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Posted 7/20/2014 1:23pm by Eugene Wyatt.

Reading in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice that "Mr. Darcy looked a little ashamed of his aunt's (Lady Catherine de Bourgh) ill-breeding, and made no answer," (page 113) made me think of one of my favorite passages in Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu about ill-breeding and then thinking of Mr. Darcy's no answer as the Narrator's masterpiece bow.

"The idea of supposing that you were not invited! Besides, wasn't I there? Do you suppose that I should be unable to get you an invitation to my cousin's house?" I must admit that frequently, after this, she (Duchess de Guermantes) did things for me that were far more difficult; nevertheless, I took care not to interpret her words in the sense that I had been too modest. I was beginning to learn the exact value of the language, spoken or mute, of aristocratic affability, an affability that is happy to shed balm upon the sense of inferiority in those persons towards whom it is directed, though not to the point of dispelling that sense, for in that case it would no longer have any reason to exist. "But you are our equal, if not our superior," the Guermantes seemed, in all their actions, to be saying; and they said it in the most courteous fashion imaginable, to be loved, admired, but not to be believed; that one should discern the fictitious character of this affability was what they called being well-bred; to suppose it to be genuine, a sign of ill-breeding. I was to receive, as it happened, shortly after this, a lesson which gave me a full and perfect understanding of the extent and limitations of certain forms of aristocratic affability. It was at an afternoon party given by the Duchesse de Montmorency to meet the Queen of England; there was a sort of royal procession to the buffet, at the head of which walked Her Majesty on the arm of the Duc de Guermantes. I happened to arrive at that moment. With his disengaged hand the Duke conveyed to me, from a distance of nearly fifty yards, a thousand signs of friendly invitation, which appeared to mean that I need not be afraid to approach, that I should not be devoured alive instead of the sandwiches. But I, who was becoming word-perfect in the language of the court, instead of going even one step nearer, keeping my fifty yards' interval, made a deep how, but without smiling, the sort of bow that I should have made to some one whom I scarcely knew, then proceeded in the opposite direction. Had I written a masterpiece, the Guermantes would have given me less credit for it than I earned by that bow. Not only did it not pass unperceived by the Duke, albeit he had that day to acknowledge the greetings of more than five hundred people, it caught the eye of the Duchess, who, happening to meet my mother, told her of it, and, so far from suggesting that I had done wrong, that I ought to have gone up to him, said that her husband had been lost in admiration of my bow, that it would have been impossible for anyone to put more into it. They never ceased to find in that bow every possible merit, without however mentioning that which had seemed the most priceless of all, to wit that it had been discreet, nor did they cease either to pay me compliments which I understood to be even less a reward for the past than a hint for the future..."

Sodom et Gomorrhe by Marcel Proust, 1921-1922; translated as Cities of the Plain by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, 1928, (my emphasis).


One experiences Jane Austen's symmetry of construction: Mr. Darcy is ashamed of Lady Catherine's ill-breeding, but as it is explained, the Bennet familial ill-breeding—primarily the caterwauling of Lizzy's mother and three younger sisters—is why Mr. Darcy separates Jane (Lizzy's older sister) from his friend Mr. Bingley who is in a reciprocal love unbeknownst to Mr. Darcy.