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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Juliet's Nurse & Mrs. Bennet: Shakespeare’s & Austen’s matronly “sisters” in vexed quiverings



5 ½ years ago, I wrote the following passing comment about resonance I noticed between Romeo & Juliet and Pride & Prejudice: 

It is interesting to think about Juliet's parents pressuring her to marry Paris, the way Mrs. Bennet pressures Lizzy to marry Mr. Collins; and Darcy and Lizzy, like Romeo & Juliet, meeting at a big dance, but [then the contrast of] how JA depicts Lizzy and Darcy being mutually attracted, but fighting it from the start, [whereas Romeo & Juliet immediately fall for each other].”

At that time, I searched, and was very surprised to find only one Austen scholar who had ever recognized any sort of veiled allusion to R&J in P&P—Park Honan, who in his 1989 Austen bio, wrote:

“Darcy's visible disgust with a Meryton society lacking in grace, culture and variety has deeply allied him with her at first. 'Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance,' Mercutio had said in Romeo and Juliet. Mr. Bingley's first words to Darcy echo the Shakespearean scene: "Come, Darcy," said he, "I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance."…Darcy, like Romeo, is a self-obsessed spectator, and Bingley is like Mercutio the reveler…”

Then, in 2014, while posting about the allusion to Romeo & Juliet that I detected in Persuasion, I noted, in passing, yet another Darcy-Romeo parallel:

“I have often posted about JA’s sexual puns on the word “pen”, and I am also far from the first to point to the phallic resonance of Wentworth’s “pen” which drops, and the debate about who holds the “pen”, etc., in Persuasion, and also, e.g., in Darcy’s preference to “mend” his “own pen”, despite Caroline’s offer to do it for him. Well, R&J also has an amazing sexual pun on “pen” in a similar masturbatory sense when we first hear [from Montague], in Act 1, Scene 1, about [his son] Romeo pining away for Rosaline before he meets Juliet:

Many a morning hath he there been seen,
With tears augmenting the fresh morning dew.
Adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs;
But all so soon as the all-cheering sun
Should in the furthest east begin to draw
The shady curtains from Aurora's bed,
Away from the light steals home my heavy son,
AND PRIVATE IN HIS CHAMBER PENS HIMSELF
Shuts up his windows, locks far daylight out
And makes himself an artificial night:
Black and portentous must this humour prove,
Unless good counsel may the cause remove.


As I look back today at the above with the benefit of 5 ½ years of hindsight, I now add another strong parallel I see between Shakespeare’s tragic lovers and Austen’s romantic lovers: that the relationships between the two couples both ignite and progress in defiance of the strong opposition of powerful family members (Juliet’s parents and Lady Catherine, respectively).

And I also notice an irony in the history of English literature, which is that, in 2016, Elizabeth and Darcy, and Romeo and Juliet, are regularly mentioned in the same breath, as both being at the top of the general reading public’s list of the most romantic fictional couples. And yet, other than Honan’s brief catch, and my own short contributions, above, despite diligent searching the past 2 days, I can’t find, in the past two centuries of Austen criticism, any other detections of JA, in 1812-3, writing P&P with Shakespeare’s great early romantic tragedy in mind as one of her many literary allusive sources.

I mention all this because the other day I fortuitously happened upon yet another striking and specific textual parallel between R&J and P&P --- one which is so obvious, that it has me slapping my head “Duh!” for not noticing it sooner, given that I’ve studied both texts very carefully over the years. It is a very specific parallel between Juliet’s Nurse and Mrs. Bennet----two characters who, when you think about it, could not be more similar, right? --- a textual parallel which, I claim, cannot possibly have arisen by chance. Let’s see what you think.

Please first read the following passage, in which the Nurse engages in sharp, but playful, repartee with the Capulet household servant Peter, immediately after Mercutio has just mocked the Nurse’s appearance while engaging in very pointed sexual repartee:




Surely every Janeite reading the ALL CAPS portion of the Nurse’s last line in that excerpt immediately made the connection to Mrs. Bennet’s agitated statements to Elizabeth and Jane about Lydia’s elopement with Wickham, right after the former has just arrived back at Longbourn from Pemberley with the Gardiners:

“…And, above all, keep Mr. Bennet from fighting. Tell him what a dreadful state I am in, that I am frighted out of my wits—and have such TREMBLINGS, such FLUTTERINGS, all over me—such SPASMS in my side and pains in my head, and such BEATINGS at heart, that I can get no rest by night nor by day….”

Notice not only the striking parallelism of language between the Nurse’s and Mrs. Bennet’s speeches, but also the striking parallelism of context on not one, but seven different points---i.e., both of these speeches are spoken by (1) an older woman  (2) who is a “mother” to the heroine, an older woman who (3) unrestrainedly and graphically (4) complains about her nervous psychosomatic symptoms, and then, as part of the conversation, (5) the topic of an older man close to that older woman (6) fighting a duel with (7) a smooth-talking young buck, is raised.

And I’d be remiss not to add that “vexed” is not only the verb which Juliet’s Nurse uses to describe her emotions which accompany her “quiverings”, it just happens to be Mrs. Bennet’s favorite verb to describe her own feelings during all those memorable moments when her “nerves” pay her a visit, as we see in the following four passages (the last one being Jane Austen’s narrator describing Mrs. Bennet’s feelings):

"Mr. Bennet, how can you abuse your own children in such a way? You take delight in VEXING me. You have no compassion for my poor NERVES."

“…First of all, he asked Miss Lucas. I was so VEXED to see him stand up with her! “

"I beg you would not put it into Lizzy's head to be VEXED by his ill-treatment, for he is such a disagreeable man, that it would be quite a misfortune to be liked by him….”

She was now in an IRRITATION as violent from delight, as she had ever been FIDGETY from alarm and VEXATION.  

Now, of course, I acknowledge that there is also an enormous contrast here---even a reversal--between these two passages, Shakespeare’s and Austen’s. The R&J passage involves the Nurse’s comic raillery at an early stage of the story, when there’s no imminent threat of the tragedy to come when (another parallel to R&J in P&P) two impetuous young lovers scheme to get out of town and live together elsewhere in defiance of community mores. Conversely, in P&P, Mrs. Bennet is seriously upset at the elopement, which portends social tragedy for the Bennet family, as to which Mr. Collins (inadvertently parodying Juliet’s suicide) observes “The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this.”  

Based on all of those parallels, I believe there can be no reasonable doubt that Jane Austen meant to pointedly remind her readers of Juliet’s inimitable Nurse when she wrote that memorable dialog for the equally inimitable Mrs. Bennet. In that regard, other Austen scholars, including myself, have previously noticed and described the subliminal allusive presence of Juliet’s Nurse in the psyches of both Mrs. Norris and Miss Bates—both of them sharing the Nurse’s garrulous verbosity and intrusiveness—but for some odd reason, nobody before me the other day has noticed that Mrs. Bennet is actually the most direct descendant of Juliet’s Nurse.

And I also wonder whether Jane Austen also meant for us to notice the following Miss-Bingley-like sexual innuendoes by Mercutio to the lovesick Romeo….
…when we repeatedly hear in P&P about Darcy’s fascination with Elizabeth’s fine, brightened eyes.

I conclude by pointing out that the allusion to Romeo & Juliet which is so powerfully tagged in Mrs. Bennet’s nervous vexations, takes on much, much greater significance still, when viewed through the lens of the dark shadow story of P&P I’ve been sketching out during the past decade. Most of all, there’s a troubling parallel between Romeo and the dark Darcy of the shadow story of P&P, which, as I initially noted, is winked at in their sharing both an initial reluctance to dance at big balls, as well as a penchant for solitary “mending” of their respective “pens”.

In “Wherefore Art Thou Tereu? Juliet and the Legacy of Rape” in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Spring 2005), pp. 127-156, Robert N. Watson and Stephen Dickey persuasively spell out the numerous literary allusions which Shakespeare slyly wove into the character of Romeo, which all converge on the very disturbing and anti-romantic image of Romeo as a predatory rapist instead of lovestruck young man.

I see Elizabeth’s married life with Darcy as a parody of Juliet’s tragic death, because it will be no walk in the park for her to be married to the dark Darcy of the shadow story, who does not actually repent and reform after she rejects his first proposal, but merely pretends to do so, because he is a man who cannot take no for an answer, and who does not hesitate to use his considerable resources to stage an extended experience for Elizabeth during the latter half of P&P, which destroys her (healthy) resistance to him.

But if you find that a door you don’t wish to walk through with me today, then I hope at least that you will still enjoy the comic pleasure of thinking about Mrs. Bennet and Juliet’s Nurse, as Austen’s and Shakespeare’s “sisters” in vexed quiverings!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode  on Twitter

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