhibit discussion which might put him at a disadvantage…”

So, here we have three passages in pretty quick succession, which collectively present a veiled portrait of Darcy as an unconscious stone-throwing hypocrite, who fails to realize that Pemberley is a proverbial glass house, so to speak.

But that’s still only the tip of the iceberg of the “boasting” theme in P&P. In the remainder of this post, I will quickly identify and parse the other passages in P&P I see as part of this “boasting” matrix:

First, in Chapter 9, we have Mrs. Bennet engaging in her typical sort of VERY thinly veiled indirect boasting about Jane’s beauty:

 "Oh! dear, yes; but you must own she is very plain. Lady Lucas herself has often said so, and envied me Jane's beauty. I DO NOT LIKE TO BOAST of my own child, but to be sure, Jane—one does not often see anybody better looking. It is what everybody says. I do not trust my own partiality. When she was only fifteen, there was a man at my brother Gardiner's in town so much in love with her that my sister-in-law was sure he would make her an offer before we came away. But, however, he did not. Perhaps he thought her too young. However, he wrote some verses on her, and very pretty they were."

But, as I’ve asserted on a number of occasions, the further irony here is that the unnamed versifier six years earlier was that indirect boaster himself, Darcy, who is there listening to Mrs. Bennet!

In Chapter 31, we first get Lady Catherine’s absurd direct boast about the delightful quality of  her daughter’s purely hypothetical musical performance, which is however followed shortly by another indirect boast by Darcy, this time rationalizing his deficient social skills as beyond his own control, which Lizzy once again rises to the occasion and deflates, this time so brilliantly that even Darcy in effect must smile and say “Touche”:

"…but I am ill-qualified to recommend myself to strangers."
"Shall we ask your cousin the reason of this?" said Elizabeth, still addressing Colonel Fitzwilliam. "Shall we ask him why a man of sense and education, and who has lived in the world, is ill qualified to recommend himself to strangers?"
"I can answer your question," said Fitzwilliam, "without applying to him. It is because he will not give himself the trouble."
"I certainly have not the talent which some people possess," said Darcy, "of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done."
"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."
Darcy smiled and said, "You are perfectly right. You have employed your time much better. No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you can think anything wanting. We neither of us perform to strangers."

And then it’s a short further leap ahead to the passages I’ve recently written about in relation to Darcy’s “triumph” in separating Bingley from Jane. After Fitzwilliam tells Eliza of Darcy’s exultation, and she confronts Darcy, we get a very dark version of an indirect boast from Darcy when he sneers:

 "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."

As Eliza reflects on this very point while reading Darcy’s letter, that word “boast” pops into her head one more time:

“Elizabeth noticed every sentence conveying the idea of uneasiness, with an attention which it had hardly received on the first perusal. Mr. Darcy's shameful BOAST of what misery he had been able to inflict, gave her a keener sense of her sister's sufferings. It was some consolation to think that his visit to Rosings was to end on the day after the next—and, a still greater, that in less than a fortnight she should herself be with Jane again, and enabled to contribute to the recovery of her spirits, by all that affection could do.”

There are several other passages which P&P boasts (sorry, I couldn’t resist) which, while they don’t relate to Darcy, are nonetheless part of the same semantic matrix, so I urge you to find them and see if you can discern the Austenian irony and wit they also embody. And finally, for a 2012 post of mine about Jane Austen’s own deliberate, playful indirect boasts, I give you:

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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