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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Austen's Darcy & Shakespeare's Demetrius: Birds of Borrowed Feathers

In Janeites & Austen-L earlier today, Diane Reynolds wrote: 
“ I am teaching both P&P and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a class this fall and wondered to what extent Austen alludes to MND in P&P…. I searched the archives of Janeites--much on Emma and MND, but not P&P. A google search I did picked up a review of a theater group that did the two works back to back in 2011--Mr. Collins became Bottom, while Jane and Elizabeth became Hermia and Helena. Food for thought:  

In 2011, when I last addressed this question, I too found the above link to that double production, and it was, and still is, indeed thought provoking, as you say.

My answer to you today is that the allusion is there, but, judging from my own experience in discerning Jane Austen’s veiled allusions to Shakespeare plays, as I recently summarized here….

…..I find this allusion to MND in P&P unusually veiled. Usually, JA gives a lot  more hints than she does in this case (and that is especially so with respect to the A Midsummer Night’s Dream allusion in Emma, which is, as Jocelyn Harris first extensively unpacked back in 1986, omnipresent in that later novel)-----or perhaps (or even probably) I just have not yet seen all the hints about MND that Jane Austen did put in P&P—after all, I’m still in an early stage of solving this particular “puzzle”, and I have found on a multitude of occasions that I only see the full scope of what Jane Austen was up to in a complex allusion like this after several revisitings over a period of years.

But…even so, I suspect that the reason MND is so much more visible in Emma than in P&P is purely chronological—i.e., JA realized from the reactions she had gotten to the publications of S&S, P&P, and MP that readers were just not picking up on all her subtle literary allusions, as she had expected they would.

And so, that is why in Emma, she ratcheted up the visibility of all her allusions, and also ratcheted up the visibility of her textual mysteries, by giving a lot more textual hints and winks.

But today the subject is the muted allusion to MND in P&P, and so, I thank you for prompting me to revisit this question for the first time in a couple of years. As I said, I’ve seen only a few clues so far, but the ones I have seen are very very intriguing. Mostly they mostly veer into the shadow story of P&P, and so I will refrain from addressing them at this moment.

But here’s one of the very best, which resonates strongly to the overt story of P&P.

It’s in Act 3, Scene 2 of MND, after Puck has mistakenly sprinkled the love dust on Lysander instead of Demetrius, as Oberon had instructed him to do, so that Demetrius would reciprocate Helena’s huge love for him, and Lysander and Hermia could be free to marry as they wish.

As a result of this error, Demetrius---the arrogant, insensitive shmuck who has previously been intent on marrying the heiress Hermia as desired by Hermia’s horrible father, Egeus, regardless of Hermia’s actual desires---remains unchanged, he is still the same greedy jerk.

And Hermia, on the other hand, has in the end of Act 2 only a short time before been cruelly rejected by her lover Lysander, who is now in love with Helena as a result of the love dust snafu.  So she is in a state of high emotional distress, and just ready to lash out with the right provocation.

And by the way, of course, it is only after this scene that Oberon figures out the error, and has Puck fix things as Oberon originally intended. But the mistake is still in full sway in Act 3, Scene 2.

With that setup, think now about Demetrius as an allusive source for the astonished Darcy in Chapter 34 of P&P immediately after he has just made his first proposal to Lizzy, and has been rebuffed. And think about Hermia as an allusive source for Lizzy just after she rejects Darcy’s proposal, still thinking fondly about Wickham even though Wickham (like the love-dusted Lysander) has recently dropped Lizzy like a hot potato in his attempt for the heiress Miss King.

The allusion then leaps off the page at you:  

Do you see how closely this tracks Lizzy and Darcy squaring off with gloves off in Chapter 34? It’s not just the trading of very personal insults after a rejected marriage proposal, it’s also Lizzy confronting Darcy with Darcy’s mistreatment of Wickham, and it’s also Darcy who keeps “running into” Lizzy in the wilderness outside Rosings, just as Demetrius has run into Hermia in the forest. All that differs is that Shakespeare has joined the proposal scene in midstream, after Demetrius has presumably renewed his advances toward Hermia, and has been rejected by her. Now read and savor Jane Austen’s allusive mastery:

"And this is all the reply which I am to have the honour of expecting! I might, perhaps, wish to be informed why, with so little endeavour at civility, I am thus rejected. But it is of small importance."
"I might as well inquire," replied she, "why with so evident a desire of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character? Was not this some excuse for incivility, if I was uncivil? But I have other provocations. You know I have. Had not my feelings decided against you—had they been indifferent, or had they even been favourable, do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?"
As she pronounced these words, Mr. Darcy changed colour; but the emotion was short, and he listened without attempting to interrupt her while she continued:
"I have every reason in the world to think ill of you. No motive can excuse the unjust and ungenerous part you acted there. You dare not, you cannot deny, that you have been the principal, if not the only means of dividing them from each other—of exposing one to the censure of the world for caprice and instability, and the other to its derision for disappointed hopes, and involving them both in misery of the acutest kind."
She paused, and saw with no slight indignation that he was listening with an air which proved him wholly unmoved by any feeling of remorse. He even looked at her with a smile of affected incredulity.
"Can you deny that you have done it?" she repeated.
With assumed tranquillity he then replied: "I have no wish of denying that I did everything in my power to separate my friend from your sister, or that I rejoice in my success. Towards him I have been kinder than towards myself."
Elizabeth disdained the appearance of noticing this civil reflection, but its meaning did not escape, nor was it likely to conciliate her.
"But it is not merely this affair," she continued, "on which my dislike is founded. Long before it had taken place my opinion of you was decided. Your character was unfolded in the recital which I received many months ago from Mr. Wickham. On this subject, what can you have to say? In what imaginary act of friendship can you here defend yourself? or under what misrepresentation can you here impose upon others?"
"You take an eager interest in that gentleman's concerns," said Darcy, in a less tranquil tone, and with a heightened colour.
"Who that knows what his misfortunes have been, can help feeling an interest in him?"
"His misfortunes!" repeated Darcy contemptuously; "yes, his misfortunes have been great indeed."
"And of your infliction," cried Elizabeth with energy. "You have reduced him to his present state of poverty—comparative poverty. You have withheld the advantages which you must know to have been designed for him. You have deprived the best years of his life of that independence which was no less his due than his desert. You have done all this! and yet you can treat the mention of his misfortune with contempt and ridicule."   END QUOTE

My personal choice for “smoking gun” of parallelism in this allusion are the first words spoken by both Demetrius and Darcy after they are rejected:

O, why rebuke you him that loves you so?
Lay breath so bitter on your bitter foe.

"And this is all the reply which I am to have the honour of expecting! I might, perhaps, wish to be informed why, with so little endeavour at civility, I am thus rejected. But it is of small importance."

Of course the progression of the romances seem to diverge in the remainder of MND after Act 3, Scene 2, from the action of P&P from Chapter 34 forward, and might cause some to conclude that the above-described allusion in MND 3.2 was somehow negated.

But then, to make such an inference from this lack of consistent parallelism through the respective storylines of MND and P&P, despite the striking power of the allusion as above articulated, would be exactly the sort of ill-advised thinking that Emerson famously ridiculed:

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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