“I love her shoes”

I owe the sentiment to Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) of The West Wing who is talking about a potential nominee for the Supreme Court, Evelyn Baker Lang (Glenn Close). [1] He means that he likes everything about her as a potential Chief Justice and besides that, he admires her as a person and feels a strong personal attachment to her. It has nothing to do with the shoes, really, but such a concrete referent and such an unexpected one carries the meaning “even her shoes,” which is what Josh actually means. “I love everything about her.”

I want to borrow Josh’s expression because I am having similar feelings for Elizabeth Bennett, of Pride and Prejudice.

At this point, you (readers) are going to group yourselves into three categories. In Group A are people who don’t know the story that well but are interested in the challenge Elizabeth overcomes. For you, I have appended the whole of Chapter XIII at the end. In Group B are people who are fully familiar with Pride and Prejudice and will simply refer in their own minds to the steps I describe. In Group C are people for whom this this whole exercise is preposterous and who have better things to do. Those are all honorable positions, it seems to me.

For the benefit of Groups A and B, I am going to take the long, slow, difficult process by which the marvelous Miss Bennett catches herself at her worst and who, through painstaking effort and despite mounting embarrassment, finds a way through. I am going to follow her process step by step.

For any of you who are fans of Jonathan Haidt’s master metaphor—the rider and the lizzie 5elephant—will notice that this is an instance to the contrary. [2] In Haidt’s metaphor, the role of the elephant—our mostly unknown desires and prejudices—is to go wherever it wants to go and the role of the rider—which we refer to by words like “my true self”—is to provide a reason why the elephant did whatever it just did. And very often, that is just how it happens.

But in this account, it doesn’t happen. In this account, the rider gives the elephant a sharp rap on the knuckles and moves the elephant back into the path the rider has chosen.

Here are the principal steps of Elizabeth Bennett’s  odyssey.

Step 1: Flustered

We know that Elizabeth is an accomplished and discerning reader.  This is not an instance of her best work.

With a strong prejudice against every thing he might say, she began his account of what had happened at Netherfield. She read, with an eagerness which hardly left her power of comprehension, and from impatience of knowing what the next sentence might bring, was incapable of attending to the sense of the one before her eyes.

The begins with a strong prejudice against anything Mr. Darcy might say. That’s not a good thing in someone who can say, “I, who prided myself on her discernment.”

She is also not reading carefully as she begins. Note that she is “incapable of attending” Lizzie 1to the sentence she is reading because of her impatience to know what the next sentence will say.  This is Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth.  Of the many Elizabeths the movies have offered us, Ehle is my favorite.

This does not leave her in a good place.

“…her feelings were yet more acutely painful and more difficult of definition. Astonishment, apprehension, and even horror, oppressed her.

In the light of those feelings, it seems to me remarkable that she goes right back to reading the letter again, but she does.

Step 2: Commanding

In this perturbed state of mind, with thoughts that could rest on nothing, she walked on; but it would not do; in half a minute the letter was unfolded again, and collecting herself as well as she could, she again began the mortifying perusal of all that related to Wickham, and commanded herself so far as to examine the meaning of every sentence.

She tries walking as an alternative to reading and I appreciate that because that is what I would do, myself. But as you see, it doesn’t work and she takes the extraordinary step of “commanding herself…to examine the meaning of every sentence.”

lizzie 2There is a stretch of the story as it is told by Wickham and by Darcy that is the same if both accounts. But then there is a substantial divergence and Elizabeth is forced to admit that if one of the accounts is right, the other is wrong. She years for the right account to be Wickham’s because she took to Wickham instantly and for the wrong account to be Darcy’s because she rejected him from the first.  This is Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy.  It is not his best work–he has since received an Academy Award–but he does play opposite Jennifer Ehle.

But as badly as she wanted Darcy to be in the wrong, his detailed account of Wickham’s misdeeds causes Elizabeth to hesitate. Remember that at the beginning, she was rushing heedlessly through the document; then she read with a decided bias in favor of Wickham because she liked Wickham and disliked Darcy. But in spite of all that, she laid Darcy’s and Wickham’s accounts side by side to to the extent she was able. [3]

This closer reading enables her to see the narrative differently. She doesn’t adopt the new reading, but she sees for the first time that all the facts she has could be accounted for just as well in Darcy’s account as in Wickham’s.

Step 3: Crisis

But then there is one small piece which she can confirm independently on the basis of a conversation she has had with Colonel Fitzwilliam. And then Darcy’s invitation to appeal to Fitzwilliam for the confirmation of the story as a whole. This is hard for Elizabeth both because she trusts Fitzwilliam and also because she knows Darcy would not appeal to him unless he knew that his account would be confirmed.

And now that she is able to put some of Wickham’s assertions in doubt, she moves on to reconsider the whole setting where Wickham first introduced himself and his story.  He is one handsome dude, you will have to admit.

She was now [italics in the original] struck with the impropriety of such communications to a stranger, and wondered it had escaped her before. She saw the indelicacy of putting himself forward as he had done, and the inconsistency of his professions with his conduct.

lizzie 3Note the three advances Elizabeth makes at this point. Upon reconsideration—that’s what now, in italics, is for—she sees the impropriety of Wickham’s forwardness when, at the time, she was swept away by how very unlike Darcy Wickham was. And from her new vantage point, she can see clearly that Wickham talks the talk, but he does not walk the walk. And finally, she wonders how these blatant discrepancies had escaped her before. Those are three very solid achievements.

Step 4:  Blaming herself

And finally, reaching the end of this arc of repentance [4] she draws some hard-won conclusions about herself.

Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think, without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.

And then, being Elizabeth, she extends her criticism of herself into a virtual flagellation.

“How despicably have I acted!” she cried.—“I, who have prided myself on my discernment!—I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity, in useless or blameable distrust.—How humiliating is this discover)-!—Yet, how just a humiliation!

And concludes, “Till this moment, I never knew myself.”

So…I haven’t fallen in love with Elizabeth—even her shoes, as Josh Lyman says— because she eventually realizes that she was mistaken about Darcy and Wickham. I have fallen for a woman who has the courage to follow this trajectory—fighting her own preferences all the way—and arrive at the conclusion that she has been culpably wrong from the very beginning until this moment.

The hardest part, I think, was the first moment when she discovered a discrepancy between Wickham’s account and Darcy’s. The most common reaction in that situation is just to deny the discrepancy and move on. But this dilemma hits Elizabeth where she is strongest; this is the most valued part of her that is at risk:—“I, who have prided myself on my discernment!” she exclaims.

And at that crucial point, she relies on herself again and her great abilities in this regard prove to her that she has erred grievously. And that is a good thing because when Darcy once more proposes marriage, she is able to accept with integrity.

[1] The whole line is, “I love her. I love her mind. I love her shoes.”
[2] See Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, which is a superb book despite Elizabeth’s knocking his argument into a cocked hat in this particular instance.
[3] Austen characterizes that particular moment in a way that is both incisive and humorous. Elizabeth “weighed every circumstance with what she meant to be impartiality.”

[4]  I wouldn’t have to call it “repentance,” surely.  It is such a religious word.  But I want to help redeem the word if I can.  The Greek is metanoia, which, in its most literal rendering means, “to change your mind.”  The -noia root is found in English words like noetic.

Appendix:  Chapter XIII of Pride and Prejudice

If Elizabeth, when Mr. Darcy gave her the letter, did not expect it to contain a renewal of his offers, she had formed no expectation at all of its contents. But such as they were, it may well be supposed how eagerly she went through them, and what a contrariety of emotion they excited. Her feelings as she read were scarcely to be defined. With amazement did she first understand that he believed any apology to be in his power; and stedfastly was she persuaded that he could have no explanation to give, which a just sense of shame would not conceal. With a strong prejudice against every thing he might say, she began his account of what had happened at Netherfield. She read, with an eagerness which hardly left her power of comprehension, and from impatience of knowing what the next sentence might bring, was incapable of attending to the sense of the one before her eyes. His belief of her sister’s insensibility, she instantly resolved to be false, and his account of the real, the worst objections to the match, made her too angry to have any wish of doing him justice. He expressed no regret for what he had done which satisfied her; his style was not penitent, but haughty. It was all pride and insolence.

But when this subject was succeeded by his account of Mr. Wickham, when she read with somewhat clearer attention, a relation of events, which, if true, must overthrow every cherished opinion of his worth, and which bore so alarming an affinity to his own history of himself, her feelings were yet more acutely painful and more difficult of definition. Astonishment, apprehension, and even horror, oppressed her. She wished to discredit it entirely, repeatedly exclaiming, “This must be false! This cannot be! This must be the grossest falsehood!”— and when she had gone through the whole letter, though scarcely knowing any thing of the last page or two, put it hastily away, protesting that she would not regard it, that she would never look in it again.

In this perturbed state of mind, with thoughts that could rest on nothing, she walked on; but it would not do; in half a minute the letter was unfolded again, and collecting herself as well as she could, she again began the mortifying perusal of all that related to Wickham, and commanded herself so far as to examine the meaning of every sentence. The account of his connection with the Pcmberley family, was exactly what he had related himself; and the kindness of the late Mr. Darcy, though she had not before known its extent, agreed equally well with his own words. So far each recital confirmed the other: but when she came to the will, the difference was great. What Wickham had said of the living was fresh in her memory, and as she recalled his very words, it was impossible not to feel that there was gross duplicity on one side or the other; and, for a few moments, she flattered herself that her wishes did not err. But when she read, and re-read with the closest attention, the particulars immediately following of Wickham’s resigning all pretensions to the living, of his receiving in lieu, so considerable a sum as three thousand pounds, again was she forced to hesitate. She put down the letter, weighed every circumstance with what she meant to be impartiality—deliberated on the probability of each statement— but with little success. On both sides it was only assertion. Again she read on. But every line proved more clearly that the affair, which she had believed it impossible that any contrivance could so represent, as to render Mr. Darcy’s conduct in it less than infamous, was capable of a turn which must make him entirely blameless throughout the whole.

The extravagance and general profligacy which he scrupled not to lay to Mr. Wickham’s charge, exceedingly shocked her; the more so, as she could bring no proof of its injustice. She had never heard of him before his entrance into the-shire Militia, in which he had engaged at the persuasion of the young man, who. on meeting him accidentally in town, had there renewed a slight acquaintance. Of his former wav of life, nothing had been known in Hertfordshire but what he told himself. As to his real character, had information been in her power, she had never felt a wish of enquiring. His countenance, voice, and manner, had established him at once in the possession of every virtue. She tried to recollect some instance of goodness, some distinguished trait of integrity or benevolence, that might rescue him from the attacks of Mr. Darcy; or at least, by the predominance of virtue, atone for those casual errors, under which she would endeavour to class, whatMr. Darcy had described as the idleness and vice of many years continuance. But no such recollection befriended her. She could see him instantly before her, in every charm of air and address; but she could remember no more substantial good than the general approbation of the neighbourhood, and the regard which his social powers had gained him in the mess. After pausing on this point a considerable while, she once more continued to read. But, alas! the story which followed of his designs on Miss Darcy, received some confirmation from what had passed between Colonel Fitzwilliam and herself only the morning before; and at last she was referred for the truth of even – particular to Colonel Fitzwilliam himself—from whom she had previously received the information of his near concern in all his cousin’s affairs, and whose character she had no reason to question. At one time she had almost resolved on applying to him, but the idea was checked by the awkwardness of the application, and at length wholly banished by the conviction that Mr. Darcy would never have hazarded such a proposal, if he had not been well assured of his cousin’s corroboration.

She perfectly remembered every thing that had passed in conversation between Wickham and herself, in their first evening at Mr. Philips’s. Many of his expressions were still fresh in her memory’. She was now struck with the impropriety of such communications to a stranger, and wondered it had escaped her before. She saw the indelicacy of putting himself forward as he had done, and the inconsistency of his professions with his conduct. She remembered that he had boasted of having no fear of seeing Mr. Darcy—that Mr. Darcy might leave the country, but that he should stand his ground; yet he had avoided the Netherfield ball the very next week. She remembered also, that till the Netherfield family had quitted the country, he had told his story to no one but herself; but that after their removal, it had been everywhere discussed; that he had then no reserves, no scruples in sinking Mr. Darcy’s character, though he had assured her that respect for the father, would always prevent his exposing the son.

How differently did every thing now appear in which he was concerned! His attentions to Miss King were now the consequence of views solely and hatefully mercenary; and the mediocrity of her fortune proved no longer the moderation of his wishes, but his eagerness to grasp at any thing. His behaviour to herself could now have had no tolerable motive; he had either been deceived with regard to her fortune, or had been gratifying his vanity by encouraging the preference which she believed she had most incautiously shewn. Every lingering struggle in his favour grew fainter and fainter; and in farther justification of Mr. Darcy, she could not but allow that Mr. Binglev, when questioned by Jane, had long ago asserted his blamelessness in the affair; that proud and repulsive as were his manners, she had never, in the whole course of their acquaintance, an acquaintance which latterly brought them much together, and given her a sort of intimacy with his wavs, seen any thing that betrayed him to be unprincipled or unjust—any thing that spoke him of irreligious or immoral habits. That among his own connections he was esteemed and valued—that even Wickham had allowed him merit as a brother, and that she had often heard him speak so affectionately of his sister as to prove him capable of some amiable feeling. That had his actions been what Wickham represented them, so gross a violation of every thing right could hardly have been concealed from the world; and that friendship between a person capable of it, and such an amiable man as Mr. Bingley, was incomprehensible.

She grew absolutely ashamed of herself.—Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think, without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.

“How despicably have I acted!” she cried.—“I, who have prided myself on my discernment!—I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity, in useless or blameable distrust.—How humiliating is this discover)-!—Yet, how just a humiliation!—Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly.—Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself.”

 

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About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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