Friday, January 14, 2011

Pride & Prejudice, Volume I, chapter 14

First, a cleverly put-together montage of Mr Collins's dinner conversation, using footage from the 1940, 1995 and 2005 adaptations. The sound is a little inconsistent in volume among the three, but I trust you can sort it out:

Lady Catherine De Bourgh

Mr Collins is quite a talker, is he not? He rambles on at some length, singing the praises of Lady Catherine De Bourgh, of whom it is entirely impossible to form a favorable opinion, even when one is relying solely on Mr Collins's words. One of the words we will hear quite a bit when Lady Catherine is discussed is "condescension", which has two meanings, which are slightly contradictory. Most people I know are familiar with its second meaning, which is a patronizing attitude or behaviour, where "patronizing" is used in its negative sense. However, the word initially meant something more along the lines of "to lower oneself voluntarily to the same position as one's inferiors". I am not entirely certain that the more modern meaning had come into usage by Austen's time, but as we shall see, Lady Catherine is nothing if not patronizing, so I rather expect that it had, and that the double meaning was fully intentional.

Mr Bennet

Mr Bennet dearly loves to laugh at other people; therefore, he's amused by the ridiculous Mr Collins. Mrs Bennet accused him in the first chapter of favoring Elizabeth, and we see here that there appears to be some truth in that - this time Austen is showing, instead of telling:

Mr Bennet's expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and, except in an occasional glance at Elizabeth, requiring no partner in his pleasure.
Mr Collins protested that he never read novels.

If you've read Northanger Abbey, then you know that Austen engaged in a spirited defense of the novel in chapter five of the book, in text that is sometimes excerpted out of Austen's novel and referred to as "the defense of the novel", which reads in part as follows:

And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens, -- there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. "I am no novel-reader -- I seldom look into novels -- Do not imagine that I often read novels -- It is really very well for a novel." -- Such is the common cant. -- "And what are you reading, Miss ----------?" "Oh! it is only a novel!" replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. -- "It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;" or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.
You can read the full Defense of the Novel in my post about Chapter Five of Northanger Abbey, which includes additional background to the phenomenon of publicly disclaiming that one read novels, as well as information on the texts to which Austen refers. I will note that the hero of Northanger Abbey, the charming Henry Tilney, opines that "The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid" - words that summarize Austen's opinion quite nicely (and mark Mr Tilney as a man of extremely good sense).

Fordyce's Sermons

James Fordyce was an 18th-century Scottish clergyman, famous for having collected a number of sermons by himself and others into a popular book entitled Sermons for Young Women, widely known as "Fordyce's Sermons". The sermons tend to preach the subjugation of women and encourage the development of womanly attributes over intelligence. That this book is selected by Mr. Collins as reading material for his evening with the Bennet girls tells us much about Mr. Collins's expectations in a wife; the Bennets' unenthusiastic response tells us much of their opinion - and of Austen's opinion - of Mr. Fordyce's misogynistic perspective.

Back to Chapter Thirteen

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