Today I serendipitously came upon another one of Jane Austen’s remarkable puns – always a special treat – and, as I’ll explain tomorrow in Part Two, I owe my discovery to someone who, in May 1813, was among the first readers of P&P – Maria Edgeworth!
PART ONE: The Subtle Pun in Pride & Prejudice
The pun occurs at the end of Mr. Collins’s courtship career in Meryton, but first, some setup. After pursuing Elizabeth so persistently and obliviously for a half dozen chapters, the new rector of Hunsford finally gets the memo that she’s not that into him, and she is greatly relieved. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, Elizabeth’s dearest friend, Charlotte, swoops in and snags the red-blooded rector before he cools down from Eliza’s rejection of his delicate wooing.
Here’s how Elizabeth feels in Chapter 22 right after Charlotte personally delivers her the shocking news:
“…Charlotte did not stay much longer, and Elizabeth was then left to reflect on what she had heard. It was a long time before she became at all reconciled to the idea of so unsuitable a match. The strangeness of Mr. Collins’s making two offers of marriage within three days was nothing in comparison of his being now accepted. She had always felt that Charlotte’s opinion of matrimony was not exactly like her own, but she had not supposed it to be possible that, when called into action, she would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage. Charlotte the wife of Mr. Collins was a most humiliating picture! And to the pang of a friend disgracing herself and sunk in her esteem, was added the distressing conviction that it was impossible for that friend to be tolerably happy in the lot she had chosen….”
Since 2010, I’ve been arguing that the magnitude of Elizabeth’s distress is disproportionate to ordinary concern for her friend’s marital future with a husband like Mr. Collins. Instead it also reflects her painful sense of betrayal arising from the abrupt severing of her longstanding quasi-romantic attachment to Charlotte. Elizabeth isn’t consciously aware of the romantic part, but Charlotte most assuredly is, and always has been – and ultimately, it’s Charlotte’s oblique but relentless pursuit of her beloved Elizabeth that drives the rest of the plot of the shadow story of the novel.
But that lesbian subtext in the shadow story of P&P is not my topic today– it’s the pun. To get to it, let’s look next at how Elizabeth feels after she’s had a chance to sleep on this shocking news. We see a clear deepening of Elizabeth’s emotional withdrawal from Charlotte in Chapter 23, pulling back in pain:
“Between Elizabeth and Charlotte there was a restraint which kept them mutually silent on the subject; and Elizabeth felt persuaded that no real confidence could ever subsist between them again. Her disappointment in Charlotte made her turn with fonder regard to her sister, of whose rectitude and delicacy she was sure her opinion could never be shaken, and for whose happiness she grew daily more anxious, as Bingley had now been gone a week and nothing more was heard of his return.”
And now we’ve come to the point – in that paragraph of narration, see if you can spot the subtle pun in it. To help, I gave you an additional hint in my initial exposition. Try to spot it, or when you’ve had enough of puzzling, scroll down a bit to read my take:
The pun is in the very unusual word “rectitude”, which only appears twice in all six Austen novels put together – in Chapter 23 of P&P, and in a passage in S&S. That “rectitude” is a pun on the “rector” of Hunsford, Mr. Collins, who is, in a real sense, a “rector” who lacks “rectitude”!
But that’s only the first layer of the punny onion. What makes this pun more than just superficial wit is the character psychology behind it. Elizabeth has begun to contemplate the permanent loss of Charlotte, who has been one of the two pillars of female intimacy in her life. So it is only natural that, in reaction, Eliza doubles down on the other of the two – her dearest sister Jane.
Look at the two words which come to Elizabeth’s mind as she pictures her sister: “rectitude” and “delicacy”. These are words which have not previously been associated with Jane in the novel -- indeed, we only read of Jane’s delicacy once later on, far ahead in Chapter 61. So, why do these two words occur to Elizabeth? Because, I suggest to you, by negative implication these are two positive qualities that Elizabeth now believes are absent in Charlotte, in the aftermath of Charlotte’s having “sunk” in Elizabeth’s “esteem”.
And why would those two qualities be lacking in Charlotte? Here we have Austen’s subtle masterful artistry on full display; because these two words have, for the previous ten chapters, been associated repeatedly with the person whom Charlotte has now chosen as her life partner – Mr. Collins. In short, he’s the suitor whose false “delicacy” in unctuous flattery, and fake ‘rectitude” in his pious platitudes, has been giving Elizabeth a very bad case of heartburn! So now, in Eliza’s mind, Charlotte is yoked to her new husband’s defining, worst character traits!
To fully appreciate this psychological effect, look now at how JA has subliminally prepared her readers for this particular turn of phrase in a half dozen earlier passages:
Chapter 13: “About a month ago I received this letter; and about a fortnight ago I answered it, for I thought it a case of some DELICACY, and requiring early attention. It is from my cousin, Mr. Collins, who, when I am dead, may turn you all out of this house as soon as he pleases.”
…‘…I have been so fortunate as to be distinguished by the patronage of the RIGHT Honourable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, widow of Sir Lewis de Bourgh, whose bounty and beneficence has preferred me to the valuable RECTORY of this parish…”
Chapter 14: “…you may imagine that I am happy on every occasion to offer those little DELICATE compliments which are always acceptable to ladies…These are the kind of little things which please her ladyship, and it is a sort of attention which I conceive myself peculiarly bound to pay.”
“You judge very properly,” said Mr. Bennet, “and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with DELICACY. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?”
Chapter 15: A fortunate chance had recommended him to Lady Catherine de Bourgh when the living of Hunsford was vacant; and the respect which he felt for her high rank, and his veneration for her as his patroness, mingling with a very good opinion of himself, of his authority as a clergyman, and his RIGHT as a RECTOR, made him altogether a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility.
Chapter 18:” …I do not mean, however, to assert that we can be justified in devoting too much of our time to music, for there are certainly other things to be attended to. The RECTOR of a parish has much to do….”
…He assured her, that as to dancing, he was perfectly indifferent to it; that his chief object was by DELICATE attentions to recommend himself to her and that he should therefore make a point of remaining close to her the whole evening. There was no arguing upon such a project. She owed her greatest relief to her friend Miss Lucas, who often joined them, and good-naturedly engaged Mr. Collins’s conversation to herself….”
Chapter 19: “…You can hardly doubt the purport of my discourse, however your natural DELICACY may lead you to dissemble; my attentions have been too marked to be mistaken. Almost as soon as I entered the house, I singled you out as the companion of my future life…”
…“…In making me the offer, you must have satisfied the DELICACY of your feelings with regard to my family, and may take possession of Longbourn estate whenever it falls, without any self-reproach. This matter may be considered, therefore, as finally settled.”
“….I am far from accusing you of cruelty at present, because I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application, and perhaps you have even now said as much to encourage my suit as would be consistent with the true DELICACY of the female character.”
Chapter 20: Mr. Collins received and returned these felicitations with equal pleasure, and then proceeded to relate the particulars of their interview, with the result of which he trusted he had every reason to be satisfied, since the refusal which his cousin had steadfastly given him would naturally flow from her bashful modesty and the genuine DELICACY of her character.
Again, Mr. Collins, the rector with false delicacy and fake rectitude. The effect is subliminal – the words ring a faint bell, and the reader must pause and think about it, to know why they ring so true. Charlotte’s character has been tainted by this shocking new association with Mr. Collins, and so of course Elizabeth will ascribe to her dear sister Jane the very qualities which Mr. (and now, also Mrs.) Collins merely pretends to have.
And Jane Austen cannot resist a brief reminder of this pun near the end of the novel, in Chapter 57, when we read Mr. Collins’ highly indelicate, theologically incorrect verdict on Lydia:
“ ‘… I must not, however, neglect the duties of my station, or refrain from declaring my amazement at hearing that you received the young couple into your house as soon as they were married. It was an encouragement of vice; and had I been the RECTOR of Longbourn, I should very strenuously have opposed it. You ought certainly to forgive them, as a Christian, but never to admit them in your sight, or allow their names to be mentioned in your hearing.’ That is his notion of Christian forgiveness!...”
But take note that Mr. Collins’s false notion of “rectitude” is no more harsh than Elizabeth’s writing off of Charlotte back in Chapter 23! JA hates pictures of imperfection, too, and so she elects to unnerve us with a subtle suggestion that he is not as bad, nor is Elizabeth as good, as we might like to think.
And there is an even deeper meaning in Elizabeth contrasting Charlotte to Jane, which casts an even darker shade on Elizabeth’s character. It’s not only that she is too quick to write Charlotte off – after all, that turns out to be short-term, because she does come visit Charlotte at Hunsford, and is sorry to leave her to return to Meryton.
Let’s take a second look:
“Her disappointment in Charlotte made her turn with fonder regard to her sister, of whose rectitude and delicacy she was sure her opinion could never be shaken, and for whose happiness she grew daily more anxious, as Bingley had now been gone a week and nothing more was heard of his return.”
Yes, consciously Elizabeth tells herself she is anxious for Jane; but unconsciously, I suggest that Jane’s reassuring “rectitude and delicacy” arises not so much from Jane’s impeccable character, so much as from Jane’s bleak romantic prospects with Bingley – i.e., Jane will not marry and abruptly vanish from Eliza’s life, as Charlotte’s did!
And this ties in with one of the great conundra of P&P – why is it that Eliza never tells Jane about Darcy’s interference? Sure, she rationalizes keeping this secret all along, but there is a piece of this, I suggest, which is Elizabeth’s jealousy of the “more beautiful, almost saintly” Jane. And part of that jealousy is what is behind Jane’s “rectitude and delicacy” in her misery.
And note that all of this complex insight is the fruit of that one subtle little pun.
I will post Part Two tomorrow, which is amazing, in a different way.
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