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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, May 18, 2015

“When I last saw her, she was not very PROMISING” – Jane Austen’s clever matrimonial pun

Today, in the midst of my recent closer look at various scenes in P&P involving Darcy’s letter to Eliza, in particular having to do with Wickham and Georgiana, my eye was caught for the first time by the pun I put in my above Subject Line, taken from the comments by the newly married Wickham to Eliza about Georgiana:

"I have heard, indeed, that she is uncommonly improved within this year or two. When I last saw her, she was not very PROMISING. I am very glad you liked her. I hope she will turn out well."

What pun? Think about it…..according to Darcy’s letter, when Wickham last saw Georgiana, at the last moment Georgiana backed off from eloping with Wickham—or, in other words, she was not ready to PROMISE, i.e., take her wedding vows! And that’s a punny meaning, on top of two others: Wickham intends to say that Georgiana’s character was not promising, but he also unintentionally also means that his own prospects as a fortune hunter weren’t promising for him!

That got me thinking that there must be other (less memorable) passages scattered through JA’s novels, in which she made variations on that same pun—and sure enough, she did. Here are the best ones:

In NA, Chapter 25, Eleanor and Henry wittily joke about their brother Captain Tilney’s jilting of Isabella Thorpe:

“…And how strange an infatuation on Frederick's side! A girl who, before his eyes, is violating an engagement voluntarily entered into with another man! Is not it inconceivable, Henry? Frederick too, who always wore his heart so proudly! Who found no woman good enough to be loved!"
"That is the most UNPROMISING circumstance, the strongest presumption against him. When I think of his past declarations, I give him up…..”

Indeed, it was an “unpromising” circumstance for Frederick, as his knowing siblings were well aware that their rakish career bachelor brother never intended to marry Isabella, for him every romantic liaison is “unpromising” in that sense!

In S&S, Chapters 3&4, Jane Austen’s narrator hints at Edward’s not going to propose to Elinor, before his brother proposes to Lucy, by first referring to Robert as “more promising”, and then to Edward as “unpromising”:

“But Edward had no turn for great men or barouches. All his wishes centered in domestic comfort and the quiet of private life. Fortunately he had a younger brother who was more PROMISING.
….There was, at times, a want of spirits about him which, if it did not denote indifference, spoke of something almost as UNPROMISING.”

And then, in S&S Chapter 40, Edward and Elinor are both in a state of embarrassment arising out of his having given his engagement “promise” to Lucy a while back:

“She had not seen him before since his engagement became public, and therefore not since his knowing her to be acquainted with it; which, with the consciousness of what she had been thinking of, and what she had to tell him, made her feel particularly uncomfortable for some minutes. He too was much distressed; and they sat down together in a most PROMISING state of embarrassment…..”

In P&P Chapters 18 before Bingley decamps suddenly from Meryton, we have Mrs. Bennet’s dreams of marriage “promises” for all her daughters, and then in Chapters 25 and 37, after he has left, the Bennets can only look back with stunned sadness at the sudden disappearance of Bingley’s inclination to marry Jane!:           
“His being such a charming young man, and so rich, and living but three miles from them, were the first points of self-gratulation; and then it was such a comfort to think how fond the two sisters were of Jane, and to be certain that they must desire the connection as much as she could do. It was, moreover, such a PROMISING thing for her younger daughters, as Jane's marrying so greatly must throw them in the way of other rich men…”
….But that expression of 'violently in love' is so hackneyed, so doubtful, so indefinite, that it gives me very little idea. It is as often applied to feelings which arise from a half-hour's acquaintance, as to a real, strong attachment. Pray, how violent was Mr. Bingley's love?"
"I never saw a more PROMISING inclination; he was growing quite inattentive to other people, and wholly engrossed by her. Every time they met, it was more decided and remarkable.
….How grievous then was the thought that, of a situation so desirable in every respect, so replete with advantage, so PROMISING for happiness, Jane had been deprived, by the folly and indecorum of her own family!”

In MP, we have, in Chapters 34 and 42, a darker meaning of this pun, both having to do with Sir Thomas’s sadistic, domineering campaign to coerce Fanny into marrying Henry, :

“In the evening a few circumstances occurred which he thought more PROMISING. When he and Crawford walked into the drawing-room, his mother and Fanny were sitting as intently and silently at work as if there were nothing else to care for. Edmund could not help noticing their apparently deep tranquillity.
….After being nursed up at Mansfield, it was too late in the day to be hardened at Portsmouth; and though Sir Thomas, had he known all, might have thought his niece in the most PROMISING way of being starved, both mind and body, into a much juster value for Mr. Crawford's good company and good fortune, he would probably have feared to push his experiment farther, lest she might die under the cure.”

Finally, in Emma  (this pun is absent from Persuasion), we have, in Chapters 6, 25, and 55, respectively, this pun referring to Emma’s prospects of marriage with Elton, Frank, and finally, Knightley:

“…a standing memorial of the beauty of one, the skill of the other, and the friendship of both; with as many other agreeable associations as Mr. Elton's very PROMISING attachment was likely to add.”
….“He…said he would be the best man in the world if he were left to himself; and though there was no being attached to the aunt, he acknowledged her kindness with gratitude, and seemed to mean always to speak of her with respect. This was all very PROMISING; and, but for such an unfortunate fancy for having his hair cut, there was nothing to denote him unworthy of the distinguished honour which her imagination had given him; the honour, if not of being really in love with her, of being at least very near it, and saved only by her own indifference—(for still her resolution held of never marrying)—the honour, in short, of being marked out for her by all their joint acquaintance.”
…“When first sounded on the subject, he was so miserable, that they were almost hopeless.—A second allusion, indeed, gave less pain.—He began to think it was to be, and that he could not prevent it—a very PROMISING step of the mind on its way to resignation. Still, however, he was not happy.”

That last one is the best of the three, as it was indeed a very promising step when Mr. Woodhouse began to feel resigned to the inevitability of Emma marrying Knightley…And that concludes this whirlwind tour through the most  “promising” passages in Jane Austen’s fiction!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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