(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Charlotte Lucas’s gift of luck to the Bennets atones for her mother’s gifts of bad luck to Eliza & Jane

 My last post…  …was about my recent epiphany that, in the shadow story, Lady Lucas is the offstage Borachio of Pride & Prejudice. To recap, I realized that Charlotte’s mother spreads rumors (in Colonel Fitzwilliam’s words, “strong objections”) about Jane Bennet’s unchastity. Unknown to Eliza, and therefore also the reader, these rumors find their way to Darcy’s ears, where they play a key role in justifying Darcy’s decision to abruptly whisk Bingley away from Jane.

The catalyst to my realization was the short speech, right after the Meryton assembly, spoken in response to Mrs. Bennet’s boast about Bingley’s interest in Jane, by an unnamed speaker:    "Upon my word! Well, that is very decided indeed—that does seem as if—but, however, it may all come to nothing, you know."

I first deduced this to be Lady Lucas speaking, and then I flashed on the likelihood that Lady Lucas was speculating that Bingley’s infatuation with Jane “may all come to nothing”, and also issuing a veiled warning that she was ready, if further provoked, to use her skill in the dark art of slander, to fulfill that prediction!

Today, I’ll follow up with additional textual clues I’ve culled from the full breadth of P&P, which collectively make clear that Jane Austen took great care to subliminally portray Lady Lucas as someone with the motive, ability, AND opportunity to put the kibosh on Jane and Bingley. And finally I will step back and explain why I now see Charlotte Lucas’s masterful manipulations that bring Darcy and Eliza together as her neutralizing the nefarious actions of her own mother!

To begin: right before the Meryton assembly, in Chapter 3 we read the following about Lady Lucas’s predilection to rumor-spreading, and how attentive Mrs. Bennet is to Lady Lucas’s gossip:

“Mr. Bingley was obliged to be in town the following day, and, consequently, unable to accept the honour of their invitation, etc. Mrs. Bennet was quite disconcerted. She could not imagine what business he could have in town so soon after his arrival in Hertfordshire; and she began to fear that he might be always flying about from one place to another, and never settled at Netherfield as he ought to be. Lady Lucas quieted her fears a little by starting the idea of his being gone to London only to get a large party for the ball; and a report soon followed that Mr. Bingley was to bring twelve ladies and seven gentlemen with him to the assembly. The girls grieved over such a number of ladies, but were comforted the day before the ball by hearing, that instead of twelve he brought only six with him from London—his five sisters and a cousin. And when the party entered the assembly room it consisted of only five altogether—Mr. Bingley, his two sisters, the husband of the eldest, and another young man.”

And then, four chapters after the debriefing of the Meryton assembly in which Lady Lucas makes her suspicious prediction, we read Mrs. Bennet crowing about Jane’s chances with Bingley, and, for the first time, making explicit the rivalry between herself and Lady Lucas in getting daughters married, when she responds to Mr. Bingley’s innocent, polite question:

"Did Charlotte dine with you?"
"No, she would go home. I fancy she was wanted about the mince-pies. For my part, Mr. Bingley, I always keep servants that can do their own work; my daughters are brought up very differently. But everybody is to judge for themselves, and the Lucases are a very good sort of girls, I assure you. It is a pity they are not handsome! Not that I think Charlotte so very plain—but then she is our particular friend."
"She seems a very pleasant young woman."
"Oh! dear, yes; but you must own she is very plain. Lady Lucas herself has often said so, and envied me Jane's beauty. I do not like to boast of my own child, but to be sure, Jane—one does not often see anybody better looking.”

Ouch! In regard to that “cold war” between the two mothers/neighbors, I found a really interesting Janeites post by Iveta Hagelis (Iveta, still reading along in Janeites?), from way back in 2002:

“…in the 1940's Olivier/Garson version of P&P there is a scene that is not even in the novel…at the very beginning—the carriage race between Mrs. Bennett and Mrs. Lucas. Each woman wants to be the first to hightail it home with the news about Mr. Bingley. Presumably the husband of the winner would then be the first to arrange that all-important first visit…I love this scene…Here the screenwriter successfully conveyed the desperation and competition of the mothers of unmarried daughters in the neighborhood. The comedy and idiocy of the moment brought the whole first section of the book to life....”

What I take from Huxley’s added scene is another, metaphorical layer. I.e., Huxley not only created a  plausible, literal carriage race that works as Iveta describes, he also created a metaphor for the rivalry itself, which in the novel is expressed only in words. And…Huxley perhaps was also playfully reminding knowledgeable Janeites of another Austenian racing brag ---John Thorpe’s boasting about fast driving of his gig in NA—we can only imagine who’d remain standing if Thorpe and Mrs. Bennet had a bragging duel!

Moving along…. At the Netherfield ball, Elizabeth feels the same sort of embarrassment that her father’s public humiliation of Mary provokes immediately thereafter, when she is forced to witness her mother crowing unendingly over the lifeless body (metaphorically speaking) of her apparently defeated rival, Lady Lucas, the way Achilles abuses the body of the vanquished Hector:

“As Elizabeth had no longer any interest of her own to pursue, she turned her attention almost entirely on her sister and Mr. Bingley; and the train of agreeable reflections which her observations gave birth to, made her perhaps almost as happy as Jane. She saw her in idea settled in that very house, in all the felicity which a marriage of true affection could bestow; and she felt capable, under such circumstances, of endeavouring even to like Bingley's two sisters. Her mother's thoughts she plainly saw were bent the same way, and she determined not to venture near her, lest she might hear too much. When they sat down to supper, therefore, she considered it a most unlucky perverseness which placed them within one of each other; and deeply was she vexed to find that her mother was talking to that one person (LADY LUCAS) freely, openly, and of nothing else but her expectation that Jane would soon be married to Mr. Bingley. It was an animating subject, and Mrs. Bennet seemed incapable of fatigue while enumerating the advantages of the match. 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; and lastly, it was so pleasant at her time of life to be able to consign her single daughters to the care of their sister, that she might not be obliged to go into company more than she liked. It was necessary to make this circumstance a matter of pleasure, because on such occasions it is the etiquette; but no one was less likely than Mrs. Bennet to find comfort in staying home at any period of her life. She concluded with many good wishes that Lady Lucas might soon be equally fortunate, though evidently and triumphantly believing there was no chance of it.
In vain did Elizabeth endeavour to check the rapidity of her mother's words, or persuade her to describe her felicity in a less audible whisper…Nothing that she could say, however, had any influence. Her mother would talk of her views in the same intelligible tone. Elizabeth blushed and blushed again with shame and vexation..At length, however, Mrs. Bennet had no more to say; and Lady Lucas, who had been long yawning at the repetition of delights which she saw no likelihood of sharing, was left to the comforts of cold ham and chicken.”

I quoted at length from that passage, because I want you to register that Jane Austen lays it on very thick at this moment in the story, precisely so as to show us how much enraged humiliation Lady Lucas must be feeling toward Mrs. Bennet, which no amount of cold ham and chicken could dispel! I suggest that is precisely when Lady Lucas remembers her prediction way back in Chapter 5, and immediately floats the rumor about Jane that blasts her prospects with Bingley for half the novel.

What goes around comes around, as they say, and that is exactly what Mrs. Bennet experiences a few chapters later, in Chapter 25, when the damage from Lady Lucas’s stealth attack is already done, and Mrs. Bennet—no fool, she---shows the knowing reader that she understands exactly who was behind it:

"I do not blame Jane," [Mrs. Bennet] continued, "for Jane would have got Mr. Bingley if she could. But Lizzy! Oh, sister! It is very hard to think that she might have been Mr. Collins's wife by this time, had it not been for her own perverseness. He made her an offer in this very room, and she refused him. The consequence of it is, that Lady Lucas will have a daughter married before I have, and that the Longbourn estate is just as much entailed as ever. The Lucases are very artful people indeed, sister. They are all for what they can get. I am sorry to say it of them, but so it is. It makes me very nervous and poorly, to be thwarted so in my own family, and to have neighbours who think of themselves before anybody else. However, your coming just at this time is the greatest of comforts, and I am very glad to hear what you tell us, of long sleeves."

Do any of the film adaptations of P&P pick up on this no-holds-barred but never-openly-acknowledged battle between Lady Lucas and Mrs. Bennet? I don’t think so. What I recall is that we see Mrs. Bennet as an absurd stick-figure caricature of Stupidity, and Lady Lucas hardly at all. Whereas my above analysis shows you that Jane Austen has been constructing a nuanced, complex dynamic between these two mothers, driven to desperation and deception by the absurd cruelty of primogeniture and denial of basic legal rights to women in general. War is hell, and I say Lady Lucas has shown no mercy to Mrs. Bennet. But, as P&P is a comic novel, Lady Lucas does not ultimately prevail—and the reason she doesn’t is… her own daughter rights the wrong Lady Lucas did to the Bennet family!  Read on for more…

A good deal later, in Chapter 39, when Jane and Eliza return home from their trips, we read Lady Lucas visiting Longbourn and, we might guess, secretly gloating over Mrs. Bennet:

“Their reception at home was most kind. Mrs. Bennet rejoiced to see Jane in undiminished beauty; and more than once during dinner did Mr. Bennet say voluntarily to Elizabeth:
"I am glad you are come back, Lizzy."
Their party in the dining-room was large, for almost all the Lucases came to meet Maria and hear the news; and various were the subjects that occupied them: Lady Lucas was inquiring of Maria, after the welfare and poultry of her eldest daughter…

This gets even worse by Chapter 47, the peak of the Lydia crisis---so bad that even Lizzy, who felt badly for the down-and-out Lady Lucas in Chapter 18, has now reversed her attitude toward Charlotte’s mother-and that’s even with Lizzie not having any clue that Lady Lucas was the Prime Mover behind the Bennet families’ woes:

“And Lady Lucas has been very kind; she walked here on Wednesday morning to condole with us, and offered her services, or any of her daughters', if they should be of use to us."
"She had better have stayed at home," cried Elizabeth; "perhaps she meant well, but, under such a misfortune as this, one cannot see too little of one's neighbours. Assistance is impossible; condolence insufferable. Let them triumph over us at a distance, and be satisfied."

By Chapter 54, the storm has broken, the clouds dispersed, and the sun beginning to shine again on the Bennet family. Yet, Mrs. Bennet has not forgiven or forgotten Lady Lucas’s earlier attack:

“Mrs. Bennet had designed to keep the two Netherfield gentlemen to supper; but their carriage was unluckily ordered before any of the others, and she had no opportunity of detaining them.
"Well girls," said she, as soon as they were left to themselves, "What say you to the day? I think every thing has passed off uncommonly well, I assure you. The dinner was as well dressed as any I ever saw. The venison was roasted to a turn—and everybody said they never saw so fat a haunch. The soup was fifty times better than what we had at the Lucases' last week…

And then in the next chapter, Mrs. Bennet takes HER revenge on Lady Lucas—see if you can detect it, at the very end of this passage, after Jane and Eliza rejoice:

"I am certainly the most fortunate creature that ever existed!" cried Jane. "Oh! Lizzy, why am I thus singled from my family, and blessed above them all! If I could but see you as happy! If there were but such another man for you!"
"If you were to give me forty such men, I never could be so happy as you. Till I have your disposition, your goodness, I never can have your happiness. No, no, let me shift for myself; and, perhaps, if I have very good luck, I may meet with another Mr. Collins in time."
The situation of affairs in the Longbourn family could not be long a secret. Mrs. Bennet was privileged to whisper it to Mrs. Phillips, and she ventured, without any permission, to do the same by all her neighbours in Meryton.
The Bennets were speedily pronounced to be the luckiest family in the world, though only a few weeks before, when Lydia had first run away, they had been generally proved to be marked out for misfortune.”

Did you pick up on that “without any permission”? That is the wicked hint that “all her neighbours” means, most of all, Lady Lucas! But is that the end of the subplot of Lady Lucas v. Mrs. Bennet?

Not by a long shot! Check out this passage in Chapter 57, which contains the most visible, often-questioned crux in all of JA’s novels, in Mr. Bennet’s description of Mr. Collins’s letter:

"From Mr. Collins! and what can he have to say?"
"Something very much to the purpose of course. He begins with congratulations on the approaching nuptials of my eldest daughter, of which, it seems, he has been told by some of the good-natured, gossiping Lucases. I shall not sport with your impatience, by reading what he says on that point. “

It has been my position for the past 11 years that in the shadow story of P&P, it is Charlotte Lucas who fabricates the false rumor that Eliza and Darcy are engaged, precisely so that Mr. Collins will run to tell Lady Catherine, who will run to try to intimidate both Darcy and Eliza, and thereby, by a boomerang effect, bring the two confused lovers together.

Today, I see the true bookend of that secret subtextual thread---I now believe that Lady Lucas, having had to once again endure Mrs. Bennet’s gloating about Jane in Chapter 54, and recognizing that it was now too late to prevent Bingley from marrying Jane, decides to take her final shot at causing courtship chaos for Mrs. Bennet, by attempting to bring the wrath of Lady Catherine down on Eliza. There must be some reason why Darcy has shown up at Longbourn, but perhaps he’s on the fence, and therefore might be pushed off by the right rumor. After all, Lady Lucas had succeeded once already in passing on a successfully destructive rumor about a Bennet girl, why not try to do it again?

But here’s the most exquisite irony—I say that Charlotte, whom her mother attempts to use as a conduit to pass the false rumor on to Lady Catherine, actually recognizes her mother’s ill intent, but nonetheless passes the false rumor on anyway. Why? Because Charlotte knows human nature much better than her mother does, and recognizes that her mother has unwittingly given Charlotte the opportunity to quietly atone for her mother’s earlier sin inflicting affliction on the Bennets, by triggering the perfect cure for it.

And there I will stop, with the promise of a further followup post in which I will show how Jane Austen the above exegesis about the War of the Mothers, by punning on the closeness of the name “Lucas” to the words “lucky” and “unlucky”!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

No comments: