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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Elizabeth Bennet Avoiding and Detesting Baseness and Barbarity

Here is the exchange, edited for relevance, between Mr. Collins and Lizzy in Chapter 19 of P&P, which Diana Birchall asked about in Janeites and Austen L today:

[Collins] "…I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application, and perhaps you have even now said as much to encourage my suit as would be consistent with the true delicacy of the female character….your refusal of my addresses is merely words of course…As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall chuse to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females."

"I do assure you, sir, that I have no pretension whatever to that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable man. I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed sincere…. Can I speak plainer? Do not consider me now as an elegant female, intending to plague you, but as a rational creature, speaking the truth from her heart."

"You are uniformly charming!...and I am persuaded that, when sanctioned by the express authority of both your excellent parents, my proposals will not fail of being acceptable."

To such perseverance in wilful self-deception Elizabeth would make no reply, and immediately and in silence withdrew; determined, if he persisted in considering her repeated refusals as flattering encouragement, to apply to her father, whose negative might be uttered in such a manner as must be decisive, and whose behaviour at least could not be mistaken for the affectation and coquetry of an elegant female. “ END QUOTE

I had the feeling that this passage was derived from a conduct book rather than a novel, and Google Books quickly confirmed my hunch when I read the following in Mary Waldron’s _ Jane Austen and the Fiction of her Time_, at P. 52:

“Mr. Collins is obviously a devotee of conduct books—he recommends [Fordyce] to the Bennet girls, and almost quotes him in his estimate of the behaviour of ‘elegant females’…”

Waldron, like Fermat with his theorem, gave no footnote, so I decided to take the challenge and find the passage in Fordyce that she was referring to. It took me about 15 minutes in Google Books, browsing in Fordyce’s original text, to find it, in Sermon XIV:

Fordyce opines that “christian meekness will be of particular use to prevent the Artful Behaviour so frequently complained of in women, and in many instances so justly. The complaint, I confess, comes with an ill grace from those men, whose daily study it is, in one shape or another, to impose on the sex; nor can I doubt but many of the latter would have more sincerity, if the others had less design. They probably think themselves justified in baffling art by art; and from the science of defence and resistance, they are too apt to pass to that of stratagem and attack.” He then warns “such dissemblers, that cunning is not true ability… In short, artifice is very often a feeble auxiliary, and almost constantly betraying those that trust to it. Fond prepossession, or unsuspecting candour, may no doubt be easily deceived by female disguise; but it is difficult to act a part long…. How anxious, ignoble, and wretched! From this, my fair disciples, native goodness and christian meekness will save you. By being what you ought to appear, you will be under no temptation of appearing what you are not.”

Then Fordyce arrives at the passage which Waldron spotted, which, I agree with her, Mr. Collins clearly had in mind in interpreting Lizzy’s rejection of his proposal:

“The baseness and barbarity of inviting and encouraging addresses, which you mean not in the end to accept, you will avoid and detest. A proffered heart you will refuse with civility and gratitude, where you cannot return your own; or where you can and ought, you will accept with generosity and affection. Let me add upon the whole, that as every mode of dissimulation is equally injudicious and unbecoming, so she will always be the most attractive, while she is the only honourable character, who cultivates genuine worth instead of artificial forms, and practises undissembled sweetness instead of fictitious courtesy.”

What is a quintessential Austenian irony is that Mr. Collins, for all that he chooses to read to the Bennets from Fordyce’s Sermons before Lydia cuts him off, has apparently not understood what he read, because Lizzy actually follows Fordyce to the letter, in refusing to be so base and barbaric as to encourage Collins’s addresses, which she certainly means not in the end to accept!

As appallingly sexist as Fordyce generally is in his Sermons, in this instance he gives excellent advice for truly proper conduct by a young woman in a tight spot!

Cheers, ARNIE

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