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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, March 6, 2015

"In vain have I struggled...", "In vain I have struggled" or....."In VANITY have I struggled"?

Considering that the above-captioned sentence is one of the most memorable among Jane Austen's many memorable sentences, it surprised me today to see three things about that sentence I had not previously been aware of, and perhaps the same is true of you as well.

First, this very short sentence turns out to be one of Jane Austen's most frequently (unintentionally) misquoted sentences. If you've seen all four of the major P&P film adaptations, you may be surprised to learn, as I only did today, that it is only in one of the four that Mr. Darcy actually speaks that sentence exactly as written by JA---and it's not Colin Firth in the 1995 P&P!

Even though Firth’s performance of that scene is far and away the best and most powerful of the four, in terms of capturing the essence of Darcy's emotional struggles, and, for that matter, in terms of Jennifer Ehle's nailing Elizabeth's response, Colin Firth actually says, "In vain I have struggled". And so also do Laurence Olivier and Matthew MacFadyen invert JA's original poetic word order.

It is only David Rintoul who speaks the words in the original correct order--although Rintoul, in contrast to Firth, utterly fails to convey the swelling and bursting out of emotion that Darcy's words indicate he clearly experiences. And I also found that there have been some sloppy 20th editions of P&P (including the Project Gutenberg version I’ve long used as a convenient tool for word searching in the entire text of the novel) which have mistakenly inverted the word order as well----whether consciously done or not, it is impossible to tell for sure.

Second, and more substantively, it only occurred to me today, as I was writing the above section of this post, that Jane Austen, that inveterate punster, managed to hide a fantastically clever pun in plain sight in that sentence for over 2 centuries. As my Subject Line indicates, given the extensive attention given to Darcy's vanity in P&P, in particular, in this famous exchange of barbs between Darcy and Lizzy ....

"Perhaps that is not possible for anyone. But it has been the study of my life to avoid those weaknesses which often expose a strong understanding to ridicule."
"Such as VANITY and pride."
"Yes, VANITY is a weakness indeed. But pride—where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation."
Elizabeth turned away to hide a smile. is a devastatingly revealing Freudian slip for Darcy to use the phrase "In vain" when "In VANITY" is what his unconscious mind is confessing in the same breath!.I.e., from the immediately following narration summarizing Darcy’s statements in support of his outburst, we learn, as Elizabeth does, that Darcy's struggles have very much been the product of his own vanity, in that he assumes that Elizabeth will just say yes to his proposal.  So this wonderfully apt but totally unintentional pun on his part, provokes an ironic smile from the reader, as we read that “he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority--of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit…. As he said this, she could easily see that he had no doubt of a favourable answer. He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance expressed real security. Such a circumstance could only exasperate farther…”

As Ecclesiastes 1 tells us: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

And Elizabeth, with her quickness on her feet, immediately takes advantage of Darcy’s unintentional revelation of his arrogant vanity, when she rejects him, and then adds, “The feelings which, you tell me, have long prevented the acknowledgment of your regard, can have little difficulty in overcoming it after this explanation." 

In other words, she takes his unintentional revelation of his own vain certainty that she would accept him, and twists it to her own rhetorical advantage, by in effect saying, “You’re so vain in your feelings of superiority toward lowly me, that you can’t possibly be upset by a lowly nobody like me saying no.”

And we can also look at Darcy’s unintentional pun as being the exact opposite of Lizzy’s favorite game, which Darcy accurately pointed out earlier, of intentionally saying things she doesn’t actually believe. In this case, Darcy unintentionally says something that reveals what he really does believe (i.e., that he is a superior person), but did not mean to reveal because it is clear to Elizabeth this his pride, at this stage of the game, is definitely NOT under good regulation when he first proposes- quite the contrary, he is blinded by vanity at that very moment!

And third, and last, relative to that famous sentence, I first became aware of the word inversion discussed in the first section of this post, above, when I came across an interesting short article in Persuasions from several years ago, entitled “ ‘In Vain Have I Struggled’: Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 34”  by John K Hale, in Persuasions Vol. 21, in which Hale, a Milton as well as an Austen scholar, and with a sharp ear for poetry, asked a very very good question:

”Why does Mr. Darcy say, “‘In vain have I struggled” and not rather “In vain I have struggled” or for
that matter “I have struggled in vain”? What is the eect, and perhaps design, of the inversion of the verb? And is the departure from the usual word-order of speech made more natural or less so by the equally unusual opening of the sentence with the adverb?”

Hale proceeded to make some pertinent observations about poetic rhythm and syntax, mostly tending to showing how the departure from ordinary word order perfectly reflects the tumult inside Darcy. And then Hale arrived at his punch line, and it is a very good one, too:

“The abruptness of syntax, the swirling rhythm it creates, the tiny shock it gives the reader as well as Elizabeth Bennet—these, though the scale and the economy are dierent, are the counterpart of the wrenching violence of the opening utterance of Milton’s Satan, “If thou beest he; but oh how fallen!how changed. . . .” [in Book One of Paradise Lost].

That is a brilliant catch on Hale’s part, and I endorse it wholeheartedly. Satan speaks those words in the aftermath of God having used his overwhelming power to cast the proud Satan and his devil legions out of heaven and down into the Stygian, dark flaming depths of Hell. After spending a Biblical week dazed and confused, Satan gets his act together and begins to rally the troops, by addressing first the loyal and steadfast Beelzebub with those words which Hale heard echoed by Darcy.

It’s very interesting to think of Darcy immediately after Elizabeth rejects his first proposal as being comparably situated to Satan immediately after being cast out of Heaven, and being shocked into realizing that he doesn’t just get his way anymore, something he blithely assumed prior thereto. Certainly we can imagine that Satan’s early years in heaven, when he was still God’s favorite angel, were sorta like Darcy’s own account of his own early years:

I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father, particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing; to care for none beyond my own family circle; to think meanly of all the rest of the world; to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, from eight to eight and twenty…”

It’s a typical sharp Austenian irony to think of the late Mr. Darcy as God, (‘my father, particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable”)!

Now….many of you will at this moment interject that there is a giant difference between Darcy and Satan, in that Darcy subsequently reacts to being cast out of “heaven” by Eliaabeth, by reforming his character, saving the day with Wickham and Lydia, correcting his meddling between Bingley and Jane, and then winning Elizabeth’s heart by showing her his reformation.

Whereas, of course, Milton’s Satan never reforms, quite the opposite . He instead resolves on getting revenge against God in a devilishly devious way---not by attacking heaven directly, but by causing trouble in paradise, by tempting and seducing God’s favorites, Adam and Eve, into sin.

But then, if you believe, as I do, that P&P has a shadow story in which Darcy never actually reforms, but only pretends to, in order to tempt and seduce Elizabeth into marrying him, then Hale’s brilliant poetic catch is unexpectedly validated in the most extraordinary way-I.e., it does appear to me that Jane Austen, by the poetic word order of Darcy’s impassioned first proposal, means to make her learned readers think of Milton’s Satan, and thereby to give another hint that the reader ought to be highly suspicious of Darcy’s apparent reformation!


In my previous post, I argued that Darcy's "In vain have I struggled" was a Freudian slip on his part, revealing an unconscious self-awareness of the role of his own vanity in his struggles over whether to propose to Elizabeth. I also picked up on Hale's suggestion that Darcy's poetic syntax may have been inspired by a similar syntax in the first speech by Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost.
Well, toss the following into the above mix, I think you'll find it blends in quite nicely. In Book 3 of Paradise Lost, in the scene where Satan begins stalking his "prey", a process which will shortly bring him to the Garden of Eden, we read a very similar punning by Milton on "vain" in its two senses of "to no avail" and "narcissistic". I'd say that this only adds to my earlier assertion that Jane Austen meant to present Darcy as a kind of Satan in his devious stalking of Elizabeth in the second half of P&P:
  So on this windie Sea of Land, the Fiend
  Walk'd up and down alone bent on his prey,
  Alone, for other Creature in this place
  Living or liveless to be found was none,
  None yet, but store hereafter from the earth
  Up hither like Aereal vapours flew
  Of all things transitorie and VAIN, when Sin
  With VANITY had filld the works of men:
  Both all things VAIN, and all who IN VAIN things

  Built thir fond hopes of Glorie or lasting fame,
  Or happiness in this or th' other life;
  All who have thir reward on Earth, the fruits
  Of painful Superstition and blind Zeal,
  Naught seeking but the praise of men, here find
  Fit retribution, emptie as thir deeds;
  All th' unaccomplisht works of Natures hand,
  Abortive, monstrous, or unkindly mixt,
  Dissolvd on earth, fleet hither, and IN VAIN,
  Till final dissolution, wander here,
  Not in the neighbouring Moon, as some have dreamd;

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


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