Jane Austen’s readers know that sometimes the only way to get anything done is to argue about it. As readers of ordinary language philosopher J. L. Austin, Jane Austen’s “namesake” (Cavell 124, 188), will also know, an argument performed incorrectly is worse than nonsense: an ill-performed speech-act can backfire, rebounding on its speaker. Here we argue such is the fate of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice (1813). Applying Austin’s theory of performative utterances to the volume 3, chapter 14 confrontation between Lady Catherine and Elizabeth Bennet shows how a tactical facility with language—not rank, money, or connections—is a decisive measure of power, influence, and control in the novel. Yet, Elizabeth Bennet’s triumph is more than a linguistic victory limited to dialogue and verbal sparring. Elizabeth upends the logic of inherited social order with her deft linguistic performance, giving the reader a symbolic enjoyment that vindicates the ascendant class-defiant values that were beginning to coalesce in Austen’s own time.
J. L. Austin’s ordinary language philosophy famously presents the function of speech acts to do things and not merely report on states of fact and information. His founding contribution to the theory and description of linguistic “performatives” is most often drawn from the transcribed 1955 lectures of How to Do Things with Words, but here we will focus on his BBC radio address, “Performative Utterances” (1956), a lively and convenient condensation of his famous Harvard lecture series. Austin begins his radio address by asserting the performative nature of a certain class of language, those speech acts, including marriage vows, christenings, and judicial sentences, that do not “report facts” but “perform that action” (234, 235). Such performative speech acts thus are neither true nor false in themselves. Performatives do not state truth; if anything, when they are successful, they make truth (Cassin 207, Quine 90). Austin recaps: “So far, we have been going along as though there was quite a clear difference between our performative utterances and what we have contrasted them with, statements or reports or descriptions” (246). Yet despite Austin’s homespun empirical method of compiling lists of verbs from the dictionary, performatives cannot be neatly compartmentalized within the field of operations of ordinary language, as a list of particular special words that, alone, do what they say.
One of Austin’s major objectives in his lesser-known Sense and Sensibilia lectures from the 1940s is a liberation of the subtlety of ordinary language from dominant philosophical procedures of his day that privilege “sense data.” There Austin exposes and parodies the philosophical pre- and misconceptions of language exhibited by sense-data philosophies of knowledge, especially in skewering the widespread empiricist idea of “indirect” perception. Austin demonstrates how common language is misused, bent by philosophers seeking an “incorrigible”—meaning non-falsifiable—relation to statements of knowledge. As he deconstructs the false precision of sense-data thinkers, including the exclusion of all meanings of the word “real” that do not suit their needs, Austin reaffirms the subtlety of ordinary language as a philosophical resource. He explains this subtlety by underlining “how fatal it always is to embark on explaining the use of a word without seriously considering more than a tiny fraction of the contexts in which it is actually used” (Sense and Sensibilia 83).
Austin also remarks on how performative utterances, speech acts that operate in the performative dimension that he calls illocution, can prove either felicitous or infelicitous, but not true or false. By “felicity” (or “felicitousness”), Austin means a state of agreement enacted and fully realized in social transactions that are also events. Felicity results from a state of agreement between contexts and speech acts. Yet the word carries a surplus. It evokes the conditions of happiness. In order to be felicitous, a performative utterance must succeed in its object. Not just the issuing but the reception of speech acts in their total speech-situation (such as the acceptance of a proposal) determines their efficacy. Dialogue, seen as the setting in which language functions reciprocally, reaffirms Austin’s critique of tidy-looking dichotomies in revealing how the meaning and function of language are negotiated in use, through ordinary language’s colloquial intelligence, rather than already fixed in a philosopher’s jargon or isolated conceptual structure.
J. L. Austin’s overt allusion to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility pairs with more Austen-inflected language at an important transitional juncture in his exposition of the performative. As Austin wryly notices “the firm ground of prejudice glide away beneath our feet” (“Performative Utterances” 241), he breaks down the tidy organization of performative utterances further, allowing that it is not just certain ceremonial performative words and contexts that embody the powerful linguistic function of the performative. Nor is the distinction between the performative and the constative fixed and steady. Statements as well can function performatively, outside of the usual referential claims about their truth and falsity.
When Lady Catherine arrives at the Bennets’ Longbourn home, her primary motive in calling is to ensure that Darcy and Elizabeth will not consider marriage. Although their marriage is an occurrence that she believes to be impossible, she realizes that she can only render its impossibility true—or at least false, to her own wrath (an Austin joke; “Performative Utterances” 233)—by going to Elizabeth and inducing her to state its impossibility. This contorted purpose is wittily attacked as a faulty logic by the latter, who renders Lady Catherine’s failed performative utterance ridiculous by her cheeky and hypothetical questioning. When she asks “‘what could your ladyship propose by it?’” Elizabeth exposes that Lady Catherine is not coming to investigate but, rather, appears because she wishes to force declarations from Elizabeth in order to accomplish her own goals (392). Elizabeth expresses her autonomy from this demand by saying, “‘You may ask questions, which I shall not choose to answer’” (392).
Despite J. L. Austin’s claim that “there is an unfortunate amount of ambiguity . . . in default of our explicit performative verbs” (“Performative Utterances” 244), the context of the meeting between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine is familiar enough to the social habits of both characters that the explicit nature of these performatives could hardly be lost on them. The expected social role dictates that Elizabeth perform obeisance, whereas Lady Catherine’s speech acts suit her rank in society and, thus, her privileged power. But the wonder of the scene—and perhaps the reason it pleases us so—is that Elizabeth doesn’t assume the inferior social position but instead resourcefully and capably responds in a type of language to which Lady Catherine has “‘not been accustomed’” (393).
Lady Catherine’s behavior and speech presume a station in society that gives her liberty to diminish the Bennets as lesser people toward whom she has no reason to condescend. She does not ask for an introduction to Mrs. Bennet, “‘suppose[s]’” the identities of members of the family, calls their grounds “‘a very small park,’” and walks through the house, “pronouncing” the rooms to be “decent.” As Elizabeth challenges her, Lady Catherine proclaims that she “‘ought to know, that I am not to be trifled with’” (390–91). The normative phrase here (“ought to know”) can be inferred by Elizabeth (and the reader) as a warning. She aims to put Elizabeth in her place.
Though in the novel she represents new modes of energy and social alliance, Elizabeth herself also skillfully deploys the old norms of strategic indirection when she questions Lady Catherine’s reason for coming to Longbourn upon hearing a report that Elizabeth was to marry Darcy:
“If you believed it impossible to be true, . . . I wonder you took the trouble of coming so far. What could your ladyship propose by it?”
“At once to insist upon having such a report universally contradicted.”
“Your coming to Longbourn, to see me and my family,” said Elizabeth, coolly, “will be rather a confirmation of it; if, indeed, such a report is in existence.” (392)
The passage is a quiet reminder that lawyers made up the backbone of the bourgeois revolutionary class in the late eighteenth century. Elizabeth demonstrates what Lady Catherine does not wish to understand, that her warnings and orders are contestable within the multiplicity of ways that performative language functions and acts socially.
It is interesting, given how the novel famously opens from within an affirmative spirit of “universal” gossip and rumor, that rumor (stiffened a little into “report” here) is one of the critical social actions of language that bleed from explicit performativity into what Austin calls the “perlocutionary” realm of speech acts done not in but effectively and emotionally through language. This is the first of a series of negotiations that occur in this scene that effectively re-open the matter of Darcy’s first proposal of marriage. Lady Catherine’s (illocutionary) warning and (perlocutionary) berating mark a critical turn in the novel: this rejection of Lady Catherine provides Elizabeth and Darcy’s romance with its future. Lady Catherine’s distressed rant conveys to Elizabeth that Darcy would still consider proposing to her, as Lizzy’s negative reply to his aunt signals indirectly to Darcy that he may be positively welcomed. By warning against it, Lady Catherine brings the felicitous plot outcome of Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage a long step closer to becoming true. Elizabeth’s refusal to promise not to marry Darcy works at a distance to re-open his proposal: “‘And will you promise me, never to enter into such an engagement?’” “‘I will make no promise of the kind’” (395). Her refusal to commit to one utterance, a promise, serves as the opening to another, conditioning the possibility of a future proposal. Moreover, throughout this scene, Elizabeth’s rhetoric negotiating “around the performative” forces Lady Catherine’s clear but implicit position to show itself in the open where linguistic and social conduct—not presumptive rank—carry the day (Sedgwick).
When read through an ordinary language methodology, Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s character evokes something of the quality Austin mocks in the rigid philosophy of the sense-data theorists. To her, everything can be understood through prescriptive roles and indirections of social hierarchy. In coming to the Bennets’ home, her attempt at delivering a definitive performative utterance (to warn Elizabeth not to marry Darcy) relies on this prescriptive social code, as she expects Elizabeth to follow convention and immediately fold to her own wishes. The influence that Lady Catherine wields through her social position is of course circular, both sustained by and itself driving to reaffirm conventions of hierarchical subservience, so that her power is one of enforcing a condition of “vulnerable conformity” upon others (Cavell 123)
But where Lady Catherine’s warning depends for its effect on the combined force of old regime social hierarchy with a classic, or “sovereign,” performative speech act, properly confined, it can be renegotiated in Elizabeth’s own subversive acts in their dialogue. Elizabeth plays off and around Lady Catherine’s performative speech acts, showing their richer perlocutionary flexibility in the tactics and emotions of use. The stakes are raised—and the modern “common” reader’s pleasure is multiplied—in this overlay of social historical power dynamics and performative modes. In Elizabeth’s refusal to submit to Lady Catherine, the vulnerability of prescriptive tradition itself suffers exposure. Elizabeth’s response frustrates the expected linguistic dichotomy between accepting and refusing a proposal; it renegotiates the power dynamic between herself and Lady Catherine, liberating ordinary language along with the individual from conventional subservience. In this interaction’s besting of conventional roles by a kind of linguistic meritocracy, the felicity we experience as readers powerfully aligns with Elizabeth. More than just an aspect of the novel’s plot and themes, this experience for the reader enacts the modernizing progression of social values in the narrative itself, as the breach of manners enacts at small scale the large-scale historical change in Austen’s time from the remnant of a feudalist structure to a modern bourgeois sensibility (Moretti).
Similarly, Lady Catherine’s interference facilitates an opportunity for Elizabeth to defend her honor in the language of the new sensibility: “‘I am resolved . . . to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me’” (396). Elizabeth articulates and defends her own autonomy before that power of choice is linked to her union with Darcy. Though it is unexpected and wholly displeasing to Lady Catherine, Lizzy’s strength of character proves that there is a transformation of identity and positionality afoot, necessary to the marriage plot but first activated as the conduct of Elizabeth’s independence.
Thus, thinking with both Austin and Sedgwick, we argue that Elizabeth’s sociolinguistic tactics “against” Lady Catherine are based on the unpredictable, skillfully joint application and rejection of convention: or upon what we have been calling, after Sedgwick, an improvised negotiation of uses “around the performative.” J. L. Austin’s first rule for performative utterances is that “the convention invoked must exist and be accepted” for the utterance to come off successfully (“Performative Utterances” 237). When Lady Catherine says she has come to “‘insist upon having [the engagement rumor] universally contradicted,’” that insistence—a demand that does not accept refusal—can only succeed if Lizzy honors it as such (392). Likewise, when Lady Catherine says, “‘honour, decorum, prudence, nay, interest, forbid it,’” with regard to Elizabeth’s accepting a proposal from Darcy, the forbiddance risks its meaningfulness and traction if Elizabeth does not follow the authority of those conventional virtues and of Lady Catherine as their spokesperson (394). When Lizzy makes clear that she will not accept the force of the threat, she challenges the convention that allows them to act as socially prescriptive utterances. Elizabeth’s rejection of Lady Catherine’s performative utterances reduces their warning and threat to the latter’s mere wishes, upending their basis in real social power. Elizabeth’s extended performance of a reply enacts a charismatic and meritocratic exposure of the hollow authority behind this kind of “sovereign” speech act in the long era of Austen’s readership, circa 1800 to the present. In effect, Elizabeth rejects prescriptive aristocracy in favor of Romantic-era individualism.
Pride and Prejudice, like other transitional “realist” novels of marriage in the nineteenth century, invokes a discourse of the ordinary, as the transfer from marriages based on finances to marriages based on love and personal character was given primacy, at least as a narrative value in fiction (Michie). The asymmetry of the novelistic representations of Elizabeth and Miss de Bourgh, Lady Catherine’s daughter and Darcy’s purported intended, controls the weighting given to possible marriage choices along with their wider values from the vantage of fictional narrative. Such context is necessary to distinguish what is possibly Lady Catherine’s greatest linguistic misstep—claiming that Darcy is already engaged. She asserts that “‘Darcy is engaged to [her] daughter,’” but, upon being pressed at all, she must reveal that “‘[t]he engagement between them is of a peculiar kind’” (393). The engagement is no engagement at all, to a modern understanding. Darcy never proposed to Lady Catherine’s daughter. Lizzy notices the difference immediately, with the rejoinder that “‘Mr. Darcy is neither by honour nor inclination confined to his cousin’” (394). Lady Catherine’s mistake is not only in claiming her wishes to be confirmed as performative speech acts, but also in speaking on behalf of her daughter and nephew, independently minded modern individuals: a move Austin defines as “out of order.” Austin maintains, “[y]ou can’t just make statements about other people’s feelings, . . . and there are very many things which, having no knowledge of, not being in a position to pronounce about, you just can’t state” (“Performative Utterances” 249). The idea that Lady Catherine—stationed as the guardian of convention and propriety—fits Austin’s definition of “out of order” is part of what makes the scene in volume 3, chapter 14 so satisfying. Austin sees ordinary language philosophy, after all, as a latter day “philosophical study of conduct,” and by these standards, Lady Catherine’s conduct is out of bounds (“A Plea for Excuses” 180).
One of Lady Catherine’s main arguments against Elizabeth’s marrying Darcy is her concern for Darcy’s reputation in high society; if Darcy were to marry Miss de Bourgh, he would be better off. Here Elizabeth again catches her out of order. Elizabeth responds, “‘Your ladyship wants Mr. Darcy to marry your daughter; but would my giving you the wished-for promise, make their marriage at all more probable? Supposing him to be attached to me, would my refusing to accept his hand, make him wish to bestow it on his cousin?’” (395). Lady Catherine can’t stipulate that Darcy would want to marry Miss de Bourgh any more than she can prove Elizabeth’s unfitness and insincerity. Frustrated, Lady Catherine insists on assurance that the union will not take place and asks Elizabeth to “promise” never to marry Darcy, to which Lizzy bluntly responds, “‘I will make no promise of the kind’” (395).
By the end of the scene, Lady Catherine seems to be participating in a completely different discussion. She asks, “‘You are resolved then to have him?’” to which Elizabeth, demonstrating her understanding of the performative power of words, responds: “‘I have said no such thing’” (396). Lizzy refuses to give information; she does not claim to want Darcy, nor to not want Darcy, but limits her refusal to the confines of the conversation. Holding to her terms of locution in an almost lawyerly way, she simply replies that she has not said to Lady Catherine that she intends to marry Darcy, leaving Lady Catherine to continue making assumptions, of which she has proven herself quite capable.
Especially satisfying is Lady Catherine’s dead-end of displeasure: “‘I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet. I send no compliments to your mother. You deserve no such attention. I am most seriously displeased’” (397). Lady Catherine, here, ventures a perlocutionary speech act: to insult. If illocutionary speech acts like “I promise” or “I vow” are done in the utterance of the words themselves, the perlocutionary is the dimension of speech acts performed through language. Perlocutionary speech acts, such as insults, take their effect differently from explicit performatives, and would fail in the use of the name of the act itself: most ineptly, “I insult you”; or “I seduce you.” In her final remark to Elizabeth, Lady Catherine comes about as close to saying “I insult you” as she possibly can. One can be sure that Lady Catherine considers it rather effective, even biting, to say so plainly that she “sends no compliments” to Mrs. Bennet, but her only real accomplishment is to display the extent to which she has been outmaneuvered. “‘You deserve no such attention’” is a particularly futile addition to the “insult,” because Lady Catherine is quite evidently paying Elizabeth a great deal of attention. In her direct refusal to send her compliments, she gives the best evidence possible of Elizabeth’s ability to frustrate and outflank her. And it is ultimately Lizzy who leaves with the upper hand, as she makes “no answer; and without attempting to persuade her ladyship to return into the house, walk[s] quietly into it herself” (397). This battle of verbal acts ends with Elizabeth’s physical actions, which are out of order not in the technical and ethical sense of speaking directly for what only the other must say for themselves, but in the permitted if audaciously ordinary sense. She leaves “her ladyship” confounded, in a state of impasse, anger, and frustration. When Lizzy is most insulted, we instead feel her triumph.
By applying all three levels of Austin’s theory of performative utterances (locution, illocution, and perlocution), we find Lizzy’s victory in this scene is not simply that she maintains the moral and civil high ground; nor that she gains knowledge (that Darcy would still have her) without giving up any (about her own inclinations); nor even that she makes the landed lady seem like a pushy fool. We instead come to understand that Elizabeth has bested Lady Catherine on a much more ironically satisfying level. Elizabeth earns what she wants in the exact manner in which Lady Catherine should excel: through her superior ability, tested alike by scripted convention and open contest, to bend language toward her reality; to perform social actions with words. Where Lady Catherine—whose words, in respect of her rank, tend to be treated as law—repeats herself, backtracks, and makes statements about actions she cannot effect, Elizabeth utters only that which she can perform and indeed performs more than she says. Elizabeth knows the prescriptive rules of the game better even than her aristocratic opponent and, at the same time, helps to make new grounds for felicity in which the rules have changed to promote her happiness. Elizabeth’s skilled navigation of performative utterances robs the rich and connected Lady Catherine of narrative power and shows the lower-ranking Lizzy in control of the story world, at once echoing and furthering the real-world transition of power from the entrenched gentry to the ambitious bourgeoisie. For Elizabeth, felicitous speech acts produce the felicitous life that Austen’s common reader experiences as a historically charged narrative fulfillment.