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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, August 1, 2016

Darcy Dreadful: Austen’s Kantian, Smithian Anti-Romance of Real Life in Pride & Prejudice

My wife and I were both disappointed when the critically acclaimed Showtime series Penny Dreadful recently ended its 3-year run. A clever mashup of famous English literary characters like Dorian Gray, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll, and Frankenstein and his monster, it was anchored by the hypnotic, sustained charisma of Eva Green, with support from the likes of Josh Hartnett. Billie Piper, Timothy Dalton, and Patti Lupone.

I mention this, because of the show’s title, which Wikipedia describes thusly: “[It] refers to the “penny dreadfuls”, a type of 19th-century British fiction publication with lurid and sensational subject matter.” While reading the end of Pride & Prejudice today, I was reminded of Penny Dreadful when I came upon the familiar line spoken by Darcy as he and Elizabeth debrief their stormy courtship, and the subject of his letter which turns the tide in his favor comes up:   "When I wrote that letter," replied Darcy, "I believed myself perfectly calm and cool, but I am since convinced that it was written in a DREADFUL bitterness of SPIRIT."

The word “dreadful” is of course what reminded me of Penny Dreadful, but what led me to write this post today was my further association from Penny Dreadful to Charlotte Smith’s Romance of Real Life, a book which I first wrote about in 2011 here…. , when I began as follows:

In 1787 (when JA was 12), Charlotte Smith published Romance of Real Life, a series of vignettes drawn from a French book describing a number of “causes celebres”, accounts of trials for infamous crimes. The title of Smith’s book is thus immediately seen to be extremely ironic, even macabre, in light of the extraordinarily UNromantic nature of her stories!  The first such horrid real life story is that of “The Marchioness de Gange”, and it is the reason for my post today. It begins with the following extraordinary paragraph:  
“It has been asserted, that there is in human nature a propensity to every kind of evil; and that persons of the best disposition, and most liberal education, may find themselves in such situations as will, if their passions are suffered to predominate, betray them into the most frightful excesses, into crimes which cannot be related without horror. Under the dominion of such dreadful passions the Abbe and the Chevalier de Gange must have been, when they committed the inhuman cruelties which are the subject of the following narrative.”
I called that passage “extraordinary” because most Janeites will immediately hear an echo of the above passage in Mr. Darcy’s very famous summation of human nature: "There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil -- a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome." 

At first these two statements might seem not to be expressing a particularly unique opinion about human nature. Therefore, such opinion might be independently arrived at and asserted by various authors unknown to each other. However, upon more minute inspection, the repetition of the identical words “disposition”, “education”, and “evil”, coupled with the very specific (and disturbing) claim that even a good or liberal education, and/or a good disposition, was no guaranty against an outburst of evil under provocative circumstances, make it extremely likely that JA had Smith’s statement in mind when she put those specific words in Darcy’s mouth.”  END QUOTE FROM MY 2011 POST

In that 2011 post, I illustrated many uncanny, shocking parallels of language and situation between the bestial, controlling, narcissistic, and diabolical Marquis de Gange in Smith’s dramatization, on the one hand, and Darcy in Pride & Prejudice, on the other. I’m back today with two very specific postscripts:

First, as I previously suggested, above, Darcy’s formulation about evil in human character was clearly inspired by Smith’s more elaborate formulation on that subject. However, now I further claim that behind Smith’s 1787 formulation is a more famous one, published in 1781, as summarized here:   “Immanuel Kant: Radical Evil”
“…Obedience to the moral law, of which Kant believes religion should be an example, appears to be an expectation that is neither universally nor willingly practiced. What is notable about the first 2 chapters of Religion is that he addresses this phenomenon in a manner that his Enlightenment predecessors had not: The failure of human moral agents to observe the moral law is symptomatic of a character or disposition that has been corrupted by an innate propensity to evil, which is to subordinate the moral law to self-conceit. Because this propensity corrupts an agent’s character as a whole, and is the innate “source” of every other evil deed, it may be considered “radical.” However, this propensity can be overcome through a single and unalterable “revolution” in the mode of thought, which is simultaneously the basis for a gradual reform of character in the mode of sense; for without the former, there is no basis for the latter...Kant’s account of radical evil demonstrates how evil can be a genuine moral alternative while nevertheless being an innate condition. Given the general optimism of the time, Kant’s view was revolutionary. It not only harkened back to an older Augustinian account of human nature, but also affirmed a propensity to evil within human nature using his apparatus of practical reason.”END QUOTE

I’ve read through the sections of Kant’s writings summarized above, and I’ve come away convinced that Charlotte Smith, whose own life had led her to an all-too-personal experience of the consequences of the evil of privileged males visited on female victims, had written her Romance of Real Life in order to bring home, as only well written fiction can, a real sense of living that experience. I.e., the Marquis de Gange, while way over the top, represents all the many, less horrid male domestic tyrants of that era.

Given my knowledge of Jane Austen’s astonishing erudition and breadth of knowledge not only of the fictional canon in her era, but also the canon of Enlightenment thought, including Kant’s, I believe she has Darcy paraphrase both Kant and Charlotte Smith, because, as I’ve been arguing for a long while now, the Mr. Darcy of the shadow story of P&P is also a portrait of the widespread evil symbolized by Smith’s Marquis de Gange.

Which brings me to my second postscript. Smith’s Kantian introduction concludes with: “Under the dominion of such DREADFUL PASSIONS the Abbe and the Chevalier de Gange must have been, when they committed the INHUMAN CRUELTIES which are the subject of the following narrative.”  Before today, I hadn’t previously noticed how strongly Austen links the word “dreadful”, and also “inhuman cruelty”, to Mr. Darcy in P&P--not only when he referred to his “dreadful bitterness of spirit” while recalling the writing of his letter, but also in all the following passages in P&P. As you read each “dreadful”, I suggest you think about the linkage in each case to Darcy:

Chapter 9: [Mrs. Bennet] "Aye—that is because you have the right DISPOSITION. But that gentleman," looking at Darcy, "seemed to think the country was nothing at all."

Chapter 11: [Darcy] "There is, I believe, in every DISPOSITION a tendency to some particular EVIL—a natural defect, which not even the BEST EDUCATION can overcome."
[Elizabeth] "And your defect is to hate everybody."
"And yours," he replied with a smile, "is willfully to misunderstand them."

Chapter 16:  "But what," said [Jane to Lizzy], after a pause, "can have been [Darcy’s] motive? What can have induced him to behave so CRUELLY?…I had not thought Mr. Darcy so bad as this—though I have never liked him. I had not thought so very ill of him. I had supposed him to be despising his fellow-creatures in general, but did not suspect him of descending to such malicious revenge, such injustice, such INHUMANITY as this."
After a few minutes' reflection, however, [Elizabeth] continued, "I do remember his boasting one day, at Netherfield, of the implacability of his resentments, of his having an unforgiving temper. His DISPOSITION must be DREADFUL."

Chapter 18:  Till Elizabeth entered the drawing-room at Netherfield, and looked in vain for Mr. Wickham among the cluster of red coats there assembled, a doubt of his being present had never occurred to her…in an instant arose the DREADFUL suspicion of his being purposely omitted for Mr. Darcy's pleasure in the Bingleys' invitation to the officers..."
…Nothing that she could say, however, had any influence. Her mother would talk of her views in the same intelligible tone. Elizabeth blushed and blushed again with shame and vexation. She could not help frequently glancing her eye at Mr. Darcy, though every glance convinced her of what she DREADED; for though he was not always looking at her mother, she was convinced that his attention was invariably fixed by her. The expression of his face changed gradually from indignant contempt to a composed and steady gravity.

Chapter 31: "Pray let me hear what you have to accuse him of," cried Colonel Fitzwilliam. "I should like to know how he behaves among strangers."
"You shall hear then—but prepare yourself for SOMETHING VERY DREADFUL. The first time of my ever seeing him in Hertfordshire, you must know, was at a ball—and at this ball, what do you think he did? He danced only four dances, though gentlemen were scarce; and, to my certain knowledge, more than one young lady was sitting down in want of a partner. Mr. Darcy, you cannot deny the fact."

Chapter 34: His complexion became pale with anger, and the disturbance of his mind was visible in every feature. He was struggling for the appearance of composure, and would not open his lips till he believed himself to have attained it. The pause was to Elizabeth's feelings DREADFUL.

Chapter 35:  “My objections to the marriage were not merely those which I last night acknowledged to have the utmost force of PASSION to put aside, in my own case; the want of connection could not be so great an EVIL to my friend as to me….”
…”As for myself, it is many, many years since I first began to think of him in a very different manner. The VICIOUS PROPENSITIES—the want of principle, which he was careful to guard from the knowledge of his best friend, could not escape the observation of a young man of nearly the same age with himself, and who had opportunities of seeing him in unguarded moments, which Mr. Darcy could not have…”
…"This, madam, is a faithful narrative of every event in which we have been concerned together; and if you do not absolutely reject it as false, you will, I hope, acquit me henceforth of CRUELTY towards Mr. Wickham….”

Chapter 39: “But [Darcy’s] pride, his abominable pride—his shameless avowal of what he had done with respect to Jane—his unpardonable assurance in acknowledging, though he could not justify it, and the unfeeling manner in which he had mentioned Mr. Wickham, his CRUELTY towards whom he had not attempted to deny, soon overcame the pity which the consideration of his attachment had for a moment excited.

Chapter 40: Miss Bennet paused a little, and then replied, "Surely there can be no occasion for exposing [Wickham] so DREADFULLY. What is your opinion?"

Chapter 42: Elizabeth said no more—but her mind could not acquiesce. The possibility of meeting Mr. Darcy, while viewing the place, instantly occurred. It would be DREADFUL! She blushed at the very idea,

Chapter 43: They descended the hill, crossed the bridge, and drove to the door; and, while examining the nearer aspect of the house, all her apprehension of meeting its owner returned. She DREADED lest the chambermaid had been mistaken. On applying to see the place, they were admitted into the hall; and Elizabeth, as they waited for the housekeeper, had leisure to wonder at her being where she was.
…"From what we have seen of him," continued Mrs. Gardiner, "I really should not have thought that he could have behaved in so CRUEL a way by anybody as he has done by poor Wickham. He has not an ill-natured look. On the contrary, there is something pleasing about his mouth when he speaks. And there is something of dignity in his countenance that would not give one an unfavourable idea of his HEART…"

Chapter 44: While these newly-born notions were passing in their heads, the perturbation of Elizabeth's feelings was at every moment increasing. She was quite amazed at her own discomposure; but amongst other causes of disquiet, she DREADED lest the partiality of the brother should have said too much in her favour; and, more than commonly anxious to please, she naturally suspected that every power of pleasing would fail her.

Chapter 46: "Let me call your maid. Is there nothing you could take to give you present relief? A glass of wine; shall I get you one? You are very ill."
"No, I thank you," she replied, endeavouring to recover herself. "There is nothing the matter with me. I am quite well; I am only distressed by some DREADFUL news which I have just received from Longbourn." She burst into tears as she alluded to it, and for a few minutes could not speak another word. Darcy, in wretched suspense, could only say something indistinctly of his concern, and observe her in compassionate silence. At length she spoke again. "I have just had a letter from Jane, with such DREADFUL news. It cannot be concealed from anyone…"

Chapter 48: The present unhappy state of the family rendered any other excuse for the lowness of her spirits unnecessary; nothing, therefore, could be fairly conjectured from that, though Elizabeth, who was by this time tolerably well acquainted with her own feelings, was perfectly aware that, had she known nothing of Darcy, she could have borne the DREAD of Lydia's infamy somewhat better. It would have spared her, she thought, one sleepless night out of two.

Chapter 52: “…"On the very day of my coming home from Longbourn, your uncle had a most unexpected visitor. Mr. Darcy called, and was shut up with him several hours. It was all over before I arrived; so my curiosity was not so DREADFULLY racked as yours seems to have been. He came to tell Mr. Gardiner that he had found out where your sister and Mr. Wickham were, and that he had seen and talked with them both; Wickham repeatedly, Lydia once. …”
The vague and unsettled suspicions which uncertainty had produced of what Mr. Darcy might have been doing to forward her sister's match, which she had feared to encourage as an exertion of goodness too great to be probable, and at the same time DREADED to be just, from the pain of obligation, were proved beyond their greatest extent to be true!

Chapter 58: Instead of receiving any such letter of excuse from [Bingley’s] friend, as Elizabeth half expected Mr. Bingley to do, he was able to bring Darcy with him to Longbourn before many days had passed after Lady Catherine's visit. The gentlemen arrived early; and, before Mrs. Bennet had time to tell him of their having seen his aunt, of which her daughter sat in momentary DREAD…
…"I knew," said [Darcy], "that what I wrote must give you pain, but it was necessary. I hope you have destroyed the letter. There was one part especially, the opening of it, which I should DREAD your having the power of reading again. I can remember some expressions which might justly make you hate me…When I wrote that letter…I believed myself perfectly calm and cool, but I am since convinced that it was written in a DREADFUL bitterness of spirit."

Chapter 59: Elizabeth's mind was now relieved from a very heavy weight; and, after half an hour's quiet reflection in her own room, she was able to join the others with tolerable composure. Every thing was too recent for gaiety, but the evening passed tranquilly away; there was no longer anything material to be DREADED, and the comfort of ease and familiarity would come in time.

So now you know why I am more convinced than ever that Jane Austen fully intended to repeatedly ping the “penny dreadful” aspects of the story of the monstrous Marquis de Gange in Charlotte Smith’s Romance of Real Life with every, single Darcyesque ‘dreadful’ in P&P.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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