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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

the damnation of Mr. Bennet

In his great essay in defense of Robert Owen, Alexander Herzen remarks of 1850s England:

”The Continent, politically enslaved, is morally freer than England: the mass of ideas and doubts in circulation is much more extensive.They have become habitual and society does not shake with either fear of indignation before a free man – Wenn er die Kette bricht.

On the Continent, people are powerless before authority: thgey endure their chains, but they do not respect them. The Englishman’s liberty is more in his institutions than in himself or in his conscience.”

This is, I think, a nice way to begin a series of posts that alternate between M. de Staël and Jane Austen. In this way, I can get to the question of the condition of England.

Why England?As de Stael said in On Literature(1801), England is the country in the world where the women are most truly loved. Between De Stael’s statement and Herzen’s, something is happening. Perhaps they are both right.

De Stael thought Pride and Prejudice was vulgar, and Jane Austen, apparently, though De Stael was vulgar. But De Stael was, perhaps, the first to see what literature meant in modernity – and Jane Austen was a great plumber to the very depths of whether and how women are most truly loved.

So perhaps we should start with the beheadings. D.W. Harding, in the 40s, wrote a famous essay on Jane Austen that, I think it is safe to say, changed the way critics read her. It was called Regulated Hatred, and it takes up Virginia Woolf’s suggestion that there was a fiercer beast running through these novels than was reckoned by the culture of faux gentility and nostalgia. Harding begins by asking about a discrepancy between the image of Jane Austen – the preferred reading material for retired public servants, the much lauded writer of an idyll – and his own reading of Austin’s texts. In those texts, he believed he found a clue to her method of writing in such a way that her writing was, in crucial ways, overlooked – her decapitations were executed so that they disturbed no one who chose not to be disturbed.

What, he asked himself, was going on?

‘She has none of the underlying didactic intention ordinarily attributed to the satirist. Her object is not missionary; it is the more desperate one of merely finding some mode of existence for her critical attitudes…

As a novelist, therefore, part of her aim was to find the means for unobtrusive spiritual survival, without open conflict with the friendly people around her whose standards in simple things she could accept and whose affection she greatly needed.” [13]

We shall return to the satiric spirit without the missionary point – for this is a characteristic which has a wider application than he may realize. What is interesting, here, is how Harding’s 1940 idea of a double utterance, a code unobtrusively dropped into another code, is so like James Scott’s idea of the hidden transcript – or to use the vocabulary of my last post, it is a way of disguising lateral talk with vertical talk, of respecting a hierarchy while putting into words the anguish of one’s experience of it, in all its corrupting glory. Harding reproduces several passages where he will leave out a phrase, making them seem innocuous or funny, and then put the phrase back in, which makes us see the Jane Austen who could be Michelet’s Sorciere.

A good example of this is in Pride and Prejudice occurs in a passage in book II, after the terrific scene when Elizabeth rejects Darcy’s first proposal. Elizabeth is going through a conversion process in which she sees, as though for the first time, the world righted – the way things really are. And, as Darcy has told her, one of the things that really are is that her family is bizarre, eccentric, and not at all respectable. In particular, her two sisters, Kitty and Lydia, have made spectacles of themselves in the village, throwing themselves at the officers quartered there. Now Lydia, 16, has been invited to stay with friends at Bath, where the soldiers have been quartered next. Elizabeth pleads with her father to prevent this. Her father puts her off with a joke:

"Lydia will never be easy until she has exposed herself in some public place or other, and we can never expect her to do it with so little expense or inconvenience to her family as under the present circumstances."

As we know, Mr. Bennet’s words will come back to haunt him. Austen begins the next chapter with this explanation:

“Had Elizabeth's opinion been all drawn from her own family, she could not have formed a very pleasing opinion of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort. Her father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown. But Mr. Bennet was not of a disposition to seek comfort for the disappointment which his own imprudence had brought on, in any of those pleasures which too often console the unfortunate for their folly or their vice. He was fond of the country and of books; and from these tastes had arisen his principal enjoyments. To his wife he was very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement. This is not the sort of happiness which a man would in general wish to owe to his wife; but where other powers of entertainment are wanting, the true philosopher will derive benefit from such as are given.”
One could draw a line between that absolutely scathing glimpse of the marriage in the center of a family and Christina Stead’s The Man who Loved Children and Doris Lessing’s African novels, or The Golden Notebook. The male case was made out later by Hardy, but Jude, in spite of his marriage, earns our respect. Mr.Bennet doesn’t cheat on his wife – he cordially despises her. In this one paragraph, which quickly moves on and moves us into the business of getting Elizabeth and Darcy back together again, we see, as in a flash, the skull under the skin, Mr. Bennet and his wife and daughters stripped bare, like souls damned in a Memlinc painting – except who does the damning here? Hell has been filled in, and social relations, infinite social relations, have been built on top of it.


northanger said...

the Man from Austin… (um what exactly is he doing to Miss Austen?).

Anonymous said...

LI, these recent posts about Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice, take me back to an earlier post re Rousseau and women and a quote from Marie d'Agoult to the effect that Rousseau didn't really address working women as unlike the middle or upper classes of women they had nothing to inherit. I am reminded of it as there is a question of inheritance in Pride and Prejudice isn't there? The Bennet's don't have a son, "merely" daughters. The legal custom, the signed law (again a question of signatures) requires or rather institutes a "destitution" of the women, the mother and the daughters, the inheritance will not pass to them when the father and husband dies. Mrs. Bennet hasn't "produced" a son and heir, all her fault of course. She is all silly and stupid and irrational so no wonder she can't understand the reason of the "entail" law of inheritance and what it entails. So she can only say, "'How any one could have the conscience to entail away an estate from one's own daughters I cannot understand ...'"

This was a real question for Jane Austen, the matter of inheritance. At age fifteen she was writing phrases, as Virginia Woolf beautifully says, meant to outlast Christmas. Phrases to last, to survive, to remain, a matter of inheritance. Phrases in which one can also hear, as Virginia Woolf says, a laughter, a woman laughing. It's not just a matter of irony but of laughter, an open throat and mouth laughing.

And when Mary Collier took the time to write a poem of washerwomen and women's labor, there is question of inheritance there too isn't there, a bearing witness to what isn't just signed into law and history by men.

But you have said this better than me:

If we search for what has been left behind – what dirt, what voice, what soul – in order to reconstruct the wave gathering underneath these routines, we have to have an ear for lateral communication – those moments when the obscure speak to obscure in their own ever twisting language.