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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Fictional Excommunication That JA Playfully Alluded to in Letter 81

"Remember---JA is writing Letter 81 still flushed with the euphoria of the publication of P&P---so it is no surprise at all that she would giddily and covertly allude to not one but _two_ absurdist passages in P&P in Letter 81--and the crowning glory of the in-joke with CEA is the linkage between the real life _Elizabeth_ Bigg and the fictional _Elizabeth_ Bennet---aka "my little Lizzy"----and I long ago wondered whether the fictional name "Bingley" was connected to the real name "Bigg"! Which also makes me wonder whether there is not some sharp satire of the ill-fated proposal to JA by the unattractive Harris Bigg-Wither in the ill-fated proposal to Elizabeth Bennet by the unattractive Mr. Collins! So it is no surprise at all that the Bigg family are the "stars" of Letter 81! And that's what takes us _right_ back to "bell, book, and candle"---Alethea and Elizabeth Bigg are those very same Manydown ladies with their "enormous great stupid thick quarto volumes" who supposedly would have been experts on the Catholic excommunication curse!"

I had barely hit the "Send" button in my previous (second) message about Letter 81 (containing the above conclusory paragraph), when it suddenly dawned on me that there was yet _another_ passage in P&P which JA was veiledly alluding to in Letter 81, an allusion which explains, I believe, _exactly_ why JA mentioned the excommunication curse of the Catholic Church, in particular, in the same breath with the Bigg sisters of Manydown--and an allusion which, as you will see, makes it even more obvious that the real life Bigg family was indeed, as I have long suspected, an allusive source for P&P itself--but now I see just how central an allusion it is!

Go with me on this for a minute, I bet I can make you see it, too, with just a few "clues"---and it won't take ten years for you to see, but ten _seconds_!

Just think, what passage in P&P (indeed in all of JA's fiction) most strongly comes to mind when I say the word "excommunication"? I.e., which character assumes a truly Pope-like imperiousness, and, after a trial so fierce it would remind us of the trial of Joan of Arc, blithely threatens to cast another character into a social oblivion equivalent of excommunication?

I'll start the timer......






TEN!!!!! Time's up--I am willing to bet that a number of you realized exactly who and what I was referring to, and the best way to illustrate that answer is to first present the text of that mid-18th century excommunication curse to you, followed immediately by relevant excerpts from the speech of the "Pope" character in that Austen novel:

"The Pope's Curse, by Bell, Book, and Candle, on a Heretic of Hampreston. By authority of the blessed Virgin Mary, of St. Peter and Paul, and of the Holy Saints, we excommunicate, we utterly curse and banish, commit and deliver to the Devil of Hell, Henry Goldney, of Hampreston, in the county of Dorset, an infamous heretic, that hath, in spite of God and St. Peter (whose church this is), in spite of all holy Saints, and in spite of our holy father, the Pope, (God's vicar here on earth), and of the reverend and worshipful the canons, masters, priests, Jesuits, and clerks of our holy church, committed the heinous crimes of sacrilege1, with the images of our holy Saints, and forsaken our most holy religion, and continues in heresy, blasphemy and corrupt lust; excommunicate be he finally, and delivered over to the Devil as a perpetual malefactor and schismatic; accursed be he, and given soul and body to the Devil, to be buffeted; cursed be he in all holy cities and towns, in fields and ways, in houses and out of houses, and in all ether places, standing, lying, Or rising — walking, running, waking, sleeping, eating, drinking, and whatsoever he does besides. We separate him from the threshold, from all the good prayers of the church, from the participation of holy mass, from all sacraments, chapels, and altars, from holy bread and from holy water, from all the merits of our holy priests and religious men, and from all their cloisters, from all their pardons, privileges, grants, and immunities, all the holy fathers (Popes of Rome) have granted to them, and we give him over utterly to the power of the Devil; and we pray to oar Lady, to St. Peter and Paul, and all holy Saints, that all the senses of his body may fail him, and that he may have no feeling except he come openly to our beloved priest at Stapehill in time of mass, within thirty days from the 3d time of pronouncing hereof by our dear Priest there, and confesses his heinous, heretical, and blasphemous crimes, and by true repentance make satisfaction to our lady, St. Peter, and the worshipful company of the Church of Rome, and suffer himself to be buffeted, scourged, and spit upon, as our said dear Priest, in his goodness, holiness, and sanctity, shall direct and prescribe."

And now consider Chapter 56 of P&P, Lady Catherine's encounter with Elizabeth in the Longbourn Wilderness. First we have a lengthy "trial" section (note that at the end, she actually says "I came to _try_ you"), during which Lady Catherine demands, repeatedly and in a variety of ways, like a skilled prosecutor, that Lizzy confess and recant from her supposed engagement with Darcy-- a passage which is saturated with all sorts of quasi-religious rhetoric, including the most famous reference to the shades of Pemberley being polluted.

But Lizzy stands her ground, like a veritable Clarence Darrow, dodging every rhetorical, legalistic bullet shot at her by Lady Catherine, including the latter's warning to Elizabeth: " not expect to be noticed by his family or friends, if you wilfully act against the inclinations of all. You will be censured, slighted, and despised, by everyone connected with him. Your alliance will be a disgrace; your name will never even be mentioned by any of us."

But even that threat fails to intimidate Lizzy, and so finally Lady Catherine, stymied to the point of exhaustion, pronounces her final "anathema" on Elizabeth, when contrasted with the fire and brimstone of the actual "bell, book, and candle" curse shown above, is drolly funny, delivered with the most understated Austenian irony:

"And this is your real opinion! This is your final resolve! Very well. I shall now know how to act. Do not imagine, Miss Bennet, that your ambition will ever be gratified. I came to try you. I hoped to find you reasonable; but, depend upon it, I will carry my point....I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet. I send no compliments to your mother. You deserve no such attention. I am most seriously displeased."

How perfect, that the worst curse Lady Catherine can imagine is to take no leave of Elizabeth, and to send no compliments to Mrs. Bennet--denying them the attention of the Honorable Lady Catherine de Burgh is equivalent, in Mr. Collins's and Lady Catherine's mind at least, to banishing Elizabeth to a social oblivion worse than a religious excommunication!

And the funniest line of all, when we think of Lady Catherine as an "infallible Pope" in her own mind, is the following:

"Her Ladyship was highly _incensed_"

Get it? "incensed" as in the "censers" we would find in the Vatican, or in any Catholic church, for that matter.

When you consider the above, alongside the _other_ two veiled allusions to P&P that I have previously noted in Letter 81, plus the joke on all the "missed clues", I think there is a vanishingly small chance that all of this is just the product of my own fevered imagination. And here's one final point as icing on the cake---what _else_ is going on in Letter 81 that relates to the Bigg family that resonates strongly with the action in P&P? Of course, in 1813, as the result of the death of the elder Mr. Bigg, his two unmarried daughters found themselves booted out of Manydown so that their brother Harris Bigg-Wither (aka Mr. Collins) could take possession.

Unlike Lydia Bennet, I don't think I need to put _any_ lines under those final words for you to figure out how that resonates with P&P!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

ADDED 12:51 EST Oct. 3, 2012:  Read the very next post in this blog for a continuation of the above:

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