Michaeline: Secrets, Secrets Never Cease

Elizabeth Bennet with the scales of justice

In Pride and Prejudice, secrets are kept from the readers, but we have a friend and guide as Elizabeth Bennet discovers the secrets and weighs the characters of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

I’m not sure why, but my mind is still on secrets this week. Last week, we expressed indignation in the comments about writers who keep secrets from the readers, but I’ve been thinking about it a little more, and . . . isn’t that precisely what writers are supposed to do? The writer, by the third or fifth or fiftieth draft, knows exactly what’s going on and all the secrets in the book (in theory). The writer could reveal everything in the first paragraph and be done with it. The art and the skill comes in revealing the secrets bit by bit.

I think what we protest against is clumsiness in handling secrets. As Nancy mentioned, one way of handling it is that there must be clues, they have to make sense, and the reader shouldn’t feel duped when they discover what’s going on.

I’m re-reading Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen for the umpteenth time this week, and you’d think by now, I know all the secrets in that book so thoroughly that the story would fail to entertain. But it doesn’t . . . I still find it very hard to put the book down.

The big secret is Mr. Wickham’s true character. As you may remember, Wickham is a charming young man who has joined a regiment stationed near our heroine Elizabeth’s home. He tells Elizabeth a tale of woe where he is denied a promised job as a clergyman by Mr. Darcy, who has a bad reputation in the neighborhood for being a prideful and arrogant man.

Elizabeth witnesses the two men meeting in Chapter 15, and there’s a delicious air of mystery:

“ . . . Elizabeth happening to see the countenance of both as they looked at each other, was all astonishment at the effect of the meeting. Both changed colour, one looked white, the other red. Mr. Wickham, after a few moments, touched his hat – a salutation which Mr. Darcy just deigned to return. What could be the meaning of it? It was impossible to imagine; it was impossible not to long to know.”

As an omniscient narrator, Austen is very selective about dipping into the heads of her characters. Earlier, we knew exactly what Mr. Darcy was thinking; he was determined not to fix his eyes on Elizabeth, because he was crushing on her. This is actually quite amazing, because it takes place earlier in the same sentence I began the quote with! In the space of a few words, we are given access to a character’s thoughts, dumped into a new character’s head, and then denied access to the thoughts of the first. And I don’t care! If this is headhopping, it’s done with grace and logic.

The whole mini-scene piques our curiosity, and it really is the core of the book – the two dopplegangers that illustrate the difference between the appearance of good, and actual goodness.

People have done entire papers on this set of three sentences, I’m sure, so I won’t ramble on in my Saturday blog.

What’s quite interesting to me, as well, is that I still have a mystery. Who turned red, and who turned white? The BBC adaption to Pride and Prejudice is not helpful; neither actor seems to blush or pale. Every time I think I have the visuals set, my mind changes and thinks perhaps the other man has the other complexion. It’s a secret Jane Austen keeps to herself.

2 thoughts on “Michaeline: Secrets, Secrets Never Cease

  1. I love Jane Austen—she’s such a sharp social observer. And although I’d never thought of her as a writer who traffics in secrets, as you point out in this passage, of course she does, or there wouldn’t be much of a story.

    • And the amazing things is that as social animals, we haven’t changed a lot in 200 years in many essential respects. (-: I read Northanger Abbey for the first time a few months ago, and was astounded by the boys racing their car(riage)s and drinking more than they should, and the girls of course giggling and gossiping after the boys. She has such a fine sense about where a person is in society and how they should sound and act.

      And yeah, I’m starting to think that I’m having one of those blindingly obvious “doh!” moments . . . everything is about secrets. Is everything about secrets? Well, maybe everything is about secrets. (You see, I’m in the middle of the moment and I’m not sure where I’m going with it.) At any rate, secrets sure do add a fizz to the story, and are one of those plot drivers that we can be a tiny bit irrational about. Not too irrational, but there’s a spectrum of personalities that interact with a spectrum of secrets in interesting ways . . . .

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