Sunday, February 9, 2014

'To Pemberley, therefore, they were to go.'

And BOOM goes the dynamite as Jane sets off the careful intricate fireworks display of plot she's been building up for over two hundred and fifty pages now.

This time around I really noticed how much the novel continues to be about Elizabeth's emotional education: Darcy goes through the same process offstage, but the focus is still all on her, as she hears the testimony of the housekeeper, observes the portrait, reads the letter from her aunt, and so on. Part of what gets me down about this actual conclusion to the story is Darcy is the one getting all the action (that's what she said): finding Lydia and Wickham, bribing and bullying them into being married, confessing to Bingley -- in short acting like a knight performing brave deeds to win the love of his lady, who just gets to watch him do it. (Although, characteristically, Elizabeth is the one who slays the dragon Lady Catherine, right in front of us.)

But more distressingly, for so much of Vol III, Elizabeth is stunned, suspended in horror; I don't think she even makes any jokes, except bitter ones ("I do not particularly like your way of getting husbands") until she gets to tease Jane about Bingley in chapter twelve. The teasing goes on, but we don't see "her spirits rising to full playfulness again" until after she has told her father "I do, I do like him....I love him" -- her sparkle, if not quenched, has been terribly dimmed for about a hundred pages.

....But such high-minded objections aside, the real reason I can't really love Vol III is because it's fucking nervewracking. When my husband and I were watching the 1995 adaptation (as it was airing -- God, I'm so damn old) he was going quietly frantic trying to pry out of me whether or not Darcy and Elizabeth got married, and in exasperation I finally said "Well, what do you think, would it be this popular if they didn't?" He said, "OK, OK, I know they must get married, but I can't see how right now." As Martin Amis, of all people, wrote when that adaptation was released:

This autumn, as the new serial got into its stride, distressed viewers rang up the BBC in tears, pleading for the assurance that fate would smile on the star-crossed pair and all would yet be well. I was not among these callers, but I sympathized. And I quite understood why the “Pride and Prejudice” video, released midway through the run, sold out in two hours. When I was introduced to the novel, at the age of fourteen, I read twenty pages and then besieged my stepmother’s study until she told me what I needed to know. I needed to know that Darcy married Elizabeth. (I needed to know that Bingley married Jane.) I needed this information as badly as I had ever needed anything. “Pride and Prejudice” suckers you. Amazingly—and, I believe, uniquely—it goes on suckering you. Even now, as I open the book, I feel the same panic of unsatisfied expectation, despite five or six rereadings. How can this be, when the genre itself guarantees consummation?

Which is exactly my experience with it. EVERY TIME. There I was, panicking away as Jane played me rather more deftly than Mary played her piano. When you read, say, Oedipus Rex, the dreadful suspense depends on your not wanting to know what you know is happening right in front of you: it is driven by denial. But when you read -- and reread -- P&P the dreadful suspense goes on happening even when you know beyond a doubt that what is going to happen is what you need to have happen. Jane is Sherlock and Watson at once: performing the impossible mental brilliance, and telling us as she does it. No wonder it redefines the word "popular." Five thousand years from now there will probably be cockroaches artfully lit in miniature Regency gowns made out of scavenged carpet fibers, suckering each other with the story.

If P&P were indeed "only" a romance -- and I have here spared you a thousand-word-long rant on what Romance means, including the inevitable Hawthorne reference, be grateful -- it would end at about the point where Elizabeth has begun to triumph ("Bingley was ready, Georgiana was eager, and Darcy determined to be pleased"). Instead we read with her Jane's dreadful news of Lydia's elopment with Wickham, and Darcy is of course right there, and Jane gets to work tightening the mental thumbscrews: "and never had she so honestly felt that she could have loved him as now, when all love must be in vain." In my horribly acid-green-covered paperback of the moment, last night I scrawled the brief but eloquent annotation "AUGH." I have probably thought something like "AUGH" every single time I have ever read that sentence.

If the genres of romance and suspense depend on the artful putting-off of what we know is going to happen (for instance, Hitchcock putting off the opening of a trunk for an hour and a half), the much-derided phenomenon of wish-fulfillment, P&P depends on something completely different: the dread that what we need to most have happen inevitably never will. Austen has created a perpetual motion machine of a story driven by the reality principle. That she finishes it off convincingly with a melding of fantasy and reality (Elizabeth's inferior connections pester her until the very last page) is final proof of her genius.