Prof. Robert Morrison
Queen’s University, Kingston
“Getting Around Pride & Prejudice: Gothicism, Fairy Tales & the Very World of All Us”.
In a thought-provoking premise, Dr. Morrison equated the “Gothic” literary tradition with a fear of spinsterhood and the deeper fear of its relation, poverty.
Citing sources such as Byron and Wollstonecraft, his ideas contained such laden words as humility, compassion, love, humiliation, terror, anguish, in short: firm Gothic Territory. Neoclassical in form and structure, with fairytale endings of “happily ever after,” Austen’s writings are often paired with Shelley’s in Dr. Morrison’s classes. Pretty women, estates, happy marriages. ” ‘What calm lives those people had,’ said Churchill of Austen’s characters.” But Austen’s major achievement, hidden perhaps, are the shortage of men, passing mentions of prize money and economic crises: “Politics seems to shape the novel at every turn”. Austen cannot continue to suppress or ignore the ‘individual’. Citing Howells, we could all agree that Elizabeth – a gentleman’s daughter – was more a ‘lady’ than even Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Elizabeth’s triumph over Lady Catherine can be taken as a triumph of humanity over rank.
The linchpin is realism, Dr Morrison concluded, but her novels touch on the fears (the Gothic).
Some points and arguments that Dr Morrison advanced which caught my particular attention:
Citing Martin Amis, he commented on Austen’s thoughts and rhythms invading his own thoughts and rhythms. I would heartily agree; it makes such a difference in my quality of writing (even speech), when I read the phrases of a powerful author as opposed to a pedestrian hack.
He brought up the reactions of such readers as Annabelle Milbank and Henry Crabbe Robinson. These are precious, as they are reactions to the novels, from people living during Austen’s lifetime, and wholly untainted by memories of films and teleplays. HCR even called Mr Collins ‘a masterpiece’! My thoughts exactly (which made a later comment [see below] hard to fathom).
Dr Morrison made a joke of Catherine Morland’s name; citing that everyone in the novels wants ‘more land’. He promoted the idea of a woman being “her father’s burden; her husband’s property”. But the comment of Charlotte Lucas committing “respectable prostitution” – well, that seemed out of place. Actually, it left me shaking my head – ‘No!’ When Dr Morrison said that his ‘skin crawled’ at the idea of the Collinses’ marriage, that sounded more ‘colored by film depictions of Mr Collins’ than genuine thoughts about the plight of both characters: one in want of a good wife; the other in want of a good home.
In equating the Gothic, there was this thought-provoking idea behind Darcy’s comment on Elizabeth’s looks: Darcy doesn’t want to dance (doesn’t even wish to be at the dance); and all people talk about is his money! Darcy’s “tolerable” evaluation of Elizabeth “haunts her – raises the specter of spinsterhood”. Her greatest asset (no dowry) is her looks. Excellent way of digging deeper into this much-quoted comment by Darcy.
Elizabeth is wrong about Charlotte, willing to be wrong about Wickham, and wrong about Darcy. Darcy’s letter helps her see herself more clearly. The implacable resentment Elizabeth attributes to Darcy, she feels herself.
One unanswered – until that evening – observation: when Dr Morrison spoke of Austen’s use of words and cited her deliberate use of “a month” in Elizabeth’s rejection of Darcy. Dr. Morrison’s thoughts centered on Lizzy’s inability to forgive the slight Darcy had inflicted. But as the question period opened and this was addressed (with more than one person saying ‘I never really noticed’) it became apparent that Austen meant more by this specific period of time: not an hour, not a day – but “I had not known you a month”. The Play that evening answered this hitherto unanswered observation – and it is in the novel: When Mr Wickham is ‘confessing’ his life story to Elizabeth, he asks her how long Darcy has stayed with Bingley. The magic answer: “About a month.” Obviously Austen wanted readers to conclude, in the proposal scene, that Lizzy’s enmity against Darcy survived the slight to her ‘tolerable’ looks, but surfaced to the fore from the point at which she ‘knows’ Darcy to have harmed the prospects of Mr Wickham!
An audience member then brought up this acute observation: Miss de Bourgh, in being sickly, is quite Gothic and can be seen as the symbol of “the dead end,” the dying system that once was predicated upon blood (again the idea of rank versus the humanity of Elizabeth). And on that thought, which touched on the truly Gothic – the vampire tales, we broke for beverages, cookies and oranges. There will be more to say on this subject when the Play is discussed; for the actress portraying Miss de Bourgh gave the role something never seen before.