Fishing at Pemberley in P&P: Vital Plot Device or Unimportant Side Point?
Lakes and rivers are plentiful in Kentucky (thanks to the plentiful rain), and I am fairly sure the moving van wasn’t out of sight before my husband announced his desire to buy a boat for fishing. I suspect I rolled my eyes, as I did the subsequent million times he brought up the topic. Unlike me, he grew up fishing. My only vivid memory of fishing as a youth involved severely choking on a trout bone, which led to a decades-long aversion to anything with scales and bulgy eyes unless in an aquarium tank!
Finally, the draw of tranquil lakes, lush Kentucky greenery, and diverse wildlife overcame my reluctance. We bought our boat last August, and after a stumbling start I have discovered a new passion within me: FISHING!
Yes, I am “hooked” by the sport of fishing. There’s a remaining tendency to roll my eyes at the plethora of angling experts with their endless tips on how to entice fish — as if the creatures are as smart as Einstein — and the fishing-dedicated rows upon rows at Cabela’s will forever boggle my mind. Nevertheless, having experienced the results, I can greater appreciate some of the science behind catching fish.
There are times, however — such as when listening to a 30-minute video on the multiple line knotting methods — that my mind wanders to a simpler era when fishing was snapping a tree limb and tying a string with a worm-baited hook to one end…… Ah…..
As appealing as the vision, I wondered how accurate it was. Obviously people have fished forever, mainly as a commercial gathering for food. My ever-curious mind questioned the history of fishing as a sport and leisure activity (more on that tomorrow on my blog), and then my musings drifted to Jane Austen. Doesn’t that happen to everyone? LOL!
Austen rarely mentions fishing in her novels, but this lends credibility to when she does. Today I decided to delve into the memorable fishing-related passages in Pride and Prejudice.
Mr. Gardiner, though seldom able to indulge the taste, was very fond of fishing, and was so much engaged in watching the occasional appearance of some trout in the water… that he advanced but little. … The conversation soon turned upon fishing, and she heard Mr. Darcy invite him, with the greatest civility, to fish there as often as he chose while he continued in the neighbourhood, offering at the same time to supply him with fishing tackle, and pointing out those parts of the stream where there was usually most sport. ~Chapter 42
Lizzy’s surprise, and pleasure, at Mr. Darcy’s invitation to her uncle is rightly interpreted as noteworthy in regards to Darcy’s civility in offering Mr. Gardiner open entry onto his lands, and to take fish from his stock. This interpretation is later again proven accurate by Mr. Gardiner’s statement to Lizzy when back at the inn, “But perhaps he may be a little whimsical in his civilities… therefore I shall not take him at his word about fishing, as he might change his mind another day, and warn me off his grounds.”
While it may seem that Mr. Gardiner’s comment is implying arrogance, fickleness, or superiority on Darcy’s part, in actuality Mr. Gardiner is expressing a logic that anyone slightly familiar with an angler’s attitude would also understand.
You see, a serious fisherman — and I submit that Austen is claiming this about Mr. Darcy — is highly secretive, especially regarding one’s own property and prime fishing spots. Austen’s careful selection of words makes it clear that Mr. Darcy had ready access to “fishing tackle” and knew precisely where the best fish were located. This is hugely significant. It not only reveals Darcy’s skill in the sport, which can only come after years of doing it, but most importantly that he is willing to share his knowledge with a man he does not know. Why? More on that in a bit.
At first glance Lizzy’s reaction to Mr. Darcy’s fishing offer may be wrongly interpreted as surprise that he deigns to engage in an activity presumably “common” or too rustic for a man of his stature. Not at all. In truth, fishing was one of the few entertainments, and perhaps the only hunting-type sport, that transcended class.
Darcy recognized Mr. Gardiner as a kindred spirit, I believe. Naturally he was seeking ways to ingratiate himself to Elizabeth, so might well have leapt at any chance to do so! And indeed Lizzy was astonished by his pleasant interaction with her relatives overall.
Yet again, there is a deeper meaning and purpose to this incident. The key is that his invitation to fish was for a reason, Austen not choosing that recreation willy-nilly.
As Stephen Deuchar notes in Sporting Art in Eighteenth Century England: A Social and Political History, fishing was viewed as “a quiet game of patience, calmly pursued beside still brooks by those of a particularly sensitive and scholarly bent.” We know that Mr. Darcy hunted, as most gentlemen did, yet he is the only Austen hero who is specifically noted as a fisherman.
Can you begin to imagine how this revelation would affect Elizabeth?
Just prior to this juncture in the novel Lizzy has expressed her awe of the natural beauty of Pemberley’s grounds, Austen elaborate in her descriptions as seen through our heroine’s eyes, and the reader is well aware by this time of her delight in the outdoors and solitude. Next she listened to Mrs. Reynolds praise her master’s fine qualities at some length, unveiling a humble, warm, solicitous side of him hitherto unseen by Lizzy. Then, of all the places she could have accidentally encountered Mr. Darcy, it is while walking across the extensive lawn near the river; a reminder of their mutual attraction to the outdoors.
What a startling addition it must have been to envision him fishing! Nor do I think it a stretch to assume that as a country girl herself, Lizzy would comprehend the nuances in his invitation to Mr. Gardiner. Getting back to my “Why?” question above, remember the sentences immediately following the fishing invitation passage quoted earlier–
Mrs. Gardiner, who was walking arm in arm with Elizabeth, gave her a look expressive of her wonder. Elizabeth said nothing, but it gratified her exceedingly; the compliment must be all for herself. Her astonishment, however, was extreme; and continually was she repeating, “Why is he so altered? From what can it proceed? It cannot be for me, it cannot be for my sake that his manners are thus softened. My reproofs at Hunsford could not work such a change as this. It is impossible that he should still love me.” ~Chapter 42 (emphasis Jane Austen’s)
Mrs. Gardiner is clearly struck by the implications. Lizzy, while “extremely astonished”, knew the reason as well. Her internal questions are rhetorical, even if she isn’t quite ready at this stage to believe the answers. Darcy is an intelligent man, and he knows of Lizzy’s affinity for nature. What better way to send a message of his continued regard then to invite her uncle to fish? I bet he was silently thanking the heavens (or Miss Austen) for presenting the opportunity!
What do YOU think? Am I obsessed with fish these days, and thus reading too much into the text? Or do you agree, and also imagine, as I do, that Darcy cleverly managed to pick Mr. Gardiner’s brain about the woman he loved while the two sat in serene companionship by the placid water? Oh yeah! Darcy may have been caught unawares by Lizzy’s appearance, but once he “recollected himself” his mission to extend their time together was grabbed tightly. Good job, Darcy!