Shadow Plots

You know how Shakespeare sometimes rewrote the same plot, once as tragedy, once as comedy? (The most obvious example that springs to mind is Othello/Much Ado About Nothing – one ends in death & despair, the other in multiple marriages. Another one is Romeo and Juliet vs. A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) Well, it turns out Austen did that too: Mansfield Park is a shadow plot of Pride and Prejudice.

Think about it: a young lady meets a gentleman against whom she becomes prejudiced because of the things he says and does; she is convinced he has a bad character. But he falls in love with her, and proposes. She tells him that no way, no-how, will she have anything to do with him. She then goes off on a journey; while abroad, she meets the man again, and now sees him in a very different light. Finally the journey is abruptly terminated by a family emergency:  a female relative of the lady has gone off with an undesirable man, which throws her entire family into a tremendous uproar. The lady returns home, and the romantic entanglements eventually are straightened out.

Two stories, one underlying plot – once light, once dark. In the case of Elizabeth and Darcy, her prejudice turns out to have been false; she sees him truly the way he is when they meet in Derbyshire and when he prevents the ruin of her seduced sister; they get together in the end, and happily-ever-after ensues. For Fanny and Henry Crawford, it’s the opposite. Fanny’s prejudices against Henry are justified; she almost lets herself think she was wrong when she meets him again in Portsmouth, but the climax proves she was right all along. The “undesirable man” who seduces her cousin is Henry himself, and even though his crime ensures Fanny of her happily-ever-after, his, his sister’s, and Fanny’s cousin’s love lives are blighted forever.

It’s as if Austen sat down after writing P&P and thought to herself: “What if Elizabeth had been right about Darcy? What if he really was as disagreeable and bad-tempered as she thinks him at first? What if she had let herself be persuaded by how different he appeared in Pemberley to drop her prejudice and accept his proposal, and then found she was deceived?” and then she wrote out the scenario of how it could have played out.

Fortunately, the unhappy ending is only for those who deserve unhappiness – Fanny gets her man, even though it takes him a while to figure it out. But the shadow plot is there.

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5 thoughts on “Shadow Plots

  1. I’ve never thought of them like that! Very interesting point. I still am not a huge fan of Mansfield Park as I’m not sure they “deserve unhappiness” for those choices – though obviously that’s very much of the time!

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    • Yes, it’s very much of the time. One of the interesting things about Mansfield is that it’s about the only book where “the undeserving” actually get unhappiness – in most of the other books, they’re rewarded, if anything (Wickham gets a commission and a bunch of money, Willoughby gets a rich wife, General Tilney gets a titled son-in-law, etc). And, Austen actually points out right in the book how unjust it is that the woman suffers from her indiscretion, whereas the man does not – Maria is ruined forever, Henry Crawford just parties on. I think it’s possibly the only instance where Austen so baldly makes a social commentary.

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      • You know, I had forgotten about her saying that its unjust – is that in the epilogue? As I have found Austen quite scathing about women committing adultery/having sex outside of marriage and that she blames them, as she decided to have their fates go that way. I’m definitely going to re-read it with that in mind! Watching The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and how that tells the story of Lydia and Wickham made me rethink Austen’s attitudes to women and scandal. And I think there’s implications in P and P that Lydia and Wickham will have an unhappy marriage and be shunned by society to some extent.

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      • Hi Phoebe, (WordPress won’t let me respond to your response any more; I guess they have a maximum of two responses each.) The passage in question is in Ch. 48, I guess you could call it the epilogue, where she describes what happens to the characters. Just a couple pages from the end of the book.
        Yes, Lydia & Wickham – probably unhappily ever after. But there’s also the implication that with someone like Lydia, she’d never be really happy anyway; her unhappiness, and her almost-ruin, is the direct result of who she is. She’s the spitting image of her mother; ultimately, it’s her “temper” that’s going to make her unhappy. Like Elizabeth says to Jane, when she wishes that there was a man like Bingley for her, too: “If you gave me forty such men, I could never have your happiness. Until I have your goodness, I can never have your happiness.” (or something like it).
        But yes, the scathing view of immoral women is just the reality of society in Austen’s time. Austen was above all a realist, not a sweet romantic.

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