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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Prideandpreju -diedie or -dice? – Jane Austen’s magnificent double mystery & quadruple coincidence

In Janeites and AustenL, Diana Birchall wrote: “…Why Bingley chooses to look at a property in Hertfordshire, however, is still an enigma to me.  He hares down to Hertfordshire on an "accidental recommendation"?

Diana, that excellent question is only the visible tip of a much more massive question about “accident” in P&P, a question which I have posed several times (although I am not the first Janeite to ever ask it):

Why do three different young, single men (Darcy, Collins, and Wickham) --- the latter two of whom are within only two degrees of separation of the first ---- seemingly independently and accidentally, within the very short span of 6 weeks (and two of them on consecutive days!),  converge not only on the country town of Meryton; but, much more specifically, ALL of them promptly begin to woo Eliza Bennet --- who just happens to be not only a distant cousin of Collins, but also a favorite niece of Mrs. Gardiner …..who is herself also within two degrees of separation of Darcy!

To be more precise, using Ellen’s calendar for P&P:   First Mr. Darcy arrives (Sept. 29); then Mr. Collins (Nov. 18); and then Mr. Wickham (Nov. 19) – and then Mrs. Gardiner arrives (Dec. 23) for the first time in a long while.

Now, we all know that Jane Austen was famous for her meticulous authorial concern with plausibility and probability in her story telling. So…which of the following two explanations for the above-described quadruple coincidence do you find to be more plausible and probable ?:


ONE: Jane Austen took an expedient, hack-writer’s strategy of creating a fictional world in which such an improbable coincidence occurs, and then counted on her readers NOT noticing, and being disturbed by, that hack-like improbability; all so as to provide a scaffold for her intricate plot, in which this elaborate  pre-existing dense interconnectedness among several key characters provides the perfect scaffold for a cascade of ironic reverberations---like so many plot dominoes falling one after the other---to bring about an astonishingly powerful climax.


TWO: Jane Austen meant for her alert readers to realize that there was a simple alternative explanation – which is that these four arrivals are not independent, accidental, or coincidental, but are instead evidence that most or all of these arrivals are the intentional result of one or more of the other arrivals; and that there is something about the Bennet family, and Elizabeth in particular, that is acting like a powerful flame drawing male moths from all parts of England; and …the very plausible reason why we don’t know about the intentions of those three suitors is that we see the story almost entirely through the eyes of Elizabeth Bennet, who is clueless about the intentions of those other characters, who are in fact actively concealing them from her. And, viewed through this alternative lens, there is a different, but equally powerful, cascade of falling plot dominoes, providing an equally powerful, but differently understood, climax.

Here is the post I wrote 2 years ago in which I suggest that the flame which burns so brightly in Eliza has everything to do with her being “not one-and-twenty”:

I personally much prefer Explanation TWO for a couple of reasons. First, it ascribes to JA a deception of her readers which she hopes they will see through, not one she hopes they won’t notice. In JA’s own famous words, she hopes we will not be “dull elves”. A deception never debriefed would, I think you’ll agree, be both less authorially ethical and less aesthetically impressive.

Second, Explanation TWO turns Pride & Prejudice into (as per P.D. James) a detective story without a murder, written 3 years before Emma, but in which the mystery is much less discernible than in Emma, hence it has not attracted all the speculation that Emma has. And third, for me it makes it even more tantalizing as a mystery, because there are two stages of mystery to be solved—first, to realize that there is a mystery, and second, to solve it!

I am reminded in that third and last regard of two strong extratextual analogies:

First: the most challenging—and satisfying—NY Times crossword puzzles are those in which there is an outside-the-box trick underlying the entire puzzle, the existence of which is often not even disclosed to the solver. A recent elegant example of this was the Thursday December 17, 2016 puzzle, in which there were four long answers which could only be answered properly if you first realized that the letters “DIE” needed to be filled in in each of two adjacent boxes, instead of the standard one letter per box; and second that these two 3-letter “DIE” answers required further translation, according to the trick of this particular puzzle, into “DICE”. Because, in real life, the singular of the word for the cube with #s 1 through 6 on its six sides is “DIE”, but the plural is “DICE”! And how wonderfully apt for me that the first of those long answers using this trick had this as its clue:
“1813 novel made into a 2005 film” You don’t need a trick to know that answer:  not prideandpreju---DIEDIE     but    prideandpreju---DICE!

Second, one of my favorite Agatha Christie novels is Nemesis, because in it, Miss Marple is given a double mystery to solve by the cryptic instructions posthumously left for her by an eccentric, good-hearted millionaire: she must first figure out what the mystery is, and then she must solve it—and of course Miss Marple does both, in her swan song! I believe this was the ultra-sly Agatha Christie’s way of telling her alert readers that her mysteries, which made her billions of dollars, are much more than commercial mysteries, but also have deeper artistic structure not dreamt of in the philosophy of most of her fans.

So….getting back to P&P---which sort of authorial legerdemain do you prefer, ONE or TWO? I’d hate to think of Jane Austen as using a hack-writer’s strategy, however brilliantly it was executed, in order to write a successful novel. The Jane Austen I’ve come to know had bigger fish to fry, and chose option TWO, because it was a deception with the goal of enlightening her readers, by provoking receptive readers to develop their skills at seeing beneath the surface of novels, and by extension, of life. Or, as Elizabeth Bennet put it:

“We all love to instruct, but though we can teach only what is not worth knowing. Forgive me; and if you persist in indifference, do not make me your confidante."

I say that Jane Austen dearly wished for her readers not to be indifferent to the confidences she entrusted to us, and thereby to learn what was very much worth knowing—that everyday life is an endless succession of mysteries to be solved, and we must all aspire to be Miss Marples.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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