Sunday, May 5, 2013

A troubling bit of dialogue in Pride and Prejudice

Warning: this post is unrelated to farming except that I was thinking about it while uprooting weeds from my brick pathway. I had to think about something, this is what came up.

When I first read P & P back in high school, I thought it was a flawless book. The glut of movies and other tributes had not come out yet, and I could imagine Lizzy and Darcy however I wanted to. Which was nice. Very nice.

But upon a re-reading a few years later, two lines near the end of the book troubled me. In one, Elizabeth has informed her sister Jane that she (Elizabeth) is marrying Darcy. Jane is shocked enough to doubt her. Elizabeth has always professed dislike for the man. And she is know for occasionally teasing or tricking her family. Jane wonders if Lizzy is joking. And because Darcy is very rich, she wonders but tries not to believe that her sister may not be joking but worse - marrying without love, for money.

Jane is too sweet to accuse, but she earnestly questions her sister, asking is she sure she really loves Darcy enough to marry him. To which Elizabeth responds

"You will think I love him too much when I tell all...I love him more than I do Bingley (Jane's fiance). I'm afraid you will be angry".

Jane begs her to stop teasing, and eventually Elizabeth gives her actual assurance that yes, she wants to marry because she loves Mr. Darcy.

The other line that bothers me is in a letter from Elizabeth to her dear Aunt Gardiner, who assumed that Darcy had proposed to her weeks before he actually did. Lizzy put off answering because she was mortified at the whole situation. Waiting in vain for her previously spurned suitor to ask a second time was causing tension that rippled beyond her and led to other encounters such as a furious scolding from Lady Catherine.

So when she finally has the proposal, and then is too busy communicating with her immediate family to write, she realizes she owes her aunt a great letter.

Before making the announcement, she teases a bit. And one of her teases is:

'But now suppose as much as you choose; give a loose to your fancy, indulge your imagination in every possible flight which the subject will afford, and unless you believe me actually married, you cannot greatly err'

She then goes on to more openly state that she's engaged.

When I reread these passages I was in for one of those mild Austen shocks one sometimes gets.

I thought to myself - this suggests that 'something' happened between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. That - not to put to fine a point on it - they got together in a physical sense. In what other sense could she love her future husband "too much". Lizzy is toying with Jane by implying that she and Darcy misbehaved very badly.

Similarly, the married, experienced Mrs. Gardiner's flight of fancy regarding every possible interaction between a man "violently in love" and her niece would probably include the gentleman taking liberties and the lady encouraging him to.

REALLY, Miss Austen? Is that what you meant to suggest?

My earliest reaction was that no, this was not what she meant. Either Austen, or her heroine, was so innocent that she could make these suggestions with nary a hint of sexuality.

But then could I believe that much innocence in Miss Austen? Or that she thinks Elizabeth is so unworldly?

If Marianne Dashwood had asked her sister to indulge her fancy and imagine 'anything short of marriage' going on with Willoughby, Eleanor would have had to conclude that her sister was doing something she shouldn't.

Or to stay within the context of the book. Imagine Lydia writing to her sister Kitty that "you will think I love Wickham too much when I tell you all...". This sounds very much like a young woman whose passions were stronger than her principles.

If neither of these scenarios is enough, imagine Mary Crawford tormenting Fanny with either of those lines.

     Mary:  Oh, you will think I love Edmund too much when I tell all.
     Fanny (alarmed):  Indeed, Miss Crawford, in that case perhaps it would be better for you not to tell.
      Mary: Alright then, just give a loose to your fancy, indulge your imagination on every possible flight which the subject affords...

how could we not suspect that poor Edmund has been mercilessly seduced by the wiley and athletic little Miss Crawford?

So in another Austen context, these quotes would have been suspiciously sexual. Coming from Elizabeth, we are strongly inclined to give them the most innocent interpretation. This is because she has often proven her integrity and her ability to overcome passing fancies for young men. After all she resisted Wickham, who later seduced her sister. And when Colonel Fitzwilliam briefly flirted with her, she let herself feel attraction and then quickly shut those feelings down when she saw they weren't going anywhere. This woman can control.

But it is also because of her know inclination to tease her family. So we assume that she is innocently teasing, and that the implication of premarital shenanigans is muted by her excellent character and playful nature.

But I have to doubt this - or at least I doubt that Lizzy is naive enough not to recognize the implication behind her banter.

Why would Lizzy, whose man-crazy baby sister has just been sunken in society by her forced and sinful marriage, be oblivious to something like that? And why make the joke to Jane, who had borne the brunt of every one's anxiety in the aftermath of the elopement. Jane is incarnate goodness and we have no doubts she will keep her virtue for the day she marries Bingley. The idea of Lizzy abandoning her principles like this would be painful to Jane. And if there is one thing we know for a fact, it's that Lizzy would do nothing, ever, to hurt Jane.

So here we are then. Lizzy seems to be consciously implying that she slept with Mr. Darcy before marriage. And I at least am pretty sure she actually has not. She is (briefly) causing Jane unnecessary pain and toying with her own reputation. Why?

My hunch is she does this to protect Jane from a far worse suspicion - that she doesn't love her future husband. When Jane asks if Elizabeth loves Mr. Darcy ' enough to marry him' - she means among other things, enough to be intimate with him for the rest of their lives. We have only to imagine life between the Collinses, the Wickhams, or even the older generation of Bennetts to realize how miserable this could be.

Jane is imagining a loveless, mercenary marriage, in which her idolized sister has trapped herself and an honorable man. In contrast, Lizzy's hint that they love each other too much - that their passions got ahead of their vows - is meant to be a relief.

Essentially Jane needs to hear that Elizabeth has thought about sex with Mr. Darcy and is looking forward to it. And because Jane knows the part about loving him 'too much' is a joke, she can interpret it as Lizzy's embarrassed confession that she really is ready (eager?) for married intimacy.

If Jane desperately needed this backhanded reassurance, the same cannot be said for Aunt Gardiner. She saw Darcy and Lizzy together and concluded that her neice was exaggerating her dislike and that he was madly in love. She trusted Mr. Darcy to propose and Lizzy to come to her senses and say yes. And Mrs. Gardiner herself is a partner in a happy, respectful marriage. She would have far less reason than Jane to worry. Jane witnesses daily her own parents' failed union. Mrs. Gardiner has no such cause for doubt.

The Gardiners spent a good deal of time cleaning up Lydia's reputation after her premarital antics. They just experienced the problems of letting your passions get ahead of your mind. Why on earth would Lizzy tease them by suggesting she's done the same?

My guess is that Elizabeth is making amends for not writing sooner. Mrs. Gardiner did more than anyone else to bring Lizzy and Darcy together. She believed the match would happen at a time when everyone else was in doubt. She was discrete about it, but she appeared to be utterly confident. Lizzy owed her a great deal for this. On top of that, she and her family owe the Gardiners for their role in rehabilitating Lydia.

I think the hint of misconduct was meant to show how completely Lizzy felt that Mrs. Gardiner trusted her. She could toy with the idea of pre-marital relations, and know that her aunt would  never believe it of her. And she wanted very much to show that she was back in her teasing high spirits again.

Mr. Bennett was deeply opposed to the marriage when he first learned of it. Why didn't Lizzy try this method of convincing with him?

Probably for two reasons. First, he's her dad. Talking about sex - even in a most circuitous way - would be awkward.

Second, he really doesn't like Darcy. Jane and Mrs. Gardiner may doubt that Lizzy is ready to experience all aspects of marriage with him, but they respect and like him and hope or wish she could love him.

Mr. Bennett thinks his favorite daughter is about to make a horrible mistake. So Elizabeth is uncharacteristically sincere with him. No teasing, no implications, just flat out declaration of her love and Mr. Darcy's good qualities. It's the genius of Miss Austen that she held Mr. Bennett in reserve like this - so that as a reader we could see Elizabeth's declarations from many different perspectives and form a strong conclusion.

Whether she loves Mr. Darcy as much as he does her we may never learn, but she certainly knows what she's getting into by marrying him.

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