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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, January 30, 2015

Ill-Humour at Pemberley with Darcy’s Pens and Mrs. Hurst’s Singing

In Austen-L earlier today, Anielka Briggs wrote: "Austen's books seem to have a very clear divide in the way they use the word "humour": Emma, P&P, NA, MP and S&S are primarily about people who are in and out of humour, particular humours or in an ill-humour....whilst Persuasion is absolutely consistently filled with people who are "good-humoured"."

Anielka, your above observation piqued my interest, so I checked the six novels, and I disagree with your claim that there is a meaningful contrast between Persuasion and the other 5 novels in regard to usage of the word "humour", a word which to me seems virtually synonymous to what we in the US today would refer to as “mood”---as in being in a good mood or a bad mood, or in no mood for some activity. While you are correct that there is no reference to "ill humour' in Persuasion, only to "good humour", there is nonetheless also an overwhelming preponderance of references to "good humour" in four of the other five novels, with only a smattering of references to "ill humour" in any of them.

But…. I do believe you were onto something very interesting when you focused on references to "humour" in JA's novels--just not what you suggested. The really interesting exception to the general rule among the six novels is not Persuasion, but is instead the one Austen novel where the usages are roughly equally mixed between "good humour" and "ill humour" ---- the novel I have hinted at in my Subject Line--- Pride & Prejudice.

And what I find significant in that regard is that most of the references to "ill humour" and “no humour” in P&P are focused on just two characters; and those two characters, with classic Austenian irony, just happen to be….

(1)   Mrs. Bennet


(2) the person who is desperate to prove to herself and to the rest of the world that she is the diametric OPPOSITE of Mrs. Bennet--of course I am speaking about Mrs. Bennet's  daughter Elizabeth Bennet!

So, in that vein, check out these usages, in which Mrs. Bennet and Elizabeth are the “ill- or no- humoured” stars:

[Mrs. Bennet]  “Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good-humoured as Lydia.”

[Elizabeth] was resolved against any sort of conversation with [Darcy], and turned away with a degree of ill-humour which she could not wholly surmount even in speaking to Mr. Bingley, whose blind partiality provoked her. But Elizabeth was not formed for ill-humour; and though every prospect of her own was destroyed for the evening, it could not dwell long on her spirits

The morrow produced no abatement of Mrs. Bennet's ill-humour or ill health.

Mrs. Bennet was really in a most pitiable state. The very mention of anything concerning the match threw her into an agony of ill-humour, and wherever she went she was sure of hearing it talked of.

[Elizabeth] saw that [Wickham] wanted to engage her on the old subject of his grievances, and she was in no humour to indulge him.

Her father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her.

[Elizabeth] was in no humour for conversation with anyone but [Darcy] himself; and to him she had hardly courage to speak….Though [Elizabeth] dared not depend upon the consequence, she yet received pleasure from observing his behaviour. It gave her all the animation that her spirits could boast; for she was in no cheerful humour.   END QUOTES

But that’s just the start. I also believe that you were on the right track in suggesting a Jonsonian allusion hiding in plain sight in a JA novel—again, not Persuasion,  but (as you now expect) P&P! I.e., I suggest that the above subliminal connection of Mrs. Bennet and Lizzy to ill humour is actually part of a larger allusion to Ben Jonson’s writings in P&P, another part of  which I’ve been aware of since last year.

And I know you will like it, Anielka, because it is exactly the same kind of witty charadic wordplay equation you identified in October 2007 (Anna Weston = Anna Aweston),  the next day after I told you about Anna Weston being Jane Fairfax’s baby. Here goes.

Just as JA must have reveled in the subversive irony of making Lizzy and her mother more similar in ill humour than either would care to admit, so too must JA have delighted in the allusion (she hid in plain sight in P&P) to a very famous Jonson poem.  

I.e., it is definitely NOT a coincidence that the famous sexual innuendo about Darcy’s mending his own PENS in Chapter 10 of P&P is bracketed by references to Mrs. HURST.  Here’s why:


“Penshurst”, you probably know, is the title of the poem Jonson wrote, ostensibly as an homage to the great Kentish estate of his patron, the Earl of Leicester, but which was actually every bit as satirical and subversive as JA’s dedication of Emma to the Prince Regent, even as her charade lampooned him as the Prince of Whales. Take my word, I am not the first scholar to suggest that Jonson was being dangerously sly in his famous poem—but I believe I am the first to say that Jane Austen recognized, and emulated, Jonson’s satire, in P&P!

Here’s the crucial part two of that literary equation:


As to the connection between the “humours” allusion in P&P and the “Penshurst” allusion in P&P, check out these 2010 scholarly observations by Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr., who had no idea whatsoever that his comments had an Austenian overlay:

“the social world of Every Man Out of His Humour turns upon the (ab)use or sale of land; the play offers a reverse image of the world of “To Penshurst”….rampant commodification, for which land is the perfect emblem.
But how can land be both central to a static moral economy and the emblem of a fluid and alchemical one? We can understand this by reading Every Man Out of His Humour next to 'To Penshurst’. In the latter, land is inextricable from the web of estate-based social relations….”

What Sullivan also didn’t realize is that Jonson was covertly mocking his patron with his poem, exactly the way that the shadow story of P&P mocks Darcy as a sham benefactor. But he unwittingly shines a bright light on Austen’s emulation of Jonson.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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