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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Charlotte Smith, Ann Radcliffe, & Eliza Bennet’s FIRST “first impressions”

Nancy Mayer wrote:
"Charlotte Smith's life was made miserable due to the wretched man she married. She was quite young, he was a charming scoundrel who lied to everyone. Like Mary Robinson, Charlotte had to sit in Debtors' prison with her children -- I think one was born there-- while her husband spends what little of their funds existed cavorting with his mistress. I can see her or Mary Robinson writing novels that depict men as betrayers and monsters under their fancy coats. The way I understand it, her husband's father rewrote his will to provide for Charlotte and the children but relatives contested it, the lawyers kept the case in court for a decade and took most of the money. Charlotte had reason to distrust everyone. She subscribed to the saying "First kill the lawyers." I think she died just as the case settled or just before it did. Did anyone ever look into what happened to her children?"

Nancy, from that otherwise excellent summary, you left out one crucial fact, vis a vis JA: that Charlotte Smith’s writing was a hugely significant allusive source for JA regarding men behaving badly! Not just to mirror the likes of Wickham, but the shadow Darcy as well. Several years ago, I posted about a powerful example of the latter, drawn from one of Smith’s “ripped from the headlines” dramatizations of real life domestic Gothic horror-----and it reflects very badly indeed on the shadow Darcy. In short, I say that JA’s shadow stories are directly inspired by Smith’s overt stories!


As for Ann Radcliffe, she happens to be the other author I was going to write about today on my own accord, in followup on my claim yesterday that Eliza has such a strong reaction to seeing Pemberley with the Gardiners, because she’s NOT seeing Pemberley for the first time. Instead, she’s having a "deja vu" moment, but in the literal sense. She has literally "already seen" Pemberley before, when she was a small child born there! And so, her tour through the rooms of Pemberley on two legs is repeatedly subliminally reminding her of when she once crawled through them on four legs!

And here's how Radcliffe comes into that mix. Yesterday, I was trying to recall and retrieve other literary characters who unwittingly return to their birthplace, and have a feeling of "deja vu" based on actual early memories. Besides the most famous one, Oedipus (did you catch my sendup of the Sphinx’s riddle, in referring to Elizabeth at Pemberley on two legs and four legs?), I recalled that something strikingly similar happens to Emily St. Aubert, the heroine of The Mysteries of Udolpho. Here’s how Nelson S. Smith explained it, in “Sense, Sensibility and Ann Radcliffe” in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 Vol. 13, No. 4, Nineteenth Century (Autumn, 1973), pp. 577-590:

“Throughout Dorothee's story of the Marchioness, prolonged over nearly forty pages, Mrs. Radcliffe hints that Emily might be her daughter. Later, Emily visits a dying nun, Agnes, who resides at the monastery of St. Claire. The first story which Emily hears suggests that Agnes may be the Marchioness. But Agnes turns out to be the original owner of Udolpho, mistakenly thought by Emily among others, to have been murdered by Montoni. Agnes then confirms that Emily must be the illegitimate daughter of St. Aubert and the Marchioness. When things finally get straightened out, the Marchioness turns out to be St. Aubert's sister (which explains the picture and the papers) whom he kept secret from Emily "whose sensibility he feared to awaken". …”

So I thought, hmmmm… that sounds a lot like Eliza when the Gardiners bring her to Pemberley. And so it’s no surprise that such passage in P&P is strikingly picturesque, given how central the picturesque was to Radcliffe’s fiction, including Udolpho.

But there’s more, and I’ll let the late Brian Southam (in Jane Austen’s Literary Manuscripts, 1964) set up the next part of my claim:   “First Impressions may also have begun as a literary satire…The object of the burlesque is hinted at in the title, for the phrase ‘first impressions’ comes directly from the terminology of sentimental literature…She would have known a…recent usage in The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), where the heroine is told that by resisting first impressions she will ‘acquire that steady dignity of mind, that can alone counterbalance the passions.’ Here, as commonly in popular fiction, ‘first impressions’ exhibit the strength and truth of the heart’s immediate and intuitive response, usually love at first sight…There is a striking reversal of this concept in P&P; first impressions are effective with Elizabeth Bennet, yet in circumstances altogether unsentimental. The moment she catches sight of Darcy’s family home, she feels ‘that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!’; it is this sense of property which warms her heart towards Darcy, as she later admits to Jane, jokingly, but speaking more truly than she knows, confessing to a worldliness, a common humanity which no sentimental heroine could possess …Her violent first impressions of Darcy derive from prejudice and false reasoning…she has to learn how little the first impressions of her sharp intelligence are to be trusted…”

Southam was spot-on in all respects (and Tony Tanner approved Southam’s arguments a decade later), but he was not armed with the perspective I now have, of the “déjà vu” aspect of Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley. Therefore, Southam couldn’t possibly realize yet another, punning meaning of JA’s original novel title “First Impressions”, which I flashed on this morning, and which my Subject Line hints at. I.e., when viewed through the lens of Eliza returning to her childhood home Pemberley, “first impressions” suggests that she is remembering her first “first impressions” in her entire life, when she was a small child at Pemberley!

But, within the ambit of that alternative reading, note that Elizabeth does not heed Radcliffe’s warning! She doesn’t do so, because she doesn’t realize that she’s falling under the powerful spell of “first impressions” formed nearly two decades earlier. These first “first impressions” exert a powerful influence on the adult mind, as Freud so aptly explained a century ago. And so, not recognizing them for what they are, Elizabeth does not resist them, she does not counterbalance the passion they arouse in her heart, and she instead mistakenly attributes them to Darcy himself, and her (otherwise justified) resistance to Darcy crumples and disintegrates.

And finally, in that same vein, I found one other remarkable punning textual wink at this same shadow meaning in the very famous exchange between Eliza and Lady Catherine during their epic showdown in the Longbourn wilderness. This is the perfect place for JA to hide such a wink in plain sight, since it is prompted by Lady Catherine’s panic that Eliza will shortly be returning to Pemberley again, but this time as its mistress!

And so when Lady C thunders her grandest line of impassioned oratory, “Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?", Elizabeth has had quite enough: "You can now have nothing further to say," she resentfully answered. "You have insulted me in every possible method.

And that’s the perfect moment for JA to then wink at us via Elizabeth’s next line:

“I must beg to return to the house."

Do you get it? Of course, on the surface, we all understand that Eliza means to say that she must go back inside the house there and then at Longbourn, from the wilderness where she and Lady C have been walking. It’s Elizabeth’s deliberately defiant and impolite way of terminating their  head-butting “tete-a-tete”  on her own terms, and we cheer her for it. But, in the shadow story, Elizabeth is also unwittingly speaking on a metaphorical level. She’s saying “I must beg to return to Pemberley, my rightful home of origin, by marrying Darcy!”
And, in the shadow story of P&P, that is, alas, nothing to cheer for.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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