Friday, January 28, 2011

Pride & Prejudice, Volume II, chapter 5 (ch 28)

Welcome to Kent!

Before I get to what really happens in this chapter, a word about the word palings:

"When they left the high-road for the lane to Hunsford, every eye was in search of the Parsonage, and every turning expected to bring it in view. The palings of Rosings Park was their boundary on one side. Elizabeth smiled at the recollection of all that she had heard of its inhabitants." [Emphasis mine.]

The carriage has left the main road and is on a country lane, which is bounded on one side by a fence composed of palings - vertical wooden slats, as it turns out. This tells us that the lands around Rosings Park have been enclosed, a topic which I discussed in this post related to Northanger Abbey and again in this one about Sense & Sensibility. The salient point is that Austen is telegraphing information to her readers that most modern readers miss, and it was a hot-button political issue in her time.

You see, in 1801, Parliament passed the General Inclosure Act, which allowed landholders to enclose open fields and common lands in the country, thereby depriving many small landholders and workers of space in which to graze their sheep and cattle or in which they could gather wood. As a result, numerous country workers who could no longer eke out a living on the land moved to urban areas in search of industrial jobs, thereby becoming wage laborers. In Northanger Abbey, General Tilney shows off his vast enclosures and his greenhouses, likely because Austen means to point out how he has been enriched by the enclosure movement, and – quite possibly – how he is oblivious to or unconcerned with any hardship it causes to others (greenhouses were extremely expensive to set up and run). He has enriched himself while depriving others. Likewise, John Dashwood in Sense & Sensibility has torn down an ancient grove of lovely walnut trees in order to build greenhouses and is enclosing the lands at Norland. General Tilney, while not exactly a villain, is close enough to being such, and John Dashwood is a jackass, so it is to be assumed that Austen is hinting at something in Lady Catherine's nature with this passing mention of palings.

Welcome to Mr Collins's humble abode!

Mr Collins is as much of an ass as always, overly pretentious and in a hurry to try to rub Lizzy's nose in what she missed out on in turning him down. While the house is okay, it's nothing to make Elizabeth wonder if she made a mistake (those of you who are re-reading will appreciate this particular plot point more than those on a first read-through), and instead she wonders how on earth Charlotte puts up with him. "Once or twice she could discern a faint blush; but in general Charlotte wisely did not hear."

Mr Collins takes them on a detailed tour of his garden - so detailed, in fact, that it sucks any pleasure out of the walk, then takes Sir William out into the surrounding fields. Charlotte, it turns out, encourages Mr Collins to spend as much time in his garden as possible, and seems to put him out of her mind when he's not in the house.

More about Lady Catherine

Know that advice about how if a mystery mentions a gun on the mantle in chapter , someone will probably use it before the end of the book? With Austen, you can expect that with characters. If you are told about a character's existence, you ought to expect to meet them, and so it comes as no surprise that this chapter is the run-up to us actually meeting Lady Catherine De Bourgh.

Mr Collins has mentioned how expensive her chimney-piece is (back in Chapter 16), and now he tells us that she sends the Collinses home from dinner in one of her carriages, of which she has several. As of 1812, the tax on carriages was nearly 12 pounds per year (each), and horses were taxed as well. There was a higher tax for carriages bearing a coat of arms. People like the Bennets kept one carriage, which was pretty much what they could afford, and the Bennets didn't have horses always available for carriage use, since their horses were used in farmwork as well. The Collinses don't own a carriage at all, despite being gentry. Lady Catherine, however, has several carriages, which implies vast wealth and (possibly) a bit of ostentation.

Young Maria (pronounced Mariah with a long I in the middle in that time period) is quite out of her league here. She is, I believe, Kitty's age, and is therefore several years younger than Elizabeth, and between her kind but sometimes pompous father and her overbearing and decidedly obsequious brother-in-law, Mr Collins, she is easily impressed by the De Bourghs. Which explains why she is so overwhelmed by Miss De Bourgh's "goodness" in pausing in her carriage at the gate to speak with the Collinses. Elizabeth, noticing that it is windy out, observes that Miss De Bourgh is being ill-mannered in forcing Charlotte to stand outside in order to speak with her, and Elizabeth is correct: A proper morning call would have involved Miss De Bourgh coming inside, like any well-bred young lady. Instead, she is treating the Collinses more like servants, who can be inconvenienced by having to come out of their home and remain standing in order to conduct a conversation with her. It's all very high-handed, when you think it through.

On the plus side, tomorrow we go to Rosings and meet Lady Catherine. I can hardly wait!

Tomorrow: Chapter 29
Back to Chapter 27

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