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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Mrs. Bennet’s triumph over Darcy: a radical explanation

The steady flow of Pride & Prejudice fanfics continues to flood the world of Jane Austen, unabated since it first welled up in the aftermath of the great 1996 A&E/BBC P&P film starring Ehle & Firth. However, every so often, one comes out (such as McCullough’s The Independence of Mary Bennet and P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley) that provides a welcome alternative to hyper-romance and monsters. I may’ve just stumbled upon another such rare spinoff from P&P – Mrs. Bennet’s Sentiments by Dori Salerno:

Here’s the blurb that, together with the sample chapter at, gives me hope that Saleron’s novel is a worthy presentation of the story of P&P from the point of view of a non-foolish Mrs. Bennet:     “Jane Austen’s mother tells all! Jane Austen's Mrs. Bennet, mother of five difficult teenage daughters, is silent no more. Those who grew up enjoying Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" will delight in "Mrs. Bennet's Sentiments". Tired of having her ungrateful girls roll their eyes at her, and watching her husband return to his man cave, Mrs. Bennet finally tells all. "Mrs. Bennet surprises them all." "She defies the conventions of the day -- proving the old adage 'Mother knows best'".”

This theme caught my eye, because Mrs. Bennet is one of the many secondary characters in P&P who I have long believed are very different in the shadow story of P&P than in the overt story. In the latter, Mrs. Bennet is viewed from Elizabeth’s decidedly jaundiced point of view of her mother, which infuses the narrator’s initial, withering narrative assessment of her:

“…the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.”

There’s also prior scholarly support for an alternative view of Mrs. Bennet. In Judith Wylie’s excellent "Dancing in chains: feminist satire in Pride and Prejudice." Persuasions 22 (2000), which I heartily recommend you all to read in full, we read:

“…in the tradition of the satiric trickster, Austen turns her comedic message inside out, by interpolating within the seemingly conservative tenor of her novels a satiric feminist subtext quite at odds with the surface conventionality, a strategy that Susan Fraiman calls "counternarrative." This dialogic style allows women writers to "argue in the same track as men" through their depiction of the "ideal" female but also to present "dissident tracks" that undercut this patriarchal icon of feminine behavior. These "dissident tracks" are often traversed by a minor female character whose words and behavior are criticized while the heroine, conforming to the romantic narrative direction of the text, is held up as the untarnished role model. In Pride and Prejudice, the "dissident track" is cut by a truth-telling female monster, Mrs. Bennet, who is employed to question masculine prerogatives. On the surface, Mrs. Bennet seems to be the perfect subject for ridicule because she appears to be truly silly and mindless. The author's veiled feminist message is revealed only when the reader looks past the humor aimed at women and then asks why a character such as Mrs. Bennet acts as she does….”

I take Wylie’s excellent reading of Mrs. Bennet against the grain as a starting point, but I believe Mrs. Bennet can plausibly be seen as having many hidden depths and much mystery. For example, she may well be very intelligent, even sly. Very much as with my reading of Miss Bates in the shadow story of Emma, one can see Mrs. Bennet’s dithering motormouth persona as an act designed to keep her off the radar, so she can operate discreetly in the shadows.

And, in a different vein, as I blogged a few years ago here….   ….  Mrs. Bennet’s perpetual “nerves” may be seen as a Regency Era precursor of the classic “Dear I’ve got a headache” excuse given by the stereotypical modern wife who wishes to avoid her conjugal “duties”.

And…I’ve also found textual evidence that suggests that Mrs. Bennet is not merely foolish, but might actually be psychotic, having an imaginary friend named Mrs. Long:

But most relevant of all to my understanding of the tumultuous courtship of Elizabeth by Darcy, is my longstanding firm belief that the shadow Mrs. Bennet actually knows some very important, even explosive facts about Mr. Darcy, which she feels she cannot share with daughter Elizabeth. This puts Mrs. Bennet in the same category of secondary female character in P&P as Charlotte Lucas, Mrs. Gardiner, and Mary Bennet, in that I see them all, in the shadow story, operating behind the scenes, in order to influence the outcome of that courtship.

And that brings me to the topic I had originally planned to write about this week, even before I came upon Mrs. Bennet’s Sentiments. Last month, I mentioned a particularly interesting essay in the Norton Critical Edition of P&P, one part of which I wanted to discuss and react to. That article is “Getting the Whole Truth in Pride and Prejudice“ by Tara Ghoshal Wallace from Jane Austen and Narrative Authority (1995) 45-58, which can actually be accessed online here:

While I urge you all to read Wallace’s entire article, here’s the beginning, to which I will respond, particularly because it relates directly and specifically to my above discussion of Mrs. Bennet as intelligent and sly:

“Of all Jane Austen's novels, Pride and Prejudice ends most serenely. The marriage that will perfectly balance Elizabeth Bennet's 'ease and liveliness' with Fitzwilliam Darcy's 'judgement, information, and knowledge of the world,' the stability of Pemberley and the capitulation of even Miss Bingley and Lady Catherine all point to a closure which eliminates ambiguities and achieves coherence. Impediments (the Bennet family's vulgarities, for example) become irrelevant, and mysteries (such as Mr Bingley's inconsiderate behaviour) are cleared up.
Looking back at the narrative, however, I locate three puzzling moments not adequately explained or contained by the text's impulse towards clarity and closure. And in attempting to 'solve' the mysteries of these moments, I discover not only their resistance to my efforts to fix meaning but also a general epistemological uncertainty. Pride and Prejudice thematizes a narrative problem: it exposes the inadequacies alike of careful reticence, of ambiguity, and of absolute assurance, demonstrating how each of these strategies serves to block access to the 'whole truth' in narrative.” END QUOTE, WALLACE

So far, so good, and now here’s the part that relates to Mrs. Bennet as an intelligent woman:

“The first of the baffling but provocative moments describes a reaction to one of Mrs Bennet's many mindless assertions. To Elizabeth's generalization, 'people themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them for ever,' Mrs Bennet adds, 'Yes indeed ... I assure you there is quite as much of that going on in the country as in town.' Then follows narrative commentary on the effect of her statement: 'Every body 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.' There is no explanation as to why this innocuous inanity should give rise to so much surprise, silence and triumph. “

If you read the rest of Wallace’s essay at the above link, as best I understand her conclusions, she tries to have it both ways, purporting to both honor the happy ending, but at the same time suggest some larger purpose to the cruxes and uncertainties she discusses. For me this is quintessential orthodox Austen scholarship: a competent close-reader of the text detects irregularities and ambiguities, asks good questions, but then is unable to provide a satisfying explanation. And the reason she cannot explain her  discovery, is because her belief system about what an Austen novel can be is fatally limited.

So, how do I give a better explanation for why Mrs. Bennet’s “innocuous inanity should give rise to so much surprise, silence and triumph”?

Very simple. I’ve previously pointed out, dating back to 2010, that Mrs. Bennet’s triumph makes perfect sense, if she and Darcy have been speaking to each other in code during that entire scene in the Netherfield salon, a code that Eliza (and therefore also the reader) is not privy to.

Let me therefore provide you some interspersed, decoding commentary to translate each Mrs. Bennet’s statements, to show the deeper reason why she comes to Netherfield—which is to confront Darcy with a reminder of a very unpleasant fact about Jane’s “illness” which he would rather forget, now that he has turned his amorous attention to Elizabeth. That unpleasant fact, which I first spoke about publicly in 2011 to the SoCal JASNA chapter, is that Darcy (to put it bluntly) knocked Jane Bennet up during her last visit with the Gardiners a few months earlier in London!

Regardless of whether you’ve read my prior posts that have touched on this point, and what you think about them, I invite you all to let me walk you through this scene anyway, and show you how it fits into that particular subtextual theme in the shadow story of P&P—see what you think:

“…Mrs. Bennet, accompanied by her two youngest girls, reached Netherfield soon after the family breakfast….. [Bingley] "I wish I might take this for a compliment; but to be so easily seen through I am afraid is pitiful."
"That is as it happens. It does not follow that a deep, intricate character is more or less estimable than such a one as yours."

"Lizzy," cried her mother, "remember where you are, and do not run on in the wild manner that you are suffered to do at home."
[TRANSLATION: “Lizzy, don’t you dare say anything that will scare Bingley away from marrying Jane, because she needs to be married soon or we Bennets will have a BIG problem!”]

“I did not know before," continued Bingley immediately, "that you were a studier of character. It must be an amusing study."
"Yes, but intricate characters are the most amusing. They have at least that advantage."
"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."
[TRANSLATION: “Lizzy, don’t say anything that will cause Bingley to observe how Jane’s body is beginning to “alter”. And Darcy, don’t think I don’t know you knocked Jane up when she was in town!” That’s the “triumph” Elizabeth observes, without having a clue as to its meaning. And that’s why Darcy looks at Mrs. Bennet for a moment, and then turns silently away].

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?"
[TRANSLATION: Mrs. Bennet picks up on the “country” sexual innuendo that Hamlet made famous why talking to Ophelia about “country matters”, and she is saying, in code, Jane is a vast deal pleasanter than any alternative for 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."
[TRANSLATION: Just because Darcy doesn’t want to marry Jane after knocking her up, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t, Mr. Bingley”]

"Indeed, Mamma, you are mistaken," said Elizabeth, blushing for her mother. "You quite mistook Mr. Darcy. He only meant that there was not such a variety of people to be met with in the country as in the town, which you must acknowledge to be true."

"Certainly, my dear, nobody said there were; but as to not meeting with many people in this neighbourhood, I believe there are few neighbourhoods larger. I know we dine with four-and-twenty families."
[TRANSLATION: “And by the way, Mr. Darcy, Jane is approaching 24 weeks of pregnancy, and is therefore getting larger!” Bingley and his sister both get the “joke”, and that’s why he can hardly keep his countenance, and she smiles expressively at Darcy, not the reason Elizabeth infers. As you can see, Elizabeth is much more like Emma than has previously been understood.]

Nothing but concern for Elizabeth could enable Bingley to keep his countenance. His sister was less delicate, and directed her eyes towards Mr. Darcy with a very expressive smile. Elizabeth, for the sake of saying something that might turn her mother's thoughts, now asked her if Charlotte Lucas had been at Longbourn since her coming away.

"Yes, she called yesterday with her father. What an agreeable man Sir William is, Mr. Bingley, is not he? So much the man of fashion! So genteel and easy! He has always something to say to everybody. That is my idea of good breeding; and those persons who fancy themselves very important, and never open their mouths, quite mistake the matter."
[TRANSLATION: “Mr. Darcy, you’ve turned my eldest daughter into a “breeding animal”, don’t you dare do anything to deter Bingley from marrying Jane!”]

"Did Charlotte dine with you?"
"No, she would go home. I fancy she was wanted about the mince-pies. For my part, Mr. Bingley, I always keep servants that can do their own work; my daughters are brought up very differently. But everybody is to judge for themselves, and the Lucases are a very good sort of girls, I assure you. It is a pity they are not handsome! Not that I think Charlotte so very plain—but then she is our particular friend."
[TRANSLATION: “Lizzy, how can you be so clueless about Charlotte? She’s a lesbian in love with you and you still don’t realize it!”]

[Bingley] "She seems a very pleasant young woman."

"Oh! dear, yes; but you must own she is very plain. Lady Lucas herself has often said so, and envied me Jane's beauty. I do not like to boast of my own child, but to be sure, Jane—one does not often see anybody better looking. It is what everybody says. I do not trust my own partiality. When she was only fifteen, there was a man at my brother Gardiner's in town so much in love with her that my sister-in-law was sure he would make her an offer before we came away. But, however, he did not. Perhaps he thought her too young. However, he wrote some verses on her, and very pretty they were."
[TRANSLATION: “Charlotte is a lesbian, but Jane is beautiful and straight, PLUS, Mr. Darcy, in case you would also like to forget, it was YOU who was first introduced to her by my brother Gardiner—your business associate---six years ago in London, and you wrote her some pretty poetry then before you jilted her without warning.”]

"And so ended his affection," said Elizabeth impatiently. "There has been many a one, I fancy, overcome in the same way. I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love!"
"I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love," said Darcy.
[TRANSLATION: That’s why Darcy defends the unnamed poet—it’s because it was him! And that’s why he “only smiled” in the next paragraph]

"Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away."
Darcy only smiled; and the general pause which ensued made Elizabeth tremble lest her mother should be exposing herself again. She longed to speak, but could think of nothing to say; and after a short silence Mrs. Bennet began repeating her thanks to Mr. Bingley for his kindness to Jane, with an apology for troubling him also with Lizzy.  END QUOTE

And that is my explanation for the anomaly that Tara Ghoshal Wallace first pointed out 22 years ago. 

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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