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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Complete Change of Mr. Collins's Ordination! PART TWO

Finding myself awakened at an ungodly hour, I found myself with new clarity and insight about the following comments I made just before retiring:

"So, JA has suggested that she did not write her dialogue for dull elves who expected it to be "immediately clear", but for those readers who would work hard and ingeniously to figure things out. And then she turns around, _ostensibly_ after "a complete change of subject", and immediately writes about what appears to be the future Mansfield Park....but in doing so, she covertly points right back to P&P! What does covert pointing mean? What it means, I think, is not immediately clear, but I suggest it is worth the effort to work hard and ingeniously to try to figure out what it means!"

I believe I can now more accurately explain the meaning of the covert pointing to P&P in the Letter 79 snippet "a complete change of subject--Ordination", as my Subject Line suggests.

First, JA's immediately preceding comments regarding the final editing and publication of P&P do more than vaguely & generally point to the veiled allusion to Mr. Collins's speech in JA's current reference to "Ordination". JA means for the "dull elves" dictum to refer not only to the ambiguities in the speaker attributions in the text of P&P in general, she also means for it to refer to "a complete change of subject-Ordination"!

I.e., JA is saying that she is not going to make "immediately clear" _to CEA_ what JA means by this cryptic comment about "Ordination" in Letter 79--instead, JA has challenged CEA to be a sharp elf and figure out what JA means!

And CEA, as a sharp elf faced with a challenging puzzle posed by her sister, would first realize that JA's referring to "a complete change of subject" means precisely the opposite, i.e., that this was another of those textual "red flags" which screamed "Warning Warning! Irony Alert!"

In this instance, this would tell CEA that there was no change of subject at all, JA was actually _still_ talking about P&P!

That would be when CEA, who would probably have known P&P backwards and forwards from the 15 years of reading JA's countless refinements of same (recall JA's playful joke in Letter 21 about Mary Lloyd knowing the text of First Impressions a little too well!), would recognize the covert allusion to Mr. Collins's speech triggered by the clue of the close proximity of the words "subject" and "ordination".

But CEA would still not be home yet. CEA's remaining task would be to try to figure out what veiled meaning could be lurking in Mr. Collins's seemingly straightforward epistolary account of the circumstances of his own ordination at Easter.

It's one level of ambiguity challenging a reader of P&P to ascertain who spoke a given line of dialogue in P&P--but it's a deeper and more significant level of ambiguity challenging a reader of P&P, to ascertain whether there was more to Mr. Collins's ordination than Mr. Collins himself has realized.

And here is my punch line---it was 7 years ago when I first gave serious consideration to the curious, indeed extraordinary, circumstances surrounding Mr. Collins's ordination. Here we have a young man with only one apparent talent, that of flattering the powerful. Nothing else recommends him, nothing makes him stand out from the crowd of clerical initiates coming onto the job market when he finishes his divinity studies. And yet, what extraordinary good fortune he has to be, at that very instant, thrown into the path of a powerful woman upon whom he has the opportunity to practice his talents of flattery, and who is in a position to do him so much good!

Is this just an amazingly happy coincidence, as Mr. Collins believes it to be? Or did Lady Catherine have reasons she has _not_ shared with Mr. Collins for plucking him in particular out of his religious studies and handing him the plum position as rector of Hunsford?

Which all ties back to the most absurd apparent coincidence of all in P&P, i.e., the triple coincidence that first Mr. Darcy, then Mr. Wickham, then Mr. Collins---three young men having one or two degrees of separation from Lady Catherine, but only one of them, Mr. Collins, actually having a prior connection to anyone living in Meryton--- ALL converge on the Bennet family in Meryton within an extraordinarily short period of time.

Lizzy never stops to ponder what an extraordinary coincidence this really is, nor does the narrator of P&P say a word about it. And so most readers of P&P never notice it, and the few who do have always ended up concluding that this coincidence was an expediency on JA's part, a way of moving the plot forward quickly.

But what if there is no coincidence, but instead this is a clue that not only Mr. Collins, but also Lizzy and the readers of P&P, are all in the dark about the actual circumstances bringing about this treble coincidence?

And that is, I claim, the ultimate purpose of JA's elaborate "charade" in Letter 79 which I have been at such pains to describe--i.e., to prompt CEA to scrutinize more closely the curious circumstances of Mr. Collins's ordination!

And, in keeping with the above, I finish by pointing out what JA writes in Letter 79 immediately _after_ referring to "Ordination":

"I am glad to find your enquiries have ended so well.—If you cd discover whether Northamptonshire is a Country of Hedgerows, I shd be glad again”-- We admire your Charades excessively — but as yet have guessed only the 1st. The others seem very difficult. There is so much beauty in the Versification however, that the finding them out is but a secondary pleasure. "

Can we be so sure that the referent behind CEA's "enquiries" is "immediately clear"? Are we sure that this is only about CEA doing research on JA's behalf in regard to Northamptonshire hedgerows, or could it also refer to questions CEA has posed to JA about _P&P_, questions which "have ended so well" precisely because JA has now given CEA sufficient clues to find the answer herself?

After all, we could also say about P&P that there is so much beauty in the _prosification_ of P&P however, that the finding out of the mysteries lurking in its plot is but a secondary pleasure!

And finally, isn't it very interesting, in light of all I have just written about JA giving riddling clues to CEA about P&P, that JA turns the subject to some "very difficult" charades which CEA has sent to JA?

We know that JA had a particular fondness for charades which had (at least) two answwers, one of which was revealed, and one which remained secret. I assert that "a complete change of subject---Ordination" --is meant to both refer forward to Mansfield Park (which, I also note in passing, has as a key allusive source, Shakespeare's _All's Well That Ends Well_---hence "have ended so well" in Letter 79) and also to refer backwards to P&P!


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