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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The late Nina Auerbach’s early take on Mr. Darcy as the Austenian duke of dark corners & disguise

Ellen Moody posted the following today in Janeites/Austen-L about the recent death of literary critic Nina Auerbach:  “An obituary: she was an important feminist woman scholarship; often wrote of the gothic, has a book on DuMaurier, wrote influentially from a feminist progressive angry angle about Fanny Price”: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/nytimes/obituary.aspx?n=nina-auerbach&pid=184181437

For over a decade, I’ve been aware of Nina Auerbach’s having been a pioneer among Austen scholars, in her early recognition of dark aspects of Austen’s radical feminist critique of Regency Era patriarchy, a critique that (as I agree with her) lurks in the shadows of all of Austen’s novels. So I think it a fitting memorial to Prof. Auerbach today, to quote from her literary criticism written during the Seventies, so that her own words can illustrate the prescience and evolution of her subversive insights into the most high profile of Austen heroes  —Mr. Darcy in P&P. In particular, vis a vis my claim (since 2005) that all of Austen’s novels are double stories, I find especially noteworthy Auerbach’s prescient insights into the doubleness of the Austen hero who famously (and disingenuously) sneered: “But disguise of every sort is my abhorrence.” As you’ll see, Auerbach didn’t quite believe him then, and I don’t believe him today.

Auerbach first dipped her critical toe into the deep waters of Mr. Darcy’s mysterious character in 1972 in "O Brave New World: Evolution and Revolution in Persuasion, " English Literary History 39 at p. 120, with this passing observation:   
“…Elizabeth was forced out of her childhood home by Mr. Collins, a horrible embodiment of the power of form to stifle humanity, and her problem in the book was to find a house she could live in. Wickham's ‘unhoused free condition,’ his world of impulse and feeling, was an illusion, easily dissolved by the power of money. Nature, growth, freedom, could survive only in the heavily fortified atmosphere of Pemberley, presided over by the equivocal figure of Mr. Darcy…To find this generosity of feeling, Elizabeth Bennet… retreated into the past: Elizabeth ensconced herself in Pemberley…But there were oppressive and equivocal elements in this protective world of tradition. Darcy's resemblance to his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, pointed to elements in his character of the anti-human pride of his class, although at times Jane Austen ignored Darcy's unpleasant side with skillful sophistry in order to maintain the light and bright and sparkling tone of the book.”

I love Auerbach’s characterization of Austen’s “skillful sophistry” at somehow keeping things comic and tragic at the same time. Then, four years later, in “Austen & Alcott on Matriarchy: New Women or New Wives?” in Novel 10/1 (Autumn 1976) 6-26, Auerbach unpacked her much more fully developed thoughts about Darcy:
“Lady Catherine's final challenge throws Elizabeth back on the female, matriarchal dream world she is trying to escape; in asserting the primary reality of men and patrilineal inheritance, she comes close to denying that she is her mother's daughter. Lady Catherine's withdrawal, and the reassuringly ardent Darcy's quick appearance in her place, suggests the salutary recession of the usurped power of all mothers before the meaning and form only men can bestow. For the acknowledged center of power is the shadowy Darcy. "As a brother, a landlord, a master, she considered how many people's happiness were in his guardianship!-How much of pleasure or pain it was in his power to bestow!- How much of good or evil must be done by him!". Looking at Darcy as his portrait immortalizes him, Elizabeth is overcome by a kind of social vitalism: she is drawn not to the benignity and wisdom of his power but to its sheer extent as such, for evil as well as good. What compels her in the portrait is the awesomely institutionalized power of a man; a power that her own father has let fall and her mother, grotesquely usurped. Loathing as she does the idea of any kinship to her mother, Elizabeth will doubtless be content not to have her own portrait displayed after her marriage. Thus Austen speculates: "I can only imagine that Mr. D. prizes any Picture of her too much to like it should be exposed to the public eye.-I can imagine he wd. have that sort of feeling-that mixture of Love, Pride & Delicacy" (24 May, 1813). After the clamorous anonymity of Longbourn, marriage waits for Elizabeth as a hard-won release into a privacy only Darcy can bestow. But underneath this pervasive largesse Darcy has as shadowy a selfhood as his aunt Lady Catherine. If Elizabeth's childhood is obliterated in memory, Darcy's is a muddled contradiction. The man who caught Elizabeth's eye before audibly insulting her was, according to his "intelligent" housekeeper, a fount of virtue from the beginning of his life. He was merely too modest to declare his goodness and Elizabeth too prejudiced to see it…A good deal of weight is put on this testimony, though it is oddly redolent of Mr. Collins extolling the condescension of Lady Catherine; and it meshes neither with the reliable Mrs. Gardiner's "having heard Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy formerly spoken of as a very proud, ill-natured boy", nor with Darcy's own meticulous diagnosis of his past…Darcy the man is as muddled a figure as Darcy the boy. Is he indeed converted into humanity by Elizabeth's spontaneity and spirit, or was he always the perfection that maturity allows her to see? Oddly, Elizabeth herself prefers the latter interpretation, replacing her power over him with a reassuring silliness: "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 any thing just; but one cannot be always laughing at a man without now and then stumbling on something witty". Elizabeth's selective memory serves her well here by erasing the fact that she had, and has, several good reasons for disliking Darcy; but she seems to need a sense of her own wrongness to justify the play of her mind. In choosing to emphasize her own prejudice over Darcy's most palpable pride, she can wonder freely at the power in his portrait while her own (if there is one) will be closeted away, invisible to all eyes but her husband's…
Objectivity, impartiality, and knowledge might endanger the cloak of invisibility which is so intrinsic a part of Jane Austen's perception of a woman's life. The sanctioned power of management with which she endows Darcy allows him to prove his heroism in the third volume by taking over the mother's role: like the shadowy "Duke of dark corners" in Measure for Measure, he moves behind the scenes and secretly arranges the marriages of the three Bennet girls….In becoming the novel's providential matchmaker, Darcy brings about the comic conclusion by an administrative activity for which Mrs. Bennet and Lady Catherine were, and Emma Woodhouse will be, severely condemned. In the end the malevolent power of the mother is ennobled by being transferred to the hero; and the female community of Longbourn, an oppressive blank in a dense society, is dispersed with relief in the solidity of marriage. “ END QUOTE

Darcy clearly continued to bubble around in Auerbach’s imagination thereafter, because 7 years later, we read, in “Jane Austen and Romantic Imprisonment” these additional thoughts, which I believe are the last that Auerbach wrote about Darcy:
“…Elizabeth Bennet in P&P is the simplest case: she assumes power by marriage to it, and the novel arcs with her comic rise. Unlike Catherine Morland and Marianne Dashwood, she falls back only in a muted, vicarious fashion through her sister’s humiliating elopement. The double prison quietly persists, however, in Darcy’s radically double character, his ambiguous affinity with his tyrannical aunt making him as suggestive a redeemer/jailer as Willoughby was. His humanization is so undefined a process that we can see the ‘shades of the prison-house’ [Wordsworth] closing on Elizabeth forever at Pemberley.”

Given that I ‘ve been writing for almost a decade now about the two Darcys that Jane Austen created, and how the dark Darcy only pretends to reform his character, I’d like to think that Nina Auerbach, who so long ago felt intimations of that darkness, would’ve found my shadow story theories persuasive. And if you were wondering how Auerbach’s subversive ideas about Darcy were received way back when? Well, I will conclude this post with two reviews which show that the world of Austen scholarship was definitely not ready for Auerbach’s radical innovative thinking 3 or 4 decades ago—and perhaps is not much more ready today:

Joel J. Gold in Modern Philology, Vol. 80, No. 3 (Feb., 1983), pp. 313-316
“It is difficult, for example, to harmonize the somewhat strained and subjective readings of "Jane Austen and Romantic Imprisonment" by Nina Auerbach, which presents Austen in "a special sort of agreement with her Romantic contemporaries", with the judicious, balanced appraisal of Patricia Meyer Spacks, who sees Austen's fiction embodying "values of the 18th and 19th centuries alike". Auerbach's subjective approach leads to some dark corners: she finds in both Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey "a similar rhythm of a painful journey toward what looks like freedom but is in fact a deeper prison of the mind”. Many readers have seen Marianne Dashwood's marriage to Colonel Brandon in such terms, but Catherine's to Henry Tilney? Consider Auerbach on the end of Northanger Abbey: "The mechanical, even faintly zombie-like quality of the final epithalamium-'Henry and Catherine were married, the bells rang and every body smiled' . . . in which the smiles seem as non-human as the bells-recalls the darker, enforced marriages of the unnatural in Romantic fiction, whose contrivance (as in Frankenstein or Melmoth) murders the living nature marriage claims to perpetuate". Not surprisingly, with Auerbach as guide, "we can see the 'shades of the prison-house' closing on Elizabeth forever at Pemberley" and Fanny Price transformed "from being the prisoner of Mansfield to the status of its principal jailer".

And a few months after that, Margaret Ann Doody responded with similar skepticism in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Sep., 1983), pp. 220-224:
“Nina Auerbach gives us a different kind of historical Austen. "Jane Austen and Romantic Imprisonment" rebels in Austen's name against the condescending praise (by G. H. Lewes and others) for her limitations; she is too often seen as "the artist of contentedly clipped wings". Auerbach sees in Austen an impatience with "pinched horizons," a Romantic insight into a claustrophobia Romantically evoked. This view has some merit as a reaction against platitudes, but certainly not every reader will perceive Darcy as a "jailer" or agree that "we can see the 'shades of the prison house' closing on Elizabeth forever at Pemberley". If we try to see everything we want in an author, we may in the end see nothing.”

Needless to say, I don’t agree with Gold or Doody, and I especially don’t believe that Nina Auerbach was guilty of “trying to see everything she wanted to see” in Jane Austen’s fiction. Quite the contrary, I see Auerbach as having been a clear-eyed, imaginative interpreter of the meanings hidden beneath the lines Austen wrote, and I hope that one day my own scholarship will fulfill the promise of the pioneering and still underappreciated insights of Nina Auerbach.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAusten on Twitter

1 comment:

Julia Ergane said...

I am not sure about these theories. Of course it has been (cough) quite a bit of time since I was in graduate school back in the 1970s. To me Austen had more of the Georgian about her novels than the later Romantic sensibilities. These critics seem to forget Darcy's self description of himself as a man who despised disguise of every sort. Yet, I also believe that he is a man who also does not know himself (gnothi seuton) in the classical sense. He states that he was given good principles, yet as he grew up he practiced these in arrogance and pride. He was never corrected. Thus, he had no stick by which to truly measure himself. He knows he is flawed; but, he hides it underneath a surface of sophistication. He disguises himself. He admires Elizabeth Bennet because she is what he is not. I could probably go on but I will stop for now.