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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, June 25, 2018

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

There are few passages in Jane Austen’s novels more beloved and iconic than when Elizabeth Bennet (of course in Pride & Prejudice) impulsively decides to walk the three miles from Longbourn to Netherfield, in order to visit her beloved sick sister Jane:

“Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.”

With marvelous economy, Austen gives us, in a single sentence, all we need in order to fully conjure the rapidly moving scene in our mind’s eye. Far better than a page of detailed description could do, these few, carefully chosen words display to us her heroine’s light, bright, and sparkling spirit, in vibrant colors.

Then, that same evening, Darcy and the Bingleys express a range of judgments on Elizabeth’s character, as they each discern from her ramble:

“…When dinner was over, [Elizabeth] returned directly to Jane, and Miss Bingley began abusing her as soon as she was out of the room. Her manners were pronounced to be very bad indeed, a mixture of pride and impertinence; she had no conversation, no style, no beauty. Mrs. Hurst thought the same, and added:  “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.”
“It shows an affection for her sister that is very pleasing,” said Bingley.
“I am afraid, Mr. Darcy,” observed Miss Bingley in a half whisper, “that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of her fine eyes.”
“Not at all,” he replied; “they were brightened by the exercise.” A short pause followed this speech”

Andrew Davies, applying a judicious amount of creative license (such as having Elizabeth accidentally encounter Darcy as she approaches Netherfield, an addition which nicely foreshadows their later rambling encounters), perfectly captures the spirit of both of the above passages in this brief clip from his 1995 BBC/A&E version, as inimitably performed by Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, et al:

Which brings me to the main point of this post: to answer the question posed in my Subject Line. Was there actually a direct inspiration for Austen to write Elizabeth’s memorable walk to Netherfield, and the discussion about it that followed? I’m the first to claim that there was such a specific source, and so, without further ado, here it is, with ALL CAPS presentation of the most relevant and resonant words:

“Surely it would have been wiser to have advised women to improve themselves till they rose above the fumes of vanity; and then to let the public opinion come round—for where are rules of accommodation to stop? THE NARROW PATH of truth and virtue inclines neither to the right nor left, it is a straight-forward business, and they who are earnestly PURSUING THEIR ROAD, may BOUND OVER MANY DECOROUS PREJUDICES, without leaving modesty behind. Make the heart CLEAN, and give the head employment, and I will venture to predict that THERE WILL BE NOTHING OFFENSIVE IN THE BEHAVIOUR.
The AIR OF FASHION, which many young people are so eager to attain, always strikes me like the studied attitudes of some modern prints, copied with tasteless servility after the antiques; the soul is left out, and none of the parts are tied together by what may properly be termed character. This varnish of fashion, which seldom sticks very close to sense, may dazzle the weak; but leave nature to itself, and it will seldom disgust the wise….”

Some among you perhaps recognized the source of the above words: Chapter 4 of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, written by Mary Wollstonecraft when Jane Austen was an impressionable 16; inspiring words which rang out in the ears of women not merely in Great Britain, but all across Europe.

As you can see, Wollstonecraft, in the above passage, used the metaphor of a road to be followed in life by women seeking to overcome centuries of deeply rooted sexism and patriarchy, in finding their way on that life path with the sure guides of truth and virtue. If a woman has truly improved her heart and her mind, she argues, then true modesty and avoidance of offensive behavior will follow naturally, inspiring a self confidence that will not allow itself to be undermined by false, sterile notions of decorum and propriety.

And isn’t that precisely the metaphor of the road or path of a virtuous, brave female life which was seized upon by Jane Austen, and deployed to such brilliant effect in the above quoted passage from P&P? To me it’s now obvious that Austen chose to channel and bring to vivid life Wollstonecraft’s inspiring call to legs, as in, time to get up and get moving, ladies, to get where you need to go in life!

I particularly love Austen’s witty ironic understatement in her transformation of each abstraction in Wollstonecraft’s kernel of women who “bound over decorous prejudices” into “country-town”, concrete imagery, including these clear echoes:
Elizabeth “jumping over stiles and springing over puddles” – bounding, jumping, and springing are synonyms which all connote vibrant energy;
Austen’s own novel title, Pride and Prejudice –and isn’t the entire arc of the novel one of how a woman “bounds over prejudice” generated by class snobbery?; and
Caroline Bingley’s sneer at “an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country-town indifference to decorum.” – indeed, Wollstonecraft espoused indifference to empty decorum!

I’ll go even further, and suggest that Austen puts in Caroline Bingley’s mouth the anti-feminist (and therefore self-hating) sneer at “conceited independence”, because the “independence” of women was perhaps the central theme of the Vindication, beginning even in the Dedication thereof:

“…I plead for my sex, not for myself. Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue; and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath.
It is, then, an affection for the whole human race that makes my pen dart rapidly along to support what I believe to be the cause of virtue: and the same motive leads me earnestly to wish to see woman placed in a station in which she would advance, instead of retarding, the progress of those glorious principles that give a substance to morality….”

And did you also notice, as I just did as I was writing this post, that Wollstonecraft makes her ‘pen dart rapidly along”? Once again you have that the idea of a female subject (symbolized by her pen) moving rapidly on a path “to support the cause of virtue”. And I simultaneously laugh as I also see that line in Wollstonecraft’s Dedication as a source for the comic debate in the Netherfield salon about the pros and cons of Bingley writing rapidly, as well as Darcy’s desire to “mend his own pen”!

And so Austen showed us, even as she entertained us, that Elizabeth’s 3-mile ramble to Netherfield is virtuous and thrilling, because she has the clean heart and strong mind and character that Wollstonecraft wished all women to acquire. That enabled her to ignore the dirtiness of her path to Netherfield, and to make a beeline straight to the destination her “clean heart” has identified for her –Jane in her sickbed at Netherfield –which, taken as a metaphor, means, that women should always move quickly to take care of other women in need of help, and don’t worry about getting your hands (or your petticoats) dirty in the process!

It’s been over a decade since I first began to pay attention to Austen’s interest in Wollstonecraft’s writings and also her life, most of all her tragic, agony-filled death in childbirth in 1798. Even today, that is still a minority position in Austen scholarly circles, and sadly so. 1798 was, not coincidentally, the very year when the 22 year old Jane Austen wrote First Impressions – which of course was the now lost first version that eventually morphed over 14 years into Pride & Prejudice. My strong interest in this subject of the Wollstonecraft in Austen has increased steadily with each passing year, culminating in the talk I gave at the JASNA AGM last October, which centered on what I now see as the decisive, central influence which Wollstonecraft exerted on Austen’s imagination and intellect for over a quarter century, from Austen’s early juvenilia through her final fiction, letters, and even deathbed poetry.

As to the allusive presence of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication specifically in P&P, in just rereading my July 15, 2016 post   entitled “Darcy’s stunning (& cunning) vindication of his own right … to re-educate Elizabeth!”, I was reminded that I actually quoted that same “bounding over decorous prejudices” passage back then. However, I quoted it as part of a longer excerpt from the Vindication, without at that time having realized that the “road” metaphor was brought to life in Elizabeth’s ramble.
I quoted it then to connect to yet another, closely related, famous passage in P&P – the Netherfield salon debate about female accomplishment in Chapter 8.

And so, today, putting all these textual puzzle pieces together, it becomes that much clearer that the Vindication was a primary source for the part of P&P which thrills feminist readers the most – Elizabeth Bennet as the ultimate Wollstonecraftian heroine, and P&P as the most Wollstonecraftian of all of Austen’s novels – which is saying a great deal indeed! This is also a quintessential example of feminist artistic and intellectual synergy. Wollstonecraft’s nonfiction Vindication, as I began by saying, inspired European women; but in her two abortive attempts at feminist fiction, she never came close to producing a novel which could add a whole other dimension to her advocacy for improvement of women’s lives.

The synergy is that Wollstonecraft, who had the genius to diagnose what ailed her sexist society, lived and wrote long enough to pass the baton to Austen, who did have the genius and imagination to create living breathing characters who would live forever in the hearts and minds of generations of readers, especially female readers. Thereby, during the ensuing 227 years, audiences of tens and tens of millions have read this message of female self-empowerment. And this is why, in a myriad of offspring in print and on film, the “children” born of this “marriage” of Wollstonecraft and Austen have only just begun to jump over the bounds of sexist prejudice, as feminism takes another promising bound forward in #MeToo and related collective efforts to achieve the gender equity Wollstonecraft and Austen dreamt of.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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