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

Thursday, May 14, 2015

When in doubt, lead Jane Austen’s literary “trump card” ---Shakespeare (on the coffee table!)

In Janeites & Austen-L, Ellen Moody wrote the following during a discussion of the Netherfield library in Pride & Prejudice: 
Austen resists and frustrates us by not telling what novel Elizabeth is reading. She took it out of Netherfield Hall library.”

Here is the famous passage Ellen was referring to, from Chapter 8 of P&P:

“…On entering the drawing-room she found the whole party at loo, and was immediately invited to join them; but suspecting them to be playing high she declined it, and making her sister the excuse, said she would AMUSE HERSELF for the short time she could stay below, WITH A BOOK. Mr. Hurst looked at her with astonishment.
"Do you prefer reading to cards?" said he; "that is rather singular."
"Miss Eliza Bennet," said Miss Bingley, "despises cards. SHE IS A GREAT READER, and has no pleasure in anything else."
"I deserve neither such praise nor such censure," cried Elizabeth; "I AM not A GREAT READER, and I have pleasure in many things."
"In nursing your sister I am sure you have pleasure," said Bingley; "and I hope it will be soon increased by seeing her quite well."
Elizabeth thanked him from her heart, and then walked towards THE TABLE WHERE A FEW BOOKS WERE LYING. He immediately offered to fetch her others—all that his library afforded.
"And I wish my collection were larger for your benefit and my own credit; but I am an idle fellow, and though I have not many, I have more than I ever looked into."
Elizabeth assured him that she could SUIT HERSELF WITH THOSE IN THE ROOM. “

Ellen was offbase in her assertion that Eliza is reading a book taken from the Netherfield library, since JA makes it clear to us, above, that Eliza is reading a book already there in the drawing-room. But more important, as I’ll show, below, rather than Jane Austen resisting or frustrating the reader by not explicitly identifying the book, I assert the opposite—I say that JA, characteristically, teases and challenges her readers to put on our sharp elves’ caps and sleuth out the textual hints and clues she has provided, as to which particular book Elizabeth reads in the Netherfield drawing-room.

And, by analogy to the game of bridge (an earlier version of which, whist, was popular in JA’s day, in addition to Mr. Hurst’s favorite card games) where the axiom for a player in doubt as to which card to lead is to lead trump, so too do I suggest the axiom that when a reader is in doubt as to where to start in searching out the identity of an unnamed book in one of JA’s novels, your best bet is to choose the author who was JA’s go-to allusive source time and time again----Shakespeare!

I’ve previously argued, for example, that the unnamed play Catherine and the Tilneys watch in Chapter 12 of NA at the Bath theatre is Hamlet, a play which mesmerizes Henry Tilney during its last two acts, and which more generally casts a huge ghostly Gothic shadow over the whole of Northanger Abbey. And I’ve also suggested in that regard that one reason why JA has John Thorpe issue a favorable verdict on Fielding’s Tom Jones is so as to indirectly point to Hamlet, in that one of the most memorable and written-about scenes in Tom Jones is a performance of Hamlet attended by Tom and Partridge, in which Partridge suffers from Hamlet’s difficulty in distinguishing between reality and fiction—which of course is the key theme of Northanger Abbey.

And we all also know that in Jane Austen’s most overtly Shakespeare-drenched novel, Mansfield Park, she plays a little cat and mouse game with the reader about which speech Henry Crawford reads aloud from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII.

So, what clues do we have in P&P as to which book Elizabeth might have suited herself with? I see (at least) two.

First, it must be one of only a handful of books which were kept in the drawing-room at Netherfield Park, as opposed to the other books kept in the library. In other words, it would have been what we today call a “coffee table book”. It turns out that coffee table books are not a modern idea. E.g., Montaigne griped as follows in 1580: "I am vexed that my Essays only serve the ladies for a common movable, a book to lay in the parlor window…”  And that custom seems to have been followed at Netherfield Park.

So…what sort of book would have been chosen by the snobbish Caroline Bingley to put on display in the drawing room of the upscale English country mansion rented by her brother? Before trying to ascertain what book Elizabeth was reading in Chapter 8, we may find the following passage in Chapter 11 (which takes place in the identical location) instructive:

“Darcy took up A BOOK; Miss Bingley DID THE SAME; and Mrs. Hurst, principally occupied in playing with her bracelets and rings, joined now and then in her brother's conversation with Miss Bennet.
Miss Bingley's attention was quite as much engaged in watching Mr. Darcy's PROGRESS THROUGH his BOOK, as in reading her own; and she was perpetually either making some inquiry, or looking at HIS PAGE. She could not win him, however, to any conversation; he merely answered her question, and read on. At length, quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused with HER OWN BOOK, which she had only chosen BECAUSE IT WAS THE SECOND VOLUME OF HIS, she gave a great yawn and said, "How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything THAN OF A BOOK! When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library."
No one made any reply. She then yawned again, THREW ASIDE HER BOOK, and cast her eyes round the room in quest for some amusement….”

So, the book Darcy of which was reading Vol. 1 (and Miss Bingley was reading Vol. 2) wask clearly a novel, and my guess is that it was Burney’s Cecilia, from which P&P, and in particular the scenes in the Netherfield drawing-room, draws much inspiration. One nice additional touch that confirms we’re talking about a novel is that Miss Bingley “threw aside her book”, suggesting that it was a book of small size, which novel volumes were.

But….it would be a mistake, I think, to therefore assume that Elizabeth was also reading a novel back in Chapter 8. Because it was a book for display, it was more likely, I believe, to have been a larger book, with more “production values” in terms of size, external decoration, etc., and also with snob appeal. And what book would meet all those criteria better than a volume of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets—perhaps even an expensive and lavish facsimile of the First Folio itself.

Recall that in JA’s next novel after P&P, MP, we hear all about how Shakespeare is part of an English reader’s constitution, how his words mysteriously osmose into the thoughts and feelings of all. Also recall, again, that Fanny reads to Lady Bertram from Shakespeare in the Mansfield Park drawing-room.

But what makes me so sure that it is a volume of Shakespeare (as opposed to, say, Chaucer or Milton) in this particular case? Aside from all the Shakespearean allusions that saturate P&P (as well as all of JA’s novels, for that matter), there is one other large and proximate textual clue that makes it much more likely that it was Shakespeare that Elizabeth was reading in Chapter 8. That clue is contained in Chapter 9—i.e., sandwiched right in between the other two scenes in the drawing-room which mention unnamed books. The following excerpt from Chapter 9 begins with Mrs. Bennet boasting about Jane’s beauty, and then mentioning the unnamed suitor who courted Jane in London when she was only sixteen, and then wrote some pretty verses about her:

"Oh! dear, yes; but you must own [Charlotte] 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."
"And so ended his affection," said Elizabeth impatiently. "There has been many a one, I fancy, overcome in the same way. I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love!"
"I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love," said Darcy.
"Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away."
Darcy only smiled…”

I’ve previously (and controversially) argued that, unknown to Elizabeth, Darcy was that very same man who courted Jane six years earlier, and that’s why Darcy leaps to the defense of that unnamed suitor of Jane’s, and that’s why he smiles—i.e., because it was himself! But even putting aside that controversial claim for the moment, it has long been recognized by mainstream Austen scholars that Darcy’s bon mot about poetry being “the food of love” constitutes Darcy’s clever and very thinly veiled allusion to the famous first line of Duke Orsino’s speech at the very beginning of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night:


And, I am the first to have noted previously that Elizabeth’s droll reply about poetry as a kind of murderer of a slight, thin love is derived from the second and third lines of that very same speech by Duke Orsino!:

“Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.

And I’ve also pointed out previously that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 75—which, as you will readily confirm for yourself, clearly was connected in Shakespeare’s own mind to Duke Orsino’s speech----is also on Darcy’s and Elizabeth’s mind:

So are you to my thoughts as FOOD to life,
Or as sweet-season'd showers are to the ground;
And for the peace of you I hold such strife
As 'twixt a miser and his wealth is found.
Now proud as an enjoyer, and anon
Doubting the filching age will steal his treasure;
Now counting best to be with you alone,
Then better'd that the world may see my pleasure:
Sometime all full with feasting on your sight,
And by and by clean STARVED for a look;
Possessing or pursuing no delight
Save what is had, or must from you be took.
Thus do I pine and SURFEIT day by day,
Or gluttoning on all, or all away.

So…I say,  it’s not a coincidence that Darcy and Elizabeth have a Shakespeare-saturated exchange in Chapter 9 only one chapter after we hear about Elizabeth reading a coffee table book at Netherfield—it’s because Darcy and Elizabeth have not only both been browsing in the large volume of Shakespeare on display in the Netherfield drawing-room, they have both also been observing each other browsing in it, and perhaps even have sneaked peeks at the actual pages being read, while innocently strolling behind one another—another variant on the eavesdropping scenes in Much Ado!

That, I claim, is the origin of their Shakespearean repartee, which surely goes right over the head of everyone else present –and that is significant, because once again we see that Darcy is correct later in Chapter 31, when he smiles and says to Eliza that they neither of them perform to strangers—they do indeed perform only to each other, hiding their literary and aesthetic erudition in plain sight! Just as Henry Crawford courts, and effectively steals the heart of, Fanny Price, via his charismatic and insightful recitals of Shakespeare, so too do Darcy and Elizabeth fan the flames of their mutual (reluctant) attraction via Shakespeare as well.

And that was my trump card for today, which I hope has removed the last of your doubts as to the validity of my conclusions.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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