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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, April 28, 2016

“It is an honour that I dream not of”—Juliet & the two Elizabeths (Bennet and Barrett)!

Off and on, I’ve spent a fair amount of time the past two years looking at Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet from a variety of perspectives, particularly the way that Shakespeare looked back at it in his later plays, and the way that two great authors who came after him --- John Milton in Paradise Lost and Jane Austen in several of her novels—also looked back at Romeo & Juliet. I posted most recently about this in the remarkable echoes of Juliet’s Nurse in the character of Mrs. Bennet in Pride & Prejudice:

Juliet’s Nurse & Mrs Bennet: Shakespeare’s & Austen’s matronly “sisters” in vexed quiverings

Pemberley as Eliza Bennet’s Shakespeare/Milton/Fielding Fools Paradise (Hall) Lost & Regained

Today, I wish to revisit Jane Austen’s veiled allusion to Romeo & Juliet, and this time zero in on a wrinkle I have only generally addressed in those prior posts—the surprising way in which Elizabeth Bennet subtly reminds us of Shakespeare’s Juliet! And, as my Subject Line suggests, there is also a post-Austen connection involved as well!


First, here are general parallels I drew between Elizabeth Bennet and Juliet in those two recent posts:

“I see Elizabeth’s married life with Darcy as a parody of Juliet’s tragic death, because it will be no walk in the park for her to be married to the dark Darcy of the shadow story, who does not actually repent and reform after she rejects his first proposal, but merely pretends to do so, because he is a man who cannot take no for an answer, and who does not hesitate to use his considerable resources to stage an extended experience for Elizabeth during the latter half of P&P, which destroys her (healthy) resistance to him.
“…here’s the rest of the Nurse’s speech, when she…issu[es] a stern warning to the amorous Romeo:
 “…but first let me tell ye, if ye should lead her into a fool’s paradise, as they say, it were a very gross kind of behavior, as they say: for the gentlewoman is young; and, therefore, if you should deal double with her, truly it were an ill thing to be offered to any gentlewoman, and very weak dealing.”
In other words, watching out for Juliet, the fiercely maternal Nurse warns Romeo to love Juliet faithfully, and not to break her 12-year old heart. I now suggest that when Mrs. Bennet (to Elizabeth’s great distress and bewilderment) repeatedly makes hostile jabs at Darcy in the Netherfield salon, she’s actually giving him a similar maternal warning not to try to exploit his high status and lead any Bennet girl into a fool’s paradise. She does this because, as I’ve previously suggested, Mrs. Bennet and Darcy (but not Elizabeth)  know that Darcy is the unnamed suitor who wrote a sonnet while six years earlier wooing the then 16-year old Jane Bennet in London. However, Elizabeth’s ear is not tuned to the frequency of her mother’s warning, and so, when Elizabeth first sees Pemberley, she indeed enters a ‘fool’s paradise’. I.e. its Edenic majesty mesmerizes Elizabeth, with such powerful effect that she later jokes to sister Jane (but the joke is actually on Elizabeth) about dating her own falling in love with Darcy from her ‘first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.’ “  END QUOTES FROM MY PRIOR POSTS

Having noted those general parallels, I remained on the lookout for specific textual parallels---which are always the best evidence of a genuine Jane Austen veiled allusion—and this morning I found one---and as happens so often in my research, it dropt into my hands while I was looking at something else entirely!

In this instance, I was following up on my post yesterday about the lesbian subtext of Jane Austen’s final novel fragment, Sanditon , as particularly tagged by the adjective “unaccountable”, by looking also at the variant verbal form “account for” in JA’s novels. I had first identified “unaccountable” as code for lesbian in JA’s writing a few years ago, when I quoted Elizabeth Bennet’s appalled reaction to news she has just received:  “the other is Charlotte's marriage. It is unaccountable! In every view it is unaccountable!”

And so, as I did that further word searching in P&P, I was led to the beginning of the famous showdown in the Longbourn wilderness between Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Elizabeth Bennet:
“As soon as they entered the copse, Lady Catherine began in the following manner:—‘You can be at no loss, Miss Bennet, to understand the reason of my journey hither. Your own heart, your own conscience, must tell you why I come.’
Elizabeth looked with unaffected astonishment. ‘Indeed, you are mistaken, Madam. I have not been at all able TO ACCOUNT FOR the honour of seeing you here.’

But as I read “I have not been able to account for the honour of seeing you here”, Elizabeth’s dry, pitch-perfect sarcastic reply to Lady Catherine, masked by insincere deference, my eye was caught instead by the word “honour”. Why? Because I suddenly realized that this was the very passage I’d been trying to tease out of my memory for weeks, the speech which I was reminded of when I recently read Juliet’s response, with identical dry, pitch-perfect sarcasm, masked by insincere deference, to her mother’s imperious interrogation, but couldn’t bring to mind:

LADY CAPULET  Speak briefly, can you like of Paris' love?
JULIET  I'll look to like, if looking liking move: But no more deep will I endart mine eye
Than your consent gives strength to make it fly.

In short, I recognized that Juliet’s “It is an honour that I dream not of” must be the “mother” of Elizabeth’s “I have not been at all able to account for the honour of seeing you here”!

Searching for that Austenian allusion had been driving me crazy, because the closest I had gotten, were were the following three dishonourable  responses by Willoughby to Marianne’s desperate attempts to meet with him in London:  "I did myself the HONOUR of calling in Berkeley Street last Tuesday, and very much regretted that I was not fortunate enough to find yourselves and Mrs. Jennings at home. My card was not lost, I hope...I have just had the HONOUR of receiving your letter, for which I beg to return my sincere acknowledgments…It is with great regret that I obey your commands in returning the letters with which I have been HONOURED from you, and the lock of hair, which you so obligingly bestowed on me.”  Certainly there was real Shakespearean resonance there, especially when we take into account that it is not only Willoughby awkwardly referring to the “honour” of his relationship with Marianne, but his new wife, who has pressured him to reply thusly to Marianne in person, and then clearly has dictated his letter to Marianne –she is rubbing sarcastic salt in Marianne’s open wound.

But…I knew that wasn’t the passage I was almost remembering, and so my frustration came to blessed end today, when I connected Elizabeth’s thrilling defiance of Lady Catherine to Juliet’s thrilling defiance of her parents’s pressure regarding whom she will marry. And this also of course fits perfectly with what I mentioned in my previous post:  It is interesting to think about Juliet's parents pressuring her to marry Paris, the way Mrs. Bennet pressures Lizzy to marry Mr. Collins…” 

I therefore recommend you also compare the passages in Romeo & Juliet in which Juliet’s parents pressure her to marry Paris, on the one hand, and the passage in Pride & Prejudice, when Mr. Bennet refuses to comply with Mr. Bennet’s demand that he pressure Elizabeth to marry Mr. Bennet, on the other. That comparison shows how masterfully Jane Austen turned tragedy to comedy in those scenes of parental pressure to marry, and in particular how JA (surprisingly) subtly echoed Shakespeare’s most famous young romantic heroine, Juliet, in her own most famous young romantic heroine, Elizabeth Bennet.


I now want to bring yet another pair of famous lovers into this allusive mix – Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning!  The courtship correspondence between them in 1845 included the following playful, erudite Shakespearean to-and-fro over four consecutive letters, which, as you’ll immediately note, bears directly on Juliet’s sarcasm to Lady Capulet:

“You will never more, I hope, talk of the ‘honor of my acquaintance’—but I will joyfully wait for the delight of your friendship, and the Spring, and my Chapel-sight after all! “  --RB

“As to the vain parlance of the world, I did not talk of the ‘honor of your acquaintance” without a true sense of honor, indeed,- but I shall willingly exchange it all; (-& now, if you please, at this moment, for fear of worldly mutabilities…) for the ‘delight of your friendship’.” –EBB

“See now, how of that ‘Friendship’ you offer me (and here Juliet’s words rise to my lips)- I feel sure once and for ever” --- RB

“So do not take me for a born heroine of Richardson, or think that I sin always to this length! Else,--you might indeed repeat your quotation from Juliet….which I guessed at once--& of course—‘I have no joy of this contract today! It is too unadvis’d, too rash & sudden.’ “ -EBB

I found the above exchange, while searching for any other literary engagements with Juliet’s comment to her mother besides the one in P&P, and I then found the following two analyses of these Barrett-Browning Shakespeare allusions:

“Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare: Translating the Language of Intimacy” by Gail Marshall 
“One of EBB and Browning's most intimate exchanges involves an absolutely silent quotation from Shakespeare, which neither needs to quote on the page because they are sufficiently sure of the reference being clear to the other without further prompting. Browning writes of a word of Juliet's which rises to his lips, and EBB assures him in her next letter that she "guessed at once" what his meaning was…Under the guise of an exchange about their friendship, the two poets seem to be referring to Juliet's "It is an honour that I dream not of".…words which are applied in the play to the young lovers' marriage. Shakespeare is not simply the language in which EBB and Browning speak to each other, the way in which they acknowledge their shared status and knowledge as poets; he is of the very essence of their relationship…”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Shakespeare: 'This is Living Art by Josie Billington (2012):
“In the letters, very early in the correspondence, the lovers allude (shyly at first) to Romeo & Juliet ‘See now’, Browning writes, ‘how of that ‘Friendship’ you offer me (and here Juliet’s word rises to my lips)—I feel sure once and for ever’ …The quotation is ‘guessed at once’ by Elizabeth Barrett and closes her letter of reply:
I have no joy of this contract today!
It is too unadvis’d, too rash & sudden.” “

After reading these analyses, I had the strong intuition that Elizabeth Barrett’s Shakespearean winking in her final letter in the above exchange, in which she wrote “you might indeed repeat your quotation from Juliet…. which I guessed at once…”, was not about Juliet’s “It is an honour that I dream not of”, but instead was pointing to yet another speech by Juliet. The sophisticated game of dueling quotations played by the erudite lovers seemed to me to have still another layer, which has apparently not been seen by Browning scholars. I was sure that Elizabeth Barrett Browning had in her second letter already moved on from Juliet’s sarcastic allusion to her “honour”, and wanted to show her lover that she had guessed his later allusion as well.   

So, to start, take a second look at the teaser Robert wrote, to which Elizabeth was responding:

“See now, how of that ‘Friendship’ you offer me (and here Juliet’s words rise to my lips)- I feel sure once and for ever”

I suggest that Juliet’s sarcastic one-liner spoken to her mother about marrying a man she has no interest in marrying are surely not words which would rise to Robert’s lips at that romantic stage of their repartee. Not only would that be a weak retreading of old ground in their rapidly moving, witty game of quotations, that would also be far less fitting to a romantic moment than a speech Juliet makes directly to Romeo.

And, upon further reflection, I also realized that the speech of Juliet’s which rises to Robert’s lips would also have to fit all three of the following criteria as well:

It would have to include a specific reference to “friendship”, because that is the single word which Robert puts in quotes, as a clue, right before he writes “here”; and  

It would have to relate thematically to the notion of a love which will make Romeo (i.e., Robert) “feel sure once and for ever” of Juliet’s (i.e., Elizabeth’s) love; and

It would have to relate thematically to Elizabeth’s final quote from Juliet: ‘I have no joy of this contract today! It is too unadvis’d, too rash & sudden.’ That line is from the speech Juliet makes to Romeo in 3.5, as she tastes the not-so-sweet sorrow of parting from Romeo as he must hastily decamp from Verona for what seems to both to be an eternity of banishment in Mantua. Here is the full speech that Elizabeth has only quoted two lines from:

                       I have no joy of this contract to-night:
                                   It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;

So, is there another speech by Juliet elsewhere in the play, which meets all of these tests? Yes!! And I found it in two minutes, simply by searching the word “friend” in the play text!  Here it is, in 2.2 --- exactly where, with 20:20 hindsight, one might expect to find it, at the end of the famous balcony scene, when Julia bids Romeo farewell right after he has finally descended down from her balcony, but before he leaves her garden:

In other words, I believe Elizabeth also solved Robert’s clues, as I just did, and that’s why she chose to respond with the quote from Juliet’s 3.5 speech, because these two speeches by Juliet are really bookends to each other, coming at the ends of the first two parting scenes in the play (the third parting, of course, being the tragic sequence when first Romeo, and then Juliet, commits suicide, a tragic and final parting).


In a way, the above real-life courtship between Elizabeth and Robert bears on the imaginary courtship between Elizabeth and Darcy, in that both of them involved a playful, learned reliance on knowledge of  Shakespearean tragic romance.

Is it possible that either Robert or Elizabeth had any idea that their Shakespearean romance was in a way following in the footsteps of  Elizabeth and Darcy? My answer is “No”, based on what Elizabeth wrote
ten years later, in  a letter to John Ruskin:

“She [Miss Mitford] never taught me anything but a very limited admiration of Miss Austen, whose people struck me as wanting souls, even more than is necessary for men and women of the world. The novels are perfect as far as they go— that's certain. Only they don't go far, I think. It may be my fault.” Browning, Elizabeth Barrett, 1855, To Mr. Ruskin, Nov. 5; Letters, ed. Kenyon, vol. n, p. 217.

In any event, I feel honored to have to have the chance to sleuth out all these connections---and that’s an honor I dreamt not of while I slept last night.  ;)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode  on Twitter

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