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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Eavesdropping in the Netherfield Shrubbery: much noting of Pride & Prejudice’s Much Ado subtext

In 2013, I first made the case that in Chapter 10 of Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen gives us broad hints that Elizabeth has actually eavesdropped on Miss Bingley’s teasing of Darcy in the Netherfield shrubbery:

I.e., right after Caroline conjures up for Darcy the specter of Eliza’s and the Philipses’ portraits hanging on the wall at Pemberley alongside eminent Darcys, Caroline is not just being paranoid when she finds herself “in some confusion, lest they had been overheard”—it turns out that Jane Austen wants us to realize that she and Darcy have been overheard by Eliza!

How was (and still am) I so sure of this? Because:

It makes Eliza’s playful allusion to Gilpin’s famous three or four cows in a picturesque country meadow…..

Then taking the disengaged arm of Mr. Darcy, she left Elizabeth to walk by herself. The path just admitted three. Mr. Darcy felt their rudeness, and immediately said:
"This walk is not wide enough for our party. We had better go into the avenue."
But Elizabeth, who had not the least inclination to remain with them, laughingly answered:
"No, no; stay where you are. You are CHARMINGLY GROUPED, and APPEAR TO UNCOMMON ADVANTAGE. The PICTURESQUE would be spoilt by admitting a fourth. Good-bye."

much more interesting and meaningful. Why? Because then, instead of its being a random, showoffy allusion that comes out of nowhere into Lizzy’s mind, it can be seen as Eliza’s very specific, coded, riposte to Caroline’s satirical portrait-gallery scenario. I.e., Eliza slyly hints that she had indeed overheard Caroline talking trash about Lizzy and the Philips’s portraits, and Lizzy quick-wittily and aptly uses that specific overhearing, and her prior knowledge of Gilpin (showing us that Lizzy is a great reader after all, at least about art theory), to further tease Darcy about same.

In case this is not entirely clear: since Caroline’s satire was about portraits (a form of pictorial art), Lizzy channels Gilpin--of course the major authority on the picturesque in JA’s lifetime---and says, in effect, that she would not wish to “spoil” (or, to use Lady Catherine’s harsher term, “pollute”) the “picturesque” walls of Pemberley, by adding thereto her own “blowsy” portrait and that of her common aunt and uncle, which would occur were she to marry Darcy! Now, how much cleverer that makes Lizzy’s joke? A great deal!

But that’s only half of why I’m certain JA intended all of this--here’s the other half of my rationale:

If Lizzy has indeed overheard Caroline and Darcy from behind shrubbery, then this works as a strong and significant allusive echo of the two famous shrubbery eavesdropping scenes in Much Ado About Nothing, when first Benedick, and then Beatrice, are conned into believing they’re eavesdropping on the two groups of tricksters---who then “reveal” to these two gulls how much they each are (supposedly) only pretending to hate each other. And you know how that all turns out—the gulling is totally successful—and in the end, Benedick stops Beatrice’s mouth with a kiss, and the wedding bells ring for them.

Now, doesn’t this elaborate Shakespearean subtext attest to the greatness and erudition of Jane Austen, that she could come up with such a scene so light bright and sparkling on the surface, and yet so pregnant with meaning hidden beneath---and then to hide that meaning in plain sight for 2 centuries without its being detected, and yet, when it is explained, as above, it seems obvious?

Well, I’ m writing today to tell you that the above is actually only the first layer of a complex onion of allusion in P&P, that points back both to Much Ado, and also to another famous work of Europoean literature earlier than Shakespeare, one which Shakespeare himself alluded to covertly in Much Ado! Sounds absurd, I know, but if you read along with me during this series of posts, I will slowly and methodically peel back those layers, one  by one, and reveal more and more of  Austenian wonders, a true layer cake of spectacular literary allusion.

But for the rest of this post today, I want to confine myself to talking some more about the dance of wit between Darcy and Elizabeth during the first half of the novel, by identifying a continuation of the subtextual dialog between them that begins with the shrubbery passage in Chapter 10, but then continues in Chapter 11! Here’s how it goes.

Recall that Darcy, in Chapter 11 (i.e., right after the above shrubbery repartee), recounts to Lizzy and Caroline in the Netherfield salon, with excellent comic timing and cadence, the two reasons why he opted out of taking a turn about the room with them, as Caroline had teasingly invited him to do:

“…you are conscious that your figures APPEAR TO THE GREATEST ADVANTAGE in walking; if the first, I would be completely in your way, and if the second, I can admire you much better as I sit by the fire."

Did it ever occur to any of you that this was not a random bit of wit on Darcy’s part, but that it was actually Darcy’s witty response to Lizzy’s Gilpinesque witticism? Consider the parallels--we have Darcy opting out of being included in an indoors walking party, just as Lizzy has just opted out of being included in an outdoors walking party; we have Darcy picking up on Lizzy’s faux-rationale for not participating, based on the aesthetics of appearance and perspective; and in that regard, we have the close echoing of specific verbiage about “appearing to” “advantage” common to both passages, which  makes the connection completely obvious.

Once again, we have Jane Austen writing for the sharp elves, not heavy-handedly telling the reader that this is happening, just beneath the surface of the action, but showing it in a number of ways to the reader who is paying close attention and who does not underestimate JA’s skill, erudition, and trickiness.

So now we see how JA builds a chain of shadows. If we recognize this echo of Chapter 10, it tells us that it is Darcy intentionally counterthrusting in code in response to Elizabeth’s prior thrust of wit, also in code. But if we don’t recognize that Lizzy was teasing him right before, we don’t realize that he’s responding, rather than just initiating.

And if you step back and consider all of the above, isn’t this the quintessence of one of the meanings Darcy surely had in mind at Rosings when he smiled at Lizzy and said that neither of them performed to strangers? He’s saying, in effect, we’ve been speaking to each other in code for quite a while now, and don’t we seem to understand each perfectly? Except of course, as I have argued for several years now, Darcy takes this inference too far, and his believing that Lizzy has been making sexual innuendoes directed at him is a major reason why he is so shocked when she turns down his first proposal at Hunsford. But it’s all of a piece, and to miss out on this coded repartee is to lose the spiciest part of it!

To the best of my knowledge, after diligent search, the above sequential gems of subtle subtext has never previously been noticed by any Austen scholar.

And that’s just the beginning. In my next post, I will show how this coded repartee in Chapters 10 and 11, brilliant as it is, is only a warmup for the crowning touches (regarding the visual aesthetics and beauty), which are still to come much later in the novel. As you’ll see, they come to a climax when the action of the novel finally does reach Pemberley, because that is when Caroline’s satirical “prophecy” is fulfilled in topsy-turvy ironic fashion. I.e., when Lizzy gazes up at Darcy’s portrait on the wall and imagines to herself that she might have been mistress of Pemberley, she is also imagining that her own portrait might indeed have hung on its hallowed walls, and that her being there alongside Darcy and his family would have been truly “picturesque after all, she aches with regret.

But before I close today, I want to take one last, large step further outside the interpretive box, deep into the intellectual shrubbery, if you will, and suggest to you that JA decisively echoed those eavesdropping scenes in Much Ado About Nothing for one more very important reason—i.e., in order to give us a giant and shocking clue about Caroline Bingley! But what?

I say that by drawing an implicit parallel between Caroline being overheard in the Netherfield shrubbery and the tricksters intentionally allowing themselves to be overheard in Leonato’s gardens, JA not only winks to the alert reader that Eliza has overheard every word Caroline said, setting up the coded repartee I’ve described, but also that Caroline—like Shakespeare’s tricksters---deliberately allows herself to be overheard by Elizabeth!

Now, why in the world would Caroline do this??? After all, isn’t it “obvious” that she wants to marry Darcy, and therefore she repeatedly disses Eliza to him out of pure jealousy? Well, while I acknowledge that this is of course the most plausible and obvious interpretation of Caroline’s motivations, there is another plausible interpretation, within which we can see Caroline as merely playing a role, a part in a scheme of deception of which Elizabeth is completely unaware, for the purpose not of separating Lizzy from Darcy, but of provoking them to fall in love, by using reverse-psychology tactics very similar to those employed by Prospero in The Tempest. Lost in Austen suggests that Caroline is a lesbian—what if that is not just fanfic fantasy, but subtext intended by JA herself? That would fit with a Caroline Bingley who wanted to wind up living close to the woman she is attracted to---Jane Bingley?

Jane Austen would have found numerous models in Shakespeare, in addition to the Much Ado tricksters, for characters who pretend to be hostile, when they’re really not. You’ll recall that in Tempest the audience is eventually shown that Prospero has merely pretended to angrily disapprove of Miranda’s brave new world of romantic love with Ferdinand, precisely so as to provoke a boomerang effect:


And The Tempest and P&P have been connected before now. As I’ve written previously, this reverse-psychology interpretation fits perfectly with the interpretation by Aldous Huxley (of course, the author of Brave New World) of P&P in Huxley’s screenplay for the 1940 P&P1, when he depicts Lady Catherine as a covert matchmaker for Darcy & Elizabeth, deploying that same sort of reverse-psychology tactics as Prospero when she descends on Longbourn in Chapter 56.

And there I will stop for today, but give you assurance that in my coming posts I will show not only how Jane Austen was inspired by Much Ado (and that earlier literary work I haven’t yet named), but how she studied and penetrated to the subtext of those works as well, better than any scholar of her era, and in some ways better than those earlier works have ever been penetrated!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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