(& scroll all the way down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

“There is but such a quantity to make one good sort of….WOman?”

I just noticed for the first time a remarkable epigrammatic conceit of Elizabeth Bennet (and therefore also of Jane Austen), hidden in the witty repartee which Eliza pops out while discussing Wickham and Darcy with sister Jane in Chapter 40.  As I will show you, below, there is a previously overlooked---and fitting---bookend to one of the most memorable lines in the novel in the following passage:

“[Eliza] then spoke of [Darcy’s] letter, repeating the whole of its contents as far as they concerned George Wickham. What a stroke was this for poor Jane! who would willingly have gone through the world without believing that so much wickedness existed in the whole race of mankind, as was here collected in one individual. Nor was Darcy's vindication, though grateful to her feelings, capable of consoling her for such discovery. Most earnestly did she labour to prove the probability of error, and seek to clear the one without involving the other.
"This will not do," said Elizabeth; "you never will be able to make both of them good for anything. Take your choice, but you must be satisfied with only one. There is but such a quantity of merit between them; just enough to make one good sort of man; and of late it has been shifting about pretty much. For my part, I am inclined to believe it all Darcy's; but you shall do as you choose."
It was some time, however, before a smile could be extorted from Jane.
"I do not know when I have been more shocked," said she. "Wickham so very bad! It is almost past belief. And poor Mr. Darcy! Dear Lizzy, only consider what he must have suffered. Such a disappointment! and with the knowledge of your ill opinion, too! and having to relate such a thing of his sister! It is really too distressing. I am sure you must feel it so."
"Oh! no, my regret and compassion are all done away by seeing you so full of both. I know you will do him such ample justice, that I am growing every moment more unconcerned and indifferent. Your profusion makes me saving; and if you lament over him much longer, my heart will be as light as a feather."

The memorable line, which Jennifer Ehle delivers with twinkling-eyed aplomb in the 1995 P&P, is:  

“There is but such a quantity of merit between them; just enough to make one good sort of man”.

It’s a zany and LOL conceit--as if Darcy and Wickham were twins born from the same fertilized egg, but when they split in two, the “merit” in that single ovum had to be divided between them, by some sad biochemical limitation. And yet it is wonderfully apt, because it perfectly and poetically captures the confusion Elizabeth feels, as the increase she has recently seen in Darcy’s goodness seems to be exactly matched by a commensurate decrease in Wickham’s.

But did you pick up on that memorable line’s largely ignored bookend later in the passage?  It is the at-first-mysterious epigram:

”Your profusion makes me saving"

This can puzzle a modern reader for a moment, before the meaning of “saving” becomes clear from the context---it is an archaic synonym for the modern adjective “frugal”.

So, Eliza's second witty and absurdist conceit is that there is only so much of regret and compassion (for Darcy) available to the two sisters combined---and since Jane has been so profuse in that regard, Eliza is forced to be “saving”, i.e., frugal, in dispensing regret and compassion to Darcy.

It’s a strange, beautiful gender symmetry. I.e., what makes this the ‘bookend’ to Lizzy’s conceit about Darcy and Wickham only having just so much merit to go around for one man, is that this latter turn of phrase is a play on Lizzy and Jane only having just so much compassion to add up to the proper quantity for one woman! What’s good for the goose…..

And, although this passage has been quoted by two Austen commentators (Ivor Morris, in a 2004 Persuasions Online article as an example of the strong resemblance in personality and thinking between Elizabeth and her father; and Jan Fergus in a 2009 Persuasions Online article about personality difference between Jane and Elizabeth), I am the first to suss out the connection between these two bon mots spawned by the lively wit of Eliza.

And so, then, this is one of the myriad of gems hidden in the text of JA’s novels, which I’ve been diving for and retrieving for over a decade, like so many pearls hidden in oysters, waiting patiently for two centuries to be opened and savored by Janeites with a discerning literary palate!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: In case you were wondering, I checked in Google Books, and found only one other usage of “saving” in the archaic sense of “frugal” ---it was in the following passage in an 1871 English translation by Adelaide E. Rodham (no apparent relation to Hillary Clinton’s English paternal ancestors) of  The Footsteps of Christ, a German tract authored by Pastor A. Caspers a few years earlier:

“The avarice of later years takes the place of the prodigality of youth. Solicitude for an old age free of care, MAKES US SAVING, and sets bounds to extravagance. Pride turns us from sensual pleasures, and secret sins take the place of open ones. Gross sins are exchanged for refined ones, and sins of act and word for sins of thought.”

What’s striking is that Rodham uses the word “saving” in contrast to “extravagance” in regard to an intangible quantity of “solicitude” in parallel to the way Eliza Bennet uses it in regard to “regret and compassion” –does this mean that Rodham was a Janeite who absorbed that concept from that passage in P&P? We’ll probably never know.

And, thinking about Hillary Clinton and the upcoming 2016 US presidential race, and taking inspiration from Elizabeth Bennet & Jane Austen, it occurs to me that there seems to be just enough sense spread among the twenty-odd candidates for the Republican nomination as would be found in the one woman of high intellect who seems assured to be the Democratic candidate.

No comments: