Persuasions #13, 1991 Pages 13-15
Mrs. Palmer and Her Laughter
MARY JANE HUMPHREY
Department of English, University of Nebraska,
Lincoln, Nebraska 68506
Charlotte Palmer in Sense and Sensibility is a giddy young matron who laughs – and laughs. She begins conversations with a laugh: “Mrs. Palmer laughed and said it would not do her any harm.”1 She responds with laughter: “Mrs. Palmer laughed so heartily at the question as to show she understood it” (108). She laughs while speaking: “ ‘My love, have you been asleep?’ said his wife, laughing (108).” She predicts her own laughter: “How I shall laugh!” she says, envisioning her husband in Parliament (113). She laughs when her husband ignores her, to Mrs. Dashwood’s dismay (107), and she laughs when her favorite plants are killed by frost (303).
Laughing her way through life, Mrs. Palmer is neither elegant not capable of concentration. In the end, however, the initially cool Elinor comes to appreciate Mrs. Palmer’s other traits: her openness, kindness, and sociability. Only the laugh, in Elinor’s judgement, remains unforgiveable.
Earlier, Elinor had wondered about Mrs. Palmer’s unaccountable happiness. After all, what does the woman have to laugh about? She is someone whose prettiness has ceased to camouflage from her husband an empty head. He belittles her when he is not ignoring her, and he does both in company. Does she realize what is going on? Does she care? Or does impenetrable insensitivity make her inviolable to being ignored and insulted?
At first the third alternative seems correct beyond question. I should like, however, to argue that a second or third look at Mrs. Palmer may alter our responses to her a bit and to make the laughter Elinor cannot forgive the foundation of that argument.
If we listen to Mrs. Palmer with care, we begin to hear something interesting. This woman conveys substantial amounts of negative information about her husband’s treatment of her to all within earshot without leaving herself open to charges of being self-pitying or accusatory. She does not claim to be neglected. Rather: “ ‘Mr. Palmer does not hear me,’ she said laughing; ‘he never does sometimes. It is so ridiculous!’ ” (107) she does not whine about being steamrollered into a sudden trip to Barton without time for preparation. Rather: “It was quite a sudden thing our coming at all, and I knew nothing of it till the carriage was coming to the door, and then Mr. Palmer asked me if I would go with him to Barton. He is so droll!” (110). She does not complain about her husband’s surliness to her. “ ‘Mr. Palmer is so droll!’ said she in a whisper to Elinor. ‘He is always out of humor’ ” (112).
And, if her husband criticizes her in company, she can do the same to him. Under the protective cover of laughter, she calls Mr. Palmer’s deficiencies to his attention among the gathering in Sir John’s dining room. When he calls her mother and Sir John “very ill-bred” for wishing that they might have included the Gilberts in the dining party, even though the Gilberts had dined there last, she does not let it pass: “ ‘My love, you contradict everybody,’ ” said his wife with her usual laugh. ‘Do you know that you are quite rude?’ ” (112) Key words here are “usual laugh.” If Mrs. Palmer said the same words without laughing, or if she said them with an atypical, forced laugh, she would create social tension. As it is, the proprieties are maintained, and Charlotte Palmer has her say.
Mrs. Palmer, we are told, is predisposed to please and be pleased (106). She is not likely to confront anyone. So, she uses a special kind of indirect communication. Often, in point of fact, the words themselves are quite direct (“He is always out of humor …”). But actual words are subsumed in a merry manner. She says what she means, then defuses her remarks with the ever-ready laugh.
How much of this, we wonder, is Mrs. Palmer consciously controlling? While it would be great fun to identify her as a heretofore unrecognized verbal sniper, evidence does not suggest that degree of sophistication on her part. There is probably little conscious control in the laughter-encapsuled comments about and to her husband. But there is a reliable formula. Mrs. Palmer, a woman of some limitations, has evolved a communication pattern that works for her and her circumstances. It enables her to speak her mind, to express unflattering opinions, and to combat boorish treatment at the hands of her husband. She asserts herself and yet remains the amiable Mrs. Palmer.
Listening to her, though, in conversation – or what passes for conversation – with her husband, we suspect that in the misalliance that is their marriage, in this one relationship, we are hearing more than the not-quite-conscious defense mechanism of a good natured woman. In her amiable way, Mrs. Palmer thoroughly deflates her husband’s overblown self-importance.
She married a man with a “wish of distinction,” which is now centered on a seat in Parliament. Consider the following passage. Mrs. Palmer, in the course of persuading Elinor and Marianne to visit Cleveland, has predictably veered off and is making remarks about her husband’s upcoming campaign for Parliament.
“How charming it will be,” said Charlotte, “when he is in Parliament. Won’t it? How I shall laugh! It will be so ridiculous to see all his letters directed to him with an M.P. But do you know he says he will never frank for me?
He declares he won’t. Don’t you, Mr. Palmer?”
Mr. Palmer took no notice of her.
“He cannot bear writing, you know,” she continued. “He says it is quite shocking.”
“No,” said he, “I never said anything so irrational. Don’t palm all your abuses of language upon me.”
“There now, you see how droll he is. This is always the way with him! Sometimes he won’t speak to me for half a day together, and then he comes out with something so droll – all about anything in the world.” (113)
Several things happen here. Most obviously, Mrs. Palmer trivializes her husband’s rather earnest Parliamentary ambition. “It will be so ridiculous …. ” This must be an irritant to him, but then there is the understanding, which by this time is firmly established, that his wife treats most things frivolously. Has he been baited? In this scene as in others, Mr. Palmer initially takes no notice of his wife. But she knows he is listening, and she proves it by saying something too outrageous to be borne in silence. “He cannot bear writing .…” What Mr. Palmer cannot bear is to persevere in his assumed inattentiveness given this much provocation. The sociable woman married to the calculatedly silent man gets a response – one way or another.
In this passage we also hear another device that is typical of Mrs. Palmer, and the device she uses this time is a staple of her repertoire. In response to his propensity not to notice her, she talks about her husband as though he were not there. By talking about Mr. Palmer as though he were not present, Mrs. Palmer employs a device commonly used with sick people or children. Indeed, Mrs. Palmer does treat her husband like a child – and a not very bright one, at that. What was her response to, “Don’t palm all your abuses of language upon me?” The patronizing: “There now, you see how droll he is.”
Moments before the Parliament conversation, this interchange took place. In the presence of Elinor and Marianne, Mrs. Palmer begins.
“My love,” applying to her husband, “don’t you long to have the Miss Dashwoods come to Cleveland?”
“Certainly,” he replied with a sneer, “I came into Devonshire with no other view.”
“There now,” said his lady, “you see Mr. Palmer expects you; so you cannot refuse to come.”
They both eagerly and resolutely declined her invitation.
“But indeed you must and shall come. I am sure you will like it of all things. The Westons will be with us and it will be quite delightful.” (113)
Mrs. Palmer proceeds with her invitation, not to be deflected by a little rudeness on her naughty husband’s part. This is how we treat children who have missed their afternoon naps. Gloss over the crankiness, minimize its importance, pretend it didn’t happen, go on with business as usual. Who won this volley of verbal tennis?
When she reduces him to near infancy the question of intent is cloudier. The tactic is not necessarily sophisticated and might be found even in Mrs. Palmer’s behavioral repertoire. Fully conscious, spiteful putting-down of her husband – or anyone else – does not seem characteristic of her, however. Mrs. Palmer, as Elinor observes, is kind. On the other hand, Mr. Palmer can be trying – and few of us are perfectly consistent characters .…
Mrs. Palmer, we might finally conclude, for all her empty-headed ways, manages to hold her own verbally. Under the cover of laughter, she says what she thinks while maintaining the smooth social surface. She successfully contends with her irascible mate, reporting his inconsiderate treatment of her and deflating his self-importance, again maintaining the pleasantries. Whether she accomplishes some or any of this intentionally is open to question, but the accomplishments themselves are not. If, like Elinor, we cannot forgive the laugh, we can at least begin to appreciate its function for the amiable Mrs. Palmer.
1 Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, Vol. I of The Novels of Jane Austen, ed. R. W. Chapman, 3rd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 107. All further quotations are taken from this edition.