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

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Darcy & Wickham: Pride & Prejudice’s (un)natural characters and (im)probable plots: What(ely)?!

Ellen Moody started a thread today in Austen L & Janeites about her rereading Pride & Prejudice for the umpteenth time, which prompted me to crystallize several aspects of the double-story structure of Pride & Prejudice from a fresh perspective, which I’d like to share now.

First, here’s the first post I wrote, which was a response to some of what Ellen wrote:

ELLEN: "This time…I did ask myself if the plausibility of Wickham's story, which is utterly dismissed by Elizabeth upon the second reading of the letter, was really meant to be dismissed. We were to dismiss the idea of the paragon Darcy's jealousy, take everything Darcy said as true with no subtext he doesn't allow for."
MY REPLY: Ellen, had you read the many dozens of posts I've written over the past decade about Pride & Prejudice (like all of JA's novels) being a double story, you'd know that I've been claiming all along that the above ambiguity you've now noted for the first time was not only deliberate on Jane Austen's part, it happens to be the fork in the road of dual interpretation that leads to the two alternative endings of P&P:
The overt story is the road to the left in which Wickham was (as almost all Janeites have always believed) lying about Darcy in every important regard; but the shadow story is the road to the right (which I am the first and only person to have ever taken) in which Wickham was telling the truth about Darcy in every important regard.
Another way of putting this is that in the overt story, Darcy actually does repent and reform his character after the first proposal; but in the shadow story, Darcy merely pretends to reform, while simultaneously staging a series of choreographed experiences for Elizabeth which result in the complete demolition of her previous (healthy and insightful) resistance to Darcy, who has alas remained the same narcissistic bully he always was.

ELLEN: "Similarly, given that we have two long dialogues between Darcy and Elizabeth at the end, one of which even if tongue-in-cheek talk about the moral of the story... and his apologies and explanations are even abject at moments, maybe Austen did not think she needed to show us gradual change."
MY REPLY: No, I suggest instead to you that the best explanation is as I explained above- it's a deliberate and permanent ambiguity-- the famous lopping and cropping was primarily for that purpose.

ELLEN: "I found the story of how marriage is forced in the case of Charlotte Lucas among the most moving. I'm with the character in Jane Austen Book club who reads Charlotte as a closet lesbian spinster"
MY REPLY: And I’ve also written several posts over the past 7 years about Charlotte as a lesbian who (exactly like Anna Howe in Richardson’s Clarissa) is in romantic passionate but implicit love with the heroine.  But, unlike Anna in Clarissa, Charlotte uses her wits and audacity to tip the course of events in the shadow story of P&P so as wind up living in close proximity to her beloved Elizabeth again. And the way Charlotte accomplishes that daring maneuver is to take a page out of Lucy Steele's playbook in Sense & Sensibility, by provoking Lady Catherine the same way Lucy provokes Mrs Ferrars, into unwittingly doing exactly what Charlotte wants done - Lucy and Charlotte each use invisible hands to move the behavior of others.

ELLEN: "I note that if Austen did cut the Bingley and Jane material, which still makes sense, she didn't Elizabeth and Charlotte nor Jane and Elizabeth. As before I was very moved by Jane's emotional pain, her continued distress, and her seeing what the world is, but not being able to admit the point of view so producing "candid" interpretations except when driven otherwise."
MY REPLY: And I've been saying all along that Jane Bennet has a secret life that Elizabeth has never been aware of - a secret life very similar to that of her namesake Jane Fairfax in the shadow story of Emma - concealed pregnancy, giving up of her newborn to a trusted married friend (in this case Charlotte), with the father a forbidden lover (in this case, Darcy).

And now, here’s the second post I wrote, responding to Diane Reynolds’s excellent response to both Ellen and myself:

DIANE: "This book [P&P] is so comedic in many ways, the dry run for Emma in Lizzie's cluelessness, that it's more than plausible to have doubts about her flip-flop to utterly believing Darcy. "
MY REPLY: Exactly, but even more than that. As I've also suggested, I’m pretty sure that when JA noted, with what must’ve been real disappointment, how readers hadn’t noticed Lizzy’s cluelessness in the latter half of P&P – she realized that she needed to up the ante several notches on the visibility of heroinic cluelessness when she wrote Emma. And then she had to wait till 1816, after Emma was published, to be rewarded with Walter Scott's canny passing comments about Eliza Bennet's suspicious conversion to Darcyism right after seeing Pemberley! Now that I think about it, Scott (who wrote Marmion, the source JA paraphrased in her “dull elves” witticism) was indeed a sharp elf and good student, who probably learned how to read the lines beneath the words in P&P by reading Emma!

DIANE: “I agree too with Ellen about the poignancy in the novel and in the way women relate and suffer. It especially jumps out to me that Austen cares so much --that it's so important for her to convey to us how much Charlotte cares for Elizabeth--that she breaks out of Lizzie's pov and gets into Charlotte's head--Charlotte, without a doubt, does care deeply about Elizabeth's opinion and is perceptive enough (in a way Lizzie is not!) to know how surprised and baffled Elizabeth is going to be by her engagement to Mr. Collins. Austen needs us to know that.”
MY REPLY: Unquestionably, this was herstory JA felt compelled to tell, to be sure it did not just disappear like the invisible lives of “common” country folk described so poignantly in the line from Grey’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”, which Austen tellingly quoted in two of her novels (NA and Emma). But, again, Charlotte does not merely care deeply about Elizabeth’s opinion; as a pragmatically closeted lesbian, she also cares deeply about Elizabeth’s body, heart, and soul as well, and that is the passion that drives Charlotte to the audacious action she takes which brings her back into close proximity with Elizabeth by novel’s end. That is truly a poignant and heart-warming love story for the ages!
And…perhaps, Diane, you, too, have wondered about how this motif of unrequited, unspoken lesbian love might’ve played out in JA’s real life? I.e., is it possible that Jane Austen, as a young woman, was herself a romantically clueless Elizabeth Bennet vis a vis the older and wiser Martha Lloyd?; and then, years later, as a self-confident, worldly-wise, fortyish, independent woman and artist in words finishing the writing of P&P,  JA revisited this romantic paradigm, but by this time reunited with Martha at Chawton; and perhaps also playing the romantically self aware Charlotte Lucas vis a vis clueless niece Fanny Knight?

For the remainder of this post, I want to take a longer look at the idea of the improbability of Darcy’s lightning fast reformation of character, and the centrality of the unresolvable question of whether Wickham tells the truth about Darcy or not. By pure chance, I noticed only yesterday that there is a huge (and I believe, utterly unintended) irony in Bishop Whately’s famous 1821 review of NA & Persuasion in which he discussed realism in fiction. In a nutshell, he praised Jane Austen as a great master of realistic fiction, who he believed never took a false step into either unnatural characters or improbable events. The irony I refer to relates to Whately’s missing that JA committed both of those authorial offenses in P&P, but did so not in error, but as a bravura demonstration that she could pull off such a brilliant stunt without being caught (as Virginia Woolf so aptly put it) in the act of greatness. This all will emerge as I lead you through a couple of key passages in the literary bishop’s essay, with my comments interspersed:

WHATELY: “…a heavy complaint has long lain against works of fiction, as giving a false picture of what they profess to imitate, and disqualifying their readers for the ordinary scenes and everyday duties of life.”
MY COMMENT: Of course that sounds just like the commonly held belief as to the theme of Northanger Abbey, but then Whately surprises us with a twist:

WHATELY: “And this charge applies, we apprehend, to the generality of what are strictly called novels, with even more justice than to romances. When all the characters and events are very far removed from what we see around us,--when, perhaps, even supernatural agents are introduced, the reader may indulge, indeed, in occasional day-dreams, but will be so little reminded by what he has been reading, of anything that occurs in actual life, that though he may perhaps feel some disrelish for the tameness of the scene before him, compared with the fairy-land he has been visiting, yet at least his judgment will not be depraved, nor his expectations misled; he will not apprehend a meeting with Algerine banditti on English shores, nor regard the old woman who shews him about an antique country seat, as either an enchantress or the keeper of an imprisoned damsel.”         
MY COMMENT: So Whately is clearly saying here is that, despite all the propaganda during JA’s lifetime about the dangers of reading Gothic novels, and despite the superficial appearance that JA is following that party line in writing NA, he doesn’t think readers will actually confuse fantastical fiction with real life. Only psychotics, and perhaps a few seriously naïve teenagers.
And, those who’ve followed me for a while know that I believe he’s (seemingly unwittingly) agreeing with what I have long seen as Jane Austen’s actual and very subversive message in writing NA, which is that intelligently written Gothic novels can carry a powerful, beneficial metaphorical message to readers: i.e., that imagination is actually an indispensable asset required for any intelligent person to discern the horrid “domestic tyranny” that does lurks in everyday life, unnoticed by “realistic” adults.
But now Whately turns his gaze toward the realm of realistic fiction, and (to my mind, acutely) detects an actual danger of misleading readers there instead:

WHATELY: “it is otherwise with those fictions which differ from common life in little or nothing but the improbability of the occurrences: the reader is insensibly led to calculate upon some of those lucky incidents and opportune coincidences of which he has been so much accustomed to read, and which, it is undeniable, may take place in real life; and to feel a sort of confidence, that however romantic his conduct may be, and in whatever difficulties it may involve him, all will be sure to come right at last, as is invariably the case with the hero of a novel.”
MY COMMENT: So, Whately is turning conventional wisdom on its head, and saying that realistic fiction like Austen’s ought not to reward their characters’s haphazard, foolish thinking and behavior with happy endings, because readers will extrapolate directly to expecting comparable luck in their own real lives. I.e., an author of realistic fiction who makes “lucky incidents and opportune coincidences” seem natural and probable, lets suggestible readers off the moral hook, because they’ll expect dei ex machini to intervene and rescue them, no matter how foolishly they act. And I agree with Whately on that point as well. The bishop then makes a key distinction between unnatural characters (those who suddenly behave completely out of character) and improbable (lucky) events, and that brings him to the point where I see that huge irony relating to P&P. Whately launches into a critique of what he sees as Maria Edgeworth’s excessive reliance on both unnatural and improbable events in her 1809 novel Ennui, a novel which JA most certainly read (as she surely read all of Edgeworth’s fiction):

WHATELY: “We shall, perhaps, best explain our meaning by examples, taken from a novel of great merit [i.e., Ennui] in many respects. When Lord Glenthorn, in whom a most unfavourable education has acted on a most unfavourable disposition, after a life of torpor, broken only by short sallies of forced exertion, on a sudden reverse of fortune, displays at once the most persevering diligence in the most repulsive studies, and in middle life, without any previous habits of exertion, any hope of early business, or the example of friends, or the stimulus of actual want, to urge him, outstrips every competitor, though every competitor has every advantage against him; this is unnatural.”          
MY COMMENT: Now stop and consider how well Whately’s elegant summation of Glenthorn’s unnaturally sudden transformation from frog to prince resembles Darcy’s unnatural metamorphosis – and yet Whately, who has clearly read P&P, and is reviewing two other Austen novels, never consciously glimmers on any parallelism. But that’s only half of Whately’s massive Trojan Horse Moment, because the other half pops up in the very next sentence:

WHATELY: “When Lord Glenthorn, the instant he is stripped of his estates, meets, falls in love with, and is conditionally accepted by the very lady who is remotely intitled to those estates; when, the instant he has fulfilled the conditions of their marriage, the family of the person possessed of the estates becomes extinct, and by the concurrence of circumstances, against every one of which the chances were enormous, the hero is re-instated in all his old domains; this is merely improbable.”        
MY COMMENT: There you have a parallel to the improbability of the coincidences in P&P – not merely those in the cascade of “dominoes” that drive the final volume of P&P (Lizzy “accidentally” being taken to see Pemberley; Darcy ‘accidentally’ running into her in the Pemberley shrubbery; Lydia “accidentally” revealing that Darcy was at her wedding’ someone “accidentally” passing the false rumor of Elizabeth and Darcy being engaged on to Lady Catherine, etc.); but go back to the colossally improbable quadruple coincidence that comprises the first half of P&P (Darcy, Wickham, Collins, Mrs. Gardiner all focused “independently” on Elizabeth, as I last outlined here:  In short, there is no great story in the history of literature more dependent on improbable coincidences than P&P –and yet, JA, in her mastery, has somehow convinced millions of readers over 2 centuries that everything in P&P is not only probable, it’s so compellingly real that we care as much about Darcy and Elizabeth as we do about any fictional characters ever created!

With that in mind, now savor the unintended irony of the following remaining comments about probability in novels in Whately’s review, when he criticizes Edgeworth while praising Austen:

WHATELY: “…. Among the authors of this school there is no one superior, if equal, to [JA] the lady whose last production is now before us…Miss Edgeworth, indeed, draws characters and details conversations, such as they occur in real life, with a spirit and fidelity not to be surpassed; but her stories are most romantically improbable (in the sense above explained), almost all the important events of them being brought about by most providential coincidences; and this, as we have already remarked, is not merely faulty, inasmuch as it evinces a want of skill in the writer, and gives an air of clumsiness to the fiction, but is a very considerable drawback on its practical utility: the personages either of fiction or history being then only profitable examples, when their good or ill conduct meets its appropriate reward, not from a sort of independent machinery of accidents, but as a necessary or probable result, according to the ordinary course of affairs. Miss Edgeworth also is somewhat too avowedly didactic…
…The moral lessons also of this lady's [JA’s] novels, though clearly and impressively conveyed, are not offensively put forward, but spring incidentally from the circumstances of the story; they are not forced
upon the reader, but he is left to collect them (though without any difficulty) for himself: hers is that unpretending kind of instruction which is furnished by real life; and certainly no author has ever conformed more closely to real life, as well in the incidents, as in the characters and descriptions. Her fables appear to us to be, in their own way, nearly faultless; they do not consist (like those of some of the
writers who have attempted this kind of common-life novel writing) of a string of unconnected events which have little or no bearing on one main plot, and are introduced evidently for the sole purpose of bringing in characters and conversations; but have all that compactness of plan and unity of action which is generally produced by a sacrifice of probability: yet they have little or nothing that is not probable…”

MY COMMENT: And now, if you were in doubt as to where you think Whately stood on the question of probability in JA’s novels, here you get it, explicitly and without qualification:

WHATELY: “…the story proceeds without the aid of extraordinary accidents; the events which take place are the necessary or natural consequences of what has preceded; and yet (which is a very rare merit indeed) the final catastrophe is scarcely ever clearly foreseen from the beginning, and very often comes, upon the generality of readers at least, quite unexpected. We know not whether Miss Austin ever had access to the precepts of Aristotle; but there are few, if any, writers of fiction who have illustrated them more successfully. The vivid distinctness of description, the minute fidelity of detail, and air of unstudied ease in the scenes represented, which are no less necessary than probability of incident, to carry the reader's imagination along with the story, and give fiction the perfect appearance of reality, she possesses in a high degree…”
MY FINAL COMMENT: There can be no greater tribute to JA’s genius than that she could receive the universal acclaim of Whately and all her other readers for 200 years for her natural plots with necessary consequences, and yet she has based it all on a string of wild improbabilities and unnaturalnesses, beside which those of  Edgeworth and Fielding might pale in comparison –and ultimately why did she do it?
Because what was unnatural and improbable in the overt story of each of her novels, but particularly in Pride & Prejudice, was a reflection of the profound errors made by the clueless heroine of each novel, who misjudged the actions and motivations of their fellow characters whom they observed. In the shadow story, however, there is nothing unnatural or improbable, only trueness to real life that the heroine cannot properly discern and understand.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


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