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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, January 28, 2013

Darcy's "We neither of us perform to strangers": a Radical New Interpretation

To celebrate this bicentennial of Pride & Prejudice, I have a special post, one which goes to the heart of what I call the "shadow story" ...... 
[the above post is a quick summary of what I mean by a Jane Austen shadow story)

....of Pride & Prejudice. For all the wonders of this amazing novel that have already been recognized, I am very confident in asserting that this one has never previously been detected, and I predict it will help open the door to a yet deeper appreciation thereof. It will however  take me several paragraphs to introduce it properly, so bear with me.

My post today has to do with one of the many famous, memorable epigrammatical lines we find all over the place in the narration and dialog of Pride & Prejudice. The most famous of course is “It is a truth universally acknowledged…..”, but  there are actually about twenty of them, which are all instantly recognized by Janeites around the world.

This passage is one of them, and it has been a source of puzzlement for countless Janeites who have paused to wonder what Mr. Darcy really meant at the end of the following passage in Chapter 31:

 "Darcy smiled and said, "You are perfectly right. You have employed your time much better. No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you can think anything wanting. We neither of us perform to strangers." END QUOTE

Can’t you just instantly hear Colin Firth’s mellifluous delivery in your mind’s ear, and see Jennifer Ehle’s puzzled, faintly agitated reaction in your mind’s eye?

What Darcy’s means regarding his own not performing to strangers does not raise many questions in the minds of ordinary readers of the novel, as the topic of his behavior in the presence of strangers is the very subject under discussion by the gathering in the Rosings salon. But what he means regarding Lizzy has raised significant questioning in the minds of ordinary Janeite readers everywhere for a very long  time. What sort of performance? Which strangers?

During the past few days, I’ve intensively browsed the Internet and various scholarly databases, and I have found, in group read archives, in scholarly books and articles, in blogs, etc., at least a dozen different interpretations of what Darcy meant by Lizzy not performing to strangers. I will not repeat any of them here, as it would make this long post much longer still, but I am sure that you could come up with a good one yourself if you tried. The sentence is very ambiguous and suggestive of many different meanings, and you may take my word that it is never explicitly explained anywhere else in the text of the novel. It is in effect an open invitation by Jane Austen to the reader, to figure out what Darcy means.

I’m here today to present you an interpretation of Darcy’s little speech which is completely outside the box--one which, to the best of my knowledge after thorough checking, no Austen scholar or ordinary Janeite has ever publicly suggested. It only occurred to me for the first time, by accident, upon what must have been at least my fiftieth reading or hearing of that passage during the past 15 years.

Such is the lengthy "gestational period" for some of Jane Austen's subliminal textual hints to blossom into a realization in a suggestible  reader's conscious  mind—an event which happens so often with her  writing  that I coined the term “Trojan Horse Moment” to describe it. I gave it that name because Jane Austen in effect sneaks a “horse” past the “walls” of the mind of the reader, undetected, which only opens up later to allow the alternative meaning to pop out and reveal itself to the conscious mind of the reader. That is the essence of the Jane Austen Code as I have excavated it.

With that long introduction,  then, here finally is my outside the box interpretation. The Beatrice-Benedick-like verbal sparring between Lizzy and Darcy that has been going on since their first encounter at the Meryton assembly reaches its first climax at Rosings in Chapter 31. During all that sparring, Lizzy has repeatedly, albeit inadvertently  and Freudianly, given Darcy a series of sexual come-ons, seeming to be engaged  in hot-cold sexual teasing in which she leads him on one moment, then pushes him away the next. The poor guy doesn’t know what to think, but it’s for sure that she has thereby unwittingly fanned the flames of his ardor.
And perhaps the two best examples of Lizzy’s inadvertent come-ons are both in Chapter 31. First we have Lizzy saying the following to Colonel Fitzwilliam in Darcy's presence, in a very provocative tone:

"You shall hear then—but prepare yourself for something very dreadful. The first time of my ever seeing him in Hertfordshire, you must know, was at a ball—and at this ball, what do you think he did? He danced only four dances, though gentlemen were scarce; and, to my certain knowledge, more than one young lady was sitting down in want of a partner. Mr. Darcy, you cannot deny the fact."

In addition to the subliminal resonance of the above passage with the “in want of” phrase in the novel's famous first sentence, the word "partner" is ambiguous, referring potentially not only to a dancing partner, but also a marital partner or even....a sexual partner. And all the talk about a “ball” at which Darcy only “danced” four dances? If it were Mary Crawford speaking, you’d strongly suspect the last of those three choices for “partner”, and you’d  be thinking about  a very different sort of “ball”, the kind that went on chez the “vicious” (i.e., vice-ridden) Admiral Crawford.

Lizzy Bennet and Mary Crawford  share many attributes, most of all their light, bright, and sparkling wit. But it seems to me that whereas Mary is quite conscious of her sexual innuendoes, Lizzy is blissfully ignorant of her own, and, therefore, since Lizzy is the focal point of view in 99% of  the novel text, so too are most readers  ignorant of what she  is ignorant.

In short, the above speeches in Chapter 31 sound a lot like Lizzy sending Darcy a not so subtle coded message, wanting him to propose one or both of those last two forms of partnership to her. Just like the things that Emma says to Mr. Elton which are heard by him as a come-on for him to approach Emma herself romantically. Elizabeth, in her own way, is every bit as clueless as Emma, at least sexually speaking.

But let’s stay with Elizabeth Bennet. Not two minutes after she unintentionally leads Darcy to believe she wants him romantically in that way, she gives him a second unconscious, and even more suggestive come-on when she says:

"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."

As I have previously suggested....

....Darcy hears that as an over-the-top sexual come-on, requiring only that the literate Darcy hear “instrument” according to Cleland’s euphemistic use of that word in Fanny Hill—and otherwise Lizzy’s fingers literally do all the walking, so  to speak.

At this point, Darcy is no longer puzzled at Lizzy’s seeming deep ambivalence about him. He flashes on the notion that Lizzy is intentionally engaging in very audacious sexual repartee, and is strongly implying to him that she is not going to explicitly tell him how much she desires him sexually, so she is taking the next best step, and intentionally hinting at it repeatedly.

And that’s what he means by “we neither perform to strangers”---i.e., he smiles  because he gives her exactly what he believes she wants to hear, a coded acknowledgment that he  “gets” her coded sexual messages!  Their mutual coded exchange of sexual messages is for their mutual ears only, and is not intended to be understood by anyone else present, most of all the nosy matchmaking wannabe “stranger “ Lady Catherine, seated a dozen feet away.

And, final inspired touch, “No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you can think anything wanting” is a coded version of  “I, Darcy, by virtue of having finally taken all your hints, have now been admitted to the privilege of really hearing what your coded  innuendoes are saying to me, and now I know that I no longer  think anything wanting in terms of the sexual partner I want—you! 

The only problem is—Darcy’s wrong!  Lizzy is not consciously leading him on, she is only “leaking” her  intense attraction to him, which she is working overtime to repress.

Sound vaguely familiar? It should! This is a reiteration of what we read more than a dozen chapters earlier, when Mr. Collins proposed to Lizzy, and he  misinterpreted her negative response as a kind of conduct-book implication of acceptance. Some Austen scholars have previously noted veiled parodic parallels between Darcy and Collins as suitors—but this one tops them all!

And Darcy’s overconfident misinterpretation  of Lizzy’s  verbal repartee  is very one important reason why Darcy is so astonished when Lizzy rejects his first proposal in Chapter 34. Yes, he’s also shocked  in part simply because he is an arrogant jerk who just assumes that women will swoon for him—that’s his bad. But it’s also partly because Lizzy has been giving him so many unconscious come-ons, culminating in that Chapter 31  exchange, which cumulatively and reasonably lead him to believe she really wants him to make his move, and soon---and that’s her bad, even if she did it  unconsciously and without intent  to cause him pain---her actual words spoken to him when she  rejects his proposal, without understanding half of their full import.

Beyond the above sketch, it would take a dozen pages more to do full justice to this one radical new interpretation, which relates to some of the other previous, more normative interpretations, in fascinating ways, and which has major implications, I claim, for understanding the shadow story of Pride & Prejudice.  That is not for this post today.

So I will leave you with the observation I have often made about the so-called sexing up  of the novel by Andrew Davies, when he has Darcy jump in the water at Pemberley and emerge with his dripping blouse clinging to his manly physique. I  already had strong reason  to assert Davies was actually responding faithfully to the strong suggestions embedded in the  novel text itself, and he was actually being very very restrained in this regard.  But now, my above interpretation raises my level of certainty in that regard a great deal higher.  

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode  on Twitter


betsy s said...

I couldnt' possibly locate it now, but I recall reading an interview with Colin Firth where he describes the condition of being entirely sexually aroused by Lizzy as his motivation for the portraying the character of Darcy.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Yes, I heard that just today from someone else-it tells us that Andrew Davies gave Firth exactly the right guidance on how to play the role!

Hari said...

Darcy from the beginning was attracted to her eyes but was repelled by what he saw as “coarseness on the part of her relations“. As the story progresses Darcy starts admiring her for her talents & finds himself in a struggle between his status pride & admiration for her.

Lizzy was keen to prick him. Her sharp mind has identified Darcy‘s pride with the disappointment of her dear sister & the misfortunes of Wickham. She was smug in her assessment that but for Darcy‘s patrician pride a lot of happiness would be there & took it upon herself to hurt him in his pride to the extent her upbringing allows her.

Arnie Perlstein said...


Thank you for your comment. I don't disagree with your analysis, but if you've browsed in my blog, I believe there are TWO parallel fictional universes in the novel, and in the shadow story, Darcy is aware of Lizzy's sexual attraction to him, which keeps leaking out despite her efforts to repress them.

Hari said...

Lizzy only too well understands Darcy‘s reasons for “not performing before strangers“ & sees it as a fraility in him.

Darcy doesnt figure out how his elitist manner should appear as anything but the best character trait in her eyes & is extremely confident in his eligibility for her friendship.

What he sees as Lizzyʹs reluctance to perform before strangers (in reality - only himself) he (mistakenly) puts down to her strong pride in her beauty & talents - which enhances his esteem for her - asͺ himself proud of his social status͵ he finds such pride an ornament to her.

Hari said...

Apologiesͺ I chanced to see your very interesting blog by following a link from theatlantic news site. I havent gone through the entire blog yet..but will do so now.. guess I was a tad premature with my comments.... I am from India where the colonial past gave us such gifts... as a school education where works by Austenͺ Dickens etc have a huge role.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Hari, you owe me no apologies, I am very glad you've paid me the honor of reading in my blog. There are nearly a thousand posts, so you should use the Search function to see what I've written about specific Austen topics which are of interest to you.

In particular, read this one to get the basic idea of what I mean by a shadow story:

Let me know what you think....

Julia Ergane said...

I left a comment on this post on this article over a week ago. I believe that it was well thought out and in good taste, yet you did not have the common courtesy to e-mail me with your reasons for dismissing my comments and ideas. I was never silenced at Muhlenberg College (1972, High Honors) like this in a consortium, opposing ideas were welcomed as long as you could justify them (I also have 2 Masters degrees by the way). I believe I was able to justify them to the extent that I did not have to write a complete thesis. Of course, if you worship the two critics you cited as goddesses, then I realize I have stepped on your toes. I did not realize that you were so inculcated into their points-of-view.

Unknown said...

I'm finding it delightful to read the several posts I've looked at today. The idea by some that Jane was repressed and prudish detracts from her brilliant novels. You are rescuing Jane, Arnie, from those who make her seem like one's cranky great-grandmother. You are breathing fresh life into her and the novels. Looking forward to more and sharing with friends.