October 6, 1999
Re: S&S, III:3-5 (39-41): An Anomalous Group of Chapters
The last time we read this group of chapters I noticed there were some very strange peculiarities. I'd like once again to suggest that this group of chapters represents an interim piece of writing, a set in which a joke and misunderstanding occurs which is reversed at its close. Austen had written this joke-y pair of scenes where Mrs Jennings came to the wrong conclusion that Brandon loved Elinor; she couldn't bear to discard it so used it as a way of stretching an arch between the time we hear of Edward's engagement to Lucy and the Dashwoods leave London. Their woodenness and their not going anywhere are my "proof."
To the matter:
First, they contain one of my favorite lines in the book. When Edward comes to Lucy, fresh from his meeting with Elinor wherein Elinor told him that Brandon is now making his marriage to Lucy possible, and he took away the inference that Brandon loves Elinor (why else would a sensible man give away a valuable place for nothing to someone not otherwise connected to him?), Edward spoke in such a way as to lead Lucy to tell Mrs Jennings 'that she had never seen him in such spirits before in her life' (Penguin S&S, 3:5, p. 248). Here is an ironist worthy Lady Susan. The moment is one of Edward's absolute nadir of depression in the book; in Lucy's idiom as reported by Mrs Jennings we see she saw his efforts to hide his desperation as absurd; this kind of hilarity is perhaps what those who call Austen cool refer to.
It also contains the scene between Elinor and Edward which seems to me set up as a parallel to the scene between Elinor and Edward with both Marianne and Lucy present. Both are filled with uncomfortable emotions both have, even share, but which they cannot confide to one another. The surface of both is comic. Marianne plays the naive who makes it worse for everyone; Lucy gets in what spiteful comments she can, aiming them mostly at Marianne, for she daren't hint at the truth of her relationship with Edward so must appear loving towards him and friendly towards Elinor. Austen intends us to laugh at the discomfort of Edward and Elinor as they sit down together: again we have disjunctive comedy, comedy which comes from the interpretation of the scene at odds with its real feelings.
Both scenes are filled with painful emotions. Lucy asks Marianne if she expects no man to fulfill his engagements; Marianne says Edward would because he is so virtuous; Edward and Elinor cannot speak at all to one another except through code. Before Edward comes to Elinor she is congratulating herself that at least she can use the reality that a letter keeps people at a distance from one another while providing a mode of controlled communication, but, says the narrator, she was not even allowed this. Not only is she to provide Edward with the means to marry another, she must face him while she does it.
This is an 18th century paradigm: again and again these novels provide ordeals, tests for the exemplary heroine. The difference is the tests in other novels are often silly or trumped up: witness some of what happens in Cecilia and Camilla.
The dialogue in the second scene is expert: through the words both characters convey their feelings hiddenly. For example,
"The unkindness of your own relations has made you astonished to find friendship anywhere".
Although thrown into indirect free speech, Austen conveyed the interacting stream of emotion between these two in the last paragraph of the dramatic scene very well:
Elinor did not offer to detain him; and they parted, with a very earnest assurance on her side of her unceasing good wishes for his happiness in every change of situation that might befall him; on his, with rather an attempt to return the same good will, than the power of expressing it. (p. 244).
The scene between Robert Ferrars and Elinor shows him to be an egregious poser, but it has undercurrents which look back to this one. For example, Robert is accurate when he talks about his brother as 'a very good-hearted creature, as well-meaning a fellow in this world perhaps, as any in the world' (3:5, p. 253). I detect something I'll call protesting too much. He goes on and on kicking his brother with all his might: 'Poor fellow! -- to see him in a circle of strangers! -- to be sure it was pitiable enough!' (p. 253). We know Edward is shy, not an orator, but why does Robert insist on it? I see in the scene between Elinor and Robert some hints of what could come: he's jealous of his older brother. Edward is the older; he recognises Edward's real qualities, all the more does he need to cut him down, laugh at him. That's why he laughs so 'immoderately'.
Now we come to the "older material" which Austen couldn't bear to discard. The scenes between Elinor and Mrs Jennings don't come off anywhere near as well. I am not troubled that Mrs Jennings is willing to switch Brandon from one sister to another: Mrs Jennings is not a deep-feeling woman; marriage is a business arrangement with her too. It's rather that Austen works up this mystery of Brandon's conversation so strongly and then drops it. It's clumsy; it feels to me like something left over from a previous conception.
Some objections: it went nowhere in the sense of contributing anything to the plot as we now have it. The final revelation was known to us from the very beginning making both dialogues unsuspenseful and what's worse: not threatening in any way. When you want to rouse a reader's anxiety, something must be threatened. But we know Brandon has given Edward and Lucy the means to marry if very modestly. Such mistakes are supposed in comedy to lead somewhere; in pathetic stories to lead to heartache, futher disruptions and dislocation; in comic stories, people asking the wrong people to dinner or to marry them, or jumping into bed with the wrong partner, which brings on further comic and serious (in terms of the plot) consequences. For comic think of Goldsmith's use of mistaken constructions in She Stoops to Conquer; for pathetic (in the old-fashioned sense of the word meaning pathos) think of what Austen meant to make of Anne Elliot's not having told Lady Russell the truth about Mr Elliot before that dinner party and to which Captain Wentworth was invited.
Then the dialogue is wooden. It's like watching two stand-up comics rehearsing their lines. There's also an awkward kind of stitching in the way the scene between Edward and Elinor is sandwiched in. And a lame comment our narrator ends with:
The deception could not continue after this; and an explanation immediately took place, by which both gained considerable amusement for the moment, without any material loss of happiness to either ... (3:4, p 246).
It's not an entire loss: Mrs Jennings makes some sharp remarks about Colonel Brandon's attitude towards money; Mrs Jennings's suspicion gives reinforcement of Edward's. But then Edward's is dropped too.
One of my students who wrote a journal on S&S made an interesting comment on the separation of Edward from Lucy. He thought there was a lacunae in the novel as we are not told how Edward and Lucy slowly broke up; we get Nancy's description of how Lucy held onto Edward; we get the narrator telling of of how Lucy lured Robert; but very little about what's happening between and Edward until that letter by her to Edward which he shows Elinor as sufficient explanation for it all. He's right. Another letter lopped and chopped from the original?
By-the-bye in the narrator's description of how Lucy lured Robert (in the later chapter) I see further evidence of Robert's jealousy and a desire to rebel (as his big brother has). I see also a hint for how we were to understand Mrs Clay originally charmed Mr William Elliot. I postulate a scene or description Austen never wrote, but half-intended; it was to be a flashback in Volume III (never writen) about what occurred between Mrs Clay and Mr Elliot before either came to Bath or Anne saw them there. Something Mrs Smith could not have known about.
The three chapters themselves feel like a holding action. We are waiting for things to begin again. In other sections of this post-Willoughby material (meaning after the mortication of Marianne is administered and the letter scene and its self-destructive onslaught by Marianne done with for the moment), we have many superb scenes crowded together one after another: the snubbing of Elinor by the mean Mrs Ferrars', and Marianne's hysteria; Mrs Dennison's party, the series of 1st person narratives, Elinor's confession. Mrs Jenning's Mistake reads to me like padding. Did it replace something? Was it part of the original 1794-95 E&M of which Cassandra wrote in her hasty note on the chronology of the first drafts?
Finally, Paul wrote:
'There is, however, a difference with the Lucy-Fanny episode: there we hear the same story from two characters. In the Brandon-Elinor conversation we first hear Mrs. Jennings' version (which might have been in a letter) and then the author's. This produces a rather strange effect. It is almost like a first person author's voice, so consciously present in NA but absent in SS (except for this one occasion which was discussed before on this list).'
The idea that the first person author's voice is so consciously present in NA but absent in S&S is intriguing. People often say Austen is closer to her heroine, Elinor, than any other. We have these first-person narratives (of which Nancy's is a brilliantly vivacious sparkling one) which alternate with narrative in which the narrator is so close to Elinor as almost to speak as her. The narrator is close to Fanny Price, Emma Woodhouse, Catherine Morland, and Anne Elliot similarly, yet I think we are always aware of a control, a distance which can be used to point any passage ironically (at the character even fondly) at any time. If this was a letter-novel, it would explain why we lack this feel of controlled distance.
Austen is hard on Nancy. She's also hard on Mary Bennet. Although as presented Nancy and Mary Bennet are not likable sympathetic characters, I suggest no 20th century novelist who wanted her readers to like her through her book would mock a studious but not overly-bright well-meaning type like Mary Bennet in quite the rough way Austen does. No quarter given to Mary. Sympathy only comes to Nancy through Mrs Jennings when Austen wants to blacken Lucy some more by presenting how Lucy wouldn't give Nancy a very few shillings to get back to Devonshire or a seat in the carriage. Lucy didn't care if Nancy was out on the streets. Again a 20th century novelist surely would have emphasised Nancy's vulnerability a bit more and thus her eager desire to think the doctor might just be wanting to pop the question.
Cheers to all,