Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sense & Sensibility, Volume I, chapter 21

We come today to the penultimate chapter of Volume I of this book. I can assure you that when you read the next chapter, you will admire the wisdom of the editor in splitting the book into volumes where he does (Volume I consists of 22 chapters, while Volumes II & III have 14 chapters each). I say this because once you read the information in the next chapter, I think it likely you'll agree that there's no way most readers would be able to avoid wanting the NEXT volume, in order to see what happens.

In this chapter, we meet the Steele sisters. Sensible Elinor decides that the elder Miss Steele is vulgar (her poor grammar and nonstop discussion of "beaux" bears this out - and brands Miss Steele as one of Austen's comic characters) and that Miss Lucy Steele is a conniving bitch (not her exact terms, but I am running with it). With the close proximity to Barton Park, where the Steeles are now staying, they cannot be avoided.

This chapter has a plethora of hilarious Austen lines. Today, I'm flagging some of my favorites:

The entire second paragraph is hilarious, and you can totally picture how things went down, but I especially love the concluding sentence: "As it was impossible, however, now to prevent their coming, Lady Middleton resigned herself to the idea of it, with all the philosophy of a well-bred woman, contenting herself with merely giving her husband a gentle reprimand on the subject five or six times every day." It's so funny because, although overstated, it rings so true. We've all done something similar, or observed someone who has, yes?

The third paragraph, where Sir John tries to get the Dashwoods to rush to Barton Park to meet the Steeles, concludes with two short sentences from our omniscient narrator, ostensibly in praise of Sir John's good nature - again, it rings true, even though we know the narrator is being sly: "Benevolent, philanthropic man! It was painful to him even to keep a third cousin to himself."

I have to laugh at Sir John's notion of the definition of "family", and at Elinor's sly observations about how savvy the Steele sisters are for being sycophantic. (I'm sure that they'd be like the guy who works for Cruella De Vil in 101 Dalmatians, who replies to the question "What kind of sycophant are you?" with "What kind of sycophant would you like me to be?" - a bit you can see at about 1:15 into this clip, but I digress.)

The bit with Lady Middleton accidentally scratching her three year-old with a pin is pure Austen gold, is it not? It opens with slapstick and proceeds with characters speaking at cross-purposes in a most uncomfortable sort of way:

"And here is my sweet little Annamaria," she added, tenderly caressing a little girl of three years old, who had not made a noise for the last two minutes; "And she is always so gentle and quiet--Never was there such a quiet little thing!"

But unfortunately in bestowing these embraces, a pin in her ladyship's head dress slightly scratching the child's neck, produced from this pattern of gentleness such violent screams, as could hardly be outdone by any creature professedly noisy. The mother's consternation was excessive; but it could not surpass the alarm of the Miss Steeles, and every thing was done by all three, in so critical an emergency, which affection could suggest as likely to assuage the agonies of the little sufferer. She was seated in her mother's lap, covered with kisses, her wound bathed with lavender-water, by one of the Miss Steeles, who was on her knees to attend her, and her mouth stuffed with sugar plums by the other. With such a reward for her tears, the child was too wise to cease crying. She still screamed and sobbed lustily, kicked her two brothers for offering to touch her, and all their united soothings were ineffectual till Lady Middleton luckily remembering that in a scene of similar distress last week, some apricot marmalade had been successfully applied for a bruised temple, the same remedy was eagerly proposed for this unfortunate scratch, and a slight intermission of screams in the young lady on hearing it, gave them reason to hope that it would not be rejected.--She was carried out of the room therefore in her mother's arms, in quest of this medicine, and as the two boys chose to follow, though earnestly entreated by their mother to stay behind, the four young ladies were left in a quietness which the room had not known for many hours.

"Poor little creatures!" said Miss Steele, as soon as they were gone. "It might have been a very sad accident."

"Yet I hardly know how," cried Marianne, "unless it had been under totally different circumstances. But this is the usual way of heightening alarm, where there is nothing to be alarmed at in reality."

"What a sweet woman Lady Middleton is!" said Lucy Steele.

Marianne was silent; it was impossible for her to say what she did not feel, however trivial the occasion; and upon Elinor therefore the whole task of telling lies when politeness required it, always fell. She did her best when thus called on, by speaking of Lady Middleton with more warmth than she felt, though with far less than Miss Lucy.

"And Sir John too," cried the elder sister, "what a charming man he is!"

Here too, Miss Dashwood's commendation, being only simple and just, came in without any eclat. She merely observed that he was perfectly good humoured and friendly.

"And what a charming little family they have! I never saw such fine children in my life.--I declare I quite doat upon them already, and indeed I am always distractedly fond of children."

"I should guess so," said Elinor, with a smile, "from what I have witnessed this morning."

"I have a notion," said Lucy, "you think the little Middletons rather too much indulged; perhaps they may be the outside of enough; but it is so natural in Lady Middleton; and for my part, I love to see children full of life and spirits; I cannot bear them if they are tame and quiet."

"I confess," replied Elinor, "that while I am at Barton Park, I never think of tame and quiet children with any abhorrence."
This is followed by questions from the Misses Steele about Norland and about gentlemen in which the Dashwood sisters might be interested, including this almost shocking and decidedly hilarious bit from Miss Steele: "But perhaps you young ladies may not care about the beaux, and had as lief be without them as with them. For my part, I think they are vastly agreeable, provided they dress smart and behave civil. But I can't bear to see them dirty and nasty." I am sure that we can all agree that we don't want our beaux to be dirty and nasty (unless, perhaps, it is in the boudoir, but I rather suspect that even Miss Steele wouldn't go there in conversation - at least on such short acquaintance).

The chapter concludes with an indication that the Steele sisters know Edward Ferrars. Elinor's curiosity is piqued, as is mine. Tomorrow we shall find out a good deal more about that!

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