Today I came across “Irony in Jane Austen: A Cognitive-Narratological Approach” (by a German professor emeritus, Wolfgang G. Muller), a chapter in a recently published book on narrative theory. Muller’s essay addresses what I consider to be the most central yet challenging-to-understand aspect of Jane Austen’s genius – her pervasive use of irony. Muller’s ideas provided me with rich inspiration for some reflections of my own on that important topic.
I quote below the first two excerpts therefrom relating to irony in Pride & Prejudice, which I found most significant, and, as to each such excerpt, my reaction to it. In a second, separate post, I will react to two other excerpts in Muller’s essay, also with my comments, which pertain, respectively, to irony in Emma, and then to Austen’s narrative structure in all six of her completed novels. So, here goes.
MULLER EXCERPT #1: “It is curious that secondary criticism of JA tends to praise her irony without going more deeply into this aspect of her art…To my knowledge, there is only one comprehensive study of Austen’s irony, Kuhnel’s monograph (1969)…some passages in JA can be explained in terms of ironia verborum or litotes, for instance the following comments of Mr. Bennet in Austen’s P&P (1813) on the conceited, domineering Lady Catherine and the insolent good-for-nothing Wickham:
“She is a very fine-looking woman! and her calling here was prodigiously civil! for she only came, I suppose, to tell us the Collinses were well. She is on her road somewhere, I dare say, and so, passing through Meryton, thought she might as well call on you. I suppose she had nothing particular to say to you, Lizzy?”
“He is as fine a fellow,” said Mr. Bennet, as soon as they were out of the house, “as ever I saw. He simpers, and smirks, and makes love to us all. I am prodigiously proud of him. I defy even Sir William Lucas himself to produce a more valuable son-in-law.”
The context of the two passages makes it obvious that Mr. Bennet intends his utterances not to be taken literally. He makes his point by stating the opposite of what he purports to convey. His comment on the two characters is a transparent misrepresentation. Using this form of verbal irony is his way of showing his wit and of passing a negative judgment on others. Mr. Bennet’s ironic statements also have the function of correcting the effusive evaluation of the same persons by his wife, which in contrast to his remarks constitute non-ironic misrepresentations of the reality of things and persons that are derived from wishful thinking….” END OF MULLER EXCERPT #1
Muller contrasts Mr. Bennet’s ironic absurd statements with Mrs. Bennet’s unironic absurd statements. However, Muller doesn’t realize that many of Mrs. Bennet’s absurd statements can also plausibly be read as ironic! To do so, the reader must entertain the possibility that Mrs. Bennet is not the consistently over-the-top fool she seems (to Eliza) to be, but actually is clever enough to feign hysteria in certain instances for strategic purposes. As you might guess, I believe JA did indeed intend Mrs. Bennet to be ambiguous in this way, plausibly viewable as either an actual or a feigned fool. Which Mrs. Bennet you see depends on whether the reader can imagine a Mrs. Bennet who has motivations very different than Elizabeth, the focal consciousness of the novel, ascribes to her.
Muller also missed the opportunity to note that Mr. Bennet is not alone in P&P in ‘mak[ing] his point by stating the opposite of what he purports to convey.” All readers of P&P would agree that Eliza’s ironic sense of humor reveal her to truly be her father’s daughter in this regard. We have no lesser authority on this point than Mr. Darcy: “…[Darcy] making with his usual deliberation towards the pianoforte stationed himself so as to command a full view of the fair performer’s countenance. Elizabeth saw what he was doing, and at the first convenient pause, turned to him with an arch smile, and said: “You mean to frighten me, Mr. Darcy, by coming in all this state to hear me? I will not be alarmed though your sister does play so well. There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”
“I shall not say you are mistaken,” he replied, “because you could not really believe me to entertain any design of alarming you; and I have had the pleasure of your acquaintance long enough to know that you find great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact are not your own.”
Elizabeth laughed heartily at this picture of herself…”
MULLER EXCERPT #2: “…such an irony-saturated narrative [as P&P] requires a perceptive reader…A similar, yet somewhat more intricate example…is the representation of Charlotte Lucas’s consciousness as she eagerly waits for the arrival of Mr. Collins: ‘Miss Lucas perceived him from an upper window as he walked towards the house, and instantly set out to meet him accidentally in the lane.”
Here, the use of the adverb ‘accidentally’ does not fit its context. Again, the reader is more than aware of the situation, namely that Charlotte Lucas, in intending to ‘catch’ Mr. Collins, is making a show of acting in an unpremeditated way. Irony is here a device of exposing and criticizing a character’s hypocrisy…the narrator inserts the adverb ‘accidentally’ in reference to the impression that Charlotte Lucas desires to create. The insertion of this word can also be seen as a glimpse of the figural character’s point of view. We can here observe that Austen is more sophisticated than run-of-the-mill ironists….”
END OF MULLER EXCERPT #2
All readers of P&P would agree that Charlotte’s meeting Mr. Collins in the lane is the furthest thing from “accidental”. However, Muller fails to extrapolate from this scene showing Charlotte’s opportunistic, proactive approach to courtship, in which she is the active pursuer of Mr. Collins, while disguising her actions so as to appear to be a traditional, passive female object of courtship. Muller (and most readers of P&P) fail to utilize that rare window into Charlotte’s character which this scene provides, and wonder whether there might be other points in the story in which Charlotte, while outside of Elizabeth’s gaze, also takes covert action in order to inobtrusively direct the behavior of other, unsuspecting characters.
Muller also fails to notice a major allusive wink in the next sentence after his quoted excerpt from P&P:
“But little had [Charlotte] dared to hope that so much love and eloquence awaited her [in the lane].”
12 years ago, I first used Google to learn that the striking phrase “love and eloquence” was not merely one part of the mock-romantic tone of that narration, in the identical vein as Mr. Bennet’s earlier satirical mockery of Mr. Collins:
[Mr. Collins] “…I am happy on every occasion to offer those little delicate compliments which are always acceptable to ladies…These are the kind of little things which please her ladyship, and it is a sort of attention which I conceive myself peculiarly bound to pay.”
“You judge very properly,” said Mr. Bennet, “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?”
“They arise chiefly from what is passing at the time, and though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.”
Mr. Bennet’s expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and, except in an occasional glance at Elizabeth, requiring no partner in his pleasure.”
Mr. Collins displays narcissism when he rejects Mr. Bennet’s suggestion that Mr. Collins has studied the art of flattery, instead claiming to improvise his compliments. That indirect boast is actually belied by the phrase “love and eloquence”, because that is actually the title of a 17th century advice book entitled The Mysteries of Love & Eloquence by Edward Phillips (subtitle: The arts of wooing and complementing as they are manag'd in the Spring Garden, Hide Park, the New Exchange, and other eminent places : a work in which is drawn to the life the deportments of the most accomplisht persons, the mode of their courtly entertainments, treatments of their ladies at balls, their accustom'd sports, drolls and fancies, the witchcrafts of their perswasive language in their approaches, or other more secret dispatches)
To a reader who recognizes that title, this pulls the rug out from under Mr. Collin’s improvisation claim, and suggests instead that, as Mr. Bennet implied, the worldly wise Charlotte suspects that Mr. Collins has actually been boning up (so to speak) in Phillips’s self-help book on the art of wooing! I also assert that Austen later winks at “the witchcrafts of perswasive language” when Lady Catherine accuses Eliza:
“But your arts and allurements may, in a moment of infatuation, have made him forget what he owes to himself and to all his family. You may have drawn him in.”
And finally, perhaps you noticed the coincidence of the author’s name, Phillips, with the name of Mrs. Bennet’s brother in law the lawyer, Mr. Phillips. If you are sitting down, you are now ready to read Wikipedia’s description of the far greater claim to fame of that 17th expert on wooing:
“He was the son of Edward Phillips of the crown office in chancery, and his wife Anne, only sister of JOHN MILTON…Edward Phillips and his younger brother, John, were educated by Milton. Edward entered Magdalen Hall, Oxford, in November 1650, but left the university in 1651 to work as a bookseller's clerk in London. Although he did not share Milton's religious and political views, and seems, to judge from the free character of his Mysteries of Love and Eloquence (1658), to have undergone a certain revulsion from his Puritan upbringing, he remained on affectionate terms with his uncle to the end. He was tutor to the son of JOHN EVELYN, the diarist, from 1663 to 1672 at Sayes Court, Deptford, and in 1677–1679 in the family of Henry BENNET, 1st Earl of Arlington, a prominent Roman Catholic…”
The notion that the imbecilic Mr. Collins was taking non-PG-rated courtship advice from Milton’s nephew is droll enough. That Milton’s said nephew whose ideas Mr. Collins studied so diligently was also tutor to a real life Bennet family must have had JA and her intimate friends and family who were in on the erudite humor, ROFL (as we say these days!).
But that’s not all about Edward Phillips that relates to questions of authorial authenticity. In another of his books, Theatrum Poetarum, he argued that “poetry should not deviate from what could be considered historical truth, unless fictional invention afforded means to express some greater truth allegorically …. The subject of ‘a Heroic Poem’ must enable ‘feigning of probable circumstances, in which and in proper Allegorie, Invention ... principally consisteth, . . . for whatever is pertinently said by way of Allegorie is morally though not historically true.’ ‘... in which the Poet hath an ample feild to in large by feigning of probable circumstances, in which and in proper Allegorie, Invention ... principally consisteth, and wherein there is a kind of truth…’ “
I can only say a heartfelt “Amen!” to the notion that Jane Austen was one of the greatest masters in literary history of “feigning of probable circumstances…wherein there is a kind of truth”!
But I have still one last observation about Excerpt#1. Muller also fails to extrapolate the pattern I have long perceived in the entire Austen canon and not just in Charlotte in P&P, wherein seemingly marginalized, powerless female characters use their strong minds to inobtrusively direct the behavior of others. And that provides the perfect segue to the next excerpt, about another such strong-minded character, in Emma, which I will address in the second post I promised, which l link here:
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