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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

“When is your next ball to be, Lizzy?”: Jane Austen’s dazzling dance of dialog in Pride & Prejudice

In the Janeites group, Jane Fox asked: “Kitty asks, "When is your next ball to be, Lizzy?"  Why YOUR?”

Diana Birchall replied: “But Kitty does not ask. She does not say that line at all. In the digital text version on, and possibly other such texts, the line is erroneously run together with the next, thus:
   "I do not cough for my own amusement," replied Kitty fretfully. "When is your next ball to be, Lizzy?"
 Consulting the obviously more scrupulously correct Chapman edition, the speeches run as separate paragraphs:
 "I do not cough for my own amusement," replied Kitty fretfully.
 "When is your next ball to be, Lizzy?"
"To-morrow fortnight."
 "Aye, so it is," cried her mother.  “
 The question is not attributed, but it is certainly not Kitty who calls the ball "your ball," since she will be there  herself.  It is more likely Mrs. Bennet who asks, or possibly Mr. Bennet…”

Jane, as is often the case, you posed a very interesting question. And Diana, your reply, although you did not answer Jane’s question, nonetheless was excellent because you raised an equally important, related question.  I will give my answers to both of you, below.

I begin by quoting Jane Austen’s famous letter to Cassandra in the immediate aftermath of publication of P&P:   “There are a few Typical errors–& 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.'”

I’ve argued many times that the conventional reading of that quote as an admission of carelessness on JA’s part (in not being more clear about speech attributions in P&P) is a complete misreading of what I think is an obvious irony. Jane is, to me, clearly saying, with a smile, that she writes for the sharp elves who have the ingenuity (and patience) to take the time to figure out who said what in each case --- and also the openness to the possibility that Jane might, in some cases, have deliberately ambiguated some of those speaker attributions (and, indeed, many other aspects of the novel as well).

And I also suggest that the unattributed statement that Jane Fox inquired about is only one of the first of a steady novel-long stream of such unattributed statements, which Jane Austen deliberately scattered throughout the text of P&P, for the purpose of encouraging her readers to develop the ingenuity and nimbleness to figure out who said what, and, more broadly, also the flexibility to allow for more than one plausible interpretation of what we understand, upon “first impressions”.

With all of that in mind, in this case I see only one really plausible candidate for the identity of the poser of that question to Lizzy, and it is indeed Mr. Bennet, whom Diana named as one of two possibilities, and then Jane concurred. I think it is useful to provide a detailed explanation of why he is the best choice—so as to begin to bring out how artfully Jane Austen has constructed this seemingly simple family conversation, which actually conceals layers of deliberate complexity and nuance beneath its light bright and sparkling surface.

So, I say the most likely speaker, by a wide margin, is Mr. Bennet, for the following four reasons:

ONE: He is in general one of the two principal attributed speakers in the enacted portion of this family conversation, and he takes special precedence because he is the one who starts that line of conversation,  and he is the one who finishes it;
TWO: He begins that thread of conversation with another question to Lizzy---one posed seemingly out of the blue, after observing her trimming a hat, but which we eventually see as the first setup question for springing his “Gotcha!” on his wife and daughters: "I hope Mr. Bingley will like it, Lizzy."
Therefore, “When is your next ball to be, Lizzy?” can be seen as Mr. Bennet’s second setup question in that same vein.
THREE: We also see, in this interpretation, that in response to each of Mr. Bennet’s first two questions, Mrs. Bennet predictably rises to his bait with her plaintive interjections, which is surely Mr. Bennet’s goal. He is like Perry Mason cross-examining a hostile witness on the stand, expertly raising his wife’s frustration level incrementally, all playing on the theme of his (seemingly) not having gone to meet Mr. Bingley.  
Or, more significantly (as I’ll post about in a separate post during the next week or two), he is Jane Austen’s most perfect version of Plato’s Socrates: the “true philosopher” (Mr. Bennet’s words) and greatest symbol in Western intellectual history as the poser of irritating, subversive questions which lead to truth—he’s even got his own Xanthippe—Mrs. Bennet! And this conversation is a classic Socratic dialog – complete with a sudden twist at the end which is sprung on an unsuspecting conversation partner.
FOUR: The above attribution fits perfectly with what I’ve previously written on a couple of occasions about Kitty’s coughing in that same scene….
….and how I believe JA meant for us to discern that Kitty is actually coughing sarcastically at what, like Mrs. Bennet’s nerves, must have been a frequently reprised act in the never-ending Bennet family circus. So, how perfectly timed to have Mr. Bennet be the one who in effect responds to Kitty’s sarcastic coughing by continuing with his little comic charade using Mrs. Bennet as the butt of his humor. And how fitting that after Mr. Bennet, with perfect comic timing, lands his plane, he leaves with the following flourish:  "Now, Kitty, you may cough as much as you choose…"  In other words, he tips his hat to Kitty for her earlier clever coughing interjection, in effect saying “Now that I’ve had my fun at the expense of your mother, be as sarcastic as you like about my indulging in such unworthy pleasures.”

And so, although theoretically the poser of that speaker-unattributed question to Lizzy could have been Mrs. Bennet, Kitty, or even Lydia, none of those other attributions fits at all well with the rest of Chapter 2, as I briefly explain as follows:
Mrs. Bennet already knows when the next ball will be (“Aye, so it is”), and would not respond irritably to a straightforward answer to her own question;
Kitty might have wished to deflect attention to her coughing, but she’d also know; and
Lydia would have been more interested than any of the girls in the date of the next ball, but she too would presumably have been in the loop already too.
Whereas, in sharp contrast, Mr. Bennet’s being the speaker fits so beautifully in so many ways, as I outlined above.

So now I think it’s clear that this is indeed a prime example of what Jane Austen meant by her cryptic sly comment to Cassandra. I.e., by lopping and cropping out the “Mr. Bennet asked” she perhaps originally included after that question in earlier versions of the novel, she pulls the reader out of a reverie of floating along in passive reading, and into high mental activity—actually needing to pause to reread the chapter a few times, and test different theories of who spoke that one short line---before continuing on. And thereafter hopefully alert to the possibility—indeed the likelihood—that there will be many more such opportunities as the novel progresses for the reader to play an active role in the full telling of the story. And… hopefully then willing to look at their own lives in the same active fashion, questioning snap judgments about our everyday lives.

And there’s even more still in this one line of dialog. If we think about 99% of the novel as being told from Lizzy’s point of view, then recall that Jane Austen inobtrusively alerts us that Lizzy is actively engaged in trimming a hat during this scene. If you reflect on that, you quickly realize that this would to some extent (I don’t know what trimming a hat involved—was it something, like knitting, that could be done while looking around the room?) divert her attention, both in sound and in sight, from the general conversation. So, a non-attribution of a given line of dialogue is in that sense a lifelike re-creation of Lizzy’s own cognitive experience of the moment, like our only hearing the famous strawberry-dashes scene in Emma, because we are hearing it while Emma lies drowsily in the sun with her eyes closed.

This may also be why we have so little narration in this scene, so little commentary on the other speakers —because Lizzy is not doing her usual close observation of the faces and nonverbals of those in a room with her. So, if Lizzy is half-zoning out on her parents’s dog-and-pony show, and only half paying attention to the room, this is also consistent with Lizzy not quite registering who was speaking to her.
And this is all a part of what I see as Jane Austen’s consistent strong interest in depicting the way human beings process the world they experience --- Hume, Smith, and Kant had nothing on her!

And there is one more final question----which was actually Jane Fox’s original question --- why “your next ball” and not “the next ball”? That answer, at first blush, seems very straightforward. If Mr. Bennet is indeed the speaker, then it makes perfect sense that he’d say “your”. Why? Because, as Diana perhaps meant to say about him but instead said about Mrs. Bennet----he’s actually the only person in the Bennet family who does not attend the “next ball”, i.e., the Meryton assembly. And so, even though he was addressing Lizzy, his “your” could just as easily have referred not only to Lizzy but to everyone else in the room, with Lizzy, as Mr. Bennet’s favorite, being the focal point and representative, in his mind, of the larger group.

But that’s not the last turn of the literary sleuthing screw. Apropos my interpretation of JA’s letter to Cassandra as embracing ambiguity in all aspects of P&P and not merely in speaker attributions, I leave you with the suggestion that we might put a whole different slant on the meaning of Mr. Bennet’s referring to “your next ball”, if we view his question through the lens of my very recent post…
…about the veiled allusion to the Earl of Rochester’s “A Ramble in St. James’s Park” in P&P.

As I stated in that post, part of that allusion was to the extraordinary “ball” which the Earl, John Wilmot, and his “Ballers” arranged with Lady Jane Bennet, the illustrious Restoration Era madam to King Charles II’s bawdy circle, and the dirty “dancing” which went on there--- extraordinary, in no small part, because, like the “savage” dancing that Darcy cryptically refers to at the Netherfield ball, it was performed while not clothed!

Now, did I hear one of you coughing?   ;)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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