Originally published 11/12/2006.
Chapter Thirty-one is about an interesting contrast between playing the pianoforte well and conversing easily with strangers. The chapter begins with an example in Colonel Fitzwilliam, who proves himself quite at ease with Lizzy, and then moves on to a direct conversation among Darcy, Fitzwilliam, and Lizzy on the subject itself.
Colonel Fitzwilliam's manners were very much admired at the Parsonage, and the ladies all felt that he must add considerably to the pleasures of their engagements at Rosings. It was some days, however, before they received any invitation thither-- for while there were visitors in the house, they could not be necessary; and it was not till Easter-day, almost a week after the gentlemen's arrival, that they were honoured by such an attention, and then they were merely asked on leaving church to come there in the evening. For the last week they had seen very little of Lady Catherine or her daughter. Colonel Fitzwilliam had called at the Parsonage more than once during the time, but Mr. Darcy they had seen only at church.
The invitation was accepted of course, and at a proper hour they joined the party in Lady Catherine's drawing-room. Her ladyship received them civilly, but it was plain that their company was by no means so acceptable as when she could get nobody else;...
Ah yes, the law of marginal utility in action: the more you have of a thing, the less valuable each additional unit of that thing is. Lizzy and Mr. and Mrs. Collins are literally being marginalized.
...and she was, in fact, almost engrossed by her nephews, speaking to them, especially to Darcy, much more than to any other person in the room.
I have no doubt this was considered rude in those days. Today this sort of thing is somewhat more common, but I think many people still have qualms about leaving someone out.
Colonel Fitzwilliam seemed really glad to see them; anything was a welcome relief to him at Rosings;...
Quite a flattering picture of Rosings, don't you think? Amongst Lady Catherine and her overbearing officiousness, Darcy and his reticence, Anne and her mealy-mouthed silence, and Mrs. Jenkinson and her stupidity, I imagine a man of Fitzwilliam's talents would indeed be bored at Rosings.
...and Mrs. Collins's pretty friend had moreover caught his fancy very much. He now seated himself by her, and talked so agreeably of Kent and Hertfordshire, of travelling and staying at home, of new books and music, that Elizabeth had never been half so well entertained in that room before; and they conversed with so much spirit and flow, as to draw the attention of Lady Catherine herself, as well as of Mr. Darcy. His eyes had been soon and repeatedly turned towards them with a look of curiosity; and that her ladyship, after a while, shared the feeling, was more openly acknowledged, for she did not scruple to call out:
Interesting that Austen writes first that Lady Catherine is attracted to the conversation as well as Darcy, and then immediately says that Darcy was first attracted to the conversation and then Lady Catherine. What do you think Darcy's curiosity is about? We know he is attracted to Lizzy, and I would guess that by now he is really in love with her, or whatever he thinks that is. He is infatuated, I think. I'll have more to say about this matter nearer the end of the chapter.
"What is that you are saying, Fitzwilliam? What is it you are talking of? What are you telling Miss Bennet? Let me hear what it is."
Oh, oh, me, too!
"We are speaking of music, madam," said he, when no longer able to avoid a reply.
Austen's double negation again, quite sarcastic this time.
"Of music! Then pray speak aloud. It is of all subjects my delight. I must have my share in the conversation if you are speaking of music. There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste...
I can never see or hear this last line without thinking that Lady Catherine would have worked well in advertising. Lady Catherine here must be advertising some new beverage.
...If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient. And so would Anne, if her health had allowed her to apply. I am confident that she would have performed delightfully. How does Georgiana get on, Darcy?"
Mr. Darcy spoke with affectionate praise of his sister's proficiency.
This is important, for here it is that Lizzy hears Mr. Darcy be affectionate toward his sister. She sees Darcy do right by his sister, and I think that is part of what turns the tide of her opinion.
"I am very glad to hear such a good account of her," said Lady Catherine; "and pray tell her from me, that she cannot expect to excel if she does not practice a good deal."
"I assure you, madam," he replied, "that she does not need such advice. She practises very constantly."
"So much the better. It cannot be done too much; and when I next write to her, I shall charge her not to neglect it on any account...
Three strikes and you're out. 1. Lady Catherine has just heard that Georgiana plays very well, which she wouldn't be able to do if she didn't practice. 2. She tells Darcy to tell Georgiana to practice more; for which message Darcy himself reveals the lack of necessity. 3. After Darcy thus tries to head her off, Lady Catherine plows ahead with yet another exhortation (Bierce's Devil's Dictionary definition of "exhort": In religious affairs, to put the conscience of another upon the spit and roast it to a nut-brown discomfort.) that she claims to plan to write to Georgiana. This three-fold repetition, so important to the Bible in emphasizing importance of things, is thus ludicrously mis-placed. This is called beating a dead horse. Not only that, but she continues to wax ineloquent on the same thing for an entire paragraph. He would be dull indeed who failed to get this point. Naturally, though, Lady Catherine is correct: practice is a necessity for excellence in music. What's not necessary is for Lady Catherine to speak on it so much. This is a common fault of conservatives, I think. We think we're right, so what could possibly be better than repeating what's right over and over again so your opponents get it?
...I often tell young ladies that no excellence in music is to be acquired without constant practice. I have told Miss Bennet several times, that she will never play really well unless she practises more; and though Mrs. Collins has no instrument, she is very welcome, as I have often told her, to come to Rosings every day, and play on the pianoforte in Mrs. Jenkinson's room. She would be in nobody's way, you know, in that part of the house."
Mr. Darcy looked a little ashamed of his aunt's ill-breeding, and made no answer.
The ill-breeding is in not offering the better instrument in a more main part of the house, I think. But it's also, perhaps, in what I have been discussing, namely, the supreme lack of necessity for such a long-winded speech on such a subject without saying anything different.
When coffee was over, Colonel Fitzwilliam reminded Elizabeth of having promised to play to him; and she sat down directly to the instrument...
For someone who asks politely, as does Fitzwilliam, Lizzy is not at all reticent to play. This is in contrast to the KKn version, where Keira Knightley's Lizzy protests in strong terms about playing. I do not think that movie captures what is going on here. Lizzy, as below, is not evidently puffed up with pride about her playing, but she is willing to share her talent when asked. She does not put herself forward, nor does she withdraw. In Hollywood's effort to make sure Lizzy is not arrogant, they give her false modesty. But I think Lizzy would have been smart enough to avoid that danger.
...He drew a chair near her. Lady Catherine listened to half a song, and then talked, as before, to her other nephew;...
This is perhaps acceptable back then, as Lizzy's performance is not a command performance, but merely having fun on the piano.
...till the latter walked away from her, and making with his usual deliberation towards the pianoforte stationed himself so as to command a full view of the fair performer's countenance...
To admire, surely.
...Elizabeth saw what he was doing,...
Or does she? She sees what he is physically doing, but given the shock she exhibits at his proposal I do not think she suspects that he is infatuated with her. Moreover, Austen seems to intimate the same information by describing Lizzy's state of mind. Finally, Lizzy, at least formally, declares Darcy's motive to be that of intimidation. Regardless of whether she is being coy there or not, I still think she does not know that Darcy is interested in her.
...and at the first convenient pause, turned to him with an arch smile, and said:
"You mean to frighten me, Mr. Darcy, by coming in all this state to hear me? But I will not be alarmed though your sister does play so well. There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me."
"I shall not say you are mistaken," he replied, "because you could not really believe me to entertain any design of alarming you;...
This statement puzzles me a bit. Which word should be emphasized here: "because" or "mistaken"? Is Darcy saying that he will not declare Lizzy to be mistaken, and that the reason he will not do so is because she could not believe him serious about alarming her? Or is he saying that she is mistaken, but the reason she is mistaken is not because she believes his is out to frighten her? I hope I have the right number of negatives in there; Austen has three or four, and I can't help thinking that in today's world, this last sentence would have had to go. It seems a bit unclear to me. Any reader input would be appreciated, supposing they can make any sense out of what I'm saying.
...and I have had the pleasure of your acquaintance long enough to know that you find great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact are not your own."
Elizabeth laughed heartily at this picture of herself,...
It is rather amusing, is it not?
...and said to Colonel Fitzwilliam, "Your cousin will give you a very pretty notion of me, and teach you not to believe a word I say. I am particularly unlucky in meeting with a person so able to expose my real character, in a part of the world where I had hoped to pass myself off with some degree of credit. Indeed, Mr. Darcy, it is very ungenerous in you to mention all that you knew to my disadvantage in Hertfordshire-- and, give me leave to say, very impolitic too-- for it is provoking me to retaliate, and such things may come out as will shock your relations to hear."
"I am not afraid of you," said he, smilingly.
I could imagine Darcy emphasizing the first and last words in his statement, in order to poke fun, perhaps, at her earlier sentiment that Darcy was trying to frighten her.
"Pray let me hear what you have to accuse him of," cried Colonel Fitzwilliam. "I should like to know how he behaves among strangers."
"You shall hear then-- but prepare yourself for something very dreadful. The first time of my ever seeing him in Hertfordshire, you must know, was at a ball-- and at this ball, what do you think he did? He danced only four dances, though gentlemen were scarce; and, to my certain knowledge, more than one young lady was sitting down in want of a partner. Mr. Darcy, you cannot deny the fact."
"I had not at that time the honour of knowing any lady in the assembly beyond my own party."
Darcy, with a pathetic excuse on which Lizzy pounces like a rat.
"True; and nobody can ever be introduced in a ball-room...
Ooo, the sarcasm.
...Well, Colonel Fitzwilliam, what do I play next? My fingers wait your orders."
This is interesting, to me. I don't think Lizzy is changing the subject. She may already have in mind the analogy she makes a little later on, between introducing yourself to people, and playing the pianoforte.
"Perhaps," said Darcy, "I should have judged better, had I sought an introduction; but I am ill qualified to recommend myself to strangers."
Shall we ask your cousin the reason of this?" said Elizabeth, still addressing Colonel Fitzwilliam. "Shall we ask him why a man of sense and education, and who has lived in the world, is ill qualified to recommend himself to strangers?"
"I can answer your question," said Fitzwilliam, "without applying to him. It is because he will not give himself the trouble."
"I certainly have not the talent which some people possess," said Darcy, "of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done."
And that, in turn, is because he perhaps is not interested in their concerns.
"My fingers," said Elizabeth, "do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women's do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault-- because I will not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman's of superior execution."
The analogy mentioned above. I think it is exceptionally apt.
Darcy smiled and said, "You are perfectly right. You have employed your time much better. No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you can think anything wanting. We neither of us perform to strangers."
Darcy gets the analogy immediately, without any need for further explanation. Darcy, we know, is clever. Surely Lizzy recognizes this by now.
Here they were interrupted by Lady Catherine, who called out...
Her she goes again.
...to know what they were talking of. Elizabeth immediately began playing again.
This is, perhaps, Lizzy's way of politely rebuking Lady Catherine. It's also a way to cover up with they were saying; if Lady Catherine had heard what they were talking about, she might not have benefited from the sentiments expressed. So here's Lizzy being discreet about her wisdom. She tells Darcy, I think, because the presence of Fitzwilliam acts like a catalyst, propelling her forward. With such a well-bred man around, she does not need to fear anything from Darcy.
...Lady Catherine approached, and, after listening for a few minutes, said to Darcy:
"Miss Bennet would not play at all amiss if she practised more,...
Give it a rest!
...and could have the advantage of a London master. She has a very good notion of fingering, though her taste is not equal to Anne's. Anne would have been a delightful performer, had her health allowed her to learn."
Elizabeth looked at Darcy to see how cordially he assented to his cousin's praise; but neither at that moment nor at any other could she discern any symptom of love; and from the whole of his behaviour to Miss de Bourgh she derived this comfort for Miss Bingley, that he might have been just as likely to marry her, had she been his relation.
Lady Catherine continued her remarks on Elizabeth's performance, mixing with them many instructions on execution and taste. Elizabeth received them with all the forbearance of civility,...
A wonderfully accurate picture of two extremes: the lack of wisdom on Lady Catherine's part, putting forth her opinions where they were not perhaps exactly sought-after; and the receptiveness on Lizzy's part of correction. Probably Lady Catherine does have some good ideas about music.
...and, at the request of the gentlemen, remained at the instrument till her ladyship's carriage was ready to take them all home.
We don't know how long that was, but the mere mentioning of it seems to indicate it was a while. So Lizzy shows greatness of spirit here, and I think that Darcy learns something. Moreover, as I foreshadowed above, I think Darcy's admiration for Lizzy gets a significant leap forward. Men like Darcy would, I think, greatly admire someone who can beat them in an argument and teach them something. Lizzy has shown Darcy that she is a match for him intellectually. Such a feat would greatly add to her attractiveness in his eyes. Moreover, such an action on the part of an attractive woman would definitely not necessarily count as an untoward independence of spirit like the modern feminists want. They'd probably have a field day with this passage. but Lizzy, I claim, can be just as submissive biblically, to Darcy after they marry, and continue in this vein. No doubt she would never do it to an excess, but the knowledge that she can do it seems to me important for Darcy's admiration.