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Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Triumph of the Other Whale: Darcy’s tempting, pleasing, & dangerous mouth & lips

A Janeite friend who prefers to remain in the background recently suggested to me that I take a closer look at the passage in P&P when Mrs. Gardiner refers to Darcy as having “something pleasing about his mouth when he speaks”, because it relates to my longstanding claims that Darcy is a Satan who tempts Elizabeth into falling in love with him, and giving up her self in the process. That suggestion quickly led me to search the usage of the word “mouth” in P&P –it turns out there are only three usages; which, when viewed as a group, have a striking resonance amongst them, which ultimately leads to dark corners of the shadow story of P&P, as you’ll see, below.

First, Mrs. Bennet, when she visits Netherfield, takes a metaphorical potshot at Darcy’s closed mouth:        “…What an agreeable man Sir William is, Mr. Bingley, is not he? So much the man of fashion! So genteel and easy! He has always something to say to everybody. That is my idea of good breeding; and those persons who fancy themselves very important, and never open their mouths, quite mistake the matter.” So, Mrs. Bennet uses the concrete metaphor of Darcy’s failure to open his mouth, and speak in a gentlemanly way, as a way of highlighting his poor breeding and excessive sense of self-importance.

Then, a dozen chapters later, at the end of the Netherfield Ball, the narrator echoes Mrs. Bennet’s mouthy metaphor in exactly the same sense, i.e., to refer to the lack of good breeding in the Bingley sisters, who complain and are inhospitable. We can readily imagine Mrs. Bennet telling her sister about the Bingley sisters the next day in those identical words: “The Longbourn party were the last of all the company to depart, and, by a manoeuvre of Mrs. Bennet, had to wait for their carriage a quarter of an hour after everybody else was gone, which gave them time to see how heartily they were wished away by some of the family. Mrs. Hurst and her sister scarcely opened their mouths, except to complain of fatigue, and were evidently impatient to have the house to themselves. They repulsed every attempt of Mrs. Bennet at conversation, and by so doing threw a languor over the whole party…”

It didn’t take me long to extend the scope of my wordsearching to include the word “lips”, and to confirm what I had vaguely recalled, which is that the opening of Darcy’s “lips” was also a subtly repeated motif:

[Mrs. Bennet]“I beg you would not put it into Lizzy’s head to be vexed by his ill-treatment, for he is such a disagreeable man, that it would be quite a misfortune to be liked by him. Mrs. Long told me last night that he sat close to her for half-an-hour without once opening his lips.”

And it appears that Elizabeth listened to her mother more than she would admit, because on two occasions during the Hunsford episode, her thoughts echo her mother’s usage of that same metaphor:

“But why Mr. Darcy came so often to the Parsonage, it was more difficult to understand. It could not be for society, as he frequently sat there ten minutes together without opening his lips; and when he did speak, it seemed the effect of necessity rather than of choice—a sacrifice to propriety, not a pleasure to himself….Mr. Darcy, who was leaning against the mantelpiece with his eyes fixed on her face, seemed to catch her words with no less resentment than surprise. His complexion became pale with anger, and the disturbance of his mind was visible in every feature. He was struggling for the appearance of composure, and would not open his lips till he believed himself to have attained it. The pause was to Elizabeth’s feelings dreadful.”

And, as I reflected still further, I realized that it was not only the words “mouth” and “lips” that popped up in similar contexts throughout P&P, it was also Mrs. Gardiner’s usage of the word “pleasing” that is repeatedly echoed, often so as to refer to how a person opens his mouth to speak pleasingly:

First, Mrs. Bennet about Darcy again: “But I can assure you,” she added, “that Lizzy does not lose much by not suiting his fancy; for he is a most disagreeable, horrid man, not at all WORTH PLEASING. So high and so conceited that there was no enduring him! He walked here, and he walked there, fancying himself so very great! Not handsome enough to dance with! I wish you had been there, my dear, to have given him one of your set-downs. I quite detest the man.”

And Jane says to Lizzy about the Bingley sisters: “…they are very PLEASING women when you converse with them. Miss Bingley is to live with her brother, and keep his house; and I am much mistaken if we shall not find a very charming neighbour in her.”

And Darcy isn’t the only one of Elizabeth’ s suitors described with that word: Mr. Bennet says it with thinly veiled yet safe irony to the unwitting Mr. Collins: “You judge very properly…and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these PLEASING ATTENTIONS proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?”

And the narrator is serious in using it in her description of Wickham’s first impressions on Lizzy: “His appearance was greatly in his favour; he had all the best part of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and VERY PLEASING ADDRESS. …”

So, I believe that Jane Austen, who was ever meticulous and thematic in her repetitive usage of distinctive keywords in passages scattered through her novels, intended to distinctly echo those earlier passages using “mouth”, “lips” and “pleasing”, in the later passage my friend had first pointed me to, in which the Gardiners debrief with Eliza their unexpected (and surprisingly pleasant) Pemberley meeting with Darcy:

“I was never more surprised than by his behaviour to us. It was more than civil; it was really attentive; and there was no necessity for such attention. His acquaintance with Elizabeth was very trifling.”
“To be sure, Lizzy,” said her aunt, “he is not so handsome as Wickham; or, rather, he has not Wickham’s countenance, for his features are perfectly good. But how came you to tell me that he was so disagreeable?”
Elizabeth excused herself as well as she could; said that she had liked him better when they had met in Kent than before, and that she had never seen him so pleasant as this morning.
“But perhaps he may be a little whimsical in his civilities,” replied her uncle. “Your great men often are; and therefore I shall not take him at his word, as he might change his mind another day, and warn me off his grounds.”
Elizabeth felt that they had entirely misunderstood his character, but said nothing.
“From what we have seen of him,” continued Mrs. Gardiner, “I really should not have thought that he could have behaved in so cruel a way by anybody as he has done by poor Wickham. He has not an ill-natured look. On the contrary, there is something pleasing about his mouth when he speaks. And there is something of dignity in his countenance that would not give one an unfavourable idea of his heart….”

Now, on the surface, there’s already something PG-13 about Mrs. Gardiner’s reference to Darcy’s mouth-the fairest reading is that she’s suggesting to Elizabeth that Darcy’s mouth (and not just his spoken words) is sexy when he speaks; and Darcy’s sexy mouth is then, as my Janeite friend also suggested, a satanic temptation that Elizabeth, as a Regency Era Eve, will have a hard time resisting! And here’s where that motif gets more interesting still. Even though Mrs. Gardiner was not present at any of those earlier scenes explicitly referring to Darcy’s mouth and lips, her comments to Elizabeth read as if Mrs. Gardiner somehow had overheard those conversations, and was taking pains to specifically rebut Mrs. Bennet on that specific point, by bringing attention to how pleasing Darcy’s mouth now was, when he was speaking (words which are themselves also pleasing). So, could this be a clue slipped in by Jane Austen, alerting readers that Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Gardiner, offstage and beyond Elizabeth’s awareness, have both been collaborative members of the matchmaking team that has deliberately brought Elizabeth to “accidentally” meet Darcy at Pemberley, as I have often asserted is the case in the shadow story of P&P? I would say it is!

But what else might it mean beyond that? My experience interpreting Austenian tea leaves was telling me that there had to be a reason why JA subtly but repeatedly kept raising in the reader’s mind the concrete image of Darcy’s mostly closed mouth and lips, when abstract references to his speaking would’ve sufficed. That same experience reminded me that when I was grappling with a question about JA’s hidden meaning, in these novels by a clergyman’s learned daughter, the Bible often provided the answer. And a quick Biblical word search on “open” and “mouth” led me right to it! In Numbers 16, we hear of the revolt by Korah and his Israelite followers against the God-given authority held by Moses and Aaron—and then we immediately hear graphic, concrete detail as to how God savagely punishes this revolt, with the method described in 16:23-33:

“And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, ‘Speak unto the congregation, saying, Get you up from about the tabernacle of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.’ And Moses rose up and went unto Dathan and Abiram; and the elders of Israel followed him. And he spake unto the congregation, saying, ‘Depart, I pray you, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of their's, lest ye be consumed in all their sins.’
So they gat up from the tabernacle of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, on every side: and Dathan and Abiram came out, and stood in the door of their tents, and their wives, and their sons, and their little children.
And Moses said, ‘Hereby ye shall know that the Lord hath sent me to do all these works; for I have not done them of mine own mind. If these men die the common death of all men, or if they be visited after the visitation of all men; then the Lord hath not sent me. But if the Lord make a new thing, and the earth open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down quick into the pit; then ye shall understand that these men have provoked the Lord.’
And it came to pass, as he had made an end of speaking all these words, that the ground clave asunder that was under them: And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods. They, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them: and they perished from among the congregation.”

The above incident of the earth opening her mouth to swallow Korah and his followers, who challenged Moses’s authority and demanded an equal share of power, is also recalled in Numbers 26:10 and then again in Deuteronomy 11:6. So it seems that two of the writers of the Torah (the Priestly Writer and the Deuteronomist) wanted to send a clear message to those Israelites reading it who might at any point wish to follow in those upstart footsteps and usurp official religious authority: Do that, they’re being warned, and the earth will open her mouth and swallow you (and everyone you’re close to) up!

Which brings me back to Elizabeth and Darcy. She, like Korah, is an upstart who dares to challenge the authority of the likes of Darcy and Lady Catherine, who behave as if their great power in English society is just, God-given, and eternal. Mrs. Gardiner’s reference to Darcy’s pleasingly open mouth at Pemberley is therefore also a veiled warning to Elizabeth (which she does not hear) to the effect that if Eliza marries Darcy, he’s going to swallow her up, the way the earth swallowed up the revolutionaries in Numbers 16. I think many readers of P&P who’ve questioned the suspiciously rapid evaporation of Elizabeth’s “upstart pretensions” vis a vis Darcy during the final third of the novel might find that a very apt metaphor indeed!

And that in turn led me to yet another source for the notion of Darcy swallowing Elizabeth whole --- Numbers 16 resonates with what I wrote last year… …when I suggested that Darcy was very like a “whale” who swallows up smaller sea creatures, the way the Prince of Whales ruled the seas in Charles Lamb’s satirical 1812 (the year JA finalized P&P) “Triumph of the Whale”, which, as many of you know, JA alluded to a few years later in the “courtship/Prince of Whales” Charade she wrote for Chapter 9 of Emma.

And, coming full circle, that brought me back to the Satanic Paradise Lost subtext of Lamb’s poem, which Susan Allen Ford pointed out to Colleen Sheehan a decade ago. So my shy Janeite friend was right: Mrs. Gardiner’s choice of metaphor about Darcy’s pleasing open mouth did indeed point back to Milton’s version of the Garden of Eden! And as a bonus, Lamb’s poem alerts to yet another Biblical subtext, because it slyly refers to the Prince of Whales as being similar to the Biblical Jonah’s “great fish”:

Had it been the fortune of it
To have swallow’d that old prophet,
Three days there he’d not have dwell’d,
But in one have been expell’d.

I believe it quite likely that Jane Austen intended all of the above subtext on Mrs. Gardiner’s comments about Darcy’s pleasing mouth to be seen as a danger to Elizabeth. And to hammer the point home, even after hearing about Darcy’s pleasing mouth, we get several more echoes of the word “pleasing” as the story moves swiftly toward its climax, with the final one being this one, after Darcy stays silent while visiting Longbourn for the first time, leaving Elizabeth in an agony of uncertainty:   “…She could settle it in no way that gave her pleasure. “He could be still amiable, still PLEASING, to my uncle and aunt, when he was in town; and why not to me? If he fears me, why come hither? If he no longer cares for me, why silent? Teasing, teasing, man! I will think no more about him.”

Teasing before pleasing, you might say, was the romantic technique exercised by the satanic Mr. Darcy, just to let Elizabeth know who’s boss. And it all rotates around the pleasing nature of Darcy’s opening of his mouth and lips, with all the pleasures, temptations, and dangers that it provided.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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