Mrs Bennet tells her husband the latest news: a rich young man, Mr Bingley, is coming to live at Netherfield Park.
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’
What an irrepressible opening: bubbly, contentious, ironic, demanding to be put in its place, boldly questioning so many assumptions. It’s an outrageous claim, assertive -‘It is a truth’ – and underlining this – ‘universally acknowledged’, ‘must be’. ‘Must be’? Who says so? The gloriously energetic and confident tone of this pronouncement advertises that a comedy is to follow – this mood is far too upbeat to be introducing a tragedy.
And this sentence is filled with the ironic wit that pervades the novel: it immediately makes you question this ‘truth.’
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that …’.
‘… a single man in possession of a good fortune (a great deal of money), must be in want (need) of a wife.’
If the first part of the sentence is couched in the magisterial sonorities of one of Dr Johnson’s observations on human existence, the second half is a witty anticlimax. Is it really a truth? What sort of person accepts this idea? Presumably a competitive mother, greedy for the reflected glory of marrying off her daughter to a rich man. This sparks off more questions. Mothers possessed of this idea must be materialistic, rather limited in their perceptions (and perhaps intelligence), keen for status, competitive, with a blinkered view of marriage that doesn’t include love or compatibility, lacking appropriate decorum, valuing a person for their money rather than for their personality and morality.
What a perfect introduction to many of the themes of the book, to its plot, and to Mrs Bennet, the character we are just about to meet. More irony follows in the next paragraph, since it appears that the universe that acknowledges this ‘truth’ is in fact only a small ‘neighbourhood.’
The conversation that follows illustrates Mrs Bennet, one of these predatory mothers, in action.
‘My dear Mr Bennet,’ said his lady to him one day, ‘have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?’
Mr Bennet replied that he had not.
‘But it is,’ returned she; ‘for Mrs Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.’
Mr Bennet made no answer.
‘Do not you want to know who has taken it?’ cried his wife impatiently.
Already you see Mrs Bennet’s character. Her insistent, gossiping voice dominates the exchange, while Mr Bennet either makes no answer or else Jane Austen gives his answer in reported speech: ‘Mr Bennet replied that he had not.’ This is a world of gossip – ‘Mrs Long has just been here’ – with the information spread absolutely as soon as possible to the next person – ‘cried his wife impatiently.’ It is also a world in which the small local society is extremely acquisitive. In only the second paragraph, we learn that in ‘such a neighbourhood’ the ‘surrounding families’ consider the newcomer as the ‘rightful property’ of one of their daughters. Legally, at this time, a woman’s property became her husband’s when she married; however, no legal considerations constrain the fixed ideas of the parents of marriageable daughters in that locality. The word ‘property’ can mean the property of a man or a woman.
The conversation also serves to put the reader in possession of the necessary facts about Mr Bingley, who has just taken Netherfield Park. Several details emphasise his considerable wealth. Netherfield is the largest house in the neighbourhood, a notable establishment. However, he does not own it; he is renting it. (In Chapter 3 we meet Mr Darcy who owns Pemberley and its large estate and is thus several notches richer and higher in social status than Mr Bingley.) Mr Bingley arrives to see the place in his expensive travelling carriage, a chaise, drawn not by two horses, as chaises often were, but by four. He evidently has plenty of servants: ‘some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.’ The essential fact underpinning this luxurious existence is an income of four or five thousand pounds a year. It is difficult to translate this income exactly into today’s terms, but it means he is a very rich young man.
Incidentally, although we don’t realise it yet, we are given a thumbnail sketch of Bingley’s impulsive nature: ‘he … was so much delighted with it that he agreed with Mr Morris immediately … some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week’.
Mr Bennet’s few words, apparently so innocuous, both provoke Mrs Bennet and expose her assumptions.
‘Is he married or single?’
‘Oh! single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune (very rich);
four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!’
‘How so? how can it affect them?’
‘My dear Mr Bennet,’ replied his wife, ‘how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them’.
‘Is that his design (purpose) in settling here?’
Mr Bennet’s questions are teasingly constructed to reveal Mrs Bennet’s superficial values and lack of reason; she knows nothing of Bingley’s character, and her premise (as Mr Bennet’s questions demonstrate) is lamentable: ‘You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them’. Her sights are set on social status and material matters, ‘what an establishment (household and style of living) it would be for one of them’, not on the happiness of two compatible and affectionate people.
In fact, Mr Bennet more or less spells out his wife’s deplorable approach to marriage when he says, ‘I will send a few lines by you to assure him (Mr Bingley) of my hearty consent to his marrying which ever he chuses of the girls.’ Earlier in their conversation, Mr Bennet’s remarks seem made in order to frustrate his wife’s efforts at retailing gossip (‘how so?’, ‘How can it affect them?’) thus providing himself with incidental entertainment. Mr Bennet is evidently a man of far more wit and intelligence than his wife. But we are also given a hint of his lack of responsibility and involvement in his family’s welfare. Speaking of his daughters, he says, ‘They have none of them much to recommend them … they are all silly and ignorant like other girls ..’.
Mrs Bennet’s conversation in this first chapter is largely made up of exclamations. She talks at full throttle and seldom in full sentences: ‘Oh! single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year’. Mrs Bennet’s chatter is larded with assumptions (not shared by her husband) – ‘to be sure’, ‘you must know’. Jane Austen was an innovator, and Professor John Mullan describes the individual voice and speech mannerisms of each character as one of her many innovations. (What Matters in Jane Austen, Bloomsbury, 2012) The fact that Mr Bennet questions his wife’s assumptions implies that not everyone in the novel will think as she does.
One of the themes in the novel seems likely to be communication: Mr and Mrs Bennet are so emphatically not communicating, and one looks to see people who do. Mrs Bennet’s eager identification of Mr Bingley as a potential marriage acquisition for one of her daughters illustrates one view of marriage. The Bennets themselves provide an example of another. Theirs is a long-term partnership without love. Mr Bennet’s relationship with Mrs Bennet seems to be based on wit directed at his oblivious and uncomprehending wife.
The two ebullient opening paragraphs are illustrated by the conversation between Mr and Mrs Bennet. It is set out almost like a play and, indeed, Jane Austen’s writing is often dramatic in presentation and content. We can learn everything we need to know about the speakers’ characters from what they say and how they say it. This conversation gives us not only the facts – the rich Mr Bingley is shortly to arrive in a neighbourhood containing a number of marriageable young women. At the same time it gives us an outline of the characters – Mr Bingley’s impulsiveness, Mrs Bennet’s competitiveness, materialism and stupidity, Mr Bennet’s intelligence, his wit, his contempt for his wife and his lack of responsibility.
We are not told where this conversation takes place (possibly because it’s representative of any number of similar conversations all over the neighbourhood). In her later novels, for example in Persuasion, Jane Austen described settings in more detail. It seems quite likely that this exchange would take place indoors at Longbourn; places and people are closely connected in this novel – Mr Collins and his ‘humble abode’, Lady Catherine at Rosings, Mr Darcy at Pemberley.
The rules governing social etiquette are strict; the Bennet girls cannot simply meet Mr Bingley. Their father must first call upon him. Mr Bennet must not be allowed to procrastinate. ‘… it is very likely that he (Mr Bingley) may fall in love with one of them, and therefore you must visit him as soon as he comes. … Indeed you must go, for it will be imposible for us to visit him, if you do not.’ Mr Bingley too fulfils the formal social requirements: ‘In a few days Mr Bingley returned Mr Bennet’s visit, and sat about ten minutes with him in his library.’ (Chapter 3)
Marriage is a highly competitive market, and Mrs Bennet is a highly competitive mother: ‘But consider your daughters. Only think what an establishment it would be for one of them. Sir William and Lady Lucas are determined to go, merely on that account …’ . Indeed, when the competitive Lady Lucas’s eldest daughter does get engaged, ‘Lady Lucas could not be insensible (unaware) of triumph on being able to retort (throw back at so as to retaliate) on Mrs Bennet the comfort of having a daughter well married; and she called at Longbourn rather oftener than usual to say how happy she was…’. (Chapter 23)
Mrs Bennet’s character and interests are so vividly delineated in the dialogue between herself and Mr Bennet that the final paragraph in Chapter 1 is almost superfluous. Through her, we are now in possession of the facts: a young man has moved into the neighbourhood, eligible because he is so rich. Will he be likeable? There are several Bennet girls. What fortune awaits them? Will they marry? Will Mr Bingley fall for one of them? Evidently Lizzy is her father’s favourite; she is singled out by him in this chapter and she will be the heroine. He describes her as having ‘quickness’, which is ‘mental acuteness; liveliness of the mind, etc.; sharpness, perceptiveness’ (OED), and ‘liveliness of … mind’ is indeed something that her most important suitor recognises in her.
Mrs Bennet’s nerves feature prominently in the novel; they are one of her perennial topics of conversation. They will have been the ‘nervous distempers’ (George Cheyne’s term in 1733) popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Thomas Trotter wrote A View of the Nervous Temperament in 1807, and Jane Austen’s mother suffered from nerves herself. Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra in April 1805, ‘They want us to drink tea with them tonight, but I do not know whether my Mother will have nerves for it.’ The ‘news’ that Mrs Bennet is so interested in is of course local news, of the Mr Bingley variety, rather than national news.
We are certainly in for plenty of entertainment of the ‘at cross purposes’ variety, with an author who loves to see one character tease another. One can imagine the fun of reading aloud a conversation such as that between Mr and Mrs Bennet. The first printed copy of Pride and Prejudice arrived at Jane Austen’s home in Chawton on Wednesday 27 January, 1813. Its author / parent was delighted. “I have got my own darling child from London …” she wrote to her sister Cassandra on the Friday. “Miss Benn dined with us on the very day of the books coming in the evening we set fairly at it, and read half the first vol. to her. … She was amused”. Mrs Austen was the reader – though Jane thought she read rather too rapidly, and was not able to speak quite as the characters ought to.
That evening’s reading, and the happiness of hearing how highly her family thought of the novel, was the culmination of many years’ preparation. Jane Austen’s work on the novel seems to have begun in autumn 1796. Her sister Cassandra wrote, ‘First Impressions begun in Oct 1796 Finished in Augt 1797. Published afterwards, with alterations contractions under the Title of Pride Prejudice.’ Jane Austen’s father offered First Impressions to a London bookseller in November 1797 but it was ‘declined by Return of Post’. Jane Austen mentioned it again in a letter to Cassandra in early 1799. Much later, her niece Anna Lefroy remembered that as a little girl she listened ‘with so much interest, with so much talk afterwards about ‘Jane Elizabeth’. Meanwhile, two other pieces called First Impressions appeared: a novel by Margaret Holford in 1801 and a comedy by Horatio Smith in 1813. So it must have seemed a good idea to change the title. James Edward Austen-Leigh writes, in his A Memoir of Jane Austen, by her Nephew, ‘the first year of her residence at Chawton seems to have been devoted to revising and preparing for the press ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Jane Austen moved to Chawton with her mother and sister in the summer of 1809, so it was presumably around then that she started work on it again. She referred, in the letter to Cassandra announcing the arrival of her first copy, to having ‘lop’t crop’t’ it. And she admitted: ‘I must confess that I think her (Elizabeth) as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know. There are a few typical errors (typos); and a “said he,” or a “said she,” would sometimes make the dialogue more immediately clear; but “I do not write for such dull elves” as have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves.’
What I had not realised, when I commented on the famous opening sentence of the novel, is that Jane Austen had indeed been quoting Dr Johnson – essay 115 of The Rambler.
However, whereas the narrator in The Rambler gives the man’s viewpoint, Pride and Prejudice gives the woman’s. In The Rambler, essay 115, 23rd April 1751, the narrator has this to say (the italics are mine).
‘I was known to possess a fortune, and to want a wife; and therefore was
frequently attended by these hymeneal solicitors, with whose importunity
I was sometimes diverted, and sometimes perplexed; for they contended
for me as vultures for a carcase; each employing all his eloquence, and
all his artifices, to enforce and promote his own scheme, from the
success of which he was to receive no other advantage than the pleasure
of defeating others equally eager, and equally industrious.
An invitation to sup with one of those busy friends, made me, by a
concerted chance, acquainted with Camilla, by whom it was expected that
I should be suddenly and irresistibly enslaved. The lady, whom the same
kindness had brought without her own concurrence into the lists of love,
seemed to think me at least worthy of the honour of captivity; and
exerted the power, both of her eyes and wit, with so much art and
spirit, that though I had been too often deceived by appearances to
devote myself irrevocably at the first interview, yet I could not
suppress some raptures of admiration, and flutters of desire. I was
easily persuaded to make nearer approaches; but soon discovered, that an
union with Camilla was not much to be wished. Camilla professed a
boundless contempt for the folly, levity, ignorance, and impertinence of
her own sex; and very frequently expressed her wonder that men of
learning or experience could submit to trifle away life with beings
incapable of solid thought. In mixed companies, she always associated
with the men, and declared her satisfaction when the ladies retired. If
any short excursion into the country was proposed, she commonly insisted
upon the exclusion of women from the party; because, where they were
admitted, the time was wasted in frothy compliments, weak indulgences,
and idle ceremonies. To shew the greatness of her mind, she avoided all
compliance with the fashion; and to boast the profundity of her
knowledge, mistook the various textures of silk, confounded tabbies with
damasks, and sent for ribands by wrong names. She despised the commerce
of stated visits, a farce of empty form without instruction; and
congratulated herself, that she never learned to write message cards.
She often applauded the noble sentiment of Plato, who rejoiced that he
was born a man rather than a woman; proclaimed her approbation of
Swift’s opinion, that women are only a higher species of monkeys.
Mr Bennet reveals to his family that he has visited Mr Bingley. Now, therefore, the families can become acquainted.
Mr Bingley, his sisters and his friends, meet the Bennets at a public ball in Meryton.
Mrs Bennet initiated the conversation in Chapter 1; in Chapter 2, it is Mr Bennet’s turn.
The suspense of meeting Mr Bingley is maintained. Mr Bennet finally reveals that he has called on Mr Bingley. But he does so in typically tangential fashion.
Observing his second daughter employed in trimming a hat, he suddenly addressed
‘I hope Mr Bingley will like it Lizzy.’
More than a page of uproar follows before Mr Bennet discloses that he has already called on Mr Bingley. Even then, he tells them back to front, as it were:
‘It is very unlucky; but as I have actually paid the visit, we cannot escape the
It turns out that this was all for his entertainment: ‘the astonishment of the ladies was just what he wished…’
What amuses Mr Bennet also amuses the reader. And, under cover of the description of the general tumult, Jane Austen gives us a clearer picture of the Bennet family. In Chapter 1, we only met Mr and Mrs Bennet, although we did hear of Lizzy and Lydia. Now we meet Kitty and Mary, as well as Lizzy and Lydia. In providing the description of the family, Jane Austen also depicts very convincing psychological behaviour. Mrs Bennet, under the impression that her husband is refusing to call on their new neighbour, and
unable to contain herself, began scolding one of her daughters.
‘Don’t keep coughing so, Kitty, for heaven’s sake! Have a little compassion on my
nerves. You tear them to pieces.’
It’s what we would nowadays call displacement behaviour, but Jane Austen was alive to it long before it got so grand a name. Details like these make her writing come wonderfully alive.
However, despite having called on Mr Bingley, Mr Bennet cannot be prevailed upon to provide ‘any satisfactory description’ of him. At the beginning of Chapter 3, gossip furnishes a little more information: Lady Lucas reports that her husband ‘had been delighted with him. He was quite young, wonderfully handsome, extremely agreeable, and to crown the whole, he meant to be at the next assembly (ball) with a large party. Nothing could be more delightful!’ This actually tells us disappointingly little: it’s a string of superlatives and cliches. One of Jane Austen’s favourite jokes, illogical logic, is operating too: ‘To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love’.
This snippet of non-information about Mr Bingley is followed by Mr Bingley’s return visit to Mr Bennet. ‘The ladies … had the advantage of ascertaining from an upper window, that he wore a blue coat and rode a black horse’. In other words, despite having their noses (inconspicuously, for the sake of decorum) pressed to ‘an upper window’, they saw virtually nothing. This is another favourite comic device of Jane Austen’s: the witty deflating technique of bathos – a big build-up: ‘the ladies … had the advantage of ascertaining …’ to an anticlimax: ‘that he wore a blue coat and rode a black horse’. That arbiter of fashion, Beau Brumell (1778 – 1840), advocated blue coats, such as Mr Bingley is wearing. Much later, Lydia wonders if Wickham will wear his blue coat. For a look at contemporary men’s fashion, try https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2013/06/21/regency-fashion-mens-breeches-pantaloons-and-trousers/
The next paragraph of narrative proves to be full of deliciously undermining observations. ‘An invitation to dinner was soon afterwards dispatched; and already had Mrs Bennet planned the courses that were to do credit to her housekeeping …’ This shows the motives behind the hospitality: showing-off, rather than genuine hospitality to a newcomer. When it emerges that Mr Bingley cannot accept the invitation because he will be in town (London), ‘Mrs Bennet was quite disconcerted:’… she began to fear that he might be always flying about from one place to another, and never settled at Netherfield as he ought to be.’ Who said he ‘ought to be’ anywhere? What is made perfectly clear is Mrs Bennet’s self-absorbed conviction that Mr Bingley is living at Netherfield entirely so that he may be appropriated by her and one of her daughters.
As the paragraph continues, we learn more of the background of neighbours and unreliable gossip: ‘ … starting the idea of his (Mr Bingley) being gone to London only to get a large party for the ball; and a report soon followed that Mr Bingley was to bring twelve ladies and seven gentlemen with him to the assembly.’ Then ‘the day before the ball … instead of twelve, he had brought only six with him from London.’ In fact, gossip is inaccurate: ‘And when the party entered the assembly room, it consisted of only five’.
The Meryton assembly, or ball, will have been one of the public balls usually funded by subscription. Some assembly rooms were purpose-built; others were attached to inns. Describing the ball gives Jane Austen the opportunity to introduce more characters in person as opposed to by hearsay: Mr Bingley, Mr Darcy, Mr Hurst and Bingley’s sisters, Mrs Hurst and Miss Bingley. We then see the Bennet family in relation to the newcomers: Jane admired by Mr Bingley and Elizabeth slighted by Mr Darcy.
Gossip is still the dominant force when we finally meet the much-anticipated Mr Bingley at the ball, and gossip pronounces decisively upon his friend Mr Darcy. Mr Bingley is ‘lively and unreserved, danced every dance … Such amiable qualities must speak for themselves’. Praiseworthy qualities are teasingly juxtaposed to an irrelevant one: that he loves dancing! Actually, he turns out to be as delightful a man as report dictates.
But report is disastrously wrong about Mr Darcy in making him out to be unpleasant. The first impression of him is ‘his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien (appearance and manner); and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year…the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr Bingley’. Handsomeness evidently has nothing to do with
good looks and everything to do with having £10,000 a year. But he will not dance with anyone except Mr Bingley’s sisters.
‘His character was decided. He was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the
world, and every body hoped that he would never come there again.’
Austen here is using free indirect discourse. Without apparently incorporating direct speech into her third person narrative, Jane Austen colours her account of events by including titbits of gossip verbatim: ‘What a contrast between him and his friend!’ and ‘He was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world’ (an obviously exaggerated cliche).
Jane Austen has an acute ear for people’s characteristic speech patterns. One can identify almost anyone in the novel from half a sentence. Here are Bingley and Darcy. Typically, Austen gives us their conversation in playscript form, leaving the reader to respond. Bingley has been dancing ‘every dance’ and ‘came from the dance for a few minutes to press his friend to join it.’
“Come, Darcy,” said he, “I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about
by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance.”
Bingley is speaking in short sentences, simply and rather informally (“this stupid
manner”), using straightforward vocabulary. He tends to exaggerate (“I hate to see you …”).
“I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly
acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly (ball) as this, it would be
insupportable (unbearable). Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another
woman in the room, whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up (dance)
Darcy is using much more complex and formal sentence structure than Bingley (surprisingly stuffy for a young man at a dance). His vocabulary is more intellectual and polysyllabic than his friend’s, and his outlook is very negative (“not”, “detest”, “insupportable”, “punishment to me”). He too exaggerates, perhaps to emphasise his resistance to Bingley’s urging. ‘…There is not another woman in the room …’.
“I would not be so fastidious (fussy) as you are,” cried Bingley, “for a kingdom!
Upon my honour, I never met with so many pleasant girls in my life, as I have this
“You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room,” said Mr Darcy, looking
at the eldest Miss Bennet.
“Oh! she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld!”
Darcy is being negative again – to him, there’s only one good-looking girl in the entire room. However, Bingley’s natural enthusiasm, and his pleasure in the evening, lead him to express himself in a string of exclamations and superlatives – “for a kingdom!”, “I never met with so many ..”, “she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld!”
The narrator refers to the two young men as Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy: ‘Mr Darcy had been standing near enough for her to overhear a conversation between him and Mr Bingley.’ Mr Bingley calls his friend Darcy, ‘Come, Darcy … I must have you dance.’ To call him Darcy reflects the considerable level of friendship between Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy; ‘Darcy’ is a familiarity that the narrator cannot share, so she refers to him as Mr Darcy.
There is possibly a quiet joke on Jane Austen’s part here. In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo’s friend, Mercutio, says to Romeo at the Capulets’ ball, ‘Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance.’ To which Romeo replies, ‘Not I, believe me. You have dancing shoes /With nimble soles. I have a soul of lead … I cannot move.’ (Romeo and Juliet, Act I scene 4) Is Austen here giving the ultra-observant reader a hint that Darcy is to be her Romeo?
I am indebted to Pat Rogers for the detail of Bingley’s and Darcy’s conversation being somewhat like that of Romeo and Mercutio, although the conclusion drawn is my own. (Pride and Prejudice, edited by Pat Rogers, page 466, published by C.U.P.).
Elizabeth, meanwhile, ‘had been obliged, by the scarcity of gentlemen, to sit down for two dances…’. Formal rules governing social etiquette naturally extended to behaviour at an assembly such as this. Bingley could ask his partner (Jane) for help in the matter of introductions between her sister Elizabeth and his friend Darcy and thus enable them to dance. Or the Master of Ceremonies could do so. Since there are fewer gentlemen than ladies at the ball, indeed, a ‘scarcity of gentlemen’, Darcy is being particularly unco-operative and ungracious in his refusal to dance.
Darcy rejects Bingley’s suggestion that he should dance with Elizabeth, saying, “She is tolerable (passable) but not handsome enough to tempt me.” A clue to our later understanding of Darcy is, “I certainly shall not (dance). You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner.” He’s very shy and awkward, for all his £10,000 a year. But he is also insulting to Elizabeth, who unfortunately overhears his words. He arrogantly thinks that dancing with him would give Elizabeth social importance. ‘I am in no humour (mood) at present to give consequence (social importance) to young ladies who are slighted (by not being chosen as a dance partner) by other men.’ Although ‘she told the story … with great spirit among her friends’, in fact, ‘Elizabeth remained with no very cordial (warm) feelings towards him.’ This is the important episode that sparks off Elizabeth’s rooted prejudice against Darcy – and she has a certain pride in maintaining it. Although in general, Elizabeth and her mother feel very differently about people and occurrences, here their reactions coincide. We can thus measure the extent to which Elizabeth’s feelings later change by measuring them against her mother’s, which remain fixed.
It is a glorious irony that the hero of the book should be introduced in such a grumpy mood, hating dancing and that the heroine, who in the course of the novel attracts every eligible male except Bingley (who is absorbed by Jane), should be sitting down without a partner!
Mrs Bennet ends the chapter with an almost unstoppable flow of information about the ball, enumerating Bingley’s dancing partners with dizzying detail, incoherence and speed – a source of entertainment to the reader. As usual, she completely misunderstands the meaning of charming, claiming that Bingley’s sisters are “‘charming women. I never in my life saw anything more elegant than their dresses.'” This is not only funny; it points the reader firmly towards a more accurate definition of ‘charming’ than being a wearer of an elegant dress.
Jane and Elizabeth discuss the ball and the people they have met there.
The Bingleys and Mr Darcy are described.
Chapter 4 opens with a rather more coherent response to the evening than Mrs Bennet’s was – Jane and Elizabeth are happily going over all the details of the ball. This is the first we have seen for ourselves of Elizabeth with her beloved sister Jane. They are very close. Jane, ‘who had been cautious in her praise of Mr Bingley before, expressed to her sister how very much she admired him.’ She makes to her sister confidences that she entrusts to no-one else.
The difference between the sisters is immediately apparent: Elizabeth is high-spirited and intelligent; Jane serene, composed and good. Jane is also modest: “‘I was very much flattered'”, and she thinks the best of people: “‘Miss Bingley is to live with her brother and keep his house; and I am much mistaken if we shall not find a very charming neighbour in her.'” Elizabeth is much more talkative, delighted at her sister’s popularity, and has a much more energetic and witty style of talking.
“‘Did not you (expect such a compliment)? I did for you.'”
She speaks with mock authority – but it is a possessiveness born of affection. Nobody is quite good enough for her dear sister. “‘I give you leave (permission) to like him.'”
Elizabeth’s intelligence shows itself at every turn. Here, for example, she is speaking of Jane’s candour (a perception of things and people that is sincere, open, kind, and impartial) and contrasting it with commonplace affectation (pretence) of candour.
‘All the world are good and agreeable in your eyes. I never heard you speak ill
of a human being in my life.’
‘I would wish not to be hasty in censuring any one; but I always speak what I
‘I know you do; and it is that which makes the wonder. With your good sense, to
be so honestly blind to the follies and nonsense of others! Affectation of candour is
common enough; – one sees it every where.’
Obviously Elizabeth is alive to the ‘follies and nonsense of others,’ as it is later described. We have an immediate example of this in Elizabeth’s thoughts (not voiced aloud) on the Bingley sisters. The paragraph describing them starts with her thoughts.
‘Elizabeth listened in silence, but was not convinced; their behaviour at the assembly had not been calculated to please in general.’
We move, in the same sentence, to narrator’s comment: ‘and with more quickness of observation and less pliancy of temper than her sister … she was very little disposed to approve them.’ We are then given direct narrative information: ‘They were in fact …’ Gradually the tone becomes ironic (the opposite of what it initially seems to mean). ‘They … had a fortune of twenty thousand pounds, were in the habit of spending more than they ought, and of associating with people of rank; and were therefore in every respect entitled to think well of themselves, and meanly of others.’ Nobody in Jane Austen’s novels is allowed to get away with complacency: a world of disapproval is signalled by the smug phrase, ‘entitled to think well of themselves, and meanly of others.’ By now we are presumably in the Bingley sisters’ minds. The narrative, with its free indirect discourse, moves with such ease that it is sometimes hard to tell from what position we are looking at a person or situation: the narrator’s relation of facts, an ironic comment from the narrator, or an opinion of the character’s. Conveniently, the Bingley sisters manage to forget that ‘their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade’ (in Jane Austen’s day, making money through trade was less socially acceptable than inheriting money or acquiring it through the pursuit of a profession). Jane Austen’s criticism makes it clear that they are snobs, basing their high opinion of themselves on their recently-made money. They do not hesitate to criticise the fact that Jane and Elizabeth’s uncle is in trade and they are thus exposed as hypocrites.
Plans for Education, written by Clara Reeve in 1792, describes ‘gradations of rank and fortune’ which may help modern readers to place the newly-rich Bingleys, from a social point of view.
The nobility of this land are rich and powerful, but there is a distinction between the
different degrees and titles, and also between the old and new nobility, which the old
families well understand.
The next order, are the old families of wealth and consequence; some of whom
have refused titles that they thought it beneath them to accept; whose families are
older, and their fortunes superior to many of the nobility.
In the third class, I would place those who have acquired great wealth by any
profession or calling, and whose wealth, however gained, stands in lieu of birth,
merit, and accomplishments, to the world.
The description of Bingley’s sisters leads to a description of Bingley himself. He is a young man of easy temper (temperament), who has taken Netherfield after seeing it for half an hour. Almost as a postscript, we are told more about Darcy, whose character is in complete contrast to that of his friend.
‘Darcy was clever. He was at the same time haughty, reserved, and fastidious, and
his manners, though well bred, were not inviting (appealing)….Darcy was
continually giving offence.’
Again, then, we are warned of the difficulties of understanding Darcy from his manner and conversation.
Structurally, in this chapter we see two sets of sisters, Jane and Elizabeth, Mrs Hurst and Miss Bingley. Jane is contrasted to Elizabeth in personality and outlook and speech but the sisters love each other dearly. The Bingley sisters are described as a pair and in future chapters, Miss Bingley is always foregrounded, with her sister as endorsing chorus. They are depicted here through free indirect discourse and it’s clear they are hypocrites. The relationship of Jane and Elizabeth will be important in the novel, and the Bingley sisters will form some of the opposition to Jane and Elizabeth’s happiness in the Cinderella structure of the plot. (Bingley’s sisters are the ugly sisters of the Cinderella structure.)
Jane Austen’s way of introducing her heroine, Elizabeth, is quite different from that of her contemporaries, or those whose writing she admired such as Fanny Burney. In Burney’s Cecilia (1782) the heroine is presented in the opening chapter.
her form was elegant, her heart was liberal, her countenance announced the intelligence of her mind, her complexion varied with every emotion of her soul, and her eyes, the heralds of her speech, now beamed with understanding and now glistened with sensibility.
Not only is she beautiful, but her physical loveliness corresponds to the perfection of her feelings and her intelligence. Some of Austen’s characters are similarly uncomplicated, in that their first appearance reflects their personality; Bingley and Jane come to mind. But Elizabeth is depicted quite differently. We are not given a description of her at all (although we later discover from Darcy that she has fine eyes and eyelashes). And she makes her way into the novel by degrees: first briefly mentioned by her father, then trimming a hat which her father hopes Mr Bingley will like; then rejected as a partner by Darcy at the assembly. Finally, in Chapter 4, we actually hear her talking to her sister. So it has taken quite a long time for us to meet her, and to the end of the novel, we never know what she looks like. Professor John Mullan notes that ‘Austen gave her readers an entirely new sense of a person’s inner life … through new kinds of narrative.’ (What Matters in Jane Austen? pages 306, 7) We discover a great deal about her inner life; indeed, that is principally what the novel is about. We also discover, and this too is new in Jane Austen, what a lot of mistakes she makes, unlike Fanny Burney’s heroines.
The Miss Lucases come to Longbourn to talk about the Meryton ball.
In Chapter 5, Jane Austen introduces us to another local family and we meet the Lucases. Charlotte, ‘about twenty-seven, was Elizabeth’s intimate friend.’ Her father, Sir William, is another snob: ‘Sir William Lucas had been formerly in trade in Meryton, where he had … risen to the honour of knighthood …. he had removed with his family to a house about a mile from Meryton, denominated (called) from that period Lucas Lodge, where he could think with pleasure of his own importance.’ Obviously Sir William’s shortcoming is self-importance; perhaps we can laugh at his renaming his house Lucas Lodge, but he is also ‘friendly and obliging’.
The Lucas and Bennet girls discuss the ball. This is the third version we have had of it, in addition to the original, and each tells us something different. The first provides the fun of hearing Mrs Bennet’s chaotic retailing of events and her favourable impression of the Bingley sisters, based largely on their fashionable dresses. The second shows us the deep attachment of Elizabeth and Jane, thus introducing the theme of family relationships, the notion of candour, and Elizabeth’s awareness of the ‘follies and nonsense of others’. It furnishes a striking example of genuine communication, too.
As she so often does, Jane Austen lets us hear the friends as they talk. This is another chapter much of which is almost a playscript. In the course of the friends’ chatter, Jane characteristically now puts in a good word for Darcy. “‘Miss Bingley told me,” said Jane, “that he never speaks much unless among his intimate acquaintance. With them he is remarkably agreeable.'” There is a difficulty here. What Miss Bingley says turns out to be perfectly true, but because it is told by Jane, who always thinks the best of people, everyone takes it with a pinch of salt. Miss Bingley, furthermore, is not liked by Elizabeth (‘their behaviour at the assembly had not been calculated to please in general’) and it sounds as if she is advertising what a smart circle she moves in: Mr Darcy speaks to her but not to less important people. Elizabeth and the reader therefore discount what she says of Darcy.
To add to Elizabeth’s already delightful qualities, we now find she can laugh at herself: ‘I could easily forgive his (Darcy’s) pride, if he had not mortified mine.’ This is introduced lightly enough, but in fact turns out to be a very important factor in Elizabeth’s misunderstanding of Darcy.
We can all laugh at Mary’s sententious lecture: “‘Pride … is a very common failing I believe.”‘ It’s produced as one of the great pieces of wisdom, wrapped up in five-syllable words, but what she says is actually obvious. Mary’s lecture is funny because it is so out of place: a disquisition on pride sounding like a paragraph from an eighteenth century conduct manual, in the middle of all this girly gossip and chatter. Pride is one of the themes of the novel; its nature and repercussions are extensively explored, with pinpoint accuracy. Mary’s pronouncements are delivered in such a pedantic way that they seem ridiculous. Ironically, in view of later events, their content is sound. ‘Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.’ Elizabeth’s particular experience gives life to the mistakes of pride and vanity in a way that this portentous moralising definition of Mary’s can never do. Much later, when Elizabeth reads Darcy’s letter explaining his actions, she exclaims: ‘How despicably have I acted! … I, who have prided myself on my discernment! … and gratified my vanity … But vanity … has been my folly.’ (Chapter 36)
A large party at Lucas Lodge.
The first part of Chapter 6 outlines Bingley’s increasing admiration for Jane, who in her turn ‘was in a way to be very much in love.’ Jane’s feelings are obvious to Elizabeth, but are unlikely ‘to be discovered by the world in general, since Jane united with great strength of feeling, a composure of temper (temperament) and a uniform cheerfulness of manner, which would guard her from the suspicions of the impertinent.’
The consideration of Bingley’s admiration for Jane opens the way to a conversation between Charlotte Lucas and Elizabeth about affection and marriage. Charlotte’s views on the matter are much more practical – prosaic and humdrum even – than Elizabeth’s:
‘… it is sometimes a disadvantage to be so very guarded (as Jane is). If a woman
conceals her affection with the same skill from the object of it, she may lose the
opportunity of fixing him.’
Charlotte’s terminology – ‘fixing him’ – is scarcely romantic; but at twenty-seven, unless she is very lucky, she will be an old maid in which case a future with uncomfortably little money awaits her. “‘In nine cases out of ten, a woman had better shew more affection than she feels,'” says Charlotte, and she concludes her (to Elizabeth, incredible) sentiments on the matter of marriage by saying:
“I wish Jane success with all my heart; and if she were married to him tomorrow,
I should think she had as good a chance of happiness, as if she were to be studying
his character for a twelve-month. Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of
chance. … it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with
whom you are to pass your life.'”
From other lips this could sound cynical; from Charlotte, who we later learn must
marry to be preserved from ‘want’ (poverty), it sounds sad. She entertains no prospect of joy, companionship, compatibility, least of all affection in marriage. And she wishes Jane ‘success’ rather as if she were talking about passing an exam or a driving-test.
Elizabeth’s response to Charlotte’s views on marriage is typical – serious, yet laughing: “‘You make me laugh, Charlotte, but it is not sound. You know it is not sound, and that you would never act in this way yourself.'” As events fall out, however, this remark suggests that Elizabeth doesn’t know her ‘intimate friend’ that well. Or else, that at twenty she has a much more optimistic view of marriage than twenty-seven year old Charlotte has and a very different perspective on her own chances.
Marriage, then, is one of the most important themes in Pride and Prejudice. Reasons for marrying vary widely. We have seen Mrs Bennet’s ideas – to acquire a large ‘establishment’ and fortune through marriage. We now learn Charlotte’s much less high-flown thoughts on the subject. And we are aware of a shy affection blossoming between Bingley and Jane. Elizabeth later imagines ‘all the felicity (happiness) which a marriage of true affection could bestow’ (Chapter 18) for Bingley and Jane.
Charlotte’s remarks here prepare for later developments in the plot. Her observations on the way Jane conceals her affection for Bingley explain Darcy’s misreading of the situation later on. Whereas Elizabeth imagines that “‘if I can perceive her regard for him, he must be a simpleton indeed not to discover it too'”, Charlotte’s reply warns us of the other possibility: “‘Remember, Eliza, that he does not know Jane’s disposition as you do.'” Ironically, it is Elizabeth who could be called a simpleton for failing to perceive Darcy’s regard for her.
Charlotte Lucas’s observations on marriage show a marked contrast with those recommended by the writers of conduct books. Dr Gregory’s Father’s Legacy to his Daughters (1784) enshrines the ideal that ‘a woman of delicacy’ will not even admit to herself that she is in love. ‘It is even long before a woman of delicacy dares avow to her own heart that she loves,’ and he claims that when she does admit this, ‘she feels a violence done both to her pride and her modesty. In fact, Dr Gregory advises that, even when a woman is married, ‘never … discover (make known) to him the full extent of your love.’ Charlotte, by contrast, thinks a woman should show enough affection to ‘fix’ her man. She recommends that Jane should ‘help him (Bingley) on.’ Hers is a strictly practical view; too practical for the more romantic Elizabeth.
A paragraph detailing Darcy’s growing admiration for Elizabeth follows the conversation between Charlotte and Elizabeth. This leads, almost imperceptibly, into the first exchange between Elizabeth and Darcy, at ‘Sir William Lucas’s, where a large party were assembled.’ Thus does Jane Austen vary the narrative: Chapter 6 began with third-person description of Jane’s mixing with the Bingley family, and her blossoming feelings for Bingley. It continued with the dialogue between Charlotte and Elizabeth; then a further passage of description, a brief snatch of conversation between Elizabeth and Darcy, more narrative, and finally a long passage of dialogue. This not only provides variety, but delicately develops the themes of attraction, love and marriage that are so important in the novel.
Darcy’s burgeoning feelings for Elizabeth are carefully traced in the paragraph beginning, ‘Occupied in observing …’. He ‘at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty;’ looked at her ‘… without admiration …; only to criticise.’ Then ‘ … he began to find … uncommonly intelligent … beautiful expression of her dark eyes … forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing … he was caught by their (her manners’) easy playfulness.’ At first Darcy’s negative feelings are reinforced by three very similarly constructed mini-sentences connected by semi-colons – nothing is happening to change his perception of her. At this point, Darcy is in control: ‘he had … scarcely allowed …; he looked … without admiration; … he looked … only to criticise.’ And he is extremely critical; Jane Austen uses words such as ‘detected’, ‘critical’, ‘failure’.
As Darcy’s feelings change (‘he began to find …’), so does the sentence structure. The mini-sentences, as I called them, are replaced by sentences where one half (Darcy criticising Elizabeth) is set against the other half (in which Elizabeth’s beauty, intelligence and liveliness start to work on him). ‘But no sooner had he …, than he began to find …’; ‘Though he had detected …, he was forced to acknowledge …’; ‘in spite of his asserting …, he was caught …’. He is no longer in control. Jane Austen uses the passive voice: ‘he was forced … he was caught …’ These fine gradations of feeling are noted with Jane Austen’s usual ironic eye: ‘To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying (vexing, annoying, humbling).’ The man who is proudly distant, fashionable and unmoved, finds himself no longer master of his feelings: ‘He began to wish to know more of her.’ As Patricia Meyer Spacks notes in the Harvard edition of Pride and Prejudice, ‘Darcy is first of all attracted by her physical nature – her eyes and her figure. This is clearly an erotic attraction.’ (page 57)
Elizabeth is not conceited about her attractiveness: ‘Of this (Darcy’s growing interest) she was perfectly unaware.’ Jane Austen goes on, however, to explain Elizabeth’s ignorance of the interest she has aroused: it is partly wilful, for it stems from her prejudice. ‘ … To her, he was only the man … who had not thought her handsome enough to dance with.’ Even before their first conversation, then, we are prepared for his slightly unwilling interest and her almost wilful blindness to it.
Much of the chapter is concerned with the large party at Lucas Lodge. There is conversation, singing, dancing, a scene characteristic of Jane Austen who, as she described herself, ‘work(s) with so fine a brush.’ Apparently describing the little, polite nothings of an upper middle class gathering in a drawing room, she selects her material so tellingly that the smallest details assume considerable weight. First we see Mr Darcy absorbed in his own thoughts, then engaged by his sociable host, Sir William, in conversational trivialities that Mr Darcy fends off in a manner verging on the discourteous. Pressed by Sir William to dance with Darcy, Elizabeth charmingly refuses; then Miss Bingley butts in on Darcy, who is again wrapped in thought.
During the Lucases’ party Darcy furthers his interest in Elizabeth by taking the preliminary step of attending to her ‘conversation with others.’ Charlotte’s certainty that Elizabeth will not dare to question Mr Darcy on his behaviour immediately provokes her to do just that. When he approaches Elizabeth, she asks him: ‘Did you not think, Mr Darcy, that I expressed myself uncommonly well just now …?’ She is spirited but never outrageous. There is a world of difference between Elizabeth’s playful audaciousness here and Lydia’s frequently indecorous rudeness.
However, although Darcy responds readily enough when Elizabeth turns to him with her teasing remark, he generally appears rather uncommunicative. She is the only person he approaches. Usually other people approach and address him. Surrounded by the hum of general conversation and the couples who are starting to dance to the Scotch and Irish airs Mary Bennet is playing, Mr Darcy stands alone, thinking. Until Sir William addresses him, he is ‘engrossed by his own thoughts’. When ‘accosted’ by Miss Bingley ‘he was thinking of her (Elizabeth)’. This tendency to switch off may explain his apparent arrogance at the Meryton assembly in Chapter 3. Others – Sir William, Miss Bingley – approach Darcy and initiate small talk with him. Darcy’s responses consist mainly in trying to fend them off, to block their attempts at conversation. He has only qualified success, since both Sir William and Miss Bingley are, in their different ways, hard to deflect in their determination and insensitivity. It is only Elizabeth that Darcy approaches and whose conversation he responds to.
Sir William, Darcy’s affable, sociable and unobservant host, tries to engage him in conversation. This provides an immediate opportunity for comedy: the chatty man trying to strike up a conversation with the silent man. Darcy produces a series of conversation stoppers in order to block all Sir William’s efforts. ‘Dancing is ‘one of the first refinements of polished societies,’ says Sir William, which Darcy kills with, ‘every savage can dance.’
Undeterred, Sir William makes several more attempts, all of which Darcy frustrates either verbally or physically.
‘Do you often dance at St James’s?’ (the court)
‘… You have a house in town, (London) I conclude.’
Mr Darcy bowed.
… He (Sir William) paused in hopes of an answer; but his companion was not
disposed to make any …
In addition to approaching Darcy and initiating a conversation, Sir William is trying to impress Darcy. He also tries to confirm his own social importance by mentioning things of which he and Darcy share a knowledge (the court, living in town), thus distancing both of them from present society. He name-drops, asking whether Darcy often dances at the court; he attempts to flatter Darcy by telling him that he is ‘fond of superior society’. His choice of subject – dancing – is perhaps not wholly perceptive, since others are dancing and Mr Darcy conspicuously is not.
Darcy is the character who features throughout the description of the Lucases’ party. By the end of the chapter, this establishes him as the young man we know most about, just as Elizabeth is rapidly becoming the young woman we know most about. The people who speak to Darcy at this party always talk with a characteristic individuality enhanced by their reaction to him. The content of their speech (Sir William’s flattery, Elizabeth’s negative feelings about Mr Darcy, Miss Bingley’s snobbery) and its tone are typical.
Sir William attempts conversation of a wearyingly vacuous and unquenchably cheerful kind. ‘What a charming amusement for young people this (dancing) is …’. It seems almost impossible to exhaust Sir Williams’s relentless joviality or his supply of meaningless noises on the topic of dancing: ‘nothing like dancing; ‘one of the first refinements of polished societies’, ‘Your friend (Bingley) performs delightfully’, ‘You are an adept (skilled) at the science’ (is dancing really a branch of knowledge?), ‘(I) received no inconsiderable pleasure (from seeing Mr Darcy dance).’ Evenings at Rosings may be, as we learn later, ‘superlatively stupid’, but this type of inane chatter must run them a close second.
When Sir William embarrassingly tries to persuade Elizabeth to dance with Darcy, he speaks with a sort of old-fashioned hefty avuncular pseudo-flirtatiousness. ‘You excel so much in the dance, Miss Eliza, that it is cruel to deny me the happiness of seeing you.’ He uses exaggerated flattery of Elizabeth’s dancing – ‘You excel so much’- and adds the cliched language of a wounded lover, ‘cruel’, ‘deny me’. He comes from a world where, it seems, the purpose of young women is to provide ‘happiness’ of a charmingly decorative kind for men.
A character like Sir William comes straight from the world of the Comedy of Manners. He is a character type, the older rather unintelligent man who fancies himself more important than he is. Jane Austen’s acute ear reproduces and exposes his exaggerated inanities and Darcy’s non-response primarily for entertainment. Darcy’s brusque assassination of Sir William’s conversational attempts are rude but also funny. However, if we read carefully, we realise that Darcy hates being flattered, and that Elizabeth is the one person who does not flatter him.
By contrast with Sir William, Elizabeth is not trying to intrude upon or impress Darcy. Happening to approach, she is uncomfortable when Sir William tries to present her to Darcy as a ‘very desirable partner’. This misinterpretation of her intention (‘I entreat you not to suppose that I moved this way in order to beg for a partner’) causes her genuine embarrassment. Her refusal to dance is not flirtatious: ‘she instantly drew back … said with some discomposure (discomfort at this social blunder)… Elizabeth was determined.’ Even Sir William has noticed that Darcy ‘dislikes the amusement (of dancing) in general’ and Elizabeth certainly has no idea of forcing him to dance, especially after the earlier fiasco at Meryton.
Darcy’s reaction to Sir William’s suggestion that he should dance with Elizabeth is interesting. ‘Mr Darcy with grave propriety requested to be allowed the honour of her hand.’ Far from rejecting the notion of dancing (as he did at Meryton when urged by Bingley), he asks Elizabeth to do so. But Elizabeth misinterprets his ‘grave propriety’ as the ‘forbidding and disagreeable’ quality she has seen in him at the Meryton assembly. When she says ‘Mr Darcy is all politeness’, it appears that she thinks his willingness to dance stems from compliance with social convention, not from a genuine desire to dance with her, and she is too proud to fall in with this. He, on the other hand, is being genuinely polite to a woman whom, we were told earlier, ‘He began to wish to know more of …’. ‘Propriety’ suggests the behaviour proper to a gentleman, and ‘grave’ the seriousness that is characteristic of Mr Darcy. He continues to think about Elizabeth after she has turned away; his mind is ‘agreeably engaged’ by her ‘fine eyes’.
A little later Miss Bingley provides the second interruption to Darcy’s thoughts. She butts in with an intrusive conversation designed to demonstrate her intimacy with him. Indeed, she claims to know him so well that she can even read his thoughts.
‘I can guess the subject of your reverie (daydream).’
‘I should imagine not.’
‘You are considering how insupportable it would be to pass many evenings in this
manner – in such society; and indeed I am quite of your opinion. I was never more
annoyed! The insipidity and yet the noise; the nothingness and yet the self-
importance of all these people! What would I give to hear your strictures
(criticisms) on them!’
‘Your conjecture (guess) is totally wrong, I assure you…’.
Like Sir William she expresses her love of superior society; snobbishly she describes her dislike of these inferior social gatherings. As Sir William did, she flatters Darcy,’What would I give to hear your strictures… ‘. Both she and Sir William attempt to provoke a response from Darcy. Despite Mr Darcy’s discouraging rejoinder, ‘I should imagine not,’ she continues to tell him what he is (not, in fact) thinking about.
Mr Darcy resists these coercive overtures. This may seem remarkably unresponsive, almost curmudgeonly, since this is, after all, a party. His reactions and preoccupations here show him to be a very private person. As he says much later to Elizabeth, ‘We neither of us perform to strangers.’
Miss Bingley’s statements and questions are invasive, demanding, and ultimately self-centred rather than Darcy-centred. But her attempts are confounded (defeated in a way that she doesn’t expect). Miss Bingley is hoping to attract Darcy, as we are wittily reminded by her reaction to Darcy’s intrepid relation of his thoughts.
‘I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the
face of a pretty woman can bestow.’
Miss Bingley immediately fixed her eyes on his face, and desired he would tell her
what lady had the credit of inspiring such reflections.
From the juxtaposition of these sentences, it is obvious that she hopes hers are the ‘fine eyes’, but she is out of luck. And Darcy is easily able to defend himself against her bitchy and jealous congratulations, upon hearing that hers are not the eyes ‘… pray when am I to wish you joy?’ He outmanoeuvres her: ‘That is exactly the question which I expected you to ask.’ In this, as in almost every other conversational gambit of hers, Darcy frustrates her. She is, after all, not wishing to communicate with him, but in Charlotte Lucas’s word, to ‘fix’ him. Well aware of her intention, Darcy does not communicate with her.
Compared to the attention-seeking nature of Miss Bingley’s conversation, Elizabeth’s is often very undemanding. She makes statements, rather than posing angling questions; she says, ‘I have not the least intention of dancing’ and ‘Mr Darcy is all politeness’. Her energy shows itself in wit and teasing rather than in approach, manipulation and persistence. Elizabeth smiles but twice she draws back or turns away from Darcy. On both the occasions on which she speaks to him there is another person present (Charlotte on the first occasion; Sir William on the second). It is actually Sir William to whom Elizabeth speaks (like a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons addressing the Speaker rather than the opponent). The communication that we are shown between Darcy and Elizabeth is thus indirect. Miss Bingley and Sir William, by contrast, speak to him directly. Whereas Sir William and Miss Bingley approach Mr Darcy, Elizabeth’s moves away from Darcy, drawing back and turning away. Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s feelings are very far from being in harmony yet and, appropriately, they do not dance.
Amidst all the movement and conversations of the Lucases’ party, patterns begin to emerge. In the most understated way, Jane Austen has given us a wealth of information about people’s attempts at communication -and their failures, and misunderstandings – and their reasons for speaking – flattery, trying to impress, social climbing, snobbery.
The misunderstanding between Elizabeth and Darcy widens until he proposes to her at Hunsford Parsonage; the basis on which the misunderstanding is founded has been further developed in Chapter 6. The main plot – the relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth – and the subplot – the relationship between Bingley and Jane – are well under way. Already they are conterpointed (contrasted). Jane is beginning to love Bingley but conceals the fact too well; Darcy is interested in Elizabeth whom, unwittingly, he has already insulted, thus provoking her implacable dislike.
In Pride and Prejudice as in Emma, Jane Austen deftly scatters clues that pave the way to later events. Her readers, like her heroines, usually do not notice them. It is evident from this chapter that both Jane and Darcy conceal their feelings. Elizabeth is convinced that Darcy dislikes her; Darcy, we later learn, thinks that Jane is not in love with Bingley. Misreading of these characters’ true emotions provides much of the dynamic of the plot.
Miss Bingley invites Jane to dinner at Netherfield. Jane, falling ill with a bad cold,
stays at Netherfield and Elizabeth walks there to be with her sister.
Chapter 7 introduces Jane’s visit to Netherfield, a section of the novel that continues till Chapter 12, after which two newcomers arrive on the scene in the form of Mr Collins and Mr Wickham. Jane Austen has moved from the Bennet family to a dance at Meryton and thence to the Lucases as everyone talks over the dance. At Sir William’s party, we see all the characters in close-up. With the Netherfield section of the novel, Jane Austen moves the action to a new setting, a very fashionable household. Here we see more of Bingley and his sisters, in addition to learning much more about Darcy and Elizabeth.
First, however, we learn that a militia regiment is to be quartered at nearby Meryton for the winter. This is a source of enormous excitement to Catherine and Lydia, the two youngest Bennet sisters, who are man-mad and, specifically, soldier-mad. ‘They could talk of nothing but officers’, and ‘Mr Bingley’s large fortune’ pales into insignificance in comparison with the glory of a uniform.
‘for most of Austen’s adult life (1793-1815), England was at war with … France.
The militia were a mobile military force, established in response to the fear of
invasion, that moved from place to place, largely in the south of England. They were
thus distinct from the ‘regulars’ who had fixed camps…
Pride and Prejudice, Notes to Penguin Classics edition, 1996
We also learn the exact circumstances of Mr Bennet’s finances, and the fact that, as the father of five daughters, in a society that values men, his family will become homeless when he dies and the family home becomes the property of the closest male heir. There is, therefore, considerable pressure on the Bennet girls to marry, preferably someone comfortably off, if they are not to become dangerously poor spinsters, reliant on other people’s generosity for a home and money.
Jane Austen also fills us in very precisely on the relevant (in that money- and status-fixated society) details of Mrs Bennet’s sister and brother. Her sister, an attorney’s wife, lives in Meryton;. Meryton is an unimportant country town and an attorney was at that time a relatively unimportant lawyer. Mrs Bennet’s brother is ‘settled in London in a respectable line of trade.’ To make your living in trade was socially not nearly as acceptable socially as making money in a different profession such as the army or as a barrister or, of course, as inheriting money because your family had a large estate like Pemberley handed down through the generations.
None of these details about the Bennet family has escaped the notice of the Bingley sisters, who accordingly despise the Bennet relations and the Bennets themselves. The fact that Jane Austen anchors her characters so specifically in regard to their financial and business circumstances does not mean that she herself thinks details like these give a value to people. It is obvious, in Emma, that its author attaches great importance to respecting good-hearted people, whether or not they are well-off or genteelly employed. However, Jane Austen is here gently satirising upper middle class society, and noting the reasons for which people value or dismiss other people in this society is part of her satirical observation.
Caroline Bingley sends a note to Jane (who, as the eldest sister, is the Miss Bennet referred to). It is written in fashionably affected language, which is exaggerated and insincere.
If you are not so compassionate as to dine to-day with Louisa and me, we shall be in
danger of hating each other for the rest of our lives, for a whole day’s tete-a-tete
between two women can never end without a quarrel. …
The gushing superlatives actually have a negative sound because they are so meaningless – ‘hating each other for the rest of our lives’; ‘can never end without a quarrel’. This is fairly typical of the Bingley sisters’ speech; their brother Bingley’s characteristic exaggerations, on the other hand, stem from his appealing and engaging enthusiasm. The fruits of the education at ‘one of the first private seminaries in town’ are demonstrated in Caroline Bingley’s ostentatious French phrase. The reason for this unexpected invitation soon becomes clear: Caroline Bingley is bored. ‘My brother and the gentlemen are to dine with the officers.’ She is, in effect, using Jane to alleviate the tedium, which she can do in perfect safety as the men will be absent, so Jane will not be able to rival her own attractions. However, she is not generous enough to send one of the Netherfield conveyances for her ‘friend’.
Mrs Bennet immediately concocts a plan whereby, if the weather turns nasty, Jane will have to stay the night at Netherfield. Jane is to ride over, rather than go in the carriage. ‘Her hopes were answered (fulfilled); Jane had not been gone long before it rained hard.’ There follows one of the sentences so typical of eighteenth century balance that occur often in the novel. ‘Her sisters were uneasy for her, but her mother was delighted.’ The mini-sentences either side of the ‘but’ are structured almost identically: ‘her sisters were uneasy … her mother was delighted.’ The similarity makes all the more obvious the difference in the reactions of those who truly care for Jane and the feelingless reaction of Mrs Bennet who can only think of opportunities for catching Bingley. (She is, in this respect, as man-mad as her youngest daughters.) The want of proper affection in a mother is made clear.
Jane stays the night at Netherfield. The next morning brings to Mrs Bennet what Jane Austen damningly describes as ‘all the felicity (happiness) of her contrivance (plan).’ Jane sends a note to Elizabeth: ‘I find myself very unwell this morning, which, I suppose, is to be imputed (attributed) to my getting wet through yesterday.’ The lack of proper feeling on Mrs Bennet’s part is underlined by Mr Bennet, who says: ‘if your daughter … should die, it would be a comfort to know that it was all in pursuit of Mr Bingley, and under your orders.’ Mrs Bennet does not understand irony (‘it would be a comfort’); neither does she notice the adverse judgement upon herself (‘under your orders’) nor the condemnation of improper priorities (‘all in pursuit of Mr Bingley’ when she should have been concerned with her daughter’s health). ‘People do not die of little trifling colds,’ she declares stoutly, her own hypochondria forgotten. As this is a comedy, Jane of course does not die of a cold. However, in Jane Austen’s day, long before the discovery of antibiotics, and when tuberculosis and diptheria were common and fatal ailments, a cold could herald something much more serious. Austen took illness very seriously, and it is a constant topic in her letters. ‘There has been a cold sore throat prevailing very much … we were afraid Lizzy was going to be very ill one day; she had specks a great deal of fever. -It went off however…’ (June 1808). (Specks are small spots or lesions indicative of a disease.)
Underlining the seriousness of the position to those who truly love Jane, ‘Elizabeth, feeling really anxious, was determined to go to her.’ Whereas Mr Bennet wittily points out Mrs Bennet’s shortcomings, Elizabeth, always more concerned and more active than her father, does something about the situation.
As usual, the family’s reactions to Elizabeth’s plan of walking to Netherfield define their characters. Mrs Bennet says, ‘You will not be fit to be seen when you get there,’ an idea which is very properly put in its place by Elizabeth: ‘I shall be fit to see Jane – which is all I want.’ Mary has a pompous, polysyllabic and pointless sentence to contribute: ‘I admire the activity of your benevolence … but every impulse of feeling should be guided by reason …’ Catherine and Lydia will accompany Elizabeth as far as Meryton (where the officers are stationed, where their aunt – source of gossip – lives and where the shops are which tells us everything we need to know about their priorities).
‘Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity…’. Elizabeth’s energy and vitality are clearly demonstrated, not only through ‘at a quick pace’ and ‘impatient activity’ but also through the many verbs – ‘crossing’, ‘jumping’, ‘springing’.
She arrives at Netherfield ‘early in the day’ with ‘a face glowing’ and (this we discover in Chapter 8) with untidy hair and a muddy petticoat. Jane is ‘delighted’ that her sister has come; ‘Elizabeth did not quit her room for a moment’ and Jane is so unwilling to part with her sister that Elizabeth stays at Netherfield. The closeness of the sisters is clear.
It was unusual for an upper middle class young woman to walk on her own, particularly in a town or city; it would be expected that she be accompanied by her maid. Hence Mr Darcy’s ‘doubt as to the occasion’s justifying her coming so far alone.’ However, walking alone in the country, where you were unlikely to meet people, was acceptable, even if it was stretching the boundaries. Elizabeth never does anything that is scandalous, unlike her sister Lydia later in the novel.
After dinner, Elizabeth’s unusual behaviour in walking alone to Netherfield is discussed. Elizabeth joins everyone in the drawing-room. The conversation ranges over topics such as the library at Pemberley and the education of women.
Chapter 8 is the first of three chapters depicting the three evenings that Elizabeth spends at Netherfield (Chapters 8, 10 and 11). So careful and concise a writer as Jane Austen would not simply have described three apparently identical evenings because one of her characters spent three evenings in the same place and with the same people. She is certain to be focusing on different aspects of the gathering and the way the varying dynamics develop.
Dinner at Netherfield is at the fashionably late time of half past six. And it takes Bingley’s sisters an hour and a half to dress for dinner! Most country families would have dined considerably earlier. In her letter to her sister Cassandra of 6 November 1813, Jane Austen writes: ‘… we dined … at 1/2 past 4 …’ and this was at her brother’s house, Godmersham Park, quite the equal of Netherfield.
The chapter opens with an account of the Bingley sisters’ behaviour.
Jane was by no means better. The sisters, on hearing this, repeated three or four
times how much they were grieved, how shocking it was to have a bad cold, and how
excessively they disliked being ill themselves; and then thought no more of the
matter: and their indifference (lack of care about Jane) … restored Elizabeth to the
enjoyment of all her original dislike.
Their empty patter is predictably absurd; you wind up their clockwork and they immediately produce their affected fashionable phrases larded with superlatives. However, the moral element is also apparent, especially as their gushing words contrast so strongly with the loving behaviour of Jane and Elizabeth. Their exaggerated, cliched language which colours Jane Austen’s description gives them away as being insincere and uncaring (‘how much they were grieved, how shocking it was … how excessively …’).
Elizabeth, whose observation and judgement do not err in this instance (though they do in the case of Darcy), can continue ‘in the enjoyment of all her original dislike.’ Jane Austen often juxtaposes surprising words, or includes a word in a sentence which appears to be startlingly out of place. Here ‘enjoyment’ and ‘dislike’ suggest that Elizabeth knows the Bingley sisters’ feelings to be false and enjoys not being taken in by them. She doesn’t want to like them. However, in a similarly expressed incident later (Chapter 18) she turns out to be wrong in determinedly nursing and enjoying a dislike of Darcy, who is about to dance with her. ‘I daresay you will find him very agreeable,’ (says Charlotte Lucas). ‘Heaven forbid! – That would be the greatest misfortune of all! – To find a man agreeable whom one is determined to hate!’ Here, ‘agreeable’ and ‘hate’ jar against one another in the sentence, and actually summarise Elizabeth’s mistake. He is agreeable, and she is wilfully set on hating him.
At this point in her visit to Netherfield, Elizabeth feels that she is not one of the party. The chapter opened with the fashionably late hours at which the Netherfield party dine, and which, it is implied, are unfamiliar to Elizabeth. At dinner, she is seated next to the silent Mr Hurst, so she is not included in the group. Later in the chapter, she cannot join in the card game as the others are playing for high stakes. And Miss Bingley talks to Darcy on topics that Elizabeth has no knowledge of, thus excluding her further. She feels very ‘much an intruder’ and thinks that the others consider her to be so. The others, that is, except for Mr Bingley who is, like Elizabeth, anxious for Jane’s wellbeing.
The Bingley sisters ‘began abusing (criticising, insulting, finding fault with) Elizabeth as soon as she was out of the room. This is another way of emphasising their view of her as an outsider, an intruder. Her manners were pronounced to be very bad indeed.’ And what of theirs, criticising her so insultingly in front of their brother and his friend? They intend to establish their superiority to Elizabeth; ironically, they succeed in demonstrating their inferiority. In addition, their criticisms are not endorsed by the men. Bingley had not noticed the offending muddy petticoat, and rightly saw ‘an affection for her sister that is very pleasing.’ Darcy had been earlier struck by the ‘brilliancy’ of her complexion and her bright eyes.
Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst, having had their shredding of Elizabeth somewhat frustrated by Darcy’s admiration of her bright eyes, systematically start on Jane. ‘I have an excessive regard for Jane Bennet, she is really a very sweet girl, and I wish with all my heart …’ Insincere exaggeration (‘excessive … really … very sweet … with all my heart’) is the hallmark of their utterances. And they call her ‘Jane Bennet’ which is a direct negation of claiming to have ‘an excessive regard (respect)’ for her. If they respect her, they should refer to her as Miss Bennet. ‘Jane Bennet’ indicates their contempt for her. And so, they ‘…indulged their mirth for some time at the expense of their dear friend’s vulgar relations’; the word ‘dear’ is out of place, given how critical the rest of their remarks are, and exposes their insincerity. Worse still, ‘with a renewal of tenderness’ they visit the invalid Jane. The whole show is meaningless, and makes evident the value Jane Austen places on true feelings.
Elizabeth’s spontaneity and warm feelings are strongly contrasted with the stilted affectation and snide puns of the Bingley sisters. Bingley, too, has warm feelings, and is no snob: ‘If they (the Bennets) had uncles enough to fill all Cheapside (not an up-market part of London; the Bingleys’ town house is in Grosvenor Street, south of Oxford Street, in the fashionable residential area of London) … it would not make them one jot less agreeable’. This is typical of Bingley: his exaggeration ‘uncles enough to fill all Cheapside’ and his simple vocabulary ‘one jot’ are characteristic of his impulsive, enthusiastic way of speaking. Darcy can’t help being attracted by Elizabeth but at this point still attaches great importance to class and connections. He points out, ‘But it (the lack of classy Bennet family connections) must very materially (considerably) lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration (importance) in the world.’ Snobbery or inverted snobbery and its capacity to distort a true understanding of a person is to be an important theme in the novel. Perhaps we can see the importance Darcy attaches to social standing as a measure of his capacity to deceive himself, since he admits his attraction to Elizabeth’s fine eyes. A day or two later he admits, ‘she attracted him more than he liked.’ (Chapter 12)
Although Darcy pays great attention to social status, he has to some extent blurred the social strata in making friends with Bingley. The Bingleys are rich, move in fashionable society and have a London house as well as a country seat, just as Darcy does. Technically, however, there is a difference between Darcy and Bingley. Darcy is the son of Lady Anne and the cousin of an earl’s son, inheritor of the vast estate of Pemberley; Bingley rents, rather than owns, a big house and his considerable fortune was made relatively recently in trade, not inherited through many generations. Later in the novel (Chapter 45), we learn that Darcy had thought of his sister’s marrying Mr Bingley. So he evidently does not consider the Bingleys’ relatively recent making of a fortune as counting against them, socially.
The tone and diction (the words used) of the various speakers is characteristic of each. The Bingley sisters are over-the-top and cliched; (ironically, since they despise her, their favourite fashionable word, ‘excessively’, is also one of Mrs Bennet’s words – in Chapter 3 she describes Bingley as ‘so excessively handsome!’). Bingley speaks straightforwardly, unaffectedly, and uses quite a simple vocabulary – ‘one jot less agreeable’. Darcy, typically, speaks in a rather more considered and serious fashion, using much more sophisticated words than his friend; for example, ‘it must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration …’.
This bitchy criticism of Jane and Elizabeth shows what the Bennet sisters are up against when the possibility arises of Jane marrying Bingley and, later, of Elizabeth marrying Darcy. Bingley’s sisters are determined that Jane and Elizabeth shall not enter their social world, and their criticism amounts to a unrelenting defence of that inviolable world. They may have climbed up the social ladder, by means of the money their forbears made, and their own expensive education, but for the Bennets to scale the same heights merely by means of attractiveness and personality is not to be countenanced. Elizabeth fights the same battle against exclusive social status when she challenges Lady Catherine, Darcy’s aunt. Ironically, however, although Bingley’s sisters are criticising Jane and Elizabeth, they are also doing the opposite of what they intend: they are focusing the men’s attention upon the Bennet girls. And the men’s reactions are largely favourable.
In the evening, Miss Bingley again sets out to flatter Darcy by praising his house and his sister, and to assert her superiority over Elizabeth who does not know Darcy as well as she does. She is thus deliberately excluding Elizabeth from the conversation, as Elizabeth has never been to Pemberley and doesn’t know Georgiana Darcy. ‘What a delightful library you have at Pemberley, Mr Darcy!’ She praises, ‘the beauties of that noble place.’ Then she starts on Georgiana, Darcy’s much younger sister: ‘I never met with anybody who delighted me so much. … so extremely accomplished … Her performance on the piano-forte is exquisite.’ This string of empty superlatives (‘never met with anybody … so much … so extremely accomplished … exquisite’) is designed to ensure that the outsider, Elizabeth, grasps the nature of Miss Bingley’s intimate friendship with the Darcys and her knowledge of Pemberley. In fact, what Miss Bingley demonstrates is the limitations of her vocabulary in which the word ‘delighted’ / ‘delightful’ is prominent. Unfortunately, too, her question as to whether Darcy’s sister has grown since the spring goes awry. She phrases it to direct attention to herself: ‘Will she be as tall as I am?’ Darcy’s answer reveals that Elizabeth is in his thoughts, not Miss Bingley: ‘She is now about Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s height.’ So the conversation by Miss Bingley designed to exclude Elizabeth from her social circle suddenly gets itself beyond her control and includes Elizabeth.
The conversation initiated by Miss Bingley praise of Darcy’s sister as ‘so extremely accomplished,’ turns to Darcy’s ‘idea of an accomplished (cultured, well educated and talented in many areas) woman’. It becomes clear that he has very high and serious standards. Elizabeth is impressed: ‘I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.’ Miss Bingley takes this remark to be flirtatious and artful, aimed at captivating Darcy; in fact it is a genuine and serious response to what Darcy has said. David M Shapard notes that Darcy’s addition to the list of women’s accomplishments ‘reveals his respect for female intelligence, which will play a significant role in his behaviour toward Elizabeth.’ (The Annotated Pride and Prejudice, page 73) It is also quite a sharp criticism of the very scornful comment Miss Bingley made earlier about Elizabeth being a great reader. David Shapard also notes that, whereas Miss Bingley ‘focuses on the accomplishments that lend themselves well to display’, Darcy is endorsing an idea of more serious reading and learning for women. Miss Bingley and her sister had hoped to establish Elizabeth as an outsider by their treatment of her; the men, however, have failed to notice the sisters’ exclusion management, and have included her.
Once again, when Elizabeth has left the room, Miss Bingley sets about criticising her. She addresses her remarks to Darcy, who quashes them with a firm statement: ‘Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable.’ This silences Miss Bingley. Although Miss Bingley monopolises the conversation in much of this chapter, she does not succeed in communicating with Darcy; Elizabeth does.
Jane Austen varies the viewpoint frequently during this chapter. The first conversation takes place when Elizabeth is out of the room – she is with her sister. However, although she is not present, the conversation is about her. So we learn what other people think of her. After a brief passage of narration, there is another conversation in which Elizabeth is present. At first she is deliberately excluded from the conversation by Miss Bingley; later she joins it and talks to Mr Darcy. At the end of the chapter she is again absent, and Miss Bingley again takes the opportunity to criticise her, but her criticism is very firmly baulked by Darcy.
Next morning Mrs Bennet, Kitty and Lydia come to Netherfield to see Jane.
Mrs Bennet’s conversation embarrasses Elizabeth.
The next morning Jane is still ill, and Mrs Bennet, ‘accompanied by her two youngest girls, reached Netherfield soon after the family breakfast.’ She flatters Bingley by praising Netherfield: ‘You have a sweet room here …’ just as Miss Bingley attempted to flatter Darcy by praising Pember!ey. She boasts about their large circle of friends:
‘I know we dine with four and twenty families,’ a remark which amuses the snobbish
Miss Bingley (who the previous evening was herself engaged in advertising how well she knew the Darcys). Mrs Bennet baffles everybody with her completely incomprehensible remarks: ‘Yes, indeed … I assure you there is quite as much of that going on in the country as in town.’ Of what, remains a mystery. She causes great embarrassment to Elizabeth by having a dig at Darcy’s lack of conversation and by misunderstanding his remarks about the country. In addition, she cites Sir William (note the title) as an example of their acquaintance. ‘What an agreeable man Sir William is … He has always something to say to every body. – That is my idea of good breeding; and those persons who fancy themselves very important and never open their mouths, quite mistake the matter.’ She contradicts herself at every turn: ‘Not that I think Charlotte so very plain … but you must own (admit) she is very plain.’ Then she parades Jane’s charms for Bingley’s benefit by describing her previous admirers. All this causes Elizabeth to ‘tremble lest her mother should be exposing herself (as rude and vulgar) again.’
To add to Elizabeth’s discomfort, Lydia, who is only fifteen, pushes herself forward and pressurises Bingley into giving a ball at Netherfield. In view of her later change of mind and heart towards Darcy, it is important to see that Elizabeth is upset by her family’s vulgar and insensitive behaviour, although she does not admit this when Darcy (tactlessly) taxes her with their conduct in his proposal. This has provided an opportunity for Jane Austen to introduce Lydia in more detail, both through description, conversation and by her boldly, not to say rudely, demanding a ball at Netherfield.
Elizabeth spends another evening in the drawing-room at Netherfield.
Chapter 10 opens with another evening in the drawing room at Netherfield. At first the spotlight is on a conversation – or rather, a non-conversation – between Miss Bingley and Darcy. This gradually comes to include Mr Bingley and Elizabeth as well.
Miss Bingley attempts to engage Darcy in conversation while he is writing a letter to his sister. Her entirely unsuccessful efforts involve a mixture of flattery and attention-seeking. Darcy reveals himself to be expert in defusing all her endeavours, rather as he resisted Sir William in Chapter 6. He either says nothing, contradicts her, agrees with her, or thanks her. He also, very unobtrusively, criticises her gushing superlatives. When she describes his letter as ‘charming’, he accurately points out that that description can only be applied, or not, by the recipient of the letter.
However, when Bingley joins the conversation, and then Elizabeth, Darcy is drawn into talking to Bingley. Bingley, in his light-hearted way, says, ‘this is too much, to remember at night all the foolish things that were said in the morning.’ He had boasted that he would leave Netherfield at a moment’s notice (which prepares us for the fact that later he does exactly that). Darcy, much more serious and responsible, much less likely to act upon a whim, comments: ‘ … what is there so very laudable (praiseworthy) in a precipitance (haste) which must leave very necessary business undone …’.
Darcy is exploring with his usual meticulous thoroughness the topic of complying with persuasion from a friend (‘Will it not be advisable … to arrange with rather more precision the degree of importance which is to appertain …’) when Bingley breaks in, teasingly.
‘… let us hear all the particulars (details), not forgetting their comparative height and size; … I assure you that if Darcy were not such a great tall fellow, in comparison with myself, I should not pay him half so much deference (respect). I declare I do not know a more aweful (inspiring awe) object than Darcy … at his own house especially, and of a Sunday evening when he has nothing to do.’
Mr Darcy smiled; but Elizabeth thought she could perceive that he was rather offended; and therefore checked her laugh.
This shows how methodical and intellectual a mind Darcy has compared to Bingley. It also reveals how sensitive Elizabeth is to Darcy’s reactions, and her courtesy towards him. She may dislike him, but her words and actions are courteous (at least, until she speaks critically and uninhibitedly of him to Wickham). Elizabeth is in fact far more courteous to Darcy than Miss Bingley is, with her determination to attract his interest when he is doing something else. Elizabeth says comparatively little, leaving the main part of the conversation to the men.
This passage also introduces the theme of persuasion. In the event, Bingley is too easily persuaded to relinquish Jane – when he leaves Netherfield to spend the rest of the winter in London, Elizabeth thinks angrily of his ‘want (lack) of proper resolution’ (Chapter 24)). Elizabeth and Darcy learn to change their minds, but through a much more strenuous process than mere persuasion. They arrive at a new perception of people and situations after much thought and reassessment; it is an exercise of judgement leading to sounder understanding.
During the course of the evening ‘Mr Darcy’s eyes were fixed on her (Elizabeth).’ Elizabeth is still convinced that he dislikes her. Really, his subsequent proposal should not come as such a shock. She is being deliberately obtuse in failing to draw obvious conclusions from what she observes. The reader can see much more clearly what is happening than Elizabeth does, and thus observe the extent of her prejudice against Darcy.
While Bingley’s sisters are singing and playing the piano, Darcy approaches Elizabeth and initiates another conversation. This is the second time he has approached her, the first being at the Lucases party in Chapter 6. He chooses as an opening gambit an invitation that he imagines she will enjoy: ‘Do not you feel a great inclination, Miss Bennet, to seize. such an opportunity of dancing a reel?’ He properly and respectfully addresses her as Miss Bennet – since Jane is still upstairs with a bad cold, Elizabeth is the only Miss Bennet present, and thus does not need to be called Miss Elizabeth Bennet.
Elizabeth’s reply shows a witty, sophisticated verbal fencing. She assumes that he intends to despise her taste for dancing – criticising her lowbrow levity in enjoying a reel – (she is still remembering that first offensive comment overheard at the assembly). With typical ingenuity and daring, she refuses to be victim to his (imagined) despising:
‘… I always delight in overthrowing those kind of schemes (despising her taste),
and cheating a person of their premeditated contempt. I have therefore made
up my mind to tell you, that I do not want to dance a reel at all – and now
despise me if you dare.’
This could sound rude. In fact, we are told that ‘… there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner’ and this comes across in her words. There is an energy in the phrasing and alliteration (‘and now despise me if you dare’) and an enchanting vitality in the choice of words and in the number of verbs she uses (‘I always delight in overthrowing … and cheating a person … and now despise me if you dare.’). She is demonstrating the same ability to outmanoeuvre Darcy, with wit and words, as he showed when he wished to block Miss Bingley in conversation. It is also quite clear that she does love to dance: she says, ‘I have therefore made up my mind to tell you …’ not simply, ‘I do not want to dance a reel.’ Her joyous energy is undiminished, but she is fencing with her (perceived) opponent. Whereas all Miss Bingley’s conversation is snobbish and attention-seeking, Elizabeth’s with Darcy is the opposite. She thinks she is socially beneath him and is trying to defend herself.
Ironically, far from rebuffing him, her reply has the opposite effect: Darcy receives this supposed affront with gallantry (‘Indeed I do not dare’) and is in fact ‘bewitched.’ However, he cannot forget how vulgar her family is – ‘He really believed, that were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger’ (the danger being falling in love with her) – and indeed, we have just seen the relations in blush-making action.
Again, Darcy and Elizabeth are genuinely communicating even though they misunderstand one another. Darcy, however, does not allow Miss Bingley to communicate with him.
The next morning, Darcy and Miss Bingley are walking in the shrubbery. Again Miss Bingley’s strident criticisms dominate the conversation as they seem to do whenever Elizabeth is not present. She is attacking Mrs Bennet as Darcy’s future mother-in-law. However, the shortcomings of Mrs Bennet about which Miss Bingley is so eloquent are rivalled by the rudeness of Mrs Hurst. She has been walking with Elizabeth, but when they come upon Darcy, she links arms with Darcy (who has Miss Bingley on his other arm) on a path just wide enough for three, leaving Elizabeth ‘to walk by herself. Mr Darcy felt their rudeness …’ Both Elizabeth and Darcy are beginning to acknowledge deficiencies in their own circles of family and friends. In recognising these shortcomings, they are looking beyond their own social boundaries. The Bingley sisters are, through their unmannerly actions, attempting to reinforce the impenetrable nature of their superior social status, just as they did in Chapter 8. Mr Darcy, in suggesting that they all move to the avenue so that Elizabeth can be accommodated, is perhaps already showing his potential to be flexible in matters of social class. Again, he has invited her to join him (the evening before it was in dancing; now it is in walking). Again, she refuses.
Elizabeth’s wit easily defeats the sisters’ rudeness. When Darcy suggests they move into an avenue that will accommodate all four of them, Elizabeth replies,
‘No, no; stay where you are. – You are charmingly grouped, and appear to
uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth.’
Elizabeth refers here to William Gilpin’s Observations, Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, Made in the Year 1772, on Several Parts of England. Gilpin explains that it is difficult to group four cattle in a picturesque way. ‘The only way, in which they will group well, is to unite three … and to remove the fourth.’ And again, ‘If you increase the group beyond three; one, or more, in proportion, must necessarily be a little detached.’ Thus Elizabeth is implicitly comparing the Bingley sisters and Darcy to cattle. As ‘the fourth’, she removes herself as recommended by Gilpin.
In this chapter, Miss Bingley has continued to do her best to attract Mr Darcy’s attention. She addressed him unsuccessfully while he was trying to write to his sister, she and her sister sang at his request, and the following morning, she walked in the shrubbery with Mr Darcy. However, Mr Darcy’s attention has not been directed towards Miss Bingley but towards Elizabeth. He has not engaged with Miss Bingley’s attempted conversation during his letter writing, but he has talked to Elizabeth and asked her to dance during the Bingley sisters’ singing, and he has invited Elizabeth to join them all on their walk.
The next evening, Jane comes downstairs for the first time since her illness. Bingley behaves affectionately towards her. Elizabeth has another rather difficult evening with Miss Bingley and Mr Darcy.
This is the third Netherfield evening. Jane comes downstairs for the first time since her illness: ‘… she was welcomed by her two friends (Bingley’s sisters) with many professions of pleasure; and Elizabeth had never seen them so agreeable as they were … before the gentlemen appeared.’ But Miss Bingley, though not as overtly man-mad as Lydia whom she criticised to Darcy (‘do cure the younger girls of running after the officers’), is certainly very focused on Darcy. ‘… when the gentlemen entered, Jane was no longer the first object. Miss Bingley’s eyes were instantly turned towards Darcy.’ In contrast to his sisters, Bingley is sincerely delighted to see Jane’s improvement: ‘He was full of joy and attention.’
Miss Bingley, as always, tries to monopolise Darcy. On the first evening, she talked to him about the library at Pemberley and about his sister. On the second evening she sat near Darcy while he was writing to his sister, making a series of flattering and attention-seeking observations, each one of which was systematically blocked by Darcy. (‘How delighted Miss Darcy will be to receive such a letter!’ He made no answer. ‘You write uncommonly fast.’ ‘You are mistaken. I write rather slowly.’) This evening, since he is reading, she reads too. She reads the second volume of his book, she asks him questions and looks at the page he is reading, all to no avail. No-one responds to her conversational gambits. So, in another attempt to attract Darcy’s attention, she ‘got up and walked about the room’. Darcy only looks up when she invites Elizabeth to ‘take a turn about the room’ with her. He refuses to join them, eventually furnishing Miss Bingley with his two reasons – reasons which show that he understands young women’s wiles and is quite intelligent enough to see through Miss Bingley’s designs (he doesn’t like designs, anyway – ‘there is meanness in all the arts which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation.’).
Miss Bingley often uses people for her own purposes. Here she uses Elizabeth to attract the attention of the ‘inflexibly studious’ Darcy to herself as she walks about the room. Ironically, she finds that she has attracted his attention to Elizabeth. In inviting Jane to Netherfield (Chapter 7) she used Jane to supply interest during an empty day. However, in so doing, she has in fact provided an opportunity to further Jane and Bingley’s love, and for Darcy to know Elizabeth better.
So far, all Miss Bingley’s attempts to be an important part of the Netherfield house-party have failed, and have displayed her insincerity. As hostess for her brother, she has been welcoming to Jane but only so long as the gentlemen are still at the dinner table. Once they enter the drawing-room, her eyes are ‘instantly turned towards Darcy.’ However, he disregards Miss Bingley’s greeting and addresses himself to Jane. Miss Bingley arranges that Mr Darcy shall not be involved in a game of cards, only to find that she is frozen out while he is reading his book. She yawns while she is declaring how pleasant it is to read, so this is another insincerity on her part. When her brother begins mentioning a ball to Jane, Miss Bingley, mindful of Darcy’s dislike of dancing, exclaims that it would be much more rational if instead of dancing, people talked to one another. This time it is her brother who gives her a put-down. Finally, when in desperation she has invited Elizabeth to walk about the room with her, all she achieves is to attract Darcy’s attention to Elizabeth. Darcy and Elizabeth are interested in a conversation in which she has no part, so she has to think of something else to split them up and suggests some music.
The conversation in which Elizabeth, Darcy and Miss Bingley become involved principally engages Elizabeth and Darcy; indeed, Miss Bingley eventually breaks it up, ‘tired of a conversation in which she had no share.’ It is an exchange of views in which we learn more of Elizabeth’s love of fun and of her underlying seriousness. ‘I dearly love a laugh,’ she says, but she is not someone ‘whose first object in life is a joke.’ (This approach is Lydia’s who, when she leaves a note explaining her elopement with Wickham, writes, ‘What a good joke it will be! I can hardly write for laughing.’ (Chapter 47)) Darcy’s remark about people whose first object in life is a joke prompts Elizabeth to articulate her point of view more fully.
‘Certainly … there are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I hope
I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and
inconsistencies do divert (amuse) me, I own (admit), and I laugh at them whenever
Elizabeth obviously has very serious values; she respects and prizes what is wise and good, and is intelligent enough to make the distinction between what is wise and good, and what is folly and nonsense (with one or two notable exceptions). This is almost a definition of satire, with a strong tendency, as satire always has, towards correction and improvement (in Elizabeth’s case, of self). It is ironic that Elizabeth so signally fails to perceive what is wise and good in Darcy. As the plot progresses, she sheds prejudices, distinguishing more accurately between trustworthy and untrustworthy (Darcy and Wickham).
Darcy’s reaction to what· Miss Bingley calls ‘your (Elizabeth’s) examination of Mr Darcy’ is interesting. He sounds pompous and humourless; in fact he is being honest and accurate. He reveals quite a lot about himself to Elizabeth. ‘I have faults enough, but they are not, I hope, of understanding. My temper (temperament) I dare not vouch for. – It is I believe too little yielding … My feelings are not puffed about with every attempt to move them. My temper would perhaps be called resentful.’ He knows he is not forgiving enough, and tends to be resentful. Darcy also places great reliance on education which can go a long way towards overcoming defects, as he is to learn when Elizabeth becomes his teacher. He is evidently an accurate (and in Elizabeth’s case, an affectionate) observer and assessor of character: ‘ … your (defect) … is wilfully to misunderstand,’ he says to Elizabeth, ‘with a smile.’ There is a beginning of real communication between the two, and they are both being honest about themselves. What Darcy has to say is serious and considered; the content of his speech is far from the superficialities of, for example, Miss Bingley (‘dying to know what could be his meaning.’). You can see that he is attracted to Elizabeth’s mind – she is teasing him, but she is willing to engage in matters of real moment.
This is another occasion upon which Miss Bingley’s similarity to Mrs Bennet extends to details of the vocabulary they use. The overused, fashionable word ‘odious’ (disagreeable) appears in the speech of both. Here is Miss Bingley, gushing at Darcy.
‘Letters of business too! How odious I should think them!’ (Chapter 10) And here is
Mrs Bennet in Chapter 13. ‘Pray do not talk of that odious man’. In Miss Bingley’s defence, it must be said that she speaks in complete sentences and with some semblance of sense, unlike Mrs Bennet. ·
So what have the Netherfield chapters (Chapters 7 – 12) added to the novel? Where does the interest lie in Jane Austen’s writing? Charlotte Bronte had a great deal to say on where the interest did not lie. In a letter to her publisher’s reader, Mr Williams, in April 1850, she wrote: ‘she (Jane Austen) ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her … Her business is not half so much with the human heart as with the human eyes, mouth … what sees keenly … it suits her to study, but what throbs fast and full … this Miss Austen ignores.’
Compared to the sensational, everypage excitements of a modern blockbuster, the action and plot are minimal. They centre around the conversations, letters and descriptions of well-behaved, upper middle-class young men and women in a series of drawing-rooms, ball rooms and shrubberies/parks. There is very little in the way of setting – Jane Austen used this more in her later novels. We simply move from one drawing-room to another, and none are described. What we have seen, in detail, are different characters reacting positively or negatively to each other, some with affection, others trying to undermine and exclude (usually through conversation; occasionally through physical action, as when Mrs Hurst excludes Elizabeth from the walking trio). Some characters communicate, others block or frustrate communication. Some are well able to articulate their thoughts; others (like Mrs Bennet) can hardly construct a sensible sentence. Some people are spontaneous and genuine; others calculating and insincere. Bingley’s remarks, for example, are straightforward; Miss Bingley’s, like an iceberg, are mainly subtext (though easily enough seen through by Darcy). Being in a drawing-room with her is like being on a battlefield. The assault is verbal, and cloaked with a semblance of courtesy, but the cloak does not hide much. Elizabeth has not failed to notice Miss Bingley’s much flaunted acquaintance with the Darcys: ‘intimate as you are’. Perhaps we have not failed to notice Miss Bingley’s resemblance to Mrs Bennet whom she despises as being vulgar.
Various details in the Netherfield chapters reinforce the difference between the world of money and fashion and the more provincial world of the Bennets. The Bingleys spend the winter in London, with ‘many of (their) acquaintance’. Bingley’s brother-in-law, Mr Hurst, has a house in the fashionable residential area of London (Mrs Bennet’s brother lives in unfashionable Cheapside). Mr Bingley first visited Netherfield in ‘a chaise and four’, indicative of very considerable wealth, whereas Jane cannot use the Bennets’ carriage horses to go to Netherfield as they are wanted on the farm. At Netherfield they dine fashionably late, and Elizabeth decides not to join them at cards fearing that the stakes will be high. Mr Jones, the Meryton ‘apothecary’, is dismissed by Bingley’s sisters, who ‘recommended an express to town (London) for one of the most eminent physicians.’
The social and financial gulf between Elizabeth Bennet’s world and the world of the Bingleys and Mr Darcy makes it clear how difficult it will be for Jane and Elizabeth to surmount that gulf. But the contrast between Elizabeth and Bingley’s sisters also makes it clear what characteristics in Elizabeth Mr Darcy will come to prize. Her integrity, warmth, intelligence, wit and courtesy stand out when contrasted with their opposites embodied by Miss Bingley.
There is, as always in Jane Austen, the humour. Irony brings out, for example, the very faults in Miss Bingley that Miss Bingley has criticised in Mrs Bennet. There is often a highly enjoyable discrepancy between a person’s words and their actions, the more entertaining when it is unconscious on that person’s part. The fact that we are entertained does not preclude the possibility of serious issues existing alongside the sources of fun. For example, Mrs Bennet’s idiotic conversation, which is funny, allows us at the same time to understand Elizabeth’s embarrassment, Miss Bingley’s snobbish discourtesy, the fact that Mrs Bennet is (ironically, in view of her passion for marrying her daughters off) jeopardising Elizabeth’s chances of marrying Mr Darcy, who is distressed at (or prejudiced against) the vulgarity of the family. These illustrate some of the matters with which the novel is concerned: decorum, snobbery, true and false affection, courtesy and rudeness, understanding and communication.
The exchanges between Elizabeth and Darcy, read for the first time, reinforce one’s misunderstanding of him, and misinterpretation of what he says; one instinctively sides with the lively, intelligent Elizabeth. It’s on a second, more careful, reading that one can see how Elizabeth persists in misjudging him. So often we are told that he smiles as he talks to her, that his eyes are fixed on her. Yet Elizabeth’s repeated perception, in this part of the novel, is ‘that she drew his notice because there was a something about her more wrong and reprehensible (to be found fault with), according to his ideas of right, than in any other person present.’ (Chapter 10)
Darcy’s heart is now ‘bewitched’ by Elizabeth, but his head tells him that ‘the inferiority of her connections’ (relations) keeps him from the danger of wanting to commit himself to a relationship beneath his social sphere. However, he has travelled a considerable distance, emotionally. His first reactions to Elizabeth’s looks were unfavourable. He is quoted later by Miss Bingley as saying, during this Netherfield episode: ‘She a beauty!- I should as soon call her mother a wit’ (Chapter 46). At the Meryton assembly he had commented, ‘She is tolerable (passable) but not handsome enough to tempt me.’ (Chapter 3). In Chapter 6 he is still overcoming a history of adverse impressions: ‘Mr Darcy … had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise.’ The words ‘eyes’; ‘looked’ and ‘a critical eye’ recur; Darcy is still judging Elizabeth largely by appearance. It is again her appearance that affects him when he begins to react more favourably a little later: ‘a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman.’ But in the Netherfield chapters, Darcy and Elizabeth’s relationship develops beyond mere appearance (although Darcy is very happy to look at Elizabeth); they are engaged in conversations that explore subjects revealing shared intelligence, seriousness, respect and concern for others.
As her brother’s hostess and of higher social status than Jane and Elizabeth, Miss Bingley should be the most important woman in the gathering. She tries hard to dominate the conversations. However, although Elizabeth feels as if she is the intruder and Miss Bingley tries to exclude her, it is Miss Bingley who, despite all her efforts, is frequently sidelined. Miss Bingley and Elizabeth are contrasted, both in the amount of attention Darcy gives them, in the fact that Elizabeth is not part of their society, in the fact that Elizabeth thinks much more deeply and interestingly on serious topics than Miss Bingley does; in the fact that she doesn’t seek Darcy’s attention and Miss Bingley does.
Darcy, although a guest, plays a much more prominent part in the Netherfield chapters than Bingley, his host. He is the one who dominates the conversations. Either he is refusing to take part – thus controlling the dynamic. Or he is the person thinking most carefully and seriously on all the topics raised and towards whom, implicitly, most respect is accorded. He communicates with those he chooses to: his friend Bingley, and with Elizabeth but not with Miss Bingley. Darcy gives Elizabeth more attention and reveals more of himself in each of the Netherfield chapters. Darcy is the main character in these chapters, and Elizabeth by far the most effective and included female. It is Darcy and Elizabeth who emerge as the two most important characters in this section of the novel. They are the two characters about whom we learn most, and who are slowly emerging as the hero and heroine of the novel.
In Chapter 12, Jane and Elizabeth decide that it is time for them to return to Longbourn. Miss Bingley obviously welcomes their departure, as evidenced by her rapid increase of civility towards Elizabeth. However, it is not Miss Bingley who has effected their leaving: it is their own feelings of what is right to do. And Mr Darcy is not influenced by Miss Bingley in his view that Elizabeth has ‘been at Netherfield long enough.’ She is more attractive to him than he wishes – he is still concerned by the ‘inferiority of her connections’. Jane Austen teases her hero: ‘He wisely resolved to be particularly careful that no sign of admiration should now escape him.’ What is that word ‘wisely’ doing in this sentence? ‘He scarcely spoke ten words to her through the whole of Saturday.’ He must have been a stunningly agreeable companion. Jane Austen does not present her hero or her heroine as faultless or, at times, even likeable.
Chapters 13 and 14
Mr Bennet reads to the family a letter from their young cousin, Mr Collins, who is to arrive that day for a twelve-day visit. Mr Collins arrives and we hear his conversation over dinner.
Now that the Longbourn and Netherfield characters are satisfactorily established, the next few chapters introduce two new characters, Mr Collins and Mr Wickham. Mr Collins is an addition to the group of characters at Longbourn; Mr Wickham to the characters at Meryton. Mr Collins is absurd, a source of entertainment to the reader and to Mr Bennet; not so much so to Elizabeth. He is to form a most interesting counterpart to Darcy, and is important to the plot. He is essentially a static figure, against whom the development of other characters, such as Darcy, can be measured. Elizabeth observes and assesses him accurately. Mr Wickham is in many ways in direct contrast to Mr Collins (though he toys with being a clergyman in the intervals when his money has run out); he, too, has associations with Darcy, and he is as heartless and lacking in feeling as Mr Collins. Misled by Wickham’s good looks and charm, Elizabeth observes and judges him quite wrongly, and thereby ultimately learns a great deal about herself.
Since Mr Bennet has no sons, Mr Collins is to inherit Longbourn (or, as Mr Bennet teasingly puts it, ‘…when I am dead, may turn you all out of this house as soon as he pleases’). Mr Collins introduces himself through a letter in which ‘there is a mixture of servility and self-importance.’ The letter starts with a sentence seventy-five words long and this is succeeded by one even longer. Its author is clearly self–satisfied: ‘I flatter myself that my present overtures of good-will are highly commendable.’ He ponderously expresses his plans to marry one of the Bennet girls (without having met them), an intention which he describes as ‘my readiness to make them every possible amends (for his inheriting Longbourn)’. His priority (what he calls his ‘earnest endeavour’) seems to be to ‘demean (behave) myself with grateful respect towards her Ladyship,’ and indeed we learn that his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, is the most important person in his world. (God doesn’t seem to get much of a look in.) He suggests arriving on 18th November since that is a time he can be away from home without objection from Lady Catherine. His style of writing is long-winded, riddled with cliches (the ‘offered olive branch’) and, wben not about Lady Catherine, mainly about himself.
On hearing the letter, Elizabeth asks her father,
‘Can he be a sensible man, sir?’
‘No, my dear; I think not. I have great hopes of finding him quite the reverse.’
The wit of Mr Bennet’s well-turned remark lies in the expectations raised in, ‘I have great hopes …’ which leads you on towards something considerable. What you get is the opposite of what you expect, a joyous anticlimax: ‘quite the reverse.’ We know, therefore, that Mr Bennet is ‘impatient to see him’ because he will be a source of amusement. ‘Sensible’ could mean either possessing sensibility, perception and responsiveness or it could have our modern meaning, common sense. Mr Collins has neither.
As we are coming to expect, the family’s comments are characteristic. Mrs Bennet seizes upon his eligibility as a prospective bridegroom, ‘disposed to make them any amends’;
Jane looks for the best in him; Elizabeth sees that he is nonsensical, since he is gushingly ready to do the mere basics required of a clergyman; Mary is impressed by the composition of his letter, and the two youngest girls are uninterested in him because he is not a soldier. ‘It was next to impossible that their cousin should come in a scarlet coat.’
Mr Collins is ‘a tall, heavy looking young man of five and twenty. His air was grave and stately, and his manners were very formal.’ When Mr Bennet gets him started on the subject of Lady Catherine, we discover not only how absurd Mr Collins is (he praises her ‘affability and condescension’ – a ridiculous combination, since condescension (patronising friendliness to inferiors) cancels out affability (true friendliness). We are also introduced to Lady Catherine, whom Elizabeth will meet when she goes to stay at Hunsford with Charlotte. The dreadful Lady Catherine is Darcy’s aunt – another (illogical) reason for Elizabeth to dislike Darcy. However, it is already evident that both Darcy and Elizabeth have relations who make them ashamed.
Mr Collins’s spate of appalling utterances continues. His house is his ‘humble abode’, another cliche (he does not seem to possess any original thoughts). Lady Catherine’s daughter is not strong, and cannot live in London and, as Mr Collins is proud to have put it, ‘by that means, as I told Lady Catherine myself one day, has deprived the British court of its brightest ornament. …I am happy on every occasion to offer those little delicate compliments which are always acceptable to ladies.’ Anything Mr Collins says or writes is liberally sprinkled with the words ‘I’ and ‘my’ and ‘myself’. His speech is full of generalisations, second-hand elephantine notions of gallantry (‘little delicate compliments’). His servile flattery is suffocating. Mr Bennet naughtily leads him on, asking whether these attentions proceed from the ‘impulse of the moment.’ Predictably, Mr Collins works on them carefully.
Mr Bennet ‘listened to him with the keenest enjoyment’ because Mr Collins is ‘as absurd as he had hoped.’ The words ‘expectations’, ‘hoped,’ and ‘keenest enjoyment’ when fulfilled, not by something good, but by absurdity, show Mr Bennet’s cynical and rather too detached view of humanity.
Mr Collins is invited to read aloud to the family. Offered a novel, ‘he started back’ and he eventually chooses Fordyce’s Sermons as a suitable book to read to everybody. The fun is increased by Lydia’s interrupting, with snatches of gossip about soldiers, Mr Collins’s stupefyingly monotonous reading. Two self-absorbed people come into conflict here: Mr Collins with his sermons, Lydia and her soldiers and gossip. Mr Collins makes such a meal of saying that ‘he bore his young cousin no ill will, and should never resent her behaviour as any affront’ that it is obvious he is much offended. He makes out that he is shocked by the thought of reading a novel aloud to the family; ‘he never read novels’.
However, the Austens loved novels. Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra about a new circulating library which was recommended as ‘not consist(ing) only of Novels, but of every kind of Literature – She might have spared this pretension to our family, who are great Novel-readers not ashamed of being so’ (18 December 1798). The novel was, however, frequently attacked as being a bad influence. Sarah Pennington wrote: ‘they are apt to give a romantic turn to the mind, which is often productive of great errors in judgment and of fatal mistakes in conduct’ (An Unfortunate Mother’s Advice to Her Absent Daughters, 1761). There was a concern that novel-reading inflamed the imagination. James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women (1766) was a popular and moralistic conduct book. Needless to say, Fordyce denounced novels ‘which we are assured (for we have not read them) are in their nature so shameful, in their tendency so pestiferous, and contain … such horrible violation of all decorum, that she who can bear to peruse them must in her soul be a prostitute.’ Lively stuff. No wonder Lydia interrupted Mr Collins’s reading of it. Maybe, too, there is an allusion to Sheridan’s play, The Rivals (1775), whose heroine, Lydia, her own head stuffed with novels and romantically in love with a soldier, has a copy of Fordyce’s Sermons which has lost several of its pages to the hairdresser who uses them for curlpapers.
In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen describes and defends novels.
Let us (she means writers of novels) leave it to the reviewers to abuse such
effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in
threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us
not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions
have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any
other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has
been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes
are almost as many as our readers. …. “I am no novel-reader–I seldom look into
novels–Do not imagine that I often read novels–It is really very well for a novel.”
Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss–?” “Oh! It is
only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book
with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or
Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest
powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge
of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the
liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the
best-chosen language. (Chapter 5)
Austen herself read and enjoyed sermons: ‘I am very fond of Sherlock’s Sermons, prefer them to almost any’ (Letters 28 September 1814). But it sounds as if Fordyce’s exceptionally moralistic sermons would be exactly Mr Collins’s choice. Reading aloud was very popular and Jane Austen’s family evidently took pleasure in hearing novels read. Her mother read Pride and Prejudice too fast, according to Jane Austen, but her brother Henry tells us, ‘She (Jane Austen) read aloud with very great taste and effect.’
Mr Collins intends to marry one of the Bennet sisters. He starts with Jane, the eldest, and soon moves on to Elizabeth. The Bennet girls meet Mr Wickham in Meryton.
Chapter 15 introduces in more detail Mr Collins’s plans of marrying one of the Bennet sisters; it also introduces an apparently much more attractive young man in the shape of Mr Wickham. Mr Collins, meanwhile, embarks upon his matrimonial business (a word Austen uses of both Mrs Bennet and Mr Collins in their approach to marriage). Mr Collins lives by rules – he has few feelings but ‘pride and obsequiousness (fawning), self-importance and humility’ to motivate him. He starts, as is correct, with the eldest Miss Bennet: ‘Miss Bennet’s lovely face confirmed his views, and established all his strictest notions of what was due to seniority: and for the first evening she was his settled choice.’ What business has the phrase ‘for the first evening· next to ‘settled’? It completely deprives the word ‘settled’ of any meaning. But then, as we have probably already learned, not much of Mr Collins’s discourse has any meaning.
After Mrs Bennet has enlightened Mr Collins about her matrimonial hopes for Jane, he thinks again. ‘Mr Collins had only to change from Jane to Elizabeth and it was soon done – done while Mrs Bennet was stirring the fire.’ What does this tell us about his capacity for deep feeling (Mrs Bennet may have been stirring the fire, but there certainly aren’t any fires of passion burning in Mr Collins)? What of his ability to prize a woman for her uniqueness (he’s working his way chronologically down the sisters) or for considering Elizabeth’s feelings on the matter? He is contemplating marriage – a partner for life – and the words ‘only’ and ‘soon done’ fatally reveal his limitations in his understanding of the subject. The irony tells you all you need to know: ‘Elizabeth, equally next to Jane in birth and beauty, succeeded her of course.’ As we understand the irony (the fact that Mr Collins moves from Jane to Elizabeth ‘of course’), we make our own criticism of Mr Collins. The irony provides the commentary and illuminates the character. It’s a very understated and concise way of writing, full of implication – and although the irony suggests a certain detachment on the author’s part, the understanding of it actively involves the reader.
The Bennet girls and Mr Collins walk into Meryton, where the ‘completely charming’ Mr Wickham makes his first appearance. He is a young man with a striking ‘air’ (bearing, stylishness) and address (manner of speaking). Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy approach, and Elizabeth is the only person to notice that, when Darcy and Wickham see each other, ‘both changed colour.’ She is fascinated; so are we. During the course of this long paragraph, Jane Austen has moved into Elizabeth’s mind, where we learn: ‘What could be the meaning of it? – It was impossible to imagine; it was impossible not to long to know.’ The repeated clauses ‘it was impossible…’ lead to the fertile imaginings and inquisitiveness of any young woman confronted by a mystery concerning an attractive young man. And Wickham’s attraction is made very clear ‘a young man … of most gentlemanlike appearance,’ and ‘his appearance was greatly in his favour’, ‘the young man wanted (lacked) only regimentals (a military uniform) to make him completely charming’ and it turns out that he is indeed about to join the army, so he is faultless. Experienced readers of Jane Austen will be on guard: the emphasis here is on appearance, not on truth. Indeed, this was also true of Mr Darcy, who was found at the assembly to have disagreeable manners. Jane Austen stresses Mr Wickham’s ‘fine countenance, … good figure, and very pleasing address’. There is an immediate contrast between the tedious Mr Collins and Wickham, who catches ‘the attention of every young lady.’
Mercifully the fastidious Darcy has soon ridden on and thus avoids experiencing another vulgar Bennet relation – Mrs Philips (Mrs Bennet’s sister).
Mr Denny and Mr Wickham walked with the young ladies to the door of Mr
Philips’s house, and then made their bows (a signal of farewell)… in spite of
Mrs Philips’ throwing up the parlour window, and loudly seconding the
Mr Darcy would certainly not have enjoyed the behaviour of Mrs Philips, opening the sitting room window and shouting an invitation to two young men, one of whom she had not met or been introduced to, so that they could further their acquaintance with her nieces. There are delightful examples of Jane Austen’s colouring of her descriptions with the characteristic speech of a person, in free indirect discourse. Here, Mrs Philips’s expressions find their way into Jane Austen’s account of events.
Mrs Philips … was eagerly expressing her surprise at their sudden return home,
which, as their own carriage had not fetched them, she should have known
nothing about, if she had not happened to see Mr Jones’s shop boy in the street,
who had told her that they were not to send any more draughts (medicine) to
Netherfield because the Miss Bennets were come away (had left Netherfield)…
and even now the sentence has not finished. Jane Austen hilariously observes the world of titbits of news and gossip, insatiably devoured and reproduced at inordinate length. In this way she conveys the atmosphere of a small country town like Meryton, where everybody knows exactly what everybody else is doing. Indeed, the opening chapter, with its gossipy news of Mr Bingley, his chaise and Netherfield, conveyed a similar impression. Henry Tilney, in Northanger Abbey, describes his own suffocatingly rumour-ridden neighbourhood, when he asks Catherine Morland, ‘Could they (atrocities) be perpetrated without being known, in a country (neighbourhood) like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies…?’
A little later, Mrs Philips, who has been watching the attractive stranger (Mr Wickham) for an hour, suggests that they all come round the next evening, and she will try to invite Mr Wickham to join the party. Again, her voice colours the description in free indirect discourse. ‘Mrs Philips protested that they would have a nice comfortable noisy game of lottery tickets (bingo), and a little bit of hot supper afterwards.’ ‘A nice comfortable noisy game of lottery tickets’ is pure Mrs Philips, not our elegant narrator.
Professor John Mullan observes, in What Matters in Jane Austen? that some characters in Jane Austen’s novels never speak directly, or speak only once. Mrs Philips is one of these. We hear plenty of her reported speech, and she evidently talks a lot, like her sister Mrs Bennet. However, the only time we ever hear her speak is towards the very end of the novel, when she is full of information about the number of duck the Netherfield housekeeper has ordered for Mr Bingley and his guests when he arrives. She talks and talks, and when the great moment arrives for us to hear her directly with the latest titbits of gossip, it’s all about duck for the table. Jane Austen is mistress of anticlimactic comedy.
The Bennets’ aunt, Mrs Philips, has a small party at her house in Meryton. Elizabeth has the opportunity of talking at length to her new acquaintance, Mr Wickham.
In Chapter 16 the Bennet girls and Mr Collins spend the promised evening with Mrs Philips, where they meet Wickham again. Elizabeth has been thinking of him since their interesting encounter in Meryton with (according to her) abundantly justifiable admiration. He is beyond (superior to) all the officers of his regiment in ‘person, countenance, air, and walk’ (all conspicuously superficial attributes – simply, how he looks).
The chapter opens with Mr Collins. First, he claims to have scruples (doubts about the morality of doing something) about leaving his hosts for an evening. Then he gives a detailed description to the baffled Mrs Philips of Lady Catherine’s small summer breakfast parlour and an £800 chimney-piece in one of her drawing-rooms. (This establishes Lady Catherine as a very rich woman determined to display what her money can buy.) Finally, while the girls hope for the attention of Mr Wickham, Mr Collins is supplied with homely coffee and muffin by Mrs Philips – a suitably ludicrous contrast to the dashing charms of Mr Wickham.
Elizabeth longs to hear something of the mysterious connection between Mr Wickham and Darcy, and Wickham actually broaches the subject himself when he sits beside her. He asks ‘in a hesitating manner’ how long Darcy has been staying at Netherfield. When you re-read the book, you realise that this hesitation is not delightful shyness on his part; he is trying out the ground. Elizabeth encourages him and he then tells her that he known the Darcys from his infancy. He asks, circumspectly, ‘Are you much acquainted with Mr Darcy?’ and Elizabeth completely oversteps the bounds of decorum in her reply: ‘As much as I ever wish to be.’ She is talking to Wickham for the first time, and should not be giving vent to her own very prejudiced and unflattering opinions so early on in their acquaintance. She doesn’t know Wickham. She continues, ‘Everybody is disgusted with his (Mr Darcy’s) pride.’ Still Wickham hesitates before committing himself. ‘I wonder … whether he is likely to be in this country (neighbourhood) much longer.’
What Wickham now goes on to say about Darcy is cleverly presented for Elizabeth’s ears but it is perfectly possible to see through it. He makes assertions (‘ … it is not for me to be driven away by Mr Darcy’) which at the Netherfield ball turn out to be untrue as he doesn’t attend it because Darcy is there. In a burst of superlative, he claims to have ‘most painful regrets at his (Darcy) being what he is,’ and to be ‘grieved to the soul.’ He speaks of having ‘a thousand tender recollections’ and makes out that he had the deepest respect for ‘the late Mr Darcy … one of the best men that ever breathed, and the truest friend I ever had.’ He works hard along the lines of Darcy ‘disgracing the memory of his father’ – all emotive stuff. He implies that Darcy has treated him unjustly: ‘the church ought to have been my profession’ which makes him sound even more virtuous. His descriptions of old Mr Darcy are larded with words like ‘excessively attached’, ‘kindness’, ‘meant to provide for me amply’, which puts Darcy in a bad light, and makes him (Wickham) sound sensitively aware of the old gentleman’s goodness. And he winds the thing up with ‘Till l can forget his father, I can never defy or expose him.’ (The fact is that he would then be exposed himself, since he is the villain of the piece.) Wickham has a masterly turn of heartfelt phrase – ‘it gives me pain to speak ill of a Darcy’ — it’s all very plausible, especially since, according to Elizabeth, his ‘very countenance may vouch for (his) being amiable.’ Of course, if Wickham was really so virtuous he wouldn’t say all this against Darcy, especially on a first meeting.
Elizabeth is completely taken in by all this specious manipulation, and Jane Austen tells us why: ‘Elizabeth honoured him for such feelings, and thought him handsomer than ever as he expressed them’. So much for her famous clear-sightedness: the reason she reacts as she does is that Wickham is devastatingly attractive.
Wickham even manages to present a distorted picture of Darcy’s goodness (we later learn that Darcy is a responsible landlord and good brother) which he attributes to pride. His description of Darcy’s sister, Georgiana, is brilliant: ‘I have devoted hours and hours to her amusement’ (he has indeed: he tried to run off with her to get her money and distress Darcy). The final straw, so far as Elizabeth is concerned, is that Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the frightful woman who laps up Mr Collins’s flattery and occupies so prominent a place in his boring conversation, turns out to be Darcy’s aunt. Wickham’s description of her is perfectly accurate, which supports Elizabeth’s (and our) idea that the rest of his information must be correct. Elizabeth is completely taken in: ‘Whatever he said, was said well; and whatever he did, done gracefully. Elizabeth went away with her head full of him. She could think of nothing but of Mr Wickham, and of what he had told her …’
The noise on the way home is deafening: ‘neither Lydia nor Mr Collins were once silent. Lydia talked incessantly of lottery tickets … and Mr Collins … had more to say than he could well manage.’ The two self-absorbed people are boring on in relentless detail (‘the fish she had lost and the fish she had won’) about their own concerns. Neither of them is communicating with anyone else, and indeed, they’re both only interested in themselves.
Elizabeth tells Jane what Wickham has said about Darcy. Everyone looks forward to the Netherfield ball.
As Elizabeth tells her sister what she has learned from Mr Wickham, Jane is distressed. Whereas Elizabeth is certain, Jane hesitates to form a judgement on either Mr Wickham or Mr Darcy. Elizabeth takes this as a characteristic example of her gentle sister’s candour and desire to think the best of everybody.
‘It is difficult indeed – it is distressing. – One does not know what to think.’
‘I beg your pardon; – one knows exactly what to think.’
As so often, Elizabeth’s energetic speech with assured cadences and dancing stresses – ‘one knows exactly …’ is contrasted with Jane’s kindly, hesitant sentences, searching for the truth. Jane Austen signals to us that there is room for a different interpretation of Mr Darcy’s behaviour. The irony is that Jane is proved right, and Elizabeth, with all her certainty, wrong.
Mr Collins, meanwhile, has settled upon his cliched phrase for Elizabeth, ‘wit and vivacity’, and is making her the object of his ‘increasing civilities.’
It rains so much that the Bennet girls cannot even go to Meryton themselves to buy accessories such as shoe roses for the Netherfield Ball. A good website to explore the contemporary fashions, and ball-dresses in particular, is https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2012/04/27/a-regency-ball-gown-200-years-ago-april-1812/
The Netherfield ball
The Netherfield ball, so eagerly anticipated (‘Elizabeth thought with pleasure of dancing a great deal with Mr Wickham’) is not a source of unclouded happiness. Wickham is absent; a fellow officer says, ‘I do not imagine his business would have called him away just now, if he had not wished to avoid a certain gentleman here.’ Elizabeth puts two and two together and gets the sum wrong: she thinks Darcy is ‘answerable for Wickham’s absence’ instead of realising that Wickham can’t risk being at the ball with Darcy. Although she does not realise it at the time, Wickham’s absence endorses Jane’s suggestion in the previous chapter that there might be another interpretation of Darcy’s behaviour. Elizabeth ‘knows exactly what to think’ but she is surprised by Wickham’s non-attendance. So she is not always right.
The next anti-climax is ‘dances of mortification’ with Mr Collins, ‘a disagreeable partner’ and a hopeless dancer. Elizabeth is still determined to dislike Darcy, a ‘very superior’ dancer. If dancing well together suggests some sort of harmony, then Darcy succeeds. When Charlotte consoles Elizabeth at the prospect of dancing with him, ‘I daresay you will find him very agreeable’, Elizabeth replies, ‘Heaven forbid! That would be the greatest misfortune of all! – To find a man agreeable whom one is determined to hate!’ It is obvious that Charlotte has a much more practical view of men than Elizabeth; she cautions her ‘not to be a simpleton and allow her fancy for Wickham to make her appear unpleasant in the eyes of a man of ten times his consequence (social importance).’
Dancing gives Darcy and Elizabeth an opportunity to talk, though conversation with Darcy is often difficult. Elizabeth criticises his failure to comply with convention: ‘you ought to make some kind of remark on the size of the room,’ but it sounds as if she is saying this in a teasing rather than a resentful way – we are told, ‘Elizabeth was not formed for ill-humour.’ Certainly Darcy’s response is to smile. But he is less happy when she taxes him with his behaviour to Wickham. Sir William Lucas approaches, with a flow of cliches and flattery that closely resembles Mr Collins’s way of talking:
‘Such very superior dancing is not often seen. It is evident that you belong to the first circles. Allow me to say, however, that your fair partner does not disgrace you …’.
He then implies that Bingley and Jane will soon announce their engagement – something that seems to strike Darcy forcibly.
Darcy resumes his conversation with Elizabeth in a manner that could be interpreted as scornful and patronising, or gallant and enjoying Elizabeth’s company. The words used of Darcy are ‘smiling’, ‘a look of doubt’ (when he wants to understand her), and ‘a tolerable powerful feeling towards her’ which suggest increasingly warm feelings, even though his moods fluctuate and he sometimes replies ‘coldly’. Whereas Elizabeth often makes generalisations, Darcy nearly always applies his answers to her in particular. Tellingly, Elizabeth can remember exactly what he has said on a former occasion: ‘I remember hearing you once say …’. She attacks him with questions:
‘…never allow yourself to be blinded by prejudice?’ and statements: ‘It is particularly incumbent on those who never change their opinion, to be secure of judging properly at first.’ Both of these observations are ironic, in that they apply to her much more than, as she imagines, to him. She admits that she is trying to make his character out – in other words, what we are told suggests that she is far more interested in him than she realises.
Miss Bingley approaches and gives Elizabeth a considerable amount of accurate information about Wickham but, since it comes from Miss Bingley whom Elizabeth (rightly) dislikes and whom she knows to favour Darcy, she discounts it. Again ironically, she displays the very prejudice of which she has accused Darcy. You can understand why Elizabeth so much resents the way Miss Bingley has given her the information. Not only does Miss Bingley give it with ‘an expression of civil disdain,’ she also refers to Wickham as George Wickham. This shows her contempt for him; if she considered him her equal, she would refer to him as Mr Wickham. To call him ‘the young man’ is additionally dismissive, and to finish by saying, ‘I pity you, Miss Eliza, for this discovery of your favourite’s guilt…’ is rude.
Another horrendous episode is in store for poor Elizabeth: Mr Collins has discovered ‘that there is now in the room a near relation of my patroness,’ and he is hurrying off to pay his respects. Elizabeth watches Darcy as Mr Collins goes to ‘attack’ him: ‘it vexed her.’ She has, then, some respect for Darcy (‘such a man’) or doesn’t wish to be associated with a man who makes such an unmannerly fool of himself, ‘addressing him without introduction … an impertinent freedom’.
Mr Collins’s failure to observe the social convention of waiting to be introduced highlights his true arrogance, obstinacy, egoism and passion for social climbing, dressed up as humility.
‘Who would have thought of my meeting with – perhaps – a nephew of Lady
Catherine de Bourgh in this assembly! I am most thankful that the discovery is made in time for me to pay my respects to him, which I am now going to do, and trust he will excuse my not having done it before. My total ignorance of the connection must plead my apology.’
‘You are not going to introduce yourself to Mr Darcy?’
‘Indeed I am. I shall intreat his pardon for not having done it earlier…’ Elizabeth tried hard to dissuade him from such a scheme; assuring him that Mr Darcy would consider his addressing him without introduction as an impertinent freedom, rather than a compliment to his aunt; that it was not in the least necessary there should be any notice on either side, and that if it were, it must belong to Mr Darcy, the superior in consequence (social importance), to begin the acquaintance. – Mr Collins listened to her with the determined air of following his own inclination …
‘My dear Miss Elizabeth, I have the highest opinion in the world of your excellent judgment … but permit me to say that there must be a wide difference between the established forms of ceremony amongst the laity, and those which regulate the clergy; for give me leave to observe that I consider the clerical office as equal in point of dignity with the highest rank in the kingdom – provided that a proper humility of behaviour is at the same time maintained. You must therefore allow me to follow the dictates of my conscience on this occasion, which leads me to perform what I look on as a point of duty…’
Mr Collins is being rude in addressing Mr Darcy without having been introduced to him. He dresses this incivility up with the usual fawning – “pay my respects’; ‘trust he will excuse my not having done it before’; ‘plead my apology’; ‘intreat his pardon for not having done it earlier’. Mr Collins obstinately persists in his social solecism, deaf to Elizabeth’s advice on matters of etiquette. He has a high opinion of his own social importance: ‘I consider the clerical office as equal in point of dignity with the highest rank in the kingdom.’ He proposes to accompany this conceited estimate of himself with ‘a proper humility of behaviour’- hence the tedious (and laughable) apologies that attend his every utterance.
This is far from true humility (which is a quality Elizabeth learns (Chapter 52) when she discovers what Darcy has done for Lydia). Mr Collins’s humility is cosmetic, plastered over his arrogance; it does not stem from true feeling. His egoism and determination to have his own way are conveyed (and exposed) through a number of courteous-sounding phrases: ‘I have the highest opinion in the world of your excellent judgment … but’; ‘permit me to say’; ‘give me leave to observe’; ‘You must therefore allow me.’ Getting his own way is described by him as ‘the dictates of my conscience’ and ‘a point of duty.’
All this is very entertaining – the humble (as he supposes himself to be) Mr Collins setting off to be extra polite to Mr Darcy when really he is being arrogant and impertinent. Jane Austen is also making a more serious point, pinpointing arrogance, incivility and egoism – all of which are qualities her hero and heroine are guilty of themselves in different ways. Although the novel may seem to be merely a romantic journey with, for Elizabeth and Jane, a happy conclusion, it is also a journey from adolescence to adulthood, a journey of the heart to a more accurate and proper self-knowledge and appreciation of other people.
Elizabeth sees Jane’s happiness at the ball, and this makes her ‘perhaps almost as happy as Jane.’ She contemplates ‘all the felicity which a marriage of true affection could bestow’ (and which, unfortunately, is just about to be thwarted by Darcy’s misunderstanding of Jane’s feelings). However, the next embarrassment looms. At supper, Mrs Bennet is talking, ‘freely, openly, and of nothing else but of her expectation that Jane would soon be married to Mr Bingley.’ Worse, ‘to her inexpressible vexation, she could perceive that the chief of it was overheard by Mr Darcy.’ ‘Elizabeth blushed and blushed again with shame and vexation.’ Mary sings to the assembled company: ‘her voice was weak, and her manner affected. – Elizabeth was in agonies.’ After Mr Collins has again made an ass of himself, ‘To Elizabeth it appeared, that had her family made an agreement to expose themselves as much as they could during the evening, it would have been impossible for them to play their parts with more spirit, or finer success.’
It is worth noticing all these details of Elizabeth’s reaction to her family because Darcy accurately but tactlessly mentions the ‘family obstacles’ when he proposes to her. Although she is justly angry, the vulgarity of some members of her family – what Darcy calls in his letter ‘that total want of propriety,’ – has by no means escaped her notice. Jane Austen is never a snob, but she does condemn lack of decorum (and Elizabeth condemns it in herself when she later sees that she has been guilty of it).
Jane and Bingley’s happiness in each other’s company leads Elizabeth and the reader to expect their imminent engagement. However, Mr Darcy disrupts this hope. Elizabeth has been increasingly irritated and distressed by Mr Collins, and yet, ironically, it is his proposal of marriage to her that takes up the whole of the next chapter. Structurally, Jane Austen is defeating our expectations or, at least, playing with them.
For Mrs Bennet, the ball has been the means of confirming her conviction that two of her daughters will soon be married. Elizabeth has heard accurate information about Wickham, which she has dismissed (and we should be doubting him by now). She refuses to admit Darcy’s interest in her, and labels him the villain, though Jane and Charlotte have, for different reasons, cautioned her against this blinkered cast of mind. She has noticed that Mr Collins seems to have been singling her out for, as his phrase has it, ‘delicate attentions’; Charlotte has, when the opportunity arises, been engaging ‘Mr Collins’s conversation to herself.’
Mr Collins proposes to Elizabeth
Mr Collins’s ridiculous proposal to Elizabeth is a source of comedy but, like much of Jane Austen’s comedy, it has a serious intention – it is not pure farce, which is extravagantly funny and improbable. Jane Austen makes quite clear her condemnation of Mr Collins’s reasons for marrying, even if he does express them in such an idiotic and hilarious manner. And since marriage, and good marriage, is one of the most important concerns of the novel, Mr Collins’s farcical attempt at a proposal helps to define a proposal arising from true love.
Mr Collins has to propose quickly, through no passion on his part, but because he will soon be leaving Longbourn. As so often, Jane Austen builds our expectations, and then rewards them with bathos.
‘Having resolved to do it without loss of time, as …’ builds expectation.
‘as his leave of absence extended only to the following Saturday …’ gives the anticlimactic reason.
He has ‘no feelings of diffidence (modesty)’ to be making him hesitate: the implication being that he has no feelings at all. He goes through all the ·observances (rituals)’ as if he were working his way through a manual, which in some respects he is. He seems to be guided in large part by conduct books in his estimate of a woman’s nature. And he regards the proposal as ‘the business.’ A few chapters later, he will be staying at Longbourn again, in order to undertake ‘the business of love-making’ to Charlotte (Chapter 23).
One of the main glories of the proposal (for us) is that it is conducted in Collins-speak, which is about as inappropriate a medium for a lover as you could hope for. He is armed with a confident knowledge of young women which appears to be drawn from conduct books such as John Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters (1761), with its references to young women’s ‘delicacy, (and) modesty.’ His opening paragraph (since this is Mr Collins, it is not in any sense an exchange or dialogue; it is a monologue of considerable length and un-spontaneity) features the words ‘my’ and ‘I’. Asking Elizabeth to marry him doesn’t seem to have entered his mind: ‘I singled you out as the companion of my future life.’ (This is not strictly accurate, as he started by thinking of Jane, the eldest sister.) At which point, he pauses to enumerate his reasons for marrying, rather as if he were working through the agenda at a business conference. ‘First, … secondly …. and thirdly …’
Mr Collins’s most important reason for marrying is to set an example (self to the fore, as always); his next (typically) is that it will add greatly to his happiness (and what of Elizabeth’s?); the third, that the insufferable Lady Catherine has recommended the step. These laborious, self-·centred and inappropriate points open the way for a mass of detail (‘while Mrs Jenkinson was arranging Miss de Bourgh’s foot-stool’) indicative of Mr Collins’s unintelligent mind which is incapable of selecting relevant information. He seems to have embarked on his matrimonial quest slightly like a shopper going round a supermarket: will the article selected be acceptable to Lady Catherine? ‘…Your wit and vivacity (that phrase again) I think must be acceptable to her.’ Especially, it seems, if tempered with silence! How can Elizabeth’s wit and vivacity be heard if she is silent? The joke is that he seems to be marrying entirely for Lady Catherine’s benefit; the serious point is his rudeness to Elizabeth and failure to understand what marriage actually is. Elizabeth’s individuality counts for nothing: she might be anyone (as his speedy third choice of Charlotte Lucas demonstrates). The other serious point, which emerges a little later, is that this frightful marriage would be deemed perfectly acceptable by members of the community such as the Lucases and Mrs Bennet. Thus, in a society that pressurised young women to marry, especially with the consideration that when their father died they would otherwise have virtually no money, the constraints on young women’s options were very real.
The proposal – if such it may be called — has already been in progress for one paragraph of over a page in length, when Mr Collins finally thinks to ‘assure you in the most animated anguage of the violence of my affection’. ‘Animated’ doesn’t seem quite the right word, with all the points and subordinate clauses and ponderously constructed sentences. And the fact that he has to resort to a cliche, ‘violence of my affection’ completely undermines what he is hoping to say. Tactlessly he then grinds on, to remind Elizabeth that she has no money but he doesn’t mind doing her the favour of overlooking that fact. He sounds rather like the business news or the Financial Times: ‘one thousand pounds in the 4 per cents which will not be yours till after your mother’s decease, is all that you may ever be entitled to.’ He takes it for granted that Elizabeth will marry him – in fact, asking her hasn’t occurred to him – ‘when we are married.’
Elizabeth tries to interrupt him, to stem the flow. ‘It was absolutely necessary to interrupt him now.’ It has no effect. ‘I am not now to learn,’ replied Mr Collins, with a formal wave of the hand, ‘that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept … and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long.’ It sounds as if he’s been reading a text book on the subject; apparently a refusal from ‘young ladies … is repeated a second or even a third time.’ This indeed was true of the heroines of romantic novels – but Mr Collins doesn’t read novels. It now appears that what he prizes in his future wife are housekeeping abilities: ‘modesty, economy and other amiable qualifications.’ Elizabeth’s repeated refusals mean nothing to him; he sticks obtusely to his notion that women always refuse proposals: ‘I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application.’ In fact, he manages to interpret her refusal as encouragement of his suit. It is actually not possible to communicate with him; words don’t mean anything because he neither listens nor understands: ‘…your refusal of my addresses is merely words of course.’ His head is full of himself and Lady Catherine.
Mr Collins launches into three more points: a conceited estimate of himself, his establishment and his connections. He again reminds Elizabeth of her relative poverty: ‘your portion (money given on her marriage, which is evidently the only reason anyone could want to marry her) is unhappily so small that …. it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you.’ He sees himself as doing her a favour, and continues to believe that she is really accepting him, scattering generalisations and cliches as he does so: ‘elegant females,’ ‘uniformly charming.’
Of course, the proposal is a huge joke to read, but it cannot seem so to Elizabeth, and the scene raises some very serious issues. The preposterous reasons for marriage that Mr Collins so blithely enumerates to the horror of Elizabeth, are mostly seen by Charlotte Lucas as viable ones: to escape poverty, that no other offer of marriage may come her way, that it provides an establishment. This demonstrates the pressure and difficulties under which young women lived at that time. A future of near-indigence (worrying lack of money) awaited them if they did not marry reasonably well, and if their brothers were not kind enough, or well enough off, to support them.
The question of what Austen describes as ‘wilful self-deception’ arises; in Mr Collins it is self evident, with his refusal to understand that no does not mean yes. However, it has been equally true of Elizabeth’s assessment of Darcy. Communication (that is to say, non-communication) and accurate judgement are also important. The humour in Mr Collins’s proposal stems from incongruity, the discrepancy between what one expects in a proposal of marriage and what one gets here. What should be romantic is utterly prosaic. Mr Collins makes out that he is ‘being run away with by his feelings’ but his language indicates the opposite. He thinks he is doing Elizabeth a favour, and has no idea that she is by far the most attractive young woman in the novel and all the eligible young men (except for Mr Bingley, who loves Jane) want to propose to her. He wants her to perform the duties of a companion who will run the house economically. Presumably he thinks she will be the mother of his children, but in fact this proposal is entirely sexless. Mr Collins thinks he is eligible when it is perfectly obvious (even to Charlotte) that he is dreadful.
Mr Collins informs Mrs Bennet of his successful love.
Mr Collins relates the details of his ‘successful love’ to Mrs Bennet (he has no idea of intimacy or privacy) and even Mrs Bennet realises that the proposal has not gone quite according to plan. (What does that tell you of the level of Mr Collins’s intelligence?) She assures him that she will bring Elizabeth round to a right (?) way of thinking, but typically, and ironically, manages to make Elizabeth sound undesirable to her ardent suitor. ‘… if she is really headstrong and foolish, I know not whether she would altogether be a very desirable wife… she could not contribute much to my felicity.’ He’s evidently about to return to the supermarket and ask for a refund.
Mrs Bennet is as unromantic in her way as Mr Collins; she ‘called out’ to Mr Bennet: ‘You must come and make Lizzy marry Mr Collins, for she vows she will not have him, and if you do not make haste he will change his mind and not have her.’ The whole business has by now been trumpeted abroad to everyone in the house (although, since the voice is Mrs Bennet’s, the information is broadcast in the most confusing way possible). In fact, despite her obsession with matchmaking, she has no hand in any of her daughters’ marriages.
Mr Bennet, prevailed upon to speak to Elizabeth on the matter, makes one of his most famous pronouncements.
‘An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. ·- Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr Collins, and l will never see you again if you do.’
The glory of this lies first in the opening (‘An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth’) which raises our expectations of the unhappiness that awaits Elizabeth. This is deflated like a pricked balloon (bathos), but in a neatly turned epigram (concise and pointed, or sarcastic saying) characteristic of Mr Bennet’s wit. The parallel construction and almost identical wording of the clauses stresses the words in them that are different: ‘do not’ and ‘do’, thus reducing the whole business to an absurdity. He reacts to Elizabeth’s marriage opportunity in an irresponsibly frivolous fashion, as inadequate in its way as Mrs Bennet’s. Lydia’s response is equally superficial: ‘there is such fun here!’ It is the same as her response to her own elopement later: ‘What a good joke …’
Mrs Bennet, deprived of her hope to be the mother of a daughter soon to be married, is eloquent in her resentment.
‘….if you take it into your head to go on refusing every offer of marriage in
this way, you will never get a husband at all – and I am sure I do not know
who is to maintain you when your father is dead. – I shall not be able to
keep you … I told you in the library … that I should never speak to you
again, and you will find me as good as my word.’
The very real spectre of poverty for an unmarried woman co-exists with the impossible notion of Mrs Bennet not speaking to Elizabeth, a topic upon which she speaks at such length.
The chapter ends with more absurdity: a long paragraph from Mr Collins, opening with the portentous words, ‘let us for ever be silent on this point’ (which from two such inveterate talkers as Mr Collins and Mrs Bennet is a joke in itself). He eventually ends by saying, ‘My conduct may I fear be objectionable in having accepted my dismission from your daughter’s lips instead of your own.’ This, as so often, is both amusing and serious. He doesn’t understand that he has behaved in a most objectionable way, but not for the reason he imagines. His far more serious shortcoming has been to treat Elizabeth as less than a person – as a business conference, or as a commodity to be acquired. ‘My object,’ he continues, ‘has been to secure an amiable companion for myself.’ Say no more.
The Bingleys and Mr Darcy have left Netherfield and gone to London for the winter.
The opening paragraph of Chapter 21 contains a residue of Mr Collins’s offended self-esteem, his ‘resentful silence’ towards Elizabeth and, in another indication of what is about to happen, Charlotte Lucas listens to him for the rest of the day.
Jane receives a letter from Caroline Bingley which greatly distresses her: the whole party have left Netherfield and gone to London, not intending to return. From the details of the letter, which Jane reads to her sister, it appears that Miss Bingley would like her brother to marry Georgiana Darcy. Elizabeth, who can see straight through Miss Bingley, explains her behaviour to the generous and kindly Jane. But though Elizabeth is an accurate judge of Miss Bingley, she is wrong about her great friend Charlotte, and about Wickham, and we, unless we are very astute first-time readers of the novel, make her mistakes alongside her. Jane and Bingley, the lovers in the sub-plot, are separated by the machinations of Miss Bingley and (it later appears) the misreading of the situation by Darcy. But they continue to love one another, though this love is unspoken. When convenient to the plot, their love affair is reactivated.
Darcy and Elizabeth, the lovers in the main plot, are separated by their own characters, and by difficulties in understanding one another, not by external circumstances. Theirs is a more complex affair to resolve (and it takes the rest of the novel to do so – while Jane and Bingley’s affair is simply put on hold, as it were, for the time being). The departure of the Bingleys and Darcy for London heralds a section of the novel without Darcy. Meanwhile, two of Elizabeth’s potential suitors are turning their attention to other women. We now have two love affairs actually in progress (Elizabeth and Darcy are far from progressing at this stage): Elizabeth and Mr Collins, which is a non-starter in a comic fashion, and Jane and Mr Bingley, which has gone awry to the sadness of Jane.
We are about to witness the successful love affair (if you can so describe it) of Mr Collins and Charlotte Lucas. This is initially told in a comic way but it contains some of the darkest sentences in the novel.
Mr Collins proposes to Charlotte Lucas and is accepted.
After a brief mention of the Bennets dining with the Lucases, the heroine of the novel is removed from the scene while Austen focuses on Charlotte.
Chapter 22 opens hilariously: Charlotte Lucas imagines that, since he must leave Longbourn so soon, Mr Collins will not manage to propose to her before his departure. ‘But here, she did injustice to the fire and independence of his character..:. ‘Fire’, as we have seen, is a quality unknown to Mr Collins and, as for independence, he is entirely dependent on Lady Catherine. However, he ‘hasten(s) to Lucas Lodge to throw himself at her feet’ (another cliche).
Miss Lucas perceived him from an upper window as he walked towards the house, and instantly set out to meet him accidentally in the lane. But little had she dared to hope that so much love and eloquence awaited her there.
This is told with so light a touch that it is easy to miss what Jane Austen is actually saying. What was Charlotte doing glued to ‘an upper window’ anyway? (presumably waiting to see whether her conversations with Mr Collins were going to bear any fruit). And she is not going to let any chance slip: she ‘instantly set out.’ Jane Austen is adept at writing two words that cancel each other out. Here ‘accidentally’ gives the whole show away, positioned as it is so near to ‘instantly set out’ – the one so coincidental, the other so purposeful. And she is mindful of outward decorum: a young lady should not be meeting a young man unattended, so the meeting has to be ‘accidental.’ As for the romantic ‘eloquence’ of Mr Collins, have we ever known him to talk for less than a page at a time?
Mr Collins ‘earnestly entreated her to name the day that was to make him the happiest of men’: the man can only speak in cliches (‘the happiest of men’) and he repeats them quite often. ‘The happiest of men’ turns up more than once, and ‘amiable’ is his favoured adjective for Charlotte. Later, he consistently calls his house his ‘humble abode.’ But this amusing opening sentence leads to a much grimmer part of the chapter. ‘The stupidity with which he was favoured by nature, must guard his courtship from any charm that could make a woman wish for its continuance.’ Here,’stupidity’ and ‘favoured’ are the words that cancel each other out. You would hope that the period of courtship would have ‘charm’ but Mr Collins’s has none. ‘Miss Lucas, who accepted him solely from the pure and disinterested (objective, not biased) desire of an establishment, cared not how soon that establishment (household) were gained.’ The words, ‘pure’ and ‘disinterested’ lead you to expect something rather noble: what you get is ‘an establishment’ – in other words, Charlotte accepts him without one atom of interest in him, any affection or love or wish for his company. What she wants is a roof over her head. And all he wants is an ‘amiable’ companion and housekeeper.
There are other details that underline the lamentable lack of affection or romance in this relationship. This passage starts quite promisingly with phrases reminiscent of sentimental novels: ‘so much love and eloquence,’ ‘the day that was to make him the happiest of men,’ ‘the lady felt no inclination to trifle with his happiness.’ But this is all undermined by sentences such as, ‘The stupidity with which he was favoured by nature, must guard his courtship from any charm that could make a woman wish for its continuance.’ Indeed, this sentence ends with the brutal truth that ‘Miss Lucas … cared not how soon that establishment were gained.’ The unvarnished facts replace the meaningless language of high-flown sentimentality. So this is why the lady ‘felt no inclination to trifle with his happiness’: she wanted to get her hands on a house for herself absolutely as soon as possible. Furthermore, ‘pure and disinterested, which sounds so elevated is, on closer consideration, anything but. The word ‘interest’ in ‘disinterested’ is a word particularly concerned with interest in money and property. And this is precisely what Charlotte is specifically interested in: the word is used with sharp irony. The discrepancy between these phrases redolent of passion (‘to throw himself at her feet’) and the truth of the situation constitutes a strong criticism of Mr Collins’s reasons for marrying. It also helps us to recognise true affection, based on respect, esteem, gratitude and real interest in the welfare of the other. Thus the eventual true love matches seem all the more precious.
Jane Austen generally uses words that clash and virtually cancel each other out (such as ‘stupidity’ and ‘favoured’) when she is describing a conceited character like Mr Collins (or Mary, to whom Mr Bennet had to say, ‘you have delighted us long enough.’). The words that clash, or the word in a sentence that is conspicuously out of place, acts as a clear criticism of the person or action concerned. With more serious and less conceited characters, like Elizabeth or Mr Darcy, Jane Austen seldom uses this technique. She doesn’t need to: Elizabeth lashes herself with criticism when she realises her mistakes – “How despicably have I acted!’ She is much more self-aware than Mr Collins and this self-criticism is part of her journey of personal development. It is not presented as being remotely funny. Mr Collins is incapable of understanding or development, hut is immensely conceited, so this criticism is levelled at him and one can laugh at it and him.
Austen depicts this section of the chapter in an ambiguous way as regards the reader’s feelings about Charlotte’s decision – which are probably going to be different from Elizabeth’s reaction on the occasion. As John Mullan observes, Austen ‘has the peculiar habit of referring to a character formally and informally in the same stretch of narrative. When Charlotte Lucas sets about luring Mr Collins into a marriage proposal, we are told, ‘Charlotte’s kindness extended farther than Elizabeth had any concept of. … Such was Miss Lucas’s scheme (plan)’. And again, ‘Charlotte had been tolerably encouraging … Miss Lucas perceived him from an upper window.’ Professor Mullan suggests that this movement between closeness (Charlotte) and detachment (Miss Lucas) ‘conditions our odd mix of sympathy and horror at what the character is doing.’
The reactions of Charlotte’s family to the news of her engagement are distressingly heartless. Her parents give their consent to the marriage, ‘a most eligible match’, with ‘joyful alacrity (promptness)’. His ‘present circumstances’ are good ‘and his prospects of future wealth were exceedingly fair.’ Nothing is said on the score of compatibility or love. Charlotte’s younger sisters can come out (that is, go into society) sooner, on account of their elder sister’s marriage; her brothers won’t have to support an old maid. Everyone’s reactions are self-seeking, rather than being directed towards considerations of Charlotte’s welfare. Compare this with Elizabeth’s feelings for Jane at the Netherfield ball: ‘the train of agreeable reflections which her observations (of Bingley and Jane) gave birth to, made her perhaps almost as happy as Jane. She saw her … in all the felicity which a marriage of true affection could bestow.’
Charlotte’s own reactions (most important of all) are ‘in general satisfactory. Mr Collins to be sure was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society (companionship) was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary….Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their (young women’s) pleasantest preservative from want (poverty).’ This could be description directly given us by the omniscient narrator; however, one or two phrases reveal that we are in Charlotte’s mind. ‘Mr Collins to be sure was neither sensible nor agreeable …’ Here, it is the phrase, ‘to be sure’ that takes us into Charlotte’s thoughts. And later, ‘however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.’ Is this Jane Austen? Or is that telltale ‘must’ Charlotte convincing herself that her only option is to marry the unspeakable Mr Collins, with a ‘must’ as well as a generalisation presented as a statement of fact? As Professor Mullan observes, we are taken into Charlotte’s calculations. (What Matters in Jane Austen page 313)
The even tone of the passage belies the stark facts: marriage is Charlotte’s pleasantest (not a word that springs immediately to mind in conjunction with Mr Collins) preservative from poverty. And she is fully aware that Mr Collins is ‘neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome’ and he doesn’t care for her. (She later solves the problem of his company by making sure he is busy in the garden.)
The style ensures that Mr Collins is mocked, together with his notions of love and his reasons for marrying, but Charlotte is not ridiculed. Her reasons for marriage are not shared by Elizabeth, for whom (seeing that this is a comedy and will have a happy outcome) we can certainly hope better things are in store. But Charlotte’s reasons for taking this drastic step are understood, though they are not recommended, by the novel. Jane Austen acknowledges the joyless lot that too often fell to women. Charlotte’s reasons for accepting Mr Collins are not, I think, understood by Elizabeth. Elizabeth, in Chapter 24, expresses her views vehemently to Jane. ‘Mr Collins is a conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man; … you must feel, as well as I do, that the woman who marries him cannot have a proper way of thinking. You shall not defend her, though it is Charlotte Lucas.’ Perhaps we are able to see, as Elizabeth is not, that at only twenty, as opposed to Charlotte’s twenty-seven, she can still afford to be idealistic.
However, Charlotte’s summary of the situation is: ‘This preservative (from poverty) she had now obtained; and at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it.’ Elizabeth and Darcy work towards a better understanding of themselves and of each other, after the crisis of Darcy’s proposal. They wait for quite a long time before various difficulties in their path are resolved. Charlotte, on the other hand, gains her end without hesitation, and ‘felt all the good luck of it.’ Marriage, for her, at the age of twenty-seven, is not a matter of understanding, esteem and love, but of ‘luck’. She had said as much to Elizabeth earlier, during a conversation in which she was recommending that Jane should demonstrate rather more obvious partiality for Bingley. ‘Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.’
When she was thirty-three, Jane Austen described an impoverished spinster of her acquaintance with a compassionate eye. In a letter to her sister, Cassandra, she writes:
Miss Murden was quite a different creature this last evening from what she
had been before, owing to her having with Martha’s help found a situation,
(job) …, which bids very fair for comfort. … I was truly glad to see her
comfortable in mind and spirits: at her age, perhaps, one may be as
friendless oneself, and in similar circumstances quite as captious …
(Letter, 27 December, 1808)
This, then, was the future that awaited Charlotte unless she took steps to pre-empt it.
Self-seeking is something of a theme in this chapter. It is not only Charlotte’s family who are pleased with her engagement because of what they can get out of it for themselves. In truth, this is the very reason Charlotte and Mr Collins are marrying. At the end of the book, Elizabeth accounts for Darcy’s interest in her: ‘The fact is, that you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention’ – of people (like Caroline Bingley) flattering him for what they could get from it.
When Charlotte breaks the news of her engagement to Elizabeth, she is so astonished that she breaks ‘the bounds of decorum’ before recollecting herself and behaving with the courtesy that is due to her friend. ‘She wished her all imaginable happiness.’
Pride and Prejudice is very much concerned with decorum, which is not simply the business of remembering the demands of etiquette and convention (for example, the correct length for a morning visit). Decorum is right behaviour springing, ideally, from right feelings. Thus both the prejudice of Elizabeth against Darcy, and his own pride, are breaches of decorum. Until a person can see and understand and feel justly, true decorum will probably be lacking, which is why the balance of head and heart, reason / understanding and feeling, is so important in Jane Austen’s novels.
The strict conventions of society sometimes throw up difficult (and unresolved) questions. For example, as Elizabeth later says to her aunt, Mrs Gardiner:
‘…What is the difference in matrimonial affairs, between the mercenary and the prudent motive? Where does discretion end, and avarice begin?’ (Chapter 27). This is a propos Wickham; if he had proposed to Elizabeth, it would have been imprudent on her part to have accepted him; if he pursues a girl with a ten thousand pound fortune, he is labelled mercenary. Later, when a marriage between Lydia and Wickham has been engineered to achieve acceptable respectability for them and to avoid dishonour to the Bennet family, Elizabeth says: ‘And for this we are to be thankful. That they should marry, small as is their chance of happiness, and wretched as is his character, we are forced to rejoice!’ The demands of society are not always to be accepted without question.
By now, Jane Austen has disrupted the even and expected direction of her plot. The Bingleys and Mr Darcy have gone to London for the winter, thus preventing any continuation of Jane and Bingley’s relationship or development of Elizabeth and Darcy’s. The Bingleys and Mr Darcy are effectively put in the background for the next section of the novel. And Mr Collins, the most unlikely and unpromising of bridegrooms, is the one to be about to marry the confirmed spinster, Charlotte Lucas.
Sir William tells the Bennets the news of Charlotte’s engagement.
Lydia always breaks the bounds of decorum – she has no care for it nor understanding of it. When Sir William arrives to give the Bennets the news of Charlotte’s engagement, Lydia,
always unguarded and often uncivil, boisterously exclaimed,
‘Good Lord! Sir William, how can you tell such a story? – Do not you know that Mr Collins wants to marry Lizzy?’
‘Unguarded’, ‘uncivil’, ‘boisterously’, suggest lack of courtesy, decorum, control and respect. What Lydia says to Sir William is rude -she accuses him of telling a lie – and the way she says it is exceedingly impolite – she speaks to him uninhibitedly and impertinently as if he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The decorous and courteous response of Elizabeth and Jane is in direct contrast to Lydia’s rudeness.
Once Sir William has left, Mrs Bennet gives ‘rapid vent’ to her feelings, each one of which is more ludicrously illogical than the last. If she disbelieves the whole matter (feeling number one) how can she think that Mr Collins has been taken in (feeling number two)? The bottom line is that Elizabeth is ‘the real cause of all the mischief and that ‘she herself had been barbarously used by them all.’ The premise on which these inferences are based is only too obviously the monstrous mothers’ matrimonial stakes – which she finds she has lost, having been certain of winning. Lady Lucas is gloatingly aware of this: ‘she called at Longbourn rather oftener than usual to say how happy she was.’
As usual, the family’s reactions to Charlotte’s engagement define their characters: Mr Bennet is witty, Jane ‘a little surprised’ but voices an ‘earnest desire for their happiness.’ Kitty and Lydia regard the news as gossip ‘to spread at Meryton’ – Mr Collins is not a soldier, ‘only a clergyman’ and therefore of no interest as a man. The step Charlotte has taken shows Jane’s own ‘rectitude and delicacy’ even more clearly as regards Bingley, but Elizabeth is anxious for her, since there is no word from him. Elizabeth’s disillusionment in Charlotte is coupled with a realisation that she cannot rely upon her friend’s values; she prizes Jane all the more highly as a result. ‘Her disappointment in Charlotte made her turn with fonder regard to her sister…’.
The chapter ends uproariously: Mrs Bennet is complaining that Charlotte Lucas will be ‘mistress of this house,’ and continues: ‘If it was not for the entail I should not mind it.’ Usually Mrs Bennet’s daftness is left unchallenged: here Mr Bennet/Jane Austen cannot resist challenging it and taking it to its ludicrous conclusion.
‘What should not you mind?
‘I should not mind anything at all.’
‘Let us be thankful that you are preserved from a state of such insensibility,’ (lack of awareness bordering on coma).
(Volume II Chapter i)
Jane and Elizabeth discuss two matters that greatly concern them: the Bingley family’s intention to remain in London for the winter, and Charlotte’s imminent marriage to Mr Collins.
Miss Bingley’s letter arrives, and makes it clear that they are all settled in London for the winter. ‘Elizabeth … heard it in silent indignation.’ Her heart was divided between concern for her sister, and resentment against all the others.’ This sentence is structured in a way typical of the eighteenth century (to which Jane Austen’s style and concerns really belong, although Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813). The antithetical ideas (thoughts or words balanced in contrast), although expressing anxiety and distress (‘concern’, ‘resentment’) are expressed in an orderly, balanced way. The structure of the sentence makes the division of Elizabeth’s feelings (‘for’ her sister and ‘against’ the others) all the clearer. Although the sentence describes Elizabeth’s strong feelings, the abstract nouns specifying these feelings, ‘concern’, ‘resentment’, sounds moderate, as does the balanced structure, another characteristic of 18th century style.
Balance and order, in a wider sense, (usually a balance of head and heart, thinking and feeling) are what the heroes and heroines of Jane Austen’s novels arrive at, generally after a somewhat chequered career of too much head or too much heart. Characters in the sub-plot may be all one or all the other: for example, Charlotte Lucas’s marriage is all head; later, Lydia’s is all heart – not to say lust.
Jane’s conspicuous quality is candour, which is frankness, sincerity, freedom from prejudice. Candour also implies kindliness, and a capacity for thinking the best of people (she applies this, correctly, to Darcy). So she says, of Bingley’s sisters, ‘They can only wish his happiness, and if he is attached to me, no other woman can secure it.’ She thinks badly of neither Bingley nor his sisters. She goes on to say: ‘I am not ashamed of having been mistaken (in her understanding of Bingley’s intentions towards her) – or, at least, it is slight, it is nothing in comparison of what I should feel in thinking ill of him or his sisters.’
Elizabeth, we are told, ‘could not oppose such a wish; and from this time Mr Bingley’s name was scarcely ever mentioned between them.’ You see true affection and consideration between the sisters; they have great delicacy of feeling, and form a complete contrast with Bingley’s sisters, and, indeed, with their own sister Lydia’s feelings and behaviour towards them, especially later in the novel. Charlotte Lucas’s sisters and brothers, too, are far more self-interested than Jane and Elizabeth.
And yet, the ‘angelic’ Jane with her ‘sweetness and disinterestedness’ (being fair, unbiased) is not the heroine of the novel, as she would have been in earlier sentimental novels. Elizabeth, with her many faults, is the heroine. Patricia Meyer Spacks writes: ‘Austen’s originality manifests itself in her imagining of such a character as of primary importance in her plot. The witty girl who had appeared frequently in eighteenth-century fiction invariably figured as secondary to the heroine… Austen is not only original but daring; she dares to introduce into her fiction the angelically good sister, and yet to insist tacitly on Elizabeth’s moral as well as intellectual preeminence.’ (Pride and Prejudice an annotated edition, pages 174, 175 Harvard University Press 2010) Of course, the novel is concerned with the journey of Elizabeth’s head and heart, not the already perfect Jane who has, in this respect, no journey to make.
Mrs Bennet, thinking only of herself, tramples all over Jane’s feelings. Mr Bennet finds in the sad situation another opportunity to exercise his wit.
“So, Lizzy,” said he one day, “your sister is crossed in love I find. I congratulate her. Next to being married, a girl likes to be crossed in love a little now and then. It is something to think of, and gives her a sort of distinction among her companions. When is your turn to come?”
He and Lizzy are very attached to each other and so Elizabeth responds in witty kind.
But his wit is too flippant; he is not sufficiently aware of and concerned for Jane’s distress.
Although Elizabeth honours Jane’s feelings, she has a little earlier articulated her own with characteristic vigour. ‘There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it …’. She is both serious and discriminating; only the best will do for her – and at twenty she has all the optimism to accompany the assertion. She then declares: ‘Mr Collins is a conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man; you know he is, as well as I do; and you must feel, as well as I do, that the woman who marries him, cannot have a proper way of thinking. You shall not defend her, though it is Charlotte Lucas. You shall not, for the sake of one individual, change the meaning of principle and integrity …’. In Elizabeth’s eyes, Charlotte has compromised her probity (her principles), has not been true to herself in making this decision to marry Mr Collins. She is perhaps too young to understand the concessions which age and circumstances may press upon Charlotte. Jane’s gentle rejoinder, ‘I must think your language too strong’, is not the language of weakness. ‘Must’ and ‘too strong’ are firm words, indicating Jane’s greater awareness and compassion.
In the modesty of her claims, Jane shows a humility lacking in her confident younger sister. Speaking of Mr Bingley’s apparent admiration for her, she says, ‘It is very often nothing but our own vanity that deceives us. Women fancy admiration means more than it does.’ Bingley, for his part, has been persuaded by Darcy that Jane did not feel so much for him as he had supposed. Elizabeth sees a ‘want (lack) of proper resolution (firmness)’ in Bingley and too kind an interpretation of events by Jane. Both Jane and Bingley display a humility which contrasts with Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s pride.
The Bennets often see Wickham ‘and to his other recommendations was now added that of general unreserve.’ An ironic sentence: in other words, he’s fascinatingly indiscreet. Not a recommendation, and not decorous behaviour. It is only the candid Jane who ‘could suppose there might be any extenuating circumstances in (Darcy’s) case, unknown to the society of Hertfordshire.’
(Volume II Chapter ii)
Mr and Mrs Gardiner spend Christmas at Longbourn.
(Volume II Chapter iii)
Mrs Gardiner warns Elizabeth that it would be imprudent to marry Wickham as he has no money. Charlotte and Mr Collins marry and Jane goes for a long visit to the Gardiners.
(Volume II Chapter iv)
Elizabeth, Sir William Lucas and his daughter Maria Lucas go to stay with Charlotte and Mr Collins in Kent, breaking the journey overnight with the Gardiners in London.
Mr and Mrs Gardiner, Mrs Bennet’s brother and sister-in-law from London, come to spend Christmas at Longbourn. He is ‘well bred and agreeable,’ she an ‘amiable, intelligent, elegant’ woman, and the two eldest Bennet girls are very fond of her. Mrs Gardiner had, before her marriage, spent some time in Derbyshire, had seen Pemberley and knew of the Darcys. She is unable to remember precisely what Mr Darcy was said to be like but, having heard Elizabeth’s (Wickham’s) version, ‘recollected having heard Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy formerly spoken of as a very proud, ill-natured boy.’ This adverse information, from such a likeable person, again influences Elizabeth’s (and our) impression of Darcy.
The Gardiners are to be crucial in the plot of the novel. They are a much better advertisement for Elizabeth’s family than her own mother and father are and they are the reason Elizabeth goes to Derbyshire and sees Darcy there in the summer.
Jane goes back with the Gardiners to stay with them in London and to see if a change of scene can cheer her up. Meanwhile Wickham has become the admirer of a young woman with a fortune of £10,000. Elizabeth had condemned Charlotte for marrying for security, but ‘less clear-sighted perhaps in his case than in Charlotte’s, did not quarrel with him for his wish of independence.’ After all, ‘handsome men must have something to live on, as well as the plain.’ In March, Elizabeth is to go with Sir William and Maria Lucas, to Hunsford Parsonage to stay with Charlotte and Mr Collins.
Thus, Charlotte’s marriage to Mr Collins, vicar of the parish in which Mr Darcy’s aunt lives, also proves to be crucial to the plot and structure of the novel. Mr Darcy’s aunt is as vulgar as Mrs Bennet so it becomes clear that Elizabeth is not the only possessor of relations who are a disadvantage. And Mr Darcy comes to visit his aunt at Easter thus providing an opportunity for him and Elizabeth to further their relationship.
As the party bound for Hunsford break their journey overnight with the Gardiners in London, Jane Austen prepares for the summer section of the novel. Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle, the Gardiners, invite her to accompany them on a summer holiday to the Lake District. In the event, this holiday only takes them as far as Derbyshire which, crucially, is where Darcy lives.
The Lake District had become very popular in the 1790s. Because of the French Revolution, trips to the continent had become almost impossible. Various writers had described the scenery – for example Thomas West in A Guide to the Lakes (1778) and William Gilpin in his Observations, Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty. The Lake poets, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey had further raised awareness of the region’s beauty (Wordsworth published his Guide to the Lakes in 1810). Elizabeth responds ‘rapturously’ to this plan and anticipates hours of ‘transport’ (rapture). This may be partly because she is so fed up with men (Darcy, Bingley, Mr Collins, even Wickham): ‘What are men to rocks and mountains?’ It may be partly, too, because of the very circumscribed life that young women led then. Jane Austen describes the effect of the rainy weather before the Netherfield Ball at the end of Chapter 17: ‘there was such a succession of rain as prevented their walking to Meryton once.’ Indeed, from Chapter 23 to Chapter 27, one of the main topics has been the different reactions of the women – and of Mr Bennet – to events. The men are, on the whole, the instigators of action; the women’s business is, mostly, to react to the action. Some of the women respond in a selfish way, and others in a more thoughtful, rational, kindly way involving considerable self-discipline.
Chapters 28 – 37
(Volume II, Chapters v- xiv)
Chapters 28 to 37 are concerned with Elizabeth’s stay at Hunsford. This is where Mr Collins’s part in the novel becomes important, as regards plot, for he forms the link between Meryton/Longbourn and Rosings Park where Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Darcy’s aunt, lives. We meet Lady Catherine – an aristocrat in title but not in manners, which re-introduces the theme of snobbery and of true courtesy. We have seen plenty of Elizabeth’s vulgar relations; now we have an opportunity to see Darcy’s.
The Hunsford section of the novel brings to a head the misunderstanding between Elizabeth and Darcy, when he proposes and she assures him that ‘you were the last person in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.’ (Chapter 34) Darcy’s letter explains the true position and Elizabeth realises how completely wrong and biased she has been in her assessment, understanding and judgement of the situation, and of Darcy’s character and her own. Her new self-awareness and humility leads to a change of feeling towards Darcy, which the second half of the novel resolves.
Jane Austen is far too sure an artist to impose this volte-face on Elizabeth: she has, if one reads carefully, prepared the ground. Elizabeth is more interested in Darcy than she admits or realises, and is more embarrassed by her family than she allows. Darcy’s own friends and relations are by no means free of snobbery and vulgarity. From Elizabeth’s point of view the relationship has been antagonistic, but they share wit and intelligence and a seriousness about important issues. Elizabeth is already quite perceptive about Darcy. (In Chapter 10, Bingley teases Darcy: ‘if Darcy were not such a great tall fellow, in comparison with myself, I should not pay him half so much deference.’ Darcy smiles, but ‘Elizabeth thought she could perceive that he was rather offended; and therefore checked her laugh.’ She behaves well towards him: she is not prepared to amuse herself at his expense.
The only time Elizabeth is rude to Darcy is when he proposes – when he is very rude to her. She tells him: ‘…had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner,’ and she alludes to ‘your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others …’ These insults (Darcy later refers to one of them as ‘your reproof’) lead him to reconsider his understanding and estimation of himself. They also lead him to write the letter which prompts Elizabeth to come to a new understanding of herself and of him.
(Volume II Chapter v)
Sir William, his daughter Maria, and Elizabeth arrive at Hunsford Parsonage.
Elizabeth’s reception at Hunsford is affectionate (Charlotte) and absurd (Mr Collins):
‘…he welcomed them a second time with ostentatious (showy, boastful) formality to his humble abode …’. The devastating pair of words this time are ‘ostentatious’ and ‘humble’, cancelling each other out, and making Mr Collins seem more ridiculous than ever in using them. Charlotte has adopted one or two strategies for living with ‘such a companion.’ One is ‘in general Charlotte wisely did not hear.’ Another is to encourage Mr Collins to do plenty of gardening. Yet another, it emerges in Chapter 30, is to use as a sitting room one which faces away from the road. Mr Collins has a much nicer apartment: ‘his own book room, which fronted the road,’ and he therefore remains in it for much of the time. Elizabeth ‘gave Charlotte credit for the arrangement.’
The view that occupies Mr Collins most is ‘the prospect (view) of Rosings … . It was a handsome modern building, well situated on rising ground.’ This is the country seat of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Lady Catherine, we hear yet again, ‘is all affability and condescension’. The number of Mr Collins’s nonsensical formulae is growing: his stock phrases now include ‘amiable’ for Charlotte, ‘humble abode’ for his house, ‘wit and vivacity’ for Elizabeth. His favourite word when speaking of Lady Catherine is ‘honour’. It peppers his sentences: ‘Yes, Miss Elizabeth, you will have the honour of seeing Lady Catherine de Bourgh on the ensuing Sunday at church. … I doubt not but you will be honoured by some portion of her notice when service is over. I have scarcely any hesitation in saying that she will include you and my sister (-in-law) Maria in every invitation with which she honours us during your stay here.’ Rightly used, honour includes a sense of respect due to a worthy person. Mr Collins’s use of the word shows us his stupidity in failing to notice Lady Catherine’s worthlessness. And, as we can see, ‘honour’ ironically highlights the extent to which Lady Catherine is not worthy of honour.
Our first sighting of a De Bourgh gives a foretaste of what is to come. Next day ‘the whole house (is) in confusion … somebody running upstairs in a violent hurry.’ This is Maria (Charlotte’s younger sister) who ‘breathless with agitation’ cries out to Elizabeth to come downstairs ‘for there is such a sight to be seen!’ It is Lady Catherine’s daughter and her companion, Mrs Jenkinson, in a phaeton (an open, four-wheeled carriage, drawn by one or two horses). And this is what all the uproar is about. Sir William bows like mad whenever Miss De Bourgh looks his way, but Elizabeth is mainly struck by the rudeness of keeping Charlotte out of doors in such windy weather. She claims that she thought, from the pandemonium caused, that ‘at least … the pigs were got into the garden’, but the reality was far less interesting. So Miss De Bourgh and her companion are less interesting than pigs. That puts them in their place.
(Volume II Chapter vi)
Lady Catherine invites the Collinses and their guests to dinner at Rosings.
In Chapter 29, the parsonage party are invited to dinner at Rosings. Although we learn little of the appearance of the mansion, there is enough information to impress upon us its pretentiousness; the expense lavished (on the glazing and, as we heard earlier, the chimney-piece) is obvious. The invitation presents more opportunities for Mr Collins to demonstrate his capacity to talk nonsense and to be tactless.
“Do not make yourself uneasy, my dear cousin, about your apparel. Lady Catherine is far from requiring that elegance of dress in us, which becomes herself and daughter. I would advise you merely to put on whatever of your clothes is superior to the rest, there is no occasion for any thing more. Lady Catherine will not think the worse of you for being simply dressed. She likes to have the distinction of rank preserved.”
From this we gather that Lady Catherine likes to surround herself with people to whom she feels herself superior: “far from requiring that elegance of dress in us, which becomes herself and daughter … . She likes to have the distinction of rank preserved.” (In fact, when Elizabeth meets her, she finds that ‘her manner of receiving them (was not) such as to make her visitors forget their inferior rank.’) Mr Collins’s suggestion that Elizabeth might be ‘uneasy … about (her) apparel’ is insulting; and to advise her ‘to put on whatever of your clothes is superior to the rest, there is no occasion for any thing more.’ is an impossibility!
As the party approach Rosings it becomes evident that the house is notable for its ostentatious display of wealth. Mr Collins dwells on the number of windows and consequent expense of the glazing, the entrance hall, with its ‘finished ornaments.’ In Chapter 16 we heard about the top-of-the-range chimney-piece costing £800. These objects ‘inspire … raptures’ in Mr Collins, although he quite failed to be either inspired or rapturous when he proposed to Elizabeth.
When they have been introduced to Lady Catherine ‘they were all sent to one of the windows, to admire the view’ (like children). Lady Catherine holds forth throughout dinner; everyone else is perforce silent. This state of affairs continues when the ladies return to the drawing-room:
… there was little to be done but to hear Lady Catherine talk, which she did without any intermission till coffee came in, delivering her opinion on every subject in so decisive a manner as proved that she was not used to have her judgment controverted. She enquired into Charlotte’s domestic concerns familiarly and minutely, and gave her a great deal of advice.
In other words, she likes to be the centre of attention, she is intrusive, bossy and managing and loves to dictate to other people.
Then Lady Catherine turns her attention to Elizabeth and requires to be furnished with details of her family (which are nothing to do with her). ‘Elizabeth felt all the impertinence of her questions.’ The passage describing all this gathers momentum as the relentless barrage of questions builds up:
… how many sisters she had, whether they were older or younger than herself, whether any of them were likely to be married, whether they were handsome, where they had been educated, what carriage her father kept, and what had been her mother’s maiden name?
It becomes clear that Lady Catherine (Darcy’s aunt) is quite as rude and vulgar in her own way as Elizabeth’s relations are. The question about Mr Bennet’s carriage is designed to elicit an estimate of Mr Bennet’s income. And it does. ‘The Miss Webbs all play, and their father has not so good an income as your’s.’ Mrs Bennet’s maiden name will tell Lady Catherine the social standing of Elizabeth’s mother. And it does. During the later set-to between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine, Lady Catherine acknowledges, ‘You are a gentleman’s daughter.’ But she has not forgotten about Mrs Bennet. ‘But who was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunts? Do not imagine me ignorant of their condition (social status).’ (Chapter 56) Lady Catherine’s questions are designed to elicit facts, not to learn more about her young guest as a person. And the facts are to be used to exclude Elizabeth from Lady’s Catherine’s family on grounds of social status. The Bingley sisters behaved in a similar way when the excluded Elizabeth from walking with them. They wished to ensure that their society was not broached, but remained exclusive.
The tone of Lady Catherine’s questions and comments is critical and officious. ‘Do your sisters play and sing?’ ‘Why did not you all learn?’ Her conversation is sprinkled with the word ‘1’. She also has an unnerving tendency to hold forth on one topic (her genius in recommending governesses, for example). Suddenly, without pausing, she jabs an unrelated question at a different person.
‘Mrs. Collins, did I tell you of Lady Metcalfe’s calling yesterday to thank me? She finds Miss Pope a treasure. ‘Lady Catherine,’ said she, ‘you have
given me a treasure.’ Are any of your younger sisters out, Miss Bennet?’
These unnerving questions tend to be closed questions. There is little option for any answer other than, yes, no, or a little. Lady Catherine does not want to hear what Elizabeth has to say; this is a display of her power.
Because Elizabeth is so unabashed and undismayed by this uncalled-for inquisition and stands up for herself so readily, we can enjoy the display of outrageously bad manners. (What constitutes true courtesy is a theme of the novel.) By the time Elizabeth thwarts Lady Catherine’s unseemly thirst for information to which she has no right, we can be thoroughly entertained. Obviously Lady Catherine has never been denied anything in her life. Elizabeth’s ability to stand up for herself suggests something of her strength of character, too. And, although she couches her replies in a form that is almost scrupulously polite, she manages to give them just a little extra bubble and sting. Instead of answering Lady Catherine’s, ‘Do you draw?’ with, ‘No,’ she says, ‘No, not at all.’ Surprised, Lady Catherine says, ‘What, none of you?’ Elizabeth could have answered, ‘No.’ But she mischievously says, ‘Not one.’ (Absolutely not a single one, in other words.) There is a characteristic ebullience, an almost invisible impertinence here, too witty and discreet for Lady Catherine to identify and crush, but enough for us to rejoice in.
If Pride and Prejudice is based on the story of Cinderella, and Bingley’s sisters are the ugly sisters, then Lady Catherine is certainly the powerful and unpleasant stepmother.
The entire evening is devoted to Lady Catherine and her daughter: ‘When Lady Catherine and her daughter had played as long as they chose, the tables were broke up …’. And the table at which Maria and Elizabeth sit is ‘superlatively stupid’ (the alliteration emphasises the tedium). Lady Catherine ends the evening by ‘determin(ing) what weather they were to have on the morrow.’ King Canute would have been impressed; he had no luck with the waves. It is evenings such as these that are the delight of Mr Collins’s life.
Jane Austen has carefully prepared us for meeting Lady Catherine. We heard rather too much about her when Mr Collins first arrived at Longbourn to stay with the Bennets. We have recently seen the rudeness of her daughter in keeping Charlotte out in a cold wind, and have heard yet more of Lady Catherine from Mr Collins. Thus, when Elizabeth meets her, we already know what to expect. Therefore Jane Austen can indulge herself and the reader in showing us a character fully as monstrous as we could expect and in showing how her heroine is able to stand up for herself. Having established Elizabeth at Rosings, she can now afford to add Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr Darcy to the cast of characters at Rosings.
(Volume II Chapter vii)
After a week’s stay with his daughter, Sir William goes home, leaving Elizabeth and Maria to spend another five weeks with Charlotte and Mr Collins. Mr Darcy and his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, arrive a week before Easter for a visit with their aunt, Lady Catherine.
(Volume II Chapter viii)
The Collinses, Elizabeth and Maria are invited to spend the evening of Easter Day at Rosings.
Mr Darcy and his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam come to stay with their aunt for a few weeks around Easter. The Collinses and their guests are not invited to Rosings for some while; they are only a stop-gap pastime for Lady Catherine, and ‘while there were visitors in the house, they could not be necessary.’ When they spend the evening of Easter Day there, Colonel Fitzwilliam talks animatedly to Elizabeth: ‘Mrs Collins’s pretty friend had moreover caught his fancy very much.’ As so often before, Mr Darcy’s eyes are fixed on Elizabeth.
Lady Catherine is as shrill and intrusive as ever. ‘What is that you are saying, Fitzwilliam? What is it you are talking of? What are you telling Miss Bennet? Let me hear what it is…. I must have my share in the conversation …’. The subject moves on to music, and Lady Catherine tells everyone, ‘If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient (skilled, expert)’. She talks almost as much nonsense as Mrs Bennet does. She then addresses her nephew, Mr Darcy:
“I have told Miss Bennet several times, that she will never play really well, unless she practises more; and though Mrs Collins has no instrument, she is very welcome, as I have often told her, to come to Rosings every day, and play on the piano forte in Mrs Jenkinson’s room. She would be in nobody’s way, you know, in that part of the house.”
Mr Darcy looked a little ashamed of his aunt’s ill breeding, and made no answer.
Lady Catherine’s reference to the piano being in the room of Mrs Jenkinson, the hired companion of her daughter, suggests that she considers Elizabeth to be of similar social status, someone who should not get in the way of Lady Catherine and her family. Thus the way is being prepared for Darcy’s and Elizabeth’s changes of understanding and feeling. Each has now recognised shortcomings in her/his own family, and the way is open to change.
When Elizabeth, at Colonel Fitzwilliam’s request, plays the piano, Darcy moves towards her, to look at her and a little later, to talk ‘smilingly’ to her. This is the opposite of the Bingley sisters’ exclusion of Elizabeth on the walk in Chapter 10. Although most of Elizabeth’s conversation (in between pieces of music) is apparently with Colonel Fitzwilliam, it is about and is directed at Darcy. And Darcy instinctively understands this, for he directly answers the questions Elizabeth puts to Colonel Fitzwilliam. ‘Perhaps, I should have judged better,’ he says. She teases him, but in such a way that it cannot possibly hurt him, although her teasing constitutes a gentle criticism of his discourteous behaviour at the first ball (which still rankles).
Darcy offers a justification for his behaviour on the vexed occasion of the Meryton assembly (Chapter 3): ‘I am ill qualified to recommend myself to strangers.’ But Elizabeth will not allow this excuse from a man ‘of sense and education, and who has lived in the world.’ Darcy gives another explanation of his behaviour which Elizabeth again counters, this time by comparing him to herself in her lack of serious application to piano practice, ‘… because I would not take the trouble …’ And Darcy accepts this, again with a smile, adding, ‘We neither of us perform to strangers.’ Their compatibility is becoming increasingly obvious to him, though not to her. Darcy’s words ‘we’ and ‘us’ imply closeness. He speaks of ‘the pleasure of your acquaintance’ and ‘the privilege of hearing you’ – words which Elizabeth presumably construes as chilly courtesy, even of ironical criticism. They come, in fact, from the heart of this shy man.
Jane Austen is repeating the patterns of earlier chapters. When Elizabeth talked to Wickham, in Chapter 16, she was interested to find out more about Darcy from him. This time, in speaking to Colonel Fitzwilliam, the same is true. She talks to these two attractive young men but the topic of conversation is Darcy. And the grouping of the characters is also similar to that in earlier chapters. At Netherfield, Darcy was with his friend Bingley, and the criticisms and unpleasantness came from Miss Bingley. At Rosings, Darcy is with his friend and cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and the criticisms and unpleasantness come from Lady Catherine. The difference is that at Rosings Darcy is with members of his family whereas at Netherfield he was staying with friends. This forms a balance with Elizabeth’s presentation: here she is staying with her friend, Charlotte, and earlier she was often, though not always, seen with her family. Darcy’s aunt is a drawback for him at Rosings; Elizabeth’s mother and some other members of her family were a drawback for her at Meryton and Netherfield.
(Volume II Chapter ix)
Mr Darcy often visits Hunsford Parsonage.
Mr Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam make several visits to the Parsonage, which the puzzled Elizabeth and Charlotte attribute to a lack of anything else for them to do, ‘field sports’ being over. On one occasion, Darcy calls when Elizabeth is alone, and raises the topic of being settled near one’s family after marriage. As usual they are at cross purposes: Elizabeth supposes he is ‘thinking of Jane and Netherfield’ and tailors her answer accordingly. Darcy is thinking of her, as his repeated and stressed ‘you’ shows: ‘You cannot have a right to such very strong local attachment. You cannot have been always at Longbourn.’ Another obstacle to communication is their different notions of what constitutes ‘an easy distance’ to the affluent Darcy, ‘fifty miles of good road’ is nothing; to Elizabeth it is a considerable journey.
Tony Tanner, in his introduction to the 1972 Penguin Classics edition of the novel, has an interesting suggestion about Darcy who ‘drew his chair a little towards her … he drew back his chair.’ He suggests that Darcy is unconsciously acting out ‘his uncertainty as to whether he can bring himself to cross the great social space’ between Elizabeth and himself. Darcy made another very definite physical movement towards Elizabeth when she was singing and playing at Rosings to Colonel Fitzwilliam. ‘Lady Catherine listened to half a song, and then talked, as before, to her other nephew (Darcy); till the latter walked away from her, and moving with his usual deliberation towards the piano forte, stationed himself so as to command a full view of the fair performer’s countenance.’ Here Darcy is moving away from his family (his aunt) and towards Elizabeth. However, Elizabeth’s reactions on both occasions are somewhat negative: on this occasion she teases him, and when he moves his chair towards her, she registers surprise.
Since Colonel Fitzwilliam sometimes laughs at Mr Darcy’s ‘stupidity’ and awkward behaviour during these visits, it suggests ‘that he was generally different.’ Charlotte is puzzled by Darcy’s behaviour; it does not seem to be that of a lover. Elizabeth quite often bumps into him ‘in her ramble within the Park.’ After the first accidental meeting ‘to prevent its ever happening again, (she) took care to inform him at first, that it was a favourite haunt of hers. – How it could occur a second time therefore was very odd! – Yet it did, and even a third.’ The reader’s understanding of the situation is considerably in advance of Elizabeth’s. And it appears, from what Colonel Fitzwilliam says, that Darcy has already postponed their departure from Rosings once.
(Volume II, Chapter x)
Elizabeth meets Colonel Fitzwilliam on a walk. He tells her something which makes her realise that it was Darcy who separated Bingley and Jane.
On one of her walks, Elizabeth meets Colonel Fitzwilliam. She learns that he admires her, but ‘younger sons cannot marry where they like.’ (That is, younger sons often don’t have enough money to marry the person they would really like to.) It emerges that he is joint guardian of Darcy’s sister, about whom there seems to have been some difficulty, though Elizabeth, in her courtesy, immediately changes the subject when she perceives that she ‘had somehow or other got pretty near the truth.’ The final piece of information from Colonel Fitzwilliam is that Darcy has ‘saved a friend from the inconveniences of a most imprudent marriage’ because ‘there were some very strong objections against the lady.’ Elizabeth rightly guesses that this refers to Darcy’s separating Jane and Bingley and it distresses her greatly.
The agitation and tears which the subject occasioned, brought on a headache; and it grew so much worse towards the evening that, added to her unwillingness to see Mr Darcy, it determined her not to attend her cousins to Rosings, where they were engaged to drink tea.
Thus Elizabeth is alone at the Parsonage when Darcy comes round and proposes to her.
Chapters 34 – 37
(Volume II Chapters xi – xiv)
Darcy’s proposal to Elizabeth provokes a violent clash between them. But after reading his explanatory letter and reflecting upon it at length, Elizabeth begins to understand herself and him better.
(Volume II Chapter xi)
Darcy proposes to Elizabeth.
Darcy’s proposal, ironically, occurs at the moment of Elizabeth’s most intense hostility towards him and misunderstanding of him. There was his first rudeness at the ball (Chapter 3); his admission of being implacable (Chapter 11); Wickham has insinuated all sorts of injustice at Darcy’s hands (Chapter 16); the appalling Mr Collins loves Lady Catherine (herself appalling) who is Darcy’s aunt (the logic of this reason to dislike Darcy is questionable). Elizabeth’s nice aunt, Mrs Gardiner, remembers (when prompted) that Darcy was awful when young. And now, to crown it all, Colonel Fitzwilliam has inadvertently revealed that it was Darcy who separated Bingley and Jane (from whom Elizabeth has just had a low-spirited letter).
Darcy calls on Elizabeth when he knows the Collinses are out. Again, it is he who has approached her.
After a silence of several minutes he came towards her in an agitated manner, and thus began,
‘In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed.
You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.’
However, as Darcy continues to speak of his feelings, his ‘sense of her inferiority – of its being a degradation – of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence (social importance) he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit (courtship, proposal).’ ‘Judgment’ and ‘inclination’ are head and heart again. Darcy’s heart has outstripped his head. Intellectually, he is still proud and snobbish; but his heart knows nothing of pride or snobbery – he ‘ardently’ loves Elizabeth.
The reactions of Darcy and Elizabeth are conveyed, unusually in this novel, by physical as well as emotional and verbal responses. ‘She (Elizabeth) stared, coloured (blushed), doubted; ‘the colour rose into her cheeks.’ ‘His (Darcy’s) complexion became pale with anger.’ Elizabeth, at first sorry for Darcy because she is about to refuse him and hurt his feelings, is soon angry. ‘She tried, however, to compose herself.’ Darcy, too, ‘was struggling for the appearance of composure.’ Both of them feel passionately, and fight for a civilised appearance, however difficult the circumstances.
Darcy dwells upon ‘the family obstacles’ because to him they form an almost insuperable barrier to marriage with Elizabeth. That he is, nevertheless, impelled to tell her of his love, illustrates ‘the strength of that attachment which, in spite of all his endeavours, he had found impossible to conquer.’ However, one’s sympathies on this occasion tend to be with Elizabeth, who understandably and robustly attacks him for ‘offending and insulting me.’
Starting with an almost incredibly well structured sentence, given the circumstances, she lists with stinging accuracy and mounting intensity the reasons he has given against marrying her. ‘You liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character.’ Her questions are attacking and accusing: ‘do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man, who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?’ The words ‘any consideration·, ‘tempt’ ‘means of ruining the happiness’ are stingingly applied. The phrasing of her sentences is full blooded; you can hear the passion: ‘I have every reason in the world to think ill of you.’ No holds barred.
However, Elizabeth next moves on to less certain ground, accusing Darcy of unjust treatment of Wickham, which arouses his jealousy. Darcy, equally passionate, is perhaps more acute. ‘But perhaps … these offences might have been overlooked, had not your pride been hurt by my honest confession of the scruples that had long prevented my forming any serious design.’ He perceives that his honesty has not served him well. ‘But disguise of every sort is my abhorrence.’
Elizabeth retaliates with the indictment that Darcy later confesses tortures him: ‘… had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.’ Filled with the desire to make the position abundantly, 300%, clear, she adds: ‘You could not have made me the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it.’ She underlines this with another impassioned list of his defects: ‘your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others’. The coup de grace is : ‘I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.’ This is a gratuitous insult, since no-one had ever suggested that she should marry Mr Darcy. It is her instinctive response to a proud man who assumed his proposal was a favour, Prince Charming patronising Cinderella.
Both Elizabeth and Darcy make erroneous assumptions. Darcy admits later that he ‘believed you (Elizabeth) to be wishing, expecting my addresses’ (Chapter 58). Elizabeth mistakenly attributes pride and injustice to him. The worst parts of Darcy’s proposal are reported, not given us directly, so we retain a more sympathetic view of him. (‘He spoke well, but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed, and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride.’) We are spared nothing of Mr Collins’s speeches, and can enjoy our dislike of him (as Elizabeth would say, Chapter 8).
Darcy’s proposal is in some respects comparable to that of Mr Collins in Chapter 19. Both Mr Collins and Mr Darcy are tactless in expressing their proposals so that it seems they are insulting Elizabeth. And it seems that Darcy, like Mr Collins, is over-much absorbed by his own point of view: ‘the strength of that attachment which, in spite of all his endeavours, he had found impossible to conquer.’ Another obvious similarity is that, on both occasions, Elizabeth refuses, although both suitors assume that she will accept. Mr Darcy has good reason to think that Elizabeth returns his feelings. She has frequently talked to him in a lively and responsive way; she is obviously interested in him. And she has told him the part of the park in which she most likes to walk. However, the essential difference, of course, is that Darcy is deeply in love with Elizabeth. Mr Collins’s proposal has nothing to do with Elizabeth personally and everything to do with external factors. Darcy’s proposal, on the other hand, is wrung from him entirely because of Elizabeth personally, and despite external factors.
‘The tumult of her mind was now painfully great. She knew not how to support herself, and from actual weakness sat down and cried for half an hour.’ This reaction of Elizabeth’s surely demonstrates the extent to which Darcy’s proposal has upset her preconceived notions, and the extent to which her feelings are involved. She realises that she has entirely misunderstood most of his words, actions and intentions to date. For the first time, during this proposal, they have understood each other. His letter is to change her perception of events completely.
The situations of Jane and Bingley, Elizabeth and Darcy, illustrate the two types of difficulty that tend to befall characters who fall in love in Jane Austen’s novels. The first (and simpler) kind are relationships hijacked by the interference/intervention of friends (for example, Emma intervenes between Harriet Smith and Robert Martin). Sometimes the heroine is distracted by some superficially attractive person: Elizabeth by Wickham, Marianne by Willoughby, Emma by Frank Churchill. In other words, the distractions are external. The second type of difficulty involves characters in more complex relationships, where people have to overcome some kind of misunderstanding, some kind of blindness, factors which adversely affect right judgement and perception. It is a matter of understanding your own heart. As Elizabeth is to say: ‘Till this moment, I never knew myself.’ (Chapter 36) Emma, similarly, at last knows that, ‘To understand, thoroughly understand her own heart, was the first endeavour.’
Jane Austen keeps the subplot of Jane and Bingley’s relationship firmly in the background. Mention is made of Jane’s unhappiness but the novel does not dwell on it.
Elizabeth is greatly distressed to find that her sister’s happiness has been ruined by Darcy’s intervention, and it fuels her rejection of him, but the spotlight is always on Elizabeth and Darcy, not on Jane and Bingley.
(Volume II Chapter xii)
Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth
Darcy writes a letter of considerable length to Elizabeth explaining and defending his actions. On Jane Austen’s part, this is perhaps a shorthand way of changing Elizabeth’s response towards Darcy as soon as possible: her perceptions of him and of herself need to be radically altered before they meet at Pemberley.
Darcy’s letter explains his reasons for separating Jane and Bingley, and his dealings with Wickham. He writes it to defend his character. Darcy’s impressions of Jane’s feelings towards Bingley were mistaken, but understandably so if you remember what Charlotte had to say on the subject (Chapter 6). Darcy is immediately ready to retract his misreading of the situation: ‘If you have not been mistaken here, I must have been in an error. Your superior knowledge of your sister must make the latter probable.’ He mentions, apologetically, ‘that total want (lack) of propriety’ shown by Mrs Bennet and the younger girls. ‘It pains me to offend you,’ he writes, revealingly.
The story of Wickham is the story of a plausible rascal. Wickham has imposed upon old Mr Darcy and Georgiana. Darcy’s letter reveals Wickham’s ‘real character’: it replaces with substance earlier impressions based merely on ‘appearance’. He has ‘vicious propensities, want of principle,’ ‘his life was a life of idleness and dissipation.’ The tale of his attempt to seduce Georgiana (at one stroke revenging himself on Darcy and acquiring £30,000) is not simply a melodramatic and sensational story of vice; it prepares us for Darcy’s generous reaction when Wickham scandalously runs off with Lydia.
(Volume II Chapter xiii)
Elizabeth reads Darcy’s letter and begins to realise that she has completely misunderstood him.
Elizabeth’s eager perusal of Darcy’s letter is the first of various occasions on which Elizabeth is to see Darcy in a completely different light. It gives her the opportunity of comprehensively reviewing her first impressions (First Impressions was probably the original title of the novel). Her immediate reaction to his reading of Jane’s feelings is that it is false·; ‘his style was not penitent, but haughty. It was all pride and insolence.’ When she comes to the section of the letter concerning Wickham, ‘she wished to discredit it entirely.’ She ‘put it (the letter) away hastily … she would never look in it again.’ But this immediate rejection of a different version of events will not satisfy so truthful and intelligent a person. ‘She again began the mortifying (to her, that is) perusal of all that related to Wickham,’ ‘She … weighed every circumstance … . On both sides it was only assertion.’
As Elizabeth reviews her memories of Wickham, she realises that ‘Of his former way of life, nothing had been known in Hertfordshire but what he told himself. As to his real character … she had never felt a wish of enquiring. His countenance, voice, and manner, had established him at once in the possession of every virtue.’ ‘She could see him instantly before her, in every charm of air and address; but she could remember no more substantial good that the general approbation of the neighbourhood, and the regard which his social powers had gained him in the mess.’ Nothing substantial, simply general approbation furnished by gossip, social powers, his manner ·· these are very vague attributes, with no weight to them. She remembers the embarrassment with which Colonel Fitzwilliam had responded to her teasing remark about Georgiana.
This reassessment of what she actually knows of Wickham leads her to review her own part in it all. “She was now struck with the impropriety of such communications to a stranger, and wondered it had escaped her before. She saw the indelicacy of putting himself forward as he had done.’ She is struck by the inconsistency in some details of his behaviour which had escaped her notice earlier. ‘He had … no reserves, no scruples in sinking Mr Darcy’s character, though he had assured her that respect for the father, would always prevent his exposing the son.’ She then begins to recollect the good things other reliable people have said of Mr Darcy.
Such a rigorous examination of the situation leads to a most humiliating discovery:
‘How despicably have I acted!’ One passage in particular marks the moment of recognition and is worth quoting in full.
She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. – Of neither Darcy nor Wickham
could she think, without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.
‘How despicably have I acted!’ she cried. – I, who have prided myself on my discernment! – I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity, in useless or blameable distrust. How humiliating is this discovery! – Yet, how just a humiliation! – Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly. .. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession (prejudice) and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself.’
Many of Elizabeth’s first impressions have been completely wrong; she has to change her assessment both of other people and of herself. This crucial moment occurs in many of Jane Austen’s novels, and radically alters the course of the story. In Emma, it occurs much later; Emma is more complacent than Elizabeth and therefore the moment of enlightenment is delayed. In Persuasion it has already happened before the novel has begun. Pride and Prejudice and Emma are both concerned with the education of the heroine – the development both of her emotions and her understanding, her heart and her head.
Elizabeth realises that in the case of Darcy and Wickham, far from exercising the discernment on which she prides herself, she has completely misread their characters. The expression of this discovery is full of self-chastisement and emotion, marked by exclamations and dashes in the place of her usual confident and fluent articulacy. She pounces on the fact that she has been both ‘prejudiced’ and proud. She heaps a list of criticisms on her own head: ‘she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.’
Elizabeth finds herself to be despicable and she is humiliated. The verbs in this passage are forceful and are often intensified by the adverbs and their attendant exclamation marks. In addition, ‘myself’ and ‘my’ are repeated, highlighting Elizabeth’s recognition of herself being in the wrong. It is she who has done all these verbs, that is, all these mistaken and wrong actions. Thus we have:
How despicably … acted! … prided myself …valued myself … often disdained … gratified my vanity. How humiliating …! how just ….! more wretchedly blind. Pleased … offended …. driven … away. I never knew myself.
The breathless dashes and exclamations suggest painful feelings. However, the structure of her sentences is frequently ordered and patterned. Several sentences start with ‘how’ – ‘how despicably … how humiliating … how just…’. Other sentences start with ‘I’ – ‘I, who have prided myself on my discernment! – I who have valued myself on my abilities! (I) who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, (I who have) … gratified my vanity …’. This patterning and repetition of words like ‘how’ and ‘I’ has the effect, I think, of further intensifying Elizabeth’s heaping of opprobrium on herself. Elizabeth at last recognises how her vanity was stung by Darcy’s failure to wish to dance with her at the first assembly and that this has prompted her to distort all her impressions of him.
Jane Austen’s style here is in many ways typical of the eighteenth century. Elizabeth doesn’t say, ‘I have been prejudiced and ignorant,’ but rather, ‘I have courted (gone out of my way to believe, invited) prepossession (prejudice) and ignorance, and driven reason away.’ In place of adjectives, Austen gives us abstract nouns – ‘prepossession,’ ‘ignorance,’ ‘reason.’ To modern ears, these abstract nouns may make the expression sound less passionate. Partly, this style reflects the eighteenth century habit of restraint and moderation; later, as the pendulum swung, the Romantic movement was all for immoderation and imbalance. Poets starved in garrets, thrashing about in a welter of emotion. Elizabeth feels her humiliation acutely, but the emphasis of the writing is not so much to express tumultuous feelings and then to dwell indulgently upon them; it is to work towards self improvement, achieved by admitting sense and reason in order to moderate excessive feelings of vanity and prejudice. Elizabeth is letting the light of reason and right judgement in on her ‘blind(ness)’. She understands that she ‘could not have been more wretchedly blind’ if she had been in love, that is to say, letting her heart rule her head and her ability to see and think straight. She speaks of her ‘preference of one (Wickham) and … the neglect of the other.’ Balanced structure and abstract nouns again emphasise the contrast between ‘preference’ and ‘neglect.’ This style is ideal in conveying the detached tone necessary in a comedy: it would be a less appropriate vehicle for the maelstrom of uncontrollable emotions in a tragic hero(ine). But the comedy of Jane Austen is not light-weight; the verbs ensure that the issues of wrong conduct are powerfully and movingly presented.
Elizabeth has been (unaware though she was of their import at the time) prepared for Darcy’s comments on Jane’s behaviour with Bingley by Charlotte’s remarks in Chapter 6. She has been prepared for Darcy’s criticism of her family’s vulgarity by her own reactions to them, for example, at the Netherfield ball, and she is too honest to deny ‘the justice of the charge.’ She remembers details relating to Wickham and Darcy that support Darcy’s version of events. Her integrity helps her to overcome her prejudice and vanity. Darcy, too, has been reviewing his assumptions, as we will hear from him at the end of the novel, and as we will realise from his changed behaviour at Pemberley. But the focus here is on Elizabeth. One of the delightful characteristics of Jane Austen’s heroines of the Elizabeth and Emma type is that they fall into their own booby-traps of over-confidence. They perceive their stupidity and potential for wrecking everything, they experience shame and they give themselves a good shake-up and determine to feel and act more reasonably in future. Then they bounce back. They have the capacity for very serious reflection but do not indulge in bouts of extreme, Romantic gloom: ‘she entered the house with the wish of appearing cheerful as usual.’
Elizabeth has to start to come to terms with a complete change in the way she looks at people. Jane Austen makes it clear, by rehearsing all the varieties of thinking that she has to go through, what hard work this is. ‘After wandering along the lane for two hours, giving way to every variety of thought; reconsidering events, determining probabilities, and reconciling herself as well as she could, to a change so sudden and so important, fatigue, and a recollection of her long absence, made her at length return home.’
(Volume II Chapter xiv)
Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam leave Rosings. Elizabeth continues to reflect on Darcy’s letter.
The whole of Chapter 36 has been given over to tracing Elizabeth’s reflection on what she has learnt. The insufferable Lady Catherine emerges again in Chapter 37 (with the added fun of ‘had she chosen it, she might by this time have been presented to her, as her future niece.’). But the end of the chapter is again concerned with the development of Elizabeth’s thoughts. ‘Reflection must be reserved for solitary hours; whenever she was alone, she gave way to it as the greatest relief.’ ‘Mr Darcy’s letter, she was in a fair way of soon knowing by heart. She studied every sentence.’
The first half of the novel has depicted Elizabeth’s actions and her decided views on people: ‘One knows exactly what to think.’ (Chapter 17) The second half is much more occupied with Elizabeth’s reflections on her experience, and there are several passages detailing her changing perceptions and feelings. Here, she thinks over Darcy’s letter: ‘When she remembered the style of his address, she was still full of indignation; but when she considered how unjustly she had condemned and upbraided (reproached, chided) him, her anger was turned against herself.’ This is another sentence composed around a balance, and it shows Elizabeth’s conflicting reactions to the letter. At this stage her feelings are divided: partly against Darcy and partly against herself. She gradually comes to feel ‘compassion’ for him, ‘gratitude’ for his having loved her, and ‘respect’ for his character. More positive feelings are replacing her initial anger.
There are several verbs and their action indicates the thoroughness and active nature of Elizabeth’s thinking: ‘she studied,’ ‘she remembered,’ ‘she considered.’ The (often abstract) nouns are mostly to do with her feelings: ‘her feelings,’ ‘indignation,’ ‘her anger,’ ‘compassion,’ ‘gratitude,’ ‘respect,’ ‘vexation and regret,’ Some are to do with his feelings: ‘his attachment,’ ‘his disappointed feelings.’ Elizabeth’s feelings are aroused, but they are pulling her in opposite directions; ‘how unjustly she had condemned and upbraided him’ ‘His attachment excited’ (awoke in her) gratitude,’ ‘but she could not approve him … nor …repent her refusal.’
Revealingly, though, despite her decided conclusion ‘could not approve him .. or feel the slightest inclination ever to see him again,’ she goes on to re-examine the criticisms he has made of her family. She fully acknowledges their justice. Her father does not exercise the discipline necessary to control ‘the wild giddiness of his youngest daughters.’ ‘Wild,’ is a word that is used increasingly of Lydia and Wickham in the second half of the novel. It suggests lack of restraint, strong irrational disordered feelings, an absence of self-discipline and moderation. ‘Wild’ in the eighteenth century carried strong overtones of disapproval (and, needless to say, was a concept loved by the Romantics, for whom it denoted nature and all that was natural). Another word often used disapprovingly is ‘imprudence’ (it has been applied to Elizabeth too, hypothetically, a propos Wickham (Chapter 26)).
‘The folly and indecorum of her own family’ have cost Jane her happiness. One remembers Elizabeth declaring that she laughs at ‘follies and nonsense’ whenever she can. On this occasion, she cannot: ‘the happy spirits which had seldom been depressed before, were now so much affected as to make it almost impossible for her to appear tolerably cheerful.’ She does indeed take serious things seriously.
(Volume II Chapters xv – xix; Volume III Chapter i)
(Volume II Chapter xv)
Elizabeth and Maria leave Hunsford to return home.
Mr Collins’s farewell is as idiotic as one would expect. The ‘humble abode’ features, and his pride in ‘our connection with Rosings.’ He imagines that the visits to Rosings have prevented Elizabeth’s stay from being ‘entirely irksome,’ whereas they have been the most irksome aspect of the six weeks’ visit. He also supposes that ‘my dear Charlotte and I have but one mind and one way of thinking ,., . We seem to have been designed for each other,’ when Elizabeth knows that ‘it was melancholy to leave her (Charlotte) to such society!’ Mr Collins’s misunderstanding of events increases our awareness of Elizabeth’s clearer understanding.
Closing this section of the novel, Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr Darcy have left Rosings; Elizabeth and Maria leave Hunsford Parsonage. The crisis of Mr Darcy’s proposal and the astounding information in his letter that have come at the end of this section leaves the way open for a potential new direction of events. Mr Darcy is not the villain of Wickham’s description; Mr Bingley did love Jane; Wickham is an unscrupulous and untrustworthy man and a threat to an inexperienced young woman.
(Volume II Chapter xvi)
Elizabeth and Maria travel back to Meryton through London, staying with the Gardiners and bring Jane home with them. Mr Bennet’s carriage (containing Kitty and Lydia) has come to collect them at the inn at a neighbouring town. There is a family party at Longbourn.
Lydia has not seen her sisters for many weeks, but she has virtually no interest in their doings; we hear nothing but her voice retailing her own thoughtless actions. ‘And we mean to treat you all (to lunch), … but you must lend us the money, for we have just spent ours at the shop out there.’ The hot news is that Wickham is not going to marry the heiress Mary King after all.
Lydia’s reaction to this news is both contrasted and compared to Elizabeth’s. Lydia: ‘She (Mary King) is a great fool for going away, if she liked him,’ and, ‘I will answer for it (bet you) he never cared three straws about her. Who could about such a nasty little freckled thing?’ Words like ‘fool’ and ‘nasty little freckled thing’ are not words of decorum either of thought or expression. Elizabeth, who is much more critical of herself and less self-assured since reading Darcy’s letter, ‘was shocked to think that, however incapable of such coarseness of expression herself, the coarseness of the sentiment was little other than her own breast had formerly harboured.’ She realises that at least some of her decorum was only skin-deep. The repetition in ‘coarseness of expression … coarseness of the sentiment’ draws attention to the words that are different, ‘sentiment’ and ‘expression.’ True decorum stems from right feeling or ‘sentiment.’ Goethe (1749 – 1832) has a phrase, the ‘politeness of the heart’, which I think comes close to describing what Elizabeth arrives at here; Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) states, ‘manners are of more importance than laws’. Both are obviously very eighteenth-century ideas of the best conduct. John Locke (1632 – 1704) had written somewhat earlier, in his ‘Essay Concerning Human Understanding’, that ‘our business here is not to know all things, but those which concern our conduct.’
Lydia never stops talking throughout the journey home. We’re given a page of it, and told that this continues ‘all the way to Longbourn.’ She asks to hear ‘what has happened to you all’ but since she never draws breath, there’s no hope of their telling her. ‘Have you had any flirting?’ (Jane has suffered a serious depression of spirits and Elizabeth has experienced something much more momentous than flirting, which has completely changed some of her ideas.) ‘I was in great hopes that one of you would have got a husband before you came back. Jane will be quite an old maid soon, I declare. She is almost three and twenty! Lord, how ashamed I should be of not being married before three and twenty! My aunt Philips wants you so to get husbands, you can’t think.’ The phrase so beloved of Mrs Bennet, ‘get husbands,’ exactly matches Lydia’s concept of what marriage entails. Lydia is insensitive and superficial; quite blind to Jane’s unhappiness.
We whirl on to Lydia’s account of a practical joke – dressing up a man as a woman – ‘(by the bye, Mrs Forster and me are such friends!)’ through a forest of bad grammar which is always a reliable indicator of a lamentable state of head and heart in Jane Austen’s characters (compare Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility). The sentences go breathlessly on, scattered with exclamation marks and the names of people we’ve never heard of (the Harringtons, Chamberlayne, Pratt) – Lydia is completely absorbed in her own doings, and very inappropriate they are for a genteel young woman.
Jane Austen does make brief authorial observations about her characters (we had one about Mrs Bennet at the end of Chapter 1, and here she says, ‘She (Lydia) seldom listened to any body for more than half a minute.’ But mostly she relies on showing a character in action or through speech. Lydia’s prattle here is entertaining, it reminds you of her character (she is ill-educated and egotistical). It demonstrates her irresponsibility and prepares us for what she is likely to do (important, since she is about to play a disconcerting part in the plot). Although there is very little conventional use of setting in Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen quite often gives us a setting of people. We know by now what it’s like to live with Mrs Bennet moaning on about the entail and Elizabeth’s failure to marry Mr Collins; we know what it’s like to spend an evening battered by Lady Catherine’s domineering and bossy voice; and now we sample some of Lydia’s unstoppable mindless chatter.
The uproar in the dining-room at home must be deafening. Most of the Lucases are there to meet Maria; ‘Lady Lucas was enquiring of Maria across the table, after the welfare and poultry of her eldest daughter’ (the welfare – that is, well-being, health and happiness – of Charlotte and her hens are juxtaposed in a way that suggest they’re of equal importance in Lady Lucas’s mind!). Mrs Bennet is talking about clothes (one of her great interests) and Lydia ‘in a voice rather louder than any other person’s, was enumerating the various pleasures of the morning … . Kitty and me (bad grammar) drew up all the blinds and pretended there was nobody in the coach; and I should have gone so all the way, if Kitty had not been sick.’ Just what everyone wanted to hear during a meal.
(Volume II Chapter xvii)
Elizabeth tells Jane about Mr Darcy’s proposal and Wickham’s true character.
Elizabeth opens her heart to her beloved sister Jane and tells her about Mr Darcy’s proposal and Wickham’s villainy. Although the sisters continue to refer to Mr Darcy, thus revealing their respect for him, they call Mr Wickham, Wickham. As they are not particularly familiar with him, and as they are certainly not being vulgar or misnaming him, this denotes their lack of respect for his behaviour.
Mrs Bennet still wonders about Jane and Bingley. ‘For my part, I am determined never to speak of it again to anybody. I told my sister Philips so the other day.’ Equally remarkably, ‘ … my comfort is I am sure Jane will die of a broken heart.’
(Volume II Chapter xviii)
The regiment that has been based at Meryton for the last few months is now to move to Brighton. Lydia is invited to stay there with Mrs Forster, the young wife of the colonel of the regiment.
At the beginning of Chapter 41, when the regiment quartered at Meryton is about to leave for Brighton, there are ‘lamentations resounding perpetually through Longbourn-house’ (from Kitty, Lydia and Mrs Bennet). The army was encamped at Brighton at this time as a ready defence against an attack from Napoleon. However, Jane Austen does not stress this aspect of the matter; rather the temptation to a young woman as undisciplined as Lydia if she should go there in company with Colonel Forster’s equally young wife.
All that has happened since she has come home has made Elizabeth admit the force of Mr Darcy’s criticisms. She is ashamed: ‘She felt anew the justice of Mr Darcy’s objections.’ The strength of her feelings and her sense of responsibility are made very evident when Mrs Forster invites Lydia ‘to accompany her to Brighton.’ Elizabeth advises her father not to let Lydia go. She emphasises the ‘improprieties,’ ‘probability of her being yet more imprudent,’ ‘temptations.’ Brighton had acquired a reputation of a place that could put temptations in the path of a young woman such as Lydia. It had become a bathing place (Dr Richard Russell, a Brighton resident, had written an influential book in 1753 about the use of sea water in the diseases of the glands). A racecourse was set up there in 1783, and it enjoyed the patronage of the Prince Regent, not necessarily an advertisement of respectability. The large army garrison quartered there during the threat from Napoleon, while attracting Lydia, invited the likelihood of intrigues. And a seaside resort made popular by the Prince Regent’s presence, was both a fashionable haunt and a source of danger for someone like Lydia.
Mr Bennet’s lazy and witty reply to Elizabeth’s plea demonstrates his irresponsibility. He is too detached (both his library and his wit are his means of physical and verbal detachment from his admittedly very tiresome family). Elizabeth presses her objections: ‘disadvantage to us all,’ and Lydia’s ‘unguarded and imprudent manner,’ (the word imprudent recurs). Mr Bennet makes a joke about the ‘squeamish youths’ that have been frightened away by Lydia’s behaviour. Elizabeth, in contrast, is extremely serious. She speaks at much greater length than her father, who contents himself with a few witticisms. Elizabeth represents how the family’s ‘respectability’ must be affected by the ‘wild volatility,’ and ‘disdain of all restraint,’ which mark Lydia’s character. Elizabeth foresees ‘universal contempt;’ Lydia will ‘soon be beyond the reach of amendment (improvement); she is ‘vain, ignorant, idle and absolutely uncontrolled.’ She also realises that her father is lazy, and tells him (not officiously) what role he should, as father, play: ‘If you, my dear father, will not take the trouble of checking her exuberant spirits, and of teaching her ….’ This is a very serious estimate of Lydia’s character (to be set against Mr Bennet’s ‘we can never expect her to do it (cause a scandal) with so little expense or inconvenience to her family as under the present circumstances.’ In fact, Mr Bennet’s witticisms are a way of refusing to engage with his daughter in discussing the seriousness of allowing Lydia to go to Brighton with only an equally young friend as chaperone.
Many of the qualities Elizabeth mentions are those that make up decorum, or its opposite. They are, again, very 18th century qualities, requiring balance, control and moderation – ‘wild volatility,’ ‘disdain of all restraint,’ ‘absolutely uncontrolled,’ ‘rage for admiration,’ – all these are to be deplored. Elizabeth understands that ‘attraction’ in a young woman should be more than simply ‘youth and a tolerable person,’ – it should be attractiveness of mind, too. Mr Bennet, however, is all for a little peace. ‘We shall have no peace at Longbourn if Lydia does not go to Brighton.’ He justifies this lazy decision with a few over-optimistic assertions: ‘Colonel Forster is a sensible man, and will keep her out of any real mischief; and she is luckily too poor to be an object of prey to any body.’ In the event, Elizabeth’s newly-honed awareness is proved just, and Mr Bennet’s flippancy and cynicism inadequate. Irony is not a viable modus vivendi. Interestingly, Elizabeth’s judgement here is a mixture of head and heart: ‘Mr Bennet saw that her whole heart was in the subject.’ Again, placing Elizabeth against a static character like Mr Bennet shows how much her understanding has developed.
All sorts of appropriate behaviour is implied here. There is responsibility leading to a right exercise of authority, such as Mr Bennet dismisses. There is also responsibility being a part of a proper concern for other people’s welfare (rather than the interfering busy-body poking into other people’s affairs of Lady Catherine, or the improper interest in idle gossip of Mrs Bennet).
Professor John Mullan wrote in The Guardian of 26 January 2013 on the occasion of ‘Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice at 200: looking afresh at a classic’.
‘Everyone seems to love Mr Bennet, a satirical cove who relishes the follies of other characters. He’s a master of the dry bon mot – who can forget his way of interrupting Mary’s painful performance on the piano (“You have delighted us long enough. Let the other young ladies have time to exhibit”)? But this shows us why we should think badly of him. He stops his daughter in her Suzuki-style, metronomic tracks, but his ironic barb amuses us at her expense. Everything is comedy to him. When Jane Bennet has her heart broken by Mr Bingley’s sudden departure and subsequent neglect, Mr Bennet seems to think it is all a laugh. “Next to being married, a girl likes to be crossed a little in love now and then. It is something to think of, and it gives her a sort of distinction among her companions.” The astute reader of Pride and Prejudice will reflect that even his droll ripostes are usually deplorable. “If my children are silly, I must hope to be always sensible of it.” But not to do anything about it. He treats his younger offspring as objects of derision, but does nothing to improve their minds or their manners.
‘He married the idiotic Mrs Bennet because he found her sexy. He was “captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give”. Having discovered his error, he has retreated into mockery of his wife. From the very first chapter, he is teasing and tormenting poor, stupid Mrs Bennet. She is desperate that he should visit Mr Bingley, the new single man in possession of a good fortune, and Austen tells us that he had always intended to do so, “though to the last always assuring his wife that he should not go”. It may be funny, but it is connubial torture. A psychologist would surely say that he is punishing her for his own folly in having been attracted to her in the first place. Late in the novel Elizabeth reflects that, because she is fond of her father, she has too often ignored “that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible”.
‘Much turns out to be Mr Bennet’s fault. On an income of £2,000 a year, he ought to have been able to build up a sizable inheritance for his daughters, but has entirely failed to do so. He simply trusted that he would eventually have a son, who would duly inherit the estate and its income; by giving him five daughters, providence has denied him this security and ensured that his cousin, Mr Collins, will get everything.
‘And in critical moments he likes to be absent. He does not bother to attend the assembly room ball, where Jane first meets Mr Bingley and Elizabeth is insulted by Mr Darcy. He is at home reading a book. When trouble brews and voices are raised, he retreats to his library, where none may enter without his permission. He knows that his youngest daughter, Lydia, is a silly flirt, so why did he let her go to Brighton – resort of all sinfulness – chaperoned only by a teenage friend? When disaster duly strikes, and Lydia runs off with a notable rake to live in sin somewhere in London, he is powerless. Such an intelligent man should have seen it coming. “It has been my own doing, and I ought to feel it,” he tells Elizabeth after his fruitless search for Lydia. Dead right.’
Professor Mullan is an expert on the eighteenth century and on Jane Austen. So I was interested to read his article, which is surely intended, in a light-hearted way, to make one look at Mr Bennet in a different light and to raise questions in the reader’s mind. I began to wonder why this version of Mr Bennet is not the lasting impression of him that one is left with at the end of the novel. I think it may be compared with the ‘pleasantest preservative from want’ that prompts Charlotte Lucas to marry Mr Collins. Jane Austen is aware of the very serious aspects of a woman’s life in a patriarchal society, a society in which women’s circumstances and to a considerable degree their happiness were in the power of the men in their lives. If the men were stupid, lazy and irresponsible, the women suffered accordingly. However, Jane Austen’s vision in the novel is essentially comic; she delineates a comedy of manners. Mr Collins’s stupidity, Mr Bennet’s laziness and irresponsibility, are presented primarily as follies that are entertaining to the reader, rather than serious faults capable of ruining women’s lives.
Mr Bennet’s detachment and irresponsibility, though, does form an important contrast with Darcy’s involvement and responsibility later in the novel, when Lydia’s marriage needs to be arranged. At this point, Mr Bennet’s detachment is similar to that of Mr Collins when he gloatingly writes of his ‘augmented satisfaction’ at not being a member of the Bennet family, for ‘I must have been involved in all your sorrow and disgrace.’ Structurally, the contrast between Darcy’s involvement and Mr Bennet’s and Mr Collins’ detachment make Mr Darcy seem all the more worthy of the role of hero.
The idea of ‘amendment’ – the importance of a person’s ability to change and develop – is outlined, too. Then there are the desirable attributes of a person. What constitutes ‘attraction’ in a young woman? (Not being a ‘most determined flirt’ with a ‘rage for admiration’ is one.) Although Elizabeth is not conventional (it is her very unconventionality that attracted Darcy) she does not like her family to excite ‘universal contempt’ and ridicule. She has already tasted the effects on herself and Jane of criticism for the rest of her family. ‘Ignorance and emptiness of … mind’ are not applauded; and moderation, restraint, and prudence are.
Elizabeth now sees Wickham for what she (ironically) thinks is the last time. He is another person who has not changed. ‘She had even learnt to detect, in the very gentleness which had first delighted her, an affectation and a sameness to disgust and weary.’ She finds his gallantry ‘idle and frivolous’ but now recognises the implied criticism to herself in his thinking that the same old patter will please her again. He asks her, cautiously, about Darcy, and she is able to reply, with a wit that shows her to be her father’s daughter: ‘In essentials, I believe, he is very much what he ever was.’ Wickham rightly distrusts her apparent meaning. When Elizabeth spoke to her father, whose views on life, unlike hers, had not changed, we learned of her heartfelt opinions on decorum. When she speaks to Wickham, she reveals her changed opinion of Darcy.
(Volume II Chapter xix)
Elizabeth goes to Derbyshire with her aunt and uncle, Mr and Mrs Gardiner.
Lydia sends very short letters to her mother at very long intervals, describing her doings in Brighton.: ‘that she had a new gown, or a new parasol…’ There is much ‘going to the (soldiers’) camp’ with Mrs Forster. The images below show a parasol suitable for the seaside of about 1810, also two young giddy girls on a bench.
Elizabeth goes on what is planned as a ‘Northern tour’ with her aunt and uncle, the Gardiners. However, business pressures prevent Mr Gardiner from taking as much time off to travel as he had hoped. Instead of going to the Lake District, therefore, they are to go to Derbyshire, with ‘all the celebrated beauties of Matlock, Chatsworth, Dovedale, or the Peak.’
Mrs Gardiner had been brought up in Lambton which, it appears, is only five miles from Pemberley. Elizabeth is very doubtful about visiting Pemberley: ‘She felt that she had no business at Pemberley.’ However, having ascertained from the chambermaid at the local inn that the Darcys are not yet there for the summer, she feels she can risk going. Besides, she feels ‘a great deal of curiosity to see the house herself.’ In those days, before the advent of the National Trust, you could go to see a fine house and be shown around by the housekeeper, and tour the grounds with a gardener. There were books of such houses illustrated with prints, such as Seats of’ the Nobility and Gentry in Great Britain and Wales which was published in 1787. Below are two illustrations from that book engraved and published by William Angus (1752 – 1821).
Volume III Chapter i
Elizabeth visits Pemberley.
In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Pride and Prejudice, Tony Tanner suggests that it is worth a quick look at Pope’s Fourth Moral Essay, the ‘Epistle to Burlington’ (published in 1731). The poem sets out to praise Burlington for his good taste in architecture (he was an accomplished architect) and for his ideas in landscaping (in which he was helped by the celebrated William Kent). In the poem, his house and grounds are seen to reflect some of his own intellectual and moral qualities. This is fairly main-line 18th century thought, and is another version of the head and heart, rational order and natural feeling, that has so often been apparent in the novel: taste, sense, a balance between spontaneity springing from within a person, and self-discipline, order and direction imposed from without. The most famous lines from this poem demonstrate man working with nature, both in landscaping a garden, and in the broader sense of balancing nature and discipline in himself.
Consult the Genius of the Place in all;
That tells the Waters or to rise, or fall,
Or helps th’ambitious Hill the heav’n to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the Vale,
Calls in the Country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks or now directs, th’intending Lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.
Still follow Sense, of ev’ry Art the Soul,
Parts answ’ring parts shall slide into a whole,
Spontaneous beauties all around advance,
Start ev’n from Difficulty, strike from Chance;
Nature shall join you,Time shall make it grow
A Work to wonder at – perhaps a STOW. (lines 57 – 70)
If you look at ‘Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs’ you find that the ‘Genius of the Place’ (the activity of nature) paints and designs, and man is working in harmony with nature (‘as you plant,’ ‘as you work’). The outcome is that ‘Spontaneous beauties all around advance’ and ‘Nature shall join you.’
These ideas inform the description of the house and grounds at Pemberley; Darcy is being shown here as a man of sense and taste, working (it is implied) in harmony with nature. He certainly seems to have ‘Good sense, which only is the gift of Heaven’ (Epistle to Burlington, line 43). Darcy, one remembers, thinking of Elizabeth’s manners, was ‘caught by their easy playfulness’ (Chapter 6), whereas Mr Collins, noticing Elizabeth’s ‘wit and vivacity’, hoped it would be ‘tempered with … silence and respect’ when she encountered Lady Catherine. He has no taste and no sense at all; he only wants to stifle Elizabeth’s natural liveliness and spontaneity. Darcy values her natural qualities. This is a variation on the idea of man with his capacity for control and formality, and nature which a man of taste will leave to flourish. (Control tastefully exercised leads to the right kind of self-discipline; too much control extinguishes individuality.)
The grounds at Pemberley are large, varied and beautiful:
… the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; – and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste.
The combination of nature and taste is precisely that advocated by Pope as the ideal of man in harmony with nature. The imposing house is ‘backed by a ridge of high woody hills,’ a stream has been ‘swelled … but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned.’ There is a mischievous (revealed by its exclamation mark) conclusion to this paragraph: ‘she (Elizabeth) felt, that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!’
When they go into the house, Elizabeth ‘went to a window to enjoy its prospect (view)’ (remember everyone being sent to look at the non-view from Rosings? (Chapter 29)). Elizabeth looks ‘on the whole scene … with delight.’ The interior of Pemberley is handsome and elegant, ‘neither gaudy nor uselessly fine,’ and Elizabeth again admires Darcy’s taste. It is much less ostentatious than that of his aunt, and reflects his superior mind.
Elizabeth’s attention is now drawn to some portraits: there are miniatures of Wickham and Darcy, and upstairs in the gallery a large portrait of Darcy. Mrs Reynolds, the housekeeper, tells them about Wickham and Darcy. Wickham has turned out ‘very wild’ (this opprobrious adjective again) but of Darcy she cannot speak too highly. As an employer, brother, landlord, he is the best. Superlatives abound in Mrs Reynolds’ description: ‘I have never had a cross word from him in my life.’ ‘The best … that ever lived.’ ‘He was always the sweetest-tempered, most generous-hearted, boy in the world,’ ‘There is nothing he would not do for her (Georgiana).’ In addition to the considerable amount of information about Darcy that Elizabeth has learned from his letter, she is now amassing even more from his house, from his housekeeper who has known him for over twenty years, and from his portraits.
In fact Elizabeth’s feelings have been thoroughly aroused throughout this visit to Pemberley. As they turn in at the Lodge, ‘her spirits were in a high flutter.’ They drive through the park, and ‘Elizabeth’s mind was too full for conversation…’. Now she cannot hear enough about Darcy. As she listens to the tributes of Mrs Reynolds, ‘Her keenest attention was awakened; she longed to hear more’ and she was ‘impatient for more. Mrs Reynolds could interest her on no other point.’
Elizabeth spends some time contemplating Darcy’s portrait, ‘a striking resemblance,’ and before she leaves the gallery she ‘returned to it again.’ As she stands before the portrait, she is positioned so that Darcy seems to have ‘fixed his eyes upon herself’ – it is as if she is standing face to face with him (as she is just about to do). Yet it was not so long ago that she felt not ‘the slightest inclination ever to see him again.’ (Chapter 37) Standing there with Darcy’s eyes ‘fixed … upon herself’ as they so frequently have been in real life, she thinks of ‘his regard’ – his look, but the word also suggests his esteem and admiration for her. This phrase looks forward to their meeting a few moments later, when ‘their eyes instantly met.’
This paragraph traces in detail Elizabeth’s feelings at this moment. She has read his letter, seen his grounds, his house, heard his housekeeper, is looking at his portrait. She reflects upon his responsibilities: ‘as a brother, a landlord, a master, she considered how many people’s happiness were in his guardianship! How much of pleasure or pain it was in his power to bestow! – How much of good or evil must be done by him!’ She has just tried, unavailingly, to persuade her father to exercise authority; she now recognises, with approval and respect, the importance of the responsibilities on Darcy’s shoulders. The repeated ‘how much’ and ‘how many’ stresses this. She begins to approve of his character. After reading his letter she had understood more clearly the reasons for his actions towards Jane and the truth about his actions towards Wickham. ‘His attachment excited gratitude, his general character respect; but she could not approve him.’ (241) Now ‘she thought of his regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before.’ Earlier, she had been most indignant at ‘the style of his address’ (241); now she ‘softened its impropriety of expression.’
Structurally, Elizabeth needs to have reached this point, as she is just about to meet Darcy again. Jane Austen has used a technique that is now frequently used in films (think of the beginning of The Sound of Music). The panoramic view of Pemberley Woods narrows to Elizabeth’s first glimpse of the house; we come closer still as we tour the rooms which reflect their owner’s taste and nature; then Mrs Reynolds provides some personal information, and finally Elizabeth studies Darcy’s portrait in close-up. This time she will meet him in his own grounds, admiring, courteous and hospitable, and she is with her favourite aunt and uncle. Previously he saw her with her off-putting relations, and she saw him with his, the snobbish, unpleasant de Bourghs.
The novel has taken us through stages of Elizabeth’s understanding and feelings: the proposal (total rejection and misunderstanding); the letter and Elizabeth’s subsequent reflections on it. When her aunt and uncle take her to Pemberley, she is moving both literally and emotionally nearer to Darcy. She sees Pemberley and its grounds, and understands something of Darcy through an appreciation of the taste and moral values displayed there; she hears about him from the housekeeper; she sees a portrait of him (which provokes further reflections) and then meets the man himself. For Elizabeth, clearer understanding of events, of Darcy and of herself, is linked to her changing feelings for Darcy. We have entered a new world, one of beauty, proportion, appreciation and serenity. When Darcy and Elizabeth are ready truly to appreciate each other, it is here that they meet again. The noise, intrusions and distress of being with uncongenial people are briefly suspended.
Elizabeth seems to have been seeing a great deal more since coming to Pemberley. Words of seeing, looking, beholding recur frequently. She is seeing both in the visual sense and in the sense of clearing her distorting lenses of prejudice and misunderstanding. ‘She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste.’ ‘She looked on the whole scene … with delight.’ ‘Elizabeth saw, with admiration of his (Darcy’s) taste, that it was neither gaudy nor uselessly fine…’. She looks at the miniature and admits that she ‘know(s)’ Darcy a little. (But only a little, because she has not seen him clearly.) Finally, she ‘beheld’ the large portrait of Mr Darcy. Standing in front of it, she reflects on his character and at last sees him as he is. As she rightly said of herself when she read his letter, ‘I could not have been more wretchedly blind (unable to see).’
The idea of a portrait or illustration based on what one sees has emerged at the Netherfield ball (Chapter 18). Darcy told Elizabeth that she has just drawn something that he suspects to be ‘no very striking resemblance of your own character, I am sure. …. How near it may be to mine, I cannot pretend to say. – You think it a faithful portrait undoubtedly.’ And a moment later, Elizabeth asks him questions tending to ‘… the illustration of your character. … I am trying to make it out.’ Ironically, she thinks that Darcy’s vision is ‘blinded by prejudice.’ To some extent, this is true, and he is still much too snobbish. However, he has at that point been looking at Elizabeth far more often than she at him; he has seen more of her. The metaphorical portrait in their conversation at the Netherfield ball is here replaced by a full length portrait which Elizabeth studies with increasing perception, and this portrait is about to be replaced by Darcy himself.
Chapters 43 to end
(Volume III Chapters i -viii)
As they walk into the grounds, to Elizabeth’s dismay, Darcy ‘himself suddenly came forward.’ ‘Their eyes instantly met, and the cheeks of each were overspread with the deepest blush.’ Whatever the required formalities, their physical responses to each other, ‘the deepest blush,’ cannot be denied. In addition, Darcy gives a ‘start’ and is momentarily ‘immoveable’. In the first half of the novel, Darcy’s eyes have frequently been ‘fixed on’ Elizabeth, but hers have never before met his. It’s an intimate and revealing moment.
Elizabeth, who in visiting Pemberley has, as it were, approached Darcy for the first time, now ‘instinctively turned away’. She is extremely embarrassed, ‘astonished and confused’ .. what must he think of her snooping round Pemberley? – ‘the impropriety of her being found there.’ The confident Elizabeth is rendered almost speechless: ‘… knew not what answer she returned to his civil enquiries after her family.’ He is equally ill at ease and keeps repeating himself: ‘… he repeated his enquiries as to the time of her having left Longbourn, and of her stay in Derbyshire, so often, and in so hurried a way, as plainly spoke the distraction of his thoughts.’ She has just been absorbed in looking at his portrait, but now ‘scarcely dared lift her eyes to his face.’ At length, he goes back into the house.
Elizabeth is so ‘wholly engrossed by her own feelings’ and ‘overpowered by shame and vexation’ that she ‘hear(s) not a word’ of what her aunt and uncle are saying and returns no answer to them. The paragraph records her chaotic and tumultuous thoughts and feelings. ‘Her coming there was the most unfortunate, the most ill-judged thing in the world!’ The superlatives, ‘the most … the most … in the world’ insist on the extreme embarrassment of the situation. But they also highlight her increasingly sensitive feelings towards Mr Darcy, hence the intensity of her discomfort. Repeated questions and exclamations disclose how much Elizabeth now minds about Darcy’s opinion of her: ‘How strange …! In what …! It might seem as if …! Oh! why did she come? or, why did he thus come …?’ Dashes add to the impression of incoherent and extreme feelings: ‘And his behaviour, so strikingly altered, – what could it mean?’
Neither Darcy nor Elizabeth are their usual selves. ‘The alteration in his manner since they last parted’ impresses Elizabeth forcibly. Like Elizabeth, Darcy is confused by their sudden meeting. His way of speaking has ‘none of its usual sedateness’; ‘the distraction of his thoughts’ is evident. But the conspicuous difference lies in his behaviour: ‘such civility’; ‘such gentleness’. Again the superlatives crowd her feelings: ‘Never in her life had she seen …., never had he spoken ….’ She thinks of their last angry confrontation: ‘What a contrast!’ The abstract nouns connected with Elizabeth are concerned with her discomfort: ’embarrassment’; ‘impropriety’, ‘shame’, ‘vexation’, ‘perverseness’. The assured young woman who had earlier told her gentle sister Jane, ‘- one knows exactly what to think’ now ‘knew not what to think, nor how to account for it.’
Elizabeth walks with her aunt and uncle beside a river approaching some woods. but she is not ‘sensible’ (aware) of any of it, and answers her uncle and aunt ‘mechanically.’ She can only think of ‘that one spot of Pemberley House … where Mr Darcy then was. She longed to know what at that moment was passing in his mind; in what manner he thought of her, and whether … she was still dear to him.’ The word ‘longed’ appears again, echoing ‘she longed to hear more’ earlier in the chapter. Again, the questions fill her mind, ‘what … was passing in his mind; in what manner he thought of her, whether …. perhaps … yet…’ What he thinks of her is now crucially important to Elizabeth.
There now occurs a long paragraph detailing the Gardiners’ and Elizabeth’s walk through some of the Pemberley woods and by a stream. Isobel Armstrong identifies this as ‘arguably the most important scene in the novel’ because ‘it suggests that social boundaries can be crossed.’ As Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle come ‘to the edge of the water, in one of its narrowest parts,’ Jane Austen tells us that ‘they crossed it by a simple bridge, in character with the general air of the scene; it was a spot less adorned than any they had yet visited; and the valley, here contracted into a glen, allowed room only for the stream, and a narrow walk amidst the rough coppice-wood which bordered it.’ A little further into the paragraph, we read, ‘they were again surprised, and Elizabeth’s astonishment was quite equal to what it had been at first, by the sight of Mr Darcy approaching them, and at no great distance. … he really intended to meet them. … he was immediately before them.’
Isobel Armstrong writes: ‘as she (Elizabeth) and her companions are shown his grounds, they cross a bridge on to a narrow pathway and see him for a second time, hurrying towards them. It is as if the text is asserting, through the delicate drama of this spacial moment, that it is possible to bridge temperamental and social spaces, that gaps can be closed.’ (Introduction to Oxford World’s Classics, 1990) After Lydia’s elopement with Wickham, Elizabeth fears that there is a ‘gulf impassable (in some versions, ‘impossible’) between them (Darcy and herself).’ But in fact, this gulf has been bridged in this very paragraph. In Mansfield Park, there are more obviously symbolic uses of landscape, such as when Maria Bertram makes her way past a closed gate. Perhaps Jane Austen is already beginning to see characters walking through landscape in both literal and symbolic fashion here.
After walking some way, they are again approached by Mr Darcy. Again the doubt: first Elizabeth sees ‘Mr Darcy approaching them’; then ‘she felt that he would probably strike into some other path’; then ‘a turning in the walk concealed him from their view’; finally ‘he was immediately before them.’
Elizabeth is surprised and pleased that he asks to be introduced to her friends. (This would be correct etiquette: a person of superior social status would initiate – or not – the matter of being introduced to someone else’s friends. Later on, Elizabeth waits for Lady Catherine to indicate her desire of being introduced to the rest of Elizabeth’s family. She is delighted at ‘every sentence of her uncle, which marked his intelligence, his taste, or his good manners.’ By the manners of those days, it was particularly polite of Darcy to ask to meet Mr and Mrs Gardiner. When Mr Darcy discovers Mr Gardiner’s love of fishing, he follows up this attention to the Gardiners by asking Mr Gardiner to fish at Pemberley. Again, this signals his wish to behave courteously to Elizabeth’s family, as fishing would have been popular with sportsmen of humbler means than those who could afford to shoot or hunt. Whereas shooting required dogs, and hunting, horses, fishing required only a rod. This may be why Mr Gardiner is able to indulge his enjoyment of it. But Mr Darcy does not discriminate against the evidence of Mr Gardiner’s lack of riches. The final proof that he is far from wishing to humble or criticise Elizabeth comes when he asks if he may be allowed to introduce his sister Georgiana to her.
As they walk back towards the house, questions continue to whirl inside Elizabeth’s mind. ‘Why is he so altered? From what can it proceed? It cannot be for me, it cannot be for my sake …’.
Elizabeth’s aunt is tired from the walk, and wants the support of her husband’s arm. As they approach the house again therefore, Darcy and Elizabeth walk together. Elizabeth is at pains to point out to him that they had not expected him to be at home. He agrees that he has arrived home earlier than the others of his party, in order to conduct some business with his steward. It is at this juncture that he hesitatingly asks whether he may introduce Georgiana, ‘Will you allow me or do I ask too much…?’ It is evident that he is far from wishing to humiliate or criticise Elizabeth. Elizabeth feels all the force and implications of this ‘compliment of the highest kind.’ And once again, the articulate Elizabeth is so overwhelmed by her feelings that she is scarcely able to speak intelligibly: ‘The surprise (of Darcy’s application to introduce his sister) … was too great for her to know in what manner she acceded (agreed) to it.’
(Volume III Chapter ii)
Darcy brings his sister Georgiana to Lambton to meet Elizabeth. Bingley accompanies them.
The very moment Georgiana arrives at Pemberley, Darcy brings her to visit Elizabeth and the Gardiners at Lambton. It is obvious to Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle ‘that the gentleman was overflowing with admiration,’ ‘it was evident that he was very much in love with her.’ Bingley accompanies Darcy and Georgiana, and Elizabeth is pleased to find that he remembers the exact date of his last seeing Jane. This suggests that the subplot may soon be reactivated. Mr and Miss Darcy leave, inviting Elizabeth and the Gardiners to dinner at Pemberley.
Thus the pattern of Mr Darcy approaching Elizabeth continues: he and his sister call on Elizabeth at Lambton as soon as possible. Soon he is to call at Lambton again, to find Elizabeth and her family in disarray. The next step he takes is not actually to see her, but to act on her behalf, by going to London, an even more considerable approach to Elizabeth. Finally, he goes to see her at Longbourn.
Elizabeth spends much of the evening and some of the night trying to ‘determine (work out) her feelings.’ Her thoughts and feelings form an increasing part of the content of this second half of the novel, whereas in the first half we hear far more of what she has to say. There is in this passage a fine gradation of feelings, carefully traced. ‘Hatred’ has long since vanished, and she is ‘ashamed’ of her original ‘dislike.’ ‘His valuable qualities’ have inspired ‘respect and esteem,’ (esteem is when you value someone highly). Added to this is ‘gratitude’ to him for loving her enough to forgive her ‘petulance’ (impatient irritation) and ‘acrimony’ (bitterness) and ‘unjust accusations’ when she refused his offer of marriage.
This is the moment of her full repentance for what she has done to him; earlier, in Chapter 37, we were told she could not ‘approve him; nor … repent her refusal, or feel the slightest inclination ever to see him again’. She was convinced (the meaning of ‘persuaded’) that he would ‘avoid her’: in contrast, he is ‘eager to preserve the acquaintance.’ Jane Austen outlines the steps again: ‘She respected, she esteemed, she was grateful to him, she felt a real interest in his welfare.’ Because Elizabeth is a young woman of integrity, she is not going to use her power over Mr Darcy unless she knows she wants to say yes to him. She has not yet found the answer to that. Would it be ‘for the happiness of both’?
This long paragraph moves slowly, gently, exploring tissue-thin layers of carefully defined feelings, as Elizabeth tries to establish where she has got to, ‘though it could not be exactly defined.’ The first such passage of careful reflection occurs after she has been studying Darcy’s letter (Chapter 36) and is closely followed by another (Chapter 37); the third comes as she looks at Darcy’s portrait; this follows, after meeting the man himself again; and the final passage, when she is really clear about her feelings, is placed after Wickham has been prevailed upon to marry Lydia (Chapter 50). These five passages, delineating the delicate stages of Elizabeth’s emotional development, follow from her immediate reaction to Darcy’s letter: ‘Till this moment I never knew myself.’ They constitute an important part of her learning to know herself.
Elizabeth’s growing love for Darcy is based on an emotional involvement implied much earlier in the novel, though Elizabeth was then unaware of it. At the Netherfield ball, for example, unable to dissuade Mr Collins from introducing himself to Darcy:
‘it vexed her to see him (Mr Collins) expose himself to such a man (Darcy).’ (Chapter 18) During supper at the same ball, Mrs Bennet ‘was talking … freely, openly, and of nothing else but of her expectation that Jane would soon be married to Mr Bingley. … to her (Elizabeth’s) inexpressible vexation, she could perceive that the chief of it was overheard by Mr Darcy, who sat opposite to them’ (Chapter 18) She meets two attractive young men, Wickham (whom she fancies) and Colonel Fitzwilliam (she ‘caught his fancy very much’). Yet she talks to them at length about Darcy (in Chapter 16 and Chapter 31 ). She rejects Darcy’s offer of marriage with a vehemence and passion that betray far more involvement than, for example, with Mr Collins when she rejects his proposal.
In contrast to Charlotte Lucas and Lydia’s hasty (and bad) choice of a partner, Elizabeth’s is very deliberate. And yet much the most romantic. The surer she becomes of her heart, the less likely it seems to her that Darcy could possibly want to marry her, for Jane Austen uses the time-honoured device of delaying tactics to maintain tension and uncertainty in her plot. The plot is now to be hijacked by Lydia and Wickham running away together (precisely the sort of disaster Elizabeth had feared when her ‘wild’ sister was allowed to go to Brighton).
(Volume III Chapter iii)
Mrs Gardiner and Elizabeth visit Miss Darcy and her guests at Pemberley.
When Mrs Gardiner and Elizabeth call on Miss Darcy at Pemberley, it is in some respects a contrast to Elizabeth’s visit to Netherfield early in the novel. Whereas she then felt herself to be the outsider, the person who did not know the others and the world in which they moved, this position in now reversed. It is Miss Darcy who is shy and awkward; it is Miss Bingley who, in referring to Wickham, unwittingly raises a topic that embarrasses Miss Darcy. And now it is Elizabeth who knows the Darcys better than Miss Bingley does, and who can make sure that the situation does not distress Miss Darcy. Another fact unknown to Miss Bingley is that Darcy has proposed to Elizabeth. Furthermore, Elizabeth’s uncle, far from being a drawback and the subject of attack as was Mrs Bennet in the earlier Netherfield visit, is the invited guest of Mr Darcy for a morning’s fishing at Pemberley.
In walking over the muddy fields to Netherfield to look after Jane, Elizabeth was felt by the Bingley sisters and Mr Darcy to have committed a slight breach of decorum. She had walked ‘alone’ which was less surprising in the country than in a town, but was still unusual, and her walk had ruffled her hair and muddied her petticoat. However, when they return Miss Darcy’s call, Mrs Gardiner and her niece are demonstrating ‘some exertion of politeness’ in going to ‘wait on her (Miss Darcy) at Pemberley’. Elizabeth is accompanied by her elegant aunt and, although Miss Bingley criticises her appearance for being tanned, the propriety of her visit is perfect. These contrasts with the early episodes of the novel show how the dynamic of Elizabeth’s relationship with the Darcys is changing.
Jane Austen makes Mr Darcy’s changed perception of Elizabeth very evident in other ways. She describes Georgiana as having listened to her brother’s account of Elizabeth. ‘Her brother’s recommendation was enough to ensure her favour; his judgement could not err, and he had spoken in such terms of Elizabeth, as to leave Georgiana without the power of finding her otherwise than lovely and amiable.’ Immediately after this description, we hear Miss Bingley’s sharp tongue. ‘How very ill Eliza Bennet looks this morning, Mr Darcy … I never in my life saw any one so much altered … She is grown so brown and coarse!’ The discrepancy between ‘her brother’s recommendation’, ‘lovely and amiable’ and the shrill criticisms of Miss Bingley’s ‘so brown and coarse,’ cannot be missed. Mr Darcy, who, in Chapter 6, had found ‘she (Elizabeth) had hardly a good feature in her face,’ has now described her to his sister in glowing terms. Miss Bingley, as usual, concentrates exclusively on appearance, not more important qualities. She continues her criticism of Elizabeth where she left off at their last meeting, the Netherfield Ball. In so doing, she reminds us of the distance Darcy has travelled in his changing feelings for Elizabeth.
Miss Bingley more or less disappears from the novel at this point – apart from a brief valedictory mention in the final chapter. Here, having criticised Elizabeth at length, she receives a pulverising put-down from Mr Darcy: ‘.”.. it is many months since I have considered her as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance.”
He then went away …’
Jane Austen unobtrusively ensures that it is Elizabeth, Mr Darcy and Miss Bingley who are highlighted in this episode. Georgiana is described as speaking occasionally (she is obviously very shy); however, we never actually hear her words. Likewise, in this chapter, we do not hear Mrs Hurst or Mrs Gardiner speak. It is only the highlighted characters who do.
The relationship between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy has thus become much closer when disaster overtakes Elizabeth and her family in the next chapter.
(Volume III Chapter iv)
Letters from Jane bring Elizabeth the horrifying news that Lydia has run off with Wickham. Elizabeth tells Darcy, who is with her when she receives the news. The Gardiners and Elizabeth leave for Longbourn at once.
Chapter 46 introduces a turn to the plot that not only delays the union of Elizabeth and Darcy: it defines several other areas such as Elizabeth’s feelings towards Darcy, and other people’s reactions to the scandal. Two letters arrive from Jane, with the news that Lydia and Wickham have run away, and are now thought to be in London.
Elizabeth is alone in the inn at Lambton when she receives this news, and Mr Darcy arrives just as she has finished reading the letters. Elizabeth is in no state to hide either the news or her emotions: she is pale, ‘her knees trembled under her’ and ‘she sat down, unable to support herself, and looking … miserably ill. …She burst into tears.’ These are unwonted physical descriptions, betraying extreme stress, which break the bounds of the formal code of behaviour. Darcy responds in like manner: “‘Good God! what is the matter?” cried he, with more feeling than politeness.’ He speaks ‘in a tone of gentleness and commiseration,’ and in short, distressed sentences. He is ‘in wretched suspense.’ These are much more emotional words than are usual in Jane Austen’s prose; there has not been such a passage of heightened feeling since the stormy proposal scene.
This section forms a direct contrast with the scene of perfect behaviour during Elizabeth’s morning call at Pemberley in the previous chapter. There she was shown to best advantage; here the scandal in her family and her distress and tears show her at her most vulnerable. But the very fact that Darcy sees her like this brings them much closer. As her aunt and uncle say, a little later, ‘And are they upon such terms as for her to disclose the real truth!’ Yet even during the previous decorous scene at Pemberley, there was a reminder of Wickham’s scandalous behaviour with Georgiana. Miss Bingley mentioned the militia who had left Meryton and Georgiana was ‘overcome with confusion’. Now Wickham has perpetrated another abuse of a young woman’s naivety in running off with Lydia.
When Elizabeth tells Darcy the terrible news – ‘every way horrible’ – he receives it with what she misinterprets as gloom. We remember, as she appears not to, the similar fate that nearly overtook Georgiana. Thus Jane Austen, as she often does, allows the reader to know more than Elizabeth, and to anticipate a less disastrous outcome than Elizabeth does. In imparting this information about his sister’s adventure with Wickham, Darcy had asked Elizabeth to be very discreet and she has been (she told Jane but not her parents about Wickham’s true character). However, one thing is clear to Elizabeth at this moment of ‘deepest disgrace’: ‘it was exactly calculated to make her understand her own wishes; and never had she so honestly felt that she could have loved him, as now, when all love must be vain.’
In a sense, there is a parallel between Elizabeth and Lydia at this stage. Both sisters have left Longbourn for a summer visit elsewhere, Lydia going to stay with Mrs Forster in Brighton, and Elizabeth with her aunt and uncle in visiting Derbyshire. Both sisters form relationships although not yet marriages while they are away from home: Lydia with Wickham and Elizabeth with Darcy. However, Jane Austen foregrounds the relationship of Elizabeth and Darcy by keeping the much more sensational story of Lydia and Wickham in the background; we hear about it from Jane’s letters. Its importance lies not in adding lurid sexy details to the novel, but in its impact on Darcy and Elizabeth’s relationship. Darcy is to take the difficult step of helping Elizabeth rather than retreating into the comfort zone of shock horror and judgement.
There is another point here. When Elizabeth walked to Netherfield as soon as she could to look after Jane, she did so regardless of the effect it would have on her appearance. As her mother said when Elizabeth proposed the plan,
‘How can you be so sily … as to think of such a thing, in all this dirt (mud)! You will not be fit to be seen when you get there.’
‘I shall be very fit to see Jane – which is all I want.’
Now, on hearing the appalling news of Lydia’s running off with Wickham, Elizabeth is ‘looking … miserably ill’ before ‘burst(ing) into tears.’ She is scarcely at her best as regards appearance. But in both cases, it is her concern for her sisters that makes her behave as she does, regardless of the effect on her looks. Whereas the Bingley sisters think and speak only of appearance, Elizabeth’s actions and behaviour are prompted by her care and responsibility for her sisters.
Jane Austen takes this opportunity to address overtly the fashion (in sentimental novels) of relying on first impressions. Teasingly she puts forward the claims for ‘gratitude and esteem’ as a basis for true affection, as against love at first sight.
If gratitude and esteem are good foundations of affection, Elizabeth’s change of sentiment will be neither improbable nor faulty. But if otherwise, if the regard springing from such sources is unreasonable or unnatural, in comparison of what is so often described as arising on a first interview with its object, and even before two words have been exchanged, nothing can be said in her defence, except that she had given somewhat of a trial to the latter method, in her partiality for Wickham, and that its ill-success might perhaps authorize her to seek the other less interesting mode of attachment.
The first version of Pride and Prejudice was called First Impressions and was probably written between 1796 and 1797. Sentimental fiction of the 1750s was concerned with the truth and strength of immediate responses, especially in the case of affairs of the heart of a heroine who in her sensitivity tended towards fainting, tears and hysteria. There was an opposing camp of novelists who advocated the sternly moralistic idea that people should resist the floods of emotion of their first impressions. In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen makes first impressions vital to plot, character and themes, but she turns popular sentimental novels on their head, because Elizabeth’s first impressions of Darcy and Wickham are so wrong. Mary Bennet, with her pedantic lectures, is a take-off of the too-limited position of the moral conduct book. Jane Austen not concerned to follow the plot of the sentimental novel with its perfect and perfectly beautiful heroine. She is much more interested in the flaws of her heroine, the prejudices that lie behind her first impressions, her journey towards self-knowledge and greater maturity. One of her experiments as a novelist was to explore the ways in which the heroine’s heart can deceive her. Others, like Jane Bennet, may be perfect; Elizabeth is far from being so.
(Volume III Chapter v)
Elizabeth and the Gardiners return to Longbourn
(Volume III Chapter vi)
Mr Bennet and the Gardiners are in London looking for Lydia.
People’s reactions to the Lydia debacle tell us a great deal about them. Realising that ‘Not Lydia only, but all were concerned in it … Mr Gardiner readily promised every assistance in his power.’ ‘The humiliation, the misery, she (Lydia) was bringing on them all’ is how the situation would have been perceived when Pride and Prejudice was written, and that is how the conventional and unchristian priest, Mr Collins, gloatingly describes it in his letter (Chapter 48). ‘The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this. … this false step in one daughter, will be injurious to the fortunes of all the others, for who, as Lady Catherine herself condescendingly says, will connect themselves with such a family.’ (He has obviously lost no time in retailing this tasty bit of gossip to Lady Catherine – a contrast with Darcy’s discretion. And Lady Catherine’s assessment of the situation is to be gloriously upstaged when it is her own nephew who connects himself with such a family!) Mr Collins then revels in the fact that he is not married to a Bennet: ‘this … leads me … to reflect with augmented satisfaction on a certain event of last November, for had it been otherwise, I must have been involved in all your sorrow and disgrace.’
In contrast, Mr Gardiner very actively involves himself in the Bennets’ sorrow and disgrace and so, unbeknownst to Elizabeth, does someone else. Mrs Bennet takes to her room, complaining vociferously: ‘with tears and lamentations of regret, invectives against the villainous conduct of Wickham, and complaints of her own sufferings and ill usage; blaming every body …’ Mr Bennet has gone to London to see what he can discover, and Mrs Bennet’s latest thought is, ‘I know he (Mr Bennet) will fight Wickham, wherever he meets him, and then he will be killed, and what is to become of us all? The Collinses will turn us out, before he is cold in his grave …’ (Given Mr Bennet’s indolence, this seems supremely unlikely.) The next moment she is into wedding clothes for Lydia. Mixed in with Mr Bennet’s duel are ‘such tremblings, such flutterings, all over me, such spasms in my side, and pains in my head, and such beatings at heart, that I can get no rest by night nor by day.’ Mrs Bennet’s main topics, as always, are: her nerves, the entail, a wedding and wedding-clothes. Her speech seems even more illogical than usual because Austen has given us two passages of monologue undiluted by other people’s observations. We thus experience Mrs Bennet’s idiocy in condensed form for maximum impact. She is living in the realms of fantasy, and has not the slightest grip on the seriousness of the situation. Mary is ready with the usual feeling-less, cliche-ridden pedantry: ‘we must pour into the wounded bosoms of each other, the balm of sisterly consolation.’
The villain of the piece herself reacts to the whole business with the most inappropriate levity – Lydia can’t be serious about anything. ‘What a good joke it will be! I can hardly write for laughing.’ The schoolgirl language shows how immature she is. The reactions of Mr Collins, Mrs Bennet, Mary and Lydia all reveal, in various entertaining ways, completely wrong or confused priorities and values. These highlight the much more concerned and generous values of Mr Darcy and Mr Gardiner.
(Volume III Chapter vii)
Mr Gardiner writes to say he has found Lydia and Wickham. He hopes they will soon be married.
Gossip, fickle as ever, now declares that ‘he (Wickham) was the wickedest young man in the world.’ A letter comes from Mr Gardiner with the news that Wickham and Lydia have been traced and their marriage will soon be effected. Mr Bennet, though he has been extremely concerned, now relapses into flippant mode: ‘Wickham’s a fool, if he takes her with a farthing less than ten thousand pounds. I should be sorry to think so ill of him, in the very beginning of our relationship.’ Mrs Bennet’s reaction to the news of Lydia’s prospective marriage is predictable: ‘This is delightful indeed … But the clothes, the wedding clothes.’ ‘She was then proceeding to all the particulars of calico, muslin, and cambric …’ and is all for trumpeting the news round Meryton at once. Elizabeth is ‘sick of this folly.’ Mrs Bennet doesn’t care a bit about Lydia’s reputation, the repercussions of the scandal on the rest of the girls, or the fact that she is marrying a scoundrel. She can think only of clothes and ‘I shall have a daughter married. Mrs Wickham!’ When Mr Bennet announces that he will ‘not advance a guinea to buy clothes for his daughter’ a glimmer of the truth of the situation does dawn on Mrs Bennet. ‘She was more alive to the disgrace, which the want (lack) of new clothes must reflect on her daughter’s nuptials, than to any sense of shame at her eloping and living with Wickham …’
(Volume III Chapter viii)
Lydia and Wickham are to be married. Elizabeth thinks of Mr Darcy.
Elizabeth is more than ever aware of a ‘gulf impassable’ (in some editions ‘impossible’) between herself and Mr Darcy.
She was humbled, she was grieved; she repented, though she hardly knew of what. She became jealous of his esteem, when she could no longer hope to be benefited by it. She wanted to hear of him, when there seemed the least chance of gaining intelligence (news). She was convinced that she could have been happy with him; when it was no longer likely they should meet.
This is the next stage of her emotional development, and one we would expect after
her understanding ‘of her own wishes’ immediately succeeding the miserable news from Longbourn when she was in Derbyshire. Elizabeth’s feelings are fully awakened and engaged, as so often with Darcy, whether it be during a turbulent proposal scene or the congenial meeting at Pemberley. Here her feelings spill onto the page: ‘She was humbled, she was grieved; she repented …’ The next few sentences are built around the fulcrum word ‘when’ which marks off the antitheses. This is typical 18th century style; it also demonstrates how Elizabeth’s feelings are pulling her in opposite directions. Each sentence is structured in the same way: what Elizabeth longs for, followed by what she cannot have.
She became jealous of his esteem, when she could no longer hope to be benefited by it.
She wanted to hear of him, when there seemed the least chance of gaining intelligence.
She was convinced that she could have been happy with him; when it was longer likely they should meet.
The distressing situation Elizabeth now finds herself in, and her appreciation that Wickham and Lydia are only ‘brought together because their passions were stronger than their virtue’, help her to define her own wishes and feelings yet more clearly.
It was an union that must have been to the advantage of both; by her ease
and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manner improved, and from his judgment, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance.
This wonderful paragraph describes a marriage where the qualities that the man and woman bring to it complement each other. It depicts the ‘rational happiness’ mentioned a few pages earlier as never likely to come Lydia’s way. What has been confrontation has become complement. First we have what Elizabeth would bring to Darcy; then what he would bring to her. The qualities detailed are those unique to Elizabeth and Darcy, what they prize in each other.
By contrast, Mr Collins addressed Elizabeth as a generalisation, a stereotype: ‘your modesty, economy, and other amiable qualifications’, ‘elegant females’, ‘uniformly charming.’ He wanted to quash her particular characteristics (in case they were unacceptable to Lady Catherine). Charlotte Lucas wanted an establishment, and ‘cared not how soon that establishment were gained,’ (Chapter 22) – she was even ready to stomach a Mr Collins to acquire it. (Quite the opposite of prizing his individuality.) Lydia, too, marries a generalisation – a soldier (we were told earlier that she could talk of ‘nothing but officers’). We therefore move towards defining a good marriage through two means: Elizabeth’s increasing understanding of her feelings, and other, less satisfactory, marriages.
Again, there is a tension between Elizabeth and Darcy that remains to be resolved. In the first half of the novel, it was the tension of conflict: Elizabeth disliked him. This tension developed into open hostility during Darcy’s first proposal: Darcy was very insulting about Elizabeth’s family and too interfering in the malleable Bingley’s love for Jane. Elizabeth hurled gratuitously wounding verbal missiles at him. When Elizabeth realises how unjust and inaccurate she has been in some of her reading of character, the nature of the tension between them alters, and she begins to understand more clearly the strength of his affection (‘she thought of his regard …; she remembered its warmth’ (Chapter 43).
Unexpectedly meeting him at Pemberley, she is overcome by embarrassment: ‘in what a disgraceful light might it not strike so vain a man’ (Chapter 43). The tension continues when she realises that he still loves her: ‘such a change in a man … to love, ardent love, it must be attributed.’ The tension is now due to the fact that she is not sure of her own feelings. When they meet at the inn and Elizabeth tells him the ‘dreadful news’ of Lydia and Wickham, the nature of the tension is obvious: ‘Elizabeth felt how improbable it was that they should ever see each other again on such terms of cordiality as had marked their several meetings in Derbyshire.’ (Chapter 46) ‘Her power was sinking; everything must sink under such a proof of family weakness, such an assurance of the deepest disgrace.’ She feels ‘It was … exactly calculated to make her understand her own wishes; and never had she so honestly felt that she could have loved him, as now, when all love must be vain.’ Now that Lydia and Wickham are to be married, the tension arises because ‘from such a connection she could not wonder that he should shrink’ (Chapter 50). At last Elizabeth knows her own heart when it is no longer possible that Darcy can want to marry her. The tension is maintained right up to Darcy’s second proposal – even when he comes to visit the Bennets, he hardly says a word, the ‘teazing, teazing man!’ (Chapter 54)
The tension between Elizabeth and Darcy is sometimes that of misunderstanding, sometimes emotional, sometimes provoked by turns of the plot, and it strongly promotes our interest in the relationship and eagerness that it should be happily resolved.
Although Elizabeth is distressed by the conviction that Darcy will no longer want to marry her, her characteristic liveliness now reasserts itself: ‘But no such happy marriage could now teach the admiring multitude what connubial felicity really was.’ (‘Admiring’ is the giveaway word here.) And when the event actually comes to pass, the multitude is illusory: Mrs Bennet is in the same hysterics she would have been in had the man been Mr Collins, and Mr Bennet is truly anxious because he believes that Elizabeth hates Mr Darcy. ‘He is rich, to be sure, and you may have more fine clothes and fine carriages than Jane. But will they make you happy?’
There is no tension between Charlotte and Mr Collins because there is no attraction; there is no tension between Wickham and Lydia – who flirts with everyone to hand and who might have run off with any of the officers. Neither is there any tension between Elizabeth and her other admirers. If there is any with Wickham, it is only to see whether he will choose to sit next to her when he enters a room, and with the delightful Colonel Fitzwilliam she is usually talking about Darcy. It is the involvement, attraction and uncertainty that promote the tension. There is no doubt of the affection between Bingley and Jane – only the plot stops them from marrying; as soon as the plot allows it, they do.
(Volume III Chapters ix- xiii)
(Volume III Chapter ix)
Lydia and Wickham are married and come to Longbourn for a few days.
The Lydia Wickham who steps out of the carriage at Longbourn is exactly the same as the Lydia Bennet who thought she had treated her elder sisters to lunch on their return from Hunsford and London. ‘Lydia was Lydia still; untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless.’ We are told, ‘Elizabeth was disgusted, and even Miss Bennet was shocked.’ And ‘Lydia led voluntarily to subjects, which her sisters would not have alluded to for the world.’ Eventually ‘Elizabeth could bear it no longer. She got up, and ran out of the room. … She .. joined them … to see Lydia … and hear her say to her eldest sister, “Ah! Jane, I take your place now, and you must go lower, because I am a married woman.'” All this shows the insensitive vulgarity of Lydia. It grates more than ever on Elizabeth, not because she has become priggish or hypersensitive, but because she is more aware of courtesy and decorum. The unhappy Jane is elbowed out of her place by a married woman who has ‘got’ a husband, in Lydia’s phrase. The seriousness of the whole event has quite passed Lydia by: to her it is ‘very good fun,’ and she is busily advertising her new status: ‘I … let my hand just rest upon the window frame, so that he might see the ring, and then l bowed and smiled like any thing.’ This is another variation on responsibility and irresponsibility: any status rightly achieved has a responsibility that goes with it. Elizabeth has just understood Darcy’s responsibilities as a brother and landowner; she has also seen Lady Catherine’s abuse of her position which she simply translates into an excuse for interfering.
Elizabeth is very cold to Lydia, who, as usual, fails to register anything. Oblivious to decorum, she is recommending Brighton. ‘They (her sisters) must all go to Brighton. That is the place to get husbands.’ Perhaps Newcastle (where Wickham is being posted) will be as good:
‘you may leave one or two of my sisters behind you; and I dare say I shall get husbands for them before the winter is over.’
‘I thank you for my share of the favour,’ said Elizabeth; ‘but I do not particularly like your way of getting husbands.’
A day or two later, Lydia says:
‘Lizzy, I never gave you an account of my wedding, I believe. You were not by, when I told mamma, and the others, all about it. Are not you curious to hear how it was managed?’
‘Not really,’ replied Elizabeth; ‘I think there cannot be too little said on the subject.’
‘La! You are so strange! But I must tell you how it went off …’
and, undeterred by her sister’s wishes, Lydia pursues the subject of Lydia,full throttle. (It is interesting to compare the consideration and sensitivity with which Jane and Elizabeth treat each other. When Jane was unhappy about Bingley ‘Elizabeth could not oppose such a wish.’ (Chapter 24)) In the midst of the details of her wedding, Lydia lets slip that Darcy was there. Upon learning that this is a secret, Jane tells her to say no more, but Elizabeth, burning with curiosity, writes to her aunt, Mrs Gardiner, for more information.
Isobel Armstrong points out, in the Introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of the novel, that ‘Lydia reveals to Elizabeth the secret of Darcy’s presence at her marriage. This is a crucial revelation, for it confirms Elizabeth’s own perception of Darcy’s transformation, and without this catalyst Elizabeth and Darcy would not have come so speedily, if at all, to their new understanding. The ‘fallen’ sister inadvertently enables the respectable upper-class marriage to take place.’ Here is yet another example of the irony that pervades the novel. Very often, the irony leads to understanding tinged with greater humility; were it not for Lydia’s misadventure and indiscretion, Elizabeth could not have achieved love, riches, security. Darcy and Elizabeth have reason to be grateful to Lydia, although it is also Darcy’s generous and unjudgemental part in effecting Lydia’s marriage that has allowed the possibility.
Elizabeth’s coldness towards Lydia seems very striking to a modern reader. Lydia is thoughtless and self-centred but she is not evil and she has certainly been let down by a woeful upbringing. Yet the novel endorses Elizabeth’s reaction: Mr Bennet’s ‘countenance … gained in austerity; and he scarcely opened his lips. … Elizabeth was disgusted, and even Miss Bennet was shocked.’ Mrs Gardiner tries in vain to impress upon Lydia ‘all the wickedness of what she had done, and all the unhappiness she had brought upon her family.
Mr Collins’s ridiculous overreaction one could accept as typical and laughable, ‘The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this … … this false step in one daughter, will be injurious to the fortunes of all the others, for who … will connect themselves with such a family.’ But indeed, this reflection had been one of Elizabeth’s first thoughts, too: Lydia’s elopement is ‘… an assurance of the deepest disgrace. … the humiliation, the misery, she was bringing on them all …’. Nobody’s disapproval seems to be tempered with kindness or compassion for Lydia, though Elizabeth does say ‘she (Lydia) has never been taught to think on serious subjects … she has been allowed … to adopt any opinions that came in her way.’ The emphasis seems to be more on responsibility towards others, awareness of ones duty towards fellow human beings in a social context, than on compassion.
Views then were so different from today’s. In the eighteenth century there was a duty to think – about one’s actions and their likely consequences, about other people of course, a duty to inform oneself (which Mary takes to extremes), to restrain oneself. In the age of reason, the mind was expected to inform the heart. Although Lydia’s chances of happiness with Wickham are small, she must marry this unfeeling man because reputation is all-important. And a woman’s chaste reputation remained so until very recently.
(Volume III Chapter x)
Mrs Gardiner writes to Elizabeth explaining Darcy’s part in the marriage of Lydia and Wickham
Mrs Gardiner answers Elizabeth’s letter with a very long letter, explaining that it was Darcy who had found Lydia and Wickham and had, during lengthy discussions with Mr Gardiner, arranged to pay Wickham’s debts and to settle money upon Lydia. In effect, the letter tells Elizabeth that, despite the disgrace Lydia’s behaviour has brought on the family, Darcy is still interested in her. She emerges from the letter in ‘a flutter of spirits…. He had done all this for a girl whom he could neither regard nor esteem. Her heart did whisper, that he had done it for her. … For herself she was humbled; but she was proud of him. Proud that in a cause of compassion and honour, he had been able to get the better of himself.’ Although it is clear enough to us (and to Mrs Gardiner) that Darcy still loves Elizabeth, upon reflection Elizabeth comes to the conclusion that Darcy has probably done all this, as he told the Gardiners, because he felt he was to blame for Wickham’s behaviour. Had he made Wickham’s character more generally known, respectable families could have taken warning. The tension as to the outcome of the Darcy/Elizabeth relationship is thus maintained.
At this point it is worth considering the contrast between Darcy and Mr Collins. Both have proposed to Elizabeth and been turned down. One of them loved her then, and still loves her; the other is ignorant of the meaning of the word. Upon hearing of Lydia’s actions, Darcy ‘assured her (Elizabeth) of his secrecy’ and went to London the very next day, to do everything in his power to help – despite having good reason to dislike Wickham strongly. Mr Collins, by contrast, has hurried off to Rosings to broadcast the scandal to Lady Catherine and her daughter, and he gloats over having no connection with the Bennets. This contrast should make clear, even if Elizabeth’s reflections did not, the magnanimity of Darcy. No wonder, when Elizabeth ‘read over her aunt’s commendation of him again and again. It was hardly enough.’
(Volume III Chapter xi)
Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy come to Netherfield to shoot. They visit the Bennets.
After the departure of Lydia and Wickham to Newcastle, Mrs Philips brings news that Mr Bingley is returning to Netherfield. Mrs Bennet spies Bingley riding towards Longbourn three days after his arrival in the neighbourhood; Elizabeth, summoned to the window, sees Mr Darcy with him and promptly sits down again. What Elizabeth knows of Darcy and how she feels towards him are highlighted by Kitty and Mrs Bennet, who still look upon him in the old way of being, ‘that tall, proud man’. Despite her new understanding of Darcy, Elizabeth still feels very uncertain of his feelings towards her after all: she is astonished that he should be ‘voluntarily seeking her again.’ Her reaction to him shows her own feeling: ‘The colour … returned … with an additional glow, and a smile of delight added lustre to her eyes, as she thought … that his affection and wishes must still be unshaken.’ Elizabeth sits ‘silently at work’ (needlework); Jane is ‘a little paler than usual’; Mrs Bennet is effusive to Bingley and cold to Darcy, which makes Elizabeth ‘hurt and distressed.’ Darcy is mostly silent; Mrs Bennet prattles on about Lydia’s marriage and Wickham, who has not as many friends as he deserves (this is aimed at Darcy). Elizabeth is by now in a ‘misery of shame.’
(Volume III Chapter xii)
Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy come to a party at Longbourn
(Volume III Chapter xiii)
Jane and Mr Bingley become engaged.
Darcy’s behaviour baffles Elizabeth. ‘If he no longer cares for me, why silent? Teazing, teazing, man. I will think no more about him.’ The next time Bingley and Darcy come, Elizabeth ‘followed him (Darcy) with her eyes, envied every one to whom he spoke,’ and castigates herself for being so silly. When Bingley calls again, Darcy has gone to London. Bingley is invited for the day, is easy, cheerful and agreeable, indeed, ‘everything that was charming’ except for being engaged to Jane. The following day he goes shooting with Mr Bennet, and after that he and Jane become engaged. This resolution of affairs in the subplot leads us to suspect that matters will soon be settled between Elizabeth and Darcy.
(Volume III Chapter xiv)
Lady Catherine de Bourgh calls on Elizabeth in order to demand of her whether she is about to marry Darcy and to forbid the match.
Because the situation between the main characters is so nearly resolved, and the serious issues clarified, Jane Austen can afford to have fun on a broader scale than she has yet allowed herself. The scene is set for rip-roaring entertainment: a show-down between the most domineering, interfering, high-handed woman in the south of England, and her witty opponent. It’s a re-run of David and Goliath (Lady Catherine being a Goliath in title, status and complacency). We already know from the Rosings episodes that Elizabeth and Lady Catherine dislike each other, so there is going to be a dramatic personality clash.
Lady Catherine stalks into the dining room at Longbourn even more ungraciously and rudely than usual, without saying a word – not even asking if she may be introduced to her hostess. (At Pemberley, Darcy had most courteously asked to be introduced to the Gardiners.) She finally manages to utter an insult: ‘That lady I suppose is your mother. … And that I suppose is one of your sisters.’ Rather as if they were a bad smell. She has nothing but criticism to offer: ‘You have a very small park here.’ And, ‘This must be a most inconvenient sitting room for the evening in summer; the windows are full west.’
Lady Catherine asks Elizabeth to walk in the garden and the duel starts. It turns out that this startling visit has been prompted by a ‘report of a most alarming nature’ that reached Lady Catherine two days earlier (via the Lucases to Charlotte and via Mr Collins hotfoot to Lady Catherine). ‘Miss Elizabeth Bennet, would, in all likelihood, be
soon … united to my nephew, my own nephew, Mr Darcy.’ This is dismissed by Lady Catherine as a ‘scandalous falsehood’ but she has at once come to Longbourn to make her feelings on the subject clear.
Before the duel starts, the position, as perceived by Lady Catherine, is that Elizabeth is a being of a very inferior order (‘you she calls her), that it would be an injury to Mr Darcy even to imagine that this news could be true. Lady Catherine also has complete faith in her ability to steam-roller anyone or thing in her path into submission, not to say annihilation.
Lady Catherine opens the confrontation with a statement aimed at putting the onus and the blame on Elizabeth: ‘You can be at no loss, Miss Bennet, to understand the reason of my journey hither. Your own heart, your own conscience, must tell you why I come.’ However, this opening gambit fails, as Elizabeth is genuinely unable to account for Lady Catherine’s appearance at Longbourn, so Lady Catherine has to account for it herself, paving the way with the usual ungracious and aggressive pronouncements: ‘I am not to be trifled with.’ She insults Elizabeth by asserting that the report of her being ‘soon … united to my nephew, my own nephew … must be a scandalous falsehood.’
Elizabeth counters this attack with a question: ‘I wonder you took the trouble of coming so far. What would your ladyship propose by it?’ This question puts the ball back in the enemy’s court, and Lady Catherine responds with a categorical pronouncement: ‘At once to insist upon having such a report universally contradicted.’ Elizabeth is far too quick witted to be impressed or rattled by this. She ‘coolly’ points out the flaw in the action Lady Catherine has taken: ‘Your coming to Longbourn, to see me and my family … will be rather a confirmation of it; if, indeed, such a report is in existence.’ This makes Lady Catherine look stupid; she has been outmanoeuvred. Elizabeth also manages to throw doubt on Lady Catherine’s information. Lady Catherine counter-attacks with another volley of questions. Elizabeth thwarts Lady Catherine by subtly insulting her: ‘I do not pretend to possess equal frankness with your ladyship. You may ask questions which I shall not choose to answer.’ (Lady Catherine had earlier referred with pride to her ‘celebrated frankness’ (more accurately defined as rudeness).)
Elizabeth cleverly parries Lady Catherine’s insufferably arrogant questioning – ‘This is not to be borne. … l insist on being satisfied. Has he, has my nephew, made you an offer of marriage?’ She uses Lady Catherine’s own assertions to block the question: ‘Your ladyship has declared it to be impossible.’ Lady Catherine changes her tactics, and accuses Elizabeth of having captivated Mr Darcy through unladylike allurements. Then she pulls rank: ‘Your arts and allurements may, in a moment of infatuation, have made him forget what he owes to himself and to all his family.’ Followed by, ‘Miss Bennet, do you know who I am?’ The word I has always featured in Lady Catherine’s conversation. When she boasts, ‘I … am entitled to know all his dearest concerns,’ the joke is that she knows nothing – she doesn’t know, for instance, that Darcy has already proposed to Elizabeth. Elizabeth puts her in her place – she has always been overbearingly interfering, and Elizabeth tells her so: ‘But you are not entitled to know mine (dearest concerns); nor will such behaviour as this, ever induce me to be explicit.’ Lady Catherine’s behaviour is based on the assumption that everyone is in awe of her superiority. She is, ironically, making it abundantly clear that her superiority is non-existent; also Elizabeth is not in awe of her.
Lady Catherine tries another angle. Mr Darcy is already engaged and to Miss De Bourgh. She gets her come-uppance again: ‘if he is so, you can have no reason to suppose he will make an offer to me.’ In a book so much concerned with right behaviour, it would not normally be possible to have a slanging match like this. One of the glories of this scene is that Elizabeth can say these things to Lady Catherine because it is Lady Catherine who has gone too far. It is also a vindication of the individual against a type representing a whole class; Elizabeth with her wit, vivacity, independence and right values matched against the social structure and weight of the aristocracy. Although it was clear in the scenes at Rosings that Elizabeth’s values were superior to Lady Catherine’s, Jane Austen could not afford to have a direct confrontation between the two until Elizabeth’s moral position had become free of undue prejudice and pride. Lady Catherine exhibits both these defects, together with a most vulgar snobbery. Thus, when with outraged virtue, she trumpets, ‘Are you lost to every feeling of propriety and delicacy?’ it is obviously she who is lost to propriety and delicacy, not Elizabeth.
Elizabeth now starts provoking Lady Catherine. ‘If Mr Darcy is neither by honour nor inclination confined to his cousin, why is not he to make another choice? And if I am that choice, why may not I accept him?’ She suggests that Mr Darcy has proposed or is about to do so. ‘Because honour, decorum, prudence, nay, interest, forbid it. Yes, Miss Bennet, interest; for do not expect to be noticed by his family or friends … ‘ Since it was the ‘notice’ of Darcy’s family, in the form of Lady Catherine, that was the main fly in the ointment of her enjoyment of her visit to Charlotte in the spring, Elizabeth is able to resist this threat unruffled, and with sharp irony: ‘These are heavy misfortunes.’ She presents Lady Catherine with some self-evident generalisations: ‘But the wife of Mr Darcy must have such extraordinary sources of happiness necessarily attached to her situation, that she could, upon the whole, have no cause to repine.’ Lady Catherine becomes steadily more imperious: ‘Is this your gratitude for my attentions to you last spring?… I have not been used to submit to any person’s whims. I have not been in the habit of brooking (putting up with) disappointment.’ Elizabeth is unmoved.
The machine rolls on: ‘I will not be interrupted. Hear me in silence’ -a barrage of commands. Elizabeth’s possible actions are dismissed as ‘upstart pretensions.’ Lady Catherine now launches into a lecture on noble, honourable and ancient families. To Lady Catherine, the importance of a marriage between her daughter and Mr Darcy lies in the fact that it would unite honourable families and great wealth. The happiness and affection of two individuals is not at issue. Elizabeth, however, is resolved to act, not as the representative of a family, but in a manner that will bring about her personal happiness. When Lady Catherine informs Elizabeth that in marrying Darcy she would ‘quit the sphere, in which you have been brought up,’ she lays herself open to Elizabeth’s retort, ‘In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.’ In mentioning this, Lady Catherine is also raising the question, what is a true gentleman or a true lady? Someone with a title? With ‘family connections or fortune’? True decorum is set against Lady Catherine’s notion of being somebody, which rests simply on who your mother and father are. She extracts from Elizabeth the fact that she is not engaged to Darcy, but fails to intimidate her into promising she never will be.
Elizabeth now manages to seize the opportunity of speaking at some length to Lady Catherine. She shreds Lady Catherine’s argument.
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?
… Allow me to say, Lady Catherine, that the arguments with which you have supported this extraordinary application, have been as frivolous as the application was ill-judged…. You have certainly no right to concern yourself in mine (affairs).
Lady Catherine’s next move is to reveal that she knows the gossip about Lydia and Wickham (related to her by scandal-mongering Mr Collins). Her grand finale is:
‘Are the shades (woods) of Pemberley to be thus polluted?’
Elizabeth insists that they return to the house, and on the way Lady Catherine tries emotional blackmail along the lines of you wouldn’t want to disgrace the man you love: ‘Do you not consider that a connection with you, must disgrace him in the eyes of everybody?’ Elizabeth stands her ground: she insists that she won’t be affected by ‘any person so wholly unconnected with me.’ Lady Catherine makes claims of duty, honour and gratitude, and falls back on mere assertion: ‘depend upon it I will carry my point.’ Elizabeth’s description of Lady Catherine here is dismissive- Lady Catherine is of no importance to her. Lady Catherine is accustomed to being of central importance at all times. Thus her final fusillade, ‘I take no leave of you … You deserve no such attention. l am most seriously displeased,’ loses most of its impact. These pronouncements only carry any weight if she is important. The Save the Shades of Pemberley Mission has been completely foiled.
Lady Catherine has used all the heavy artillery at her disposal. She is intensely aggressive, prefacing her broadsides with proclamations of her own importance: ‘I am not to be trifled with’; ‘do you know who I am?’; ‘I … am entitled to know all his dearest concerns.’ She swiftly establishes the inferiority of Elizabeth: ‘ … you … Miss Elizabeth Bennet’; ‘a young woman without family, connections, or fortune’; ‘a connection with you must disgrace him.’ Lady Catherine frequently issues commands or their equivalent: ‘Hear me in silence’; ‘I insist on being satisfied.’ She attempts to pulverise the opposition with oppressive lists: ‘honour, decorum, prudence, nay, interest, forbid it.’ ‘You will be censured, slighted, and despised.’ She uses repetition in a most insistent fashion: ‘my nephew, my own nephew’; ‘… nay, interest, forbid it. Yes, Miss Bennet, interest …’ Lady Catherine is mistress of the attacking question: ‘.. do you then pretend to be ignorant of it? Has it not been industriously circulated by yourselves? Do you not know that such a report is spread abroad?’ ‘Do you pay no regard to the wishes of his friends? To his tacit engagement with Miss De Bourgh? Are you lost to every feeling of propriety and delicacy?’ Lady Catherine’s assault is directly personal and insulting to Elizabeth; she speaks disparagingly of ·’your arts and allurements’ as well as making it clear that Elizabeth is a social nobody. She also has a most unnerving way of venomously inserting the words ‘Miss Bennet’ into many of her sentences, thus making the confrontation as absolute as possible.
However, for all her power and aggression, Lady Catherine is not very intelligent.
The main thrust of her attack seems to be ‘honour’ (to which she returns several times), her own importance, and her determination to get her own way. She is also very angry; what she says, and her short sentences, show this: ‘Obstinate, headstrong girl! I am ashamed of you! Is this your gratitude …?’ Many of her sentences start in the same way: ‘I have not been used to submit to any person’s whims. I have not been in the habit of brooking disappointment.’ ‘They are descended … They are destined …’ She relies on power, not articulacy.
Elizabeth wins on all the counts that make her ‘as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print.’ (Jane Austen wrote this in a letter on the day she received the first copy of the book.) She is much quicker witted than Lady Catherine, can use her wits to refuse to answer her opponent’s imperious questionings and can easily expose the flaws in her logic. (She does this through lucid questions, quite different from the browbeating questions of Lady Catherine. Elizabeth’s questions push the point at issue back to Lady Catherine to cope with – which she can’t, other than by bluster and assertion.) She is brave, and emerges undaunted by the autocratic steam-rollering of the supposedly superior Lady Catherine. She is not rattled or flustered by the salvo of missiles her assailant fires at her. She counters Lady Catherine’s claims with just claims of her own, and is sufficiently self-possessed to point out Lady Catherine’s shortcomings. Whereas Lady Catherine is angry, Elizabeth is cool. Her sentences are long, articulate and controlled. Her insults are poised: ‘Allow me to say …’ (the equivalent of ‘With respect … ‘ meaning, without any shred of respect). She stands firm in the face of emotional blackmail.
The crowning glory of the episode is not immediately apparent. Lady Catherine’s visit actually promotes the marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy. When Lady Catherine relates the details of her visit to Darcy, he tells Elizabeth, ‘it taught me to hope … as I had scarcely ever allowed myself to hope before.’ (376/58) Later he says, ‘Lady Catherine’s unjustifiable endeavours to separate us, were the means of removing all my doubts.’ (Chapter 60)
Elizabeth does not perceive the success of her confrontation with Lady Catherine, and is in quite a ‘discomposure of spirits.’ She fears that Lady Catherine will go straight to Darcy and, appealing to his ‘notions of dignity’, will advance arguments that will seem to him full of ‘good sense and solid reasoning.’ If he ‘return(s) no more,’ she decides to abandon ‘every expectation, every wish of his constancy. … I shall soon cease to regret him at all.’ She is determined not to be miserable, but her doubts as to Darcy’s likely reactions maintain the tension and uncertainty about their relationship.
Lady Catherine’s confrontation with Elizabeth is a good illustration of the exercise and misuse of power. Power is the keynote of Lady Catherine’s every utterance and action. This manifests itself in her desire for importance, so slavishly pandered to by Mr Collins. Her house, with its expensive glazing and £800 chimney-piece, advertises her importance in terms of her wealth. Rank, too, confers status: ‘She likes to have the distinction of rank preserved,’ says Mr Collins, and certainly ‘her manner of receiving them (the party from Hunsford)’ was not ‘such as to make her visitors forget their inferior rank.’ At times she wields her snobbery with something approaching violence: ‘But who was your mother?’ Hardly anyone is allowed to speak in her presence: ‘whatever she said, was spoken in so authoritative a tone, as marked her self-importance.’ Her manner of speaking is geared to maintaining power: ‘I have not been used to submit ..’ This power, linked with egotism (I … I … I), snobbery and self-importance, is a kind of pride. Darcy is the other character in the novel who is rich and powerful, but he uses his power in a completely different way. ‘As a brother, a landlord, a master, she (Elizabeth) considered how many people’s happiness were in his guardianship!’ He evidently recognises (and Elizabeth admires him for it) that power brings with it great responsibilities.
(Volume III Chapter xv)
Mr Bennet receives a letter from Mr Collins suggesting that Elizabeth is about to marry Darcy.
Mr Bennet summons Elizabeth to his sanctum, the library, and teases her with a letter from Mr Collins, warning that Mr Darcy’s proposals should not be hastily agreed to, as his aunt, Lady Catherine, ‘does not look on the match with a friendly eye.’ Mr Bennet, who knows that everybody hates the stand-offish and critical Mr Darcy, thinks this is highly entertaining. Elizabeth ‘could only force one most reluctant smile. Never had his wit been directed in a manner so little agreeable to her.’ There is a strong contrast between Mr Bennet’s enjoyment of the situation, with which he thinks to amuse his favourite daughter, and Elizabeth’s seriousness and distress. ‘It was necessary to laugh, when she would rather have cried.’
Her father’s misreading of the position makes Elizabeth yet more uncertain of the truth about Darcy’s feelings for her: ‘she could do nothing but wonder at such a want of penetration, or fear that perhaps, instead of his seeing too little, she might have fancied too much.’ Mr Bennet continues: ‘For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?’ His wry attitude borders on what Darcy described, when he spoke of ‘a person whose first object in life is a joke.’ (Chapter 11) Mr Bennet’s part in the novel adds considerably to its fun, but his approach to life is essentially negative; he distances himself both literally and emotionally from his family, while the novel advocates a much more positive and serious set of values.
King of negative values is Mr Collins, as illustrated in another paragraph of his letter: ‘l am truly rejoiced that my cousin Lydia’s sad business has been so well hushed up, and am only concerned that their living together before the marriage took place, should be so generally known.’ (Largely thanks to gossip ‘industriously circulated’, as Lady Catherine would say, by Mr Collins.) ‘You ought certainly to forgive them (Lydia and Wickham) as christians, but never to admit them in your sight, or allow their names to be mentioned in your hearing.’ He has thus deprived the word forgiveness of any meaning. Mr Bennet loves these letters: ‘I would not give up Mr Collins’s correspondence for any consideration.’
(Volume III Chapters xvi- xix)
Chapter 58 brings Darcy’s second proposal, the wished-for proposal, leading to ‘an union that must … (be)… to the benefit of both.’ (Chapter 50) It is prompted by Elizabeth’s characteristic daring in thanking Darcy for his ‘unexampled kindness’ to Lydia, his ‘generous compassion which induced (him) to take so much trouble, and bear so many mortifications.’
Darcy’s response differs markedly from his earlier speeches. ‘But your family owe me nothing. Much as I respect them, I believe, I thought only of you.’ This from the man who a few months earlier had only spoken of the Bennets in terms of ‘its being a degradation’ to be connected with them, and who had expressed the opinion that their low connections must materially affect the Bennet daughters’ chances of marrying ‘men of any consideration in the world.’ (Chapter 8)
In the most important respect, Darcy remains constant: ‘My affections and wishes are unchanged’ This time, he asks Elizabeth humbly and hesitantly whether she wishes to silence him on this subject for ever, in contrast to his earlier arrogant assurance. We are given even less direct speech on this occasion than in the first proposal – the narrator distances us from the scene, retreating into generalisations: ‘ … he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do.’ We have seen Darcy and Elizabeth during some moments of intense, passionate involvement: the stormy first proposal, the unexpected encounter · at Pemberley, the news of Lydia’s disastrous escapade. But for this most private of moments, the narrator discreetly retires. We are allowed back for the fascinating details of when, how, why they first fell in love and what they thought of each other at different moments since their first meeting.
Darcy has changed, and in many ways his emotional journey has been similar to Elizabeth’s. Both of them have been proud, and have had to learn humility. ‘As a child,’ says Darcy, ‘I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit.’ Elizabeth’s pride has been of a different kind, but equally misleading: ‘I, who have prided myself on my discernment! – I, who have valued myself on my abilities!’ For both of them. pride has led to vanity. ‘What will you think of my vanity?’ continues Darcy. ‘I believed you to be wishing, expecting my addresses.’ When Elizabeth reads Darcy’s letter, one of the humiliating realisations it brings home to her is that ‘vanity … has been my folly.’ (Chapter 36) ‘By you, I was properly humbled,’ he says (378); Elizabeth ‘was humbled,’ (Chapter 50) and again, ‘she was humbled,’ (Chapter 52). Elizabeth asks him if he hated her after she had so insultingly rejected his offer of marriage. ‘I was angry perhaps at first, but my anger soon began to take a proper direction.’ In Elizabeth’s case, too, ‘When she considered how unjustly she had condemned and upbraided him, her anger was turned against herself.’ (Chapter 37) Both Darcy and Elizabeth are ashamed of their past behaviour. Darcy says, ‘My behaviour to you at the time had merited the severest reproof. It was unpardonable. I cannot think of it without abhorrence (loathing).’ For Elizabeth. ‘in her own past behaviour, there was a constant source of vexation and regret.’ (Chapter 37) Both feel they have learnt a hard lesson. ‘What do I not owe you!’ says Darcy. ‘You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first …’. Darcy has taught Elizabeth. too: ‘Till this moment, I never knew myself.’ (Chapter 36)
For both Darcy and Elizabeth, the emotional and moral journey away from pride, vanity and prejudice has been an education, as Darcy’s language (‘you taught me a lesson’) suggests. It completes the picture of young women’s accomplishments outlined by Bingley, his sister and Darcy, at Netherfield in Chapter 8. ‘They (young women) all paint tables. cover skreens and net purses,’ says Bingley. Miss Bingley adds to this. ‘A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages.’ Darcy advocates ‘extensive reading.’ In describing his own upbringing, Darcy says, ‘As a child I was taught what was rjght, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit.’ For Darcy and Elizabeth something more was needed to complete the education which consisted of accomplishments and principles but lacked experience. It was the education of the heart.
Jane and Mr Bennet, the two people who love Elizabeth most, receive the happy news of her engagement with disbelief and concern for her welfare. ‘At night she opened her heart to Jane’; however, Jane’s reaction is, ‘My dear, dear Lizzy, I would – I do congratulate you – but are you certain? forgive the question – are you quite certain that you can be happy with him?’ She follows this up with, ‘Oh, Lizzy! do any thing rather than marry without affection. Are you quite sure that you feel what you ought to do?’ (This is very similar to the heartfelt advice that Jane Austen wrote to her niece, Fanny: ‘anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection.’ In this same letter of 18th November 1814 is to be found a passage that almost amounts to a description of Mr Darcy, now that his understanding is as strong as his feelings. ‘There are such beings in the world perhaps, one in a thousand, as the creature you and I should think perfection, where grace & spirit are united to worth, where the manners are equal to the heart & understanding…’)
Elizabeth is by now restored to her usual buoyant state: ‘It is settled between us already, that we are to be the happiest couple in the world.’ She teases Jane: ‘It (loving Darcy) has been coming on so gradually that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.’ Jane has to beg her, yet again, to be serious; ‘all was acknowledged, and half the night spent in conversation.’ Even so famous a reader as Walter Scott misunderstood Elizabeth’s motives in marrying Darcy, and attributed them to the irresistibility of Pemberley. Visiting Pemberley played an important part in helping Elizabeth to understand Darcy, but she is marrying him for himself alone.
Mr Bennet’s reaction to the news of Elizabeth’s engagement is similar to Jane’s. ‘He is rich, to be sure. and you may have more fine clothes and fine carriages than Jane. But will they make you happy?’ He follows this by speaking in a way that is remarkable for its lack of wit, of cynicism, of detachment, in fact, of all the qualities that characterise his conversation. His heart is really in it: ‘Let me advise you to think better of it (of marrying one of the richest men and biggest catches in England). I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband; unless you looked up to him as a superior. … My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life.’
If you compare the reaction of Jane and Mr Bennet when they hear about Elizabeth’s engagement to the reaction of the Lucases when they hear of Charlotte’s, the contrast is striking. They were pleased, not for Charlotte, but for themselves – they immediately wondered how soon the Longbourn estate would become Mr Collins’s, when they should go to St James’s, Charlotte’s sisters were pleased that they would be able to go into society sooner. Jane and Mr Bennet, who really love Elizabeth, dismiss Mr Darcy’s fortune as unimportant, and are concerned only that Elizabeth should be genuinely attached to him, respecting her ‘partner in life.’ Mrs Bennet’s reaction revolves exclusively around ‘how rich and how great you will be! What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages you will have! …A house in town! … Three daughters married! Ten thousand a year!’ There are even fewer grammatical sentences and even more exclamation marks than usual.
If a post-script other than the last chapter is needed, it is to be found in the letter Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra on 24 May 1813. She was staying in London with her brother Henry. ‘Henry and I went to the exhibition in Spring Gardens. It is not thought a good collection, but I was very well pleased – particularly … with a small portrait of Mrs Bingley, excessively like her. I went in hopes of finding one of her sister, but there was no Mrs Darcy; – perhaps however, I may find her in the Great Exhibition which we shall go to, if we have time. … Mrs Bingley’s (portrait) is exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her. I dare say Mrs D will be in yellow. …We have been both to the exhibition & Sir J Reynolds’ – and I am disappointed, for there was nothing like Mrs D at either. I can only imagine that Mr D prizes any picture of her too much to like it should be exposed to the public eye. – I can imagine he wd have that sort of feeling – that mixture of Love, Pride & Delicacy.’
The world of Pride and Prejudice
There are all sorts of details in the novel that it may be interesting to think about further. The literary and philosphical context, especially that of the eighteenth century which is so different from our own; how people were expected to behave, how they travelled, and what the incomes that Jane Austen identifies so specifically would have meant. Then there are matters to do with the structure of the novel, and finally a glossary of some of the words that Jane Austen uses in a way very different from the way we use them now.
- Eighteenth century and Romantic thought and literature
- Customs and manners at the time of Pride and Prejudice
- Money, status, and the acquisitive society of Pride and Prejudice
- The content and speech patterns of some of the characters in Pride and Prejudice
- The tensions in Pride and Prejudice
- The fluctuating dynamic between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy
- Pride and Prejudice glossary
- Fashion in Pride and Prejudice
18th century and Romantic thought and literature
Pride and Prejudice was published in January 1813. Theoretically, then, you would expect the book to reflect the influence of the Romantics in thought and vocabulary, reaching for the sublime, the individual, the poetic, the extreme. But it becomes apparent as you read that much of the novel is informed by the language, ideas and context of the eighteenth century, the pre-Romantic era.
You can sample the beliefs and tenets of the eighteenth century in England if you look in any history of English literature or western civilisation. The key words, words that recur again and again, are: the Age of Reason, the Age of Enlightenment, social relationships, clarity, judgement, good sense, symmetry, reason, order, balance, consistency, moderation, harmony, decorum, correctness, standard, refinement, system, restraint, values, ideas, truth, discipline. Many of these terms are to be found, and used as a standard of excellence, in Pride and Prejudice. For example:
How earnestly did she (Elizabeth) then wish that her former opinions had been
more reasonable, her expressions more moderate! (Chapter 59)
Without launching into a very lengthy history of the period, here is something of a taste of eighteenth-century ideas and writing in England.
In 1625, John Beaumont provides a foretaste of some of the ideas that would prevail in the eighteenth century. He writes ‘Concerning the True Form of English Poetry’. It is to have:
Pure phrase, fit epithets, a sober care
Of metaphors, descriptions clear, yet rare,
Similitudes contracted, smooth and round,
Not vexed by learning, but with Nature crowned.
(from: ‘To His Late Majesty, Concerning the True Form of English Poetry’)
John Beaumont is here emphasising restraint, clarity, nature (usually human nature), sobriety, all concepts that would be dear to the eighteenth-century mind.
Dr Johnson, in Rasselas (1759), exhorts poets to ‘examine, not the individual, but the species; to remark general properties … and large appearances …’. The Norton Introduction to the Restoration and the Eighteenth Century remarks that ‘… some abiding truth shines through each moment as it passes. The particular is already the general, in good eighteenth-century verse.’ Truths are to be drawn from the study of life, and expressed in generalisations with much use of abstract nouns.
‘The business of living’, as Dr Johnson called it, is important. Man is part of society, and his conduct in that society is of supreme importance. The philosopher Locke (1632 – 1704) writes in 1690, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding,
Our business here is not to know all things, but those which concern our conduct.
A sentence from Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742) illustrates a similar cast of thought:
I describe not men, but manners; not an individual, but a species.
To the eighteenth-century mind, the world was not a place where the individual must fulfil his potential, but a social world, a public world. Rapin, writing Reflections on Aristotle’s Treatise of Poesie in 1674 (translated into English in 1706), emphasises ‘the publick Good’:
‘Tis true, Delight is the end Poetry aims at, but not the principal End. … In effect,
Poetry being an Art, ought to be profitable by the quality of its own Nature …
whose end in general is the publick Good.
Jane Austen is known to have admired Dr Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1794), that man of prodigious intellectual powers and famously trenchant pronouncements. Here are some samples of his vigorous observations:
To strive with difficulties and to conquer them is the highest human felicity;
the next is to strive and deserve to conquer them. (The Adventurer, No 111)
Truth such as is necessary to the regulation of life, is always found where it is
honestly sought. (Rasselas)
It is … to be steadily inculcated, that virtue is the highest proof of understanding,
and the only solid basis for greatness: and that vice is the natural consequence of
narrow thoughts, that it begins in mistake, and ends in ignominy. (The Rambler)
Here are generalisations made from reasoned observations and judgements of life lived by a human being in a social environment. Johnson’s aphorisms are famous, but they are also typical of the Age of Reason. There are a considerable number of abstract nouns in these quotations – ‘truth’, ‘regulation’, ‘understanding’, ‘consequence’, ‘mistake’, ‘ignominy’ – because these are the natural way of expressing general observations of this kind.
The number of abstract nouns in Jane Austen’s prose is striking to a modern reader but typical of eighteenth century style and concerns. The abstract nouns are usually concerned with conduct and with feelings, because it is from feelings that conduct will arise. Since this novel concerns pride and prejudice, some of the nouns are to do with appearance and reality – Darcy and Elizabeth’s assessment of life being distorted by pride and prejudice.
For example, after Elizabeth has read Darcy’s letter, she reflects for a long time on its contents.
The extravagance and general profligacy which he (Darcy) scrupled not (did not
hesitate) to lay to Mr Wickham’s charge, exceedingly shocked her; the more so, as
she could bring no proof of its injustice.
‘Extravagance’, ‘profligacy’ are abstract nouns concerned with conduct. ‘Proof’ and ‘injustice’ are abstract nouns concerned with truth and clear perception. Then comes the moment of insight, of truth and clarity.
‘How despicably have I acted!’ she cried. – ‘I, who have prided myself on my
discernment! – I, who have valued myself on my abilities! … How humiliating is
this discovery! – Yet, how just a humiliation! – Had I been in love, I could not have
been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly. – Pleased with
the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other … I have courted
prepossession (prejudice) and ignorance, and driven reason away … Till this
moment, I never knew myself. (Chapter 36)
‘Vanity’, ‘love’, ‘folly’, ‘preference’, ‘neglect’, ‘prepossession’, ‘ignorance’, ‘reason’ – all these are nouns concerned with conduct, several to do with a lack of moderation, a general impropriety in feelings and thus in behaviour. The goal is truth – to know oneself, to know one’s nature.
Locke writes of something very similar when he asserts that it is:
…. worth while to … examine by what measures, in things whereof we have no
certain knowledge, we ought to regulate our assent and moderate our persuasion.
Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690
In a later edition of the same key essay, we find that ‘self is … determined … only by identity of consciousness.’ A person is not so much a physical body as the possessor of an understanding, and consciousness – consciousness being the ‘totality of the impressions, thought, and feelings, which make up a person’s conscious being’.
Even in the passage conveying Elizabeth’s explosion of disgust with herself quoted above, you find antithetical, balanced structure and patterning of some sentences. This is typical of the balanced and rational approach of the eighteenth century in its search for good sense.
Pleased with the preference of one, and
offended by the neglect of the other …
I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and
(I have) driven reason away …
One of the things that this Age was particularly clear-sighted about was the distinction between pretence and reality, and therefore irony, much used in the eighteenth century, was the ideal vehicle to make the gap clear. Christopher Gillie writes, in A Preface to Jane Austen:
Eighteenth-century writers especially cultivated irony; it is a form of expression
which suited the strengths of the eighteenth century mind, since it depends on a
balance between a tough scepticism about human nature in its capacity to deceive
itself, and a robust faith in the capacity of human reason to arrive at true
judgements, given good sense, good will, and adequate self-knowledge.
You can begin to see the antecedents of the famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice: the Johnsonian pronouncement; the ironic tone. But Jane Austen has done something different with it. It starts with all the pithy, authoritative, trenchant qualities of an aphorism. It claims to articulate a universal truth about human conduct.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in …
But then it goes in an unexpected direction. That is to say, we realise that maybe we’ve been misled by the apparently serious tone. For it continues
… a single man in possession of a good fortune (lots of money), must be in want of
What has money got to do with it? Everything, but only in the eyes of every competitive mother in possession of that marriageable commodity, a daughter. The tables are turned. This so-called ‘truth’ is not universally acknowledged at all; a criticism is being levelled against the conduct of these mothers and their society’s understanding of what marriage means. How light-hearted, amusing, or scorching you feel that criticism to be will reflect your personal reaction to Jane Austen’s satire in this comedy of manners.
The concern with the importance of reason, sense, order and the desire for a balance of reason and feeling, between head and heart, can be seen in the writing of some of the most famous names of the age. Isaac Newton, in his Principia of 1687 and his Opticks of 1704, suggested that there were
… intelligible laws in nature which could be demonstrated by physics and
mathematics, and, moreover , … the universe exhibited a magnificent symmetry
and a mechanical certainty. … By interpretation, Newton’s heavens declared that
there was order, law, and indeed design in creation.
(Andrew Sanders, The Short Oxford History of English Literature)
The philosopher Locke writes of a virtuous citizen being a man of ‘large, sound, round-about sense.’ Another philosopher, Shaftesbury (1671 – 1713), adds that ‘to philosophize is but to carry good breeding a step further’. If you look at the architecture and the music of the period, these moral and social ideals are reflected in classical proportion, pattern, good taste, balance, symmetry and order. What Andrew Sanders calls ‘the spiritual restlessness of earlier generations’ is replaced by a sense of order and certainty. Shaftesbury also writes, extolling balance and order:
The balance of Europe, of trade, of power, is strictly sought after, while few have
heard of the balance of their passions, or thought of holding these scales even … we
should then see beauty and decorum here, as well as elsewhere in Nature; and the
order of the moral world would equal that of the natural.
All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall call IMPRESSIONS and IDEAS. The difference betwixt these consists in the degrees of force and liveliness, with which they strike upon the mind, and make their way into our thought or consciousness. Those perceptions, which enter with most force and violence, we may name impressions; and under this name I comprehend all our sensations, passions and emotions, as they make their first appearance in the soul. By ideas I mean the faint image of these in thinking and reasoning.
Tony Tanner makes the point that the original title of Pride and Prejudice, First Impressions, perfectly accords with Hume’s definition of impressions. In Chapter 6, for example, when Darcy is ‘caught’ by Elizabeth’s easy playful manners, ‘to her he was only the man who made himself agreeable no where, and who had not thought her handsome enough to dance with.’ A perfect illustration of an impression that has entered Elizabeth’s mind with ‘most force and violence.’
R W Chapman and Brian Southam note that the title Pride and Prejudice probably came from Fanny Burney’s Cecilia (1782). This novel, like Pride and Prejudice, focuses on a proud young man, Mortimer Delvile. Towards the end of the book, this paragraph occurs:
‘The whole of this unfortunate business,’ said Dr Lyster, ‘has been the result of PRIDE and PREJUDICE … Yet this, however, remember: if to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced, that to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you will also owe their termination.’
Man and Nature
The following section gives a brief look at the writers of the period, particularly those who have some bearing on Jane Austen herself. The most famous work of the poet Thomson (1700 – 1748), ‘The Seasons’, shows a sense of relationship between the country and the town, man and nature. Civilisation is a process of co-operation. According to him:
All is the gift of Industry, – whate’er
Exalts, embellishes, and renders life
Goldsmith, who was a poet and prose writer as well as a playwright, writes with typical eighteenth-century appreciation of the relationship between man and nature. He admires the improved and cultivated landscape.
This habitation, though provided with all the conveniences of air, pasturage, and
water, is but a desert place, without human cultivation.
An History of the Earth and Animated Nature
Arthur Young, secretary of the new Board of Agriculture, expresses similar sentiments. Evidently experiencing a horror of wild and waste country, he describes Norfolk in 1768.
All the country … was a wild sheepwalk before the spirit of improvement seized
the inhabitants … instead of boundless wilds and uncultivated wastes inhabited by
scarce anything but sheep, the country is all cut into enclosures, cultivated … richly
manured, well peopled, and yielding a hundred times the produce.
A Six Weeks’ Tour through the Southern Counties of England and Wales
A hundred years earlier, in 1657, Joshua Poole typifies this bleak view of any uncultivated landscape. In his poet’s handbook, English Parnassus, the adjectives he suggests for mountains are ‘barren’, ‘forsaken’, ‘melancholy’ and ‘pathless’. The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1747 was still seeing Wales as ‘a dismal region, generally ten months buried in snow and eleven in clouds.’ The mountains of 1657 and the Wales of 1747 did not conform to the eighteenth-century desire for order and co-operation.
But already in 1739, new perceptions were emerging – perceptions that with hindsight we would call Romantic. Crossing the Alps, the poet, Thomas Gray, wrote in a letter, ‘Not a precipice, not a torrent, not a cliff but is pregnant with religion and poetry.’ Edmund Burke wrote A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and The Beautiful (1757). He praised ‘ideas elevating, awful (awe-inspiring) and of a magnificent kind.’ The Lake District and the Peak District were popular with tourists. James Pilkington wrote, in A View of the Present State of Derbyshire (1789): ‘Perhaps no country … can boast of finer scenes.’ And William Gilpin, in 1786, had written Observations, Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, Made in the Year 1772, on several parts of England; particularly the Mountains, and Lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland.
These more modern ideas are the ones informing Elizabeth’s joyous reaction to her uncle and aunt’s proposed ‘tour of pleasure … perhaps to the Lakes.’
‘… what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men (she has been speaking of Wickham’s disappointing attachment to rich Miss King) to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport (rapture) we shall spend. … Lakes, mountains, and rivers …’
‘Transport’ has here the eighteenth-century meaning of rapture or ecstasy, very much a Romantic reaction to mountains and lakes. ‘Spleen’ is ill-humour, gloom and irritability.
Jenny Uglow reviewed Savage Grandeur and Noblest Thoughts: Discovering the Lake District, 1750-1829 at the Wordsworth Trust Museum, Grasmere in 2011. I have reproduced most of her review, as it gives considerable insight into the new taste for nature. In the second half of the eighteenth century, a flood of tourists swept into the Lake District. In an article in The Guardian, Jenny Uglow describes the art that fed this new appetite for the sublime.
‘In the mid-18th century, the moors and caverns of the Peak District, long a popular itinerary, began to seem tame – not remote or wild enough. Hence Elizabeth Bennet’s confession in Pride and Prejudice that she is “excessively disappointed” when the promised excursion to the Lake District is replaced by a Derbyshire tour. Jane Austen was not alone in laughing at the passion for the Lakes, inspired a generation or so earlier by the vogue for the picturesque and the sublime. The former, according to William Gilpin in his “Essay on Prints” in 1768, could be defined as “that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture”, while the latter conjured up an intensity of pleasure aroused by scenes that evoked fear, horror, strangeness and awe – as long as you were perfectly safe yourself. The Lake District could provide both: picturesque foregrounds of gentle lake shores, complete with innocent rustics, set against looming mountains, perilous rocks and crashing waterfalls and – if you were lucky – a devastating storm to whip sublimity to its peak.
‘An early pointer to the coming craze was John Brown’s eloquently affectionate letter about Derwentwater in the London Chronicle in 1766. This was followed in 1770 by Arthur Young’s A Six Months’ Tour Through the North of England, which combined lashings of facts with a nod to the “picturesque”, “sublime” and “horribly romantic” landscape. Then, in a rush, came Gilpin’s Observations, Hutchinson’s Excursion to the Lakes and Thomas Gray’s journal of his tour of 1769, published in 1775, four years after his death. This was a key moment. Gray laid down the vital tour and stopping points: first Ullswater and Derwentwater, then past Helvellyn to Grasmere and Ambleside. He also set the sublime tone, as in his famous account of the Jaws of Borrowdale, like a pass in the Alps “strewed with piles of fragments strangely thrown across each other, and of a dreadful bulk”. It sounded deliciously dangerous. Three years later Thomas West produced a full guidebook, with directions to every rocky torrent and cloud-crowned peak, and the crowds began to come. By the 1780s the Ullswater pleasure boats were mounted with cannon, their blasts echoing from rock to rock like crashing thunder. Soon Derwentwater and Windermere offered the same thrills (although travellers were warned to check that all the gunpowder was rammed in, to be sure they got the proper deal).
‘The emphasis was on the eye as well as the ear. Guidebooks gave precise instructions on exactly what you were supposed to see, and exactly where from, with specific “stations” designated at every viewpoint. The pictorial models were the landscapes of Salvator Rosa, nicknamed “Savage Rosa” by the poet James Thomson; the “majestic” scenes of Poussin and the idylls of Claude. To appreciate the “picture” properly, many visitors followed Gray’s example in carrying a Claude glass, a small, convex mirror used by landscape artists, with different coloured foils to provide varying moods. Absurdly, you had to stand with your back to the view and look at the scene in the mirror, slightly distorted but satisfyingly framed.
‘Coleridge was tart about tourists who stuck their heads in guidebooks or gazed at aquatints rather than at the landscape itself. “Still, however, I hope and trust,” he wrote, “that a majority will remain of those, who have kept their eyes open, and their hearts awake.”
‘The literary descriptions and the poetry are more familiar than the “views” the Lake visitors so admired. The current exhibition at the Wordsworth Trust Museum in Grasmere, Savage Grandeur and Noblest Thoughts: Discovering the Lake District, 1750-1820, rectifies this neglect, vividly demonstrating how artists, as well as writers, chose to see, or failed to see, the view before them. The show’s title comes from a poem of 1755 by Dr John Dalton, noted in the catalogue by Cecilia Powell and Stephen Hebron as “the earliest literary description of the Lakes”. One highlight is “dread Lodore”, the waterfall at the southern end of Derwentwater, cascading through its fierce “rough rocks”:
Horrors like these at first alarm
But soon with savage grandeur charm,
And raise to noblest thoughts the mind.
‘Thomas Hearne’s pen and ink and watercolour sketch, Sir George Beaumont and Joseph Farington painting a Waterfall, shows two artists setting about this very subject. In 1777 Hearne and Farington took the patron and collector Beaumont on a sketching trip, staying at Lodore, where Hearne sketched his two colleagues at their easels. Later he modified this in a larger picture, a memento for Beaumont. The scene is striking because the accepted practice was to use a sketchbook in the open, then work this up in the comfort of the studio – but here they are, painting in oils on canvas tacked on stretchers, shaded by large, fringed umbrellas wedged between the rocks. Behind them, his hands casually in his pockets, stands their servant (the umbrella and box carrier), while a small dog pants at his feet. These young painters were bringing to the Lakes a style of “painting from nature” established in Rome, where Farington’s teacher Richard Wilson had been in the 1750s. Beaumont enjoyed himself so much that he returned with his wife on their honeymoon the following year, and came back for many summers in later years. So did Farington, whose influential Views of the Lakes eventually appeared in 1789.
‘This trio may have been unusual in painting outdoors, but they were far from the first to try to catch the drama of the landscape, an attempt that started in the 1750s with William Beller’s print of the great circle of mountains surrounding Derwentwater. The quest for the sublime often led the early artists to exaggerate, making the fells almost unrecognisable. The mountains that Thomas Smith of Derby painted in the 1760s, for example, soar straight up from the lakes into zig-zag summits, almost like a Chinese painting. But although “untruthful”, the effect can be stunning, as in his atmospheric etching of Ennerdale, complete with billowing storm clouds and blasted tree. By contrast, other artists leant more to the picturesque. Several scenes have a strange delicacy, as if the artist were timid of his awesome subject, such as the hazy mountainscapes of Anthony Devis (half-brother of the portrait painter), which rise softly behind a sketchy foreground, where horsemen ride and woodcutters stack logs.
One of the delights of the exhibition is noting how different artists tackle such similar subjects, finding the distinctive signature in the series of ravishing watercolours, or seeing how less familiar artists fare against great names. Gainsborough, for example, is represented by a haunting drawing of the Langdale Pikes done from memory after his visit of 1783, which he later completely transformed into a generalised scene, Mountain Landscape with Shepherd. Gainsborough’s Lake District is a vision seen on the inner eye: his mountains become metaphors, the angle of the Langdales’ slope reversed to align with wind-blown trees and scudding clouds. To his more showy friend de Loutherbourg, who came north in the same year, the Lakes were not a dream but a drama. In his excitement he produced a swathe of paintings, full of energy and life, including the sunset view of Skiddaw (so grand that it was known as “the Etna of the North” despite having no volcanic traces), showing a laden stagecoach with passengers teetering on the roof, struggling up the mountain road in a swirl of dust.
‘There is drama of a different, impersonal, kind in Joseph Wright of Derby’s painting of Ullswater, where rolling mountains loom against pale sky behind a lake whose waters gleam with golden light. And drama, too, in the cloud-filled bowl of Thomas Girtin’s Borrowdale, commissioned to develop one of Sir George Beaumont’s own sketches, so the catalogue tells us, and “turn an on-the-spot record into a work of art”. Girtin had never even visited the area, yet could still produce a classic Lake District scene. He knew what was expected.
‘By 1800 an amphitheatre-like view, with lake or valley surrounded by peaks, had become a commonplace. In this exhibition you feel a shock of pleasure when an artist employs a style quite at odds with the Claude-glass view: the almost abstract landscapes of Francis Towne, or William Havell’s The Beck at Ambleside After Much Rain, its jumping waters filling the frame. But even conventional compositions can offer startling insights, such as the views of Haweswater in the album that Thomas Chubbard compiled for the wealthy Daniel Daulby when he came to live at Rydal Mount in 1796, showing the small figure-of-eight lake beneath the crags of High Street, before the later reservoir drowned the village and its farms.
‘… The flow of visitors swelled when the Napoleonic wars stopped continental jaunts and the “Lakers” were much mocked: William Gilpin was immortalised by Rowlandson in 1812 as the over-eager pedant on his scrawny nag, sketching a lake, in The Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque (“I’ll prose it here, I’ll verse it there/And picturesque it everywhere”). But the works in Savage Grandeur and Noblest Thoughts catch a particular moment in the way people looked at, responded to, and represented landscape. They help us understand the awed elation expressed by Georgian travellers and Victorian crowds.
‘”Such an impression I never received before, nor do I suppose that I ever can again,” wrote Charles Lamb after visiting Coleridge in Keswick. “I have satisfied myself that there is such a thing as that which tourists call romantic, which I very much suspected before: they make such a spluttering about it . . . But I am returned . . . you cannot conceive the degradation I felt at first, from being accustomed to walk free as air among mountains, bathe in rivers without being controuled by any one, to come home and work: I felt very little. I had been dreaming that I was a very great man.” These mountains, and the artists’ views of them, can still enlarge the spirit and make us feel free as air, even today.’
Review by Jenny Uglow of Savage Grandeur and Noblest Thoughts: Discovering the Lake District, 1750-1829 at the Wordsworth Trust Museum, Grasmere in 2011. The Guardian 14 May 2011
Meanwhile, there were various differing views on that relative newcomer to literature, the novel. Defoe assumes the importance of standard, truth and moral improvement when he writes in a little-known novel, Colonel Jack (1722):
One private mean Person’s Life, may be many ways made Useful, and Instructing
to those who read them, if moral and religious Improvement, and Reflections are
made by those that write them.
In 1750, Samuel Johnson writes about the serious purpose of a novel. It serves:
to bring about natural events by easy means, and to keep up curiosity without the
help of wonder.
Smollett found a serious purpose in his fellow novelist Richardson’s works: ‘a sublime system of ethics’. Richardson, Fielding and Smollet’s novels were very popular, and much later in the century, so were Fanny Burney’s novels. Jane Austen obviously much enjoyed Richardson, for she adapted for the (home) stage episodes from his novel The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1754). Richardson wrote in epistolary form, and David Cecil suggests that Jane Austen would particularly have valued his ‘psychological insight’. In a letter, Richardson describes the epistolary form as ‘writing, to the moment’ and ‘writing from the heart’. This certainly describes some of the effects that Jane Austen achieves in her novels. It is widely thought – though not certain – that Austen first wrote Sense and Sensibility in the form of letters.
John Mullan, reviewing a new edition of Richardson’s first novel, Pamela (1740), in The London Review of Books December 2002, writes about Richardson’s new epistolary style:
‘Samuel Richardson’s account of a servant girl’s defence of her virtue against the advances of her lascivious master (‘Mr B’), given in her own letters, made what we now call ‘the Novel’ (though Richardson never attached this label to his book) respectable. Pamela caused an unprecedented stir, exciting something like a national argument about the purposes and value of fiction. It was the model for a new literature, whose influence we still feel.
‘… (Richardsons’s) contemporaries did think that Richardson’s creation was unprecedented. Many disliked it for just this reason. As the anonymous work’s authorship became known, the fact that he was a 51-year-old printer, a businessman with no literary track record, emphasised the sense of Pamela as a book that came from nowhere. In a rush it became disputed, admired, parodied, reviled. Suddenly, and, as it happened, irreversibly, the Novel became a genre with the potential to be morally serious.’
London Review of Books, Volume 24, No 24, 12 December 2002
Fielding, whose novels Jane Austen also read, describes his Joseph Andrews as ‘a comic epic poem in prose.’ Andrew Sanders writes of Tom Jones: ‘Fielding’s narrator insists that he must generalize and observe the evidence of external human characteristics. His moral preoccupation is not with a single class or with the individual ideal, but with the definition of a human norm.’ These works are comic, but not over-tolerant of lax behaviour.
Later in the eighteenth century, however, novels were frequently attacked as being a bad influence. Sarah Pennington wrote: ‘they are apt to give a romantic turn to the mind, which is often productive of great errors in judgment and of fatal mistakes in conduct’ (An Unfortunate Mother’s Advice to Her Absent Daughters, 1761). There was a concern that novel-reading inflamed the imagination. James Fordyce wrote Sermons to Young Women (1766), a popular and moralistic conduct book. Fordyce denounced novels ‘which we are assured (for we have not read them) are in their nature so shameful, in their tendency so pestiferous, and contain … such horrible violation of all decorum, that she who can bear to peruse them must in her soul be a prostitute.’
Characters embracing the advice of conduct books too wholeheartedly become a source of ridicule in Pride and Prejudice. Dr John Gregory, another writer of conduct books, has this to say in A Father’s Legacy to his Daughter (1774).
One of the chief beauties in a female character, is that modest reserve, that retiring
delicacy, which avoids the public eye, and is disconcerted even at the gaze of
admiration … This modesty, which I think so essential in your sex, will naturally
dispose you to be rather silent in company …
Mr Collins seems to be quoting this almost verbatim when he suggests to Elizabeth the manner in which she should conduct herself as his wife in the presence of Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
‘… your wit and vivacity I think must be acceptable to her, especially when
tempered with … silence and respect …’
He admires modesty in the female character almost as much as Dr Gregory himself:
‘Believe me, my dear Miss Elizabeth, that your modesty, so far from doing you any
disservice, rather adds to your other perfections.’
A moment or two later, he is praising Elizabeth’s ‘natural delicacy’, reminiscent of Dr Gregory’s ‘retiring delicacy’.
The Earl of Chesterfield was yet another writer of conduct books. In Letters to his Son and Others (1774), Chesterfield writes on the ‘art of pleasing’.
There are little attentions … which are infinitely engaging, and which sensibly
affect that degree of pride and self-love, which is inseparable from human nature;
as they are unquestionable proofs of the regard and consideration which we have
for the persons to whom we pay them.
Mr Collins has assiduously cultivated the art of paying ‘little attentions’. He describes to the Bennets how
I am happy on every occasion to offer those little delicate compliments which are
always acceptable to ladies. These are the kind of little things which please her
ladyship (Lady Catherine), and it is a sort of attention which I conceive myself
peculiarly bound to pay.’ (Chapter 14)
And at the Netherfield ball, Mr Collins ‘assured her (Elizabeth) … that his chief object was by delicate attentions to recommend himself to her …’. (Chapter 19)
Evidently Jane Austen had little time for these books. Not only is Mr Collins a source of laughter; so is Mary, whose unhelpful contributions seems to be another product of the conduct manual genre. Confusingly, however, in a letter of 30th August 1805, she apparently praises this kind of book, for she writes, ‘I am glad you recommended “Gisborne”, for having begun, I am pleased with it ….’ Is this a tease or a change of heart on Jane Austen’s part? She was certainly serious in her Christianity, and read books of sermons with interest.
A word that was much used during the eighteenth century is ‘sentimental’; by the 1750s it was the fashionable word. Richardson writes that he hopes to ‘soften and mend the Heart’; in Charles Grandison we find that ‘a feeling heart is a blessing that no one, who has it, would be without.’ For a writer to arouse pity in his readers was morally instructive, socially speaking. First cousin to ‘sentiment’ was ‘sensibility’. John defined it in his dictionary as ‘quickness of sensation’, ‘quickness of perception’.
Novels of sentiment became very popular (Jane Austen much enjoyed them) but they tended to overdo the whole business of sensibility. They featured people of extreme feeling, love scenes, death scenes and outpourings of (very refined) feeling. Periodicals such as the monthly Lady’s Magazine (1770 – 1830) increased the popularity of sentimental tales. The formula ran along the lines of: love, objection from parents, adverse blip in the plot, resolution. Charlotte Smith wrote one or two such novels a year featuring the suffering of women at the powerful hands of men. Amelia Opie and Mary Brunton were writing best sellers around 1800. ‘Tis NOVEL most beguils (sic) the female heart’ wrote George Colman in 1760.
Jane Austen wrote a burlesque of such a sentimental novel in Love and Freindship (1790), an epistolary novel. The hero declares, concerning his father’s choice of bride for him: ‘Never shall it be said that I obliged my Father.’ The heroine has ‘a sensibility too tremblingly alive to every affliction of my Friends, my Acquaintance and particularly to every affliction of my own …’. Eventually, she dies: ‘My beloved Laura … take warning from my unhappy end …’ Obviously, this is a parody, and some novelists criticised the exaggerated emotional impulsiveness in novels of sentiment a being no substitute for serious moral principles in matters of conduct. Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth’s novels explore more seriously the business of young girls finding a way between society and self, head and heart. David Cecil refers to Fanny Burney’s ‘feminine line in social comedy.’ The very phrase, First Impressions, as Pride and Prejudice was originally entitled, is taken from sentimental literature.
Lydia and Kitty’s misery when the regiment moves from Meryton to Brighton (Chapter 41) is culled from the sentimental code.
The elder Miss Bennets alone were still able to eat, drink, and sleep, and … very
frequently were they reproached for this insensibility by Kitty and Lydia, whose
own misery was extreme.
A little later in the same chapter, we find Lydia’s imagination picturing scenes of which she is the sentimental heroine. The fact that this is all imagination is underlined by the number of times her sentences begin with ‘She saw …’.
In Lydia’s imagination, a visit to Brighton comprised every possibility of earthly
happiness. She saw with the creative eye of fancy, the streets of the gay bathing
place covered with officers. She saw herself the object of attention, to ten and to
scores of them at present unknown. She saw all the glories of the camp; its tents
stretched forth in beauteous uniformity of lines, crowded with the young and the
gay, and dazzling with scarlet; and to complete the view, she saw herself seated
beneath a tent, tenderly flirting with a least six officers at once.
The Gothic novels that proliferated towards the end of the eighteenth century were a development of the novel of sentiment. They were filled with haunted castles, villains, sensational crimes and terror. Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Lewis’s The Monk (1796) – all were popular. Ann Radcliffe claimed that terror ‘expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life.’ Austen mischievously parodies the style and plot of such novels in Northanger Abbey.
The wind roared down the chimney, the rain beat in torrents against the windows,
and every thing seemed to speak the awfulness of her situation. … her quick eyes
directly fell on a roll of paper pushed back into the further part of the cavity,
apparently for concealment, and her feelings at that moment were indescribable. …
Darkness impenetrable and immoveable filled the room. A violent gust of wind,
rising with sudden fury, added fresh horror to the moment. Catherine trembled
from head to foot. … Human nature could support no more. A cold sweat stood on
Northanger Abbey, Chapter 21
This terrible roll of paper turns out to be ‘a farrier’s bill’ and ‘a washing bill … shirts, stockings, cravats and waistcoats faced her in each.’
Although Jane Austen is happy to parody and burlesque the less sensible aspects of novels, she writes firmly to her sister Cassandra, ‘our family … are great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so.’ (Letter, 18 December 1798) Not ashamed of being so shows that she was aware of the question-mark hanging over the reputation of novels. Indeed, when the Austen family was taking out a subscription to a nearby library, she described the circumstances to her sister Cassandra.
As an inducement to subscribe Mrs Martin (who was in charge) tells us that her Collection
is not to consist only of Novels, but of every kind of Literature.
Mr Collins recoils at the prospect of reading aloud to the family a novel from a circulating library. His choice is Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women, the work that considered a woman who could bear to peruse a novel to be a prostitute in her soul.
In Chapter 5 of Northanger Abbey, we find Jane Austen the novelist defending her art – not perhaps wholly seriously:
Let us (she means writers of novels) leave it to the reviewers to abuse such
effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in
threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us
not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions
have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any
other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has
been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes
are almost as many as our readers. …. “I am no novel-reader–I seldom look into novels–Do not imagine that I often read novels–It is really very well for a novel.”
Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss–?” “Oh! It is
only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book
with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or
Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest
powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge
of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the
liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the
best-chosen language. (Chapter 5)
Another development of the mid-eighteenth century that we know Jane Austen appreciated was the comedy of manners – the plays of Goldsmith and Sheridan, such as She Stoops to Conquer (1773) and The Rivals (1775). In these examples of comedy of manners, the setting is polite society and the comedy stems from the discrepancy between the demands of polite behaviour and the characters’ actual behaviour. The focus is on people’s manners and morals in society, and there is always plenty of verbal wit as well as comically dismaying situations. There is a disparity between what is expected, and what is; what a person in that social situation should do, and what they actually do. There will be social conventions that people are trying to observe or language that they are trying to perfect. Austen’s own novels show this to be her take on the social world. Thus Lady Catherine thinks she knows exactly how everything should be done and what conventions should be observed, and she behaves worse than anybody else in the book. Mr Collins is ultra-careful to observe all the conventions of a proposal, and of politeness, and manages to get everything comprehensively wrong.
Two poets who were great favourites of Jane Austen’s were Crabbe (1754 – 1832) and Cowper (1731 – 1800). Crabbe’s two most famous works, ‘The Village’ (1783) and ‘The Borough’ (1810) are concerned with the truth of life in the country:
As Truth will paint it, and as Bards will not.
Cowper’s best known ‘conversation poem’ is ‘The Task’. He loved to contemplate and to describe Nature.
the love of Nature’s works
Is an ingredient in the compound, man,
Infus’d at the creation of the kind.
This assertion was certainly true of Jane Austen, who wrote:
The beauties of nature must for me be one of the joys of Heaven.
Cowper, like Austen, applauded the balance of heart and head:
Here the heart
May give a useful lesson to the head,
And learning wiser grow without his books.
In a letter to Cassandra, Jane Austen wrote, ‘My father reads Cowper to us in the evening …’. (18 December, 1798) And in another letter, written when her family moved house, Austen mentioned that she wanted a laburnum and a syringa (philadelphus) in her new garden because of Cowper’s lines:
In streaming gold; syringa Iv’ry pure.
Customs and manners at the time ofPride and Prejudice
Breakfast was at about ten (describing her wedding morning, Lydia says, ‘we breakfasted at ten as usual,’ (Chapter 51). You did quite a lot before breakfast, such as walking, reading or, like Edmund in Mansfield Park, having serious conversations.
The next meal, in the late afternoon, was dinner, and the whole of the day up to dinner time was the morning. A morning call was thus not necessarily before midday. If you were fashionable you ate dinner late (we are told that the Bingleys didn’t eat till 6.30: ‘at five o’clock the … ladies retired to dress, and at half past six Elizabeth was summoned to dinner.’ (Chapter 8)). It was more usual to eat somewhere aroun 4 or 4.30 pm – in the country, at any rate. After dinner, the ladies went to the drawing-room and drank coffee, before the men joined them. (When Jane is ill at Netherfield the Bingley sisters ‘repaired to her room on leaving the dining-parlour, and sat with her till summoned to coffee.’ (Chapter 8) Elizabeth, however, ‘would not quit her at all, till late in the evening … On entering the drawing-room she found the whole party at loo’ (a game of cards; we know from other descriptions of the evenings at Netherfield that you might read or write letters after dinner. Young ladies always had their ‘work’ (embroidery) to hand. Later in the evening, tea was served. You might ormight not have a sort of snack supper at about 11 pm. In Chapter 11, ‘When the ladies removed (to the drawing-room) after dinner, Elizabeth ran up to her sister, and … attended her into the drawing-room; where she was welcomed by her two friends …; and Elizabeth had never seen them so agreeable as they were during the hour which passed before the gentlemen appeared. … When tea was over, Mr Hurst reminded his sister-in-law of the card-table … Darcy took up a book.’
Since there were several hours between between breakfast and dinner, people often had a little something to bridge the gap. A ‘sandwich tray’ is mentioned in Mansfield Park. Lydia and Kitty ‘treat’ Jane and Elizabeth to the ‘nicest cold luncheon in the world’ (Chapter 39) on their return from Hunsford and London. When Elizabeth and the Gardiners call on Miss Darcy at Pernberley (to return the ‘striking civility’ of her coming to them) they are given ‘cold meat, cake, and a variety of all the finest fruits in season’ – this is during a morning call.
In polite circles it was usual to bow or curtsey as a greeting and in saying goodbye. You sometimes used this as a way of acknowledging what someone had said. You did not speak to someone you did not know until you had been introduced. All this is illustrated at the Netherfield ball, (Chapter 18) when to Elizabeth’s dismay, Mr Collins insists upon paying his respects to Mr Darcy, whom he has discovered to be Lady Catherine’s nephew. The joke is that Mr Collins is committing this social solecism in order to be extra, extra polite.
‘I am most thankful that the discovery is made in time for rne to pay my respects
to him, which I am now going to do, and trust he will excuse mynot having done it
before. My total ignorance of the connection must plead my apology.’
‘You are not going to introduce yourself to Mr Darcy?’
‘Indeed I am … ‘
Elizabeth tried hard to dissuade him from such a scheme; assuring him that Mr
Darcy would consider his addressing him without introduction as an impertinent
freedom; …that it was not in the least necessary there should be any notice on either
side, and that if it were, it must belong to Mr Darcy, the superior in consequence
(social importance), to begin the acquaintance.
. . And with a low bow he left her to attack Mr Darcy, …whose astonishment at
being so addressed was very evident. Her cousin prefaced his speech with a
solemn bow … at the end of it he (Mr Darcy) only made him a slight bow.
Shaking hands was not automatic – it could be a special mark of affability. When Jane and Elizabeth leave Nctherfield (Chapter 12) Miss Bingley pretends to be particularly polite to Elizabeth: ‘she even shook hands.’ Miss De Bourgh ‘exerted herself so far as to curtsey and hold out her hand to both’ (Maria and Elizabeth when they leave Rosings (Chapter 37)).
A man often gave his arm to a woman as they walked: Miss Bingley and Mr Darcy are ‘walking in the shrubbery’ at Netherfield when they eoncounter Elizabeth and Mrs Hurst. Mrs Hurst takes ‘the disengaged arm of Mr Darcy,’ (Chapter 10) Young men used to give an arm in this way to their male friends, too.
Husbands and wives referred to each other as Mr and Mrs, and often spoke to each other like that: ‘My dear Mr Bennet’; ‘Is it not so, Mrs Bennet?’ Children called their parents Sir and Madam or Ma’am; Elizabeth sometimes calls her mother mama, and Kitty calls Mr Bennet papa. For a woman to call a man by his surname was more familiar than to call him Mr …..
Almost the first snippet of information we hear about Mr Bingley is that ‘he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place’ (Netherfield). A chaise and four was not cheap to run – the very fact that Bingley’s chaise is drawn by four horses rather than two indicates that he is seriously rich. A chaise was a four-wheeled, closed carriage drawn by two or four horses, and it could hold three people, all facing the way they were going. The driver or postilion of the chaise would be mounted on the near (left-hand) leader. (If you had four horses drawing your carriage, the leaders were the two horses in front, and the wheelers were the two nearest the wheels.)
A chaise was the usual family carriage. Miss Bingley summons Jane to dinner at Netherfield when her brother, Mr Darcy and Mr Hurst are ‘to dine with the officers’ and we learn that ‘the gentlemen will have Mr Bingley’s chaise to go to Meryton.’ (Chapter 7) Lady Catherine’s majestic arrival at Longbourn in Chapter 56 is effected in ‘a chaise and four … The horses were post.’ When you travelled some distance, as Lady Catherine had on that occasion, you travelled in your own chaise but only used your own horses for the first stage of the journey. After that, you changed horses and hired new ones at the post stations along the way (usually these were inns). Your own horses were then either taken home again, or eventually joined you at your destination. Thus, in Chapter 7, we are told ‘the Bursts (who were staying with Bingley at Netherfield) have no horses to theirs’ (their carriage). Their horses had evidently not been brought all the way to Netherfield.
A coach was bigger than a chaise, and Mr Bennet had one to accommodate his large family. When Jane asks if she can ‘have the carriage’ to dine with Bingley’s sisters (Chapter 7) it becomes clear that this is the family coach. Like a chaise, this was a closed, four-wheeled carriage, but it had two seats, so that three of you faced the way you were going and three of you sat with your backs to the horses. Sometimes there was a side seat, too. This sounds grander than Mr Bingley’s chaise until you hear that Jane cannot ‘go in the coach’ because the horses are ‘wanted in the farm.’ This same coach takes Mr Collins ‘and his five cousins’ to spend the evening with Mrs Philips at Meryton (Chapter 16). Lady Catherine’s coach takes Elizabeth, Mr and Mrs Collins, Maria and Sir William Lucas back to Hunsford after they have dined for the first time at Rosings – again, a large enough party to warrant a coach rather than a chaise. (Chapter 29)
There seems to have been a strong feeling – at any rate in Jane Austen’s novels – that young ladies could not travel in a public carriage by themselves. ‘I cannot bear the idea of two young women travelling post by themselves,’ says Lady Catherine. ‘Where shall you change horses?’ she continues, with her customary nosiness. (To travel post was to travel in the carriages that carried the rnail.)’ However, Elizabeth assures Lady Catherine that her uncle, Mr Gardiner, has made arrangements: ‘My uncle is t send a servant for us.’ (Chapter 37)Lady Catherine is all ready to take the girls in her barouche box if they wait till she travels up to London in June. A barouche box was a four-wheeled carriage with a collapsible top; the box was where the driver sat. A barouche held six- maybe seven -with comfort – four or five inside and two on the box. Even Lady Catherine thought it possible to have five inside ‘if the weather should happen to be cool … as you are neither of you large.’ (Chapter 37) (The five would be Lady Catherine, her daughter, Mrs Jenkinson, Elizabeth and Maria.)
For local expeditions and neighbourly calls, young ladies seem to have used a phaeton, and young men a curricle or a gig. Miss De Bourgh often drives past Mr Collins’s ‘humble abode’ in her ‘little phaeton and ponies.’ (Chapter 14) A phaeton was a four-wheeled open carriage with a higher seat for the driver and one passenger. It was drawn by one or two horses. In Chapter 28, ‘two ladies (are) stopping in a low phaeton at the garden gate’ (Miss De Bourgh and Mrs Jenkinson passing the time of day with Charlotte Collins). When Mrs Gardiner writes to Elizabeth explaining all that Mr Darcy has done for Lydia, she ends teasingly: ‘I shall never be quite happy till I have been all round the park (at Pemberley). A low phaeton, with a nice little pair of ponies, would be the very thing.’ (Chapter 52) Jane did not use a phaeton to drive over to dine with Miss Bingley because Mr Bennet would not have been rich enough to possess a number of carriages- the Bennets just had the family coach.
Mr Darcy and his sister Georgiana come to visit Elizabeth at Lambton in a curricle. ‘They saw a lady and gentleman in a curricle, driving up the street. Elizabeth … recognising the livery (the uniform worn by servants of a particular family), guessed what it meant.’ (Chapter 44) This is an open carriage (hence the ease with which Elizabeth saw ‘a lady and gentleman’ – it was warm summer weather at the time, just right for an open carriage). A curricle had two wheels and was drawn by two horses, abreast. Mr Collins drives a gig to show Sir William Lucas the counttyside round Hunston. This is a light, open, two-wheeled carriage, with a seat for the driver and a passenger, and sometimes a groom’s seat behind.
Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy often ride – Mr Bingley rides to Longbourn to call on the Bennets: ‘She saw him … ride towards the house.’ (Chapter 53)
Carriages had lights (they were called moons) but the state of the roads made it dangerous to travel at night unless there was a full moon.
Money, status and the acquisitive society of Pride and Prejudice
It may come as a surprise to find how exactly Jane Austen pinpoints many of her characters in terms of class and money. We have no idea what Mr Bingley looks like, but his ‘fortune’ famously features in the opening sentence, and on the first page of Chapter 1 we learn of his ‘four or five thousand a year.’ The prosperous state of his finances, and the fact that ‘Mr Bingley’s fortune … had been acquired by trade’ is described more fully in Chapter 4.
Mr Bingley inherited property to the amount of nearly an hundred thousand
pounds from his father.
This explains the four or five thousand a year: the £100,000 would be invested in government funds yielding five per cent a year. Mr Darcy’s £10,000 a year eclipses even Mr Bingley’s large fortune and ‘puts him among the four hundred wealthiest families in the country’. (Penguin Classics, notes to 1996 edition) Mr Bennet has two thousand pounds a year, which is not nearly such a comfortable a state of affairs.
The financial situations of the women are equally exactly detailed. Miss Bingley has twenty thousand pounds (Chapter 4); Miss King, who fleetingly attracts Wickham’s mercenary attention, ten thousand pounds (Chapter 26), and Georgiana Darcy thirty thousand pounds. (Chapter 35) At the other end of the scale, Charlotte Lucas would have had to live off her brothers if she had remained unmarried (Chapter 22). Some young women, such as the ‘four nieces of Mrs Jenkinson’ (Chapter 29) have to make a living as governesses. Elizabeth, as Mr Collins tactlessly reminds her, will inherit one thousand pounds when her mother dies, but invested in government funds at only four percent will yield a mere forty pounds per year. Mrs Bennet’s own inheritance was four thousand pounds (Chapter 7). And, although we laugh at Mrs Bennet’s perpetual bewailing of the poverty that will engulf her and the girls on Mr Bennet’s death, the threat was real enough. ‘If … a woman … should find herself the sole support(er) of a family, the impoverishment of the family was virtually certain.’ (R S Neale, Bath 1680-1850: A Social Histol)’). Hence Mr Collins’s certainty that Elizabeth will marry him. She has very little to live on unless she marries and ‘it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. Your portion (marriage settlement) is unhappily so small …’.
There are many other indicators of a person’s wealth, each eagerly observed by the gossiping and keen-eyed. Mrs Long goes to the Meryton assembly in a ‘hack chaise’ (a hired carriage, so she’s not very well off), whereas Bingley, as is instantly noted, comes to see Netherfield in a ‘chaise and four’. He also has a house in town. Lady Catherine de Bourgh parades her wealth through her ostentatious ‘elegance of dress’, her eight hundred pound chimney-piece, her many windows expensively glazed and her ‘several’ carriages. Meals, too, reflect money, from the ‘little bit of hot supper’ offered by Aunt Philips (Chapter 13) to the exotic fruits at Pemberley.
Various parasites live off the rich. Mr Bingley’s sisters, for example, use Mr Bingley’s establishments to enhance their status.
His sisters were very anxious for his having an estate of his own; but though
he was now established only as a tenant, Miss Bingley was by no means
unwilling to preside at his table, nor was Mrs Hurst, who had married a man
of more fashion than fortune, less disposed to consider his house as her
home when it suited her. (Chapter 4)
They hope to acquire even higher social standing through encouraging their brother to buy an estate of his own, rather than remaining a mere tenant. Their ‘darling wish’ is for him to buy an estate near Pemberley (and the adjective ‘darling’ reveals that their fondest affections lie with position rather than relationships). They hope to raise their status further through the marriage of their brother to Georgiana Darcy. Since Mr Darcy is both richer and comes of a better family than their own, their station would be upgraded by his reflected glory.
Wickham is another parasite, trying for Georgiana Darcy’s thirty thousand pounds by eloping with her, and passingly interested in Miss King’s ten thousand pounds. The delightful Colonel Fitzwilliam is the younger son of an earl, Darcy’s uncle. (Chapter 30). Even he says ‘younger sons cannot marry where they like.’ He will have to marry an heiress if he is to keep up his ‘habits of expence.’ (Chapter 33). It seems that Colonel Fitzwilliam too is affected by the prevailing climate that regards marriage primarily in terms of acquisition rather than as a lifelong relationship.
Jane Austen is known for her acute observation of people’s social positions, which are closely linked to their money, and also to the source of that money. The Bingleys are firmly placed though not condemned as having acquired their money in trade. Fuelled by this money, their social aspirations are considerable: having a house in town, buying an estate near Derbyshire, but not quite, in the sisters’ case, pulling off the coup of Mr Darcy as a brother-in-law. Mrs Bennet’s family, the Gardiners, are like the Bingleys in that they are upwardly mobile. They are, of course, far less grand and rich. Mrs Bennet’s father was an attorney in a ‘small market town’, Meryton; her sister has married her father’s clerk, now an attorney himself, and Mr Gardiner, who lives in an unfashionable part of London, is in ‘a respectable line of trade.’ Mr Gardiner represents the new meritocracy, the responsible professional class (notes, Penguin Classics). Mrs Bennet has married a member of the landed gentry but his £2,000 a year is stretched to provide for his wife and five daughters. But by the end of the novel, Mrs Bennet has ironically trumped the Bingley sisters’ ace, for her son-in-law is Mr Darcy.
The Lucases are another example of a family strenuously rising in social importance. Having made money in trade in Meryton, Charlotte’s father has become mayor and finally has been made a knight – Sir William Lucas. (Whereas a baronet inherits his title, and his son succeeds to it on his father’s death, a knight receives the title for his lifetime only.) Sir William’s visit to St James’s Palace, to be presented at court in order to receive his knighthood, takes a prominent place in his conversation. Jane Austen specifies his reasons for moving to a new house which he renames Lucas Lodge: as Sir William, his business and his previous house are now beneath him.
Mr Darcy bears the brunt of the upwardly mobile characters, since many of them seek out his attention as the most socially exalted character in order to impress. The social thrusters cluster round him: Sir William and Miss Bingley, at the Lucases’ party in Chapter 6; Mr Collins at the Netherfield Ball in Chapter 18. Mrs Bennet is similarly occupied as she tries to crush Mr Darcy’s claims to social eminence (Chapter 9). Some do not have social ambitions. The Gardiners meet Mr Darcy, too, but they do not claim his attention; the point is made that he invites them to return to Pemberley. Lady Catherine is more concerned with crushing Elizabeth’s potential ‘quit(ting of) the sphere, in which you have been brought up.’ She attempts to quell ‘the upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune’; ironically, Elizabeth, like the Gardiners, is one of the few people in the novel without upstart pretensions.
Money, obviously, dictates who mixes with whom. Thus, the Collinses’ ‘other engagements were few; as the style of living of the neighbourhood in general, was beyond the Collinses’ reach’. (Chapter 30) Pemberley did not mix with Lambton. (Chapter 44) It is thus all the more remarkable and satisfying when love breaks through this maze of rigid class and money barriers which seems only to recognise acquisition, not a relationship, as a reason for marriage.
In the world of Pride and Prejudice, people seem to marry for one of two reasons: the status or material possessions they can acquire, or the happiness of a deeply affectionate relationship. Those making an acquisition through marriage include Charlotte Lucas, ‘I ask only a comfortable home.’ (Chapter 22) Mr Collins is ‘… coming into Hertfordshire with the design of selecting a wife …’. In a wife he looks for a commodity with ‘modesty, economy, (how to manage a household) and other amiable qualifications.’ ‘Wickham’ remarks Elizabeth sapiently, though in the event wrongly, ‘will never marry a woman without some money. He cannot afford it.’ (Chapter 47) Lydia’s chief aim is the fact and status of being a married woman. ‘Lord! how ashamed I should be of not being married before three and twenty!’ she says; ‘I should like to be married before any of you …’ (Chapter 39) And when the great day comes, bought for her by Mr Darcy: ‘Do the people here abouts know I am married to day? I was afraid they might not …’ ‘Ah! Jane, I take your place now, and you must go lower, because I am a married woman.’ (Chapter 51) Elizabeth reflects on Lydia and Wickham’s marriage. ‘And they are really to be married! … And for this we are to be thankful. That they should marry, small as is their chance of happiness, and wretched as is his character, we are forced to rejoice!’ (Chapter 49) The marriage has been brought about to preserve Lydia’s reputation (another acquisition) but Elizabeth is thinking of the happiness they will never have. Mrs Bennet is concerned with her own status as the mother of married daughters, and with the possessions that marriage brings:
‘Only think what an establishment it would be for one of them.’ (Chapter 1)
‘What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages you will have!’ (Chapter 59)
Others think only of the mutual respect and affection between those to be married. The point is made the more clearly since Bingley and Darcy are, in terms of money, status and acquisitions, the most eligible men in the novel. Thus, when Elizabeth thinks of Jane’s hoped-for engagement and marriage, ‘she saw her … settled in that very house in all the felicity which a marriage of true affection could bestow’. (Chapter 18) Jane cannot believe Elizabeth’s news that she is engaged to Mr Darcy.
‘Are you quite certain that you can be happy with him? …do anything rather than marry without affection. Are you quite sure that you feel what you ought to do?’ Mr Bennet feels the same: ‘you may have more fine clothes and fine carriages than Jane. But will they make you happy? … I know that you could be neither happy nor unless you truly esteemed your husband. … My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life.’ Words concerned with feeling dominate what Jane and Mr Bennet have to say about Elizabeth’s proposed marriage to one of the most eligible men in England – ‘happy’, ‘affection’, ‘feel’, ‘happy’, ‘esteemed’, ‘grief, ‘respect’.
This approach to life, in terms of acquisition or relationships, continues even on the last page of the novel. The acquisitive Miss Bingley, we are told, was very deeply mortified by Darcy’s marriage; ‘but as she thought it advisable to retain the right of visiting at Pemberley, she dropt all her resentment; was fonder than ever of Georgiana, almost as attentive to Darcy as heretofore, and paid off every arrear of civility to Elizabeth. ‘ (Chapter 61) ‘Retain the right of visiting at Pemberley … paid off every arrear of civility’ are words to do with acquisition, not relationship.
Pemberley was now Georgiana’s home; and the attachment of the sisters was
exactly what Darcy had hoped to see. They were able to love each other …
There is a suggestion, but no more than that, of a connection between where the characters live, and their moral qualities. The responsibilities involved in being settled in a place have already been an important element of understanding Mr Darcy’s character. Mr Collins ‘humble abode’ is dependent on patronage, which perfectly reflects his parasitic nature. Wickham is always on the move because he is so irresponsible about falling into debt. ‘ … his flight was rendered necessary by
distress of circumstances …’ (Chapter 51). ‘Their manner of living … was unsettled in the extreme. They were always moving from place to place …’ (Chapter 61)
In the world of this novel it seems that increasing emotional maturity and
self-knowledge can bring about a corresponding ability to promote the welfare and happiness of others. Thus Darcy, when he understands the limitations imposed on his life by his pride, is able to bring about the happiness of Bingley and Jane. After her marriage to Darcy, Elizabeth is frequently able to have her sister Kitty to stay, which is a ‘material advantage’ to Kitty. Conversely, Lydia’s irresponsibility in running off with Wickham threatens to have a very disadvantageous effect on her sisters’ reputations. Jane Austen, as always, is concerned with the individual in society.
The content and speech patterns of some of the characters in Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen has such a quick ear for individual, distinctive speech patterns (and characteristic topics of speech) that it can be interesting to look at some of them in more detail. It is easy to identify any of the characters in Pride and Prejudice from a sentence or two of their conversation – except, perhaps, for Sir William Lucas and Mr Collins who are surprisingly similar. But then, Mr Collins’s topic of conversation is invariably Lady Catherine, whereas Sir William has one or two other subjects at his disposal.
First, Elizabeth. You have only to look at her bubbly speech rhythms to hear why Jane Austen thought her ‘as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print’. Here are a few extracts. I am going to set them out as if in a play, to make it easier to concentrate on the speech itself.
Elizabeth … I dearly love a laugh.
Mr Darcy … The wisest and the best of men, nay, the wisest and best of their
actions, may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke.
Elizabeth … I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense,
whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.
Elizabeth Do clear them too, or we shall be obliged to think ill of somebody.
Jane Laugh as much as you chuse, but you will not laugh me out of my
opinion. My dearest Lizzy, do but consider in what a disgraceful light
it places Mr Darcy, to be treating his father’s favourite in such a
manner. … No man of common humanity, no man who had any value
for his character, could be capable of it. … It is difficult indeed – it is
distressing. – One does not know what to think.
Elizabeth I beg your pardon: – one knows exactly what to think.
Elizabeth My dear Jane, Mr Collins is a conceited, pompous, narrow-minded,
silly man; you know he is, as well as I do; and you must feel, as well
as I do, that the woman who marries him, cannot have a proper way of
thinking. You shall not defend her, though it is Charlote Lucas. You
shall not, for the sake of one individual, change the meaning of
principle and integrity..
Jane I must think your language too strong … and I hope you will be
convinced of it, by seeing them happy together.
Jane … are you certain? forgive the question – are you quite certain that
you can be happy with him?
Elizabeth There can be no doubt of that. It is settled between us already, that we
are to be the happiest couple in the world…
… Jane Oh, Lizzy! do anything rather than marry without affection….
Elizabeth … You will only think I feel more than I ought to do when I tell you
Jane What do you mean?
Elizabeth Why, I must confess, that I love him better than I do Bingley. I am
afraid you will be angry.
Jane My dearest sister, now do be serious. I want to talk very seriously.
Typically, Elizabeth talks at quite a pace. She often energetically emphasises words, not in the pompous fashion of Lady Catherine, but in a way that gives a feeling of bubble and vitality to what she says. Her sentences tend to contain a lot of verbs, adding to the effect of pace and liveliness. Her remarks often bounce off what someone else has just said, or asked her – she does not take over the conversation as Lady Catherine, Mr Collins and Lydia do. She does not often initiate conversations (except when Mr Darcy has been silent for ten minutes). Since we usually see her reacting to what someone else has said, we have the feeling that she is responsive, certainly not fishing for compliments or criticising or pulverising everyone around her. She is often teasing and witty, but not averse to considering serious subjects. In these extracts, she is talking about people’s behaviour and how to understand it, and about relationships. Her observations are definite (often exaggerated), buoyant and positive, sometimes bordering on the impetuous, and this is reflected in the phrasing, which is short to medium length. Her vocabulary is usually straightforward and uncomplicated.
Here are some examples of the phrasing in Elizabeth’s speech (marked / ), and the frequent verbs.
I dearly love a laugh. (Verb – love)
Follies and nonsense, / whims and inconsistencies / do divert me, I own, / and I laugh at them whenever I can. (Verbs – divert, own, laugh, can)
Do clear them too, / or we shall be obliged to think ill of somebody. (Verbs – do, clear, we shall be obliged, to think)
… one knows exactly what to think. (Verbs – knows, to think)
You shall not defend her, / though it is Charlotte Lucas. (Verbs- you shall … defend, is)
There can be no doubt of that. / It is settled between us already, / that we are to be
the happiest couple in the world. (Verbs – can be, settled, we are to be)
As I hear her, Elizabeth’s phrases often have a skipping, dance rhythm which adds to the feeling of buoyancy – phrases like ‘exactly what to think’ and (not quoted above)
‘and now despise me if you dare’. (Chapter 10) There are also groups of short words that skim along at tremendous speed, such as ‘that we are to be the’ and ‘in the world’.
You can see from the examples of Jane’s gentle, courteous conversation with her sister, that her habitual manner of speaking is much less energetic than Elizabeth’s and much slower. She sounds more serious, there is no teasing note in what she says. She speaks in much longer phrases, for example, ‘do but consider in what a disgraceful light it places Mr Darcy, / to be treating his father’s favourite in such a manner’. She speaks with much affection – admittedly, in these examples, she is talking to her beloved sister: ‘my dearest Lizzy’ and ‘my dearest sister’. She is far less definite than her sister, and often hesitates while she refashions her thoughts: ‘It is difficult indeed – it is distressing’ and ‘are you certain? forgive the question – are you quite certain …?’ Her speech seems to have fewer emphases, matching her less confident view of life. Typical topics of conversation are candour (unwillingness to think ill of people), respect for people, concern for those she loves. Like Elizabeth, she seldom initiates a conversation, reflecting her respectful attitude to those around her.
Miss Bingley frequently initiates conversation, especially if Darcy is in the room. She is critical, negative, insincere, affected; her remarks are full of strident, stabbing exaggerations. Here she is commenting on Elizabeth’s looks after Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley.
How very ill Eliza Bennet looks this morning, Mr Darcy…. I never in my life saw any one so much altered as she is since the winter. She is grown so brown and coarse! Louisa and I were agreeing that we should not have known her again…. I must confess that I never could see any beauty in her. Her face is too thin; her complexion has no brilliancy; and her features are not at all handsome.
Almost all the bitchy exaggerations and criticisms have an emphatic tone: ‘very ill’,
‘never in my life’, ‘so much altered’, ‘brown and coarse’, ‘any beauty’, ‘too thin’, ‘not at all handsome’.
Miss Bingley’s stridency and attention-seeking are echoed by Lydia, who, although she is only fifteen, also initiates conversation even amongst her elders, and even when she is in someone else’s house. She is oblivious to the presence of anyone else. This stridency signals a lack of decorum on the part of both Lydia and Miss Bingley. Here is Lydia.
Good Lord! Sir William, how can you tell such a story? – Do not you
know that Mr Collins wants to marry Lizzy?
And we mean to treat you all, … but you must lend us the money, for
we have just spent ours at the shop out there…. Look here, I have
bought this bonnet. I do not think it is very pretty; but I thought I
might as well buy it as not. I shall pull it to pieces as soon as I get
And then when you (Mrs Bennet) go away, you may leave one or two
of my sisters behind you; and I dare say I shall get husbands for them
before the winter is over.
Lydia’s rapid utterance is characterised by lack of sense, wordiness, an indecorous tendency to tell her elders what they should do, a poor level of vocabulary and an ungrammatical way of using it, and lots of exclamations (such as ‘Good Lord!’). The phrases are quite long because they keep meandering. It always sounds as if she is talking at the top of her voice (as we know that she is from the narrator’s information: ‘Lydia, in a voice rather louder than any other person’s, was …’). I think this may stem partly from the verbs, which are often tantamount to commands: ‘how can you …?’ ‘Do not you know …?, ‘you must lend us’, ‘you may leave’. There is an overriding carelessness in what she says, too: ‘you must lend us the money, for we have just spent ours’. ‘I have just bought this bonnet.. I thought I might as well buy it as not’, ‘I dare say I shall get husbands for them’. This carelessness reflects a negligence towards the important concerns of human existence, of which Jane, and later Elizabeth, are so aware.
It is less easy to find examples of Mr Darcy’s characteristic way of speaking because he does not talk much. At the beginning he is being shy, aloof and difficult, and the situation on which he expresses himself at greatest length is in the form of a letter. However, we see him talking to his friends at Netherfield. And at the end of the novel, he talks very seriously to Elizabeth.
They (young ladies) all paint tables, cover skreens and net purses…. I
am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the fist time,
without being informed that she was very accomplished.
Your list of the common extent of accomplishments … has too much
truth. The word is applied to many a woman who deserves it no
otherwise than by netting a purse, or covering a skreen. … I cannot
boast of knowing more than half a dozen, in the whole range of my
acquaintance, that are really accomplished.
When you (Mr Bingley) told Mrs Bennet this morning that if you ever
resolved on quitting Netherfield you should be gone in five minutes,
you meant it to be a sort of panegyric, of compliment to yourself –
and yet what is there so very laudable in a precipitance which must
leave very necessary business undone, and can be of no real
advantage to yourself or any one else?
Later, Miss Bingley and Elizabeth are walking about the drawing room at Netherfield. Miss Bingley invites Darcy to join them.
You either chuse this method of passing the evening because you are
in each other’s confidence and have secret affairs to discuss, or
because you are conscious that your figures appear to the greatest
advantage in walking; -if the first, I should be completely in your
way; – and if the second, I can admire you much better as I sit by the
When Darcy and Elizabeth are engaged, they discuss their earlier impressions of each other.
I am almost afraid of asking what you thought of me; when we met at
Pemberley. You blamed me for coming?
… My object then … was to shew you, by every civility in my power,
that I was not so mean as to resent the past; and I hoped to obtain
your forgiveness, to lessen your ill opinion, by letting you see that
your reproofs had been attended to.
You can see from these examples that Darcy speaks in very long phrases, in a serious tone about serious concerns: about speedy changes of plan that ‘must leave very necessary business undone’; about obtaining forgiveness, about the real meaning of accomplishments in a young lady. He is intelligent, and quite capable of analysing the reasons why Miss Bingley might want to walk about the room. He never teases. He uses long words, derived from the Latin or Greek, such as ‘panegyric’, ‘precipitance’ (haste), ‘laudable’ (praiseworthy), ‘civility’. His ideas are considered, his expression probably quite slow. Elizabeth thinks of Darcy’s ‘judgement, information, and knowledge of the world’ (Chapter 50), and judgement is always evident in what he says.
The content and speech patterns of Mrs Bennet, Lady Catherine and Mr Collins have already been explored in some detail in the commentary.
The tensions in Pride and Prejudice
Various tensions hold the book together; they provide the friction which makes the reader look towards a resolution. It is particularly satisfying that the resolution comes in the form of progress for hero and heroine – a step forward, beyond the difficulties and restrictions of the situations obtaining during most of the novel.
One tension, perhaps the most obvious, is the misunderstanding between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy. He is strongly attracted by her: ‘Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her.’ (Chapter 10) She dislikes him: ‘ … to her he was only the man who made himself agreeable nowhere, and who had not thought her handsome enough to dance with.’ (Chapter 6) Their mutual misunderstanding of each other’s feelings is brought to a head, ironically, when Mr Darcy proposes: ‘You must allow me to tell you how ardently (passionately; literally, burningly) I admire and love you.’ Elizabeth says: ‘You could not have made me the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it.’ (Chapter 34)
The second half of the book is concerned with Darcy and Elizabeth’s movement towards a greater understanding of each other’s characters. The happy ending is postponed only by a complication of the plot (Lydia and Wicham’s running away together). This debacle further clarifies Elizabeth’s regard for Darcy, and provides him with an opportunity to demonstrate his true character and worthiness of her, when he undertakes the finding of Lydia and arranges her marriage. As Elizabeth sees it, she and Darcy perfectly complement each other.
She began now to comprehend that he was exactly the man, who, in disposition and talents, would·most suit her. His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes. It was an union that must have been to the advantage of both; by her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved, and from his judgment, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance. (Chapter 51)
The antithetical patterning of the last sentence demonstrates the harmony at which Elizabeth and Darcy are arriving after their initial disharmony. The first section demonstrates how Darcy will benefit from being with Elizabeth:
by her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved,
The second section demonstrates how Elizabeth will benefit from being with Darcy. The symmetry reflects the harmony.
and from his judgment, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance.
There are some satisfying complications arising from this tension between Elizabeth and Darcy. For example, in the first half of the novel, Elizabeth has to decide which of the men in her life is the villain and which the hero, Wickham or Darcy. She jokingly describes the difficulty to Jane, ‘One has got all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it.’ (Chapter 40) But, as she admits, discovering the truth made her ‘uncomfortable enough … I may say unhappy.’
Closely connected to the first source of tension is the second: the tension within Elizabeth herself. This is provided by her initial inability to assess people accurately, to draw the correct conclusions about them. The problem arises partly from her own misplaced confidence in her observation. When Jane says, ‘One does not know what to think,’ Elizabeth retaliates unhesitatingly, ‘I beg your pardon; – one knows exactly what to think.’ (Chapter 17) Thus there is a tension between Elizabeth’s perception of people, and what they are really like. Often the reader knows more than Elizabeth, whose insights are still distorted by prejudice. Sometimes she dismisses facts because she dislikes the person who furnishes them. This happens at the Netherfield ball, when Miss Bingley tells her about Darcy’s generous treatment of Wickham. Elizabeth’s reaction is ‘Insolent girl’ (Chapter 18). She also misjudges what her best friend is likely to do in order to get married, although Charlotte has spelt it out for her. ‘Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance,’ says Charlotte. Elizabeth dismisses Charlotte’s asertion: ‘You make me laugh, Charlotte; but it is not sound. You know it is not sound, and that you would never act in this way yourself.’ (Chapter 6) And she both fancies and believes Wickham, simply because he is charming and handsome. ‘Elizabeth honoured him for such feelings, and thought him handsomer than ever as he expressed them.’ (Chapter 16) By the time she has come to a clearer understanding of her mistaken perceptions of people and of herself, she has driven her lover away. ‘ .. she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.’ ‘Till this moment, I never knew myself.’ (Chapter 36)
The tension between her misreading of the world, and the real world, is resolved as she begins to understand Darcy’s true nature. Thus there is a double harmony: greater understanding of herself and her misconceptions, and of Darcy.
The third tension arises from the situation of Jane and Elizabeth. There are several circumstances in their lives that militate against their making happy marriages. They have vulgar family and relations; they have not much money (as Mr Collins makes abundantly clear during the course of his proposal); they will lose their home when their father dies, and may be reduced to ‘want’ unless they marry. They are also pressurised into marrying inappropriate men, such as Mr Collins. Later, another disadvantage arises: their sister Lydia has lived with Wickham without being married to him, and this vitiates their chances of marrying because it throws a question mark over their own respectability and virtue.
Thus there is additional pressure on our heroine to marry, to escape the future that may otherwise claim her. That this future includes the permanent company of her uncongenial mother, aunt Philips and sisters, is implicit. When Lydia is regaling her family with details of her newly-married behaviour, ‘Elizabeth could bear it no longer. She got up, and ran out of the room; …’ (Chapter 51) Indeed, solitude is precious, and hard to come by even when she is away from her family. ‘Reflection must be reserved for solitary hours; whenever she was alone, she gave way to it as the greatest relief.’ (Chapter 38) In the novel, the vulgar family and relations pose the biggest problem, in the eyes of the Bingley sisters, Darcy and Lady Catherine de Bourgh. The first two tensions are concerned with Elizabeth’s individual growth and progress; this third is more to do with the pressures of society on an unmarried young woman.
The fluctuating dynamic between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy
Darcy is established as an important figure throughout the opening chapters of the novel, from his first appearance at the Meryton assembly, to his departure for London after the Netherfield ball. Two striking aspects of his interaction with other people emerge during these chapters: one is that almost everybody except Elizabeth, and of course his friend Bingley, courts his attention. The other is that, with the exception of his exchanges with Elizabeth, he declines the invitations and deflects the attentions of the people who address him. But he actually approaches Elizabeth and initiates conversations with her, which she often fails to engage in. This contrast between his behaviour to many people and his behaviour to Elizabeth makes his behaviour to her all the more conspicuous and, in so far as his reserved manner allows, positive. People like Miss Bingley and Sir William seem to regard Mr Darcy as a commodity by acquaintance with whom they can enhance or promote their social standing. They are not interested in him as a person. Mr Darcy is interested in Elizabeth as an individual; she dislikes him as an individual, not as a representative of a superior class. But in order to pursue his interest in her as an individual, he has to cross a ‘gulf impassable’ (Chapter 50) in terms of social status.
The negative reactions of Mr Darcy towards many of the people we see him with are both physical and verbal. At the Meryton assembly in Chapter 3, ‘Mr Darcy dnced only once with Mrs Hurst and once with Miss Bingley, declined being introduced to any other lady …’. When his friend Mr Bingley presses Darcy to join the dance, his answer is, ‘I certainly shall not.’ He speaks ‘coldly’. A little later, ‘Mr Darcy walked off …’. The snobbish element obtrudes: Darcy had seen ‘a collection of people in whom there was … no fashion.’ (Chapter 4)
At Sir William Lucas’s party (Chapter 6), Darcy is approached by several people, all of whom he treats with dampening lack of interest. He responds as disoblingingly as possible to Sir William’s conversational gambits.
‘Do you often dance at St James’s?’
… ‘You have a house in town I conclude.’
Mr Darcy bowed.
… He (Sir William) paused in hopes of an answer; but his companion was not
disposed to make any …
Miss Bingley accosts him (Jane Austen’s word). ‘I can guess the subject of your reverie.’ But all she gets by way of reply is, ‘I should imagine not.’ Her further attempts are rewarded by another rebuff: ‘Your conjecture is totally wrong, I assure you.’ He then ‘listened to her with perfect indifference.’ It seems that Sir William has been hoping to share Mr Darcy’s social superiority and thereby underline his own through his mention of the court and the London house and Darcy’s enjoyment of ‘superior society’. Miss Bingley, meanwhile, was confirming her superior social class by linking her perceptions of the assembled countrified guests at Lucas Lodge to Darcy’s:
‘You are considering how insupportable it would be to pass many evenings
in this manner – in such society; and indeed I am quite of your opinion.’
Darcy, meanwhile, begins ‘to wish to know more of her (Elizabeth), and as a step towards conversing with her himself, attended to her conversation with others.’ (This is not a literal step but a mental one.) Soon he moves towards her, ‘On his approaching them soon afterwards …’. A little later, ‘Mr Darcy with grave propriety requested to be allowed the honour of her hand…’. Elizabeth ‘drew back’ and ‘turned away.’ This refusal to dance and turning away from Mr Darcy is in noticeable contrast with the people who demand or court Mr Darcy’s attention.
Jane’s illness brings about a protracted stay for Elizabeth at Netherfield (Chapters 8 – 12). Again, Miss Bingley demands Darcy’s attention. First Darcy receives from her (in a half whisper that assumes close friendship) the fear that Elizabeth’s muddy exhibition of herself at breakfast has affected his admiration of her ‘fine eyes’. The usual dampener is produced.
‘Not at all,’ he replied; ‘they were brightened by the exercise.’
Even worse befalls that evening. Miss Bingley is still besieging Mr Darcy:
‘Is Miss Darcy much grown since the spring? … will she be as tall as I am?’
‘I think she will. She is now about Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s height, or rather
On both these occasions, Darcy makes Miss Bingley’s approach an opportunity to say something about Elizabeth rather than to further the conversation with Miss Bingley. And both conversations show an attempt by Miss Bingley to share with Mr Darcy the values and a knowledge of his world, as opposed to the ‘country town indifference to decorum’ demonstrated by Elizabeth.
At this stage there is certainly a clear divide between Darcy’s social world and that of the Bennet girls. And it is a world to which he adheres: ‘it (the Bennets’ relations) must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration (social importance) in the world.’ He is still constrained by the rules of social etiquette laid down for people in his class. ‘I am inclined to think that you would not wish to see your sister make such an exhibition’ says Miss Bingley of Elizabeth’s unattended walk from Longbourn to Netherfield to visit Jane. ‘Certainly not.’ Bingley’s sisters, meanwhile, betray the fact that they are still climbing the social ladder through their emphatic and over-lengthy discussion of ‘their dear friend’s vulgar relations.’
Miss Bingley continues constantly to court Mr Darcy’s attention.
Mr Darcy was writing, and Miss Bingley, seated near him, was watching the progress of his letter …
‘How delighted Miss Darcy will be to receive such a letter!’
He made no answer.
Darcy either fails, as here, to engage in Miss Bingley’s attempts at conversation or blocks them completely: ‘You are mistaken. I write rather slowly.’ The same happens later (Chapter 11).
Miss Bingley’s attention was quite as much engaged in watching Mr Darcy’s
progress through his book, as in reading her own; and she was perpetually
either making some inquiry, or looking at his page. She could not win him,
however, to any conversation; he merely answered her question, and read on.
She even walks about the room, ‘but Darcy, at whom it was all aimed, was still inflexibly studious.’
However, Darcy not only looks at Elizabeth (even she notices ‘how frequently Mr Drcy’s eyes were fixed on her’); he also approaches Elizabeth and invites her to dance.
Mr Darcy, drawing near to Elizabeth, said to her –
Do not you feel a great inclination, Miss Bennet, to seize such an opportunity of dancing a reel?’
She smiled, but made no answer. He repeated the question, with some
surprise at her silence.
And it is Elizabeth who turns down the invitation: I do not want to dance a reel at all.’ This time it is Darcy making the approach to Elizabeth with eye-contact, moving towards her, initiating the conversation, asking her to do something enjoyable with him, and persisting with his invitation when she does not respond. Whereas, earlier, it was he who refused to engage with questions directed at him by the likes of Sir William of Miss Bingley, it is now Elizabeth who refuses his request. It is almost the Miss Bingley / Darcy situation in reverse. But with one teeling difference: Miss Bingley is desperate for his attention and keeps trying to remind him of their shared past, acquaintance and perceptions of fashionable society. Mr Darcy is strongly attracted by Elizabeth as an individual and wants to learn more about her, but is very aware of the social chasm between them.
… Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her. He
really believed, that were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he
shoul be in some danger. (Chapter 10)
His response to Elizabeth’s sudden arrival at Netherfield is comparable. Mr Darcy
… was divided between admiration of the brilliancy which exercise had given to her complexion, and doubt as to the occasion’s justifying her coming so far alone.
The social chasm is further illustrated on a walk in the Netherfield shrubbery the next morning. Miss Bingley and Mr Darcy are joined by Mrs Hurst and Elizabeth. When Mrs Hurst attaches herself to Darcy’s free arm, it leaves ‘Elizabeth to walk by herself. The path just admitted three.’ Mr Darcy, in an attempt to overcome the rudeness of the sisters in thus excluding Elizabeth, suggests they walk in the avenue, but Elizabeth ‘ran gaily off.’ The grouping depicts not only the Bingley sisters’ refusal to admit Elizabeth to their clique, but also the social divide.
At the Netherfield ball (Chapter 18), Mr Darcy is still sustaining offensives from social climbers, this time from Mr Collins. But after listening to two of Mr Collins’s lengthy speeches with ‘astonishment’, ‘unrestrained wonder’, distant civility’ and ‘contempt’, ‘he only made him (Mr Collins) a slight bow, and moved another way.’ However, Mr Darcy has ‘approached to claim her (Elizabeth’s) hand’ in a dance (a proposition she accepts by mistake), he has smiled at her repeatedly, and he has initiated several topics of conversation very much focused on Elizabeth and subjects that she might enjoy talking about. Elizabeth rebuffs all the proffered topics. Again, it is Miss Bingley / Darcy in reverse – except that Darcy is not an attention-seeker and Elizabeth deflects his questions with more vivacity and charm than Darcy bothers to use on Miss Bingley.
‘Sir William’s interruption has made me forget what e were talking of.’
‘I do not think we were speaking at all. Sir William could not have interrupted
any two people in the room who had less to say for themselves. – We have tried two or three subjects already without success, and what we are to talk of next I cannot imagine.’
‘What think you of books?’ said he, smiling.
‘Books – Oh! no. – I am sure we never read the same, or not with the same
‘I am sorry if you think so; but if that be the case, there can at least be no want
of subject. – We may compare our different opinions.’
‘No – I cannot talk of books in a ball-room; my head is always full of
‘The present always occupies you in such scenes – does it?’
Elizabeth is here being almost as negative as Darcy was on his first appearance at the assembly with Bingley (Chapter 3), when ‘I certainly shall not’ was his contribution on being invited to join the dancing. Although the tone of Elizabeth’s conversation is always lifted by her wit and high spirits, what she says here is full of rebuttals: they weren’t speaking, no success in any of their attempted topics, never reads the same books as Mr Darcy and indeed can’t discuss them at all in a ballroom. It is now Darcy who has to make all the running. He constantly focuses his attention of her (‘What think you …?’) or on the two of them ‘We may compare our … opinions.’). Later in the conversation, Darcy’s smiles turn to coldness: ‘I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours,’ he coldly replied. Thus Darcy’s fluctuating warmth and coldness sustain the uncertainty for the reader.
Jane Austen continues to show the disparity between the different social worlds of the Bennets, the Bingleys, and Mr Darcy when the Bingley party leave for London the day after the ball,. ‘Many of (their) acquaintance are already there for the winter.’ (Chapter 21) Mr Hurst has a house in Grosvenor Street, the fashionable residential area of London, and Miss Bingley writes the letter that conveys this information on ‘elegant, little, hot pressed paper’, a particularly expensive and fine kind of paper. This is only one of a number of details that distinguish the fashionable Bingleys and their friends from the world of the Bennets. Bingley had originally visited Netherfield in a ‘chaise and four’ – indicating considerable wealth. Jane, on the other hand, cannot use the Bennets’ horses to take the carriage to Netherfield as the horses ‘are wanted in the farm’. At Netherfield they dine at the fashionably late hour of half past six, and afterwards play cards for stakes too high for Elizabeth to join them (Chapter 8).
However, Jane Austen does make it quite clear in Chapter 4 that Mr Bingley is only a tenant of Netherfield, and that even if he bestirred himself, it would be to ‘purchase an estate’ rather than inheriting one such as Pemberley. Mr Darcy’s family is altogether superior: ‘respectable, honourable and ancient, though untitled’. (Chapter 56). The gulf, in terms of money and fashion, between Longbourn and Netherfield, illustrates clearly the even greater distance between the worlds of the Bennets and Mr Darcy. In the second half of the novel, it becomes clear that Pemberley is one of the ‘great houses’ (Chapter 42) that you visit for a guided tour, having first looked it up in Seats of the Nobility and Gentry in Great Britain and Wales. These, indeed, are the circumstances under which Elizabeth and the Gardiners go there, to be shown the house and grounds by the housekeeper and a gardener. When they return Darcy and Georgiana’s call, they are offered exotic refreshment: ‘beautiful pyramids of grapes, nectarines and peaches’ (Chapter 45) from the Pemberley greenhouses – another sign of Darcy’s affluence.
Despite his superior social status, which is one of the main reasons – other than Elizabeth’s initial dislike of him – for the relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth to develop so slowly, Darcy is not socially adept. There are long silences and awkwardnesses. Quite why we so seldom see Darcy engaged in ordinary conversation with anybody other than Bingley is hard to determine. Some explanations are advanced. It may be shyness:
‘Miss Bingley told me,’ said Jane, ‘that he never speaks much unless among his
intimate acquaintance. With them he is remarkably agreeable.’ (Chapter 5)
Though the word ‘intimate’ smacks of boastfulness on Miss Bingley’s part, Darcy himself endorses what she says:
‘I had not at that time the honour of knowing any lady in the assembly beyond
my own party. … I certainly have not the talent which some people possess …
of conversing easily with those I have never seen before.’ (Chapter 31)
To shyness is added pride. Darcy explains that his upbringing allowed him
‘to care for none beyond my own family circle, to think meanly of all the rest
of the world, … their sense and worth compared with my own.’ (Chapter 58)
In addition, it seems that ‘the family did not visit’ at the ‘small market-town’ of Lambton. (Chapter 44) Their social standing distances and isolates them from much everyday interaction.
The pattern of people forcing their attentions upon Mr Darcy, and Mr Darcy himself making approaches to Elizabeth, continues during the Hunsford Parsonage / Rosings section of the novel. Mr Collins ‘hastened to Rosings to pay his respects’ the day after Mr Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam’s arrival. Lady Catherine, presumably with reference to her daughter Anne’s being Darcy’s prospective wife, frequently comments on Anne’s putative accomplishments.
Mr Darcy frequently approaches Elizabeth. He and his cousin come over to visit everyone at Hunsford Parsonage as soon as possible ‘to the great surprise of all the part’. (Chapter 30) Charlotte comments, ‘I may thank you, Eliza, for this piece of civility. Mr Darcy would never have come so soon to wait on me.’ Mr Collins and his party go to Rosings on the evening of Easter Day (Chapter 31) where Mr Darcy again looks at Elizabeth. ‘His eyes had been soon and repeatedly turned towards (her) …’. He leaves the forceful conversation of his aunt and ‘walked away from her, … moving … towards the piano forte …’ (where Elizabeth is singing). He ‘came so often to the Parsonage’. And when Elizabeth, walking in the park at Rosings, unaccountably often ‘unexpectedly meet(s) Mr Darcy. … he actually thought it necessary to turn back and walk with her.’
Still Elizabeth, in addition to misunderstanding his attentions, treats him in a way that she later describes as ‘bordering on the uncivil’ (Chapter 60). She tells him off about his manners: ‘He danced only four dances, though gentlemen were scarce….’. She looks surprised when he moves towards her to say, ‘You cannot have been always at Longbourn.’ She feels her meetings with him on her walks are a ‘perverseness of … mischance.’ Unlike Miss Bingley, she does not ‘give herself the trouble of talking or of listening much.’
The pattern established throughout this half of the novel culminates in Darcy’s proposal of marriage. Clearly, this is by far the most important of Darcy’s approaches and invitations, and it is correspondingly the one that Elizabeth most resoundingly rejects. But even her, there are complications. Darcy may be making an emotional advance in his offer of marriage, but in terms of snobbery and understanding, he has not moved. As he proposes, he details ‘His sense of her inferiority – of its being a degradation – of the family obstacles …’. And while he has parted Bingley and Jane on these same grounds of ‘want (lack) of connection’, he has thought to override them for himself. Elizabeth’s reaction is not straightforward either: she sits down and cries for half an hour after she has so bitingly refused his offer of marriage. It seems that her heart is confused, whereas Darcy’s heart (‘affections’) has gone where his head has not yet learned to follow.
As Elizabeth thinks over Mr Darcy’s letter of explanation, her divided feelings form a companion piece to Mr Darcy’s divided feelings much earlier in the novel (Chapter 6) when he criticised Elizabeth but at the same time felt attracted by her. He then
… had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry
in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing;
and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable
world, he was caught by their easy playfulness. (Chapter 6)
When she remembered the style of his address, … was still full of indignation;
but when she considered how unjustly she had condemned and upbraided him,
her anger was turned against herself; and his disappointed feelings became
the object of compassion. (Chapter 37)
Elizabeth’s feelings become steadily more positive towards Mr Darcy, and she soon realises her mistakes of understanding and interpretation of his behaviour. Head and heart are redirected.
By the time Elizabeth goes on holiday with her aunt and uncle, Mr and Mrs Gardiner, she is approaching Pemberley and Mr Darcy both literally and emotionally. In the picture gallery, ‘Elizabeth walked on in quest of the only face whose features would be known to her.’ She ‘returned to it again before they quitted the gallery.’ In the grounds, Darcy ‘suddenly came forward from the road … Their eyes instantly met’. This mutual physical and emotional meeting occurs for the first time. ‘He … advanced towards the party. … She had instinctively turned away.’ However, this time her turning away is due to embarrassment, not to dislike.
Darcy meanwhile continues to try to demonstrate to Elizabeth that he has understood his mistake in failing to cross the social gulf between them. He approaches her at Pemberley; he asks after her family whom before he had dismissed as vulgar; he asks to be introduced to her friends and invites her uncle to fish at Pemberley as well as inviting the whole party to visit him and his friends there. Perhaps the biggest step of all is his hesitant request to introduce his sister Georgiana to Elizabeth: ‘Will you allow me, or do I ask too much, to introduce my sister to your acquaintance during your stay at Lambton?’
A bigger step, across a widening gulf, is in store for Darcy – a step for which Jane Austen has carefully prepared by having Wickham try to seduce Georgiana earlier. When Lydia, the personification of ‘total want of propriety’, and Wickham, son of old Mr Darcy’s steward and owner of ‘vicious propensities’, run away together, it is Mr Darcy who pursues them to London, finds them, and funds their marriage. As Mr Collins gloatingly points out in his letter, this is an ‘enormity (monstrous offence)’ and it will be injurious to the fortunes of all the others (daughters), for who … will connect themselves with such a family?’ (Vol III Chapter 6) As Elizabeth reflects when she learns that Darcy has arranged the marriage between Lydia and Wickham (Chapter 52)
He had followed them (Lydia and Wickham) purposely to town (London), he
had taken on himself all the trouble and mortification attendant on such a
research; in which supplication had been necessary to a woman (Mrs Younge,
the former companion of Georgiana and accomplice of Wickham) whom he
must abominate and despise, and where he was reduced to meet, frequently
meet, reason with, persuade, and finally bribe, the man whom he always most
wished to avoid, and whose very name it was punishment to him to
pronounce. He had done all thi for a girl whom he could neither regard nor
esteem. Her heart did whisper, tht he had done it for her. … Brother in law of
Wickham! Every kind of pride must revolt from the connection.
This demonstrates on Darcy’s part a coming-together of heart and head. His affection for Elizabeth impels him to overcome his sense of her family’s inferiority to a marked extent, an extent which requires his utmost action and intervention. And he never intends that she should hear of what he has done; he has undertaken all this in a sense of humility and re-education of himself. When he proposes to Elizabeth again he confesses:
‘You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first … By you, I was properly
humbled.’ (Chapter 58)
To give Bingley the go-ahead to marry Jane is almost a formality after this.
Having thus bridged this ‘gulf impassable’ in his own mind, it takes little more for him to act in direct contravention of his aunt’s express orders issued on her visit to him in London, to come to Longbourn and humbly to ask Elizabeth to marry him. The education of his head and heart is completed: his understanding that superior social class can be superseded by true decorum has now caught up with his love for Elizabeth as an individual.
The fluctuation and uncertain dynamic of Darcy and Elizabeth’s feelings for and understand of each other makes up an important part of the tension of the novel. In terms of modern sensibilities, the physical, mental and emotional movements are frequently so miniscule as to be almost invisible. Darcy’s habitual rebuffs of those who approach him and his consistent movements towards Elizabeth might go unnoticed: nobody fails to notice the electricity of the dynamic between them.
Pride and Prejudice glossary
There are some words in Pride and Prejudice whose meaning in 1813 differs from the way we understand those same words now. This list gives some of the words, with their early nineteenth-century meanings.
….. Miss Bingley began abusing her (Elizabeth) as soon as she was out
of the room. (Chapter 8)
address manner and deportment
Colonel Fitzilliam, who led the way, was about thirty, not handsome,
but in person and address most truly the gentleman. (Chapter 30)
‘And pray may I ask? … Is it in address that he improves? … for I dare
not hope… that he is improved in essentials.’ (Chapter 41)
… Elizabeth … had to meditate upon Charlotte’s degree of contentment,
to understand her address in guiding, and composure in bearing with
her husband … (Chapter 28)
‘Address’ meaning to devote oneself to, speak particularly to, is also used in the way we would use it now. At the beginning of Chapter 28, Mr Collins ‘addressed himself particularly to her (Elizabeth), as if wishing to make her feel what she had lost in refusing him.’
addresses courtship, proposal of marriage
‘What will you think of my vanity? I believed you to be wishing,
expecting my addresses.’ (Chapter 58)
answered fulfilled, provided the solution to a difficulty
Her hopes were answered … (Chapter 7)
apothecary doctor, a local pharmacist who prepared and prescribed drugs (see
The apothecary came, and having examined his patient … (Chapter 7)
assembly a public ball, held in an assembly room
‘… we shall meet him (Mr Bingley) at the assemblies …’ (Chapter 2)
attorney a qualified legal agent, like a solicitor
Her father had been an attorney in Meryton … (Chapter 7)
backwards at the back; with a view from the back of the house
The room in which the ladies sat was backwards. Elizabeth at first had
rather wondered that Charlotte should not prefer the dining parlour for
common use; it was a better sized room, and had a pleasanter aspect
(the direction in which it faced) Chapter 30
bounty kindness, generosity
Lady Catherine de Bourgh … whose bounty and beneficence …
candid / candour Dr Johnson defines candour as being ‘free from malice; not
desirous to find faults’. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth defines it as,
‘to take the good of everybody’s character and make it still better, and
say nothing of the bad’. (Chapter 4)
Her performance was pleasing, though by no means capital.(Chapter 6)
first rate (an interjection, generally with an exclamation mark)
‘ … their (the Bennets’) uncle is an attorney in Meryton.’
‘Yes; and they have another, who lives somewhere near Cheapside.’
‘That is capital,’ added her sister, and they both laughed heartily.
Here, the snobbish Bingley sisters are using the word capital ironically; so far as they are concerned, it is quite the opposite of first rate to have an uncle who lives in an unfashionable part of London.
the chief of most of, the main part of
… and again during the chief of the day, as Miss Lucas so kind as to
listen to Mr Collins. (Chapter 21)
coming out a young woman’s official entry into society, wearing more
sophisticated clothes, dressing her hair in a more adult style (up, rather
than loose), going to dances.
The younger girls formed hopes of coming out a year of two sooner
than they might otherwise have done …. (Chapter 22)
‘Are any of your younger sisters out, Miss Bennet? … What, all five out
at once? … The younger ones out before the elder are married!’
complacency tranquil satisfaction, being completely satisfied, not disturbed or in any
Their brother, indeed, as the only one of the party whom she
(Elizabeth) could regard with any complacency. (Chapter 8)
Jane met her with a smile of such sweet complacency, a glow of such
happy expression, as sufficiently marked how well she was satisfied
with the occurrences of the evening. (Chapter 18)
complaisance desire to please, courtesy
‘Mr Darcy is all politeness,’ said Elizabeth, smiling.
‘He is indeed – but considering the inducement, my dear Miss Eliza, we
cannot wonder at his complaisance; for ho would object to such a
partner?’ (Chapter 6)
comprehend include (as we use the word today in comprehensive school or
‘Then,’ observed Elizabeth, ‘you must comprehend a good deal in your
idea of an accomplished woman.’
‘Yes, I do comprehend a great deal in it.’ (Chapter 8)
‘You begin to comprehend me, do you?’ cried he, turning towards her.
‘Oh! yes – I understand you perfectly.’ (Chapter 9)
condescension friendliness to one’s social inferiors (a term of praise, which is how
Mr Collins uses the word when he describes Lady Catherine.
Unfortunately, she is not in the least friendly to her inferiors.)
It can also mean being arrogant and patronising, as we understand it
today. Unwittingly, Mr Collins has been accurate in the derogatory
sense of the word.
… such affability and condescension. (Chapter 14)
connection relationship by marriage
a most unhappy connection (Chapter 35)
consequence social importance
‘She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no
humour (mood) at present to give consequence to young ladies who are
slighted by other men.’ (Chapter 3)
country neighbourhood, district
… however bare of news the country in general might be, they always
contrived to learn some from their aunt. (Chapter 7)
‘I wonder,’ said he, … ‘whether he is likely to be in this country much
longer.’ (Chapter 16)
demean behave, conduct oneself
…. it shall be my earnest endeavour to demean myself with grateful
respect towards her Ladyship … (Chapter 13)
development understanding, discovery
Her mind was less difficult to develope. (Chapter 1)
… the development of Wickam’s character … (Chapter 37)
direction the address of a letter
Elizabeth had been a good deal disappointed in not finding a letter
from Jane … the receipt of two letters from her at once, on one of
which was marked that it had been missent elsewere. Elizabeth was
not surprised at it, as Jane had written the direction remarkably ill (badly).
There were no envelopes; the address was written on the outside of the folded sheet of the last and outside page of the letter. Hence Darcy says to Miss Bingley, ‘I have not room to do them (your raptures) justice’ – he has evidently got to the bottom of his sheet of paper in his letter to his sister (Chapter 10). Sometimes the amount you wanted to write overflowed onto the last side of the paper, competing with the address. The long letter of explanation that Darcy writes to Elizabeth in Chapter 35 consists of ‘an envelope containing two sheets of letter paper, written quite through, in a very close hand. The envelope itself was likewise full’. The ‘envelope’ here would be the space on the folded outside sheet on which the address is written.
She then changed the discourse to one more gratifying to each …
disgust milder in Jane Austen’s day; more like distaste or dislike
… his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity … (Chapter 3)
distinguish single out, notice especially
The rest of the evening passed … with no farther attempt to distinguish
Elizabeth …. (Chapter 41)
diversion amusement, entertainment; to be diverted is to be amused or
Elizabeth … tried to conceal by incessant employment the feelings
which were divided between distress and diversion. (Chapter 19)
…. Sir William to Elizabeth’s high diversion, was … constantly bowing
… (Chapter 28)
Eliabeth tried to join in her father’s pleasantry (joking), but could only
force one most reluctant smile. Never had his wit been directed
(aimed) in a manner so little agreeable to her.
‘Are you not diverted?’
‘Oh! yes. Pray read on.’ (Chapter 57)
draughts liquid medicine
The apothecary … advised her to return to bed, and promised her some
draughts. (Chapter 7)
earnest foretaste, instalment
… the joyful surprise that lighted up their faces … was the first pleasing
earnest of their welcome. (Chapter 47)
entailed in default of heirs male
Entailed is a legal term meaning settled (in this case, on Mr Collins) if
there are no male heirs in the Bennet family. In default means,
literally, failure. (Chapter 7)
equal to strong enough to
She was not equal, however, to much conversation … (Chapter 7)
establishment household, family residence
‘But consider your daughter. Only think what an establishment it
would be for one of them.’ (Chapter 1)
… Miss Lucas … accepted him solely from the pure and disinterested
desire of an establishment … (Chapter 22)
evil drawback, inconvenience
… her mother, with manners so far from right herself, was entirely
insensible of the evil.’ (Chapter 37)
‘It is not of peculiar (particular, specific), but of general evils, which I
am now complaining.’ (Chapter 41)
exhibit to display, show off accomplishments
‘Let the other young ladies have time to exhibit.’ (Chapter 18)
fell, as in ‘when the living fell…’ (Chapter 16)
… when the parish (where Wickham might have become vicar) was in
need of a new vicar (fell is short for fell (became) vacant)
finished perfect in detail and execution
the fine proportion and finished ornaments (Chapter 20)
They … had been educated in one of the first private seminaries
(schools) in town (London) … (Chapter 4)
fix secure a man’s interest, with a view to marriage.
‘… she may lose the opportunity of fixing him …’ (Chapter 6)
happy often has our modern meaning
Elizabeth listened with delight to the happy … hopes which Jane
entertained of Bingley’s regard (Chapter 18)
it can also mean lucky
‘… it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with
delicacy.’ (Chapter 14)
‘… with the knowledge of your ill opinion too!’ (Chapter 40)
This part of his intelligence … was caught by Elizabeth … (Chapter 18)
Her mother would talk of her views in the same intelligible tone. (Chapter 18)
living a parish, often belonging to a landowner who could decide who to give
‘… the lateMr Darcy bequeathed me the next presentation of the best
living in his gift. He was my godfather, and excessively attached to
me.’ (Chapter 16)
‘Lady Catherine de Bourgh,’ she replied, ‘has very lately given him (Mr
Collins) a living.’ (Chapter 16)
olive branch an emblem of peace; its origin is in the story in the first book of the
Bible, Genesis, Chapter 8, verse 11. The dove returns to Noah’s Ark
with a freshly plucked olive leaf in its beak.
the offered olive branch (Chapter 13)
Olive branch can also mean children; the reference is to Psalm 128,
verse 3: ‘your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your
sons will be like olive shoots round your table
expectation of a young olive-branch (Chapter 57)
out see ‘coming out’
overset upset, disordered
‘Brighton, and a whole campful of soldiers, to us, who have been
overset already by one poor regiment of militia, and the monthly balls
of Meryton.’ (Chapter 39)
parts personal qualities, especially intellectual ones
Mr Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts … (Chapter 1)
Her look and manners were open, cheerful and engaging as ever, but
without any symptom of peculiar regard … (Chapter 35)
You can see from the examples of
person external appearance, to do with physical appearance, looks
… without any attraction beyond youth and a tolerable person …’ (Chapter 41)
physician a professional doctor (as opposed to a local apothecary)
… his sisters, convinced that no country advice could be of any service,
recommended an express to town (London) for one of the most
eminent physicians. (Chapter 8)
‘You have a sweet room here, Mr Bingley, and a charming prospect
over that gravel walk.’ (Chapter 9)
Elizabeth … went to a window to enjoy its prospect. (Chapter 43)
preferred me promoted me to
… Lady Catherine de Bourgh … whose bounty and beneficence has
preferred me to the valuable rectory of this parish … (Chapter 13)
Mrs Gardiner than rallied her niece on Wickham’s desertion
regard affection (suggests more emotion than it does nowadays)
‘If I can perceive her regard for him, he must be a simpleton indeed not
to discover it too.’ (Chapter 6)
.. she thought of his regard … (Chapter 43)
respectable deserving respect
‘You wish to think all the world respectable, and are hurt if I speak ill
of anybody.’ (Chapter 24)
To work in his garden was one of his (Mr Collins’s) most respectable
retirement living in retirement means leading a rather quiet life, not mixing in
Living in retirement (Chapter 15) is the description given of Mr
Collins who, at the age of twenty-five, is certainly not retired in our
meaning of the word.
scheme spree, outing, excursion
‘… I did not once put my foot out of doors, though I was there a
fortnight. Not one party, or scheme, or anything.’ (Chapter 51)
science a particular branch of knowledge
‘…I doubt not that you are an adept in the science (of dancing) yourself,
Mr Darcy.’ (Chapter 6)
she did not scruple to call out … (Chapter 31)
He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance expressed real security. (Chapter 34)
sensible sometimes has its modern meaning of having good sense.
‘Can he be a sensible man, sir?’ (Chapter 13)
However, it sometimes means aware
… she thought he must be sensible himself. (Chapter 24)
In spite of her deeply-rooted dislike, she could not be insensible (unaware of) the compliment of such a mans affection … (Chapter 34)
sensibly sometimes means with intense feeling
… he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do. (Chapter 58)
stand up with dance with
‘Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.’
Balls will be absolutely prohibited, unless you stand up with one of
your sisters.’ (Chapter 48)
‘Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may.’ (Chapter 9)
‘Teazing, teazing, amn! I will think no more about him.’ (Chapter 54)
temper temperament, disposition, nature
… Jane united with great strength of feeling, a composure of temper and a uniform cheerfulness of manner … (Chapter 6)
‘My temper would perhaps be called resentful.’ (Chapter 11)
She began now to comprehend that he was exactly the man, who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her. His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes. (Chapter 50)
They (Bingley’s sisters) were of a respectable family in the north of England; a circumstance more deeply impressed on their memories than that their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade. (Chapter 4)
She (Mrs Bennet) had … a brother settled in London in a respectable line of trade. (Chapter 7)
The Netherfield ladies would have had difficulty in believing that a man who lived by trade, and within view of his own warehouses, could have been so well bred and agreeable. (Chapter 25)
unreserve frankness, outspokenness / indiscretion
… to his other recommendation was now added that of general unreserve. (Chapter 24)
at variance in disagreement with, quarrelling about
… it might seem disrespectful to his (Mr Collin’s father) memory for me to be on good terms with anyone, with whom it had always pleased him to be at variance. (Chapter 13)
waited on called on, visited
The ladies of Longbourn soon waited on those of Netherfield. The visit was returned in due form. (Chapter 6)
… for the young man wanted only regimentals (military uniform) to make him completely charming. (Chapter 14)
… that want of proper resolution … (Chapter 24)
… she was left to fret over her own want of presence of mind … (Chapter 18)
want can also mean penury, poverty
… marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-education young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. (Chapter 22)
work needlework, knitting, a distinctively feminine occupation
Elizabeth, at work in the opposite corner, saw it all with great delight. (Chapter 11)
Portraits showing the fashions at the time of Pride and Prejudice
To help picture the dresses that the young men and women in the novel were wearing, I have reproduced a few portraits of the period. A wonderful website on which to pursue an interest in young men and women’s clothes in the early nineteenth century is Jane Austen’s World at https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com . The social customs section brings you a wealth of information on an extended range of topics associated with the novel, including fashion, illustrated with many contemporary drawings, paintings and cartoons.
Also try: http://www.janeausten.co.uk/online-magazine/regency-fashion/womens-fashion/
The young woman is wearing a white dress, with undersleeves, a fichu for modesty, which matches with her sash, coral beads and haircomb, gloves, and a shawl. The East India Company had been importing fabrics from India for some time, and very fine woollen shawls were worn for warmth. https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2007/09/18/shawls/
The 1806 edition of La Belle Assemblée describes the current fashion in shawls “Large shawls of silk or mohair were also much worn, and in various shapes; some in the form of a flowing mantle, appending from the shoulders, with a hood; others à la Turque; others again square. But the most elegantly simple style of either the shawl or Egyptian mantle that arrested the fancy, were those of plain or japanned white muslin, with a large Egyptian border of deep green, in tambour or embroidery.”
The 1812 issue of La Belle Assemblée reports that for winter dress fashions: “…a fine cashemire [sp] shawl, with brown background, and richly variegated border, is generally thrown over the dress, in which is united both comfort and elegance.”
And for the spring dress fashions: “…over these is thrown, in elegant drapery, a long Indian shawl of the scarf kind, the colour of the palest Ceylon ruby, the ends enriched by a variegated border…”
You can find out more about undersleeves and oversleeves at https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2014/05/06/regency-fashion-detachable-sleeves/
Mr Keeble is wearing the blue coat brought into fashion by Beau Brummell and worn by Mr Bingley.
Morning Dress. Round dress of jacconet muslin (jaconet is a cotton fabric originally imported from India; muslin is lightweight cotton fabric), made to answer the double purpose of a morning or dinner-dress; in the former, as our readers will perceive by the Print, it is worn with a skirt, in the latter without. We shall not enter into any description of the form of this really elegant, novel, and tasteful dress. …Hat of white pearl silk, ornamented a-la-Francoise, with a superb plume of feathers, and a bunch of artificial flowers. We have not for a length of time seen any thing so becoming as this tasteful little hat… Necklace, earrings, and bracelets of plain dead gold. Primrose sandals and white kid glove. The above dresses were invented by Mrs Bell, Inventress of the Ladies Chapeau Bras and the Circassian Corsets, and of whom only they can be had, at her Magazin des Modes, No 26, Charlotte-street, Bedford-square.
An excellent website to look at more fashions illustrated in La Belle Assemblee is http://regencyfashion.org/lb.html
Parisian Head-Dresses from Ackermann’s Repository for January 1817
No 1. (top left) A plain straw bonnet, lined and trimmed with lilac. The crown of a round shape, and a moderate height; the front is large, and ornamented with lilac ribbon: the crown is decorated at top and bottom to correspond. It is finished by a bunch of auriculas and lilac strings.
No 7. (top middle) A very elegant promenade bonnet; the front composed of Leghorn, trimmed with a puffing of tulle; the crown, of white satin, is made very full and rather high. The fullness is confined at top by a white silk half-handkerchief, edged with tulle, which ties it under the chin. It is ornamented with a bunch of Provence roses and fancy flowers.
No 4. (top right) A fancy straw bonnet of a peculiarly elegant and novel shape; te front very large, but the crown a moderate height. It is lined and trimmed with white, and ornamented with a profusion of white roses.
No 3. (bottom left) A black straw bonnet of a similar shape to No 1 but larger; it is lined and trimmed with green ribbon, so disposed as to form a wreath of ties with green ribbon.
No 6. (bottom right) A remarkably neat plain black straw morning bonnet, trimmed and lined with purple, and ornamented with a single China aster.
If you want to investigate more on Ackermann’s Repository, try http://pasaii.com/where-to-download-ackermanns-repository/ orhttps://smithandgosling.wordpress.com/2009/12/02/ackermanns-repository-of-arts/
Kitty Packe was married to Charles William Packe, member of Parliament, in1823. The book she is holding deals with domestic skills and a cultured upbringing.