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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Jane Austen’s profoundly “light, bright & sparkling” (Biblical) subtext in Pride & Prejudice

While discussing my recent aggregation of 20 posts at my blog, all about the shadow Darcy…
…Diane Reynolds just pointed out to me the following remarkable (and as it turns out, highly significant)  word/name game played by Jane Austen in P&P:

“Wickham as Wick--or Light (as in candlewick) and Darcy as Dark--making the c hard.”

While I have previously written about that “dark Darcy” wordplay, and I have also previously noted the name “Wickham” as a play on the word “wicked” (there are three references to “wickedness” in P&P, and they all relate to Wickham), Diane is the first to pick up on the much more subtle, compound clue of “Wickham” as candle “wick” giving “light” in contrast to “Darcy” as “dark” shadowy character. The rest of this post is all about the fruitful implications of Diane’s insight.

First, while my quick word search of P&P came up empty for the words “wick” and “candle”, n P&P, Diane’s observation nonetheless instantly reminded me of something else-something I first found in 2006, and which I’ve written about several times since---Jane Austen’s veiled allusion to Paul’s famous warning about false christs who appear to be “angels of light” in 2 Corinthians 11:

“…For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him. For I suppose I was not a whit behind the very chiefest apostles. But though I be rude in speech, yet not in knowledge; but we have been throughly made manifest among you in all things….For such [are] false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ.  And no marvel; FOR SATAN HIMSELF IS TRANSFORMED INTO AN ANGEL OF LIGHT. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works….”

In 2006, I was led to that Biblical passage by a Google search, prompted by my curiosity to know if there was a literary allusion hidden in that striking turn of phrase in the following narrative comment about Wickham’s abrupt fall from grace in the Meryton gossip mill in the latter third of the novel….
“All Meryton seemed striving to blacken the man, who, but three months before, had been almost an ANGEL OF LIGHT.”
…as I connected that passage back to Lydia’s letter to Kitty:
“I am going to Gretna Green, and if you cannot guess with who, I shall think you a simpleton, for there is but one man in the world I love, and HE IS AN ANGEL.”

When I checked in 2006, I was very surprised to find that there was only one other Austen scholar who had ever noted this veiled allusion in P&P. After all, a lot of people had surely repeatedly read both Corinthians and P&P before 2006. But it was only David L. Jeffrey, in his 1992 Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature who picked up on it before me.

What was really sad, but as I now recognize has been all too common in Austen studies for nearly two centuries now, was that Prof. Jeffrey---apparently subscribing to a minimizing stereotype of Jane Austen as an ignorant and unsophisticated female author who didn’t know classic literature in a scholarly way---simply assumed that JA had entirely missed the allusive significance of that phrase, and had therefore used it unwittingly in a clichéd way!

Here is the relevant part of his entry for “Angel of Light”, ending with his clueless analysis of JA’s usage of same:       
“In literary terms the ‘angel of light’ becomes synonymous with the clever tempter (or temptress). In Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, when a prostitute wishes to claim from the wrong Antipholus a promised gold chain, he tells his servant Dromio that she is the devil himself…”Nay, she is worse, she is the devil's dam; and here she comes in the habit of a light wench: and thereof comes that the wenches say 'God damn me;' that's as much to say 'God make me a light wench.' It is written, they appear to men like angels of light: light is an effect of fire, and fire will burn; ergo, light wenches will burn. Come not near her.” (4.3.50-56).
For William Cowper, the false courtier “whose trade it is to smile, to crouch, to please; In smooth dissimulation, skilled to grace, A devil’s purpose with an angel’s face” (Table Talk, 128-130) is such an “angel”….The term becomes clichéd before the end of the century, as when Jane Austen, misplacing the original pejorative association, writes in P&P (chap. 48) ”All Meryton seemed striving to blacken the man, who, but three months before, had been almost an angel of light.”  END QUOTE FROM JEFFREY

I mean, really, talk about being tone-deaf to Jane Austen’s irony! That has to be one of the most egregious examples I have seen, and I’ve seen a lot of them!

In any event, what I see in 2015, prompted by Diane’s brilliant and pregnant insight, is a whole additional layer of wordplay and meaning anchored by that veiled Corinthians allusion to Paul’s Satanic “angels of light”. In a nutshell, I maintain that in the shadow story of P&P, Mr. Darcy, as the ultimate Satanic manipulator, tricks Elizabeth, via a stage-managed performance by his minions at Pemberley, and vis a vis his apparent rescue of the Bennet family from the Wickham-Lydia fracas, into flipflopping her perception of him from a “dark” (malevolent) man to a “light” (benevolent) one. 

And one way Jane Austen subliminally cues the reader into this transformation of Darcy into a good angel, and Wickham into a bad one, is via her repeated usage of the word “light” in the following quoted passages in P&P.

In most of these instances, these usages pertain very specifically to the character of Darcy, as you will see in the following excerpts from P&P which I just collected. I’ve also added in the passages which include the words “bright” and “sparkling”, because I now also realize that JA’s famous description of P&P in her letter to Cassandra as being “rather too light, bright, and sparkling-it wants shade” is actually itself an alert—it warned Cassandra to look for the words “light”, “bright” and “sparkling” in the novel---because each of those words just happens to be used in P&P to refer to the “eyes” of a Bennet female—but far more important, JA’s clever usage of the word “light” illuminates much more, as you will see, below!

“But no sooner had [Darcy] made it clear to himself and his friends that [Eliza] hardly had a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of HER DARK EYES. To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be LIGHT and pleasing…”

That last part about Eliza’s “figure” being “light and pleasing” is especially troubling when we lay it alongside Dromio’s angry reference to “light wenches” who “will burn” --- it suggests to the learned reader that Elizabeth is a prostitute who will burn at the stake!

And here are three passages which all refer to the brightness of Lizzy’s eyes and appearance:

"I am afraid, Mr. Darcy," observed Miss Bingley in a half whisper, "that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of HER FINE EYES."
"Not at all," he replied; "they were BRIGHTENED by the exercise."

[Sir William] “…You will not thank me for detaining you from the bewitching converse of that young lady, whose BRIGHT EYES are also upbraiding me."
The latter part of this address was scarcely heard by Darcy…”

[Darcy] could even listen to Sir William Lucas, when he complimented him on carrying away the BRIGHTEST jewel of the country, and expressed his hopes of their all meeting frequently at St. James's, with very decent composure.

There are also two passages which refer to the “sparkling” eyes of Mrs. Bennet when she hears about prospective wealthy suitors for her daughters!

Getting to the nitty-gritty, pretty much all of the following passages use the word “light” in the very specialized meaning of illumination of character. By these several repetitions of variations on this theme, Jane Austen subliminally brings home that Lizzy’s view of Darcy moves from a “disgraceful” light to an “amiable” light, and she even begins to imagine Darcy’s view of her as “disgraceful”!:

Jane: "...My dearest Lizzy, do but consider in what A DISGRACEFUL LIGHT it places Mr. Darcy, to be treating his father's favourite [Wickham] in such a manner, one whom his father had promised to provide for...."

Jane: "...By supposing such an affection, you make everybody [including Darcy] acting unnaturally and wrong, and me most unhappy. Do not distress me by the idea. I am not ashamed of having been mistaken—or, at least, it is LIGHT, it is nothing in comparison of what I should feel in thinking ill of him or his sisters. Let me take it IN THE BEST LIGHT, IN THE LIGHT in which it may be understood."

Elizabeth: "Oh! no, my regret and compassion are all done away by seeing you so full of both. I know you will do him such ample justice, that I am growing every moment more unconcerned and indifferent. Your profusion makes me saving; and if you lament over him much longer, my heart will be as LIGHT as a feather."
Jane: "Poor Wickham! there is such an expression of goodness in his countenance! such an openness and gentleness in his manner!"
Elizabeth: "…The general prejudice against Mr. Darcy is so violent, that it would be the death of half the good people in Meryton to attempt to place him in AN AMIABLE LIGHT. I am not equal to it. Wickham will soon be gone; and therefore it will not signify to anyone here what he really is...."

Mrs. Reynolds: "He is the best landlord, and the best master," said she, "that ever lived; not like the wild young men nowadays, who think of nothing but themselves. There is not one of his tenants or servants but will give him a good name. Some people call him proud; but I am sure I never saw anything of it. To my fancy, it is only because he does not rattle away like other young men." "In what AN AMIABLE LIGHT does this place him!" thought Elizabeth. ....On reaching the spacious lobby above they were shown into a very pretty sitting-room, lately fitted up with greater elegance and LIGHTNESS than the apartments below...

[Eliza] was overpowered by shame and vexation. Her coming there was the most unfortunate, the most ill-judged thing in the world! How strange it must appear to [Darcy]! In what A DISGRACEFUL LIGHT might it not strike so vain a man!

The respect created by the conviction of [Darcy’s] valuable qualities, though at first unwillingly admitted, had for some time ceased to be repugnant to her feeling; and it was now heightened into somewhat of a friendlier nature, by the testimony so highly in his favour, and bringing forward his disposition in SO AMIABLE A LIGHT, which yesterday had produced.

All Meryton seemed striving to BLACKEN the man [Wickham] who, but three months before, had been almost an ANGEL OF LIGHT [It has long been recognized.

But to live in ignorance on such a point was impossible; or at least it was impossible not to try for information. Mr. Darcy had been at her sister's wedding. It was exactly a scene, and exactly among people, where he had apparently least to do, and least temptation to go. Conjectures as to the meaning of it, rapid and wild, hurried into her brain; but she was satisfied with none. Those that best pleased her, as placing his conduct IN THE NOBLEST LIGHT, seemed most improbable.
"I am sorry, exceedingly sorry," replied Darcy, in a tone of surprise and emotion, "that you have ever been informed of what may, IN A MISTAKEN LIGHT, have given you uneasiness. I did not think Mrs. Gardiner was so little to be trusted."

And I conclude this post with the observation that, in the shadow story of P&P, which depicts the radical transformation (during the last half of the novel) of Lizzy’s view of Darcy from “dark” to “light”, we are seeing exactly the same sort of transformation that Paul warned the Corinthians about when he wrote:

For such [are] false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ.  And no marvel; FOR SATAN HIMSELF IS TRANSFORMED INTO AN ANGEL OF LIGHT. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works….”

And those ministers of the Satanic Darcy include Mrs. Reynolds and Mr. Gardiner!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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