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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Lydia’s Fieldingesque Claims to Reputation in Pride & Prejudice

“[Wickham and Lydia] were always moving from place to place in quest of a cheap situation, and always spending more than they ought. His affection for her soon sunk into indifference; hers lasted a little longer; and in spite of her youth and her manners, she retained all the CLAIMS TO REPUTATION which her marriage had given her.”

Annotation on the above passage found by Nancy (is it Shapard’s?):  
"Being married would by itself add to a woman's  public standing, and since Wickham was a military officer, a position of prestige, Lydia would be able to assume a reasonably prominent position in society."

Nancy: “I haven't found that being a naval or military officer led to any social prestige unless one was a senior officer. Usually, it was one's family and connections that counted. It is true that being married gave one some freedom and a bit of prestige in company. Again, it depended partially on whom one married and one's own family. On the other hand, married women got away with a great deal that would be the ruination of an unmarried woman. If the husband didn't complain, others often turned a blind eye.”

Jane: “I always thought that the claim to reputation her marriage gave her referred to her ruining her reputation by running off with Wickham.

Nancy, I think it fair to say that the narrative reference to Lydia’s “claims to reputation” has been understood by most Janeites they way Jane just described, and more so—I think it is dripping with irony and sarcasm. So the annotator you quoted clearly has a tin ear for irony.

That passage is in exactly the same vein as the other passages (so characteristic of P&P in particular) in which, as Kishor Kale so aptly pointed to many years ago, the superficial appearance of authorial approval is undercut by apparent irony and sarcasm—allowing the character to damn him/herself by his/ her own words:

Mrs. Bennet: "My dear Mr. Bennet, you must not expect such girls to have the sense of their father and mother"
Mr. Bennet to Lizzy re her marrying Darcy: "If this be the case, he deserves you. I could not have parted with you, my Lizzy, to any one less worthy"
Mr. Collins re Lady Catherine: "She is the sort of woman whom one cannot regard with too much deference."

In 2010, I also pointed out the following re Lydia’s claims to reputation:

“I am reminded by all this of a prior English literary generation, which somehow JA is paying homage to---Samuel Johnson and his heart-rending Rambler pieces about prostitutes; Henry Fielding and his satirically witty raunch viewed through his frantically winking eye. I also mentioned Johnson and Fielding for another reason---they  BOTH used the phrase "claims to reputation" in material they each wrote 60 years before P&P was published, and both of which, I believe, JA likely read.”

Here is the relevant portion of the scene from Fielding’s Grub Street Opera  (1731), in which Robin, a butler, is in love with Sweetissa, a waiting-woman of strict virtue, also in love with Robin, whom Robin now mistrusts because he has been tricked by a forged letter supposedly from Sweetissa, which makes her seem to be a prostitute (and isn’t that interesting vis a vis Lydia?):

Robin. Where is my wealth, when the cabinet it was lock'd up in, is broke open and plunder'd?
Sweetissa. He's here!—love would blow me like a whirlwind to his arms, did not the string of honour pull me back—Honour, that forces more lies from the mouth of a woman, than gold does from the mouth of a lawyer.
Robin. See where she stands! the false, the perjured she. Yet guilty as she is, she would be dearer to my soul than light—did not my honour interpose—


I must part with honour, or with her—and a servant without honour, is a wretch indeed !—How happy are men of quality, who cannot lose their honour do what . they will ? — Right honour is tried in roguery, as gold is in the fire, and comes out still the fame.

AIR 50. Dame of honour.
Nice honour by a private man
With zeal must be maintained;
For soon 'tis lost, and never can
By any be regained.
But once right honourable grown,
He's then its rightful owner;
For tho' the worst of rogues he's known
He still is a man of honour.

Sweetissa. I wish I could impute this blindness of yours to love. But, alas! love would see me, not my faults; ——You see my faults, not me.
Robin. I wish it were possible to see you faultless— but alas! you are so hemm'd in with faults, one must see through them to come at you.
Sweetissa. I know of none, but loving you too well.
Robin. That may be one, perhaps, if you wear great with William.
Sweetissa. Oh Robin! if thou art resolv'd to be false, do not, I beseech thee, do not let thy malice conspire to ruin my reputation.
Robin. There, Madam, read that letter once more, then bid me be tender of your reputation, if you can –


—for virtue, like gunpowder, never makes any noise till it goes off—when you hear the report, you may be sure its gone.
Sweetissa. This is some conspiracy against me—for may the devil fetch me this instant, if ever I saw this letter before.
Robin. What! and drop it from your pocket?
Sweetissa. Oh base man!—If ever I suffer'd William to kiss me in my life, unless when we have been at questions and commands, may I never—be kiss'd while I live again. And if I am not a maid now
—may I die as good a maid as I am now.—But you shall see that I am not the only one who can receive letters, and drop them from their pockets too. There, if thou art guilty, that letter will shock thee— while innocence guards me.

AIR 51. Why will Florella.
When guilt within the bosom lies,
A thousand ways it speaks,
It stares affrighted thro' the eyes,
And blushes thro' the cheeks.
But innocence, disdaining fear,
Adorns the injur'd face,
And while the black accuser's near,
Shines forth with brighter grace.

Robin. Surprizing!—sure some little writing devil, lurks in the house. Ha! a thought hath just shot thro' my brain.—Sweetissa, if you have virtue —if you have honour—if you have humanity, answer me one question.—Did the parson ever make love to you?
Sweetissa. Why do you ask me that?
Robin. These two letters are writ by the same hand— and if they were not writ by William, they must have been by the parson —for no one else, I believe, can write or read in the house.”  END QUOTE

Regardless of Henry Austen’s patent falsehood in claiming that Jane Austen did not enjoy the raunchiness of Fielding’s fiction, this is, to me, another clear example of how closely she really did read his writing, not just Tom Jones.

And there’s more to this veiled Fielding allusion in P&P than just Lydia’s claims to reputation, but that is a topic for another day.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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