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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Austen’s shockingly subversive & risque allusion to The Marriage of Figaro in Pride & Prejudice

I’ve been saying for some time that Andrew Davies is an even sharper elf than he’s been given credit for in giving us the great gift of his four Austen film adaptations (and when if ever will he wave his magic cinematic wand over Mansfield Park and Persuasion?). In particular, I not only strenuously contest the common assertion that his adaptations have overly sexed up Jane Austen’s novels, I assert the opposite: i.e., that there’s a great deal more eroticism just under the surface in all of JA’s fiction, and so Davies’s occasional sexualized scenes are actually tame representations of what Austen actually intended.

Today, I’m back with another sly Davies gem, which I only recently fully grasped. One of the many romantic moments in Andrew Davies’s 1995 P&P occurs when Eliza sings an aria that entrances Darcy in the Pemberley salon:    Singing in English, the lyrics perfectly describe the surprisingly powerful love for Darcy that has seized Eliza’s heart, a love of which she cannot quite make sense:

You who know what love is, Ladies, see if I have it in my heart.
I'll tell you what I'm feeling, It's new for me, and I understand nothing.
I have a feeling, full of desire, Which is by turns delightful and miserable.
I freeze and then feel my soul go up in flames, Then in a moment I turn to ice.
I'm searching for affection outside of myself, I don't know how to hold it, nor even what it is!
I sigh and lament without wanting to, I twitter and tremble without knowing why,
I find peace neither night nor day, But still I rather enjoy languishing this way.
You who know what love is, Ladies, see if I have it in my heart.

In 2009, I wrote the following in an email to Richard Jenkyns (Austen descendant, Oxford prof, and attendee at my 2007 Oxford presentation) about a passage in A Fine Brush on Ivory:
“I just went to see The Marriage of Figaro…I was strongly struck during the first act by Susannah's concern that Count Almaviva might send Figaro on a wild goose chase 3 miles away, and then pounce on her--it was strikingly similar to what I believe Knightley actually does do with Mr. Elton in order to get him out of the vicarage for several hours (while Mrs Elton is also, not coincidentally, being entertained by Miss Bates). And then I was also struck by the Count's attempting to send Cherubino away as an officer, in order to get him far away from his manor, and connected that dot to Darcy's arranging for Wickham (who is, like Figaro, very likely the son of the deceased Count) to be sent out of town as an officer when he marries Lydia. And then I was also struck by the situation of cross dressing courtship in The Marriage of Figaro that was so reminiscent of Twelfth Night. And that is when…I reread, with new eyes, the section of your book in which you point out the striking authorial career parallelism between Shakespeare (Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure) and Austen (P&P and Mansfield Park) and Mozart (Figaro and Don Giovanni)…”

Then, a couple of years ago, I posted the following in Janeites & Austen-L about Davies’s decision to have Elizabeth sing an aria from Figaro in his film: 
“…Emily Auerbach wrote at P. 158 of Searching for Jane Austen:  “Elizabeth probably shared the thoughts of Figaro in his daring monologue from Marriage of Figaro: “Because you’re a great lord, you think you’ve a great mind as well! Nobility, fortune, rank, power, it makes a man proud. What have you done to deserve all that? You went to the trouble of being born, nothing more. “ Rest of that quote: “As for the rest -- you're really rather mediocre. Whereas I? ye gods! Buried among the nameless crowd, I've had to deploy more skill, more calculation, simply to survive, than it would take to govern the whole of Spain for a century!"” And I think Davies knew of this connection because he has Lizzy sing a love song from The Marriage of Figaro in his adaptation.,,,”

Many will recognize, as I did then, that Voi se chapete comes from The Marriage of Figaro; but only Mozart opera buffs would know that, in the opera itself, this particular aria is sung by a female soprano playing a male character—Cherubino —the young page who gets into sticky romantic wickets. Here’s a video of Frederika von Stade as Cherubino:  And, for quick orientation, here is Wikipedia’s synopsis of the part of Act Two which includes this aria:

“The Countess laments her husband's infidelity…Susanna comes in to prepare the Countess for the day. She responds to the Countess's questions by telling her that the Count is not trying to "seduce" her; he is merely offering her a monetary contract in return for her affection. Figaro enters and explains his plan to distract the Count with anonymous letters warning him of adulterers. He has already sent one to the Count (via Basilio) that indicates that the Countess has a rendezvous of her own that evening. They hope that the Count will be too busy looking for imaginary adulterers to interfere with Figaro and Susanna's wedding. Figaro additionally advises the Countess to keep Cherubino around. She should dress him up as a girl and lure the Count into an illicit rendezvous where he can be caught red-handed. Figaro leaves.
Cherubino arrives, sent in by Figaro and eager to co-operate. Susanna urges him to sing the song he wrote for the Countess (aria: Voi che sapete che cosa è amor – "You ladies who know what love is, is it what I'm suffering from?"). After the song, the Countess, seeing Cherubino's military commission, notices that the Count was in such a hurry that he forgot to seal it with his signet ring (which would be necessary to make it an official document). They proceed to attire Cherubino in girl's clothes…and Susanna goes out to fetch a ribbon. While the Countess and Cherubino are waiting for Susanna to come back, they suddenly hear the Count arriving. Cherubino hides in the closet. The Count demands to be allowed into the room and the Countess reluctantly unlocks the door. The Count enters and hears a noise from the closet. He tries to open it, but it is locked. The Countess tells him it is only Susanna, trying on her wedding dress…”

Which brings me to the epiphany I had last month, while revisiting all of the above re: my seeing Figaro as a source for P&P. My eye was caught by the italicized sentences in that synopsis. Can those of you who know the text of P&P guess what specific passage in P&P I was reminded of by “Cherubino” and “cross-dressing”? As an additional hint, I blogged only 2 months ago about an uncanny resonance with that same specific passage in P&P of the following excerpts from JA’s 1801 letter to Cassandra about JA’s travel to, and then arrival in, Bath:
“…Between Luggershall and Everley we made our grand meal, and then with admiring astonishment perceived in what a magnificent manner our support had been provided for. We could not with the utmost exertion consume above the twentieth part of the BEEF. The CUCUMBER will, I believe, be a very acceptable present, as my uncle talks of having inquired the price of one lately, when he was told a shilling….
…The CHAMBERLAYNES are still here. I begin to think better of Mrs. C----, and upon recollection believe she has rather A LONG CHIN than otherwise, as she remembers us in Gloucestershire when we were very charming young women.…My mother has ordered a new BONNET, and so have I; both white strip, TRIMMED with white ribbon. I find my straw BONNET looking very much like other people's, and quite as smart. BONNETS of cambric muslin on the plan of Lady Bridges' are a good deal worn, and some of them are very pretty; but I shall defer one of that sort till your arrival. …We have had Mrs. Lillingstone and the CHAMBERLAYNES to call on us. My mother was very much struck with the ODD LOOKS of the two latter; I have only seen her. Mrs. Busby drinks tea and plays at cribbage here to-morrow; and on Friday, I believe, we go to the CHAMBERLAYNES….”

Now, that’s a pretty big hint!---think about it, and then scroll down for my answer……



My epiphany was to be reminded by Voi se chapete of the following passage in Chapter 39 of P&P:

“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."

This of course is Lydia regaling Elizabeth (who is en route home from Kent) at a roadside inn with sexually suggestive details of events involving a crossdressed soldier whose name, CHAMBERLAYNE, is very very similar to CHERUBINO! That scene did not make it into Davies’s 1995 film adaptation, and so it might appear that Davies had missed its significance, but now I believe, after understanding that Davies has Ehle sing Cherubino’s aria at Pemberley, that I have caught Davies in the act of sly greatness, as I now realize that he shifted JA’s Figaro allusion from the roadside inn to the Pemberley salon.

Skeptical? Well, then, here’s the capper. Recall what Miss Bingley says to Elizabeth in that very same scene in the novel which Davies adapted by having Elizabeth sing at Pemberley, singing which, by the way, does not occur in the novel text:
“…in the imprudence of anger, [Caroline] took the first opportunity of saying, with sneering civility:
"Pray, Miss Eliza, are not the ——shire Militia removed from Meryton? They must be a great loss to your family." In Darcy's presence she dared not mention Wickham's name; but Elizabeth instantly comprehended that he was uppermost in her thoughts; and the various recollections connected with him gave her a moment's distress; but exerting herself vigorously to repel the ill-natured attack, she presently answered the question in a tolerably detached tone. While she spoke, an involuntary glance showed her Darcy, with a heightened complexion, earnestly looking at her, and his sister overcome with confusion, and unable to lift up her eyes.”

In short, then, Davies connects Figaro to Wickham in a different scene than JA did. And I also see JA adding some sly wordplay to subliminally emphasize the connection of Wickham and pal Chamberlayne to Figaro’s oversexed Cherubino. The “cherubim” of the Bible were, of course, daunting, unearthly beings who do God’s bidding- and so it is surely no accident that Wickham is referred to twice in P&P as an “angel”—with the added irony of course, that the Angel of Light in the Bible is Lucifer!

[Lydia] "You will laugh when you know where I am gone, and I cannot help laughing myself at your surprise to-morrow morning, as soon as I am missed. I am going to Gretna Green, and if you cannot guess with who, I shall think you a simpleton, for there is but one man in the world I love, and he is an ANGEL…”

All Meryton seemed striving to blacken the man who, but three months before, had been almost an ANGEL OF LIGHT. He was declared to be in debt to every tradesman in the place, and his intrigues, all honoured with the title of seduction, had been extended into every tradesman's family. Everybody declared that he was the wickedest young man in the world; and everybody began to find out that they had always distrusted the appearance of his goodness…

In conclusion, I will return within the next week with a followup post about some other significant implications I see in JA having covertly alluded in so shocking a way to gender-bending in Figaro. But for today I leave you with this final teaser---the idea that caused me to recently revisit my long-standing intuition that Figaro was an important allusive source for P&P, was my sense of the shadow Darcy as a version of Figaro’s Count Almaviva – more specifically, my sense that the Count’s attempts to exercise his “droit du seigneur” on Susannah before her impending wedding with Figaro is echoed by the shadow Darcy as similarly doing much the same with a variety of women within his considerable sphere of influence. And that brings me right back to Richard Jenkyns’s sharp observation that Wickham, like Figaro, might be illegitimate sons of the late Count/Mr. Darcy, respectively.

It tells me that another reason for Lydia being sworn to secrecy about Darcy’s presence in London before and during the wedding of Wickham and Lydia, besides Darcy’s supposed modesty:

“ [Lydia] “…Well, I was so frightened I did not know what to do, for my uncle was to give me away; and if we were beyond the hour, we could not be married all day. But, luckily, he came back again in ten minutes' time, and then we all set out. However, I recollected afterwards that if he had been prevented going, the wedding need not be put off, for Mr. Darcy might have done as well."
"Mr. Darcy!" repeated Elizabeth, in utter amazement.
"Oh, yes!—he was to come there with Wickham, you know. But gracious me! I quite forgot! I ought not to have said a word about it. I promised them so faithfully! What will Wickham say? It was to be such a secret!"
"If it was to be secret," said Jane, "say not another word on the subject. You may depend upon my seeking no further."
"Oh! certainly," said Elizabeth, though burning with curiosity; "we will ask you no questions."
"Thank you," said Lydia, "for if you did, I should certainly tell you all, and then Wickham would be angry."
On such encouragement to ask, Elizabeth was forced to put it out of her power, by running away.”

Why would Wickham have been angry? Might the actual need for secrecy have instead been in order not to bring scrutiny to what “droit” Darcy, the “seigneur” of Austen’s comic “opera”, might have been exercising with Lydia the night before her wedding to Wickham?

And that’s a shocking twist that I am pretty sure even the daring, insightful sexer-upper Andrew Davies did not spot. ;)

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

Beverlee S said...

I'm going to throw a fly into the ointment. My objections are hardly based on solid ground for there are many explanations which would disprove my thoughts, but... here goes anyway.

While Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, it was written between 1796-97. Mozart's opera was first performed in Vienna in 1786, but it didn't receive it's first performance in England until 1812. Therefore, it is unlikely that Jane Austen was influenced by the opera. However, I'm happy to concede that the story was well-known before Miss Austen set pen to paper, and Mozart's magnificent version is hardly the first time Beaumarchais' play was set to music. Just grist for the mill.