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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

“Her brother, whose eye she feared to meet, scarcely recollected HER INTEREST in the affair”: The Unfortunate Mainstream Non-Recognition of the Great Put-on in Jane Austen’s Letter 79 & The Most Mysterious “said she” in Pride & Prejudice

 This post comes in two halves, the deep connections between which will become apparent as you read along.


As is obvious from SharpElvesSociety---the name I invented, and have always used, for my blog-- I consider the following very famous passage in Jane Austen’s Letter 79 dated January 29, 1813 to be the proverbial center of the onion, in terms of my (heretical) understanding of Jane Austen’s writings, and also of her life. She, of course, is writing about the recent publication of her “darling child”,  Pride & Prejudice:

"There are a few Typical errors – & a “said he” or a “said she” would sometimes make the Dialogue more immediately clear – but “I do not write for such dull Elves” “As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.” – The 2d vol. is shorter than I cd wish – but the difference is not so much in reality as in look, there being a a larger proportion of Narrative in that part. I have lopt & cropt so successfully however that I imagine it must be rather shorter than S. & S. altogether. – Now I will try to write of something else; – it shall be a complete change of subject – Ordination."

It continues to amaze me that the mainstream scholarly and lay Janeite interpretation of the first part of the above passage, is that Jane Austen was matter-of-factly acknowledging her own writing errors, in failing to adequately specify a few pronoun attributions in the novel.

My interpretation, which I have seen expressed rarely in the Janeite world, is that this passage is a classic Austenian put-on, in exactly the same vein as certain other famous passages about her own fiction in JA’s letters to James Stanier Clarke and nephew JEAL. And whence derives my interpretation? To paraphrase Mr. Darcy, I have had the pleasure of Jane Austen’s literary acquaintance long enough to know that she found great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions---especially self-deprecatory opinions---which in fact were not her own---quite the contrary.

I find absurd the notion that JA would so gaily and cavalierly acknowledge such a serious authorial error as unwittingly misleading readers as to the identity of characters speaking or behaving in ways important to the story of the novel she has worked on for 15 years! And yet this absurd notion not only persists, it still holds center stage. Such is the great power of the enduring myth of Jane Austen’s artistic modesty, humility, and (as so many Janeites are apparently so quick to believe) casual compositional slovenliness.

To paraphrase Elle from Clueless, I mean, really….AS IF members of Jane Austen’s family read P&P and just happened to notice these errors as soon as they read it through, errors which supposedly had eluded JA during all her numerous revisions! ….AS IF when they brought these errors to her attention, she just said, basically, “Oops, so what” and did not concern herself with correcting them, let alone getting upset about it. …Like being told your “darling child” has smallpox, and you gaily respond, “Oops!”…..I mean, REALLY. (okay, no more channeling of Elle from Clueless)

I find the mainstream interpretation particularly staggering, because there is another subtle but overarching aspect of the above passage in Letter 79, which underscores the put-on, once you notice it.  To wit: Jane Austen not only jarringly writes her self-deprecation in a giddy tone--as I will now elaborate, it also is written so extremely cryptically, even more cryptic than the “said hes” and “said shes” in the novel she had just published after 15 years of repeated revisions!

How so cryptically, you ask? Well, for starters, JA alludes to Scott’s famous poem Marmion, but she  materially changes and expands his original line, which went:

"I do not rhyme to that dull elf, Who cannot image to himself"

It’s clear why she changes “rhyme” to “write”, but why does she change Scott’s “image” to the similar-sounding, but different-meaning “ingenuity”? What does she mean by this? Judging by scholarly reaction to that sentence, a number of possible meanings could be plausibly applied to “ingenuity”—and so we must ask, why would JA be so vague, presenting a mangled line of famous poetry in an ambiguous way, instead of writing clearly and exactly what she means? I smell a rat…… ;)

My reading of “ingenuity”, by the way, is that JA is herself imagining a sharp-eyed reader who is ingenious enough to figure things out not only who “he” and “she” are in various passages, but, equally important on a metafictional level, to figure out why these attributions have been left ambiguous in the first place—and to then realize that one effect of such ambiguities is that it permits the text to be plausibly read in alternative ways, i.e., where “he” might be, e.g., Darcy in one interpretation, but Bingley in another, with two completely different meanings….this last comment will take on extra meaning by the end of this post.

And JA then goes on to cryptically hint at her own intentionality in these “errors” by highlighting that her final revision involved a massive cutting of text from the last previous draft—she estimates that P&P is now a bit shorter than S&S, and--guess what!--she was amazingly accurate in her estimate, as P&P is 121,880 words and S&S is 119,593 (a difference of less than 2% between the respective lengths of the two novels!). P&P obviously was once as long as MP and Emma, the two longest novels, both close to 160,000 words.

Plus, JA points out that she is fully cognizant that as a result of her cutting, there is now a much greater proportion of narrative to dialogue in the second volume than there was previously. So it’s not just quantity she has dramatically altered, it’s the fundamental nature of the words themselves, since narration is a whole different beast than dialogue.

All of which ought to make the reader wonder why JA would consciously alter the “feel” of the latter part of the novel so drastically, especially given that she had to have been fully aware that what makes P&P so “light, bright and sparkling”, and therefore so especially pleasing to her readers, is not the narration, but is the witty, play-like dialogue, which is almost entirely confined to the first volume.

And my answer to that puzzling authorial decision is that this is intended to make the suspicious reader wonder what happened exactly to the witty, vivacious Lizzy Bennet with whom we all fell in love with in Volume 1. We will feel the absence of her sparkle even if we don’t consciously take note of it. This is an aspect of the novel which has been noted by Austen scholars over the years, but I don’t recall any scholar realizing that this was entirely intentional on JA’s part—indeed, a late decision in the composition process.

And why would a writer careful and precise enough to monitor, pretty much exactly, how long her first two novels were, and also to monitor the balance of narration and dialogue in different parts of P&P, also be such a blockhead as to fail to adequately show something as elementary as who “he” and “she” were, every time she referred to her characters! It’s just more absurdity heaped on the other absurdity!

And finally, JA ends this passage in Letter 79 by abruptly turning to the topic of her next fictional effort, and then writing in even more ambiguous fashion—forests have fallen in the service of the effort to explain what Jane Austen meant by “ordination”. My point being, once again, JA is incredibly vague and ambiguous---and do you believe she did this because she was incapable of expressing herself clearly if she had wished to?  How absurd is that, given that she is known for the incredibly elegant, limpid lucidity of her prose!

And by the way, all of the above only reinforces the claims of myself and a handful of other scholars that Mark Twain was putting William Dean Howells on when he wrote the following in a letter to said Janeite buddy:

"Every time I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone"

For more on that Twainian put-on, start here:

Now I see that Twain, on top of the passages in P&P which he picked up on and emulated, had also picked up on, and was emulating, the ironic put-on about “dull elves” in Letter 79!


But now, with that lengthy prelude, I turn to the specific passage in Chapter 45 of P&P which I quoted from in my Subject Line.  P&P might actually rank first (even above Emma) in the number of textual mysteries which tend to be raised by non-scholarly readers over and over again over the years, and never get definitively resolved.

I’m talking about questions repeatedly raised by readers who are not (a) English professors, or (b) suspicious readers who, like me, read strongly against the grain, looking for textual trouble. These are everyday Austen readers who are just genuinely trying to figure out what has happened at a particular point in the story, and not on a seemingly obscure questions I like to ask (like “Who was the girl who whispers to Lizzy?”….

…whom I continue to assert was Mary Bennet), but meaty basic stuff like “Who told Lady Catherine? (about Darcy’s and Elizabeth’s “engagement”)”

That is the only one which became a book title (when John Sutherland lifted the idea that Charlotte was the leaker from amateur scholar Kim Damstra), but not far behind in frequency of being raised over and over again, is the passage in Chapter 45 when Lizzy visits Pemberley. As will be apparent when you reread it, it is one of the several passages in P&P which JA had in mind especially when she referred to the “said he” or a “said she” which “ingenuity” needed to be applied to. Let’s take a closer look at it.

Janeites have been puzzling over various ambiguous pronomial attributions in the following passage for a very long time.  There are lots of them scattered through this longish passage, but I am writing today to discuss only one of them---at the very end---the one which actually has received the least attention, and I will explain why I think that is, i.e., because it is so very inexplicable by conventional readings---but I am giving you the whole passage, so you can have the overall context clear in your mind when you get up to it.

So, please read the following quoted passage carefully, reacquaint yourself with what it tells us, and then my analysis of the last sentence will immediately follow the quote.  Let me set the scene. We are at this crucial moment, not long in the plotline before Lizzy receives Jane’s shocking letter about Lydia eloping with Wickham, when Darcy has just walked into the parlor at Pemberley where Lizzy has been sitting with the Bingley sisters and Georgiana, among others present:

“No sooner did [Darcy] appear than Elizabeth wisely resolved to be perfectly easy and unembarrassed; -- a resolution the more necessary to be made, but perhaps not the more easily kept, because she saw that the suspicions of the whole party were awakened against them, and that there was scarcely an eye which did not watch his behaviour when he first came into the room. In no countenance was attentive curiosity so strongly marked as in Miss Bingley's, in spite of the smiles which overspread her face whenever she spoke to one of its objects; for jealousy had not yet made her desperate, and her attentions to Mr. Darcy were by no means over. Miss Darcy, on her brother's entrance, exerted herself much more to talk; and Elizabeth saw that he was anxious for his sister and herself to get acquainted, and forwarded as much as possible every attempt at conversation on either side. Miss Bingley saw all this likewise; and, in the imprudence of anger, took the first opportunity of saying, with sneering civility --   "Pray, Miss Eliza, are not the -- -- shire Militia removed from Meryton? They must be a great loss to your family."
In Darcy's presence she dared not mention Wickham's name; but Elizabeth instantly comprehended that he was uppermost in her thoughts; and the various recollections connected with him gave her a moment's distress; but exerting herself vigorously to repel the ill-natured attack, she presently answered the question in a tolerably disengaged tone. While she spoke, an involuntary glance shewed her Darcy, with an heightened complexion, earnestly looking at her, and his sister overcome with confusion, and unable to lift up her eyes. Had Miss Bingley known what pain she was then giving her beloved friend, she undoubtedly would have refrained from the hint; but she had merely intended to discompose Elizabeth, by bringing forward the idea of a man to whom she believed her partial, to make her betray a sensibility which might injure her in Darcy's opinion, and perhaps to remind the latter of all the follies and absurdities by which some part of her family were connected with that corps. Not a syllable had ever reached her of Miss Darcy's meditated elopement. To no creature had it been revealed, where secresy was possible, except to Elizabeth; and from all Bingley's connexions her brother was particularly anxious to conceal it, from that very wish which Elizabeth had long ago attributed to him, of their becoming hereafter her own. He had certainly formed such a plan, and without meaning that it should effect his endeavour to separate him from Miss Bennet, it is probable that it might add something to his lively concern for the welfare of his friend. Elizabeth's collected behaviour, however, soon quieted his emotion; and as Miss Bingley, vexed and disappointed, dared not approach nearer to Wickham, Georgiana also recovered in time, though not enough to be able to speak any more. Her brother, whose eye she feared to meet, SCARCELY RECOLLECTED HER INTEREST IN THE AFFAIR; and the very circumstance which had been designed to turn his thoughts from Elizabeth, seemed to have fixed them on her more, and more cheerfully….”   END QUOTE

So, my question to you is, who is “her” in the ALL CAPS section in that last sentence, and what “interest in the affair” is being referred to?

From searching online and in the scholarly databases, I believe that the only time this specific question has come up, the explanation given is that “her” must be Georgiana, because Darcy is “Her brother” and who else but “she” would fear to meet Darcy’s eye. And, so the explanation goes, “her brother” (Darcy) had nearly forgotten about Georgiana’s having nearly eloped with Wickham, so much so that Caroline Bingley’s intended provocation had boomeranged by bringing Elizabeth to Darcy’s attention from across the room.

But even though the syntax seems to strongly support “her” being Georgiana, how could it possibly be the case that Georgiana’s having nearly eloped with Wickham only one year earlier has nearly slipped entirely out of Darcy’s recollection?  The mind reels at the very suggestion!

Consider: even if Darcy had been trying desperately to forget it; even if he was especially susceptible to Freudian repression due to guilty feelings; even if he took a deep swallow of laudanum; we know for a fact that less than 4 months earlier, when he wrote his letter to Elizabeth, he specifically recounted to her the salient facts of the near-elopement, and impressed upon Elizabeth the total secrecy of that event.  Darcy would have to be as psychotic as Norman Bates to have had Georgiana’s central and shattering role in this event be “scarcely recollected” by him at Pemberley.

Oh, and I almost forgot the most obvious refresher of his memory---Caroline Bingley has just mentioned Wickham!

So, unless (as is possible) I have made some fatal error somewhere in my analysis, and have misconstrued some key point---in which case, please put me out of my misery and tell me what it is!---it appears that “her” cannot refer to Georgiana.

But then, who could it be? The only females who have been mentioned in this paragraph, who could therefore possibly be “her”, are:

Georgiana—but I’ve just gotten through demolishing her as a candidate;

Lizzy---but that is equally absurd, in a different way, because we know for certain that Lizzy was never “interested”, in the sense of “involved”, in the Wickham-Georgiana fracas; and if “interest” meant, instead,  “curiosity” and not “involvement”, how could Darcy possibly have forgotten that he wrote to Elizabeth four months earlier specifically to confide the fact of that nearly-catastrophic affair to her?

Mrs. Hurst—she is in the parlor at Pemberley, that is true, but she is not even mentioned in the paragraph, so for JA to suddenly refer to her as “her” out of the clear blue sky is absurd, even before we reach the absurdity of wrenching Mrs. Hurst into an interpretation that makes any sense at all—try it , you’ll quickly see.

So that only leaves two other females who are mentioned in this paragraph:

Miss Bennet, i.e., Jane, who is not there at Pemberley, but who has been mentioned only a few sentences earlier, and very saliently so---so the “her” could syntactically refer to her; and

Miss Bingley, i.e., Caroline, who is there, and who has just been mentioned.

So, let’s try each one out and see how they each “fit”, and see whether a plausible explanation can be generated for either or perhaps both of them:

“as Miss Bingley, vexed and disappointed, dared not approach nearer to Wickham, Georgiana also recovered in time, though not enough to be able to speak any more. [Darcy], whose eye [Georgiana] feared to meet, SCARCELY RECOLLECTED [Jane’s] INTEREST IN THE AFFAIR; and the very circumstance which had been designed to turn [Darcy’s] thoughts from Elizabeth, seemed to have fixed them on [Elizabeth] more, and more cheerfully….”

Unless Jane was somehow “interested” in the Wickham-Georgiana affair (because she had been in London without Lizzy), how could it be Jane?  Actually, I have some ideas about that possibility, but I recognize that they are far, far from the grid of the overt story, so I will leave those ideas for another venue….

But let’s try Miss Bingley, and see if we can stay on the grid with her as “her”:

“as Miss Bingley, vexed and disappointed, dared not approach nearer to Wickham, Georgiana also recovered in time, though not enough to be able to speak any more. [Darcy], whose eye [Caroline or Georgiana, take your pick] feared to meet, SCARCELY RECOLLECTED [Caroline’s] INTEREST IN THE AFFAIR; and the very circumstance which had been designed to turn his thoughts from Elizabeth, seemed to have fixed them on [Elizabeth] more, and more cheerfully….”

Hmm….very interesting, as a wise man one said. While it would seem preposterous for Jane to have been involved somehow in the Wickham-Georgiana affair, I suspect it seems to you, as it does to me, much less preposterous for Caroline to have been involved—most Janeites see her as a scheming, manipulative, desperate character, who would probably do just about anything to get Darcy to marry her.

Now, let’s speculate intelligently about how she might have been involved. Darcy wrote to Elizabeth: “I joined [Georgiana and Mrs. Yonge] unexpectedly [in Ramsgate] a day or two before the intended elopement…”  We know that Darcy often traveled in company with his close friends, especially when on a pleasure trip, as a trip to Ramsgate would have been. Darcy, if he is telling the truth to Lizzy, went to Ramsgate as a kind of surprise visit to Georgiana, and you’d think that Bingley and his sisters, who were all well-acquainted with Georgiana, would have been prominent members of his entourage.

So perhaps Caroline really was part of his entourage there, and, while there, somehow got wind of Wickham’s being there? Recall how Mary Musgrove spots Mrs. Clay and Cousin Elliot from the window in Bath—perhaps Caroline caught a glimpse of Wickham alone with Georgiana on the street in Ramsgate, and alerted Darcy?

Now, if this all makes Caroline sound a little like Mrs. Clay, that’s not an enormous leap, is it? It does not mandatorily propel us into an alternative story line, it can be seen instead as bringing to light an event which Darcy might have had really good reason not to disclose to Lizzy in his letter. After all, we know that even though he claimed not to lie, he was not averse to keeping silent about something in a way that functioned like a lie. And he had penetration, and could readily imagine what a major turn-off it would have been to Lizzy, to read that Caroline Bingley had played some positive role in saving Georgiana from infamy. In a letter in which he seeks to win Lizzy’s sympathy and understanding, a very bad idea to throw the woman in Lizzy’s face who was working so hard to win Darcy for herself.

At least, that scenario is a whole lot more plausible than all the alternatives I went through previously, or so it seems to me.

What do you think?

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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