Mr. Darcy is “No Laughing” Matter

On a beautiful June afternoon in New York City, Janeites gathered to attend Daniel R. Mangiavellano’s program, “I just flew in from Pemberley (and boy, are my arms tired!)”:  Rethinking Darcy’s Humor in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (hosted by JASNA-NY). 

Needless to say, it was most agreeable.

Daniel R. Mangiavellano, Assistant Professor of English at Loyola University Maryland

Daniel R. Mangiavellano, Assistant Professor of English at Loyola University Maryland

In Chapter 11 of Pride and Prejudice, we read, “Mr. Darcy is not to be laughed at!’ cried Elizabeth. ‘That is an uncommon advantage, and uncommon I hope it will continue, for it would be a great loss to me to have many such acquaintance. I dearly love a laugh.”  

So do I.

But why can’t we laugh at Mr. Darcy?  Is he too superior to engage in laughter? Perhaps.

Professor Mangiavellano pointed out that according to the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, laughing was no laughing matter.

In the book, Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman, Chesterfield urges his son to refrain from the act of laughter. Chesterfield was an aristocrat, a member of Parliament, and a snob. His letters were never meant to be made public. They were written in 1748 and later published by the impoverished widow of his illegitimate son in 1774.

Chesterfield writes, I would heartily wish that you may often be seen to smile, but never heard to laugh, while you live. Frequent and loud laughter is the characteristic of folly and ill-manners; it is the manner in which the mob express their silly joy at silly things; and they call it ‘being merry’. In my mind, there is nothing so illiberal, and so ill-bred, as audible laughter. I am neither of a melancholy nor a cynical disposition, and am as willing and as apt to be pleased as anybody; but I am sure that since I have had the full use of my reason nobody has ever heard me laugh.

Was Austen making fun of Chesterfield in the stoic character of Mr. Darcy?

Mangiavellano reminded us that with Rev. George Austen’s extensive home library, it’s likely that Jane had access to Chesterfield’s book. She was an avid reader as we know.

The way in which Austen takes jabs at society (or The Church of England or authors that frown upon novels or even perhaps Chesterfield) is brilliantly subtle. I believe it’s one of the reasons that readers return to her books, reading them over and over again. Subtle humor is always fresh.

This was only one of the many observations made during last week’s wonderful discussion on Mr. Darcy’s humor.

Despite the lack of laughter on Darcy’s part, JASNA-NY members delightfully submitted to the act, thoroughly enjoying the program and the presenter’s new insight on Mr. Darcy. Mr. Darcy, proud as he may be, exhibits humor in his own special — and positively Austen — way.

The program was followed by conversation and refreshments and sponsored by JASNA-NY.

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