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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The sacred cows (and the secret poets) in the rambles in Netherfield & St. James’s Parks

A month ago, I wrote my first post….   ... about Jane Austen’s shocking veiled allusion to the Earl of Rochester John Wilmot’s infamous, Restoration-Era, X-rated poem “A Ramble in St. James’s Park” . In that post, and in two followup posts since then, I’ve identified and explained Austen’s textual hints comprising that subliminal allusion, in particular Austen’s specific pointers to Wilmot’s poem title.

That title is the reason, I suggest, why Sir William Lucas just can’t stop talking, in code, to Darcy about “dancing” at “St. James’s”—he’s reminding Darcy that he knows what Darcy does when he’s in London, even if Eliza does not. And that’s also the reason why Jane Austen’s narrator repeats the very unusual word “ramble” four times in P&P, all of them referring to Eliza Bennet and her well-known love of walks in the country—Jane Austen keeps pinging the naughty Earl’s very naughty poem, as we follow her delightful, but clueless, heroine on her beloved nature walks.

Three of those usages occur in the latter half of the novel, to describe Eliza’s walks at Rosings, Pemberley, and Longbourn, respectively, during all of which Darcy either shows up suddenly, or else Wickham does, and then the only topic is….Darcy! But I’m here today to revisit the first one, which occurs early in the novel, in Chapter 10, when Lizzy, the Bingley sisters, and Darcy stroll in the Netherfield shrubbery, and this time I present the entire passage, because it all turns out to be critical to understanding of JA’s full meaning:

“[Miss Bingley] often tried to provoke Darcy into disliking her guest, by talking of their supposed marriage, and planning his happiness in such an alliance.
"I hope," said she, as they were walking together in the shrubbery the next day, "you will give your mother-in-law a few hints, when this desirable event takes place, as to the advantage of holding her tongue; and if you can compass it, do cure the younger girls of running after officers. And, if I may mention so delicate a subject, endeavour to check that little something, bordering on conceit and impertinence, which your lady possesses."
"Have you anything else to propose for my domestic felicity?"
"Oh! yes. Do let the portraits of your uncle and aunt Phillips be placed in the gallery at Pemberley. Put them next to your great-uncle the judge. They are in the same profession, you know, only in different lines. As for your Elizabeth's picture, you must not have it taken, for what painter could do justice to those beautiful eyes?"
"It would not be easy, indeed, to catch their expression, but their colour and shape, and the eyelashes, so remarkably fine, might be copied."
At that moment they were met from another walk by Mrs. Hurst and Elizabeth herself.
"I did not know that you intended to walk," said Miss Bingley, in some confusion, lest they had been overheard.
"You used us abominably ill," answered Mrs. Hurst, "running away without telling us that you were coming out."
Then taking the disengaged arm of Mr. Darcy, she left Elizabeth to walk by herself. The path just admitted three. Mr. Darcy felt their rudeness, and immediately said:
"This walk is not wide enough for our party. We had better go into the avenue."
But Elizabeth, who had not the least inclination to remain with them, laughingly answered:
"No, no; stay where you are. You are charmingly grouped, and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth. Good-bye."
She then ran gaily off, rejoicing as she RAMBLED about, in the hope of being at home again in a day or two….”  END QUOTE

I’m revisiting the above passage today, because of something truly extraordinary that I learned with the unwitting yet invaluable assistance of Prof. Laurie Kaplan, former editor of Persuasions. Her 2012 Persuasions article, “Sunday in the Park with Elinor Dashwood: ‘So Public a Place’, is primarily about Elinor Dashwood’s “ramble” in Kensington Gardens in the very unwelcome company of the motormouth Anne Steele. However, what arrested my attention yesterday was my reading Kaplan’s brief excursus about London’s oldest public park, St. James’s Park, as I continued my routine followup to my discovery a month ago of that major allusion in P&P to “A Ramble in St. James’s Park”:

“During the reigns of the Stuarts, St. James’s Park was acclaimed as the fashionable place to ride and to be seen, particularly in the summer when the lanes were crowded with exquisitely dressed people “coaching” in modish equipages. The King’s Old Road to Kensington, or Rotten Row (route du roi), “was the bon ton’s rendezvous”. In the reign of Queen Anne this park had become “notorious for prostitutes [Boswell later frequented this park] and for the depredations of those ruffianly aristocrats known as Mohocks”…The Mohocks were a gang of “young bloods” who roamed the park accosting men and women. They did not steal money, but they disfigured their male victims and sexually assaulted their female victims. St. James’s Park was safe neither by day nor by night.”

So far, nothing extraordinary, but now we come to the information Kaplan unearthed, which frankly, blew my mind:

“The feature that drew visitors to [St. James’s] park was the herd of cows residing there. In a radical return to country values, St. James’s Park offered fresh milk served twice a day. With cows meandering over the grass and across the lanes, the landscape of St. James’s Park was a challenge for women’s dresses. In Burney’s novel, Evelina is dismayed by her Sunday walk in St. James’s Park: she complains that the Mall “is a long straight walk, of dirty gravel, very uneasy to the feet”. Notorious for its dirty lanes and sexual violence, St. James’s Park would have been too unpleasant and threatening a location for Mrs. Jennings, in her position as chaperone, to suggest to Elinor as an appropriate place for a Sunday afternoon excursion. Nor would this park have appealed to Jane Austen herself, whose own experience walking in a public garden in March was so pleasant, her observations regarding the early blooming lilacs and horse chestnuts so particular. The potential disruption caused by marauders and cows would have made the tête-à-tête between Miss Steele and Elinor virtually impossible. In addition, the reverberating calls of “A Can of Milk, Ladies; A can of Red Cow’s Milk, Sir” would have been a comic interruption into Miss Steele’s monologues…. “

So, what does that description of what were, during the Restoration (and, I’d guess, for a long while afterwards?) the famous and dirt-generating cows of St. James’s Park, have to do with the passage from the end of Chapter 10 of P&P that I quoted at the top of this post? 

EVERYTHING!!! I will now explain.

Elizabeth’s laughing, parting shot at Darcy and the Bingley sisters as she “rambles” off is:

"No, no; stay where you are. You are charmingly grouped, and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth. Good-bye."

Why does Elizabeth laugh? Because, as many knowledgeable Janeites know today, and as Austen scholars have known for a very long time, her bon mot would have been recognized immediately by the cognoscenti of the Regency Era as a witty satire on Revd. Gilpin’s very famous dictum about the picturesque:      “Cattle are so large that when they ornament a foreground, a few are sufficient. Two cows will hardly combine. Three make a good group- either united- or when one is a little removed from the other two. If you increase the group beyond three, one of more in proportion must necessarily be a little detached .This detachment prevents heaviness and adds variety…”

As you now can put all the pieces together, you must see what blew my mind--- it turns out that even as Eliza laughs at her own Gilpinesque witticism, the joke is actually on her, because Jane Austen’s narrator, by referring to Eliza’s “ramble”, is alerting the knowing reader that Eliza has inadvertently referred to the famous cows of St. James’s Park!

Poor country-girl Elizabeth has no clue that Darcy (and perhaps the Bingley sisters as well) are actually familiar with those cows in St. James’s Park, as they have had their share of evening “rambles” there. And poor Eliza, whose dirty (and very odorous) petticoats are the subject of such raillery in the Netherfield salon, after she has traversed many cow pastures to get there from Longbourn, is also inadvertently conjuring up, in the dirty mind of Caroline Bingley, the dirty paths in St. James’s Park which Burney’s Evelina complains about. So the joke about dirty petticoats is deeper, and sharper, than has previously been understood by readers of P&P.

But that’s not the worst of it. There’s something even worse than all of that, in this inadvertent allusion by Elizabeth to the X-rated poetry of the Earl of Rochester. Jane Austen has given Elizabeth’s older sister Jane Bennet the exact same name as the notorious madam who supplied the working girls to fill out the guest list at the Earl’s famous naked “private ball”.

This would have suggested to the knowledgeable Regency Era reader (who’d have known about the life and the writings of the Earl, and who might even have read Gilpin’s-----yes, that same Gilpin with the famous four cows!-----1798 biographical essay about the profane life and sacred death of the Earl of Rochester) that Jane—saintly Jane---has, unbeknownst to her beloved sister, been “rambling” in St. James’s Park with Darcy during her previous visits to stay with the Gardiners in London.

And it makes sense, for another reason, to connect Gilpin and his picturesque theorizing to “A Ramble in St. James’s Park”—I will let Heather Touet, a grad student, explain:

“A strange dichotomy is seen in Rochester’s “A Ramble in St. James’s Park” where we read of the beautiful setting playing host to some decidedly unbeautiful visits. Rochester's lines play with the two sides of the park - the romantic and the depraved - as seen in the first stanza where his picturesque descriptions are punctuated with vile acts:

 Picturesque verses                                       Lewd verses    

Poor pensieve lover in this place,               Would frig upon his mother's face;
Whence rows of mandrakes tall did rise,    Whose lewd tops f----ked the very skies.
Each imitative branch does twine,               In some loved fold of Aretine.
And nightly now beneath their shade,         Are buggeries, rapes, and incests made.

In his poem, Rochester mimics the beauty of the park hiding the sinful acts by prefacing his vulgar lines with lines describing the attractions of the park.  On the surface, the park appears to recreate the countryside in the city, but on a closer reading it has become as corrupt as the rest of London.” END QUOTE FROM TROUET ARTICLE

And that leads me to revisit my final assertion in my post a month ago, i.e., that the unnamed poetic suitor for the 15 year old Jane Bennet, whom Mrs. Bennet refers to in Chapter 9 of P&P, was none other than Darcy himself---the Earl of Rochester in metaphorical disguise, if you will---and the “verses” he wrote while wooing Jane were none other than….“A Ramble in St. James’s Park”!

Recognizing the picturesque cows of St. James’s Park lurking beneath Lizzy’s Gilpinesque witticism at Netherfield Park also goes a long way toward explaining the following sharp exchange between Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Darcy, which immediately precedes that discussion of poetry. Just read the passage as if Mrs. Bennet and Darcy were discussing, in code, his randy rambles in St. James Park, and we can understand why Darcy “looks at her for a moment, before “silently turning away”:

"The country," said Darcy, "can in general supply but a few subjects for such a study. In a country neighbourhood you move in a very confined and unvarying society."
"But people themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them for ever."
"Yes, indeed," cried Mrs. Bennet, offended by his manner of mentioning a country neighbourhood. "I assure you there is quite as much of that going on in the country as in town."
Everybody was surprised, and Darcy, after looking at her for a moment, turned silently away. Mrs. Bennet, who fancied she had gained a complete victory over him, continued her triumph.
"I cannot see that London has any great advantage over the country, for my part, except the shops and public places. The country is a vast deal pleasanter, is it not, Mr. Bingley?"
"When I am in the country," he replied, "I never wish to leave it; and when I am in town it is pretty much the same. They have each their advantages, and I can be equally happy in either."
"Aye—that is because you have the right disposition. But that gentleman," looking at Darcy, "seemed to think the country was nothing at all."

This coded conversation about what Hamlet would call “country matters” will always fly right over Elizabeth’s head in the world of P&P, but, after today, it need not ever again fly over the heads of real life readers of Pride & Prejudice who know the code!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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