Saturday, January 08, 2011

Pride & Prejudice, Volume I, chapter 8

Dinner at Netherfield Park

Elizabeth spends her day nursing Jane. She joins everyone for dinner, then returns to the sickroom.

No sooner is she gone than the Bingley sisters start in, abusing her appearance that morning (her hair was blowsy, her petticoats covered in mud, and they even mention that her gown had obviously been let down. Gowns at the time often had quite deep hems to allow for modifications in length if they changed owners or if the owner grew or if the fashion was for a longer or shorter hemline. It was not unknown for an existing gown to be made over in whole or in part for another gown, either, so that as the waistline rose or sank, additional fabric at the hemline came in handy to adjust for the latest fashion. The More You Know*. The Bingley sisters could either afford new gowns at all times or were just being bitchy; I suspect the latter, frankly.

Mr Bingley agrees that Louisa Hurst might be correct in her assessment, but he essentially implies that she is being mean-spirited by defending Elizabeth based on her fondness for Jane. And then, when applied to for his assessment of Elizabeth's conduct, he allows that he would not want his sister to walk three miles in the country without a chaperone (Georgianna is a good five years younger than Lizzie, however) but declares that Elizabeth's eyes were made brighter still by her exercise – a compliment that shuts down Caroline Bingley and Mrs Hurst for a few moments. You can just picture Caroline stewing about it, though. And you can tell she's got it in for Elizabeth now because she's worried that Darcy is truly interested in Lizzie, since the next attack is on the Bennets' relations – something certain to give Darcy pause. Nevermind that the Bingley family's origins are no better than Mr Gardiner's; in fact, they are "worse", since Elizabeth and Jane have a gentleman for a father, not a tradesman (albeit a wealthy tradesman).

Cheapside is a part of the "old city" in London, historically linked with the marketplace. It was not a bad section of town, really, but was not considered a "fashionable" address during the Regency era, when the area around Hanover Square and Grosvenor Square was more highly prized. Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst are amusing themselves by abusing Mr Gardiner, a man they know nothing of apart from his participation in trade. Mr Bingley professes not to care that the Bennets have relatives in Cheapside; Mr Darcy does not say whether he cares or not – he simply observes that their connections would render difficult a highly advantageous marriage (as to, say, a titled peer – and he's correct in his observation, by the way).

Caroline Bingley goes on the attack

When Elizabeth rejoins the party after Jane falls asleep, she chooses not to play cards with them because the monetary stakes are too high. Rather than say so, she uses Jane as an excuse – probably a good call, although Caroline Bingley nevertheless attacks her. First she implies that Elizabeth is a bluestocking (a term for an intelligent, intellectual woman that morphed into a sort of insult – bluestockings were considered unfashionable, frumpy and as something to be avoided), then she and Elizabeth get into a bit of a tiff over the meaning of the word "accomplished."

I was vastly entertained by this video, which is patched together with bits from three different movie versions: 1940, 1995 and 2005, but here's this scene from 1995 (complete with a sexually suggestive billiards shot by Mr Darcy):

An accomplished woman

Austen is having a great deal of fun in this scene, writing about "accomplished" women, one of the tropes she vastly enjoys throughout all of her novels.

Mr Bingley's assessment – that any woman who can net a purse, paint a screen or paint tables was accomplished – is not that far off what we heard from Mrs Jennings in Sense & Sensibility, when Elinor sees Charlotte's needlepoint – the principal accomplishment of her time at a well-esteemed school for young ladies. His view is that women only need to be able to do a few decorative arts to be considered "accomplished", and shows a rather low standard.

Netting was accomplished by using thread (usually silk) to create a net through the use of shuttles and knots. Women typically made reticules (small purses) in this manner. Netting was also practiced by men using more hearty materials for the purpose of creating a net to fish with.

Painting a screen is a reference to the use of fireplace screens known as pole screens (a silk screen that had embroidery or a painting on it, mounted on a pole to keep the heat of the fire off a person's face). The purpose of pole screens was two-fold: it not only prevented people becoming flushed from the heat, but also prevented cosmetics from melting off people's faces – people who were pock-marked as a result of smallpox and other scarring diseases often plastered their faces with a mixture of wax and lead, and if their faces got too hot, it melted, causing the lead to release into their skin, which was as serious health risk. Austen's sister-in-law, Mary Lloyd Austen (second wife to the eldest Austen son, James), was seriously pock-marked; whether she wore the wax & lead cosmetics or not is an unknown.

Painting tables is a reference to the creation of decorative and quasi-functional works done by ladies, not all that different from tole painting.

Miss Bingley's assessment is in keeping with the prevailing requirements of the time:

"[N]o one can be really esteemed accomplished, who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved."
If you've ever read a Regency romance starring a conventional Regency heroine, you are quite familiar with these requirements. The young lady has either been schooled at home by a governess, with dancing masters, music masters (to teach pianoforte and/or harp as well as singing), and painting masters brought into the mix – and, quite possibly, with tutors to school them in French and Italian as well – or she has attended a private academy for girls such as the Reading Ladies Boarding School, which Austen attended with her sister and her cousin, Jane Cooper. There they learned geography, French, dancing, music, needlework and art – hardly intellectually challenging. Austen's views on education in her writing are that such schools are places where women are either enfeebled (the newer education model) or are allowed a lot of leeway (the older model, which includes the Reading Ladies Boarding School). As proof, here's a description of Mrs Goddard's school in Emma, one of the Austen novels we've not yet covered:

Mrs. Goddard was the mistress of a School--not of a seminary, or an establishment, or any thing which professed, in long sentences of refined nonsense, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality, upon new principles and new systems--and where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed out of health and into vanity--but a real, honest, old-fashioned Boarding-school, where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price, and where girls might be sent to be out of the way, and scramble themselves into a little education, without any danger of coming back prodigies.

Darcy's assessment encompasses all that Caroline Bingley said, but he also wants a well-read woman of actual intelligence. This probably most closely reflects Austen's own belief – she and her sister were exceptionally well-read, having had access to their father's extensive library from a young age. Further, Austen was an avid reader who read extremely widely, including a great deal of nonfiction (history, travelogue, news accounts) as well as fiction and poetry, including most of the most-recent releases of her time. Her correspondence reflects that she stayed current on politics as well as current events; between her intelligence and her family (two brothers in the Navy, another linked to the militia and still another living as a landed member of the gentry), her interests were perfectly natural.

I propose also that Darcy is paying an indirect compliment to Elizabeth here, a point which comes across in the 2005 version of P&P. Elizabeth has, after all, just indicated a fondness for reading, even though she then has to repel Caroline's bluestocking charge. In the 2005 movie, Keira Knightley has been reading and has the open book in her hand at the time that Darcy contradicts Caroline and says he wants a woman who's well-read – a nod to Lizzie, I would argue, which explains why Caroline gets uppitier still. (Yeah – uppitier. I said it.)

Lizzie actually teases Darcy saying that she's surprised he knows any women that fit the bill. (Take that, Caroline, you cow!) Darcy asks whether she's actually that severe on her own gender, and she claims that she's never seen one woman who can fit all of Caroline's requirements as well as Darcy's (at least, that's what I believe she's getting at – and certainly Elizabeth doesn't meet all of those requirements). Caroline and Mrs Hurst are understandably outraged, because they both consider that Elizabeth has just implied that neither of them fits Darcy's bill.

When Elizabeth leaves the room, Caroline Bingley immediately has a go at her again. Darcy's reply is not quite what Caroline was hoping for:

"Eliza Bennet," said Miss Bingley, when the door was closed on her, "is one of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex by undervaluing their own, and with many men, I dare say, it succeeds. But, in my opinion, it is a paltry device, a very mean art."
"Undoubtedly," replied Darcy, to whom this remark was chiefly addressed, "there is meanness in all the arts which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation. Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable."
Miss Bingley was not so entirely satisfied with this reply as to continue the subject.
No wonder Miss Bingley is unsatisfied – after all, badmouthing a rival is one of the arts that ladies sometimes employ, and she's just been called on it.

Tomorrow: Chapter Nine
Back to Chapter Seven

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