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Friday, May 13, 2016

“With these rooms I might now have been familiarly acquainted!”: Remembrance of Pemberley Past



While delving into modern scholarly reactions to Sir Walter Scott’s decidedly unromantic take on how Eliza comes to fall in love with Darcy in Pride & Prejudice, I was led to an article, “Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Hegel's Truth in Art: Concept, Reference, and History” by Claudia Brodsky Lacour in ELH 59/3 (Aut.1992), 597-623, which briefly discussed Scott’s cynical take on P&P.

As I was reading the discussion in Lacour’s article about Elizabeth’s strong emotional reaction upon first being led around the interior of Pemberley, in prelude to reading Lacour’s take on Scott’s take, my eyes were arrested by one of Lacour’s acute observations:  about the “strangeness” of Elizabeth’s reaction:

“Much has been made, and should be made, of this visit to Darcy's estate, for it is only in seeing it that Elizabeth begins to imagine herself in possible connection to Darcy- a connection, however, which remains mediated by the tasteful beauty and order of the estate itself. The narrator writes:
‘At that moment she felt, that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something,’ continuing, 'And of this place,' thought she, 'I might have been mistress! With these rooms I might now have been familiarly acquainted! Instead of viewing them as a STRANGER, I might have rejoiced in them as my own’.
Regardless of one's view of Elizabeth at this moment, the drift of her thoughts stands out markedly from the fiction. For it is a STRANGE thing indeed to regret being a "STRANGER" to "rooms," to wish to be more "familiarly acquainted" with them, to be able to "rejoice in them as one's own" rather than rejoice in the expressed passion of, or wish to become more familiar with, their owner. Such thoughts appear EVEN STRANGER when one considers that Elizabeth is not experiencing a naive displacement of feelings; she is freely viewing objects that please her in a way that Darcy's grave and apparently indifferent demeanor never pleased her, objects that, unlike Darcy's pride, condescending proposal, and disturbing letter, need not even be read, let alone responsively or dialogically transformed. Elizabeth's imaginings about Pemberley leave Darcy quite out of the picture, until she sees Darcy at Pemberley in a picture. Walking in the family portrait gallery she is "arrested" by her recognition of Darcy in a painting, "'with such a smile over the face, as she remembered to have sometimes seen, when he looked at her". The reader may remember that Darcy is frequently described by the narrator as consciously averting Elizabeth's eyes lest she discern the light of admiration for her in his own. Here in the portrait the very liveliness of mind absent from Darcy's person is represented, and, the narrator observes:
‘There was certainly at this moment, in Elizabeth's mind, a more gentle sensation towards the original, than she had ever felt in the height of their acquaintance. .. and as she stood before the canvas, on which he was represented, and fixed his eyes upon herself, she thought of his regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before; she remembered its warmth, and softened its impropriety of expression.’……” END QUOTE FROM LACOUR

A wild idea popped into my head for the first time when I read Lacour’s thoughts about the strangeness of Elizabeth’s reaction to Pemberley and its rooms. Her perceptive flagging of that strangeness made me realize that, in the shadow story of P&P, there was a very different reason why Elizabeth initially reacts so strongly to the rooms at Pemberley---even, as Lacour also acutely observes, before Elizabeth’s eyes are arrested by Darcy’s portrait.  My Subject Line broadly hints at the reason for Elizabeth’s reaction that I see—can you guess what it is?

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Here’s my answer. While Lacour’s reasoning works very well for the overt story, the reason that occurred to me fits perfectly with one crucial element of the shadow story of P&P that I’ve been writing about since 2012.

The rooms of Pemberley, like any other great estate of ancient origin, would’ve had their own unique and enduring sights, sounds, and smells. I suggest to you that Eliza responds so strongly to walking through those rooms, even before she sees Darcy’s portrait, because those sensory experiences reawaken in Elizabeth’s mind (very much like the time-transporting aroma of Proust’s madeleines in Remembrance of Things Past) a subliminal matrix of distant sense memory; a memory of the time Elizabeth was very young………and lived at Pemberley, because she was herself born a Darcy!

And so, I suggest, the strangeness of her feeling so drawn to the rooms is a kind of déjà vu for her—she had toddled through those same rooms two decades earlier, had stared up at the portraits on the walls, had smelled the aromas from the kitchen, and also from the surrounding vegetation, and it all comes back to her gradually as Mrs. Reynolds shows her and the Gardiners around.

But because Eliza has no conscious memory of having been born and initially raised at Pemberley, she cannot account to herself for her strange feelings of “familiarity, and so, like a love potion, these inchoate positive feelings attach themselves to the next person she sees—and that turns out to be Darcy, in his portrait hanging on the wall! That’s why she sees him differently for the first time at that moment -- it’s because now she is seeing him through the rose-colored glasses of remembrance of the way she was as a very young happy child!

And JA, with her love of punning wordplay, also hints at this ancestral memory when we read this narration of Eliza’s thoughts:

'And of this place I might have been mistress! With these rooms I might now have been FAMILIARLY acquainted! Instead of viewing them as a STRANGER, I might have rejoiced in them as my own’.

Indeed, had Elizabeth not been sent away and adopted by the Bennets, she would indeed have been mistress of Pemberley! And with the rooms of Pemberley she was indeed one “familiarly” (as in having been born into the Darcy family!) acquainted! And when she was little, she did indeed rejoice in these rooms as her own, because they were her own—and guess what, Mrs. Reynolds showed her those particular rooms precisely because Mrs. Reynolds remembers Eliza as a child, and knows what parts of the home she spent her time in!

Now, I cannot (yet) explain with exactness why Elizabeth was sent away at a very young age, but I am very confident that the reasons were very much like those that drive the plotlines of the tales of the families of Genesis which JA knew so well: sibling rivalry, stepparents with sharply conflicting goals for their respective offspring, inheritance, etc.

So, that is the key shadow story element I was reminded of as I read that section of Lacour’s article. That idea of Eliza as a Darcy first came to me in 2012 as I listened to my friend Elaine Bander’s excellent breakout session at that year’s JASNA AGM on the parallels between P&P and Fanny Burney’s Cecilia. Revelation of a secret family relationship was a staple of 18th century fiction, even the high quality variety by the likes of Burney, but also of the Gothic fiction we know JA loved, especially Radcliffe’s. But leave it to that sly elf, Jane Austen, to hide such a scenario in plain sight, but never reveal it explicitly.  

For example, Eliza being a Darcy provides a compelling reason----other than the usual explanation, which is that JA stooped to (what I would've seen as crass) authorial expediency----for the massive multiple coincidence of P&P that I’ve been harping on every chance I get for over a decade now. We have these three young men previously connected to each other with one degree of separation --- Mssrs. Darcy, Wickham, and Collins---- all showing up within a very short time of each other in a country town where none of them had previously been, and each promptly starts courting the same young woman, Elizabeth----who also is connected to a woman, Mrs. Gardiner, who came of age in the shadow of Pemberley when Darcy and Wickham were still children.

This is either hackwork, or it’s a telltale hint left by a clever, teasing genius. I prefer the latter explanation, how about you? If Elizabeth is an heiress of Pemberley in some fashion, who is due to inherit when she reaches adult age, then she would be a particularly sweet flower to which bees like those three young men would be attracted from a very long distance.

And Elizabeth’s age was another clue to her being an heiress, as we learn in Chapter 32:  

“…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."

The reason we hear this is not to give us yet another example of Lady C’s intrusive nosiness, it’s to alert us that when Elizabeth turns 21, and she inherits her Darcy fortune, Darcy’s reign at Pemberley will turn upside down. Unless, that is, Darcy marries Elizabeth before she turns 21, in which event “sanity” will be restored, and Pemberley will revert right back to Darcy, as her husband, as soon as she does. And, did I mention that this all is necessary because Darcy, despite all appearances, is actually illegitimate!

And there’s still another sly hint hidden in the novel text. Recall that eleven chapters earlier, we read this:

“…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.’…”)

Indeed Elizabeth has not been always at Longbourn, because she was originally at Pemberley! Or, to put it another way, Elizabeth’s “first impressions” of Pemberley were not formed the day the Gardiners brought her there, but two decades earlier. It is only after those infantile “first impressions” are rekindled, that their glow settles on Darcy like a shimmering aura, and Elizabeth exclusively attributes this to his improved behavior toward her.She’s literally impressed—but I think I also detect a hint at the naval meaning of the verb, in this novel written by the sister of two future admirals. I think Elizabeth is also impressed like the poor men who were impressed off the street against their will into the Royal Navy!

And it’s only after Eliza sees Darcy with new eyes that we read:

“Such a change in a man of so much pride exciting not only astonishment but gratitude—for to love, ardent love, it must be attributed; and as such its IMPRESSION on her was of a sort to be encouraged, as by no means unpleasing, though it could not be exactly defined.”

And all that I’ve been writing this past year about incest themes in Austen’s fiction obviously comes to the fore as well in regard to Elizabeth as a Darcy—if she is a Darcy, and so is Darcy, then they are at least part-siblings – which fits with my longstanding claim that one of the real-life models for Darcy is none other than Lord Byron, who of course sired a child on his half sister!

And I will end by noting the irony the above reading provides to this happy comment by Elizabeth to Darcy after they have declared their love for each other:

“…You must learn some of my philosophy. Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure."

How ironic, given that if Elizabeth could actually remember her past at Pemberley, she might feel very different about Darcy in the present.  

And so I owe Nancy Mayer special thanks, because if she had not been so persistent today in repeatedly rebutting my claims about Darcy as a shadow story villain, I would not have revisited Sir Walter Scott’s shrewd 1816 comments about Elizabeth and Pemberley, and I’d therefore never have revisited Lacour’s article focused on that particular section of P&P, etc etc.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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