C.Q. Drummond, Elizabeth Bennet, In Defense of Adam, Jane Austen, Lydia Bennet, memory, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Darcy's letter, Mr. Wickham, Pride and Prejudice, Pride and Prejudice 200th anniversary, the past
Ninth in a series on rereading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Here are Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, and Eight.
“Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure,” says Elizabeth to Mr. Darcy shortly after they are engaged (Volume 3, Chapter 16). If she were serious in saying this, she’d sound more like her sister Jane than like herself. But of course she isn’t serious. She has done nothing but think of the most painful scenes from the past. Even before Darcy proposed for the first time in Kent, she chose to reread Jane’s letters, “as if intending to exasperate herself as much as possible against Mr. Darcy,” by reminding herself of the effect Mr. Bingley’s departure from Netherfield had on her sister (Volume 2, Chapter 11). When she read Darcy’s letter, she forced herself to examine the history of her acquaintance with Wickham as well as the relationship between Jane and Bingley, and soon “She could think only of her letter.” While Jane might wish to recall and focus on only what is good about people and situations, Elizabeth is very interested in revisiting painful as well as the pleasurable elements of the past, reading with what St. Augustine calls “consideration,” and in doing so, she learns far more about the world and herself than her sister ever will.
Darcy doesn’t believe for a moment that it is actually her philosophy to think only of the pleasures of the past, and says so — “I cannot give you credit for any philosophy of the kind” — just as he insisted to her long ago, at Rosings, that she likes to adopt other people’s ideas: “I have had the pleasure of your acquaintance long enough to know, that you find great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which are in fact not your own” (Volume 2, Chapter 8). Yet what she said then was true — “My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me” — even if she was speaking in hyperbole when she claimed he was coming over to hear her play in order to “frighten” her. After they are engaged, they both make an effort to be kind in smoothing over the difficulties of the past, Elizabeth by saying that anything unpleasant about his letter “ought to be forgotten,” and Darcy by saying that her “retrospections” about the letter must be “totally void of reproach.” They can afford these kindnesses, because they have both confronted the painful things of the past, in order to figure out the truth.
Lydia and Wickham, not surprisingly, do live by the philosophy of thinking only on the past as its remembrance gives them pleasure. When they visit Longbourn for the first time as a married couple, “They seemed each of them to have the happiest memories in the world. Nothing of the past was recollected with pain; and Lydia led voluntarily to subjects, which her sisters would not have alluded to for all the world” (Volume 3, Chapter 9). As C.Q. Drummond writes in the essay I quoted in my post on “First Impressions and Second Perusals,” “We will never make sense of the life of a fictional character just as we will never understand our own lives or the life of man if we attend only to sequence, living only in the hell of each absolute moment with no reference to memory or to the legitimate expectation that derives from memory.” Drummond cites J.V. Cunningham’s point that we know a literary work, or our own lives, “thoroughly when the beginning, middle and end are comprehended in one synthetic act of recollection.” It’s by thinking on both the pleasures and the pains of the past, as Elizabeth and Darcy do, that it becomes possible to interpret with “consideration,” rather than expectation or prejudice.
For further reading:
C.Q. Drummond, “Sequence and Consequence in The Pilgrim’s Progress” (In Defense of Adam: Essays on Bunyan, Milton and Others, ed. John Baxter and Gordon Harvey [Edgeways, 2004] 230-7).
My page Pride and Prejudice at 200 collects all the posts in this series on rereading the novel, along with links to other essays and articles on P&P.
But as a philosophy to keep happiness alive it is always better to minimise rather than maximise the pain; to put in perspective rather than to ruminate. Still, Austen did not write such simplistic stuff and you have captured the complexity. There are always those who you wish would ruminate just a little more!
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Sarah Emsley said:
Great point — thanks. Thinking only of the past as its remembrance gives you pain is not the right philosophy either. Elizabeth and Darcy think of both pleasure and pain, and I suppose it’s a matter of knowing how much time to devote to each.
It makes me think of Aristotle: “in general pleasure and pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue” (Nicomachean Ethics). I talk more about Austen and Aristotle and the pursuit of happiness in my book on Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues.
P.S. I wish you could join us for tea tomorrow!
Ooooh. Yes Yes and looking forward to the book!
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