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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Jane Austen’s double art of adaptation in Pride & Prejudice

An excellent article by novelist Adelle Waldman in The New Yorker a few weeks ago about depictions of marriages in great literature led to a second excellent article by Catherine Nichols…. ….that zeroed in on the psychologically sophisticated literary techniques of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte in dramatizing the eternal marital dance. I’m here today to add another layer to Nichols’s excellent analysis of Austen’s subtle authorial artistry.

The following is the heart of Nichols’s cogent analysis of what she calls Austen’s art/technique of “adaptation”:

“Adaptation is a kaleidoscopic way of understanding human nature, and a novelistic technique for showing that character isn’t fixed. In real life, people change constantly, depending on who’s in the room, or what they’ve each understood of the others’ nature and mood. Character isn’t only a ball rolling down a hill, these women write it like a game of billiards, with endless potential shifts and ricochets. These female characters aren’t just judging which man’s mind will give them the best hope for a respectful marriage; they are describing and creating a frame for the ways people create themselves in relation to others.
This is the way adaptation plays out: Person A comprehends some information about person B’s nature from what B says or does, and that changes how A approaches her afterward. It sounds simple, but I think it’s very difficult to write and nearly impossible to write well. Almost no one tries. Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte each did this over and over.
Here’s an example from Pride and Prejudice: The first time Mr. Darcy tries to express his interest in Elizabeth, he asks her to dance, and she refuses. Later, he sees her reading, and he comments to other people in the room that reading is important and his library is huge. Really great library at Darcy’s house. Elizabeth, however, doesn’t take the hint. Any shy person might recognize the arrows in his flirting quiver—standing around near her and saying to his friends that he likes the things that he thinks she likes. It’s as effective for him as it usually is for the rest of us; she doesn’t know, or doesn’t want to, that flirting is taking place.
Then, the next time Mr. Darcy is alone with Elizabeth and his friends, he adapts. He makes an unflattering observation about Mr. Bingley’s personality, offered to Elizabeth as a gift. He’s changing his approach based on a comment she made in the previous scene. He can only change within the range of his own character, which is shy (he’d never say this in another context), clever (no one fully gets the insult except for Elizabeth), and sort of mean. It’s an incredibly efficient scene, and it’s how Darcy, a man with few lines and no third person narration spilling his secrets, can be as well-developed a character as Elizabeth herself.
Mr. Darcy’s original attraction to Elizabeth is described the way Waldman figures male-authored love stories in general. He notices that she is pretty, has a nice figure and her eyes seem smart; on this topic, he, via Austen, does not go into specifics. No physical description can ever be as specific as the way dialogue telegraphs thought. Austen gives us much more direct access to the attractions of his character than to the beauty of Elizabeth’s figure.
In the scene about Mr. Bingley’s character—in which Elizabeth doesn’t buy Darcy’s diss of a friend—Mr. Darcy speaks with greater meaning than any of his friends. He sometimes puts covert significance for separate people into a single statement. The arguments he makes are well-reasoned. From the perspective of a writer, that’s a real trick: it’s hard to make a character sound smart while they’re also wrong. Elizabeth counters this with her own style of intelligence, which makes Darcy adapt as the conversation continues: Austen, here, is doing a backflip between trapezes.
Instead of a character being defined at the start and continuing to make his or her characteristic speech and actions through to the last page, Austen’s characters change from page to page. The adaptations are shown directly through dialogue and action, connecting the reader (who has access to these things the way they generally don’t, to vague allusions to beauty or allure) to the changes and the reasons for them—as well as the effect among all the characters that these changes create. This technique makes a romantic plot like a murder mystery; the readers have the same clues as the detective. When Elizabeth falls in love with Mr. Darcy, it’s for reasons we’ve experienced ourselves. We’re in the laboratory of human nature.”  END QUOTE FROM NICHOLS ARTICLE

Nichols has chosen wisely in her textual examples, and I agree with every single aspect of them that Nichols so sharply delineates. But I now toss out a question about a hidden assumption that undergirds her analysis: how do we know that Elizabeth Bennet—who is, after all, a 20-year old country girl with no formal education who also (as Austen cleverly slides in during a scene at Rosings) has not even had a governess to provide organized homeschooling---is as good a “studier of character” (today, we’d say, an amateur psychologist) as she believes herself to be?

Yes, I know you’ll immediately respond: that’s the whole point of the arc of the story in P&P; that Eliza initially relies too much on her “first impressions” in quickly hating Darcy and believing Wickham, but then, as the novel goes along, she learns to wise up and correct her initial errors of judgment. She morphs from bumbling police inspector to Miss Marple in a matter of a few months.

But…what if there’s another turn of the literary screw that Jane Austen has cleverly worked into her art of adaptation, but has left it entirely implicit, to be discovered only by readers who remain skeptical long enough to resist being swept up in the high romantic tide of the latter half of the novel?

I.e., what if you turn the screw another revolution, and find that Elizabeth might just have been right in her “first impressions” of Darcy after all, but Darcy, being a hardened narcissist who cannot take no for an answer, regroups after her rejection of his first proposal, and then strategically uses all his considerable  resources and skills to stage-manage a series of experiences for Elizabeth (culminating in her virtual orgasmic response to seeing Pemberley-both its exteriors and its interiors—and Darcy—both on the wall and in person) which subtly manipulate this overconfident country girl into surrendering her initial hostility in favor of abject, despairing yearning for Darcy to propose again?

I’ve been saying for 11 years, that P&P, like all of Austen’s novels, is a double story, like a duck-rabbit figure ground drawing or Holbein’s Ambassadors. In the overt fictional universe that is universally perceived by Janeites, Darcy does repent and reform, because, as Nichols correctly observes, people in the real world do change, adapt, and evolve over time, in response to the shaping feedback they receive from others.

But in the shadow story, the alternative parallel fictional universe of the novel, Darcy does not change, he doubles down, and compels Elizabeth to change and adapt—not to overcome an erroneous first impression, but to give up an accurate one in favor of a false self-portrait hastily painted by Darcy.

Put another way, the overt story of P&P is the ultimate female romantic fantasy: in a world where men (the horseback riders in Nichols’s metaphor) almost never adapt to a woman’s needs and wishes, here is a powerful man who does adapt, out of love for the woman who dares to criticize him. But the shadow story is the ultimate female cautionary tale: in a world where men almost never respond positively and humbly to a woman’s criticism, don’t be too quick to believe it when a horseback rider suddenly morphs into a horse before your eyes, because what’s too good to be true almost always isn’t true!

So, you then ask, which is the “real” story? Jane Austen’s answer---both of them are possible, so the only truly self-protective and pragmatic response of a young vulnerable woman in Lizzy’s shoes is to hold out as long as possible for more data. I.e., she shouldn’t believe positive first impressions too quickly, but she also shouldn’t believe positive second impressions too quickly, either. The wise person embraces the ambiguity of human relations, especially in matters of romance, and verifies, verifies, and verifies again before trusting.

There’s the hard-headed Austen whom Auden famously compared to the man who is generally considered to have written the world’s greatest novel, the one that supposedly depicted real life most truly:

You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of middle class
Describe the amorous effect of “brass”,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

If you think about it, it’s the dialectic of the overt and shadow stories of P&P that fits most closely with Auden’s unshockable Austen. Neither incurable romantic nor unshakable cynic, she was the world’s greatest teacher of the deeper art of adaptation.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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