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

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Mr. Darcy’s “request” that the (in)dependent Mr. Bennet cannot refuse

I’ve engaged in an offlist exchange of emails with a sharp elf Janeite the past 2 days about my most recent claim, that Kitty Bennet is subliminally depicted as going through childbirth during the time Lydia is in Brighton and London. I’ve again urged her to join these two groups and contribute her excellent insights, and the latest one she wrote me is the following remarkable speculation about Mr. Bennet's possible source of income other than from Longbourn's operations:

"Somewhere in the novel a rather long paragraph was dedicated to the non-existence of economy in the household and that they would indeed have been in trouble if Mr. Bennet didn't 'love his independence' so much.."

I immediately recognized this as brilliant, because "independence" is exactly the sort of ambiguous abstract noun which JA clearly relished punning on in a variety of sophisticated ways. I will now take a preliminary stab at fleshing out her insight here, and hopefully she will show up soon and add more to this thread, and hopefully to many others to come.

First of all here’s the passage she was recalling:

“[Mr B] was seriously concerned that a cause of so little advantage to anyone should be forwarded at the sole expense of his brother-in-law, and he was determined, if possible, to find out the extent of his assistance, and to discharge the obligation as soon as he could. When first Mr. Bennet had married, economy was held to be perfectly useless, for, of course, they were to have a son. The son was to join in cutting off the entail, as soon as he should be of age, and the widow and younger children would by that means be provided for. Five daughters successively entered the world, but yet the son was to come; and Mrs. Bennet, for many years after Lydia's birth, had been certain that he would. This event had at last been despaired of, but it was then too late to be saving. Mrs. Bennet had no turn for economy, and her husband's love of independence had alone prevented their exceeding their income.”
I hadn’t previously focused on that last curious reference to Mr. Bennet’s “love of independence”, and so first I had to decode its somewhat obscure surface meaning, before addressing the shadowy pun that my correspondent had spotted. After a few minutes, it became clear to me that the idea was that Mr. Bennet hated the idea of owing anything to anyone (like Mr. Gardiner), and that was the only reason why he periodically dragged himself out of his beloved library and forced himself to pay enough attention to keeping Mrs. Bennet’s expensive taste in financial check, so they didn’t incur debt.

So far, so good, JA always got a kick out of forcing readers to stay alert and be ready to parse her deliberate gaps and elisions. But now for the pun — it’s also clear to me that she repeatedly deployed, in both narration and dialog, the now archaic meaning of “independence” as a kind of annuity or source of regular income. To give just three out of a number of examples:

[Emma] : [Mr. Weston] had received a good education, but, on succeeding early in life to a small independence, had become indisposed for any of the more homely pursuits in which his brothers were engaged, and had satisfied an active, cheerful mind and social temper by entering into the militia of his county, then embodied.

"Six years hence! Dear Miss Woodhouse, he would be thirty years old!” "Well, and that is as early as most men can afford to marry, who are not born to an independence. …”

[P&P]: “…You have deprived the best years of his life of that independence which was no less his due than his desert…” 

In short, an independence was akin to a “living”, but it was a legal entitlement to a regular stream of vested payments having nothing to do with clerical services.

So….was JA suggesting, in her usual sly elliptical way, and as my correspondent noted, that Mr. Bennet was receiving a stream of income from a benefactor? I believe JA was doing exactly that, and I again applaud my correspondent for this catch. The use of this word “independence” in relation to Mr. Weston is particularly probative, because 12 years ago I first noted how the following legalistic language from the law of property was a giant clue that he had sold young Frank to the Churchill: 

“Some scruples and some reluctance the widower-father may be supposed to have felt; but as they were overcome BY OTHER CONSIDERATIONS, the child was given up to the care and the wealth of the Churchills, and he had only his own comfort to seek, and his own situation to improve as he could.”

And now I will reveal who my correspondent had in mind as Mr. Bennet’s secret benefactor — none other than the bountiful Mr. Darcy — but trust me, most of you don’t want to know why he’d be paying money to Mr. Bennet all along, so I will leave that for another post!

Anyway, I love the idea of Mr. Darcy (and perhaps, before him, Mr. Darcy Sr?) as having provided crucial backup for the Bennet family finances, because it just happens to dovetail very nicely with a few things I had spotted in P&P a very long time ago, prompted initially by something Kishor Kale mentioned in the Janeites group, about the following comment that Mr. Bennet makes to Lizzy about Darcy when she reaffirms to him that she really does love Darcy:

“…If this be the case, he deserves you. I could not have parted with you, my Lizzy, to anyone less worthy."

Kishor sees this ambiguous figure-ground statement as JA’s inadvertent, unintended suggestion that Mr. Bennet is warning Lizzy that Darcy is the most UNworthy man she could possible have chosen, whereas I believe JA’s ambiguity was completely deliberate….and brilliant! And I’ve believed for a very long while that Mr. Bennet and Mr. Darcy have somehow known each other for a very long time completely outside Lizzy’s awareness. But i never connected that dots to Mr. Bennet’s “love of independence”!

You can see a further hint at this when you read the full context of the above-quoted sentence:

"Lizzy," said her father, "I have given him my consent. He is the kind of man, indeed, to whom I should never dare refuse anything, which he condescended to ask. I now give it to you, if you are resolved on having him. But let me advise you to think better of it. I know your disposition, Lizzy. I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband; unless you looked up to him as a superior. Your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage. You could scarcely escape discredit and misery. My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life. You know not what you are about."
Elizabeth, still more affected, was earnest and solemn in her reply; and at length, by repeated assurances that Mr. Darcy was really the object of her choice, by explaining the gradual change which her estimation of him had undergone, relating her absolute certainty that his affection was not the work of a day, but had stood the test of many months' suspense, and enumerating with energy all his good qualities, she did conquer her father's incredulity, and reconcile him to the match. 
"Well, my dear," said he, when she ceased speaking, "I have no more to say. If this be the case, he deserves you. I could not have parted with you, my Lizzy, to anyone less worthy."

You really have to wonder about Mr. Bennet’s never daring to refuse Darcy anything that he “condescended to ask”— it drips with euphemistic irony, and is the kind of “polite” statement that could most aptly have been made about Don Corleone, the Godfather! This very famous scene in The Godfather Part I comes specifically to mind:

MICHAEL: We’re all proud of you…   JOHNNY: Thank, Mike. MICHAEL: Sit down, Johnny— I want to talk to you…The Don is proud of you.  JOHNNY: Well I owe it all to him.  MICHAEL: Well, he knows how grateful you are. He wants to ask a favor of you.  JOHNNY: Mike, what can I do? MICHAEL: [Asks for the specific favor, then]  FREDO: Hey, Mike, are you sure about that? Moe loves the business, he never said nothin’ to me about sellin’    MICHAEL: Yeah, well, I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse

And so the idea that Mr. Bennet has been on Darcy’s payroll all along, as a result of Darcy’s having preyed on the financial vulnerability of the Bennet family, and therefore Darcy’s “request” for Mr. Bennet’s consent truly is a proverbial offer he cannot refuse, is very appealing to me.
Cheers, ARNIE

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