(& scroll all the way down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Jane Austen’s uncommonly virtuosic punning on the word “common” in Pride & Prejudice


In the entirety of Pride & Prejudice, there’s a total of 35 usages of a cluster of 4 related words (common, uncommon, commonly, uncommonly, and commonest). What is most striking about them as a group (a la Homer’s and Conan Doyle’s dogs which do not bark) is that none of them are used explicitly in the sense of a commoner, as opposed to a peer, in this particular novel, in which the outcomes of the two central love stories (Darcy/Elizabeth, Bingley/Jane) so explicitly turn on the bridging of the social chasm between those of high and low birth. Darcy makes this chasm insultingly clear in his botched first proposal, when he so narcissistically describes the struggle between his attraction to Eliza and his  abhorrence of her family connections. And then Lady Catherine waxes rhetorical on the same theme during her memorable verbal joust with Elizabeth in the Longbourn wilderness:

"I will not be interrupted. Hear me in silence. My daughter and my nephew are formed for each other. They are descended, on the maternal side, from the same noble line; and, on the father's, from respectable, honourable, and ancient—though untitled—families. Their fortune on both sides is splendid. They are destined for each other by the voice of every member of their respective houses; and what is to divide them? The upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune. Is this to be endured! But it must not, shall not be. If you were sensible of your own good, you would not wish to quit the sphere in which you have been brought up."
"In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal."
"True. You are a gentleman's daughter. But who was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunts? Do not imagine me ignorant of their condition."
"Whatever my connections may be," said Elizabeth, "if your nephew does not object to them, they can be nothing to you."

So, you may ask, why did I mention those 35 “common” usages, if not a single one of them relates to the explicit meaning of “common” as the opposite of high-born? Because, as with Ulysses’s dog Argos, whose silence reveals that he knows his old master as returned, and Sherlock Holmes’s sly allusion to Homer in “Silver Blaze”, the absence of explicit status-based usages of “common” conceals a vast network of punning, implicit “common” usages throughout P&P, and I’ll now show you the highlights:

Chapter 3:   "Come, Darcy," said [Bingley], "I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance."
"I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with."
"I would not be so fastidious as you are," cried Mr. Bingley, "for a kingdom! Upon my honour, I never met with so many pleasant girls in my life as I have this evening; and there are several of them you see UNCOMMONLY pretty."
This excellent pun may plausibly be read as intentional on Bingley’s part. In rebuttal to Darcy’s snobby refusal to dance with any of the local girls at the Meryton assembly, because, as far as Darcy knows, they’re all too “common” for him (i.e., by birth), Bingley’s witty riposte refers to several of the girls as “uncommonly” pretty, which decodes as, “Yes, these girls may be common in status, but they are nobly ranked by their looks.

Chapter 5:   "That is very true," replied Elizabeth, "and I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine."
"Pride," observed Mary, who piqued herself upon the solidity of her reflections, "is a very COMMON failing, I believe. By all that I have ever read, I am convinced that it is very COMMON indeed; that human nature is particularly prone to it, and that there are very few of us who do not cherish a feeling of self-complacency on the score of some quality or other, real or imaginary. ..”
This witty pun by Mary relates to the pride (i.e., status aspirations) of Elizabeth, a commoner, vis a vis the pride (i.e., snobbery) of the highborn Mr. Darcy. Mary drolly notes that those of lower birth, like Eliza, do indeed often aspire to move on up in the world.

Chapter 6: Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she hardly had a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered UNCOMMONLY intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. 
"Did you not think, Mr. Darcy, that I expressed myself UNCOMMONLY well just now, when I was teasing Colonel Forster to give us a ball at Meryton?"
That same punning is here picked up by Darcy in his thoughts, and by Elizabeth (who seems to read Darcy’s mind). Darcy has evidently been influenced by Bingley’s earlier comment at the Meryton assembly, and he begins to see Eliza’s intelligence and beauty as compensating for her lack of status. And Elizabeth’s ESP tells her that her verbal facility and wit have charmed him.

Chapter 8: [Caroline Bingley] “Yes, all of them, I think. They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses. I scarcely know anyone who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished."
"Your list of the COMMON extent of accomplishments," said Darcy, "has too much truth. The word is applied to many a woman who deserves it no otherwise than by netting a purse or covering a screen. But I am very far from agreeing with you in your estimation of ladies in general. I cannot boast of knowing more than half-a-dozen, in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are really accomplished."
Here, Darcy uses the word “common” in regard to accomplishment and education, seeming to thereby hint that it is a petit-bourgeois commoner’s upward-striving notion of female education that looks to the surface rather than to truly substantive accomplishments of the mind.

Chapter 10: [Elizabeth] ”No, no; stay where you are. You are charmingly grouped, and appear to UNCOMMON advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth. Good-bye."
This usage is my favorite of the whole bunch, because, when fully decoded, we see that Eliza’s punning wit blends two covert satirical themes very artfully.
First, we have the hidden (but for a long while very well recognized) Gilpin allusion—which I discussed in my major Gilpin post last week. Eliza uses Gilpin to mockingly suggest that Darcy and the Bingley sisters are akin to three cows grazing in a picturesque landscape.
Second, we now we also see further evidence of the claim I made previously…
…i.e., that Elizabeth actually overhears (eavesdrops on) Darcy and Miss Bingley while they are strolling in the Netherfield shrubbery, in particular when the following repartee occurs on the theme (what else?) Darcy’s being too highborn for Elizabeth:  "I hope," said [Miss Bingley], as they were walking together in the shrubbery the next day, "you will give your mother-in-law a few hints, when this desirable event takes place, as to the advantage of holding her tongue; and if you can compass it, do cure the younger girls of running after officers. And, if I may mention so delicate a subject, endeavour to check that little something, bordering on conceit and impertinence, which your lady possesses."
"Have you anything else to propose for my domestic felicity?"
"Oh! yes. Do let the portraits of your uncle and aunt Phillips be placed in the gallery at Pemberley. Put them next to your great-uncle the judge. They are in the same profession, you know, only in different lines. As for your Elizabeth's picture, you must not have it taken, for what painter could do justice to those beautiful eyes?"
"It would not be easy, indeed, to catch their expression, but their colour and shape, and the eyelashes, so remarkably fine, might be copied."
At that moment they were met from another walk by Mrs. Hurst and Elizabeth herself.
"I did not know that you intended to walk," said Miss Bingley, in some confusion, lest they had been overheard….”

So now we see that Elizabeth deliberately and precisely chooses the verbiage “to uncommon advantage” in order to suggest to Darcy that in contrast to her own fine eyes, the Bingley sisters and he, for all their snobbery toward commoners, still are no better than cattle in a meadow, and so, turning the snobbery tables, she does not deign to be part of that unflattering picture alongside them. Ouch! I.e., what to conventional Austen scholarship appears to be a simple, straightforward satire on Gilpin actually is a complex, multilayered allusion of great depth.

And that verbiage in Chapter 10 also connects right back to Bingley’s witty noodging of Darcy in Chapter 3, and to Elizabeth’s witty repartee with Darcy in Chapter 6, both previously discussed above.
And it also connects right back to Darcy’s reference to “common” in Chapter 8, also discussed above, as to what constitutes true accomplishment in a woman.
In full context, we see that all of these seemingly unconnected, insignificant usages of “common” are actually all about how a combination of uncommon (rare) intelligence and beauty can compensate for a lack of high birth status—and that’s Elizabeth’s allure in Darcy’s eyes—which of course is at the heart of the novel’s love story.
So I hope I’ve already convinced you that JA deliberately avoided using “common” to explicitly refer to status, precisely so that she could hint at this them in every conceivable and ingenious implicit way!

We’ve still got 4/5 of the novel remaining, so here are several more examples in that same rich vein.

Chapter 11:  [Darcy] "You either choose this method of passing the evening because you are in each other's confidence, and have secret affairs to discuss, or because you are conscious that your figures appear to the GREATEST advantage in walking; if the first, I would be completely in your way, and if the second, I can admire you much better as I sit by the fire."
"Oh! shocking!" cried Miss Bingley. "I never heard anything so abominable. How shall we punish him for such a speech?"
"Nothing so easy, if you have but the inclination," said Elizabeth. "We can all plague and punish one another. Tease him—laugh at him. Intimate as you are, you must know how it is to be done."
"But upon my honour, I do not. I do assure you that my intimacy has not yet taught me that. Tease calmness of manner and presence of mind! No, no; I feel he may defy us there. And as to laughter, we will not expose ourselves, if you please, by attempting to laugh without a subject. Mr. Darcy may hug himself."
"Mr. Darcy is not to be laughed at!" cried Elizabeth. "That is an UNCOMMON advantage, and UNCOMMON I hope it will continue, for it would be a great loss to me to have many such acquaintances. I dearly love a laugh."
Here we see Darcy and Eliza engaged in sophisticated wordplay with each other. Darcy first picks up on Eliza’s Gilpinesque joke, when he says Eliza’s and Caroline’s figures appear to “the greatest” (instead of “uncommon”) advantage as they walk, and then Eliza seizes on Caroline’s claim that Darcy is not to be laughed at, and repeats her earlier verbiage in the shrubbery by mocking his “uncommon advantage” of being too great (as opposed to common) a man to be laughed at.

Then in Chapter 16, we get the pun on “common” three times, through the opposite end of the telescope, as it were, in the context of the lowborn Wickham:  “Mr. Wickham was the happy man towards whom almost every female eye was turned, and Elizabeth was the happy woman by whom he finally seated himself; and the agreeable manner in which he immediately fell into conversation, though it was only on its being a wet night, made her feel that the COMMONEST, dullest, most threadbare topic might be rendered interesting by the skill of the speaker.”
We’re back to that same pun from earlier chapters, but this time as to a man of common birth who transcends his low status via his rhetorical gifts. And then later in that same scene, we hear Wickham deploy that same word: "A thorough, determined dislike of me—a dislike which I cannot but attribute in some measure to jealousy. Had the late Mr. Darcy liked me less, his son might have borne with me better; but his father's UNCOMMON attachment to me irritated him, I believe, very early in life. He had not a temper to bear the sort of competition in which we stood—the sort of preference which was often given me."
Here Wickham uses the late elder Mr. Darcy’s “uncommon” attachment to him as a way to hint at his being the illegitimate son of a highborn (i.e., “uncommon”) father.

And Jane gets in on the same pun in Chapter 17: "Laugh as much as you choose, but you will not laugh me out of my opinion. My dearest Lizzy, do but consider in what a disgraceful light it places Mr. Darcy, to be treating his father's favourite in such a manner, one whom his father had promised to provide for. It is impossible. No man of COMMON humanity, no man who had any value for his character, could be capable of it. Can his most intimate friends be so excessively deceived in him? Oh! no."

And we stay with the connection of Wickham and commonness in Chapter 25: “To Mrs. Gardiner, Wickham had one means of affording pleasure, unconnected with his general powers. About ten or a dozen years ago, before her marriage, she had spent a considerable time in that very part of Derbyshire to which he belonged. They had, therefore, many acquaintances in COMMON; and though Wickham had been little there since the death of Darcy's father, it was yet in his power to give her fresher intelligence of her former friends than she had been in the way of procuring….”
This suggests to us that Mrs. Gardiner came from the same humble, common stock as Wickham.

Chapter 29: "I am the less surprised at what has happened," replied Sir William, "from that knowledge of what the manners of the great really are, which my situation in life has allowed me to acquire. About the court, such instances of elegant breeding are not UNCOMMON."
Sir William’s pun is very broad, as he explicitly sets the context as the royal court, and then refers to elegant breeding as “not uncommon”, i.e., “common” – a wonderful punny paradox!

Chapter 33: "I know them a little. Their brother is a pleasant gentlemanlike man—he is a great friend of Darcy's."
"Oh! yes," said Elizabeth drily; "Mr. Darcy is UNCOMMONLY kind to Mr. Bingley, and takes a prodigious deal of care of him."
Here Elizabeth mocks Darcy’s haughty condescension toward his “subject” the “commoner” Bingley.

Chapter 40: "There certainly was some great mismanagement in the education of those two young men. One has got all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it."
"I never thought Mr. Darcy so deficient in the appearance of it as you used to do."
"And yet I meant to be UNCOMMONLY clever in taking so decided a dislike to him, without any reason. It is such a spur to one's genius, such an opening for wit, to have a dislike of that kind. One may be continually abusive without saying anything just; but one cannot always be laughing at a man without now and then stumbling on something witty."
Both Darcy and Wickham are under consideration, and Elizabeth, by using “uncommonly”, winks at the previous witty satires on Darcy she made, all involving the word “uncommon”. 

Chapter 44: Nothing had ever suggested it before, but they felt that there was no other way of accounting for such attentions from such a quarter than by supposing a partiality for their niece. While these newly-born notions were passing in their heads, the perturbation of Elizabeth's feelings was at every moment increasing. She was quite amazed at her own discomposure; but amongst other causes of disquiet, she dreaded lest the partiality of the brother should have said too much in her favour; and, more than COMMONLY anxious to please, she naturally suspected that every power of pleasing would fail her.
Now that Elizabeth has been bowled over by Pemberley, after first reading Darcy’s letter which detailed her own family’s deficiencies, her class anxiety is now acute, hence she is “more than commonly” anxious to please the high born Georgiana, whom she is about to meet.

Chapter 45:  “Her teeth are tolerable, but not out of the COMMON way; and as for her eyes, which have sometimes been called so fine, I could never see anything extraordinary in them. “ 
And here we have Caroline taking one last swipe at the much earlier references to Elizabeth’s “uncommon” beauty and wit.

Chapter 52: "I have heard, indeed, that she is UNCOMMONLY improved within this year or two. When I last saw her, she was not very promising. I am very glad you liked her. I hope she will turn out well."
"I dare say she will; she has got over the most trying age."
And Wickham’s usage of “uncommonly” comes in a speech in which he speaks of personal merit.

Chapter 54: "Well girls," said she, as soon as they were left to themselves, "What say you to the day? I think every thing has passed off UNCOMMONLY well, I assure you. The dinner was as well dressed as any I ever saw. "Well girls," said she, as soon as they were left to themselves, "What say you to the day? I think every thing has passed off UNCOMMONLY well, I assure you. The dinner was as well dressed as any I ever saw. ..”
And Mrs. Bennet uses “uncommonly” twice to refer to bridging of the chasm between Bingley and Jane.

Chapter 55: “It was an evening of no COMMON delight to them all; the satisfaction of Miss Bennet's mind gave a glow of such sweet animation to her face, as made her look handsomer than ever. Kitty simpered and smiled, and hoped her turn was coming soon.”
And there it is again re Jane and Bingley’s engagement.

Chapter 58: Elizabeth, feeling all the more than COMMON awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances.
Here, in the final usage in the novel, the pun is ironic as is fitting to the romantic climax. I.e., now that Elizabeth and Darcy are engaged, the chasm has been bridged, and so Eliza can finally see him as “common” in his awkwardness and anxiety, no longer higher than she on a societal status pedestal.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this picturesque tour of JA’s uncommonly brilliant usage of “common” in P&P!

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

Mr. said...


Just saw your update. It's probably me. I sometimes send my students to read this page.