(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, November 25, 2016

A wine-glass, FULL OF SOMETHING: Mrs. Jennings’s surprisingly potent Constantia wine

I expect this post will be the last of the new wrinkles in S&S that I’m bringing forward this week, after poking my nose into the shadow story of S&S for the first time in a long while. Just over a year ago, I last revisited my claim that Marianne D. (like Jane F. in Emma) endures a secret pregnancy during the action of the novel in which she is the shadow heroine: 

In that last revisiting, I asserted that (also like Jane F.) Marianne must give up her newborn baby to a married woman who pretends to have borne it– in this case Mrs. Palmer. But I’ve never tried to explain how and when Marianne manages to give birth to her child, without Elinor, her frequent companion, knowing about it. Why? Because I hadn’t ever sleuthed it out! Whereas, with Jane Fairfax, I long ago spotted the textual hints in Emma --the “bustle” going on behind closed doors at the Bates apartment, when Emma drops by to visit Jane and Miss Bates after Box Hill, but Jane refuses to greet the penitent Emma. Miss Bates tearfully reports Jane’s words, “It must be born(e)”—and it (or rather, she, meaning Anna Weston) was indeed born just then.

Until this week, I never could locate the comparable climax of Marianne’s concealed childbirth ordeal. I was sure that the extreme distress Marianne suffers at the end of Ch. 28 and start of Ch. 29 is in large part the onset of labor pains, the deeper explanation for Marianne’s acute physical symptoms and crying, which Elinor believes are only due to Marianne’s upset over Willoughby. But then I saw it—it’s actually very similar to Jane Fairfax’s “It must be born(e)”---in the following passage –see if you can spot it:  
“[Mrs. Jennings] then went away, walking on tiptoe out of the room, as if she supposed her young friend's affliction could be increased by noise. Marianne, to the surprise of her sister, determined on dining with them. Elinor even advised her against it. But "no, she would go down; she could bear it very well, and the bustle about her would be less." Elinor, pleased to have her governed for a moment by such a motive, though believing it hardly possible that she could sit out the dinner, said no more; and adjusting her dress for her as well as she could, while Marianne still remained on the bed, was ready to assist her into the dining room as soon as they were summoned to it….” END QUOTE

Here it is ---- “She would go down; she could bear it very well, and the bustle about her would be less.” I now see that this was Marianne speaking in code, understood only by Mrs Jennings’ eavesdropping ears just outside the door --- to be translated by the kindly old lady (who, despite the decoy of Marianne’s negative comments about her, actually fulfills the identical protective role as Miss Bates, in shielding a pregnant young charge through a safe, secret childbirth) as follows:
“The baby is going down” i.e., it is beginning to drop, and therefore I, Marianne, could bear the pain very well by myself for the next several hours; but...when it gets down to crunch time, later tonight, it will be necessary to eliminate all “bustle” (the identical word used in Emma when Emma visits while Jane F. is giving birth) around her---i.e., Marianne wants Mrs. Jennings to do something to take Elinor out of the picture during the final part of the delivery process, so that Elinor will not witness what must be concealed from her (irony of ironies, given that Marianne claims to conceal nothing!).

But is there also a veiled description of that final stage of Marianne’s childbirth? It could not, as I originally speculated, be the day of Elinor’s outing to Kensington Gardens in Ch. 38. While that seemed  a promising lead, because it is a pretty long outing from which Marianne begs off on the excuse of not wanting to run into the Willoughbys there, it couldn’t be, for the major reason that it was about 8 weeks after Marianne’s night of labor pains. No, it had to be much earlier, soon after those labor pains began.

And that sets the stage for what I also noticed earlier this week, while working on my post about Mrs. Jennings’s Constantia wine as a marker of JA’s Eve of St. Agnes/St. Constantia subtext. The additional textual clues popped out at me, so to speak, right there at the end of Ch. 30:
“And then rising, [Elinor] went away to join Marianne, whom she found, as she expected, in her own room, leaning, in silent misery, over the small remains of a fire, which, till Elinor's entrance, had been her only light.
"You had better leave me," was all the notice that her sister received from her.
"I will leave you," said Elinor, "if you will go to bed." But this, from the momentary perverseness of impatient suffering, she at first refused to do. Her sister's earnest, though gentle persuasion, however, soon softened her to compliance, and Elinor saw her lay her aching head on the pillow, and as she hoped, in a way to get some quiet rest before she left her.”

So in this scene, Marianne plays her part by making sure that Elinor will not approach her again that evening, while Mrs. Jennings and Elinor socialize with friends. Then, it’s Mrs. Jennings’s turn to take care of the later part, and here’s what that resourceful lady comes up with:

“In the drawing-room, whither [Elinor] then repaired, she was soon joined by Mrs. Jennings, with a wine-glass, full of something, in her hand. "My dear," said she, entering, "I have just recollected that I have some of the finest old Constantia wine in the house that ever was tasted, so I have brought a glass of it for your sister. My poor husband! how fond he was of it! Whenever he had a touch of his old colicky gout, he said it did him more good than any thing else in the world. Do take it to your sister."
"Dear Ma'am," replied Elinor, smiling at the difference of the complaints for which it was recommended, "how good you are! But I have just left Marianne in bed, and, I hope, almost asleep; and as I think nothing will be of so much service to her as rest, if you will give me leave, I will drink the wine myself."
Mrs. Jennings, though regretting that she had not been five minutes earlier, was satisfied with the compromise; and Elinor, as she swallowed the chief of it, reflected, that though its effects on a colicky gout were, at present, of little importance to her, its healing powers, on a disappointed heart might be as reasonably tried on herself as on her sister.” END QUOTE

Here's my shadow story interpretation: Mrs. Jennings would already have known that Marianne had sent Elinor away for the rest of the evening, and so Mrs. Jennings’s offer, accompanied by a little spiel touting the benefits of Constantia wine were actually intended solely for Elinor’s own ears all along! And note that Elinor takes Mrs. Jennings’s bait, hook, line, and sinker! We read that Elinor “swallowed the chief of it”; and that brings us to the key point.

That phrase “wine-glass, full of something” could have the totally innocent meaning that Elinor sees the wine-glass in Mrs. Jennings’s hand, but has no idea what sort of wine it is, a suspense which lasts only two seconds, until she learns that it is Constantia wine. But…that phrasing is deliberately ambiguous on JA’s part, since it also has the connotation that the wine in the glass is “full of something” – and that “something” that the Constantia wine is “full of” was a slow-acting Regency Era sleeping draught, the kind that would take a couple of hours to really knock Elinor out, and then keep her sound asleep for a dozen hours (not quite as long as the “two and forty” hours that Juliet sleeps in the tomb)!

And the next clue I see in the text, that fits with that subversive reading is what we eventually read, after Colonel Brandon and the other guests have left, is the following sentence at the beginning of Chapter 31:
“From a night of more sleep than she had expected, Marianne awoke the next morning to the same consciousness of misery in which she had closed her eyes.”

What does “more sleep than she had expected” refer to? The normal reading of that sentence is that it refers to Marianne, because who else could the two “she’s” refer to? Well, allow me to suggest a radical alternative –how about Elinor! I.e., what if that sentence is a reflection of Elinor’s own perceptions as she awakens from a very long sleep? She looks at the clock, notices it is far beyond her own usual hour of waking, and then looks over at Marianne, who appears to Elinor to be in the same miserable state as she was when Elinor went to sleep. But what Elinor has no clue about is that, just like Juliet awakening from her long sleep in the tomb after taking the sleeping potion, only to see Romeo’s and Paris’s corpses, without any idea as to how this occurred, so too does Elinor, who has been drugged by Mrs. Jennings, have no idea that in the intervening 12 hours Elinor has slept through the noisy bustle of Marianne’s delivery!

But there’s still one more subtle clue in the text that addresses the next question that must be in your mind by now—where is the newborn baby when Elinor wakes up? Just follow Mrs. Jennings the next morning, and you can deduce the answer:
“Mrs. Jennings left them earlier than usual; for she could not be easy till the Middletons and Palmers were able to grieve as much as herself; and positively refusing Elinor's offered attendance, went out alone for the rest of the morning.”  END QUOTE

We may readily infer that the real reason Mrs. Jennings had to leave “earlier than usual” and go to the Palmers who were staying with the Middletons, and why she went without Elinor, was in order to drop the baby off with his new (secretly) adoptive mother, Charlotte Palmer!

And that is my version of Marianne Dashwood’s childbirth, with the following two postscripts:

First, getting back to the Eve of St. Agnes, how ironic, then, if that same night witnessed both:

the virgin Elinor having a long dream-filled sleep just a few days before the Eve of St. Agnes, the patron saint of virgins, and also

the birth of a child to Elinor’s non-virginal sister, Marianne.

Second and last, I wonder whether it is relevant to my above interpretation of Marianne’s childbirth that Fanny Austen (later Knight), the firstborn of all the Austen nieces and nephews, was born on Jan 23, 1793, when Jane Austen was seventeen – and that was the same date in real life as the fictional date in S&S when Marianne’s daughter was born. Almost a sister indeed!

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

No comments: