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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Kitty’s sarcastic cough about Mrs. Bennet’s imaginary friend, Mrs. Long

After I hit the “Send” button on my post about Mr. Perry and Nurse Rooke, it occurred to me that I had not previously thought to actually Google “Jane Austen” AND “imaginary friend” to see what might pop up.

When I did, besides my own post of five minutes earlier, there was one other very interesting hit:

Celebrating P&P by Susannah Fullerton (2013) with the following wonderful discussion at ppg. 80-81:
“Rather like Mrs Gamp's imaginary friend Mrs Harris in Charles Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit, Mrs Long is a barometer for Mrs Bennet's feelings. Mrs Long never actually appears or speaks within the novel, but, as a woman with nieces to be married off, she is both rival and fellow-sufferer  to Mrs. Bennet. It is Mrs. Long who gives the first news of Mr. Bingley’s arrival in the neighbourhood. When Elizabeth suggests that Mrs. Long could introduce them all to Bingley (since it appears that Mr. Bennet will not), Mrs. Bennet crossly replies: “I  do not believe Mrs. Long will do any such thing. She has two nieces of her own. She is a selfish, hypocritical woman, and I have no opinion of her.” Later, however, when Jane is sure of Mr. Bingley, Mrs. Long becomes ‘as good a creature as ever lived—and her nieces are very pretty behaved girls, and not at all handsome: I like them prodigiously.”

I applaud Susannah’s insight—even though she could not imagine Jane Austen as having actually intended Mrs. Long to be an imaginary friend of Mrs. Bennet, her analysis fits perfectly with my claim that JA did exactly that sort of audacious authorial legerdemain. And look at how perfectly it fits with my seeing Mrs. Bennet’s personified nerves! Mrs. Bennet thus seems a primordial Mr. Woodhouse, who is prone to hypochondria, and who pops Mrs. Long out of her huswife every time she has psychic need of either a convenient villain, or a convenient angel, exactly as Mr. Woodhouse does with Mr. Perry, and exactly as Mrs. Smith does with Nurse Rooke.

And….now I see an even better explanation for why Kitty Bennet coughs sarcastically in Chapter 1. It’s not merely, as was my last interpretation, that she is tired of hearing her parents go through the motions of their unpleasant squabbling—it’s that Kitty is saying, via her coughing, that Mrs. Long does not actually exist!

And now, savor the exquisite hidden humor of the following exchange in Chapter 5, when you think about Mrs. Long as not being real:

“…Mrs. Long told me last night that he sat close to her for half-an-hour without once opening his lips."
"Are you quite sure, ma'am?—is not there a little mistake?" said Jane. "I certainly saw Mr. Darcy speaking to her."
"Aye—because she asked him at last how he liked Netherfield, and he could not help answering her; but she said he seemed quite angry at being spoke to."
"Miss Bingley told me," said Jane, "that he 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."
"I do not mind his not talking to Mrs. Long," said Miss Lucas, "but I wish he had danced with Eliza."

After Chapter 5, we don’t hear about Mrs. Long again till Chapters 49 & 50! And when we do, again, it is Mrs. Bennet who is our informant. So, again, kudos to Susannah Fullerton for adding a third imaginary friend to JA’s roster!

And re the reference to Dickens’s Sairie Gamp, with her imaginary friend Mrs. Harris, I had first become aware of that colorful character in 2008 via Google. But…in contrast to Jane Austen’s incredibly subtle depiction of imaginary friends, as I’ve described, as to whom Jane Austen’s authorial tact would never permit her to be so heavy-handed as to be in any way explicit about it, look at what Dickens wrote not that long after Mrs. Harris is first mentioned by Sairie:

“At this point she was fain to stop for breath, and advantage may be taken of the circumstance to state, that a fearful mystery surrounded this lady of the name of HARRIS, whom no one in the circle of Mrs. Gamp's acquaintance had ever seen, neither did any human being know her place of residence, though Mrs. Gamp appeared on her own showing to be in constant communication with her. There were conflicting rumors on the subject ; but the prevalent opinion was that she was a phantom of Mrs. Gamp's brain—as Messrs. Doe and Roe are fictions of the law—created for the express purpose of holding visionary dialogues with her on all manner of subjects, and invariably winding up with a compliment to the excellence of her nature.”

It’s embarrassingly heavy-handed, treating readers like simpletons who might miss the trick. That’s why, after becoming so familiar with Jane Austen’s novels, I can never think of Dickens as being in her  league—whether it was a lack of nerve, or tact, or taste, Dickens was clearly not writing for the sharp elves who have the ingenuity to figure out if a character is imaginary or not. Whereas Jane Austen’s integrity and tact was impeccable in every word she wrote, and her imaginary friends hide in plain sight, where they belong.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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