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

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Elizabeth’s unwitting epiphany: “Come, Mr. Wickham, we are brother and sister…BIOLOGICALLY!”

 A little over two years ago, I wove a web of text-based speculations….
 …..about the hidden connection I see, in the shadow story of Pride & Prejudice, between two apparently unrelated inquiries (tellingly, both beginning with the words “You cannot”) that Elizabeth Bennet fields about her own brief life history while visiting Charlotte at Hunsford:

First, in Chapter 29 at Rosings, Lady Catherine sharply cross-examines Eliza about her exact age:
 "Upon my word," said her ladyship, "you give your opinion very decidedly for so young a person. Pray, what is your age?"
"With three younger sisters grown up," replied Elizabeth, smiling, "your ladyship can hardly expect me to own it."
Lady Catherine seemed quite astonished at not receiving a direct answer; and Elizabeth suspected herself to be the first creature who had ever dared to trifle with so much dignified impertinence. "You cannot be more than twenty, I am sure, therefore you need not conceal your age."
"I am not one-and-twenty."

Then, only three chapters later, in Chapter 32, Darcy worriedly questions Eliza about the duration of her habitation at Longbourn:

“[Elizabeth] "I do not mean to say that a woman may not be settled too near her family. The far and the near must be relative, and depend on many varying circumstances. Where there is fortune to make the expenses of travelling unimportant, distance becomes no evil. But that is not the case here. Mr. and Mrs. Collins have a comfortable income, but not such a one as will allow of frequent journeys—and I am persuaded my friend would not call herself near her family under less than half the present distance."
Mr. Darcy drew his chair a little towards her, and said, "You cannot have a right to such very strong local attachment. You cannot have been always at Longbourn."
Elizabeth looked surprised. The gentleman experienced some change of feeling ....”

While I invite you to read my entire earlier, above-linked post for all its supporting Shakespearean allusive detail, I will now cut to the chase and repeat my conclusion as stated in that earlier post:

“in reading the subtext of P&P, we think about [Burney’s] Cecilia, who will inherit an income of 3,000 pounds per year, together with a lump sum payment of 10,000 pounds, upon reaching the age of 21, and realize that THIS is the SAME explanation for why all the bees are suddenly buzzing around Elizabeth when she is approaching her 21st birthday, and why everyone is so focused on a moment in family history a little more than 20 years ago, i.e., right around the time that Elizabeth Bennet was born! Mrs. Bennet’s nerves came to unfortunate prominence at that exact moment when the orphan Elizabeth was brought to the Bennet residence house under cover of night!”

In short, I claimed that in the shadow story of P&P, Elizabeth is the true heir of Pemberley, as the late Mr. Darcy’s only legitimate biological child, who, like Fielding’s Tom Jones, was banished to Longbourn as an infant pursuant to murky Darcy family intrigue in which Mr. & Mrs. Bennet secretly participated.

I was prompted to revisit all of the above by Diane Reynolds’s comment today in Janeites and Austen L: 
“I teach P&P and have been thinking about the scene in which Lydia arrives as Mrs. Wickham and irritates Elizabeth no end with her posturings about taking Jane's place in leading her daughters into dinner and in her chatter about finding husbands for her sisters. It clearly satirizes a social hierarchy in which an idiot like Lydia can outrank a sensible person like Jane, based only on a shot gun marriage, but it also is true that, while annoyed, Elizabeth bows to the dictates of her social system. She gets the "win" not by challenging or disrupting the social order but by being better at working the system: she will beat Lydia by marrying someone of higher rank.”

When I reread that scene (in Chapter 52) in which Lydia postures about her superior rank, and thought about Diane’s comment about Elizabeth achieving a higher rank by marrying Darcy, I recalled my above described 2013 post, and thought about Elizabeth, in the shadow story, already (albeit unknowingly) holding a higher status by virtue of her own birth as a Darcy.

And that was when I suddenly read, with fresh eyes, the memorable tete a tete between Eliza and her new brother-in-law, George Wickham, right after Lydia struts and boasts, when Eliza gets in a final, witty dig at him:

“They were now almost at the door of the house, for she had walked fast to get rid of him; and unwilling, for her sister's sake, to provoke him, she only said in reply, with a good-humoured smile:  "Come, Mr. Wickham, we are brother and sister, you know. Do not let us quarrel about the past. In future, I hope we shall be always of one mind."
She held out her hand; he kissed it with affectionate gallantry, though he hardly knew how to look, and they entered the house. “

I’ve previously suggested a Shakespearean source for Eliza’s “Come, Mr. Wickham, we are brother and sister” in Orlando’s retort to elder brother Oliver in As You Like It:  “Come, come, elder brother, you are too young in this”. But I did not realize before today that Jane Austen, the nonpareil mistress of hiding significant meaning in very plain sight, had written Eliza’s bon mot so that it would be read in the overt story as referring to Wickham as Eliza’s brother-in-law via marriage, but could also be read in the shadow story as Eliza’s unwitting epiphany that she is Wickham’s biological half brother, because both of them  share the same biological father, the late Mr. Darcy!

In that regard, I’m very far from being the only Janeite to have ever seen Mr. Wickham as the illegitimate son of the late Mr. Darcy, and therefore as Darcy’s half brother, very much like the Biblical rivalries among the sons of Jacob sired on different mothers.

But now, via the train of inference detailed above, I find in Elizabeth’s comment to Wickham a very broad wink by Jane Austen at this very dicey interpretation!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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