“We neither of us perform to strangers”: Inside baseball for P&P fans
15 July 2013
Is there a more delicious, meaningful, opaque line of dialogue from Pride and Prejudice? (Quick apologies to those readers who are, like, line analysis from P&P? yawn.)
Even better that it signals Mr. Darcy’s ability to flirt. If pressed, I would argue that this is the moment when their courtship begins, as it proves Darcy capable of a kind of flirtation that can disarm Lizzy’s quick wit.
It comes during one of my favorite moments in Lady Catherine De Bourgh’s parlor, shortly after Darcy and his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam have arrived (and therefore before the marriage proposal and even the information that Darcy might have prevented Bingley from marrying Jane).
It’s a terrific exchange — well worth reading the short chapter in full — premised on mutual teasing. (Is there anything more wonderful than mutual teasing in the early phase of a romance? Much better than a sonnet.) But it also gets barbed, because Lizzy still dislikes Darcy so much, and she doesn’t realize that his feelings are so much the opposite.
I won’t recount the glories of this exchange, because if you’ve read this far, you surely know it. It’s the one in which they riff on Lady Catherine’s suggestion that Lizzy practice the pianoforte more, which she then uses to prod Darcy about his rudeness to the citizens of Hertfordshire. He tries denial, but ultimately he submits to her teasing.
I want to draw your attention to Darcy’s great line:
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 any thing wanting. We neither of us perform to strangers.”
It’s not true, is it? As in, not really true at all?
If anyone knows how to perform to strangers, it’s Elizabeth Bennet. She and Jane take great pride in being the kinds of intelligent, genteel women whom anyone would want at a social gathering, of whom any family would be proud. Indeed, Darcy has fallen for her in part because she moves with such skill and intelligence through a room full of people — skills he admittedly lacks (“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess of conversing easily with those I have never seen before”).
He knows she performs to strangers. Why would he say the opposite?
The first thing that always leaps out at me from this line is that it allows Darcy to say we and us in the same sentence, an awfully flirty move for a man so self-controlled. (It also shuts poor Fitzwilliam out of the conversation, but Darcy is flirting hard here, with all his compliments for Lizzy’s playing.)
I suppose you could also say that it smoothes over Lady Catherine’s earlier cringe-making digs at Lizzy’s piano skills. “I have told Miss Bennet several times, that she will never play really well, unless she practises more,” Lady C pronounces, thereby embarrassing her relations. Darcy’s comment is a wholesale rejection of both Lizzy’s modesty and Lady C’s rude ignorance.
But most of all when Darcy emits this opaque, confounding line, he undermines all Lizzy’s accusations about his character. She has teased him for being intimidating and rude, and he returns with a spectacular compliment about her playing. Even more artfully, he has defused her complaints about him by asserting that they are the same.
“We neither of us perform to strangers” asserts the similarity between them; and it also establishes an intimacy between them, an intimacy of mutual recognition. Darcy may be largely wrong about Lizzy’s nature, but not entirely; he recognizes that her intelligence goes beyond what she shows in company. This line says, you and I understand each other; but it does something more: it forces her to imagine that intimacy. Delicious.
In the book, Austen lets this line pass through the scene; but in the 1995 miniseries, the director allows this line to catch Lizzy a little short for lack of a response. Also delicious.
Thanks for reading this opportunity for me to let my P&P freak flag fly. No more close readings for the time being, I promise.