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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Unsettling Shades of a Charlotte Smith “Romance of Real Life” cast on Pemberley & Mr. Darcy

For over two years, I have been firmly convinced that Charlotte Smith....

....was the novelist who was most important to Jane Austen, in terms of inspiration for the covert radical feminism that I detect in JA’s novels. Of course, Richardson, Burney and Radcliffe’s novels were all hugely important, multiple allusive sources for JA. And there would have been very few significant English novels of the 18th and early 19th century that JA would _not_ have been very familiar with. But, I suggest, her engagement with Smith’s fiction was qualitatively different—something unique and special. Whereas with all the others, there are strong elements of parody and irony, I perceive that JA’s take on love and marriage was very very similar to Smith’s forthright radical feminist critique of male mistreatment of women.

I mention all this because today I came upon a particularly smoky “smoking gun” that illustrates how strong Smith’s influence really was on JA. It goes to the heart of Jane Austen’s fiction-- the character of Mr. Darcy--and, as you will read below, it casts very unsettling shades on the way JA wished her readers to see her most romantic hero, suggesting that the worst “pollution” may have come from within the walls of Pemberley.

Read on if you dare, gentle readers…..

In 1787 (when JA was 12), Charlotte Smith published “Romance of Real Life”, a series of vignettes drawn from a French book describing a number of “Causes Celebres”, accounts of trials for infamous crimes. The title of Smith’s book is thus immediately seen to be extremely ironic, even macabre, in light of the extraordinarily UNromantic nature of her stories!

The first such horrid real life story is that of “The Marchioness de Gange”, and it is the reason for my post today. It begins with the following extraordinary paragraph:

“It has been asserted, that there is in human nature a propensity to every kind of evil; and that persons of the best disposition, and most liberal education, may find themselves in such situations as will, if their passions are suffered to predominate, betray them into the most frightful excesses, into crimes which cannot be related without horror. Under the dominion of such dreadful passions the Abbe and the Chevalier de Gange must have been, when they committed the inhuman cruelties which are the subject of the following narrative.”

I called that passage “extraordinary” because most Janeites will immediately hear an echo of the above passage in Mr. Darcy’s very famous summation of human nature:
"There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil -- a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome."

At first these two statements might seem not to be expressing a particularly unique opinion about human nature. Therefore, such opinion might be independently arrived at and asserted by various authors unknown to each other. However, upon more minute inspection, the repetition of the identical words “disposition”, “education”, and “evil”, coupled with the very specific (and disturbing) claim that even a good or liberal education, and/or a good disposition, was no guaranty against an outburst of evil under provocative circumstances, make it extremely likely that JA had Smith’s statement in mind when she put those specific words in Darcy’s mouth.

That likelihood increases markedly when one sets it alongside the many _other_ allusions to various of Charlotte Smith’s novels (Celestina, The Old Manor House, Emmeline, etc.) which have been detected by other scholars, as well as additional allusions I have personally discovered during the past two years.

So I feel safe in arguing that JA intended to allude to The Marchioness de Gange in Pride and Prejudice. But what does this allusion mean?

Read on if you dare…..

In the above quoted paragraph, Smith makes it clear that it is the Abbe and the Chevalier de Gange (who are brothers of the second husband of the tragic heroine of the story) whose “dreadful passions” are the persons being referred to by her aphorism about propensities to evil. I will focus today on the Abbe.

Shortly after he is introduced into the narrative, Smith chillingly describes the Abbe’s character as follows:

“…this diabolical spirit he had art enough to conceal, with the profoundest dissimulation, and could assume the appearance of the most amiable, benevolent, and honest man in the world, while his heart was the receptacle of every vice that disgraces human nature.”

We have seen these men before in JA’s novels, have we not? And in Pride and Prejudice, the name “Wickham” would immediately come to mind as a perfect example. The Abbe being, ostensibly at least, a man of God, fits perfectly with Wickham’s hypocrisy in claiming to have wished to be a giver of sermons himself.

And yet….is it that simple? If JA is only thinking about Wickham as a representation of Smith’s Abbe, why is it, then, that it is _Darcy_ who makes that comment about disposition to a particular evil, in connection with _his own_ character, in a rebuttal to Elizabeth’s zinger?:

“"Implacable resentment is a shade in a character. But you have chosen your fault well. I really cannot laugh at it. You are safe from me."

Darcy is scrambling to justify _his own_ resentful character, and only a few moments earlier in their battle of words, he has also made a claim which seems to directly contradict Smith’s dictum:

“Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride -- where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation."

“always under good regulation”…..hmm…..why would JA make a specific allusion to an authoritative statement by Charlotte Smith which suggests that “good regulation” of character can sometimes vanish, when strong passions have been aroused? Is JA thereby suggesting that Darcy is deluded as to his own character, and that his pride is _not_ always under good regulation?

And anyway, why would JA want to suggest a parallel between Darcy and the sociopathic Abbe from Smith’s story? If you read the story all the way through, as I have done, it is never in doubt that the Abbe is indeed a moral monster, a depraved sadist who justifies and rationalizes all manner of bestial and horrific actions, over an extended period of time--most of all, the savage, unprovoked, and premeditated murder of the saintly heroine of Smith’s story, who happens to be his sister in law! It is only at the very end of Smith’s account that the Abbe (in one of the two translations Smith relied upon) expresses any remorse at all. And by then, all the awful damage of his machinations has occurred, and is irreparable.
But, you might respond to me, at that early stage of P&P when Darcy’s first defends his own character, Lizzy is mistaken in her very bad opinion of Darcy, and also in her very good opinion of Wickham. And therefore, this logic goes, when Lizzy later undergoes her “conversion” after reading Darcy’s self-justifying “epistle” (and I now detect a very strong scent of epiphany and sudden religious conversion in the way that Lizzy’s opinions of Darcy and Wickham flip topsy turvy from that moment forward in the story), we readers are meant to revisit Darcy’s self-defense in our mind, and to bring our opinion in line with Lizzy’s, and to see the evil as really being in Wickham, not in Darcy.

But…(and you knew I had another “but” or three up my….sleeve), consider then the following excerpt from Smith’s story, describing how the Abbe is strongly attracted to his sister in law from the moment he first sees her:

“The uncommon charms of the Marchioness de Gange made an immediate and deep impression on the heart of this bad man, nor did the consideration of her being his brother's wife deter him a moment from forming designs upon her honour.”

You may well say that this is also Wickham picking up somehow on Darcy’s attraction to Lizzy, and therefore zeroing in on Lizzy himself. And that would be quite plausible.

But….how then to explain the very next sentence?:

“Scorning to put any restraint on his inclinations, however unwarrantable, he determined to attempt seducing Madame de Gange; and for this purpose, knowing the influence of gratitude on such a heart as hers, he began by endeavouring to oblige her.”

Hmm….at no point does Wickham ever seek to make Lizzy feel gratitude toward him. Pity, yes, but not gratitude. Whereas….to a cynic, this might sound very much like what Darcy does in the second half of P&P, when he takes extraordinary actions on behalf of Lizzy and her family. These all have the effect of generating a feeling of enormous gratitude in Lizzy.

But no, you retort, Darcy does not reveal his good deeds to Lizzy, she only discovers them by accident when Lydia blurts out that Darcy attended Lydia’s and Wickham’s wedding.

I will leave the explanation of that point (and I do have a good one) for another time, and instead return to Smith’s “Romance” and its account of how and why the Abbe reveals his good deeds to his sister in law, with my comments interspersed:
“As soon as an opportunity offered, [the Abbe] took care to tell her, that [her theretofore abusive husband’s] present attention, and kindness, was in consequence of what [the Abbe] had said in her favour—and he gave her at the same time to understand, that the heart of his brother was so entirely in his hands, that her treatment must depend wholly on him.—Disgusted at such a declaration, the Marchioness answered coolly, that she thanked him. — The Abbe was a good deal disappointed at the reception she gave him on this occasion. —He had flattered himself that she would have accepted with more vivacity his proffered services, and that, by first engaging her gratitude, he should in time create in her breast warmer sentiments in his favour.”

In terms of arrogant presumption, does this speech by the Abbe not remind us of Darcy’s first proposal to Lizzy? And so it is not surprising that it generates a response from the Marchioness which reminds us even more of Lizzy’s response to Darcy’s first proposal:

“But though a man of abilities, such as he possest, who determines to make himself agreeable, and has such continual opportunities of doing so, is above all others the most dangerous object a young woman can encounter; it happened that the dislike, even bordering on antipathy, which Madame de Gange had conceived, on the first sight of the Abbe, was an invincible obstacle to his designs. — Her manner towards him was civil, but so cold and distant, that he could very seldom find an occasion to speak to her apart.—And after some time, as he saw she studied to avoid him, and that all his assiduities made no impression on her, he determined to speak plainly, and to acknowledge his passion, in terms that she could not misunderstand.”

And we’ve only just begun, because here’s where the allusion becomes painfully obvious:

“The Marchioness had engaged herself to pass some days at the country residence of a friend,—Thither the Abbe followed her, and, as his conversation was extremely agreeable, he was received with pleasure by the whole party.—“

Just as Darcy shows up at Rosings just as Lizzy arrives at Hunsford visiting Charlotte Lucas!

And speaking of Charlotte Lucas, as I was writing this post, I realized that perhaps JA named her Charlotte as a way of pointing to Charlotte Smith herself! After all, Charlotte Smith survived a loveless debt-plagued marriage, and wrote as a matter of economic survival as much as artistic expression. And perhaps we might then see another tip of the hat to Charlotte Smith, hiding in plain sight in Charlotte Lucas’s most famous statement:

“I am not _romantic_, you know; I never was.”

Neither, I would suggest, was the author of , as I suggested, the extremely ironically titled “_Romance_ of Real Life”!

But there’s even more, as we next hear of how the Abbe, not being able to take no for an answer, has yet another go at the Marchioness:

“…A hunting party being proposed, at which every gentleman was to attend on a lady, the Abbe offered himself to escort Madame de Gange; which she accepted, with her usual cool civility, as a matter of perfect indifference.—As soon as the company began to disperse in the woods, the Abbe, who now saw the opportunity at hand that he had so long wished for, led Madame de Gange into the most unfrequented spot he could find, and then, with very little preface, made the confession he had meditated—but so abruptly, and with expressions so strong and ardent, that they inspired Madame de Gange with terror rather than pity —who turning _pale with surprise and anger_, could not immediately form any reply;”

In addition to reminding us of how Darcy repeatedly runs into Lizzy in various unfrequented spots in the vicinity of Hunsford and Rosings, do we not also recall first Darcy’s first words as he proposes?:

“You must allow me to tell you how _ardently_ I admire and love you."

And then the Abbe’s change of color unmistakably recalls the narration after Lizzy _coolly_ rejects Darcy’s first proposal?:

“Mr. Darcy, who was leaning against the mantlepiece 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.”

And then we have even _more_ parallels to Lizzy’s reaction to Darcy’s proposal:
“…while the Abbe continued to declare himself with such violence of manner, and in terms so unequivocal, that she could not doubt of his being very much in earnest—and she saw, that to endeavour to laugh it off, as she would have done such a declaration from a less resolute lover, would have availed her nothing: assuming therefore an air more reserved than before, me said—" I will not, Monsieur l'Abbe, affect to misunderstand you; —but you must know how I ought to receive such a confession as you have presumed to make. “

Is that not echoed by Lizzy’s immortal reply to Darcy?:

“"In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot…”

As an aside, you must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love the way that JA, with her far greater genius than Smith as a composer of words, translates Smith’s rather pedestrian prose into immortal dialog equal to the immortal repartee of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing!

And this suggests to me that JA loved Smith’s thinking, but was not a big fan of her actual writing, and so JA took it upon herself to package Smith’s worthy feminist ideas in the kind of first rate writing that would survive in the world, as JA’s novels have, even as Smith’s have long since faded into obscurity.

But back to Darcy and the Abbe. Here is the final telling allusion, as we first read of the Abbe’s response to rejection:

“The manner in which she pronounced these words, made them infinitely more mortifying to the Abbe, than the words themselves. Stung to the soul, his dissimulation entirely forsook him, and he fiercely answered—" Know you not, " Madam, when you brave my vengeance thus, that your fate is entirely in my hands? Have you forgotten that it is in my power to make you the most miserable of women—and that I will do so if you refuse to listen to me? In declining to return my passion, you risk having your life embittered by the severest trials. Love me, Madam, suffer me at least to hope that you will, and all my power shall be dedicated to your happiness and tranquillity."

Is this passage not the kissing cousin of Darcy’s outburst at Lizzy, in which he takes off the gloves and smears the entire Bennet family?

And now we have the twin of Lizzy’s reply:

“The Marchioness, still making an effort to command her indignation, replied—" As you affect to love, learn now to esteem me.—Be assured, Monsieur l'Abbe, that the dread of evils worse than death, shall never induce me to commit a wicked action."—"But," added she, as if to mortify him still more—" if I were indeed capable of such weakness, _you are the last man on earth who could influence me to be guilty of it._" So saying, she rejoined her company, leaving the Abbe overwhelmed with rage and confusion. — His pride so severely humbled, his love hopeless, irritated him almost to madness ; and, incapable with all his art of commanding his temper, while his heart was corroded by such uneasy sensations, he took a sullen leave of the lady of the house, and returned in the evening to Avignon, nobody but Madame de Gange being able to guess the cause of this sudden access of ill-humour, which all his complaisance and dissimulation did not enable him a moment to disguise.”

Of course, Lizzy mortifies Darcy with “…I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry."

So….I finish by repeating the question I posed at the beginning of this post, as to whether JA’s allusion to Smith’s “The Marchioness de Gange” was meant to draw a parallel between the abominable serpent-like Abbe and Wickham? Or Darcy?

The romantic interpretation would certainly be “Wickham”, but perhaps JA, like Charlotte Smith and Charlotte Lucas, was _also_ never romantic?

Before you give your final answer, I have kept for last, to convince the wavering skeptics among you, the most disturbing echo of Smith’s story in P&P, which occurs in Chapter 58, as Darcy and Lizzy debrief the course of their tempestuous courtship together. Darcy is in high confessional tone as he says:

“Unfortunately, an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing -- to care for none beyond my own family circle, to think meanly of all the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, from eight to eight-and-twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You shewed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased."
What reader’s heart does not melt when reading this extraordinary admission by an ardent but humbled lover?

Well, if you have a good ear, you will have picked up, in Darcy’s confession, an unwitting echo of the first passage I quoted, above, from Smith’s “Romance”:

“…this diabolical spirit he had art enough to conceal, with the profoundest dissimulation, and could assume the appearance of the most _amiable, benevolent_, and honest man in the world, while his heart was the receptacle of every vice that disgraces human nature.”

Smith makes it clear from the beginning of her account that the Abbe merely “assumes the appearance of the most amiable, benevolent and honest man in the world.” If JA means for us to understand that Darcy really has been “taught a lesson” by Lizzy, why (in the world) would JA have Darcy refer to his father as “all that was benevolent and amiable”, thereby causing the reader familiar with Smith to associate Darcy and his father with the Abbe?

Cheers, ARNIE

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