Lady Catherine says some pretty darned harsh things to Elizabeth during their famous showdown in Chapter 56 of P&P, which is surely in the top five of favorite Austen novel scenes among most Janeites, and the favorite of some. Here is a sampler of the harshest words she speaks:
“Your own heart, your own conscience, must tell you why I come…I was told that not only your sister was on the point of being most advantageously married, but that you, that Miss Elizabeth Bennet, would, in all likelihood, be soon afterwards united to my nephew, my own nephew, Mr. Darcy. Though I know it must be a scandalous falsehood, though I would not injure him so much as to suppose the truth of it possible, I instantly resolved on setting off for this place, that I might make my sentiments known to you…Obstinate, headstrong girl! I am ashamed of you!...The upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune. Is this to be endured! But it must not, shall not be…You have no regard, then, for the honour and credit of my nephew! Unfeeling, selfish girl! Do you not consider that a connection with you must disgrace him in the eyes of everybody?...You are determined to ruin him in the opinion of all his friends, and make him the contempt of the world…I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet. I send no compliments to your mother. You deserve no such attention. I am most seriously displeased."
There is something in her words that remind us more of an angry mother giving a severe tongue-lashing to her own child who has done something seriously deceitful and disobedient that requires such a drastic verbal rebuke. This evening, by chance, I stumbled upon the very passage in one of the books Lady Catherine must have read in her lifetime, which prepared her for just such a moment:
“Lying is so ready and cheap a Cover for any Miscarriage, and so much in Fashion among all
Sorts of People, that a Child can hardly avoid observing the use is made of it on all Occasions, and so can scarce be kept without great Care from getting into it. But it is still a Quality, and the Mother of so many ill ones that spawn from it, and take shelter under it, that a Child should be brought up in the greatest Abhorrence of it imaginable. It should be always (when occasionally it comes to be mention d) spoke of before him with the utmost Detestation, as a Quality so wholly inconsistent with the Name and Character of a Gentleman, that no body of any Credit can bear the Imputation of a Lie; a Mark that is judg’d the utmost Disgrace, which debases a Man to the lowest Degree of a shameful Meanness, and ranks him with the most contemptible Part of Mankind and the abhorred Rascality; and is not to be endured in any one who would converse with People of Condition, or have any Esteem or Reputation in the World. The first Time he is found in a Lie, it should rather be wondered at as a monstrous Thing in him, than reproved as an ordinary Fault. If that keeps him not from relapsing, the next Time he must be sharply rebuked, and fall into the State of great Displeasure of his Father and Mother and all about him who take Notice of it. And if this Way work not the Cure, you must come to Blows; for after he has been thus warned, a premeditated Lie must always be looked upon as Obstinacy, and never be permitted to escape unpunished. “
Now, the thing is, the above passage was not taken from some run of the mill conduct book, long lost in the mists of history. No, it is from some of the most famous writing by a man who was arguably the Dr. Spock of the 18th Century: John Locke’s On Education. P&P has long been known to ordinary Janeites and Austen scholars alike as having as one of its principal themes the question of proper education. Darcy and Elizabeth famously speak about this very subject in regard to himself, and some scholars have detected the shadowy presence of Locke in the background. But it’s easy to forget that Lady Catherine weighs in very decisively on the topic of female education at Rosings:
“"No governess! How was that possible? Five daughters brought up at home without a governess! I never heard of such a thing. Your mother must have been quite a slave to your education."
Elizabeth could hardly help smiling as she assured her that had not been the case.
"Then, who taught you? who attended to you? Without a governess, you must have been neglected."
"Compared with some families, I believe we were; but such of us as wished to learn never wanted the means. We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle, certainly might."
"Aye, no doubt; but that is what a governess will prevent, and if I had known your mother, I should have advised her most strenuously to engage one….”
Of course, the reader is in such close sympathy with Elizabeth throughout the novel, but especially in that scene, that Lady Catherine’s opinions are dismissed by most Janeites as wrong-headed snobbery, at least as to Lizzy and Jane, who we think of as having come out really well despite the lack of a governess.
But we now can put Lady C’s reaction in the wilderness in a proper context. She already is suspicious of the Bennet girls having been given a seriously deficient education by their parents. And so, when she believes Elizabeth is deliberately thwarting her wishes, and is compounding her sins by lying about it to Lady Catherine’s face, her mind immediately turns to Locke’s above quoted passage, and that is why Lady C suddenly starts channeling Locke’s distinctive language!
And based on that last quoted sentence from Locke, I guess we should consider Elizabeth lucky that when Lady Catherine was unsuccessful in overpowering Lizzy verbally, she did not then attack Elizabeth for her obstinacy with any ad hoc weapon she might have laid hands on in the Longbourn wilderness!
Or perhaps Lady Catherine might have improvised, and might have sought to drag Elizabeth into her barouche, in order to keep her away from Darcy by force? Might we in fact be hearing Jane Austen having some clever punning fun in that regard some chapters earlier when Mr. Bennet speaks these fatalistic words about his own passive approach to parenting:
“Let us hope, therefore, that her being [in Brighton] may teach her her own insignificance. At any rate, she cannot grow many degrees worse, without authorising us to LOCK her up for the rest of her life."
I can hear Jane Austen laughing as she wrote the word “lock”!
And, by the way, clearly Darcy had read this section of Locke too, it is clear, as we can tell from when he says:
“But disguise of every sort is my abhorrence.”
Now, whether there is a plausible basis in the novel for determining that Darcy engages in some serious “disguise” during the novel, many of you already know my answer, but I will leave that topic for another day.
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