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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, February 19, 2011

P.S. re: Catherine's (perhaps not so) Excessive Solicitude and Lady Catherine's Universal Contradiction

In quick followup to my post earlier this morning, I have found the "bookend" to the line in NA which inspired my earlier post....

"Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim." the following line much later in the novel, in one of the climactic scenes at the Abbey:

"The kindness, the earnestness of Eleanor's manner in pressing her to stay, and Henry's gratified look on being told that her stay was determined, were such sweet proofs of her importance with them, as left her only just so much SOLICITUDE as the human mind can never comfortably do without."

Both of these passages are connected, not merely by the use of the word "solicitude" per se--the word "solicitude" actually means something slightly different in these two contexts (the earlier one refers to Catherine's attention to one aspect of herself, i.e., her dress, whereas the latter refers to Catherine's experience of Eleanor's and Henry's attentions to her)---but by a common preoccupation with the _degree_ or intensity of attention, which is exactly what Aquinas was dealing with throughout whole sections of his enormous treatise--the topic of when is there too much of a good thing, and when is there too little?

These two widely separated passages in NA are JA's commentary on Aquinas. The first is about the so-called dangers of too much attention to dress, which, as I argued in my previous post, JA seems to me to be skeptical about Aquinas's conclusions. The latter takes the former statement into account in a very witty way, and is a counterpoint, suggesting that too _little_ attention to certain things--such as Catherine's feelings---can be destructive, too--as evidenced by the General's throwing Catherine out of the Abbey a chapter later!

And when viewed as a pair, it provides a further insight, which is that whatever harm might arise from a small excess of personal vanity about appearance is small potatoes indeed compared to the harm that arises from too little attention to what matters most, i.e., how we treat each other!

And, taking one step back further, isn't this just like what JA did--albeit in a very different context--with the "universally acknowledged" aphorism that begins P&P and the "universally contradicted" line that anchors P&P's dramatic climax, the confrontation between Lady Catherine and Elizabeth? That bookend is very similar, as the idea of universal acknowledgment of truths is presented to set the tone of the entire novel as an examination of such apparent truisms, but then we see that aphorism turned on its head in a scene where we see the way that misunderstandings can sometimes change the course of human relationships, in this case, helping to bring Darcy and Lizzy together.

I suspect there must be several more sets of "bookends" like this strewn across all the novels, it must have given JA great pleasure to create them, in addition to their great value in giving a subliminal hint to her readers to connect the dots between widely separated passages.

I did not discover the pairing in P&P via a word search, by the way, I discovered it because I was thinking about the phrase "universally acknowledged" and suddenly "universally contradicted" popped into my head because it was such a memorable line, seared into my brain from multiple hearings of that line as delivered by Barbara Leigh-Hunt in the Ehle/Firth film adaptation.

For those who hear my frequent citations of this sort of wordplay in JA's novels as a celebration of a sterile, puzzle-intensive aspect of JA's writing, I hope this example demonstrates to you that JA's wordplay, while indeed reveling in its wit and cleverness, is also _always_ thematic and in service of a deeper understanding of the story itself.

Cheers, ARNIE


TedA said...

While I am sure that your speculation that there was a very specific sermon which Catherine and her aunt were reading is correct, I find difficult the idea that they would find dipping into Summa Theologica entertaining or edifying. Far more likely is that they were reading a intermediary sermon _based on Summa Theologica. No doubt some learned divine found St. Thomas a useful source of inspiration when it came time to write sermons. And being true to being a learned divine, he would be sure to use St. Thomas' phrases to demonstrate his erudition to those capable of noticing it. Fordyce, perhaps? … though there were lots of other published sermons to choose from.

Arnie Perlstein said...

I think it's clear that JA is alluding very specifically to that particular part of Aquinas's vast work, because it interested her.

I think the mysterious great aunt is a proto feminist, and so the last thing she would have given to Catherine to read would have been Fordyce's misogynistic crapola.

Cheers, ARNIE