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

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A quiz about Wickham’s bit lips, Mrs. Gardiner’s fantasy phaeton, & coarse Eliza’s brown skin

A few days ago, my friend Diane Reynolds shared a post at her blog Jane Austen & Other Writers   by her colleague Professor EmeritusTom Flynn…  
…about his own personal Jane Austen journey. My eye was caught by something he wrote about Elizabeth Bennet’s and Mr. Wickham’s final encounter in Pride & Prejudice, after Wickham has just married Lydia:

“Elizabeth’s economical and layered response both condemns him and also permits him to save face, should he choose to do so. She reports that the housekeeper said “That [Wickham] had gone into the army, and she was afraid had—not turned out well.  At such a distance as that, you know, things are strangely misrepresented.”
Austen reports that Elizabeth intends this information to silence Wickham, and he does bite his lip. Yet Wickham emerges from this first encounter relatively unscathed.  He has not been so wounded that he considers retreating; rather, he adopts the dangerous strategy of returning to one of his earlier misrepresentations.”  END QUOTE FROM FLYNN POST

What caught my eye was that Wickham “bites his lip”. Jane Austen is typically sparing in such nonverbal details, and so I checked the context of that usage in P&P, to get a hang on this unusual detail (only one other Austen character bites her lip: Lucy Steele in Sense & Sensibility --in anger at her sister). Was this a clue to a covert allusion by to some prior literary work in which lips are bitten?:

“…And so, my dear sister, I find, from our uncle and aunt, that you have actually seen Pemberley."
She replied in the affirmative.
"I almost envy you the pleasure, and yet I believe it would be too much for me, or else I could take it in my way to Newcastle. And you saw the old housekeeper, I suppose? Poor Reynolds, she was always very fond of me. But of course she did not mention my name to you."
"Yes, she did."  "And what did she say?"
"That you were gone into the army, and she was afraid had—not turned out well. At such a distance as that, you know, things are strangely misrepresented."
"Certainly," he replied, BITING HIS LIPS…. "

What emotion was Wickham leaking? Was it anger, like Lucy (who, you’ll recall, becomes Lucy Ferrars à Lucifer, after she marries), or anxiety, or a combination of the two? I was also reminded of the angry thumb-biting of Montague at Capulet in the first scene of Romeo & Juliet:

SAMPSON  Nay, as they dare. I will bite my thumb at them; which is a disgrace to them, if they bear it.
ABRAHAM Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?  SAMPSON I do bite my thumb, sir.
ABRAHAM Do you bite your thumb at us, sir? SAMPSON [Aside to GREGORY] Is the law of our side, if I say ay?
GREGORY No. SAMPSON No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I bite my thumb, sir.

That encouraged me to check to see if any Shakespeare play in which a character bit his/her lips---as opposed (ha ha) to their thumbs--and I found four of them. After looking them over, and sleuthing things out, I’ve now concluded that one of them is indeed a Shakespeare play which JA intentionally tagged, when she wrote the seemingly trivial detail that Wickham bit his lips. 

For those of you who enjoy my literary quizzes, I give the following NINE hints (this is a very solvable quiz, ladies and gentlemen!); but, in all events, as usual, I’ll reveal my answer and give my analysis, within the next two days:

ONE: There is a character in the Shakespeare play who, like Wickham, bites his lips in anger.

TWO: There is a character in the play who twice calls another character “not sound”, just as Eliza says the following to BFF Charlotte Lucas: 
[Charlotte] “…it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life."
"You make me laugh, Charlotte; but it is NOT SOUND. You know it is NOT SOUND, and that you would never act in this way yourself."

THREE: There is in an exchange in the play which is specifically echoed by Miss Bingley’s withering criticism of Eliza’s suntanned appearance:
"How very ill Miss Eliza Bennet looks this morning, Mr. Darcy," she cried; "I never in my life saw anyone so much altered as she is since the winter. She is grown SO BROWN and COARSE! Louisa and I were agreeing that we should not have known her again."

So far, these hinted echoes may sound trivial, but the remaining hints make clear that this is not a casual allusion, it goes to the heart of Pride & Prejudice, specifically how we are to think about Elizabeth, Darcy, Wickham, and another major character in P&P to be named later—see Hint EIGHT, below.

FOUR: There is a character who, like Mrs. Bennet, is on a determined quest for a male to preserve the family “inheritance”.

FIVE: There is a charismatic, manipulative character in the play who takes a precipitous—dare I say, Satanic?---fall from grace, because of some shady financial and other dealings, very much like that described in the following passage about Wickham in P&P:
“All Meryton seemed striving to blacken the man who, but three months before, had been almost an ANGEL OF LIGHT. He was declared to be in debt to every tradesman in the place, and his intrigues, all honoured with the title of seduction, had been extended into every tradesman's family. Everybody declared that he was the wickedest young man in the world; and everybody began to find out that they had always distrusted the appearance of his goodness. Elizabeth, though she did not credit above half of what was said, believed enough to make her former assurance of her sister's ruin more certain…”

SIX: That same character described in Hint FIVE, above, is explicitly named in one of Jane Austen’s juvenilia, in a passage that is significantly echoed by this letter from Mrs. Gardiner to niece Elizabeth Bennet: "Pray forgive me if I have been very presuming, or at least do not punish me so far as to exclude me from P[emberley]. I shall never be quite happy till I have been all round the park. A low PHAETON, with a nice little pair of ponies, would be the very thing.”

SEVEN: There is a very powerful, noble male character in the play who casts his eye on one particular young lady, who is described as having a vivacious, charismatic personality—and by the end of the play, they have indeed married, and that young lady gets to be “mistress” of a real life “Pemberley” -albeit, not for very long.

EIGHT: There is an enigmatic character in the play who has exactly the same name as a key character in P&P, and who (according to my reading of the shadow story of P&P) plays a similarly crucial behind the scenes role in both the play and in P&P.

NINE: (For those diligent souls who go so far as to do a Shakespeare word search) The play is NOT Coriolanus, Taming of the Shrew, & Richard III --- it’s the fourth one!   ;)

Happy sleuthing, y’all- --- as I said, I’ll be back….in two days with my best explanation as to what it all means!

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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