July 9, 1999
RE: S&S, Chs 10-12: Romance Heroes and Acid tongues
I play the devil's advocate on Willoughby to bring forth Austen's sympathetic presentation of Willoughby as the daring, gallant hero who rescues the heroine who delights in the fast wind; he is also presented as having some very good elements in his character, someone who is compatible with Marianne, and as someone who is beginning really to respond to her charms:
"Willoughby was a young man of good abilities, quick imagination, lively spirits, and open affectionate manners. He was exactly formed to engage Marianne's heart, for with all this, he joined not only a captivating person, but a natural ardour of mind which was now roused and increased by the example of her own, and which recommended him to her affecton beyond everything else" (Penguin 43).
It's true that he disregarded Marianne's favorite authors before, but have not we all been awakened at times to things we had previously disregarded. The world did not encourage, indeed discouraged us from paying attention to things of the mind, of the heart. One of the biggest rewards of teaching is when a student comes up to you and thanks you for making them see literature in a new light, or teaching them to love a book they had previously not heard of or been miseducated about, taught to arraign for worldly lapses it was never intended to be used for.
Of course I agree that Willoughby is spiteful and nasty about Brandon. Listen to what seems superfluous and motiveless malice against a nice guy. What did Brandon ever do to him:
''Brandon is just the kind of man,' said Willoughby one day, when they were talking of him together, 'whom every body speaks well of, and nobody cares about; whom all are delighted to see, and nobody remembers to talk to,'
And Marianne backs him up. On the first reading of the book I fear we all have no trouble understanding the above as just another instance of how the selfish and petty always hate the nice, resent their presence as an affront, a way of showing up what they are. But on the second one should wonder if Austen originally was thinking of how Willoughby certainly knows the girl he has abandoned is Brandon's adopted daughter. Was there in the first version a letter which links the above nasty remark to the real intermingled history of Brandon and Willoughby which emerges in the (off-stage) duel and of which Marianne only learns much later in London? My guess is Yes. We have here another patched-over vestige which Austen has cleverly almost concealed. So it's not mere petty spite you see.
I love Elinor for rising to the defense of the absent person they are mocking. Remember Brandon is not there to defend himself. We have already been told by Mrs Jennings that Brandon is someone who has endured some terrible trauma and is understandably grave and sad. Then when they boast of their great daring, Elinor tells the foolish infatuated Marianne:
'Do not boast of it however... for it is an injustice... (Penguin 44).
Iilloughby shows himself more alert to what is decency and more astute to counter Elinor's objections than the unthinking Marianne:
'That he is patronized by you... is certainly in his favor; but as for the esteem of the others, it is a reproach in itself..' (Penguin 44).
He goes on to say it is women like Lady Middleton and Mrs Jennings who like Brandon. I think we are meant to agree here. We are to rejoice when Marianne regards Sir John Middleton's inane ways of talking as beneath notice. This is a release. None of the characters are wholly real: they stand for things. Sir John Middleton for the unimaginative philistine who reduces all experience to the level of his impoverished mind. It's narrow and carping in the character of Fanny Dashwood; it's sheerly on the level of the child-like in Sir John, but no less irritating for such minds are common and do control the minority, influence them. So we agree that the friendship of the Middletons and Mrs Jennings is not much recommendation -- until of course we reallize Willoughby is in this way also flattering Elinor. Elinor is not flattered though; she is too sorry for Brandon; as we are told, Brandon has aroused her pity, and she likes him the more because Marianne cold shoulders him, because he's unfortunate:
'But perhaps the abuse of such people as yourself and Marianne will make amends for the regard of Lady Middleton and her mother... (Penguin 45).
Elinor's acid is just my style. I am with her all the way when she gives as good as Willoughby can. In fact much better. Willoughby says Elinor is 'saucy'. It is more than this, It is biting and witty and right. The sneers of the thoughtless are a kind of compliment. She also goes on to defend Brandon by more than wit though; a firm clear lucid defense on the grounds of what is valuable in people follows:
'My protege, as you call him, is a sensible man; and sense will always have attractions for me. Yes, Marianne, even in a man between thirty and forty. He has seen a greal deal of the world; has been abroad; has read, and has a thinking mind. I have found him capable of giving me much information on various subjects, and he has always asnwered my enquiries with the readiness of good breeding and good nature' (Penguin 45).
Of course those who are intent to mock will mock no matter what you say; if someone wants to make fun, they can always find something. Marianne replies -- and very realistically -- about what such information often amounts to in conversation. I remember how bored out of her mind Emma often is in the conversations she has to endure at parties. Still Elinor immediately denies that Brandon ever talked in a way and Marianne does not counter the denial:
'This is to say,' cried Marianne contemptuously, 'he has told you that in the East Indies the climate is hot, and the mosquitoes are troublesome.'
Willoughby chimes in with some information of his own (nabobs, gold mohrs, and palanquins). Maybe he's jealous of the man; there's a sense of keeping up and outdoing Brandon. I suggest the most interesting question of this conversation, especially in a second reading is Elinor's suddenly astute:
'I may venture to say that his observations have stretched much farther than your candour. But why shouldlyou dislike him' (Penguin 45).
Why does Willoughby pick on Brandon. Why does Willoughby dislike him? Is there a motive for this malice? Austen left this thread hanging in the second half of the book. We never come back to this to fit it into the pattern of a rivalry between Brandon and Willoughby which takes Eliza Williams into account. It's a clue which has been forgotten; in contrast when Edward gets so worried when he hears that the Dashwoods are going to Devonshire and asks if that is near Exeter, and we are the first time round inclined not to see any particular worry in this, at the close of the book I believe there is a remark which harks back to Edward's original sudden foresight and anxiety over who Elinor might just meet near Exeter.
The characters in all these chapters stand again and again for ways of looking at reality. When Brandon tells Elinor he doesn't want to see what happens to a mind like Marianne's when it is disillusioned, he is not only remembering Eliza Brandon. When Mrs Dashwood so endangers her daughters, we are not to approach her stance psychologically, but morally and philosophically (the same goes for Mrs Bennet who is much more of a caricature). I love Margaret: she stands for the spontaneous, the child who speaks the simple truth in a practical way. I always imagine her as not having the slightest sense of irony in her eyes: they look out at you in that one-leveled way of children. Emma Thompson could have done much more with the part in the film.
At the same time the characters are rounded enough and the language is suggestive and complex. I believe Willoughby when he tells Elinor at the close of the book he did learn to love Marianne, nay still does love her, and yet married Miss Grey. The marriage was done in no blithe spirit. Witness Miss Grey dictating that bitchy letter. Miss Grey knows who her rival is. Willoughby says Miss Grey understood she was presenting a whip made of money before him when she demanded he write that letter.
The horse is interesting because of the sexual connotations surrounding horses in the period. Queen Mab indeed.
Finally mortification is such a common scene in Austen. She seems -- perhaps rightly -- to regard public exposure of our vulnerability, public disrespect, public silencing of us as central to that core of our being where traumas fester. Lady Middleton's changing of the subject is an interesting manifestation of how silence is not necessarily kind: to repress is to ignore and to try to erase. Marianne does not want to be erased; the two Elizas were -- to what? to make a world safe for such as Lady Middleton. I'll give it to Sir John little disturbs him; water off a duck's back.
July 11, 1999
Re: S&S: The Males Thus Far
I am willing to agree that there is not much evidence on the ground for any deep love on Willoughby's part for literature, but to tell the truth, these things are kept on the margins of the novel's narrative anyway. Marianne can converse about cant and talk about schemes for deep study, but what we see her do is play the piano and wallow. She uses literature as a outlet to little understood passions until near the end of the book; she cannot sustain herself by it. Her ego is too large to see it through any perspective but her own.
I also see in Sir John Middleton a foresketch for Mr Weston. Sir John manifests good qualities, he is derided in ways that Mr Weston is not. Austen makes a point of showing us his fatuity, his lack of understanding; we know Mr Weston is shallower than Mrs Weston but he is not mocked and he is not placed in situations where this shows up as a felt fault by those he hurts (as when he mocks Elinor or asks if this is what he gets for giving Willoughby a dog). I always see characters as functioning in a book and strongly affected by the mood and purpose of that book. S&S is a much harder book than Emma; Emma is an Arcadia with aging, death, sickness, despair in it, but these are presented in highly mitigated softened forms. S&S is an acid book.
Finally though I know I can't prove I have to say my sense of the scene between Edward and Elinor as the Dashwoods tell of their plans is it and the move (enforced by Fanny) are predicted on his having really fallen in love with Elinor. He has not thought out what he will do (very like Willoughby) except that it has come clear to him that the last thing he wants to do is marry Lucy. He is therefore miserable and more depressed than ever. I like Isobel Armstrong's analysis of his character as someone with a 'low-grade melancholia, a match for or analogous with 'the concealed anxiety' of Colonel Brandon.
Cheers to all,
Re: Acid Tongued Elinor -- and Austen
I would say that Elinor has more acid in her tongue than any other of Austen's heroines; Elizabeth Bennet is capable of it, and she thinks acidly, so to speak, but her gaiety softens the bite (so to to speak); Emma too is capable of acid, as Miss Bates finds out, but, as a wealthy spoiled darling she is not led to cultivate the talent so to speak, and as each novel has a predominating sort of atmosphere which affects all the characters, and Highbury is a basically well-bred place where someone like Mrs Elton is seen as a real cat (I agree with Trilling that Emma is fractured "pastoral"), though in fact Emma's fault is not her acidity but having used it against someone weaker than herself. does so against someone weaker than herself. I would say that those heroines with the least acid in their tongues are Anne Elliot, Fanny Price, and of course darling Jane Bennet who seems to be too sensitive to acknowledge what's in front of her.
Elinor's acid is a kind of defense at times, but it is not only giving as good as she gets, it is a way of releasing irritation and frustration. She has been deprived of Edward Ferrars, whom Marianne laughed at; "goodness" & "sense" are not good enough (Oxford 20), he must appreciate drawings and picturesque views. She has had to watch Brandon ridiculed (though interestingly defended by Mrs Dashwood: "[she] could not think a man five years younger than herself, so exceedingly ancient as he appeared to the youthful fancy of her daughter" Oxford 37). So when Marianne is so ecstatic over the apparent new soul-mate, Willoughby, Elinor breaks out:
Well, Marianne ... for one morning I think you have done pretty well. You have aleady ascertained Mr Willoughby's opinion in almost every matter of importance. You know what he thnks of Cowper and Scott; you are certain of his estimating their beauties as he ought, and you have received every assurance of his admiring Pope no more than is proper. But how is your acquaintance to be long supported, under such extraordinary dispatch of every subject for discourse...
She goes on, bringing tears and emotional protestations from Marianne who come to think of it shows an ability to aim her tartness directly at Elinor herself:
had I talked only of the weather and the roads, and had I spoken only once in ten minutes, this reproach would have been spared...."
Things are getting a bit out of hand with Marianne twisting the needling back at Elinor, so mother intervenes,
"My love... you must not be offended with Elinor--she was only in jest" (Oxford 47-8).
There are also many inward reflective paragraphs where the narrator moves into Elinor's mind and we get just this sort of "jesting" by Elinor, though oftentimes it is kinder and more subdued than the above. Elinor in fact is nowhere as sharp as her creator--the narrator of the books is much sharper in a dry way than them all.
In the passage on the "fat Mrs Musgrove," it is this narrator who speaks; I would argue it is clearly not Anne (who never comes near such a statement); the tone is impersonal and that of the narrator for several pages, as giving us the previous history ("The real circumstances of this pathetic family piece...."), narrator to reader to explain the varying behaviors of the Musgroves, and I would myself not try to explain away Austen's famous dig at Mrs & Dick Musgrove by any recourse to educational theories or serious moralizing. Austen, like Fielding before her (who says some people are born nasty, mean, and stupid, and others are born sweet, kind, and smart in the simile of the horses to say we cannot explain why Blifil's Blifil and Tom's Tom), simply says Dick Musgrove was "a very troublesome, hopeless son," and Mrs Musgrove had "the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year" (Oxford 50). He was just "stupid and unmanageable;" he was shallow in emotion, and in truth had been very "little cared for" by anyone when he was around. It's all cant, and onto the oiliness of cant Austen characteristically throws acid, perhaps sometimes more corrosive than others.
If anyone really needs to forgive Austen her lack of charity to the self-deluding mother, I would add it seems to me from this chapter and others Austen's feeling about Mrs Musgrove is she's fooling herself, it's all cant with her, as at funerals people cry mournfully for someone and then fally complacently upon their food and can't remember the person's face in a couple of days.
Finally to return to our shared reading of P&P, in one of the earlier dialogues between Mr and Mrs Bennet we've already read, it is pointed out that Mr Bennet can see and call his 3 daughters fools (though he does so with not too much harshness, just with a plain statement of truth) because they are fools, and Mrs Bennet's idea you ought not because they are yours is nothing short of venal particularly when in the nearby conversation she takes the opportunity to insinuate how very ugly the Lucas daughters had. Had they been her own we would have heard how beautiful they were because they were her own--and as someone who has had to listen to this kind of stuff in and outside family circles I find Austen's lack of cant a relief. Mrs Musgrove was lucky to be left in peace.