Ever since the summer of 2009, I have ended all of my presentations about Jane Austen’s shadow stories with an anecdote which always gets a big laugh (thanks in part to the wacky PowerPoint slide that goes with the punch line), even from that half of the audience who’ve been giving me an increasing number of displeased, quizzical looks after listening to my (to their ears) increasingly outlandish claims about JA’s novels. Here is the anecdote:
“When I asked Deirdre Le Faye, the famous biographer and editor of Jane Austen’s letters, for her opinion about my claims about Jane Fairfax’s predicament in the shadow story of Emma, after hearing my presentation at the Chawton House Conference in July, 2009, she replied (in her formidable Julia Childs voice): “I didn’t believe a WORD of it!!!” So, I hope that at least some of you did believe at least three words I spoke today, and, pending my completing and publishing my book on the shadow stories of Jane Austen, that you’ll be inspired to reread Emma in search of its shadow story—see if you think I’m right!”
For those who don’t read along regularly in this blog, Jane Fairfax’s predicament is that she is secretly pregnant when she comes to Highbury, and the solution thereto is a baby swap, with little Anna Weston only appearing to be the child of Mrs. Weston. And so Le Faye was telling me, in no uncertain terms, that she did not buy into any of that, thank you very much. Or so I was certain until today.
It never occurred to me till today, nearly four years after the formidable Deirdre Le Faye spoke those words to me in the driveway leading away from Chawton House, that perhaps her forceful ad lib, delivered with such panache, might just have had some secret subtext of its own. Sounds even crazier than my theories, right? But read on, and see if you still are so sure by the time you get to the business end of this post.
What prompted me to this speculation was, as usual in my research, serendipity. I was rereading Chapter 5 of Pride & Prejudice for another reason entirely, when my eyes widened upon reading the following:
"Miss Bingley told me," said Jane, "that [Darcy] never speaks much, unless among his intimate acquaintances. With them he is remarkably agreeable."
“I DO NOT BELIEVE A WORD OF IT, my dear. If he had been so very agreeable, he would have talked to Mrs. Long. But I can guess how it was; everybody says that he is eat up with pride, and I dare say he had heard somehow that Mrs. Long does not keep a carriage, and had come to the ball in a hack chaise."
So it was Mrs. Bennet who first spoke, in an Austen novel, almost those exact same words as Le Faye spoke to me! And is it just a coincidence that Mrs. B, an older woman with a forceful delivery, is saying some pretty suspicious, unkind things about the truthfulness of the “presentation” of a younger man, Mr. Darcy—how he isn’t really so very agreeable, and how he is “eat up with pride”? Hmmm….
That would seem to fit Le Faye’s reaction to my theories to a T, i.e., her view of me being that I might seem to an unsuspecting audience to be a nice guy; but watch out!--this man’s theories about Jane Austen are not agreeable at all, in fact they’re downright dangerous, because he’s arrogantly appropriating the sacred texts of Jane Austen’s novels, and reclothing them in the garb of the distasteful, tawdry inventions of his own proud hubris. Thinking he could amaze the world with his great discovery, trying to change the way Jane Austen is perceived by her readers in a way that would counteract the safe, comforting image of Jane Austen that Le Faye has worked so hard for over a half century to foster.
But, striking as this parallelism was between real life and fiction, was it intentionally evoked by Le Faye? After all, I knew for certain that it was an ad lib, because she had absolutely no idea that I was going to walk up to her and ask that question of her. So maybe a more plausible inference is that this was just a case where that phrase bubbled up instantaneously from the memory of Le Faye, unconscious of the allusion by her to a line in P&P that she had perhaps read dozens of times or more, an association triggered by her strong negative feelings about my presentation. She channeled Mrs. Bennet without ever realizing it. I know that lines from JA’s novels pop into my head all the time in different real life situations which remind me of something from her novels.
And the best argument for its being an unconscious association on her part is---when you think about it, would anyone want to consciously align oneself with Mrs. Bennet, of all of JA’s characters, in making a statement? That would not exactly bolster the validity of the statement. The only association that might be less likely to be intentional would be Lady Catherine!
But….I was not quite ready to stop there, because…the idea of Le Faye being slyer than I gave her credit for was very intriguing to me. Why? Because I have often wondered, when reading one or another of her footnotes to the Letters during our long, ongoing group read in Janeites and Austen L—or, much more often, my wondering about a footnote Le Faye should have included but did not. I.e., wondering whether she really was as tone deaf to JA’s irony and wordplay as she seemed, or if she in many cases was fully aware of some disturbing information relative to the Letters, and she simply chose to put the kibosh on it, quietly, by letting the unknowledgeable reader assume there really was nothing there worth noticing. There are numerous sins of omission in her edition of the Letters, for every sin of commission.
So, that was when I decided to word search, to see if JA might have used the phrase “word of it” elsewhere in her novels, besides Mrs. Bennet’s little explosion of bile in Darcy’s direction. It was my gut instinct that this was a phrase that JA might have used in a coded sense elsewhere in her novels, to refer to secret information. And boy, am I glad now, also as I so often am, that I followed my gut!
First, I found no usage of that phrase “word of it” in S&S, NA or Persuasion, which told me it was not a phrase that JA used routinely and randomly. Wherever it was, it probably meant something.
In P&P, I found another usage—which at first did not appear particularly interesting, but things got very interesting once I got up to MP, where there were two usages:
Chapter 18: "You have only to read the part," said Henry Crawford, with renewed entreaty.
"And I do believe she can say every WORD OF IT," added Maria, "for she could put Mrs. Grant right the other day in twenty places. Fanny, I am sure you know the part."
Chapter 46: "A most scandalous, ill-natured rumour has just reached me, and I write, dear Fanny, to warn you against giving the least credit to it, should it spread into the country. Depend upon it, there is some mistake, and that a day or two will clear it up; at any rate, that Henry is blameless, and in spite of a moment's etourderie, thinks of nobody but you. Say not A WORD OF IT; hear nothing, surmise nothing, whisper nothing till I write again. I am sure it will be all hushed up, and nothing proved but Rushworth's folly. If they are gone, I would lay my life they are only gone to Mansfield Park, and Julia with them. But why would not you let us come for you? I wish you may not repent it.—Yours, etc."
Both of these usages relate in some way to words which diverge from the real or the truthful---in the first case, Maria is sure that Fanny can recall every “word of it” from the lines of every part in Lover’s Vows; in the other, Mary urges Fanny not to say “a word of it” about Maria’s elopement with Henry.
But this has all been prelude to the most remarkable result of my word search, which is that there were four usages of “word of it” in Emma (i.e., as many as in all the other five novels combined)---and what’s more, every one of them had to do with Jane Fairfax, the character I had spent my entire presentation talking about to Le Faye and others in my audience! And then, barely 30 minutes later, when I asked her for her reaction, Deirdre Le Faye used a phrase which, it turns out, connects to Jane Fairfax in not one but four different ways! Here they are:
Chapter 19 [about Jane’s letters to Miss Bates] She often says, when the letter is first opened, 'Well, Hetty, now I think you will be put to it to make out all that checker-work'—don't you, ma'am?—And then I tell her, I am sure she would contrive to make it out herself, if she had nobody to do it for her—every WORD OF IT—I am sure she would pore over it till she had made out every word.
Chapter 27 [Harriet doubts Jane’s musical abilities] "Are you sure? I saw she had execution, but I did not know she had any taste. Nobody talked about it. And I hate Italian singing.—There is no understanding A WORD OF IT. Besides, if she does play so very well, you know, it is no more than she is obliged to do, because she will have to teach. The Coxes were wondering last night whether she would get into any great family. How did you think the Coxes looked?"
Chapter 41 [Frank blurts out the gossip Jane secretly wrote to Frank about] As they were turning into the grounds, Mr. Perry passed by on horseback. The gentlemen spoke of his horse.
"By the bye," said Frank Churchill to Mrs. Weston presently, "what became of Mr. Perry's plan of setting up his carriage?"
Mrs. Weston looked surprized, and said, "I did not know that he ever had any such plan."
"Nay, I had it from you. You wrote me WORD OF IT three months ago."
Chapter 46: [Miss Bates telling Emma about Jane’s accepting the governess job] “Jane took Mrs. Elton aside, and told her at once, that upon thinking over the advantages of Mrs. Smallridge's situation, she had come to the resolution of accepting it.—I did not know A WORD OF IT till it was all settled."
And, even better, as I interpret each of these passages, they are all coded references to Jane’s concealed pregnancy!
So…do you think Deirdre Le Faye consciously hoisted me on my own petard, by instantly producing a bon mot which would appear on the surface to be a putdown of my presentation, but which, if I had understood the code of Emma sufficiently well—as well as she understood it---to hear the allusion to the above four passages in Emma, would constitute a veiled approval of my presentation?
Or do you think this was a classic Trojan Horse Moment for Le Faye, where her unconscious knew better than her conscious mind, and, then, ironically, she inadvertently planted a seed in my own mind, as the phrase “word of it”, which took four years (instead of nine months) to “sprout” in my mind, with Mrs. Bennet providing the water that coaxed the seed open. Jane Austen, the true “gardener” in this scenario, would be smiling if she knew this were what actually happened.
But who knows what all of this really means? Only Le Faye can tell us, and you can go to the bank on her never revealing anything about this. But, even so, I am pretty sure that anyone who enjoys my shadow story readings will enjoy pondering the mysteries of Deirdre Le Faye channeling Julia Childs and Mrs. Bennet simultaneously.
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P.S.: About that other usage of the phrase “word of it” in P&P, I was not entirely honest with you earlier:
Chapter 18: “And with a low bow [Mr. Collins] left [Lizzy] to attack Mr. Darcy, whose reception of his advances she eagerly watched, and whose astonishment at being so addressed was very evident. Her cousin prefaced his speech with a solemn bow and though she could not hear A WORD OF IT, she felt as if hearing it all, and saw in the motion of his lips the words "apology," "Hunsford," and "Lady Catherine de Bourgh."
While there are those who feel certain that they know exactly what Mr. Collins was saying to Mr. Darcy, I leave you with the suggestion that there are other possibilities which Lizzy never imagines, but a suspicious reader of P&P might, and that the phrase “a word of it” is yet another pointer toward mystery.