Monday, January 10, 2011

Pride & Prejudice, Volume I, chapter 10

After-dinner occupations

Let's see what everyone's up to, shall we? To shake things up, we'll go with gentlemen first:

Mr Hurst: I am busy being a lout, as per usual. Oh. And playing piquet, which is, if you must know, a two-player card game using four suits, but only 7-10 plus the face cards. It dates back to the 1500s, and is something like cribbage, but without the board. Harumph.

Mr Bingley: I am playing with Mr Hurst. Oh, I say! That did not come out right at all. I am playing cards with Mr Hurst, don't you know. *tuts at his own inadvertence*

Mr Darcy: I beg your pardon? I'm sorry I cannot speak with you just now. I am writing a letter to my sister, Georgianna.

Mrs Hurst: *stifles a yawn* I am pretending to watch my husband and my brother play at cards. In reality, I am plotting my own three-volume novel. It's to be a murder mystery about a woman who is married to a good-for-nothing lout and her various attempts to murder her husband.

Miss Bingley: Me? I am enjoying a lovely conversation with Mr Darcy.

Elizabeth: I beg your pardon? I'm sorry – I am engaged in needlework, which was apparently delivered to me from home along with my wardrobe. As one does, I suppose? Although, between you and me, I have also been surreptitiously watching as Miss Bingley attempts to divert Mr Darcy's attention from his letter. I rather expect she will succeed, but only in causing his attention to shift to how annoying she is.

The actual conversation

I really hope you'll all read Miss Bingley's comments to Mr Darcy, who is either silent or short in his replies. Here's one volley that makes me rock with laughter, and I rather suspect that many of you will join me – unless you are so busy pulling your eyebrows back down from under your hairline that you forget to laugh:

"I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well."

"Thank you— but I always mend my own."
Now, on the face of it, there is nothing wrong with Miss Bingley's offer. While fountain pens with metal nibs were, in fact, starting to be available during Jane Austen's lifetime, they were limited to the wealthy because they were not widely manufactured until later in the 19th century. It is therefore possible that a wealthy man such as Darcy might have owned one or more fountain pens, but it is entirely certain that he also owned and wrote with quills. The preferred quills were made from the primary wing feathers from geese, although they could be made from the primary wing feathers of many birds. It is known, for example, that Austen wrote a poem to her sister-in-law using a crow quill at one point (quite a fine tip). But I digress.

The thing about quills is that after a couple of lines, the tip started to wear down or fray, which meant that the writer had to take their pen knife and recut the tip of their quill. (You see? The term "pen knife" does make sense after all!) Miss Bingley is observing Darcy, who may well be recutting the tip of the quill so as to form a better point and to maintain good ink flow. At any rate, she is offering to "mend his pen" for him – harmless, yes?

Well, yes . . . and no. On the surface, it's her trying to be helpful (or meddlesome, depending on how you see it). She wants a reason to be close to Mr Darcy, and is also looking for ways to attempt to draw him into conversation. However, Miss Bingley has just made an obscene pun. You see, the word "pen" is often associated with the word "penis", and the term "to mend one's pen" was used to describe what is commonly referred to these days as a hand job. Miss Bingley has therefore just asked Mr Darcy whether she can get him off, adding that she's quite skilled at it, to which Darcy replies "No thanks, I can do that for myself." AHAHAHA! *wipes eyes*

You are officially on notice that Austen dates from the Georgian era, where things were a bit earthier than in the Victorian era, and that she undoubtedly knew exactly what she was doing here. Because she wanted all her readers to know just how desperate Caroline Bingley is for Mr Darcy.

I like Caroline's further comment for other reasons. "It is a rule with me, that a person who can write a long letter, with ease, cannot write ill." I like it because it's lovely, even if she has decidedly flawed logic and horrible motivations.

"I came in here for an argument!"

It does pull Bingley into the conversation, however, since he cannot stop himself from poking fun at Darcy for working quite hard to use as many big words as possible in his letters. Bingley then boasts that his writing sucks because his ideas flow so rapidly he can't get it all down. Darcy calls Bingley onto the carpet for that, saying that he is boasting of something he ought not boast about, because doing things in haste makes for sloppy execution and loose ends. (I'm paraphrasing, of course.)

In turn, this pulls Elizabeth into the conversation. Darcy is arguing almost entirely from an intellectual position here – talking about a hypothetical without really investing any emotion in it, at least at the start. He is amused by the conversation with Bingley. Elizabeth joins him in that sort of argument, talking about a hypothetical situation and about whether or not changing one's mind because of a friend's persuasion is a good trait or not. It is possible to read this scene up to the point where Bingley next interjects either as two people enjoying a rational argument (in the classical sense – they are, in fact, trying to agree on the rules when Bingley interrupts) or to read it as if Elizabeth is becoming a bit unhappy – it seems to me that Darcy is actually okay with the conversation with Elizabeth, up until Bingley insults him by mocking his desire to agree to the rules of argument. (A fine point is made about the difference between the meanings of the word "argument" and "dispute", much in the way that Michael Palin differentiates between an argument and contradiction in the sketch you will see if you click the heading link for this section.)

Shall we dance?

No, it's not The King and I, although I imagine Yul Brynner could have made an imposing Darcy, come to that. Miss Bingley has decided to play the pianoforte while Mrs Hurst sings, and Darcy invites Elizabeth to dance. Her coy declination is (to him) flirtation and (to her) a keeping of her promise never to dance with Darcy.

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her. He really believed, that were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.

Miss Bingley suspected enough to be jealous

Miss Bingley is forever poking at Darcy about Elizabeth, trying to appeal to his snobbish side by reminding him of Elizabeth's inferior connections, trying to get him to deny his attraction by predicting his marriage and generally flogging the "fine eyes" quote at every turn. As said in a comment to yesterday's post, "Miss Bingley, haven't you driven the "fine eyes" bit into the ground yet? Let it go! It's not endearing you to Darcy or diminishing Lizzie in his view!" Indeed, when she remarks that Elizabeth's portrait ought not be taken because it would be hard to do justice to her eyes, he responds "It would not be easy, indeed, to catch their expression, but their colour and shape, and the eye-lashes, so remarkably fine, might be copied." There is absolutely no way that Darcy's answer gave Miss Bingley a lick of comfort, is all I'm saying.

And then they bump into Lizzie with Mrs Hurst, who drops Lizzie like a hot stone in favor of linking arms with Darcy. All four of the people present recognize that Mrs Hurst is being rude, but only Darcy attempts to do anything to ameliorate it. Lizzie, however, makes a comment about the picturesque and skips away. If you are interested in learning about the 19th-century notion of the picturesque as developed by William Gilpin, then I commend the final part of this post from our reading of Northanger Abbey to you.

Tomorrow: Chapter Eleven
Back to Chapter Nine

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