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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Miss Bennet, Elizabeth, Lizzy, Eliza: who calls her what....and why

Last night, a new Janeite friend privately posed a very interesting question to me which I had not previously considered—was there any rhyme or reason to the numerous different ways that the heroine of Pride & Prejudice is referred to by other characters and by the narrator? Here is my answer.

Initially, after a very quick search, I responded as follows:

She is called "Lizzy" 97 times altogether, but without exception only by the other members of her immediate family, plus Mr. & Mrs. Gardiner (and “Lizzie” is a misspelling that never appears in the nove).

She is almost always called "Elizabeth" by the narrator, except when a servant is involved, in which case the narrator calls her "Miss Elizabeth".

Darcy and Lady Catherine generally refer to her as "(Miss) Elizabeth Bennet”, which makes the single time when Darcy calls her “dearest, loveliest Elizabeth” all the more powerful for its being the only such event in the entire novel.

Mr. Collins invariably calls her "cousin Elizabeth" and Mr. Bingley invariably calls her "Miss Bennet"

So far, nothing really remarkable, just Jane Austen, as always, achieving meticulous verisimilitude to real life, as all of these modes of addressing or speaking about Elizabeth Bennet are consistent with the characters of the speakers.

As for the narrator’s universal “Elizabeth” when speaking in a more or less objective manner, think about how different the tone of the novel would have been had the narrator always called her “Lizzy” or, conversely, Miss Elizabeth Bennet. “Elizabeth” seems to me to set the perfect tone, poised exactly in the middle between what would have been the overfamiliarity of the former and the overformality of the latter.

And this brings us to what I find to be the most interesting and intriguing example. There are only four characters who ever refer to our heroine as “Eliza”:

Charlotte  Lucas only calls her “Eliza”, and does so nine times;

Maria Lucas calls her “my dear Eliza” once;

Sir William Lucas only calls her “Eliza” and does so three times in one scene, at the Lucas Lodge dance, by calling her “my dear Miss Eliza” twice and “Miss Eliza” once.

Caroline Bingley calls her “Miss Eliza” three times, and “Miss Eliza Bennet” three times as well, for a total of six usages.

I am sure you’ll agree that it makes perfect sense that three members of the Lucas family would all use the same nickname for Elizabeth; but why Eliza rather than the Bennet family nickname, Lizzy? My sense is that Charlotte was the “author” of this nickname, and the reason seems clear to me. I.e., as I’ve said countless times over the past 7 years, I agree with the character in The Jane Austen Book Club who believes that Charlotte is a lesbian. And I take that a big step further, and assert that Charlotte’s true and constant beloved from beginning of the novel to the end is our heroine. So, what better way for Charlotte to express that forbidden love, in a constant yet subliminal and subtle way, than to have a special name for her that no one uses other than those connected to Eliza via Charlotte’s intimate friendship—Charlotte’s own family.

So far, so good, but what are we to then make of the strange bedfellow in the naming business—Caroline Bingley? Why does she follow the Lucas lead rather than that of two more plausible role models in that regard: her brother and Mr. Darcy? After all, she is not at all connected to the Lucases, as far as we can see. Is this JA’s sly and subtle hint to the attentive reader that Caroline is in contact with one or more of the Lucases without Eliza’s knowledge of that contact?

I’ve got three possible explanations to toss out to you:

First, as I blogged within the past several months, I believe Lady Lucas in general is covertly and maliciously doing her darnedest to thrown monkey wrenches into Mrs. Bennet’s matchmaking gears at every turn. So, it would make perfect sense for her to have reached out to Miss Bingley, and made common cause with her, conspiring together for those dark purposes.

Second, and much less likely, I think, I wonder whether Caroline, whom I (and also the author of Lost In Austen) suspect of not being entirely heterosexual, might have had some sort of romantic relationship with Charlotte during Caroline’s stay in Meryton. I find it much less likely, because I don’t believe Charlotte would “cheat” on Eliza, and, as I have also argued previously, Charlotte is not her own mother’s ally in her mother’s guerilla war against Mrs. Bennet, but actually repairs the damage her mother attempts to inflict on the Bennets.

Third, and in a way most convincing to me, it may simply be that Caroline’s usage of “Eliza” is simply a parody of what Caroline overhears at Lucas Lodge in Chapter 6, which I will now quote:

“[Sir William] paused in hopes of an answer; but his companion [Darcy] was not disposed to make any; and Elizabeth at that instant moving towards them, he was struck with the action of doing a very gallant thing, and called out to her:
"MY DEAR MISS ELIZA, why are you not dancing? Mr. Darcy, you must allow me to present this young lady to you as a very desirable partner. You cannot refuse to dance, I am sure when so much beauty is before you." And, taking her hand, he would have given it to Mr. Darcy who, though extremely surprised, was not unwilling to receive it, when she instantly drew back, and said with some discomposure to Sir William:
"Indeed, sir, I have not the least intention of dancing. I entreat you not to suppose that I moved this way in order to beg for a partner."
Mr. Darcy, with grave propriety, requested to be allowed the honour of her hand, but in vain. Elizabeth was determined; nor did Sir William at all shake her purpose by his attempt at persuasion.
"You excel so much in the dance, MISS ELIZA, that it is cruel to deny me the happiness of seeing you; and though this gentleman dislikes the amusement in general, he can have no objection, I am sure, to oblige us for one half-hour."
"Mr. Darcy is all politeness," said Elizabeth, smiling.
"He is, indeed; but, considering the inducement, MY DEAR MISS ELIZA, we cannot wonder at his complaisance—for who would object to such a partner?"

Sir William is as phony as Mr. Collins, but smoother, and so his unctuous form of flattery is ripe for parody, wouldn’t you say? And guess who was eavesdropping on that very conversation?:

“…Elizabeth looked archly, and turned away. Her resistance had not injured her with the gentleman, and he was thinking of her with some complacency, when thus accosted by Miss Bingley:
"I can guess the subject of your reverie."
"I should imagine not."
"You are considering how insupportable it would be to pass many evenings in this manner—in such society; and indeed I am quite of your opinion. I was never more annoyed! The insipidity, and yet the noise—the nothingness, and yet the self-importance of all those people! What would I give to hear your strictures on them!"
"Your conjecture is totally wrong, I assure you. My mind was more agreeably engaged. I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow."
Miss Bingley immediately fixed her eyes on his face, and desired he would tell her what lady had the credit of inspiring such reflections. Mr. Darcy replied with great intrepidity:
"Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
"Mis Elizabeth Bennet!" repeated Miss Bingley. "I am all astonishment. How long has she been such a favourite?—and pray, when am I to wish you joy?"
"That is exactly the question which I expected you to ask. A lady's imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony, in a moment. I knew you would be wishing me joy."
"Nay, if you are serious about it, I shall consider the matter is absolutely settled. You will be having a charming mother-in-law, indeed; and, of course, she will always be at Pemberley with you."
He listened to her with perfect indifference while she chose to entertain herself in this manner; and as his composure convinced her that all was safe, HER WIT FLOWED LONG.”

So, now I understand for the first time that “her wit flowed long” refers not merely to the ribbing that Miss Bingley inflicted on Darcy that evening. I suggest to you that Miss Bingley’s calling our heroine “Eliza” in all of the following passages is the continuation of that flow, and that we are meant to remember Sir William’s three phony “Elizas” each time we hear her say “Eliza”:

Ch. 8: "MISS ELIZA Bennet," said Miss Bingley, "despises cards. She is a great reader, and has no pleasure in anything else."

Ch. 11: "MISS ELIZA Bennet, let me persuade you to follow my example, and take a turn about the room. I assure you it is very refreshing after sitting so long in one attitude."

Ch. 18: "So, MISS ELIZA, I hear you are quite delighted with George Wickham! Your sister has been talking to me about him, and asking me a thousand questions...I pity you, MISS ELIZA, for this discovery of your favourite's guilt; but really, considering his descent, one could not expect much better."

And even much later in the novel as well:

45: Pray, MISS ELIZA, are not the ——shire Militia removed from Meryton? They must be a great loss to your family…..How very ill MISS ELIZA Bennet looks this morning, Mr. Darcy," she cried; "I never in my life saw anyone so much altered as she is since the winter. She is grown so brown and coarse! Louisa and I were agreeing that we should not have known her again."

I have not watched the 1995 P&P recently—does anyone recall if Andrew Davies might have somehow subtly let the audience know that Caroline was parodying Sir William?

And so, I am grateful to my new Janeite friend for prompting me to investigate this intriguing and significant aspect of JA’s utter mastery in organizing every last single detail of P&P, no matter how small, because they point back to the heart of the story, when properly decoded.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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