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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Kitty’s Indiscreet Coughing

One of the iconic motifs of JA’s novels, instantly recognized by all Janeites, is the way various members of the Bennet family respond to Kitty’s persistent coughing in Chapter 2, as we are just getting to know the Bennets. As I recollect, every P&P film adaptation picks up on this motif and runs with it for all it’s worth. It is high comedy, and we all laugh, even though discomfort is sometimes expressed at Mrs. Bennet’s apparent gross insensitivity to Kitty’s symptoms of respiratory illness, no laughing matter in the Regency Era of pre-antibiotic, leech-bleeding, tubercular illness.

Here is a link to the text of the scene, I invite you to reread it now carefully and refresh your memory of it, and then I will present a novel interpretation of Kitty’s indiscreet coughing, i.e., which I cannot find any evidence online of its having been previously made:

My interpretation hinges on Kitty’s coughing being entirely _intentional_ and _feigned_, in the same way that Mrs. Bennet’s equally identifiable _winking_ is intentional in Ch. 55, which is the “bookend” of the scene in Ch. 2---the latter being the first discussion of Bingley as a prospective husband for a Bennet girl, and the former being the culmination of that arc, when Bingley, left alone with Jane, finally proposes to her:

“Two obstacles of the five being thus removed, Mrs. Bennet sat looking and winking at Elizabeth and Catherine for a considerable time, without making any impression on them. Elizabeth would not observe her; and when at last Kitty did, she very innocently said, "What is the matter mamma? What do you keep winking at me for? What am I to do?"
"Nothing child, nothing. I did not wink at you." She then sat still five minutes longer; but unable to waste such a precious occasion, she suddenly got up, and saying to Kitty, "Come here, my love, I want to speak to you," took her out of the room.”

Now, in that same vein, look at what emerges into your awareness when you read the Ch.2 scene as if Kitty was intentionally faux-coughing:

[Mrs. B] "I do not believe Mrs. Long will do any such thing. She has two nieces of her own. She is a selfish, hypocritical woman, and I have no opinion of her."
"No more have I," said Mr. Bennet; "and I am glad to find that you do not depend on her serving you."
Mrs. Bennet deigned not to make any reply, but, unable to contain herself, began scolding one of her daughters.
"Don't keep coughing so, Kitty, for Heaven's sake! Have a little compassion on my nerves. You tear them to pieces."
"Kitty has no discretion in her coughs," said her father; "she times them ill."
"I do not cough for my own amusement," replied Kitty fretfully. "When is your next ball to be, Lizzy?"

I suggest that JA intended the reader to perceive that Kitty’s coughing is _sarcastic_, the equivalent of someone today pointedly saying “A-HEM!”. The sarcastic cough has become, in fact, a cliché of situation comedy, in which a character exaggeratedly and histrionically coughs, as if to say, “Yeah, right!” Just as Mrs. Bennet’s exaggerated winking in Chapter 55 is _also_ a cliché, as if to say “I don’t want to explicitly tell you to go…. but I want you to go!”

And seeing Kitty’s coughing as sarcastic perfectly fits the topic of discussion at that moment in the Bennet family conclave, because it is _not_ random. Kitty’s coughing mysteriously begins, it seems, precisely at the moment when her mother called Mrs. Long “a selfish, hypocritical woman”. Kitty is clearly invoking, in so many words, the proverbial pot calling the kettle black!

And that in turn explains Mrs. Bennet’s reaction—she does not respond to Mr. Bennet’s droll comment, but instead lashes out at Kitty, not because she is afraid of her husband, but precisely because she has understood Kitty’s insulting innuendo was directed at Mrs. Bennet! But just as Kitty conveys her deeper meaning by implication, so too does Mrs. Bennet take her revenge by implication.

And here’s the best part--Mr. Bennet has _also_ understood this subtextual duel between his wife and his daughter, and he weighs in with typical droll irony, pointing out ---with implied approval—that Kitty has been indiscreet in insulting her mother, and further approving of Kitty’s timing—it was “ill” timing only in Mrs. Bennet’s mind, but it was _perfect_ timing from the point of view of delivering a real zinger.

And then Kitty replies, in code, that she does not cough for her own amusement—but what she leaves unspoken, but nonetheless understood by her father, is that she _did_ cough for _his_ amusement---and she succeeded in amusing him, because he never misses a chance to laugh at his wife!

But there is one person present who utterly misses this subtextual layer of meaning—the clueless Lizzy!

And that is the tale of Kitty’s Indiscreet Coughing.

Cheers, ARNIE


olsonflash said...

I searched the internet to see if anyone else had thought there was more involved in Kitty's coughing and I found this site. You hit the mark.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Thank you, fellow Austen sleuth! ;)

Nina said...

I, like the commenter below, was also searching some knowledge about Kitty's coughing. I found the coughing interesting and wanted to see if others had thought about it further as well. You made some good points that made me think this matter even more. Thank you! :)

Arnie Perlstein said...

You're very welcome, Nina! ;)

Andrew Shields said...

I really like your reading of the coughing and the various comments made before and after it -- but I wonder how you see the scene as marking Lizzy as clueless. There is no narratorial comment about the coughing, after all.

I think that you elsewhere comment on this later sentence in this chapter (but I was not able to find the post with a search for it):

Mary wished to say something very sensible, but knew not how.

If I remember correctly (and not making it up), you read this as Elizabeth's perspective on Mary. That could be taken, then, as evidence of Elizabeth's "cluelessness" indeed, as Mary's non-response to her father's teasing may be something entirely different (at least if we read the sentence as E's perspective on M, and not M's actual response).

My point then would be then that there is no such narratorial comment (and hence in your reading a comment by E) on the coughing, so it's hard to tell one way or another who may or may not be aware of the subtext between Mr. B, Mrs. B., and Kitty here.