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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The little “great” alteration that Lydia notices in the Longbourn sitting room

While I do the overwhelming majority of my literary sleuthing online and on my computer, I still sometimes have occasion to delve into actual tangible books I hold in my hands (I have three whole shelves of books by and about Jane Austen), and yesterday I spent an enjoyable stretch browsing and rereading essays in Donald Gray’s Norton Critical Edition of P&P, for the first time in several years. My first reaction was to salute Gray and the Norton Critical Editions people for including extended excerpts from 4 or 5 essays about P&P which make, at least in part, what I consider to be excellent subversive readings of important aspects of P&P. I’ll write about each of them in the coming week, and today I’ll begin by talking about something remarkable I was prompted to discover after reading something in Nina Auerbach’s 1978 essay “Waiting Together: Pride and Prejudice”.

Auerbach’s major point that resonated most strongly with me is summed up by her here: 
“The acknowledged center of power in the novel is the shadowy Darcy…Elizabeth is overcome by a kind of social vitalism…like the shadowy ‘Duke of dark corners’ in Measure for Measure, he moves behind the scenes and secretly arranges the marriages of the three Bennet girls.” 

Those pithy comments anticipate my full-fledged vision of the Machiavellian Darcy of the shadow story of P&P, and I heartily recommend the rest of her essay to you all. However, today I want to focus on a small snippet of it, in which Auerbach discusses the strange insubstantiality of Longbourn as a place, due to JA’s dearth of physical description thereof in Chapter 51 of P&P:

“When the unregenerate Lydia return[ed] to make everyone miserable as the family’s first bride, and look[ed] ‘eagerly round the room, took notice of some little alteration in it, and observed, with a laugh, that it was a great while since she had been there”, it matters to nobody what the little alteration might be.” END QUOTE FROM AUERBACH ARTICLE

My eyes widened at the tantalizingly vague word “alteration”, which I had identified years ago as one of the many euphemistic words (others include ‘borne’, ‘expectation’, ‘interesting condition’, and ‘swelled’) by which JA subliminally hinted at concealed pregnancies in all her novels. All my experience of JA’s cryptic clueing was telling me that this was a clue to something like that; not, as Auerbach seemed to think, a trivial moving of a sofa from one part of the room to the other that no reader had any reason to care about. I quickly retrieved the full relevant excerpt to try to glean some more clues: 

“Lydia was Lydia still; untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless. She turned from sister to sister, demanding their congratulations; and when at length they all sat down, looked eagerly round the room, took notice of some little alteration in it, and observed, with a laugh, that it was a great while since she had been there.”

That full excerpt showed me that Auerbach had not thought far enough outside the box to grasp that the “little alteration” was not in the furnishings of the room, but in someone — “in it”—i.e. a little alteration in one of Lydia’s sisters! The key to solving this little mystery is to pay close attention to the physical details that Jane Austen actually provides, rather than looking in vain for the physical details she does not. In this case, we are told that Lydia turned from sister to sister (a lot of turning, since she has 4 sisters!), and then JA takes care to repeat the placement of the 4 other sisters within the space of the room, now seated around Lydia. I’m reminded (not coincidentally, I suggest) of Elizabeth’s playful allusion to Gilpin earlier in the novel, in the Netherfield shrubbery, except this time it’s Lydia who is laughing at others, not Eliza: “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."

And here’s the key—I see in Lydia’s laughing observation a giant hint as to what sort of alteration she notices — it is indeed that Lydia is having some uncharitable fun at the expense of one of her sisters, whose physical appearance has altered during Lydia’s months away — altered, that is, by having given birth to a child in the interim!

That hint is that Lydia laughs first and then says that she has been gone “a great while”. Lydia is slyly making the point that one of her sisters had been “great” — with child, that is — when Lydia left around May 10, and was now, over three months later, in late August, no longer “great” with child. But which sister?

At first, not thinking carefully, I thought it was Jane Bennet, since I’ve been saying since 2010 that Jane is secretly pregnant when the action of the novel begins (e.g., it is her morning sickness, not getting caught in the rain, which is the actual “illness” that forces her to spend most of her visit to Netherfield in bed). But I quickly realized, today, that it can’t be Jane to whom Lydia is referring, since the chronology is all wrong. I recalled that I had figured out a while ago that Jane Bennet goes to London to stay with the Gardiners so she can have her illegitimate child under the cloak of the anonymity of the great metropolis, far away from the probing eyes of sister Elizabeth and also the gossip hothouse known as Meryton. But Jane is already back at Longbourn before Lydia leaves for Brighton, so it can’t be Jane who has altered during Lydia’s absence. 

That brought me up short. I hadn’t previously considered the possibility that yet another Bennet sister might be pregnant, but which one? It certainly wasn’t Eliza, and I already knew from prior close readings that there was nothing in the small number of lines spoken by Mary, or in the small amount of narration about her, that in any way hinted in that direction. By process of elimination, that left only Kitty! I decided to investigate that possibility, in deference to Sherlock Holmes’s famous credo:  “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

So I began to think about Kitty Bennet as an (improbable, but possible) unmarried pregnant girl in the shadow story of P&P, and the first thing I recalled, promisingly, was my finding, several years ago, that Kitty has depths unsuspected by Elizabeth, through whose eyes we experience Kitty. I knew that Kitty’s sarcastic coughing at the beginning of the novel, when Mr. and Mrs. Bennet engage in their famous repartee about his contacting Mr. Bingley, showed that Kitty had a sharp mind and wit. 

But were there any textual clues elsewhere in the novel hinting at a much more significant hidden life of Kitty’s—of her being in a family way? 

I quickly collected a number of passages that seem relevant, and will go through them with you, below, in order, except that I will first present the one I found that really knocked my socks off. It’s the following passage in Chapter 42, by the light of which a heretofore “dark corner” of Kitty’s life was shockingly illuminated:

“By the middle of June, Kitty was SO MUCH RECOVERED as to be able to enter Meryton WITHOUT TEARS”

I don’t deny that the context of the above in the overt story is clear— that Kitty took over a month to get over herself regarding not being allowed to go with Lydia to Brighton. Not a big deal. But if we read that quoted sentence against the grain, what pops out at us (so to speak) from the ALL CAPS verbiage is extraordinary, when combined with Lydia’s laughing comment 9 chapters (and over 2 months) later. Everyone knows that the period of time for mothers to recover from childbirth can vary, depending on how easy the delivery is. 

And that’s where JA’s punning mastery comes in — while we overtly read “without tears” to mean that Kitty no long cries tears (rhymes with ‘tiers’), there is also a pun in the word “tears”, which, when pronounced to rhyme with “fares”,  refers to rips, rents, or slits in fabric, paper, or. ….. human flesh! You see now where I’m going with this — one of the events which can occur during delivery which can significantly extend her recovery time is that the mother can suffer unusual injuries (‘tears”), especially in the case of a large newborn being borne by a petite mother.

So, was the above sentence JA’s way of alerting us to look at Kitty as a pregnant mother, who gives birth shortly after Lydia leaves for Brighton? I think so, and now, let’s walk through the other relevant passages I collected from the text of P&P, and I’ll show you the delicate textual palimpsest that JA weaves in this regard.


Ch. 39:   …both KITTY and Lydia looking out of a dining-room up stairs. These two girls had been above an hour in the place, happily employed in visiting an opposite milliner, watching the sentinel on guard, and DRESSING A salad and CUCUMBER.

The sexual innuendo of that “cucumber”, involving both Kitty and Lydia, is strongobvious.

“…We dressed up Chamberlayne in woman's clothes on purpose to pass for a lady, only think what fun! Not a soul knew of it, but Colonel and Mrs. Forster, and KITTY and me, except my aunt, for we were forced to borrow one of her gowns; and you cannot imagine how well he looked! When Denny, and Wickham, and Pratt, and two or three more of the men came in, they did not know him in the least. Lord! how I laughed! and so did Mrs. Forster. I thought I should have died. And that made the men suspect something, and then they soon found out what was the matter."
With such kinds of histories of their parties and good jokes, did Lydia, ASSISTED BY KITTY’S HINTS and additions, endeavour to amuse her companions all the way to Longbourn. 

And even more so is the sexual innuendo clear in the above passage—and note that Kitty is associated with sexual activity and hints as well as Lydia.

“…As we went along, Kitty and I drew up the blinds, and pretended there was nobody in the coach; and I should have gone so all the way, IF KITTY HAD NOT BEEN SICK…”

And note that Lydia’s R-rated suggestion of sex play needing to be concealed, is prevented because Kitty is “sick”. This would be within a short time before Kitty would give birth.

Ch. 41: "And my aunt Phillips is sure [sea-bathing] would DO ME A GREAT DEAL OF GOOD," added Kitty.

And so, here again is slipped in a subtly veiled implication that Kitty is not well.

"I cannot see why Mrs. Forster should not ask me as well as Lydia," said she, "Though I am not her particular friend. I have just as much right to be asked as she has, and more too, for I am two years older.”

And we may wonder about Kitty’s not being able to go for a very different reason, i.e. that she is about to give birth!


The following passages cover the time period that Lydia is away, and look at what we read right before the above-quoted “smoking gun” about Kitty’s recovery from her tears:

Ch. 42: [Lydia’s] letters were always LONG EXPECTED, and always very short…from her correspondence with her sister, there was still less to be learnt—for her letters to Kitty, though rather longer, were much too full of lines under the words to be made public.

In addition to the pun on “long expected”, we may now wonder whether Lydia’s letters to Kitty had to be written in a kind of code to conceal the portions thereof relating to Kitty’s imminent childbirth ordeal.

After the first fortnight or three weeks of her absence, HEALTH, good humour, and cheerfulness began to reappear at Longbourn. Everything wore a happier aspect. The families who had been in town for the winter came back again, and summer finery and summer engagements arose. 

And once again, subtly, the restoration not merely of good humor and cheerfulness, but of health, is slipped into the narrative.
Now we move ahead a bit in time, to when Lydia elopes.

Ch. 46: To Kitty, however, it does not seem SO WHOLLY UNEXPECTED.

Again, that same pun on expectation and childbirth.

Poor Kitty has anger FOR HAVING CONCEALED their ATTACHMENT; but as it was a matter of confidence, one cannot wonder. 

Ch. 47: “…Mary and Kitty, thank Heaven, are QUITE WELL.”

And yet again, it seems Kitty’s health is always under consideration.  

In the dining-room they were soon joined by Mary and Kitty, who had been too busily engaged in their separate apartments to make their appearance before. One came from her books, and THE OTHER [Kitty] WITH HER TOILETTE. The faces of both, however, were tolerably calm; and no change was visible in either, except that the loss of her favourite sister, or the anger which she had herself incurred in this business, had given MORE OF FRETFULNESS THAN USUAL TO THE ACCENTS OF KITTY. “

And yet again, we are subtly directed to think about Kitty’s body, and her complaints. 

“…Kitty then owned, with a very natural triumph on knowing more than the rest of us, that in Lydia's last letter she had prepared her for such a step. She had known, it seems, of their being in love with each other, many weeks."

"Mary and Kitty have been very kind, and would have shared in every fatigue, I am sure; but I did not think it right for either of them. Kitty is SLIGHT AND DELICATE…”

And here we get another clue — Kitty is given a pass by Jane that is not given to Mary, so as to avoid causing Kitty fatigue, because Kitty is slight and delicate, which connects back to her “tears”.

Ch. 48: "This is a parade," he cried, "which does one good; it gives such an elegance to misfortune! Another day I will do the same; I will sit in my library, in my nightcap and powdering gown, and give as much trouble as I can; or, perhaps, I may defer it till Kitty runs away."
"I am not going to run away, papa," said Kitty fretfully. "If I should ever go to Brighton, I would behave better than Lydia."
"You go to Brighton. I would not trust you so near it as Eastbourne for fifty pounds! No, Kitty, I have at last learnt to be cautious, and you will feel the effects of it. No officer is ever to enter into my house again, nor even to pass through the village. Balls will be absolutely prohibited, unless you stand up with one of your sisters. And you are never to stir out of doors till you can prove that you have spent ten minutes of every day in a rational manner."
Kitty, who took all these threats in a serious light, began to cry.
"Well, well," said he, "do not make yourself unhappy. If you are a good girl for the next ten years, I will take you to a review at the end of them.”

The above passage, which appears to be pure comedy, also carries a dark possible implication - could it be that Mr. Bennet’s unwillingness to allow Kitty to go away is a clue to the identity of the father of Kitty’s illegitimate child?—I.e., Mr. Bennet himself? It would certainly fit with the patriarchal incest theme that comes to the fore in the shadow story of Emma, with Mr. Woodhouse as a latter day Antiochus from Shakespeare’s Pericles.

And that last disturbing suggestion is totally consistent all of the following passages in the final chapters of the novel, which have that same common theme— that Kitty is not going to leave Longbourn anytime soon—and it won’t be for a good reason.

Ch. 55: It was an evening of no common delight to them all; the satisfaction of Miss Bennet's mind gave a glow of such sweet animation to her face, as made her look handsomer than ever. Kitty simpered and smiled, and hoped her turn was coming soon. …Mary petitioned for the use of the library at Netherfield; and Kitty begged very hard for a few balls there every winter.

Ch. 59: "It may do very well for the others," replied Mr. Bingley; "but I am sure it will be too much for Kitty. Won't it, Kitty?" Kitty owned that she had rather stay at home. 

So, in honor of Kitty Bennet, it seems fitting if I end with a cough— because, regarding her coughing at the beginning of P&P, was I correct last year that Kitty was just being sarcastic about her parents’ tired old vaudeville routine? Or, behind that comedy, was there a darker timbre to her coughing, perhaps referring to Kitty’s extreme skepticism that her father will EVER let her get away from Longbourn?

That being said, I hope that the following, final reference to Kitty in the novel suggests that Elizabeth and Jane have taken matters into their own hands, in rescuing Kitty from the need for further coughing. 

Ch. 61: Kitty, to her very material advantage, spent the chief of her time with her two elder sisters. In society so superior to what she had generally known, her improvement was great. She was not of so ungovernable a temper as Lydia; and, removed from the influence of Lydia's example, she became, by proper attention and management, less irritable, less ignorant, and less insipid. From the further disadvantage of Lydia's society she was of course carefully kept, and though Mrs. Wickham frequently invited her to come and stay with her, with the promise of balls and young men, her father would never consent to her going.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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