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Monday, December 12, 2011

Jane Austen's Gospel of the Dirty Petticoat

During a recent thread in Janeites and Austen-L, I speculated that in the following passage, Jane Austen meant us to wonder whether Jane Bennet discreetly asked Bingley to undertake a chivalrous task and noodge Darcy to ask Lizzy, who was sitting by herself like a forlorn wallflower, to dance at the Meryton assembly:

Elizabeth Bennet had been obliged, by the scarcity of gentlemen, to sit down for two dances; and during part of that time, Mr. Darcy had been standing near enough for her to hear a conversation between him and Mr. Bingley, who came from the dance for a few minutes, to press his friend to join it.

"Come, Darcy," said he, "I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance."

"I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with."

"I would not be so fastidious as you are," cried Mr. Bingley, "for a kingdom! Upon my honour, I never met with so many pleasant girls in my life as I have this evening; and there are several of them you see uncommonly pretty."

"You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room," said Mr. Darcy, looking at the eldest Miss Bennet.

"Oh! She is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you."

"Which do you mean?" and turning round he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said: "She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me."

Mr. Bingley followed his advice. Mr. Darcy walked off; and Elizabeth remained with no very cordial feelings toward him. She told the story, however, with great spirit among her friends; for she had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous. END QUOTE

I received a couple of well articulated responses suggesting that Jane Bennet would never act so indecorously as to asked Bingley to undertake such a task, and further suggesting that somehow Jane would, by such a covert rescue mission, actually be betraying Lizzy. I responded as follows:

After reading recent posts about the etiquette of the Meryton assembly dance, I can only say that the Jane Austen I have gotten to know through her letters and novels would have absolutely no respect for absurdly sexist rules about decorum which gave men all the power, whether it be in the realm of dance or any other domain. Jane Austen reserved her sharpest satire for such rules.

My suggestion that Jane has been discreetly watching out for Lizzy by quietly asking Bingley to bug Darcy to dance with Lizzy is by some rational moral calculation a betrayal of Lizzy? Or is considered so indecorous as to be verboten? Empty form trumping heartfelt compassion? Not in JA's moral universe as I know it! In addition to my sense of JA as being a million miles removed from respecting such rules, we have, not coincidentally, extremely probative evidence of JA's own moral calculations on such matters in the following passage in Chapter 8:

"When dinner was over, [Lizzy] returned directly to Jane, and Miss Bingley began abusing her as soon as she was out of the room. Her manners were pronounced to be very bad indeed, a mixture of pride and impertinence; she had no conversation, no style, no beauty. Mrs. Hurst thought the same, and added: "She has nothing, in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent walker. I shall never forget her appearance this morning. She really looked almost wild." "She did, indeed, Louisa. I could hardly keep my countenance. Very nonsensical to come at all! Why must /she/ be scampering about the country, because her sister had a cold? Her hair, so untidy, so blowsy!" "Yes, and her petticoat; I hope you saw her petticoat, six inches deep in mud, I am absolutely certain; and the gown which had been let down to hide it not doing its office." "Your picture may be very exact, Louisa," said Bingley; "but this was all lost upon me. I thought Miss Elizabeth Bennet looked remarkably well when she came into the room this morning. Her dirty petticoat quite escaped my notice."

"You observed it, Mr. Darcy, I am sure," said Miss Bingley; "and I am inclined to think that you would not wish to see your sister make such an exhibition." "Certainly not." "To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! What could she mean by it? It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country-town indifference to decorum." "It shows an affection for her sister that is very pleasing," said Bingley."I am afraid, Mr. Darcy," observed Miss Bingley in a half whisper, "that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of her fine eyes." "Not at all," he replied; "they were brightened by the exercise." "

Is there any doubt as to where Jane Austen's moral compass pointed on the spectrum of reactions to Lizzy's alleged bad manners, pride and impertinence? I think it's clear JA is with Bingley all the way---like the wise judge of horses in JD Salinger's story, he sees the beauty of body and soul in Lizzy, and does not even notice her dirty petticoat. And he shows he has a big soul and is the furthest thing from an airhead, when he finds Lizzy's affection for Jane very pleasing. JA is telling us that he would have found Jane's wishing to do the same sort of mitzvah for Lizzy equally pleasing, reflecting Jane's deep affection for Lizzy, which motivates her to break a pointless sexist rule in order to do good.

And speaking of the relationship of morality and dirtiness, what does this passage also remind us of? Isn't the above passage a very clever midrash on Jesus's cutting to the chase, and turning the settled law topsy turvy, vis a vis aspirations toward purity in Matthew 23:24-27?:

^"Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness."

Jane Austen emulates Jesus in pointing to the purity of soul _inside_ as the source of godliness, not empty anti-female rules of decorum. The dirtier Lizzy's petticoat, in other words, the cleaner her soul.

Jane Austen's moral and psychological insight were so advanced, that her novels are practically a template of 21st century ideas of personal transformation via education and struggles toward self-awareness--I can personally vouch for a number of gifted psychotherapists who feel this way about Jane Austen's astounding psychological insight. But as the above example illustrates, JA's prescient insights into psychology were wedded to a firm and creative grasp of the best of the ancient religious scriptures. She recognized that traditional religion did have much to offer.

Truly a Gospel of the Dirty Petticoat, writ large.

Cheers, ARNIE

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