An Overwhelming Assembly

An Overwhelming Assembly

I made a decision to use a mostly female point of view in A Constant Love, which meant that when it grew into a series, I had committed myself to quite a few books from a mostly female point of view. In some ways, I like that, but every time I do write Mr. Darcy, I find myself wishing I did so more often. As an introvert way down on his end of the scale, I feel like I get Darcy.

We introverts have had a bit of a renaissance, of late. When I grew up, extroversion was much more known and celebrated, and I could never understand why some people enjoyed constant talking, and going out in company every night. I liked these things sometimes, but not very often. Books like Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking helped me understand that yes, I was different, and that it was more than okay: it was good. They also raised this topic for everyone. When Cain wrote her book, she described introversion as being treated like a “second-class” personality trait. Her book and others, though, have changed that, and helped the world see the value of introverts. (Just how valuable? See Brenda Webb’s post on this topic for a number of famous introverts.)

Cain’s book also helped me understand that beyond introversion, some people (like me) are also highly sensitive – while they don’t wholly go together, 70 percent of highly sensitive people are introverts. There are a number of traits, well outlined in this article on Introvert, Dear, that go with being highly sensitive, from being very emotional (but often not showing it) to noticing details others miss. Like, perhaps, “the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow.”

I suppose you can see where I’m going with this, now. The idea that Mr. Darcy was on the autism spectrum has been much debated. I agree, as Elaine Owen does in her excellent analysis, that he wasn’t. But I do think it’s very likely that he was not only an introvert, he was a highly sensitive introvert. Many of the items on Introvert, Dear’s list align with Darcy, none more so than: “You’ve been called shy, reserved or introverted.” Yes, tick that box.

It’s number 5 on their list that I want to talk about for the rest of this post, though – becoming overwhelmed in situations that most regard as normal, like those with large crowds and loud noises. It’s one of the ones I align with most – and have struggled with – because I didn’t start to experience it until my adult life.

I have bad allergies, and spent much of my childhood with my ears blocked up, so that my hearing wasn’t very good. My mom actually had to intervene with a first-grade teacher who thought my reading comprehension wasn’t good…nope, it was the hearing! Let’s fast-forward through a tale of evil health insurance companies and an aborted attempt at allergy shots to when I was an adult, and decided to try the shots again. It took years, but they worked. They worked really well, to the point where my hearing improved. All of a sudden I found this whole world of NOISE opened up to me, and I struggled with movie theaters, concerts, even bars or parties where the noise level was loud. It took some time to figure this out, but I came to realize that loud noises were one of my biggest triggers of migraines: I got overwhelmed, and boom, there came the headache.

Being highly sensitive to noise is the sort of thing that’s usually diagnosed when you’re a child, but in my instance I had to self-diagnose, to a certain degree, although I eventually went and saw an audiologist. There’s not a lot I can do for it as an adult aside from carrying around earplugs, and avoiding situations that I know will have any sort of amplified sound.

I remember very vividly being at a bar with some friends where a DJ was playing, and people were talking loudly. I had a moment where I felt completely overwhelmed, like I was unable to process any of the sounds coming through my ears. It’s made me wonder if Mr. Darcy felt the same way at the Meryton assembly.

We don’t get a lot of description of what the Meryton assembly was like; this public ball in a small market town is one of those things Austen assumes her readers would have been able to imagine, or known from personal experience. In the 1996 miniseries, it’s got a certain local-yokel flavor to it; in 2005 it goes beyond this and it’s a raucous, class-mixed event. This is one of the things I think the 2005 movie might have got right: local public assemblies could be attended by anyone who could pay the admission, and so I don’t think everyone was on their most genteel behavior. Elizabeth certainly observes later in the book that “that private balls are much pleasanter than public ones.”

The ballroom at the Georgian Union Hotel, in Penzance. Too large and grand, I think, to serve for Meryton’s assembly room.
Perhaps this lounge at the Union Hotel is more the right size (and lack of grandeur).

So perhaps the music was loud (as loud as it could be, without being amplified), and not entirely harmonious. Perhaps there was much conversation going on, competing with the music. Perhaps it was crowded, a description we do get from Northanger Abbey: “The season was full, the room crowded, and the two ladies squeezed in as well as they could.”

Assembly rooms at Bath; certainly too large and fancy to serve for Meryton!

I certainly would have been overwhelmed at such an event, and perhaps Darcy was, too, although hiding it under his veneer of reserve. Perhaps that is what he means by “at such an assembly as this,” rather than the more derogatory meaning it’s easy to attribute to it. Perhaps it’s this feeling of being overwhelmed that leads to his insulting Elizabeth. We may never know. But personally, I think it’s quite possible.

Are you highly sensitive? Try taking Introvert, Dear’s quiz, and if you’re comfortable, share the results in the comments.






39 Responses to An Overwhelming Assembly

  1. I enjoyed this article, and agree that Darcy was likely an introvert. I never thought of the autism spectrum, but will definitely read that article, just to hear the arguments.

    I confess, I love giving favourite characters real-world afflictions – your description of migraines made me think of this fan fiction: In it, Caroline Bingley suffers from migraines, and I confess, I LOVE it! It made her so much more relatable and interesting! Also, gives her a ‘reason’ for being bitchy, while still perfectly in character.

    It’s Caroline/Col. Fitzwilliam, and since reading your lovely take on the Fitzwilliam family and the amount of money he would be expected to marry into respectfully, it’s perhaps not accurate, but I enjoyed it thoroughly.

    • Thank you for your comment! Migraines are definitely one of the things that make me glad I do not live back then. I would be in terrible shape if I didn’t live in our modern world with prescription migraine medicine. Although perhaps opium would have been good for them, who knows, lol!

      Caroline had a dowry of 20,000 pounds, so I think she would have been within reason for Col. F. Maybe not quite what his family would have wanted, but within reason. I think I’m going to have to read that story…I’m intrigued by the idea of them as a pairing!

      • Actually “opium” as in Tylenol 3’s, are commonly used for migraines! Not as good as triptans, if your one of the lucky ones for whom triptans work, but decent.

        The problem with opium is the whole ” overdoses can kill you” thing. and yet, they still used it for everything!

        ( when all you have is a hammer… lol)

        I hope you enjoy the story! I reread it after posting and it’s even better than I had remembered!

          • I plan to watch it as I am so absorbed with stories set in regency…which, of course, have ODCs bathing frequentily!

          • Ooh, thanks for the heads up on that! I was aware of some of the history with China, but I’m interested in learning more.

            I am, thankfully, one of the people for whom triptans work, although not the old weaker ones. Relpax basically changed my life.

          • Although no one in my immediate family suffers from migraines my sister-in-law does and has been crippled by the pain in the past. I believe she has it more under control now but I would not wish it on anyone after hearing of her trials. Wishing better health for you.

  2. I got Not highly sensitive yet I do like being on my own. I don’t mind loud noises but I hate crowds and during the Christmas season I go to town first thing in the morning and I’m home well before the main shoppers get going. Maybe I answered it wrong. Anyway, happy Christmas to all.

    • Thank you for your comment, Teresa! I think you can still be an introvert or somewhere on the introvert/extrovert spectrum and not be highly sensitive. I did most of my Christmas shopping online this year to avoid the crowds. 🙂 Happy Christmas to you, too!

  3. My result was Highly Sensitive which doesn’t shock me at all. For me its not so much being an introvert since I’ve begun to come out of my shell again but more to due with health issues and being on the higher end of the Asperger’s Autism. Over the years I’ve gotten better at making friends and keeping them, I just still stick to a small group (3-4) of close ones and have acquaintances. Joining and taking apart in the Jaff community in and of itself was a big step. I’ve had issues with loud noises due to sensitives ears/ good hearing and migraines that were in the end caused mainly by loud noise. I know a lot of people on here disagree with the idea the Mr. Darcy could have been autistic and I wouldn’t have thought of it myself until it was brought up but I can see the possibility in it. He could have been on the higher end of Asperger’s like me. It can also explain the whole Meryton Assembly too. We are very prone to sensor overload which in that environment would most likely happen. I’m going to end it here and I’m sorry if I started to ramble it’s getting close to 2:30 am by me right now.

    • Thank you for your comment, Amanda! I prefer small groups, too, and I’m glad to hear that the JAFF community has been good for you — it has been for me, too. It took me a long time to figure out that a lot of my migraines were triggered by loud noises but that definitely helped because then I knew I couldn’t keep trying to suffer through them, or I would just send up with a bad headache. I hadn’t really thought about the possibility of autism without seeing it elsewhere but it does seem to be a pretty widespread theory, and it is possible that he was similar to you on the higher end of Aseperger’s. We’ll never really know what Austen’s intent was, but it is very interesting to discuss.

  4. No surprise. I tested highly sensitive as well. Don’t know if I was born that way or became that way with unpleasant events in my life. I do know that as I’ve matured, I prefer to be alone to read or write. However, that’s probably not best because I do have occasions to attend large events and need to be more outgoing. Thank you for this post. I find I do identify more with Darcy though, on rare occasions, with Elizabeth. So, as a highly sensitive introvert with ADD, I appreciate your insights. 🙂

    • Thank you for your comment, Gianna! I’m very much the way you are…much prefer to be alone to read or write, now, and it’s tough when I have large events to attend and have to be outgoing and make small talk.

  5. An excellent and thought-provoking piece.

    It was to be expected that in a group of prolific readers and writers that there is an abundance of “highly sensitives,” the group to which the quiz assigned me. Yes, this may be why Darcy made his unfortunate comment at the assembly, and he probably is a highly sensitive (or at least quite sensitive) and this certainly affects all of his viewpoints and actions; however I’m not sure that the reason for his comment wasn’t just that he was exhausted from traveling (not to mention from dealing with Caroline) and annoyed that Bingley and his sisters insisted that he attend the assembly when he was so tired. And he lashed out in frustration.

    One of the wonderful things about Jane is that while she sketched wonderful characters she did not imbue them with rigid, in-depth details, and so we are free to each use our own imaginations to define them.

    • Thank you for your comment, Janis! I do think there were lots of factors going into his comment — annoyance at Bingley and his sisters and being made to go to the assembly after traveling certainly one of them. But I think even that ties into his being an introvert — poor guy needed some recharge time and Bingley was not going to give it to him. And agree very much that this is one of the wonderful things about Austen. She gave us so much room to let our imaginations expand the characters!

  6. I came out as “Not Highly Sensitive”. I suppose I could have guessed that, because the only thing that really always bothers me in the above list is loud noises, which I absolutely loathe. When my youngest child was born, she would twitch and tremble every time sounds came above fairly quiet, to the point that the hospital spent a couple of days running all sorts of tests on her. The rest of my family hated it, but I thoroughly enjoyed the peace and quiet that came with everyone’s trying to be considerate of the newborn. As far as everything else, it largely depends on a given day, but I think much of my abilities comes from my family, where I had an extremely sensitive and shy father combined with a very outgoing, talkative mother where we had a good deal of respect for each other and spent a great deal of time together. I think because of this I learned some great coping mechanisms. I also performed a lot as a child, which helped me overcome a lot of reserve. That said, sometimes I really just want to be alone and retreat from the noise and chaos of my five kids, so I have a little “mom cave” in my closet, and the kids know to leave me alone for a while when I need to restore myself. I guess the interesting part is that I can relate to the introverts, but I can also understand the outgoing extrovert types, because in different moods and at different times of my life, I have been both.

    • Thank you for your comment! Peace and quiet isn’t something you usually associate with a newborn, but I’m glad everything was able to work out for her, even if everyone else hated it. And that your kids respect your “mom cave!” I think there are a lot of couples out there like your parents, where one is more extroverted and one more introverted — that’s how my parents are, too.

  7. I think you can do a study just on us ladies! I too am highly sensitive and struggle to keep the ‘chitchat’ going at large gatherings. I’m sitting there thinking, I’d rather be home reading! Just attending my nephew’s wedding reception with the loud music was very uncomfortable…except when I did get up to dance. I do love to dance to music I know! So it’s always interesting to watch from the sidelines all that is going on around me.

    Very interesting post Sophie! As much as I would like to be like Elizabeth, I don’t ‘practice’ enough to improve my social skills just like Mr. Darcy!

    • Thank you for your comment, Carole! I do think we have more than our fair share of highly sensitive people here — perhaps it’s books and more specifically Austen that draws us. But like you I do love to dance from time to time. And I don’t ‘practice’ perhaps as often as I should. 🙂

  8. Thanks for sharing this post. I never thought about P&P in this way before. Perhaps, that’s why I alway identified more with Mr. Darcy than anyone else as I too am an introvert who hates crowds and lacks the talent for conversing easily.

    • Thank you for your comment! I think that’s one of the fascinating things about the book — we see his behavior through Elizabeth’s point of view (and prejudice) and judge him for it, but when you step back and think about it, it’s very easy to relate to him!

  9. I, too, am a Highly Sensitive Introvert. My answers to most of the questions on both surveys was a resounding “yes”! I prefer being alone so I can read rather than getting together with a few close friends, never mind joining large groups where I have to interact and make small talk! Just the thought of it makes me tired. I also live where it is very quiet, so when loud, continuous noises occur, they grate on my nerves. Once (okay, more than once), at a loud restaurant, the music and noise was so loud I felt disconnected from my body and very irritable that I was supposed to sit there and endure it, be able to think and order my food AND be able to hear and make polite conversation. I wonder if the highly sensitive / introverts of the world are the book readers? The non-sensitive / extroverts are out there doing things and talking about it, while we stay home reading about it and associating with Mr. Darcy because we completely understand his reactions to the people and places of Meryton and London. my two cents…

    • Thank you for your comment, Linda! I was a “yes” on almost all of them as well. I know that feeling you’re describing of feeling disconnected to your body. I don’t want to say it’s fortunate that it triggers migraines for me, but that gives me a ready excuse to leave situations like that. I’ve definitely asked to turn down the volume or popped in earplugs in public before, or just said I had to leave or I was going to have a headache.

      That’s a really good point about the introverts being the book readers. We definitely seem to have a large share commenting here. Although I do know extroverts who are big readers, too. But I think we prefer to stay in and read many more evenings than they do. 🙂

  10. I am happy with my own company. I am a bit claustrophobic, such is the reason I do my Christmas shopping in September. I cannot tolerate the crowds and the closeness and crowded elevators, etc.

    • Thanks for your comment, Regina! I’m okay with crowds, except that crowds are usually noisy! And I find myself doing more and more of my Christmas shopping online these days.

  11. My M.O. is that I am rather quiet and reserved at first in a group of strangers. My husband jumps right in and has everyone laughing within 5 minutes. I had a childhood in which I was poor and didn’t have the attire to fit in with my peers and comments and snubs were made. So I am going to sit back and watch how you act and make a judgment as to whether or not you will accept me and be nice to me. That is one thing about the Internet that we can’t see each other and have to make opinions only based on what the other person says or contributes to the conversation.

    Now as to noise: I hate being in loud environments. You can’t hear what people are saying and it is difficult to converse – be it restaurants, movie theaters, sports events or even a family gathering. AND now, as a senior citizen foreign accents on TV or in movies tend to make me put CC up so I can read the words. Even my 37 year old daughter last night could not understand all the accents on a movie we were watching. I do love accents, especially, those British ones spoken by a handsome man but acknowledge that as I have aged my hearing is not perfect so loud crowds don’t help.

    Thankfully, I don’t get migraines. I do take ear plugs if I am attending a car race or other event where I know that noise will be exceptionally loud.

    • Hi Sheila, thanks for your comment! Agree that is a nice thing about the Internet — it’s all about the conversation. And conversing in loud environments is definitely one of my least favorite things, particularly when I find it so hard to distinguish the sounds without getting overwhelmed. I much prefer when it’s quiet and a smaller group so I can hear and better participate in the conversation. I don’t struggle with accents too much, but when I was in Scotland I did have to ask for people tor repeat what they said quite a bit!

  12. I just took the test and I’m in the Highly Sensitive Club, too. As I read your post, I saw so many similarities to my own experience growing up; but now that I’m older, I no longer struggle to fit in with crowds or groups. I just head to the sidelines and enjoy quietly watching the extroverts do their thing (it’s a win-win for them and me). Thanks to your post, I now have good reason to think Darcy felt the same way at the Meryton Assembly. Thanks for the fresh perspective.

    • Hi Nancy, thanks for your comment! I was the same way — as I got older I stopped trying so hard to make myself into someone I wasn’t and started letting myself spend more time on the sidelines. A Regency ball, though, sounds like it was not a place where one could do that without standing out. Although perhaps if one had less than 10,000 a year it was not quite so noticeable!

  13. Yes I’m afraid I’m highly sensitive too! I struggle in situations where I don’t know people very well, trying to think of things to say that they might be interested in!!! So I tend to try and avoid these situations which I suppose doesn’t help. So I totally understand Darcy’s behaviour and sympathise with him. Thanks for this post.

  14. Hi Sophie. Thanks for such a fascinating post. I just took the test and came out as “Highly Sensitive”, as I suspected I would do.

    Tonight, my husband and myself are going out to a Christmas Dinner/party, a particular event that we’re invited to every year and it always fills me with dread. I only meet this set of people once a year, so haven’t got to know them approaching anything like well. The dinner part isn’t so bad as you only have the folk immediately next to you to deal with. It’s the party bit afterwards, with the expected mingling, games and noise I find so difficult. At some point, I expect I’ll be found, in a corner “standing around in a stupid manner”!

    • Thank you for your comment, Anji! The same thing happens to me at parties like that…I just can’t insert myself into conversations the way some people seem to do. I’ve done my own fair share of “standing around in a stupid manner.” 🙂

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