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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Three or four families in a country village (Longbourn) so very favourably arranged by Jane

As another followup to my omnibus post about the pervasive picturesque subtext of P&P, I wish to revisit and expand the section of that earlier post which I now quote:

“CLUE #9: 1814: Letter 107 to Anna Austen Lefroy:
“You describe a SWEET PLACE, but your descriptions are often more minute than will be liked. You give too many particulars of right hand and left. Mrs. Forester is not careful enough of Susan's HEALTH. Susan ought not to be WALKING out so soon after HEAVY RAINS, taking LONG WALKS IN THE DIRT. An anxious mother would not SUFFER it. I like your Susan very much; she is a SWEET creature, her PLAYFULNESS of FANCY is very DELIGHTFUL. I like her as she is now exceedingly, but I am not quite so well satisfied with her behavior to George R. At first she seems all over ATTACHMENT and feeling, and afterwards to have none at all; she is so extremely CONFUSED at the BALL, and so well satisfied APPARENTLY with Mr. Morgan. She seems to have CHANGED her character. You are now COLLECTING your people DELIGHTFULLY, getting them exactly into such a SPOT as is the DELIGHT of my life. THREE OR FOUR families IN A COUNTRY village is the very thing to work on, and I hope you will do a GREAT deal more, and make FULL use of them while they are SO VERY FAVOURABLY ARRANGED. “
ANSWER #9: This is the passage which actually first sent me down the research path that eventually led straight to all of the rest of the above Gilpinian picturesque subtext of P&P. As you can see from the words I have now put in ALL CAPS, Jane Austen’s very very famous critique of her niece’s nascent novel is completely saturated in the very specific verbiage of the picturesque. While no Austen scholar before me has ever specifically identified this passage as one giant sendup of the picturesque, Beatrice Battaglia came close in 2006, by including that quotation in an excellent discussion of JA’s authorial deployment of picturesque elements in her fiction in “The Politics of Narrative Picturesque: Gilpin 's Rules of Composition in Ann Radcliffe 's and JA's Fiction”.
It’s no coincidence, I say, that Letter 107 was written about one year after publication of P&P, because it shows that she has not for one second forgotten her amazing Gilpinesque achievement in the writing of P&P itself, most of all in that most famous line about “three or four families in a country village”.
Why? Because, once you take the proper point of view, and look at Letter 107 through the lens of P&P, you realize instantly (as I did last week) that “three or four families in a country village” is a subtle satire of Gilpin’s three or four cows arranged in a landscape, which JA parodied by having Elizabeth Bennet apply that image to the three “cows”, Darcy and the Bingley sisters, in the Netherfield shrubbery!”

I now suggest to you another passage in P&P which I believe Jane Austen held strongly in mind as she wrote to niece Anna, and that is the following dialog in the Netherfield salon in Chapter 9. I suggest you read it as a veiled commentary on the “picturesque” aspects of a country village, not in terms of the physical scenery of the village, but whether a person of taste and intelligence would enjoy the society there; and then compare that reading to the very closely related question addressed by JA’s famous advice to Anna, above, which was whether an author of taste and intelligence would choose a country village as a sufficiently picturesque (in that same human sense) setting for a novel. In other words, a place too boring to live in would also be a place too boring to set a story in:

"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."
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?"
"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."
"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."

I believe JA smiled to herself when she had Mrs. Bennet exaggerate the size of her social circle, which, as far as we can tell from the novel, really was limited to three or four families (the Bennets, the Lucases, the inhabitants of Netherfield Hall, and the Philipses), and a long way from four-and-twenty!

But in any event, it’s a fascinating exercise to compare Jane’s advice to Anna with how closely her advice tracks the events in P&P, such as Elizabeth’s long walk in the dirt to Netherfield after the rain, and her delightful playfulness of fancy. It’s clear that Anna had read P&P the year before, and had been inspired by that reading to attempt her own version of such a novel—an attempt which, whether due to her rapidfire pregnancies, or some other reason, came to nought in the end.  

In the remainder of this post, I will quote passages in P&P into which JA has subtly and metaphorically worked the language of pictorial art and the picturesque deeply into the warp and weave of her fiction:

Chapter 8: "She has nothing, in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent walker. I shall never forget her APPEARANCE this morning. She really looked almost wild."
"She did, indeed, Louisa. I could hardly keep my countenance. Very nonsensical to come at all! Why must she be scampering about the country, because her sister had a cold? Her hair, so untidy, so blowsy!"
"Yes, and her petticoat; I hope you saw her petticoat, six inches deep in mud, I am absolutely certain; and the gown which had been let down to hide it not doing its office."
"Your PICTURE may be very exact, Louisa," said Bingley; "but this was all lost upon me. I thought Miss Elizabeth Bennet LOOKED remarkably well when she came into the room this morning. Her dirty petticoat quite escaped my notice."
"You OBSERVED it, Mr. Darcy, I am sure," said Miss Bingley; "and I am inclined to think that you would not wish to see your sister make such an EXHIBITION."
"Certainly not."
"To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! What could she mean by it? It seems to me to SHOW an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country-town indifference to decorum."

Chapter 18: “…I have always seen a great similarity in the turn of our minds. We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the eclat of a proverb."
"This is no very STRIKING RESEMBLANCE of your own character, I am sure," said he. "How near it may be to mine, I cannot pretend to say. You think it a FAITHFUL PORTRAIT undoubtedly."
"I must not decide on my own PERFORMANCE."
He made no answer, and they were again silent… 
...”May I ask to what these questions tend?"
"Merely to the ILLUSTRATION of your character," said she, endeavouring to shake off her gravity. "I am trying to make it out."
"And what is your success?"
She shook her head. "I do not get on at all. I hear such different accounts of you as puzzle me exceedingly."
"I can readily believe," answered he gravely, "that reports may vary greatly with respect to me; and I could wish, Miss Bennet, that you were not to SKETCH my character at the present moment, as there is reason to fear that the PERFORMANCE would reflect no credit on either."
"But if I do not take your LIKENESS now, I may never have another opportunity."
"I would by no means SUSPEND any pleasure of yours," he coldly replied… 

As I have pointed out in the past, I love the pun on “suspend”, which can also refer to the sketch of Darcy’s character which would hang (i.e., suspend) on the wall of Elizabeth’s mind!

Chapter 26: The house, furniture, neighbourhood, and roads, were all to [Charlotte’s] TASTE, and Lady Catherine's behaviour was most friendly and obliging. It was Mr. Collins's PICTURE of Hunsford and Rosings rationally SOFTENED; and Elizabeth perceived that she must wait for her own visit there to know the rest.

Chapter 27: Absence had increased her desire of seeing Charlotte again, and weakened her disgust of Mr. Collins. There was NOVELTY in the scheme, and as, with such a mother and such uncompanionable sisters, home could not be faultless, A LITTLE CHANGE was not unwelcome for its own sake. The journey would moreover give her a PEEP at Jane; and, in short, as the time drew near, she would have been very sorry for any delay. Everything, however, went on smoothly, and was finally settled according to Charlotte's FIRST SKETCH. She was to accompany Sir William and his second daughter. The IMPROVEMENT of spending a night in London was ADDED in time, and the PLAN became perfect as PLAN could be.

So, more and more, it becomes clear that Gilpin’s picturesque was at the very center of JA’s authorial vision and metaphor as she wrote (and then lopt and cropt, terms oddly resonant to the functions in a computer image program!) P&P.  Jane had indeed discovered the secret of translation of Gilpin’s visual theory into words on the page, just as I claim she adapted Holbein’s anamorphic technique in The Ambassadors to her double-story novels.

Cheer, ARNIE

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