Saturday, 19 June 2010

Up against the wall

I'm sure you're aware by now that some guy got famous by sticking zombies into the text of Pride & Prejudice. Well, I say famous; I couldn't actually tell you his name, but I saw an interview where he said: "It's a novel that really cries out for the inclusion of zombies. At least, it is for me."

Anything overused in fiction is a turn-off - and blimey, surely zombies have been warmed up so many times now that nobody who values originality could find them appetising fare
. Whenever a new videogame trailer shows people trapped in a hotel or shopping mall, grabbing at shotguns and fire axes as blank-eyed attackers shuffle around groaning, I just think - Why? Why bother? We've seen the exact same thing hundreds of times before. Even sparkly vampires are a smidgen fresher than that.

So I doubt you'll be seeing any zombies in Mirabilis. They weren't really a major fantasy trope in Edwardian times, anyway, so it's not just prejudice. But if I had to tell a story about zombies, I could do worse than characterize them as dull creatures wandering through libraries rather than shopping malls, inanely crayoning pictures of brains onto the pages of all the books and chortling at the improvement. (Actually, maybe that explains why zombies are such an obsession. We encounter them every day.)

Anyway, here is a bit of the real deal. There are no shambling undead in this unvandalised version of
Pride & Prejudice - nor need for them; the human monster is more than enough.
If you have a soul, you'll appreciate that the conflict in this scene is sharper than any run-in with a moaning stiff. And see how brilliantly Jane Austen captures the self-important diatribe of somebody who simply refuses to see the other person's point of view. Fortunately Lady Catherine de Bourgh has met her match in the spirited Elizabeth Bennet. You almost long for Lizzie to pull out a blunderbuss and blow this odious old bat away.
As soon as they entered the copse, Lady Catherine began in the following manner:

"You can be at no loss, Miss Bennet, to understand the reason of my journey hither. Your own heart, your own conscience, must tell you why I come."

Elizabeth looked with unaffected astonishment.

"Indeed, you are mistaken, Madam. I have not been at all able to account for the honour of seeing you here."

"Miss Bennet," replied her ladyship, in an angry tone, "you ought to know, that I am not to be trifled with. But however insincere you may choose to be, you shall not find me so. My character has ever been celebrated for its sincerity and frankness, and in a cause of such moment as this, I shall certainly not depart from it. A report of a most alarming nature reached me two days ago. I was told that not only your sister was on the point of being most advantageously married, but that you, that Miss Elizabeth Bennet, would, in all likelihood, be soon afterwards united to my nephew, my own nephew, Mr. Darcy. Though I know it must be a scandalous falsehood, though I would not injure him so much as to suppose the truth of it possible, I instantly resolved on setting off for this place, that I might make my sentiments known to you."

"If you believed it impossible to be true," said Elizabeth, colouring with astonishment and disdain, "I wonder you took the trouble of coming so far. What could your ladyship propose by it?"

"At once to insist upon having such a report universally contradicted."

"Your coming to Longbourn, to see me and my family," said Elizabeth coolly, "will be rather a confirmation of it; if, indeed, such a report is in existence."

"If! Do you then pretend to be ignorant of it? Has it not been industriously circulated by yourselves? Do you not know that such a report is spread abroad?"

"I never heard that it was."

"And can you likewise declare, that there is no foundation for it?"

"I do not pretend to possess equal frankness with your ladyship. You may ask questions which I shall not choose to answer."

"This is not to be borne. Miss Bennet, I insist on being satisfied. Has he, has my nephew, made you an offer of marriage?"

"Your ladyship has declared it to be impossible."

"It ought to be so; it must be so, while he retains the use of his reason. But your arts and allurements may, in a moment of infatuation, have made him forget what he owes to himself and to all his family. You may have drawn him in."

"If I have, I shall be the last person to confess it."

"Miss Bennet, do you know who I am? I have not been accustomed to such language as this. I am almost the nearest relation he has in the world, and am entitled to know all his dearest concerns."

"But you are not entitled to know mine; nor will such behaviour as this, ever induce me to be explicit."

"Let me be rightly understood. This match, to which you have the presumption to aspire, can never take place. No, never. Mr. Darcy is engaged to my daughter. Now what have you to say?"

"Only this; that if he is so, you can have no reason to suppose he will make an offer to me."

Lady Catherine hesitated for a moment, and then replied:

"The engagement between them is of a peculiar kind. From their infancy, they have been intended for each other. It was the favourite wish of his mother, as well as of hers. While in their cradles, we planned the union: and now, at the moment when the wishes of both sisters would be accomplished in their marriage, to be prevented by a young woman of inferior birth, of no importance in the world, and wholly unallied to the family! Do you pay no regard to the wishes of his friends? To his tacit engagement with Miss de Bourgh? Are you lost to every feeling of propriety and delicacy? Have you not heard me say that from his earliest hours he was destined for his cousin?"

"Yes, and I had heard it before. But what is that to me? If there is no other objection to my marrying your nephew, I shall certainly not be kept from it by knowing that his mother and aunt wished him to marry Miss de Bourgh. You both did as much as you could in planning the marriage. Its completion depended on others. If Mr. Darcy is neither by honour nor inclination confined to his cousin, why is not he to make another choice? And if I am that choice, why may not I accept him?"

"Because honour, decorum, prudence, nay, interest, forbid it. Yes, Miss Bennet, interest; for do not expect to be noticed by his family or friends, if you wilfully act against the inclinations of all. You will be censured, slighted, and despised, by everyone connected with him. Your alliance will be a disgrace; your name will never even be mentioned by any of us."

"These are heavy misfortunes," replied Elizabeth. "But the wife of Mr. Darcy must have such extraordinary sources of happiness necessarily attached to her situation, that she could, upon the whole, have no cause to repine."

"Obstinate, headstrong girl! I am ashamed of you! Is this your gratitude for my attentions to you last spring? Is nothing due to me on that score? Let us sit down. You are to understand, Miss Bennet, that I came here with the determined resolution of carrying my purpose; nor will I be dissuaded from it. I have not been used to submit to any person's whims. I have not been in the habit of brooking disappointment."

"That will make your ladyship's situation at present more pitiable; but it will have no effect on me."

"I will not be interrupted. Hear me in silence. My daughter and my nephew are formed for each other. They are descended, on the maternal side, from the same noble line; and, on the father's, from respectable, honourable, and ancient--though untitled--families. Their fortune on both sides is splendid. They are destined for each other by the voice of every member of their respective houses; and what is to divide them? The upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune. Is this to be endured! But it must not, shall not be. If you were sensible of your own good, you would not wish to quit the sphere in which you have been brought up."

"In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal."

"True. You are a gentleman's daughter. But who was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunts? Do not imagine me ignorant of their condition."

"Whatever my connections may be," said Elizabeth, "if your nephew does not object to them, they can be nothing to you."

"Tell me once for all, are you engaged to him?"

Though Elizabeth would not, for the mere purpose of obliging Lady Catherine, have answered this question, she could not but say, after a moment's deliberation:

"I am not."

Lady Catherine seemed pleased.

"And will you promise me, never to enter into such an engagement?"

"I will make no promise of the kind."

"Miss Bennet I am shocked and astonished. I expected to find a more reasonable young woman. But do not deceive yourself into a belief that I will ever recede. I shall not go away till you have given me the assurance I require."

"And I certainly never shall give it. I am not to be intimidated into anything so wholly unreasonable. Your ladyship wants Mr. Darcy to marry your daughter; but would my giving you the wished-for promise make their marriage at all more probable? Supposing him to be attached to me, would my refusing to accept his hand make him wish to bestow it on his cousin? Allow me to say, Lady Catherine, that the arguments with which you have supported this extraordinary application have been as frivolous as the application was ill-judged. You have widely mistaken my character, if you think I can be worked on by such persuasions as these. How far your nephew might approve of your interference in his affairs, I cannot tell; but you have certainly no right to concern yourself in mine. I must beg, therefore, to be importuned no farther on the subject."

"Not so hasty, if you please. I have by no means done. To all the objections I have already urged, I have still another to add. I am no stranger to the particulars of your youngest sister's infamous elopement. I know it all; that the young man's marrying her was a patched-up business, at the expence of your father and uncles. And is such a girl to be my nephew's sister? Is her husband, is the son of his late father's steward, to be his brother? Heaven and earth!--of what are you thinking? Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?"

"You can now have nothing further to say," she resentfully answered. "You have insulted me in every possible method. I must beg to return to the house."

And she rose as she spoke. Lady Catherine rose also, and they turned back. Her ladyship was highly incensed.

"You have no regard, then, for the honour and credit of my nephew! Unfeeling, selfish girl! Do you not consider that a connection with you must disgrace him in the eyes of everybody?"

"Lady Catherine, I have nothing further to say. You know my sentiments."

"You are then resolved to have him?"

"I have said no such thing. I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me."

"It is well. You refuse, then, to oblige me. You refuse to obey the claims of duty, honour, and gratitude. You are determined to ruin him in the opinion of all his friends, and make him the contempt of the world."

"Neither duty, nor honour, nor gratitude," replied Elizabeth, "have any possible claim on me, in the present instance. No principle of either would be violated by my marriage with Mr. Darcy. And with regard to the resentment of his family, or the indignation of the world, if the former were excited by his marrying me, it would not give me one moment's concern--and the world in general would have too much sense to join in the scorn."

"And this is your real opinion! This is your final resolve! Very well. I shall now know how to act. Do not imagine, Miss Bennet, that your ambition will ever be gratified. I came to try you. I hoped to find you reasonable; but, depend upon it, I will carry my point."

In this manner Lady Catherine talked on, till they were at the door of the carriage, when, turning hastily round, she added, "I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet. I send no compliments to your mother. You deserve no such attention. I am most seriously displeased."


  1. Victorian novels are full of this hideous sort of superiority be virtue of station. What's even more alarming is that it was also assumed to be sanctified:

    "The rich man in his castle,
    The poor man at his gate,
    God made them high or lowly,
    And ordered their estate.

    All things bright and beautiful ..."

    Divine right it seemed spread on down from kings to the nobility and the upper classes.

    If you were poor it was because you deserved no better.

    Hideous really Dave, I think we've come a ways since then but it's still an uphill struggle against the undeserving privileged.

  2. You know, Peter, I sometimes think that, in the minds of the people like that, Britain hasn't changed in two centuries. If power corrupts, so too does wealth and privilege in any form. The Emperor Augustus was wise enough to sleep on a simple camp bed in a small room off his study, knowing that he ever gave in to the lure of his position he would become one of the dreadful trumpeting upper-class monsters he had always deplored as a youth.

    What I particularly like about the scene is that in modern terms you're expecting Lizzie to just say, "Sod this," and sock her in the kisser, but in the society of the time, standing up to the old broad like that would amount to pretty much the same thing.

  3. She holds her cool throughout, though, which is what makes her so amazing. My favourite line:

    "You can now have nothing further to say," she resentfully answered. "You have insulted me in every possible method. I must beg to return to the house."

    In other words, I have put up with enough of your crap, you old windbag - I'm off!

    But of course the best part is that Lizzie's courage in the face of that onslaught - her refusal to cave in to Lady Catherine, even though it would have been perfectly understandable (if only to get rid of the old bat) - was what ultimately proved to Darcy that he still had a chance with her. Lady Catherine's actions, born out of selfishness and cruelty, led to exactly the result she most dreaded. Such a satisfying conclusion!

    Brilliant storytelling. One of the best scenes from one of my most beloved books.

  4. In modern rom-coms, the de rigeur big finish is usually that old cliche "the chase to the airport". Look at any Richard Curtis movie and you'll see that it usually culminates into a bunch of wacky friends cramming themselves into a small car and driving recklessly to stop somebody (usually the heroine) from catching a plane or getting hitched.

    Why are these finales unsatisfying? Because they are only visual spectacle. They take it as read that the hero has finally realized he wants the heroine, and the only threat is that she might go away or otherwise take some irrevocable step before he can declare his undying. And, of course, cellphones just won't do in a case like that - "Oh no, I can't get a signal," types the lazy writer.

    But as you say, Sandy, that's what makes this scene by Miss Austen so satisfying. Because it has an extra ingredient that most 11th-hour threats do not. It shows us Lizzie's *character*. The reason she deserves Darcy is not because she's willing to climb in a pony trap and drive at speeds of up to 15 mph to stop him from joining the Dragoons, it's that love and her own determination give her the invincible strength to see off the boss at the end of the level, the dragon of this story, namely Lady Catherine who embodies all of the tiny-minded prejudice of "Society" that Lizzie and Darcy will be leaving behind.

    And that's why it's a work of genius, and why sticking zombies in it is mere boneheaded vandalism!

  5. And remember - despite what she felt about her confrontation, Lizzy was strong-minded enough NOT to say anything to her mother when she enquired about Lady Catherine's visit - "I suppose she had nothing particular to say to you, Lizzy?" - a wonderful moment, rather surprisingly left out of the 1995 adaptation.