Our Pride and Our Prejudice—How It All
Played Out on Jane Austen's Golden Loom
A Male Voices Web Page
Updated: June 30, 2001
The First Assembly
I want to begin with a discussion of Darcy's behavior at that first assembly. In particular, I will devote some space to his conversation with Bingley. That was the conversation Elizabeth would overhear, and would set the action of the novel into motion. The conversation can be read with two points of view. The first seems to display Darcy's boorishness and justifies Elizabeth Bennet's anger; everyone seems to notice that view. Most readers miss the second view, perhaps because one must be aware of the way men talk to one another, as aware as was Jane Austen herself. It is unfortunate that the second view might be missed because I believe that the two distinct pictures—first impressions—of Darcy, serve Jane Austen's main purpose. Her intent is to give justification for Elizabeth's subsequent behavior while, at the same time, preserving his character for the reader.
I mean to say that the passage is like a kaleidoscope—let us turn the kaleidoscope. I will illustrate what I mean: when Darcy was asked to dance, he replied,
The first view of the passage is highlighted by suppressing the second sentence so we read,
This first view makes Darcy seem supercilious and deserving of the punishment that Elizabeth will now inflict upon him. The second view of Darcy is brought into focus by suppressing the first sentence in order to emphasize the second. Read this as a continuous thought:
Do you see?—It is like a kaleidoscope. This second view through the kaleidoscope merely shows us that it is difficult for Darcy to make himself dance with a stranger. (Here is a link to a more complete discussion of this same conversation in our interpretation of Darcy's character and personality—a personality that seems remarkably like the one contemporaries attributed to Jane Austen herself.)
My goal is to continue the study of this conversation because, I believe, it so well illustrates the subtlety of our Lady's art. The trick is to forget about Elizabeth Bennet for the moment—I know that is difficult, but try. Try to focus on only Darcy and Bingley.
Bingley is determined that he will make friends at this, his first good opportunity because he very much wants to settle in the neighborhood, and he expects every assistance of his party in this important matter. In those days, a man was not a "gentleman" if he did not own land. Bingley's father had acquired the family fortune in trade, and it was Bingley's role to complete the upward mobility to "respectability" through the purchase of an estate. Netherfield was his choice. Understand all that and you will appreciate just how important this assembly was to Bingley.
On the other hand, Darcy did not see much to impress himself, but he could very easily have responded to the gathering in an indifferent way and complied by dancing and smiling, and then forgetting the whole damn evening. He could have unless Jane Austen pictured him as conflicted with feelings of shyness and self-consciousness and, in fact, that is my contention. In any case, first Bingley and then Darcy lost his temper and that led to the fateful conversation. Elizabeth had been obliged to sit down, because of a general lack of partners, and so she overheard Bingley begin the exchange with Darcy in this rough manner:
" '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.'
'I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this, it would be insupportable. 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.'
'I would not be so fastidious as you are', cried Bingley, 'for a kingdom!' Upon my honor, I never met with so many pleasant girls as I have this evening; and here are several of them you see uncommonly pretty.' "
'You are dancing with the only handsome woman in the room,' said Darcy looking at the eldest Miss Bennet."
In other words, Darcy was saying "O.K., I will dance, but may I have your leave to dance with Jane Bennet?" Bingley's reply was equally quick and also between the lines:
" ... 'But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you.' "
In other words, Bingley was saying "No!" Well, all this was fine for Bingley; he was to keep Darcy away from the "handsomest woman in the room" while proposing to score points with her by finding a partner for her neglected sister. Darcy made the fateful, angry reply.
" ... 'Which do you mean?' and turning, he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said, 'She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humor at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. ...' "
And then, the conversation that began with Bingley's angry criticism ended as Darcy angrily dismissed his best friend.
" ... 'You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me.' "
Don't you agree Darcy was reacting to Bingley, not to Elizabeth? Of course, male friends do talk to one another like that, and then completely forget the angry moment before the evening is over. Elizabeth cannot be expected to display such a convenient memory, and so she would make Darcy pay for those careless remarks—oh, how he would pay!
From the point of that unfortunate first impression, Elizabeth would take advantage of every opportunity to embarrass and to afflict Darcy. Fortunately, Darcy had Austen blood in his veins, he was older and more experienced than Elizabeth, and he was her intellectual equal. Elizabeth had one great advantage, she was convinced that she hated Darcy and so she need not show any great care in what she said, no insult was too severe. On the other hand, Darcy was painfully aware of his growing feelings for her and so he had to be very careful, far more careful even than is normally required of a man in this difficult social situation. He had to reply to her of course, or she would never respect him, but he had to be careful not to open a permanent breach. In spite of this handicap, Jane Austen had him carry the day in these verbal jousts—Darcy was no Mr. Collins. He lost his temper on occasion but he always returned for more punishment.
At this point Wickham entered the scene and supplied Elizabeth with more ammunition for her private war and he provided her with a love interest as well. Elizabeth fell for him and his line in another of her unfortunate first impressions. But for now, she could hate Darcy with a renewed fury and with a full sense of justice in her actions. The final element to her false picture of Darcy came when Bingley, inexplicably, fell away from Elizabeth's sister Jane. Jane was devastated, the Bennet family was devastated, and Elizabeth smelled the Pemberley rat—and she certainly got that right!
False Impressions of Bingley
We might add, parenthetically, that an interesting aspect to all this is that Elizabeth came to think of Bingley as a wimp, although she will never say anything like that to her sister. She thought him inconstant, too easily influenced, and too easily led by his friend. I ask you though, is the address of Bingley to Darcy at that first assembly the words or manners of a wimp and sycophant? Further on, we are given another example to demonstrate that Elizabeth had an incorrect first impression of Bingley. This is in a conversation between Bingley and his sister, begun by his sister.
" 'By the bye Charles, are you really serious in meditating a dance at Netherfield?—I would advise you, before you determine on it, to consult the wishes of the present party; I am much mistaken if there are not some among us to whom a ball would be rather a punishment than a pleasure.'
'If you mean Darcy', cried her brother, 'he may go to bed, if he chuses, before it begins ...' " [Chapter XI]
And that said in the presence of both Jane and Elizabeth Bennet. Bingley was no Mr. Collins. On still another occasion, Bingley was inclined to lay into Darcy, once again in full company. Bingley was speaking jokingly to Elizabeth.
" '... I assure you, that if Darcy were not such a great tall person, in comparison with myself, I should not pay him half so much deference. I declare I do not know a more awful object than Darcy, on particular occasions, and in particular places; at his own house especially, and of a Sunday evening when he has nothing to do.'
Mr Darcy smiled; but Elizabeth thought that she could perceive that he
was rather offended, and therefore checked her laugh.—Miss Bingley warmly
resented the indignity he had received, in an expostulation with her
brother for talking such nonsense."
Bingley was a bit harsh there, but one aspect of male society that recommends itself is illustrated by Bingley's outspoken judgment; he is, after all, complaining about Darcy to Darcy, and, thereby, likely making a small repair to his friend's manners. (In fact, Bingley was reacting to a similar kind of repair made to his behavior by Darcy earlier in that same chapter.)
Finally, if you study the occasion of Darcy's second proposal carefully, you will notice that it is Bingley who consciously and forcefully sets that scene for the lovers.
Elizabeth Bennet never gives up this prejudice of Bingley. And I, for one, would have thought it improbable and unnatural of her if she had. Elizabeth loved her sister beyond all others, and Bingley had wounded that sister deeply. At the end of the novel, when all seemed calm and serene, and when Darcy was able to open up to her and explain all his actions, including his assistance in the engagement of Bingley and Jane, we read, "Elizabeth could not help smiling at his easy manner of directing his friend. ... Elizabeth longed to observe that Mr. Bingley had been a most delightful friend; so easily guided that his worth was invaluable; but she checked herself. ..."
Oh yes, the resentment was still there. But, Elizabeth might have known the truth if Jane Austen had allowed it. Read this passage from that place in the novel after Lydia's wedding but before Elizabeth learned of Darcy's role in it. Darcy seemed lost to Elizabeth forever; our heroine pondered what might have been with Darcy, how they might have complemented each other in a marriage.
"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."
But Jane Austen would not let her see that these were exactly the important benefits that Bingley received from his friendship with Darcy, Darcy's "understanding, judgment, information, and knowledge of the world." Jane Austen, of course, made the right decision.
The First Proposal
Elizabeth went to Kent to visit her friend, Mrs. Collins, where she encountered Darcy who was visiting his aunt in the company of his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam. Elizabeth, as well as the other women at the parsonage, found the Colonel most agreeable and he found her equally attractive.
Poor Darcy, the meeting brought home the full realization that he was in love, but every time he had approached Elizabeth, she wanted to fight. And every time he had looked at her, she was being courted by some other man; first, there was her cousin, then Wickham, and now his cousin. He then decided to do what any Austen man would do in his place, he decided to propose to her. He was shy but he was not retiring!
Poor bastard, he didn't have a chance and he should have known it, but he advanced on the parsonage. The result was what should be expected—a perfect failure. Actually, he didn't start so bad. If only he had shut-up after his first few excellent sentences, she would not have accepted him but she might have been tempted, just a little bit, to leave the door open a crack. But he didn't stop; there would be problems with some of his family members and she should certainly know of those; however, this was hardly the time to broach that subject. Unhappily, that was exactly what he did. Instead of information about his family, the cautioning remarks come out as an indictment of her family.
Elizabeth was angered by that and she performed a slam dunk. Elizabeth may not have gotten the best of him before this, but now he was so vulnerable that he could have been devastated by a lesser woman than her. Elizabeth was not the lesser woman and so she stuffed him. She delivered her indictment of his treatment of Wickham as well as her indictment of his treatment of her sister's affairs and she was not gentle about it. Darcy lost his temper and made things worse; it would have been a kindness to have shot him. Elizabeth knew Darcy well enough to know exactly where he was the most vulnerable and that was where she struck.
" 'You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern that I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.' "
That hurt! He did regain enough composure to leave after saying a little something gentlemanly and gracious to her, exactly the thing he would have said if he had had the time to compose it. What a scene!—Elizabeth Bennet was superb, Jane Austen is the grand master, and the male reader is left feeling a little bit ill.
One of the interesting things that Jane Austen does in P&P is to allow the narrator to keep us fully informed about Darcy's feelings for Elizabeth while, occasionally, we must learn of Elizabeth's feelings from what she says and does. The last thing she said to Darcy at that meeting was, "... 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." Hmm, that sounds definitive, but this is the first time that we can know that she even contemplated such a question. And it took her an entire month to settle on the answer, did it?
An orthodox critic of our generation recently wrote her explanation of what was bothering Darcy during the first proposal; "... What is it that Darcy is so anxious to preserve? Like so much of moral and social wisdom of the time it is an imaginary ideal of past purity that is at the centre of his unease ..." It seems to me that our critic would have us believe that Darcy was a proto-fascist!—she seems to think that Darcy is driven by his sense of the biological superiority of his clan. Now this critic is credentialed and I am not; however, if I had ever thought to keep my place, this web site would not exist. So, you are not surprised that I take this opportunity to challenge the critic's view.
Now, the "moral and social wisdom" that correlates social and economic standing with an underlying biological determinism has a name, and that name is "Social Darwinism." Actually, it is misnamed, it should be called "Social-Spencerism" because the intellectual father of those ideas was Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and he published several decades before Darwin's The Origin of Species. As you can see, Spencer was born three years after Jane Austen died (1817) so the suggestion of our critic—the suggestion that Darcy was driven by Social-Darwinist notions—is called into question. Social Darwinisn did add an significant element of crypto-fascism to the way that English and American elite thought of themselves, but that was a taint of the much later Victorian period. (Further on, I will return to this discussion of the irrelevance of the Victorian to an understanding of Jane Austen's time and influences.)
The passage that our critic is probably referring to is in Chapter XXXIV: Darcy is proposing when,
"... the avowal of all that he felt and had long felt for her immediately followed. 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. 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 he was wounding, but very unlikely to recommend his suit."
The elite of Jane Austen's day, then as now, did think of themselves as superior; but, those notions stemmed from a sense of their family's manners and culture, what they called "education." In that sense, Darcy thought his family superior to the Bennet's, and it is that which is the basis for my explanation for his "unease." I think that all this is made very clear in this passage taken from Darcy's letter to Elizabeth.
"... The situation of your mother's family, though objectionable, was nothing in comparison of that total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by herself, by your three younger sisters, and occasionally even by your father. Pardon me. It pains me to offend you. But amidst your concern for the defects of your nearest relations, and your displeasure at this representation of them, let it give you consolation to consider that, to have conducted yourselves so as to avoid any share of the like censure, is praise no less generally bestowed on you and your eldest sister, that it is honorable to the sense and disposition of both. I will only say farther that from what passed that evening, my opinion of all parties was confirmed, and every inducement heightened which could have led me before to preserve my friend from what I esteemed a most unhappy connection. ..."
Incidentally, you may find Darcy's attitude deplorable here; I agree, but I cannot help noting that another character in the novel explicitly confirms many of these judgments; ironically, Elizabeth's father says much the same about his wife and younger daughters.
One last perspective on Darcy at the first proposal: Auden said of Jane Austen that she "shocked" him because, among other things, she could "Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety/ The economic basis of society." I wonder if we today understand the true extent to which Jane Austen did that. Everyone notices the effects of economics on the women of the Bennet family and on Charlotte Lucas. A few more might notice the same sort of constraints imposed on Wickham and Colonel Fitzwilliam, but how many consider the economic influences affecting Darcy?—Those influences that must have loomed large during his first proposal?
I imagine that the large landowners of those days were like the CEOs of today's corporations, with many of the same responsibilities and considerations. He likely had a hundred or so servants and estate workers, and he had many tenant families to consider as well. All corporations need an influx of money from time to time, for updating methods and equipment for one thing, and capital investment cannot always come from savings. Perhaps this was the main use of a dowry in Jane Austen's time. I suspect Darcy's dependents were not pleased to learn that the new wife was charming but penniless—given a vote they would have preferred his cousin (the "heiress of Rosings"), the opportunities she would have brought their families, and the stability she might have bought for the master's holdings. Perhaps Darcy's friends and neighbors would have thought him irresponsible for the same reasons. Elizabeth's "inferior connexions"—her poor relations could only become dependent upon and not contributors to the resources at Pemberley. Darcy, after many struggles, determined to marry for love and we applaud him for that, but should we not be a little bit concerned for him as well?
And we can know that Darcy took his responsibilities to his dependents seriously. Later, when Elizabeth was visiting Pemberley with her aunt and uncle (and before she was reconciled to him), her party would hear this from Darcy's housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds:
" 'He is the best landlord and the best master. ... There is not one of his tenants or servants but what will give him a good name. ...'
'In what an amiable light does this place him!' thought Elizabeth."
A few minutes later, the party was taken to the picture gallery where Elizabeth sought out Darcy's portrait, stood before it, returned to it again, and thought,
"... The commendation bestowed on him by Mrs. Reynolds was of no trifling nature. What praise is more valuable than the praise of an intelligent servant? As a brother, a landlord, a master, [Elizabeth] considered how many people's happiness were in his guardianship!—How much of pleasure or pain was it in his power to bestow!—How much of good or evil must be done by him! Every idea that had been brought forward by the housekeeper was favorable to his character, ..."
And those responsibilities must have weighed heavily upon him.
Jane Austen's novels flow so naturally and with such compelling logic. Actually, Darcy instinctively did the correct thing in going to Elizabeth at that point, even though he was doomed to suffer a terrible defeat. It was important that he declare himself so that there could be no doubt in her mind about where he stood in their relationship. This declaration would force her to think of him as an admirer and a suitor and not as the natural enemy who reciprocated her own feelings—that was an extremely important thing for him to do! And, of course, Darcy was not guilty, he was not inarticulate, he was intelligent, he was competent, and now he had a full and explicit understanding of Elizabeth's case against him. The issues surrounding Wickham and Bingley were out in the open and could be examined and dealt with. The meeting could have—should have—been approached differently, from a different direction, and in a different manner; but, the most important thing is that the meeting took place.
Afterwards, he went to his room and carefully and calmly composed a reply to her complaints and what a wonderful letter it was. It was the letter that would lead to Elizabeth's love for Darcy and to the male reader's admiration for Jane Austen. (Here is a link to the full text of the letter.)
In that letter, Darcy was forced to expose his sister to Elizabeth in order to expose Wickham; in so doing, he made himself vulnerable because he placed his family's reputation at Elizabeth's discretion. His exposure of Wickham, the fortune-hunting pedophile, was perfect and complete. Darcy's explanation of his role in separating Bingley from Jane Bennet was more complex and very interesting. Darcy's main thesis here was that he believed Jane Bennet to be basically indifferent to Bingley, to not return Bingley's love for her. Darcy began that subject by confessing something about Bingley: "I had often seen him in love before." NO—not Bingley—surely! Darcy was also very careful to praise Jane (and Elizabeth) and that praise was sincere and correct. Darcy was also properly conciliatory:
" 'If you have not been mistaken here, I must have been in error. Your superior knowledge of your sister must make the latter probable. —If it be so, if I have been misled by such an error, to inflict pain on her, your resentment has not been unreasonable.' "
He was conciliatory but then adamant as well; Darcy was convinced he knew what he had seen, what he had observed, and he had determined to act upon it. Bingley, as Darcy, was a young, unmarried man of great wealth and such men are always in short supply and in great demand. Darcy was in a position to appreciate that his friend would be the object of women in search of good fortune—certainly, Jane Bennet's mother had left no doubt of her mercenary thoughts. Don't you agree that Darcy could reasonably plead that he was trying to prevent his friend from being trapped in a loveless marriage? Darcy was a true and loyal friend. It is also clear that he saw a vulnerability in his friend that he, Darcy, was honor-bound to protect. No, Elizabeth's resentment was not unreasonable; however, on the face of it, Darcy's actions were not unreasonable either.
However, Darcy is human and with humans nothing is ever perfectly clear, not in life and, so, not in a Jane Austen novel. There are some points to worry about—long after the novel is read. Darcy's detachment of Bingley from Jane Bennet comes immediately after Darcy's battle with Elizabeth at the Netherfield ball, and so we can't help wondering about his objectivity. Darcy must have wondered about that himself because he adds this self-conscious sentence about Jane Bennet to his letter:
"—That I was desirous of believing her indifferent is certain—but I will venture to say that my investigations and decisions are not usually influenced by my hopes or fears. —I did not believe her to be indifferent because I wished it; —I believed it on impartial conviction, as truly as I wished it in reason."
Well—O.K.—but, I almost wish he hadn't written that sentence; I mean, it was absolutely brilliant of Jane Austen to have written that sentence. This is not the only self-conscious section in Darcy's letter; here is an even more interesting section, in a reference to Bingley.
"There is one part of my conduct in the whole affair, on which I do not reflect with satisfaction; it is that I condescended to adopt the measures of art so far as to conceal from him your sister's being in town. ..."
He sounds almost arrogant doesn't he? In fact, that sentence, and the few that follow, probably caused Darcy a lot of pain and mortification and his motive for writing them was quite different from what they seem to be at the first reading of the novel. In fact, the problem stemmed from a conversation between Elizabeth and Darcy that occurred a few weeks before the proposal; Elizabeth asked him, point blank, if he had seen her sister in London and he lied when he said he had not. Think about that, this man, who wished to think of himself as the consummate gentleman, lied, he lied to a gentlewoman, and he lied to the very woman he loved! It was a minor act of cowardliness but something that must have weighed heavily upon him. Certainly, it would have been a great relief to him to set the record straight on the occasion of this letter to Elizabeth.
Finally, we must recognize in Darcy that most human of all faults, the fault of contradiction. This was a subject that Darcy could not bring himself to discuss—the fact that he had proposed to Elizabeth with far less encouragement—far more "indifference" than Bingley had received from Jane Bennet.
Too much contradiction or too little will make a fictional character's nature improbable. One of Jane Austen's gifts was the skill to create exactly the right amount and exactly the right kind for her people. By the bye, we know that Darcy's contradictions were not mistakes in the thinking or the writing of his creator; we know that because Jane Austen pointed to them in an explicit way. Immediately after Darcy left the parsonage, Elizabeth's mind was in a tumult, and among the many things she thought about was, "... that he should have been ... so much in love as to wish to marry her in spite of all the objections which made him prevent his friend's marrying her sister, and which must appear with at least equal force in his own case, was almost incredible!"
Readers share Elizabeth's incredulity. After all this was the woman who, to his face, called him hateful, vain, and of questionable character. And in every instance, Darcy had replied to her in way to show a full understanding of her meaning. For example, when Elizabeth suggested that his character deserved some study because it seemed questionable, Darcy remembered Wickham's influence on her and made his famous cutting reply,
" 'I can readily believe', answered he gravely, 'that reports may vary greatly with respect to me; and I could wish, Miss Bennet, that you were not to sketch my character at the present moment, as there is reason to fear that the performance would reflect no credit on either.' "
It is a great truth, uncommonly acknowledged, that we do not always believe what we know. We can sometimes suspend belief as easily as disbelief. That seems to have been Darcy's state during that proposal. He was proud of himself, his family, and of the situation he was offering, so proud that he could suspend his understanding of Elizabeth's disapprobation. But that was minor compared to the main factor; he was deeply in love and love is blinding and causes amnesia. Darcy was in love, men think with their hearts, and Jane Austen understood men.
Yes, we are discussing Chapters XXXIII through XXXVI of Pride and Prejudice, those chapters at the geometric center of the novel, the watershed of Elizabeth's feelings. Are those chapters nearly so perfect as I think them? Chapter XXXVI is devoted to Elizabeth Bennet's reading of Darcy's letter and the chapter almost seems like an opening upon her soul —more likely, upon the soul of that twenty year old authoress seated two hundred years ago at the writing desk in the home of her parents.
Elizabeth's feelings had a momentum, and so, at first, she was infuriated by the first part of the letter that contained Darcy's explanation of his dealings with Bingley and Jane Bennet. By the time she reached the second part, the explanation of Darcy's dealings with Wickham, she was livid. After only a cursory reading of this second part, she declared all points of the explanation to be insipid and transparent lies. She was now doubly angry, vowed to never read this stupid letter again, and she steadfastly maintained that vow for a few minutes.
She then determined to carefully construct a refutation of the second part of the letter because it contained statements of fact that she knew to be false in every particular. But, the statements of fact were not false, in any particular, and as she reviewed them, point by point, the scales began to fall from her eyes and her heart began to soften. Almost against her will, her own remembrances contributed further confirmations of Darcy's claims and descriptions. And, as she read on, Darcy's honor grew in her mind in proportion to Wickham's iniquity. Elizabeth became desperate— no one wants to read such clear evidence of one's own mistakes. She first tried to remember specific charges she could make against Darcy or examples of behavior she had observed that would confirm his ill nature and dishonorable character; however, she could remember only instances and the testimonies of others which only confirmed the opposite!
In a final act of desperation, Elizabeth returned to the first part of the letter where she felt sure of finding a confirmation of her previous picture of Darcy. But even here, things took on a much different meaning. She remembered a conversation that she had with Charlotte Lucas in which Charlotte seemed to corroborate Darcy's observation that Jane Bennet appeared indifferent to Bingley. Elizabeth knew that this was not the case, but how could she expect strangers to know Jane as well as did Jane's own sister. Elizabeth remembered that the behavior of her family in the instances that Darcy had cited were exactly those instances that had caused great embarrassment to herself. So, how could she criticize Darcy for expressing feelings that she had felt herself? (Well, actually, Darcy can be criticized for bringing up such matters—nothing is quite so gauche as the explicit criticism of the gaucherie of others.) Elizabeth's retreat on this matter indicates her evolution—perhaps over-evolution—in thought. In the end, Elizabeth "knew herself" and she didn't like what she now knew. Her own pride and her own prejudice were paramount on her mind and these oppressed her conscience.
Her former anger at Darcy was replaced with a respect and a gratitude for his attachment to her. But did she now have other feelings, feelings of a more tender nature? Well, it was much too early for Elizabeth to admit—indeed, to even suspect that possibility. For my part, I believe that Jane Austen created tender feelings in Elizabeth from the very beginning—who can deny that Elizabeth's feelings for Darcy had always been "warm"? Did you ever wonder why Elizabeth could treat Wickham with such forbearance after his defection to pursue another women's fortune, while coming down so hard on Darcy because he wouldn't dance with her? Tell me, were those crimes anything alike in level of seriousness, I mean how is it possible that Darcy caused her more embarrassment and pain than did Wickham? Did her punishments fit the crimes of the two men? How are these things to be explained if Elizabeth did not have an unconscious and strong attraction to Darcy? No, these were inconsistencies that Jane Austen plants in order to indicate Elizabeth's inner conflict. In any case, there was to be yet another part of Elizabeth's journey to self-discovery.
Elizabeth's evolution took place over the next few months and might have been complete except for the fact that she had the example of her sister's disappointment and sorrow always before her. The pain of the sister seemed an insurmountable barrier to a relationship with Darcy; how could she forgive him for that?! However, she was already entrained in that stream of events that eventually brought her to another meeting with Darcy. She resisted the possibility of another meeting, but never so well as not to be carried along to that chance encounter. Along the way, she learned more about him, but only of more good about him; for example, she learned that his servants and tenants held him in high esteem. (Isn't it interesting that Jane Austen used that device?—the gratitude and admiration of dependents used as a commendation of a fictional character.) Elizabeth was touring Pemberley with her aunt and uncle when that information was obtained.
Elizabeth was at Pemberley for the first time, and was both impressed and charmed by the estate and by the master's taste that was exhibited therein. The housekeeper took them to the family portrait gallery where Elizabeth came to stand before the master's portrait at that romantic, dramatic moment that was so deeply affecting for her. And soon she was to stand before the original when Darcy appeared on the scene, most unexpectedly, and their meeting took place. Elizabeth was embarrassed but Darcy recognized the opportunity and gently, and carefully this time, made his approach. Elizabeth hesitated but then her resistance melted away and she let him know that she was ready to accept his courtship by the simple device of welcoming his invitation for an introduction to his sister. Wonderful!
However, Jane Austen is one of the greatest novelists in the history of our language, so she would not disappoint us by making things so easy. Lydia and Wickham did not disappoint either; they ran away together in order to share a bed. That news came to Elizabeth at the precise moment when Darcy's courtship was about to begin.
Consider Elizabeth Bennet's reaction to Lydia's indiscretion. My view is that she over-reacted; by that I mean that Jane Austen intends that she is to be understood to have over-reacted. In a recent (1995) film version, the screenwriter, Andrew Davies, makes that quite explicit by inventing some lines for Aunt Gardiner and sister Kitty in which they advise Elizabeth that she is over-reacting. I applaud that because I believe that this dialog is required for our generation; otherwise, there is some danger that the audience of today will interpret Elizabeth's reaction as an expression of Victorian attitudes.
Jane Austen was no Victorian; she lived before the onset of Victorian attitudes. For example, there were many celebrities in Jane Austen's time—then as now—whose behavior was far more egregious than that of Lydia Bennet. I can name a few; there was Admiral Lord Nelson, the Prince and the Princess of Wales, and there was Mary Wollstonecraft.
Within Jane Austen's family, there were similar behaviors. Her father's sister, Philadelphia Austen, left England explicitly in order to find a rich husband in India. She succeeded and the man she married may well have been the father of their daughter, Eliza. There were rumors that he was not, and matters were not helped much when the local governor provided Eliza with a fortune upon her gaining maturity. With that, Eliza went to France to seek a husband and succeeded when she married a French Count. (Well, maybe he was a Count and maybe he was not; he certainly died a nobleman's death when he was beheaded during the revolution.) Both Philadelphia and Eliza were frequent and welcome visitors in the Austen home. There were strong family ties and strong defenses were made for the honor of these clanswomen. In fact, the widowed and slightly notorious Eliza was courted by two of Jane's brothers until she chose Jane's favorite brother, Henry. (Henry was ten years younger than Eliza, a fact which gives some hint of her appeal.) Eliza loved and favored her younger cousin Jane Austen; so, when Eliza was on her deathbed, it was Jane that Henry sent for to attend upon his wife.
No, Jane Austen was not a Victorian and was not given to expressing the attitudes of that later, unfortunate era. So why is Elizabeth Bennet portrayed to have over-reacted in this way? It is because of Darcy's statements made during his failed proposal at the Hunsford parish, those statements that were made in anger, and the words that he certainly regretted; but he did say those things. Sadly, Elizabeth took them to heart because she was in love with Darcy, even though she still would not admit it to herself. Jane Austen used this device to help the reader understand that these feelings existed. Wonderful!—and sad—and ironic.
And, Elizabeth over-reacted when Darcy left her at the inn at Lambton after learning of Lydia's predicament. Elizabeth felt that he would shun her now because of the family's "disgrace". She failed to recall the simple facts that Lydia had committed no crime that Darcy's own sister had not attempted and that Darcy was no hypocrite. The narrator is quite explicit about this in Chapter LVIII during the couple's reconciliation: "... [Elizabeth] soon learnt that his resolution of following her from Derbyshire in quest of her sister, had been formed before he quitted the inn, and that his gravity and thoughtfulness there, had arisen from no other struggles than what such a purpose must comprehend."
There are two things that happened in that conversation that must have stunned Darcy. First, Elizabeth blamed herself, out loud, for not having revealed Wickham's true character to her family so that Lydia would have been forewarned. Darcy would have known that this charge could hardly be made against Elizabeth; however, just as certainly, it could have been leveled at him. Then, Elizabeth lamented that it was impossible to know how to deal with Wickham and impossible even to know how to locate the missing couple. It must have occurred to Darcy that, yes, these were near impossibilities for her family but far less difficult for him because he had been raised with Wickham and knew of Wickham's habits, tastes, and even the names of some of his accomplices. Oh, that perfect Jane Austen logic! There really was only one man in the entire world who could have rendered any assistance to the Bennet family in this matter, that man who, unknown to them, was in love with their second daughter.
However, there remained many uncertainties and difficulties, even for Darcy, and so he did the prudent thing and made no promise; it would have been silly to have made a promise that he might fail to keep at this delicate juncture in his courtship of Elizabeth? No, it was better to do as Darcy did; he said a little something encouraging, retreated, gathered his thoughts, made some plans, and made some personal resolutions. Certainly, it would have been better for him also to have said a little more to Elizabeth; but, then again, this is Darcy that Jane Austen was describing.
Darcy was resourceful and resolute and he got the job done. Darcy was no Mr. Bennet. He found the runaway couple and he took the honorable tack when he first tried to convince Lydia to retire to the home of her aunt and uncle. She refused and so Darcy began his negotiations with Wickham. Imagine that! Darcy must be diplomatic and otherwise careful with his worst enemy, the very man he most despised. But Darcy was fully aware of everything that was at stake, his negotiations were successful, and he obtained for Wickham nearly everything that the spoiler wanted including a commission in the regular army. (Incidentally, Darcy obtained a commission for Wickham in a regiment stationed at Newcastle; look at a map of England in order to appreciate still another Jane Austen joke.)
Darcy at Longbourn
Darcy asked for and received a vow of secrecy from all persons involved in Lydia's marriage so that Elizabeth was not directly informed of his role in the matter. He told no one the reason for this request, but the male reader can guess what he was about. Surely, he had already determined to renew his offer to Elizabeth and Darcy would not have her obligated to him when he did that. (Compare this to the actions of Henry Crawford of Mansfield Park after he obtained the officer's commission for Fanny Price's brother.) Darcy would have Elizabeth only if she loved him and not as the reward for his kindness to her family, he was determined to have a love match.
However, this was Elizabeth Bennet with whom he was in love, and that resourceful woman would learn of everything that she wanted to know, whether Darcy wanted her to or not. After Lydia let slip that Darcy had attended her wedding, Elizabeth pressured everything else out of her Aunt Gardiner. (Nothing is free in this life and the price that the aunt extracts for her information is a little amusement with some pointed teasing of her much beloved niece.)
That did it!—Elizabeth was ready to accept him. In any case, Darcy suddenly arrived at Longbourn and in the company of Bingley. But then a curious thing happened; Darcy wouldn't approach Elizabeth, he almost ignored her. It was like everyone's manners reverted to what they had previously been at Longbourn Hall. (I was, at first, reminded of the Territorial Imperative.) That did it! - Elizabeth wouldn't have him—she threw him over forever! Well, actually, the experience was excruciating for Elizabeth and—c'mon, admit it—the tiniest bit of fun for the male reader.
O.K., so what was happening here? More shy behavior? Well, yes—in part (link). But, something else and something more impressive was also taking place. Jane Austen gives us a first hint about his behavior in a single sentence wedged in the middle of a long paragraph; this is a sentence describing Elizabeth's study of Darcy's demeanor.
"... But now several minutes elapsed, without bringing the sound of his voice; and when occasionally, unable to resist the impulse of curiosity, she raised her eyes to his face, she as often found him looking at Jane, as at herself, and frequently on no object but the ground, ..." [Chapter LIII]
So-oo, listening carefully and studying Jane was he? Much later, during his growing intimacy with Elizabeth, Darcy was explicit,
|"... My avowed [purpose in coming to Longbourn], or what I avowed to myself, was to see whether your sister was still partial to Bingley, and if she were, to make the confession to him which I have since made. ... I had narrowly observed her, during the two visits I had lately made her here; and I was convinced of her affection. ... I could easily perceive that his attachment to her was unabated, I felt no doubt of their happiness together." [Chapter LX]|
Darcy truly was an honorable man; in spite of all his efforts, he was not going to sacrifice the happiness of his friend for that of his own. Darcy knew full well what events might be precipitated by this trip into Hertfordshire and, in that event, Bingley would once again seek his advice. If Darcy's previous judgments were confirmed, then his previous advice would be renewed. It was a simple matter of honor. Bravo Darcy!
But, Elizabeth had been right about her sister all along, Darcy came to understand his error (to his great relief no doubt), and there was nothing left to be done except for Darcy to make his confessions and explanations to Bingley, to become passive, and to allow nature to take its course. Bingley was no wimp so his offer was soon made and immediately and affectionately accepted. Elizabeth was overjoyed and she convinced herself that she didn't even care that Darcy had been called away to London on business—surely, that had nothing to do with her restlessness.
Then, the rumors began to fly!
With Lady Catherine in the Garden
Jane Austen completes the resurrection of Darcy, in our minds and in the mind of Elizabeth, during Lady Catherine's confrontation with Elizabeth in that "prettyish kind of wilderness at one end of your lawn". That was the time when the "polar bear" from Kent came to confront the "winter thunder" of Hertfordshire in her own garden. The metaphor is not empty because Lady Catherine was there in defense of her sickly cub and she had about as much chance of success as she had of changing the weather.
Lady Catherine pretended that the news of the impending engagement of Darcy to Elizabeth was a rumor, but she knew it must be true because she also admired Elizabeth. (The grand dame had almost begged for Elizabeth's friendship and companionship during the latter's visit to Rosings and had about as much success as her nephew, Darcy.) We learn, at this confrontation, of the pressures on Darcy to marry well and properly, and of the extreme pressures on him, from his family, to marry in a certain direction. No, Darcy had not merely expressed an attitude when he lost control of himself in that first proposal; he had given expression to his dread at the disapprobation that his engagement to Elizabeth would bring him. Elizabeth must be informed of this but he had been insufficiently articulate, too angry, too indelicate, and his words were too ill timed to convey a proper sense of things. But, never mind, his aunt unwittingly communicated everything necessary at this one end of the lawn.
And there, Elizabeth got a taste of her own medicine; now it was her adversary who could let it all hang out and say anything that came to mind, while it was Elizabeth who must maintain composure and not say too much to the cherished aunt of the man she loved. The very first thing that happened was that the older woman asked the one question that Elizabeth dared not answer: "Has my nephew made you a offer?". Yes he had made an offer —at Hunsford—and been refused, but Elizabeth dared not admit that and embarrass him before his family during these delicate times. So, Elizabeth stalled, gave no information, prolonged the interrogation, and tried to maintain her dignity by insisting that Lady Catherine speak to her in a proper manner. Finally it happened, Elizabeth heard the question rephrased in a form she could reply to: ".. ARE YOU ENGAGED TO HIM?". Say "no, I am not", Elizabeth, and then quickly retreat so that you can put an end to the conversation—and to the danger.
But Jane Austen couldn't leave it there could she? She just had to write those lines, didn't she? That sense of humor was like a pressure that was certain to pop the lid, and so we are to read these lines from Lady Catherine.
" '... To all the other objections I have urged, I have still another to add. I am no stranger to the particulars of your youngest sister's infamous elopement. ... Heaven and earth!—of what are you thinking! Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?' ".
Well, I only hope that Jane got a good giggle from inventing those lines—I know I did when reading them—and so did you. Although Jane Austen always makes me laugh where she intended, I sometimes wish that she had not written quite so many lines like that. I don't often feel that way, only at those times when I wish that other people would receive her work differently.
Love and Romance
Jane Austen refused to imagine that you and I would prove to be dull little elves and so she does not tell us everything. All we know is that Darcy suddenly reappeared at Longbourn Hall in the company of Bingley. Bingley pointedly arranged a walk for which he assigned only one of the younger sisters to chaperone the party which was composed solely of Darcy and Elizabeth along with Bingley and Jane. For some reason, on this particular day, Bingley and Jane could not keep up the pace set by the others, and that was a terrible shame because they fell back so far that they lost visual contact with the better walkers. The chaperone became distracted by an errand and, although Elizabeth was aware of the impropriety of being alone with Darcy, she did nothing to forestall her sister.
Elizabeth did not seem to fully comprehend what Darcy and Bingley were about; in any case, she was in no mood to leave things to chance or to Darcy's delicacy. Elizabeth made the first move by expressing gratitude for Darcy's assistance to Lydia and in such a way as to give a clear hint of her respect for him. Darcy was distraught because Elizabeth might now feel a sense of indebtedness; however, there was nothing to be done about that and, besides, he had his eyes clearly on the prize. Darcy once again extended his proposal, and this time Elizabeth's mind was clear and so she offered up her sweet sense of gratitude and pleasure.
Everyone will explain to you that Jane Austen wrote nothing about romance or passion, everyone will explain that—except me. Were there two Jane Austens? I have only read the less well-known one, the deeply passionate Jane Austen. In fact, I have collaborated with other "Male" Voices to extract the passionate passages of all six novels, and of Pride and Prejudice in particular. You must link there for the full argument; but, let me illustrate this unorthodox view of things here by showing you two snippets from Pride and Prejudice. The first comes just after the proposal is concluded and the engagement accepted.
"... Had Elizabeth been able to encounter his eye, she might have seen how well the expression of heart-felt delight, diffused over his face, became him; but, though she could not look, she could listen, and he told her of feelings, which, in proving of what importance she was to him, made his affection every moment more valuable.
They walked on, without knowing in what direction. There was too much to be thought, and felt, and said, for attention to any other objects. ..."
Elizabeth then only knew she was happy rather than feeling it because she had some apprehensions of applying to her parents for their consent. The fear with respect to her mother proved ill-founded, but her meeting with her father was even worse than she had anticipated, perhaps because it was the father who loved her more. She had to listen as her father recited all the bad impressions, all the prejudice of Darcy that she had herself instilled in him. At last she was allowed to give her assurances of her attachment and to begin the reinstatement of Darcy's character in her father's mind.
" 'I do, I do like him', she replied with tears in her eyes; 'I love him. Indeed he has no improper pride. He is perfectly amiable. You do not know what he really is; then do not pain me by speaking of him in such terms.' ... Elizabeth, ... was earnest and solemn in her reply; and at length, by repeated assurances that Mr. Darcy was really the object of her choice, by explaining the gradual change which her estimation of him had undergone, relating her absolute certainty that his affection was not the work of a day, but had stood the test of many months' suspense, and enumerating with energy all his good qualities, she did conquer her father's incredulity, and reconcile him to the match.
... To complete the favorable impression, she then told him what Mr. Darcy had voluntarily done for Lydia. He heard her with astonishment ... Elizabeth's mind was now relieved from a very heavy weight, and, after half-an-hour's quiet reflection in her own room, she was able to join the others with tolerable composure."
Jane Austen always set aside some space, at the end of a novel, in which the newly joined couple resolved past differences. Some say she did that because she was a neat-freak who couldn't abide loose ends. But I believe that she was allowing us to observe the couple laying the foundations for their intimacy. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and Darcy have just such conversations: There were questions such as "what was he thinking about just before he left her at the Lambton Inn?" and "what in the world possessed him to propose to her at Hunsford?" Darcy made clear explanations and apologies and then asked Elizabeth to destroy his letter because he believed that it had been written while he was in the wrong temper, etc. On other occasions, Elizabeth bantered with Darcy; for example, "what made him fall in love with her in the first place?". She bantered and teased and beguiled him and, in this way, she laid the foundation for yet another facet of their intimacy.
We believe, at the end of the novel, that Bingley and Jane Bennet married for love, and we have good reason to assume that Elizabeth did as well. However, one thing has been proved with absolute certainty, we know that Darcy married for love.
Review the First Page
Was Jane Austen ever in love? Did our Lady have a model
for Darcy? No one knows, but
Other Local Links
Filmed Versions of the Novel
The good version is discussed in the last half of The Best Country Dancer
... and the bad version is discussed in the first part of Jane Austen Disaster Films
A full treatment of the Jane
Links to Other Web Sites
A list of e-texts of the novel (Great Books Index)
The annotated treatment of Henry Churchyard