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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, July 23, 2010

"detected in the design": JA's subtle and poetic little gem of a joke

"[Catherine's] greatest deficiency was in the pencil — she had no notion of drawing — not enough even to attempt a sketch of her lover’s profile, that she might be detected in the design."

I just noticed the above sentence in Chapter 1 of NA, and that archaic-sounding phrase "detected in the design". After a few minutes, I tentatively decided that this was more or less equivalent to the phrase "caught in the act" as we use it today. But I was not satisfied with that interpretation, because to be caught in the act is to be caught ACTUALLY doing something; whereas to be detected in the design is to be caught THINKING ABOUT doing something. The latter does of course happen in the real world, too, i..e., you can catch a person thinking about doing something, if they give you nonverbal cues that they are about to do it.

All the same, I felt that it would be uncharacteristically slovenly of JA to refer to a design to act when she meant to refer to an action itself, and that is why I reread and reread again that sentence, until the light bulb went off in my head and I "got" JA's subtle little gem of a joke.

Here it is---JA's narrator is saying, in her sly way, that Catherine's proficiency at drawing was so low that if anyone had peeped over her shoulder to sneak a look at what she was drawing, they would not have thought, "That's not a good profile of so-and-so"--they would not even have realized she was attempting to draw someone's profile at all! I.e., she would not have been detected in the design, or intent, to do so!

But that's only stage one of unpacking this joke. Even better, the word "design" is a pun in this particular instance, because it can also refer to the profile itself, so that, in effect, she would not have been detected to be designing (intending) to design (draw) her lover!
What JA has done in this sentence is what great poets do, i.e., not just punning, but compression of meaning. One sentence means two things. But there is even more meaning compressed in that one short sentence than I have delineated so far. Consider now the words "her lover" in that sentence, which seems like a throwaway on first glance, it may as well refer to anybody.

Perhaps we ARE meant to believe that Catherine had already, prior to leaving for Bath, begun to be wooed while still at her parents' home, to the extent that she might have actually attempted to draw a profile of one of her prospective local boyfriends? But whether that is the case or not, certainly that sentence takes on much greater significance when we reread the novel, in light of what we come to learn about Catherine during the course of the entire novel.

When we do, we can reflect on how she deals with the man whom everyone would consider "her lover" in the novel, i.e., Henry Tilney, and we may well ask---has Catherine, by the end of the novel, achieved ANY proficiency at all in "drawing" his "profile", in the sense of the "outline" of his CHARACTER, and not merely of his visage?

My answer would be, not really. Yes, she seems to have won his heart, but could we say that by the end of the novel, she has the slightest clue as to how he has been relentlessly engaged in a completely one-sided game of put-ons, ranging from affectionate to mocking and even chastising? I would say, not at all. What we may only hope is that he has grown tired of mocking her in this passive-aggressive way, and that love will curtail his sense of humor at her expense.

We've seen this double meaning of "drawing" as referring to both sketching portraits and also to understanding character elsewhere in JA's novels, such as these barbs exchanged between Darcy and Lizzy:

"This is no very striking resemblance of your own character, I am sure," said he......."Merely to the illustration of _your_ character," said she, endeavouring to shake off her gravity.

And JA does not forget, as she writes the remainder of NA, to give us subtle little echoes of this first usage of "drawing":

"They [Henry and Eleanor] were viewing the country with the eyes of persons accustomed to drawing, and decided on its capability of being formed into pictures, with all the eagerness of real taste....She knew nothing of drawing -- nothing of taste: and she listened to them with an attention which brought her little profit, for they talked in phrases which conveyed scarcely any idea to her."

Indeed, Henry delights in talking in phrases which convey scarcely any idea to Catherine!

And, by the way, there is ANOTHER man whom most Janeites would NOT consider to have been "her lover" in the novel, but who IS "drawn" as such, subtly, in the first Eighties BBC NA adaptation--and in my considered opinion, 100% correctly--GENERAL Tilney! And certainly, as to him, we may safely say that Catherine NEVER has any conscious awareness as to the General's persistent wooing of Catherine FOR HIMSELF!

But I have begun to digress, and will stop that now, and return to the above sentence, for a final salute. How many readers of NA have ever noticed this joke before, let alone unpacked these layers of meaning? My suspicion is, precious few--I just did my usual cook's tour of online Austen sites, and I cannot detect any other scholar having ever "detected" JA herself "in the design"! [and wouldn''t this use of language be equally at home in a DETECTIVE novel?]

I am convinced that I only noticed this joke myself because I have adopted the universal habit of questioning EVERY unusual turn of phrase I read in one of her novels, letters or poems. It is only because I obsessed over this sentence for 20 minutes, whereas previously I had allotted it scarcely 10 seconds of half-attention, if at all, racing forward to get to the "action" of the story, that I was able to suss it out in full (or at least, I think in full, perhaps there's more in it remaining to be discovered?)

And so, to those who say to me, how is it possible that for 200 years nobody saw the kinds of things I see in JA's novels, if what I am claiming is valid, my answer is, half-joking----perhaps because nobody before ever spent 20 minutes obsessing over that sentence!


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