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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, July 8, 2012

THINKING SO ILL of Wickham..... the Prince of Whales.....and even Mrs. Knight!

It is always a pleasure for me when one of JA's wicked little jokes first makes a full impression on me, and I just had that experience an hour ago (which gives me hope that I will still be having them ten years from now!), as I was rereading a passage in Chapter 49 of P&P. Of course that started me brawling down a turnpike of literary sleuthing that yielded some interesting and surprising results, for those of you who enjoy my sleuthing. Here, then, without further ado, is the beginning---the passage in Chapter 49 of P&P when Wickham's debts are discussed by Lizzy, Jane and Mr. Bennet:

"That is very true," said Elizabeth; "though it had not occurred to me before. [Wickham's] debts to be discharged, and something still to remain! Oh! it must be my uncle's doings! Generous, good man, I am afraid he has distressed himself. A small sum could not do all this." "No," said her father; "Wickham's a fool if he takes her with a farthing less than ten thousand pounds. I should be sorry to THINK SO ILL of him, in the very beginning of our relationship." END QUOTE

What I don't recall previously noticing is the exquisite paradox that fuels Mr. Bennet's absurdist bon mot---i.e., he sarcastically pretends that he would think ill of Wickham _not_ for being the irresponsible libertine who eloped with Lydia and then did not marry her, but instead for extracting insufficient blackmail money to induce him to marry Lydia!

Did you notice it before? If not, stop and savor it, as I just have. This is wicked, wicked absurdist humor at its blackest, and might seem yet another example of Mr Bennet's grossly inappropriate sense of humor, if it weren't mitigated by the fact that Mr. Bennet indulges in this little bit of impromptu standup comedy only _after_ the worst crisis for the Bennet family seems to have been averted. I.e., gallows humor is perhaps at its funniest (and sunniest) immediately _after_ the gallows have already been averted by a last second reprieve! It also reminds me of Mr. Bennet's famous joke at the beginning of P&P, when he tricks his wife and daughters into thinking he has no intention of visiting the newly arrived Mr. Bingley, knowing full well he has already secured a promised visit to Longbourn from that most eligible bachelor--not particularly nice, but not particularly cruel either.

And by the way, I just checked and it appears that Andrew Davies failed to include Mr. Bennet's bon mot in his 1995 adaptation, which is partly why, I must admit, I never noticed it in the novel text! Failure to read JA word by word always has its cost in missed reading pleasures.

Anyway, after I was done with my appreciative chuckle at Mr. Bennet's (and therefore JA's) witty joke, I was curious to know how often JA used the phrase "think so ill of" or some variant on same, in her writing. It sounded vaguely familiar, but was it because it was a phrase she frequently used? Turns out, just the opposite--it is only used _once_ in her letters, and a tiny total of _five_ times in all of her novels combined---- and _three_ of them appear in P&P--and what's more, all three in P&P are about Mr. Wickham's behavior vis a vis Lydia! That very narrow focus of usage suggests some intentional significance for JA greater than just a random witty joke by Mr. Bennet, which further analysis should point to. And it does. Read on.

It turns out that Mr. Bennet's joke in Chapter 49 is an echo (apparently coincidental, unless he has been eavesdropping on private conversations or reading private letters) of two earlier usages in reference to the way Jane Bennet sees Wickham:

Chapter 46, where Jane writes to Lizzy about the elopement:

[Jane] "....My father and mother believe the worst, but I CANNOT THINK SO ILL of [Wickham]...."


Chapter 47, as the suspense as to the outcome is at its nervous peak among the Bennets and Mrs. Gardiner:

"But you see that JANE," said her aunt, "DOES NOT THINK SO ILL of Wickham as to believe him capable of the attempt."

[Lizzy] "Of whom does JANE EVER THINK ILL? And who is there, whatever might be their former conduct, that she would believe capable of such an attempt, till it were proved against them? But Jane knows, as well as I do, what Wickham really is. We both know that he has been profligate in every sense of the word; that he has neither integrity nor honour; that he is as FALSE and deceitful as he is INSINUATING." END QUOTE finding this interesting Jane Bennet--Wickham concentration of this phrase "think so ill" in P&P prompted me to take my sleuthing a step further and Google the phrase "think so ill", just to see what might come up from other published writings besides JA's, and something _very_ interesting did. Could it be that Mr. Bennet (and therefore JA) might have happened to somehow read the following passage in a private letter written in September 1796 (but apparently not published in a book until 1908) by the famous Lady Sarah Napier (nee Lennox) to her frequent correspondent, Lady Susan O'Brien, about the then 34-year old Prince of Whales?:

"I see by the papers the Prince of Wales has taken Mr. Sturt's house. If he is to be your neighbour I warn you not to let yourself be deceived by FALSE rumours to THINK SO ILL OF HIM as the world does, for you will, when timeproduces truth, regret such a PREJUDICE. Like all other men he has his faults, but his perfections outballance them: I know what I say, & you love justice,so don't be led away by PREJUDICE. "

If somehow Mr. Bennet _could_ have been aware of the above passage in Lady Sarah's letter, that would suggest that the very sly and literate patriarch of Longbourn was not only carelessly tossing off one of his sophisticated witty epigrams, but was also very seriously but covertly equating Mr. Wickham to the First Libertine of England----the Prince of Whales! Other than for their strong difference in avoirdupois, when you think about it there are many striking similarities between the real life Prince and JA's fictional libertine, in so many different ways (including being forced into a marriage, being endlessly in debt, being extremely charming, feeling like they never got what they deserved at a young enough age, siring illegitimate children, gambling into extreme debt, etc etc etc), and also the reference to evaluation of the reliability of rumors which create _prejudice_ about the character of a person--which is after all the central crisis of judgment confronting Lizzy during over half the novel!---it really makes me wonder how the turn of phrase came to be so similar between that letter (written only a few years before JA wrote First Impressions) and JA's novel. What could it mean if it is not coincidental?

Could JA, e.g., by the time she was finalizing P&P in late 1812, when S&S was already the buzz of the literati in London, have found a way to be in communication with the real life Lady Susan O'Brien--she who had in 1796 (or only a year prior to JA's beginning work on First Impressions) been warned by her friend Lady Sarah not to believe nasty rumors about the Prince? Might Lady Sarah have written that warning to her friend because Lady O'Brien had previously expressed negative judgments to Lady Sarah about the Prince, who would soon be Lady Susan's neighbour?

And if JA did somehow get in touch with Lady Susan O'Brien, would JA have shared with her that she was writing a character (Wickham) who was very similar to--indeed, _modeled_ _upon_---the Prince as a young man? And in return, could Lady Susan have confided in JA about Lady Sarah's Jane Bennet-like Pollyannish views about the Prince?

Why? Because perhaps JA had also told her that Lady Sarah _herself_ was _also_ a denizen of the allusive subtext of P&P!

Sound crazy? Well, here's what I found in my old files about Lady Sarah Napier. As a young woman, she was wooed by King George III (i.e., the father of the Prince of Whales), and her first husband, Charles Bunbury, ignored her so much that she had numerous affairs and illegitimate children before she settled down at age 36 in 1781 with an impoverished officer (!!) named Napier. But the best part is the following vignette about Lady Sarah and her most famous suitor of all:

WIKIPEDIA: "When she was presented at court again at 15, George III was taken with her, and her family developed an ambition that she would be the next queen. Largely for this reason, the young king was discouraged from selecting her as a wife. Lady Sarah had also developed feelings for Lord Newbattle, grandson of William Kerr, 3rd Marquess of Lothian. Although her family were able to convince her to break with Newbattle, the royal match was scotched by the King's advisors, particularly John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, who feared losing his royal influence to Henry Fox, 1st Baron Holland, Lady Sarah's brother-in-law. Lord Bute prevailed, and Lady Sarah was asked by King George III to be one of the ten bridesmaids at his wedding to Duchess Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Lady Sarah confided to a friend, "Luckily for me, I did not love him, and only liked him". "

This was a story famous throughout England, and in it, the young Lady Sarah sounds distinctly Jane Bennet-ish in having been wooed at 15 by a most eligible bachelor--the immediately preceding Prince of Wales!--but ultimately being left out in the cold due to the scheming of a meddling, powerful man--Lord Bute---wholly unconnected to her, looking out for his own selfish interests. Hmm....

And that last part of the quotation perhaps was also winked at by JA, not in P&P but in S&S:

"I do not attempt to deny," said [Elinor], "that I think very highly of him—that I greatly esteem, that I like him." Marianne here burst forth with indignation—"Esteem him! Like him! Cold-hearted Elinor! Oh! worse than cold-hearted! Ashamed of being otherwise. Use those words again, and I will leave the room this moment." END QUOTE

And....last but not least, in 1815, two years after P&P was published, Lady Sarah's niece (also nee Sarah Lennox) eloped with Peregrine Maitland, who just happened to be the first cousin of the new bride Anna Austen Lefroy on Anna's mother's side! I wonder whether that elopement arose out of the blue, or if it might have already been in its early stages two years earlier when JA was finishing P&P?

All found and connected together because of my being curious about the phrase "think ill of".......


Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: If you were are the only other two usages (besides the above three in P&P) of thinking "so ill" of someone in all six novels, and they are each very interesting:

MP, Chapter 44: "Tom had gone from London with a party of young men to Newmarket, where a neglected fall and a good deal of drinking had brought on a fever; and when the party broke up, being unable to move, had been left by himself at the house of one of these young men to the comforts of sickness and solitude, and the attendance only of servants. Instead of being soon well enough to follow his friends, as he had then hoped, his disorder increased considerably, and it was not long before HE THOUGHT SO ILL OF HIMSELF as to be as ready as his physician to have a letter despatched to Mansfield."

If I am not mistaken, this is a very sly and very clever double entendre on JA's part---Tom has after all just fallen seriously ill in a _medical_ sense, yet JA chose to use the same phrase to describe his illness as she had just used not once but _three_ times in P&P (her immediately preceding published novel) with the meaning of thinking ill in a _judgmental_ sense. Why would she do this? Why did she not write "he thought himself so ill" if that was what she meant? I think JA meant by this deliberate ambiguity to raise a subliminal cloud of doubt surrounding the bona fides of Tom's physical illness--Tom Bertram, the producer (in all senses of that word) of the Mansfield Theatricals, the lover of the theatre--perhaps his "illness" was his greatest performance of all, because uncredited and undetected!


Emma, Chapter 23: "Her own father's perfect exemption from any thought of the kind, the entire deficiency in him of all such sort of penetration or suspicion, was a most comfortable circumstance. Happily he was not farther from approving matrimony than from foreseeing it. Though always objecting to every marriage that was arranged, he never suffered beforehand from the apprehension of any; it seemed as if he could not THINK SO ILL of any two persons' understanding as to suppose they meant to marry till it were proved against them."

In this passage, Emma is beginning to enjoy Frank's romantic flirtations a great deal more than she realizes, and so she starts imagining that the Westons are already hoping she and Frank will get married, and then of course Emma's thoughts inevitably turn to her father, the arch-enemy of matrimony. In his somewhat skewed moral universe, in a strange way reminiscent of Mr. Bennet's sarcastic paradox, Mr. Woodhouse stands entirely alone in the world in thinking ill of those who would marry! Or, is this another authorial deception on JA's part? Are those among JA's readers who are aware (as you all are now who have read through this entire post of mine, for which I thank you!) of the common usage of the phrase "think so ill" between two such different fathers as Mr. Bennet and Mr. Woodhouse, meant to question whether Mr. Woodhouse himself is entirely sincere in his opposition to the married state? Maybe he, like Tom Bertram, is putting on a show?

P.P.S.: And finally, the last leg of my trip down the Sleuthing Turnpike---if you were wondering why I included Mrs. Knight in my Subject Line, it is because JA, in her single solitary usage of "think ill of" someone in all of her surviving letters, chose to indulge in what is perhaps the most sarcastic, subversive, indecent sexual innuendo in all of her letters, in writing about the then 47- year old adoptive mother of her brother, Edward, the kindly Mrs. Knight, in Letter 32 dated January, 1801:

"I cannot THINK SO ILL of her however, in spite of your INSINUATIONS, as to suspect her of having lain-in -- I do not think she would be betrayed beyond an accident at the utmost."

The echoes of this scandalous passage (Bowdlerized by Lord Brabourne in his 1886 edition of JA's Letters) in the text of P&P, finalized 12 years later, are deafening.

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