As I’ve often written, I read Jane Austen’s famous supposedly self-deprecating epistolary comment to sister Cassandra in about Pride & Prejudice….“There are a few typical errors; and a ‘said he,’ or a ‘said she,’ would sometimes make the dialogue more immediately clear; but ‘I do not write for such dull elves, as have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves.’ “ ….as a total mock-humble put-on. I.e., she was broadly hinting to her sister that these ambiguities were not “errors’ at all, but were clues deliberately left by her for the benefit of the sharp elves among her readers willing and able to figure out what the clues meant, and how they might enhance understanding of the shadowy offstage events in P&P (and her other novels, too).
In this post, I will present something I discovered only today---it has turned out to be one of the most significant examples I have found, so far, of Austen’s deliberate pronoun ambiguity in P&P, in which she deliberately chose not to explicitly identify the speaker of two short, seemingly insignificant, speeches in Chapter 5 of P&P. But, when properly attributed, these two little speeches change the way we read one of the plot threads at the very heart of the unfolding of the story of P&P—and, what is more, it does so in a brilliantly Shakespearean manner, as you will also see.
Chapter 5 of Pride & Prejudice is very short, and consists entirely of the group conversation among Mrs. Bennet, her daughters, and various members of the Lucas family, as they debrief the momentous events (at least in regard to dancing and courtship) of the recent Meryton assembly. I’m going to quote nearly the entire chapter, below, to make my point. As to those speeches which have explicit speaker attribution, I will show the attributing verbiage in ALL CAPS. As to each of those speeches that do not, I’ll follow the quotations in each case with my decoding of who I think the mystery speaker is, why I think so, and why certain of these attributions are anything but trivial to a deeper understanding of the novel as a whole.
“Lady Lucas was a very good kind of woman, not too clever to be a valuable neighbour to Mrs. Bennet. They had several children. The eldest of them, a sensible, intelligent young woman, about twenty-seven, was Elizabeth's intimate friend.
That the Miss Lucases and the Miss Bennets should meet to talk over a ball was absolutely necessary; and the morning after the assembly brought the former to Longbourn to hear and to communicate. “
[The scene is set, as is the cast of characters present, notably including Lady Lucas, whom we have not met before, and who is wittily described as “not too clever to be a valuable neighbor to Mrs. Bennet”.]
"You began the evening well, Charlotte," SAID MRS. BENNET with civil self-command TO MISS LUCAS. "You were Mr. Bingley's first choice."
"Yes; but he seemed to like his second better."
[That response must be by Charlotte, whom Mrs. Bennet had explicitly addressed. It is a masterfully subtle riposte to Mrs. Bennet’s sly damning of Charlotte with faint praise. After all, to have been Bingley’s first choice as dancing partner was known to all preset to be much ado about nothing, given that Bingley thereafter zeroed in almost exclusively on the beauteous Jane. But Charlotte maintains a cool, wry detachment in her reply, as if to say, “I’m perfectly okay with Bingley’s laser focus on Jane rather than on myself. In fact, I am sincerely glad for Jane, because---as you have long suspected and insinuated, my dear Mrs. Bennet---my idea of matrimony is indeed not the same as yours or Eliza’s—in short, we both know that I am a closeted lesbian, but neither of us is going to say that out loud today in front of my mother, right?” And I have previously written several times about the clues pointing to Charlotte’s lesbian orientation: http://tinyurl.com/q5fm6yb]
"Oh! you mean Jane, I suppose, because he danced with her twice. To be sure that did seem as if he admired her—indeed I rather believe he did—I heard something about it—but I hardly know what—something about Mr. Robinson."
[Now, at first glance, that might seem to be Mrs. Bennet speaking, to whom Charlotte had just responded. But there’s a subtle backhandedness to the compliment to Jane here which doesn’t sound at all like Mrs. Bennet. Rather it must be Lady Lucas, who has reason, as I’ve just explained, to give tit for tat back at Mrs. Bennet. I.e., as Mrs. Bennet chose as her opening gambit the snarky highlighting of Charlotte’s social failure (at least as far as Lady Lucas would’ve seen it) to attract the rich bachelor Bingley beyond the obligatory first dance, and if Charlotte was not even going to defend herself against such unpleasant innuendo, then Lady Lucas was going to step up and take some petty gossipy revenge on behalf of her eldest “plain” daughter.]
"Perhaps you mean what I overheard between him and Mr. Robinson; did not I mention it to you? Mr. Robinson's asking him how he liked our Meryton assemblies, and whether he did not think there were a great many pretty women in the room, and which he thought the prettiest? and his answering immediately to the last question: 'Oh! the eldest Miss Bennet, beyond a doubt; there cannot be two opinions on that point.'"
[And there’s the proof of the pudding of my attribution of the immediately preceding speech to Lady Lucas. I.e., it dovetails perfectly with that attribution, that this followup, highly partisan pro-Jane rebuttal could only have come from the mouth of Mrs. Bennet---who, as we all know, boasts about Jane’s beauty in this very same way, every chance she gets.]
"Upon my word! Well, that is very decided indeed—that does seem as if—but, however, it may all come to nothing, you know."
[And there’s the real payoff of this exercise in parsing out the unspoken “said shes” in Chapter 5, which is why I included the end of that speech in my Subject Line. This speech must be Lady Lucas, who is just not willing to grant Mrs. Bennet a victory in the marriage sweepstakes just yet. But did you also notice how curiously and suspiciously prophetic Lady Lucas’s final comment turns out to be, given that all Janeites know that Bingley is going to abruptly decamp from Netherfield a dozen chapters later?!
It took me a second to realize that Lady Lucas’s seemingly magically prophetic words are actually a subtle clue that Lady Lucas will eventually follow up to this war of words with her neighbor Mrs. Bennet, by covertly slandering Jane, by casting a slur on Jane’s reputation that reaches the ears of Darcy, and thereby self-fulfills her own prophecy!
And here’s where Shakespeare comes into play. I’ve been writing for nearly a decade about the extensive allusions to Much Ado About Nothing in P&P, in posts such as these:
But now I realize another significant strand of that complex allusion. I.e., I see Lady Lucas as perpetrating the same slander that the villain Don John (inspired and assisted by his clever henchman Borachio) does to the chaste, modest Hero’s reputation in Much Ado About Nothing. Borachio and Don John stage a fake love tryst between “Hero” (actually Hero’s handmaid Margaret) and Borachio, the viewing of which, with Don John’s malicious, false commentary, abruptly extinguishes Claudio’s passion for Hero. In some manner, in the offstage shadows of P&P, Lady Lucas, I suggest, accomplishes this dark act.
And this interpretation also makes Darcy’s meddling in separating Bingley from Jane more rational---like Much Ado’s aristocratic prince Don Pedro, the aristocratic Darcy would have had a bona fide reason for intervening to keep his impressionable friend free from a disastrous match. And it would also fit with Colonel Fitzwilliam’s curious comment to Eliza about the “strong objections against” Jane, which made Darcy feel triumphant in separating Jane from Bingley. And, finally, it would fit perfectly with two other bits of textual evidence later in the novel, which crystallize the high stakes marital rivalry between the two mothers:
Ch. 18: “It was, moreover, such a promising thing for [Mrs. Bennet’s] younger daughters, as Jane's marrying so greatly must throw them in the way of other rich men…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.”
Ch. 23: “Lady Lucas could not be insensible of triumph on being able to retort on Mrs. Bennet the comfort of having a daughter well married; and she called at Longbourn rather oftener than usual to say how happy she was, though Mrs. Bennet's sour looks and ill-natured remarks might have been enough to drive happiness away.”
And now, back to the rest of Chapter 5…]
"My overhearings were more to the purpose than yours, Eliza," SAID CHARLOTTE. "Mr. Darcy is not so well worth listening to as his friend, is he?—poor Eliza!—to be only just tolerable."
[And there we have Charlotte abruptly changing the subject from Bingley to Darcy, and getting in a pretty good indirect zinger at Mrs. Bennet, while ostensibly addressing Eliza, by reminding Mrs. Bennet that Mrs. Bennet had a failure as well as a success on the marriage market at the Meryton Assembly. But it is also proactive on Charlotte’s part, as she is trying to goad Eliza into making Darcy realize she is much more than just tolerable!]
"I beg you would not put it into Lizzy's head to be vexed by his ill-treatment, for he is such a disagreeable man, that it would be quite a misfortune to be liked by him. Mrs. Long told me last night that he sat close to her for half-an-hour without once opening his lips."
[This is clearly Mrs. Bennet speaking again, not only from her characteristically hyperbolic word choice, calling Darcy “such a disagreeable man”, but also from having Mrs. Long as an informant—and most of all because it is something only a parent would say about a child, especially about Lizzy whom she knows well enough to know that Lizzy’s “courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate” her.]
"Are you quite sure, ma'am?—is not there a little mistake?" SAID JANE. "I certainly saw Mr. Darcy speaking to her."
"Aye—because she asked him at last how he liked Netherfield, and he could not help answering her; but she said he seemed quite angry at being spoke to."
[And that must indeed be Mrs. Bennet again, both from context and also from the old-fashioned word “Aye”, which Mrs. Bennet uses three other times in the novel]
"Miss Bingley told me," SAID JANE, "that he never speaks much, unless among his intimate acquaintances. With them he is remarkably agreeable."
"I do not believe a word of it, my dear. If he had been so very agreeable, he would have talked to Mrs. Long. But I can guess how it was; everybody says that he is eat up with pride, and I dare say he had heard somehow that Mrs. Long does not keep a carriage, and had come to the ball in a hack chaise."
[And that again is clearly Mrs. Bennet]
"I do not mind his not talking to Mrs. Long," SAID MISS LUCAS, "but I wish he had danced with Eliza."
"Another time, Lizzy," said her mother, "I would not dance with him, if I were you."
[And here is a final ambiguous attribution that I also think tilts toward Lady Lucas. While it could plausibly be Mrs. Bennet, it is rather too mildly worded for her way of speaking, plus it contradicts Mrs. Bennet’s snarky request to Charlotte to not put the idea of Darcy’s disrespect into Eliza’s oppositional head. Whereas….this speech works very well as Lady Lucas interjecting some more sour grapes, with the goal that her “rival” in the game of getting rid of single daughters, Mrs. Bennet, not enjoy the triumph of two daughters with rich suitors, while her own sad Charlotte goes empty-handed.]
"I believe, ma'am, I may safely promise you never to dance with him."
[And this must be Eliza, responding to Lady Lucas.]
"His pride," SAID MISS LUCAS, "does not offend me so much as pride often does, because there is an excuse for it. One cannot wonder that so very fine a young man, with family, fortune, everything in his favour, should think highly of himself. If I may so express it, he has a right to be proud."
[And there we have Charlotte countering her mother’s attempt to keep Lizzy away from Darcy.]
"That is very true," REPLIED ELIZABETH, "and I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine."
[And then Mary brings the substantive portion of this gossip session to a close with her famous speech]:
"Pride," OBSERVED MARY, who piqued herself upon the solidity of her reflections, "is a very common failing, I believe….”
And I conclude today by connecting my outing of Lady Lucas as the secret rumor monger who nearly succeeds in permanently blackening Jane Bennet’s reputation, on the one hand, to the longstanding interpretation (first made by Kim Damstra in 1999, then inadvertently copied by John Sutherland as the title chapter of one of his literary puzzle books, and then independently rediscovered by me in 2004) that Charlotte Lucas is the mysterious rumor spreader who, via her gullible toadyish husband Mr. Collins, passes on to Lady Catherine the false rumor that Elizabeth and Darcy are engaged, on the other hand.
We all know how that turns out, except that my wrinkle on this for a number of years has been that Charlotte’s motivation in starting the dominoes falling with this rumor, was the audacious and successful goal of Eliza and Darcy winding up married at Pemberley. Why? So that Charlotte and Mr. Collins would then, thanks to Darcy’s patronage, wind up living very close by Pemberley at the Kympton parsonage. So that…Charlotte can once again be restored to living in very close proximity with the person she loves most in the world---Elizabeth! And so, with my discovery today, now I see how wonderfully ingenious Jane Austen was, to structure her shadow story so that Charlotte’s well-intentioned subterfuge turns out to be the best karma, because it is also a rectification of her mother’s ill-intentioned attempt to sabotage the Bennet girls’s marital prospects.
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter