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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Darcy's and Lizzy's Mutual "Improvement"....and the "Capability" Crawfords

In Austen L today, Ellen Moody wrote, re: Jane Brown's The Omnipotent Magician: Lancelot 'Capabililty' Brown, 1716-1783:

"This appears to be an worthwhile biography which while it does not replace Dorothy Stroud's "magnificent" Life first published in 1950 and thoroughly revised 25 years later, adds much, if at times Brown slides into novelizing. A full informative review by John Barrell: I hope I need not review the connections between this man's work and the aesthetics of landscape and Austen's ironic and celebratory attitudes towards it."

Ellen, thank you for bringing the link for the above review to the group, I read it with great interest.

At first It led me to revisit the way that JA alluded to "Capability" Brown in MP, as Alistair Duckworth so comprehensively discussed 40 years ago, in an article that was expanded into a book, in terms of how the idea of "improvement" of estates and other physical structures becomes a defining battleground between the reckless urbanized improver, Henry Crawford, and the defenders of imperiled ancient nature, Fanny and Edmund.

But, as I refreshed my reading of Duckworth, it also led me to realize that there is even more going on with this motif of "improvement" and "capability" than is treated in Duckworth's excellent and comprehensive analysis of this theme, when one pays even more attention to JA's wordplay than Duckworth already did.

Duckworth, in addition to his well known analysis of the theme of architectural and landscape improvement in JA's novels, takes explicit notice of the usage of the word "capabilities" in Chapter 9 of MP [when the improvement of Sotherton is first discussed by Crawford, Rushworth, et al] and also, elsewhere in his book, Duckworth takes note of the metaphorical meaning in P&P of one usage of the word "improvement" as it pertains to _people_ as opposed to buildings. But he never goes further than that, and I quickly realized that there was much rich ore to be mined in this wordplay vein which neither Duckworth, or anyone else that I could detect after some online searching, had never tapped. So here goes.


First, recall the following very famous passage in Chapter 41 of P&P in this light:

[Lizzy] "....But I think Mr. Darcy _improves_ upon acquaintance." "Indeed!" cried Mr. Wickham with a look which did not escape her. "And pray, may I ask?—" But checking himself, he added, in a gayer tone, "Is it in address that he _improves_? Has he deigned to add aught of civility to his ordinary style?—for I dare not hope," he continued in a lower and more serious tone, "that he is _improved_ in essentials." "Oh, no!" said Elizabeth. "In essentials, I believe, he is very much what he ever was."

I love the slyness of the clever pun on "address"--of course a residence like Pemberley has an "address", too, and, amidst the myriad narrative references in P&P to "addresses" in terms of how a person speaks to another, especially the amorous addresses of a man toward a woman in courtship, JA playfully wakens that different, locational meaning in the reader's mind at _one_ single place in the entire novel, in Chapter 23:

"The promised letter of thanks from Mr. Collins arrived on Tuesday, _addressed_ to their father..."

But second and more important than this sly bit of subliminal wordplay, think about P&P and the strong emphasis throughout the novel on human _improvement_--this is arguably the central theme of the novel, as it applies not only to Darcy and Elizabeth, who each "improve" so as to be worthy of the other---but also the further echo when Lizzy speaks one last time with Wickham and they discuss how Georgiana is also _improved_ since last he saw her.

And there is other wordplay that teases the reader at the edges of the metaphor of "improvement" as applicable to both people and buildings.

The following one is amazingly clever:

“Elizabeth here felt herself called on to say something in vindication of [Darcy's] behaviour to Wickham; and therefore gave them to understand, in as guarded a manner as she could, that by what she had heard from his relations in Kent, his actions were CAPABLEOF A VERY DIFFERENT CONSTRUCTION; and that his character was BY NO MEANS SO FAULTY, nor Wickham's so amiable, as they had been considered in Hertfordshire."

I put the relevant phrases in all caps to point to the architectural metaphor that Lizzy inadvertently draws, speaking about Darcy almost as if he were a building which was "capable of a very different construction" which was "by no means so faulty"! And of course this should remind those who have read the scholarly literature about P&P of the oft repeated insight that when Lizzy sees Pemberley, her feelings of love for Darcy are translated into her rhapsodies of blissful reactions to seeing Pemberley and its grounds. I.e., Pemberley _becomes_ Darcy at that moment!

And speaking of the sexual overtones of Lizzy's responses upon first seeing Pemberley, consider the subliminal foreshadowing of those feelings in the following passage in Chapter 31, which points, I claim, to Capability Brown in a very risque way:

//"My fingers," said Elizabeth, "do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women's do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I will not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe /my/ fingers as _capable_ as any other woman's of superior execution."

Lizzy has, I claim, no idea of the secondary meaning of what she is saying there, in terms of her own fingers's "capability" for "improvement" in terms of "playing" a very different sort of "instrument"!


As briliant as JA's wordplay is in P&P with the words "improvement" and "capability" as they pertain to people, it is even more pervasive and brilliant in Mansfield Park. It is far beyond the scope of this message to unpack all of the many ramifications of this theme in MP, but I suggest to you that if you search the word "capability" and its variants in MP, you will find yourself marveling at the twenty different places in the novel where JA spins out a dozen different nuances on this theme.

In my opinion, the most important aspect of this treatment by JA in MP is the way that Henry and Mary Crawford play around with the words "improvement" and "capability". In the case of Mary, the "improvement" she is most concerned with throughout the entire novel is the need she perceives for "improvement" of _Edmund_, in terms of his career (from the clergy to the law), his location (from the country to the city), and his sexuality (from his original rigid propriety toward her own extreme moral flexibility). And, in the case of Henry, it's even more alarming, as he, like Sir Thomas, notices the "improvement" in Fanny's _body_, and practically drools with lecherous delight over the prospect and challenge (a la Lovelace) of seducing a moral paragon.

You get the general drift, I think, and, as I suggested, if you want more, just do the word searches in MP that I suggested, and you will pass the same enjoyable time I did savoring each of JA's many deployments of her wordplay artistry firmly in the service of her deepest and most important themes.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: I almost forgot to give you the two usages in JA's letters:

Letter 56: “Mr. Choles is gone to drive a Cow to Brentford, & his place is supplied to us by a Man who lives in the same sort of way by odd jobs, & among other _capabilities_ has that of working in a garden, which my Mother will not forget, if we ever have another garden here.”

Given Brown's fame for his handling of gardens, I think that is a deliberate allusion by JA for CEA's delectation.

Letter 132(D) to Clarke, 12/21/15: “I am quite honoured by your thinking me _capable_ of drawing such a clergyman as you gave the sketch of in your note of Nov. 16. But I assure you I am not.”

And here, I find exquisite JA's intentional irony of pretending to be incapable of depicting a clergyman as the fool Clarke asks her to, when, only the year before, JA has published MP, in which she demonstrated, as I have suggested in my above post, her own astonishing capability to draw clergymen like Edmund Bertram and Dr. Grant, two of the most memorable depictions of clergymen in all of English literature!

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