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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

P.S. re Who inspired Elizabeth Bennet to “bound over decorous prejudices” and straight into our hearts?


In my previous post, I gathered together several strands of convergent evidence, and crystallized it all in support of my claim that Elizabeth Bennet’s bounding, jumping walk from Longbourn to Netherfield, and the reactions of the Bingleys and Darcy thereto, were both drenched in the theme of female empowerment advocated for in Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 Vindication. What often happens in the aftermath of writing such a post, is that I later find another avenue of inquiry left unsleuthed, leading to still more corroborative evidence.

It turns out that such post is no exception to my rule. Yesterday, in my mop-up operation, I tried a few fresh Google searches pairing different snippets from Austen and Wollstonecraft, and that led me to yet another key node of interconnection! I’ll let Aussie prof William Christie explain the first part – here’s an excerpt from his book chapter entitled “Interpreting the Politics of P&P” (2016). First Christie quotes the following passage from Chapter 4 of the Vindication, which, as you will see, is about the mind-body connection in female education:

“I am fully persuaded, that we should hear of none of these infantine airs, if girls were allowed to take sufficient exercise and not confined in close rooms till their muscles are relaxed and their powers of digestion destroyed. To carry the remark still further, if fear in girls, instead of being cherished, perhaps, created, were treated in the same manner as cowardice in boys, we should quickly see women with more dignified aspects. It is true, they could not then with equal propriety be termed the sweet flowers that smile in the walk of man; but they would be more respectable members of society, and discharge the important duties of life by the light of their own reason. "Educate women like men," says Rousseau, "and the more they resemble our sex the less power will they have over us." This is the very point I aim at. I do not wish them to have power over men; but over themselves.”

Christie then comments thereon:   
“Wollstonecraft’s protest is a salutary reminder of the politics of fresh air in Romantic Britain. The extension to women of the vogue of walking and touring. Like Jean Jacques Rousseau, Elizabeth [Bennet] had a ‘love of solitary walks’- it meant a measure of bodily emancipation, the ideological significance of which is as evident as the ideological significance of Elizabeth’s energy and independence: [followed by quotes from the passages describing Elizabeth’s walk to Netherfield and the Bingleys-Darcy critique thereof].
This walk to Netherfield, as Jill Heydt-Stevenson points out, is ‘an act of jouissance that heightens her vitality.’ Elizabeth is singled out by the novel and by its hero for her ‘animal spirits’ expressed her in the ‘impatient activity’ of present participles that might as appropriately be applied to her ‘liveliness’ of mind and conversation: ‘crossing’, ‘jumping,’ ‘springing’, ‘glowing’. So it is later [in P&P], when she breaks off from the unaccommodating order of Netherfield society to run ‘gaily off, rejoicing as she rambled about…” END QUOTE FROM CHRISTIE

So here we now have yet another passage from early in Wollstonecraft’s Vindication which Jane Austen has clearly woven into the heart of the fabric of that same short but iconic scene early in P&P! Christie was unaware of the other Wollstonecraft echoes which I described in my post 2 days ago, and so he only goes so far and then moves on to his next subject. But now I hope you join me in seeing still more beyond Christie’s excellent observation.

In particular, I hope you smile, as I do, when considering that Darcy’s droll observation, which so disconcerts Miss Bingley, that Elizabeth’s eyes were “brightened by the exercise” of her muddy walk, was meant by JA to remind the reader of Wollstonecraft’s above-quoted advocacy for women having healthy bodies and healthy minds as a holistic unity! But that turns out to be only the start of a walk of textual discovery that I unexpectedly took today!


Even as I wrote that last comment about Elizabeth’s exercise-brightened eyes in Chapter 8, I realized that there was yet another, closely related Wollstonecraftian gem hidden in plain sight only two chapters earlier in Chapter 6 of P&P, which, as I will now show you, is illuminated in the identical way when viewed through this same Wollstonecraftian lens.

I refer to the following famous scene at Lucas Lodge in Chapter 6:

“Mr. Darcy stood near them in silent indignation at such a mode of passing the evening, to the exclusion of all conversation, and was too much engrossed by his thoughts to perceive that Sir William Lucas was his neighbour, till Sir William thus began: “What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy! There is nothing like dancing after all. I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished society.”   “Certainly, sir; and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world. Every savage can dance.”  Sir William only smiled. “Your friend performs delightfully,” he continued after a pause, on seeing Bingley join the group; “and I doubt not that you are an adept in the science yourself, Mr. Darcy.”  “You saw me dance at Meryton, I believe, sir.”
“Yes, indeed, and received no inconsiderable pleasure from the sight. Do you often dance at St. James's?”   “Never, sir.”  “Do you not think it would be a proper compliment to the place?” “It is a compliment which I never pay to any place if I can avoid it.” “You have a house in town, I conclude?”  Mr. Darcy bowed. “I had once had some thought of fixing in town myself—for I am fond of superior society; but I did not feel quite certain that the air of London would agree with Lady Lucas.”
He paused in hopes of an answer; but his companion was not disposed to make any; and Elizabeth at that instant moving towards them, he was struck with the action of doing a very gallant thing, and called out to her: “My dear Miss Eliza, why are you not dancing? Mr. Darcy, you must allow me to present this young lady to you as a very desirable partner. You cannot refuse to dance, I am sure when so much beauty is before you.” And, taking her hand, he would have given it to Mr. Darcy who, though extremely surprised, was not unwilling to receive it, when she instantly drew back, and said with some discomposure to Sir William: “Indeed, sir, I have not the least intention of dancing. I entreat you not to suppose that I moved this way in order to beg for a partner.”
Mr. Darcy, with grave propriety, requested to be allowed the honour of her hand, but in vain. Elizabeth was determined; nor did Sir William at all shake her purpose by his attempt at persuasion. “You excel so much in the dance, Miss Eliza, that it is cruel to deny me the happiness of seeing you; and though this gentleman dislikes the amusement in general, he can have no objection, I am sure, to oblige us for one half-hour.”
“Mr. Darcy is all politeness,” said Elizabeth, smiling. “He is, indeed; but, considering the inducement, my dear Miss Eliza, we cannot wonder at his complaisance—for who would object to such a partner?”
Elizabeth looked archly, and turned away. Her resistance had not injured her with the gentleman, and he was thinking of her with some complacency, when thus accosted by Miss Bingley: “I can guess the subject of your reverie.”  “I should imagine not.” “You are considering how insupportable it would be to pass many evenings in this manner—in such society; and indeed I am quite of your opinion. I was never more annoyed! The insipidity, and yet the noise—the nothingness, and yet the self-importance of all those people! What would I give to hear your strictures on them!”  “Your conjecture is totally wrong, I assure you. My mind was more agreeably engaged. I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow.”  Miss Bingley immediately fixed her eyes on his face, and desired he would tell her what lady had the credit of inspiring such reflections. Mr. Darcy replied with great intrepidity: “Miss Elizabeth Bennet.”
“Miss Elizabeth Bennet!” repeated Miss Bingley. “I am all astonishment. How long has she been such a favourite?—and pray, when am I to wish you joy?”
“That is exactly the question which I expected you to ask. A lady's imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony, in a moment. I knew you would be wishing me joy.”

Do you now see what I see? What Austen’s sly narrator has not made explicit, but which I now am certain is the case nonetheless, is that Darcy’s famously dyspeptic sneer that “Every savage can dance” is made at the very instant that he and Sir William Lucas are actually observing Elizabeth dancing as part of “the [dancing] group” which Bingley joins!

Each of the modern P&P film adaptations therefore errs in showing Elizabeth as a bystander to, rather than a participant in, the group dance. Even though Darcy appears to Elizabeth (and therefore the narrator) to be standing “in silent indignation” when Sir William strikes up a chat with him about the dancing they observe, Darcy reveals to Caroline Bingley at the end of the quoted passage that he was actually meditating on Elizabeth’s “pair of fine eyes”.

It is only after that dance concludes, that Elizabeth, of necessity, then walks by them, in order to return to her prior bystanding place beside Charlotte; which in turn prompts Sir William to seize the moment and work so hard to match her with Darcy in the next dance! I.e., this provides a plausible reason why Elizabeth would walk by them at precisely the moment when Sir William would see an opening to match them for the next dance!

And so….when Darcy then speaks to Caroline of his pleasure in “a pair of fine eyes”, and identifies them as Elizabeth’s, we are meant to realize that he was observing her “fine eyes” while she was dancing!! Surely you now see where I’m going with this -- this earlier scene is meant to be understood, upon rereading of P&P, as the first of two “bookend” scenes involving Darcy admiring Elizabeth’s eyes brightened by exercise, the other of course being after her walk to Netherfield.

In both instances, Wollstonecraft’s claim --- that a woman will earn the worthy romantic interest of a worthy man by being physically and mentally strong and healthy --- is enacted before the reader’s eyes, and in the most memorably romantic way possible!

In both scenes, we now see, Darcy’s very positive reactions to Elizabeth occur right after her eyes have been brightened, and made finer, by vigorous exercise (because, of course, dancing reel after reel involves as much jumping and bounding as a walk through field after field!). And then JA can’t resist putting a very sly pun in Darcy’s mouth – he personifies “a lady’s imagination” as if it were itself a vigorously dancing woman, whose movement “is very rapid” as it “jumps” from point to point to point “in a moment”, exactly as in a country dance.

And now that I think about it, there are not one but two more scenes in which Darcy the voyeur gets to admire Elizabeth in motion:

Next in the Netherfield salon in Chapter 11, when Darcy makes his risqué joke about admiring Elizabeth’s and Caroline’s figures as they take a turn around the room. And then once more, but in a more metaphorical sense, in Chapter 31 in the Rosings salon, with her moving fingers standing in for Eliza herself:

“My fingers,” said Elizabeth, “do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women's do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I will not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman's of superior execution.”

And here is the final and best point of all – best, because it goes to the heart of the romance between Darcy and Elizabeth: once we realize that Darcy was observing Elizabeth’s “fine eyes” at the Meryton assembly while she was in the act of dancing, it also tells us, without the narrator having to say it, that they have been locking eyes with each other! Simple physics tells us that Darcy could only have been struck by Elizabeth’s “fine eyes” if she herself, while dancing, had noticed Darcy staring at her, and stared back -- not consciously, but we know she must have done so, and been struck by his “fine eyes”, too. How do we know this?

Because with Austen the links never end, once we get deep into the weeds of this novel which is a kind of engine which whirs along from start to finish, with the most perfectly engineered interlocking moving parts. And we get confirmation of Elizabeth having noticed Darcy’s eyes in Chapter 6, when we read, three dozen chapters later, in Chapter 43, what happens when Elizabeth finally gets to see the larger portrait of Darcy hanging in the picture gallery at Pemberley:

“Every idea that had been brought forward by the housekeeper was favourable to his character, and as she stood before the canvas on which he was represented, and fixed his eyes upon herself, she thought of his regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before; she remembered its warmth, and softened its impropriety of expression.”

I am not the first Austen scholar to notice Austen’s brilliant stroke in sneakily reversing reader expectation in writing “and fixed his eyes upon herself” instead of “and fixed her eyes upon him”, but I am the first to explain it in fullest context. This description of Elizabeth’s imagining Darcy staring down at her tells us that in that instant, her imagination (ironically as per Darcy’s comment to Caroline about female “jumping” imagination!) causes Darcy’s eyes to instantly come alive inside the picture frame (almost as in a Gothic novel), and to actively stare into her eyes. Or, framed in a less ominous way, Elizabeth experiences a moment of déjà vu, her mind jumping back in time to the Lucas Lodge dance floor, when Darcy and she first locked eyes while she jumped and bounded; and then it jumps again to the Netherfield salon, when it happens again, and then again and again as noted, above.


A lot of stuff to digest, but I hope worth the investment of time by you. Before I close, I think some summing up will be helpful. With my now having connected all these textual pearls with a Wollstonecraftian thread, I assert that it defies common sense to claim that somehow Austen, without knowledge of the Vindication, would have randomly chosen to weave these various uncannily close parallels with the Vindication of verbiage and situation into all these closely interlinked passages in Pride and Prejudice! No, this pattern can no longer plausibly be deemed, as it still is even by competent, close reading Austen scholars, to merely be a reflection of a sextuple coincidence of Austen and Wollstonecraft repeatedly tapping into the same protofeminist zeitgeist independently.

It’s as clear as circumstantial evidence can be, I claim, that P&P is at it heart Austen’s deliberate dramatization of Wollstonecraft’s most significant ideas about female education and empowerment, in particular how true, egalitarian love between man and woman can only occur when they both come to each other from positions of equal strength. Or as Elizabeth puts it in a way that surely would have deeply gratified Wollstonecraft:  “He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal.”

Reflecting a little further, I infer from the evidence I’ve presented in these two posts that Austen drew most heavily from Wollstonecraft in setting the stage of P&P – not only for the dancing scene at Lucas Lodge in Chapter 6, and the walking to Netherfield scene at the start of Chapter 8, but also, as I argued in my 2016 blog post which I linked to in my post two days ago, in the Netherfield salon discussion later in Chapter 8, as to what constitutes accomplishment in a woman. Austen takes each of Wollstonecraft’s key arguments about women’s education and repeatedly puts them all center stage in the beginning of P&P, with most focus on Elizabeth, but with each of the other female characters having an antecedent somewhere in the Vindication as well.

In my 2017 AGM speech, I argued that Wollstonecraft’s dreadful death in post-childbirth was perhaps the key impetus that galvanized the 22 year old Jane Austen to compose First Impressions in a hurry and have her father submit it for publication within a year thereafter. Now, based on this latest evidence I’ve gathered, I know it for certain. And as I write that, I can almost imagine Jane Austen casting her “fine eyes” on me, with a wink and a nod, saying, with mock seriousness worthy of a Mr. Darcy:
“Any savage (i.e., any man) can… enhance (himself and the world) by supporting feminist aspirations for true equality of the sexes!”

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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