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Friday, 11 November 2016

JANE AUSTEN'S ELIZABETH BENNET

Elizabeth Bennet is possibly the best-known heroine in English Literature. Jane moulded the heroine partly in her own form. Like the author, Elizabeth Bennet is twenty. Like Jane Austen's, her education has been leisurely and conducted at home. She admits 'We never had a governess' but explains there was no shortage of private tutors: '...such of us as wished to learn never wanted the means. We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle certainly might.’ (Jane Austen uses the impertinent interrogation by Lady Catherine to elicit these points.)

Elizabeth Bennet may be a little more audacious than her creator; but she has the same sense of humour and she expresses it in the same way. When her father advises her to fall in love with Wickham because he 'would jilt you creditably', she wittily replies 'We must not all expect Jane's good fortune.' Jane Austen's letters are generally in that tone. Even during those days after Jane Bennet becomes engaged and is wishing Lizzy could have as much happiness as herself, Lizzy (who is in suspense waiting to see whether Darcy will propose again) says: '...if I have very good luck, I may meet with another Mr. Collins in time'.

Elizabeth shares Jane Austen's interests - social and family life, relationships with young men, the study of people in a country setting. Cheerfulness is natural to them both. When slighted (Darcy describes her as 'tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me'), she enjoys telling the story 'with great spirit' among her friends, 'for she had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous'. In the same way, being 'not formed for ill-humour', she soon overcomes her disappointment at Wickham's absence from the Netherfield Ball on November 26th, by having fun telling Charlotte about the 'oddities of her cousin', Mr. Collins.

Conversations between Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth sometimes have uncomfortable undertones. Fun is made of Mrs. Bennet and even of Jane, who - we must believe - is genuinely suffering. However, Mr. Bennet also makes fun of Elizabeth, who receives it in kind. The reason we like this conversation is that it is private between the two of them, and it is very much only between them. Because they can do this, they can otherwise suffer fools gladly in more public situations. Mr. Bennet can deal with serious family interactions only through humour, something that many people do. He is aware of Jane's unhappiness but can only joke. He also disapproves of Mrs. Bennet's harping on it.

Elizabeth is very much her father's daughter – as shown by her remarks about the few she loves and the few of whom she really thinks well. She tends to be contemptuous easily and thinks well of her perception and character-studying ability at this time. She is going to revise her opinions fairly soon, but she will always maintain the distinction in her mind - the distinction between loving and thinking well of someone.

Elizabeth is so lively, cheerful, witty and sensitive – in most cases - to the feelings of others that her attraction to readers is obvious. Add to this her interesting discovery of love, through esteem for a man she at first dislikes, and we have one of the most appealing heroines in literature.

She values books, but claims 'I am not a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things'. She chooses to read rather than play at loo when visiting the sick Jane at Netherfield, but this is because she suspects the company to be 'playing high'. (In a letter to her sister Cassandra, Jane Austen also once said she opted out of a gambling game – commerce – because she could not afford to risk losing).

Elizabeth's beauty is left partly to the reader's imagination. Her face is (in Darcy's view) 'rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes'. Though he sees 'more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form', he finds her figure 'light and pleasing'; and her manners, though not those of the fashionable world, are attractive because of their 'easy playfulness'. After her muddy walk to Netherfield, he admires the 'brilliancy which exercise had given to her complexion’.

Like her creator, Elizabeth is a student of human nature and is proud of her skill in this respect, though she has to learn to beware of prejudice. She resolutely sticks to opinions even when the more charitable Jane offers alternative interpretations. Discussing Wickham's version of events, Jane says, 'One does not know what to think'; but Elizabeth insists, 'I beg your pardon; one knows exactly what to think.' Darcy warns her she tends wilfully to misunderstand people. She speaks her mind and is usually right, particularly about women. With 'more quickness of observation and less pliancy of temper than her sister', she immediately finds Bingley's sisters proud and conceited.

Although Jane Austen never says so, it is possible that Charlotte Lucas is secretly the schemer who brings Darcy and Elizabeth together (partly with a view to improving her own prospects through Darcy's patronage of her husband.). Where else can the 'gossip' about Darcy and Elizabeth - that reached Lady Catherine's ears - have come from? 

There is an interesting paragraph in the middle of Chapter 46 about ways of falling in love. With Wickham, Elizabeth had tried the love-at-first-sight method and it did not work. With Darcy, love has been based on a foundation of 'gratitude and esteem' - the method Jane Austen approved. 

Without marriage, Lizzy's only financial prospects are 'one thousand pounds in the four per cents', as Mr. Collins ungraciously points out while proposing to her. He says her 'portion is, unhappily, so small' that she may never receive another offer of marriage. It says much for her integrity that, despite prospects not much better than Charlotte's, Elizabeth is not tempted to marry without love. She is not attracted by the idea of settling as a clergyman's wife, even to secure her father's estate.

Another of Elizabeth's admirable qualities is her tenderness towards her sister. The selfless love of sensitive, intelligent young women for their sisters is evident in the mutual devotion of Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra. It was a sustaining force in Jane's life and work. Lizzy empathises with her sister's joy in falling in love with Bingley. There is no jealousy. When alone, the sisters share confidences, though Elizabeth is careful never to reveal information that may cause pain: she is considerate in being economical with the truth she has learned about Bingley's failure to call on Jane in London. Even when her own emotions are in turmoil, she shows deep concern for Jane: 'Elizabeth instantly read her feelings; and at that moment solicitude for Wickham, resentment against his enemies, and everything else, gave way before the hope of Jane's being in the fairest way for happiness.' Jane is the only person Elizabeth takes into her confidence concerning Darcy's proposal. 

Elizabeth is human enough to know it would gratify 'whatever of her own vanity she had not yet been able to reason away' if she made Darcy's proposal known. Yet, unlike her mother, she can keep matters to herself. 

Apart from Jane, Charlotte is the only intimate friend with whom Elizabeth sometimes talks about private matters. With her, Elizabeth discusses Jane's 'preference' for Bingley. Wrongly, as it proves, Elizabeth thinks Bingley must be aware of Jane's feelings. Elizabeth is showing her characteristic prejudice in too readily drawing conclusions. She fails to recognize that Jane's self-composure can leave observers thinking her indifferent. Charlotte readily gives her view that a woman attracted by a man should give him signals to that effect. 

Thinking continually about marriage, Elizabeth is no different from other young women in her situation. Her interest in courtship is part of her general interest in human behaviour. When Jane tells her that women fancy admiration means more than it does, she replies: 'And men take care that they should'. She recognises symptoms in other girls. She tells Jane that if Caroline Bingley had seen as many signs of love for herself in Darcy as Bingley has shown towards Jane, she 'would have ordered her wedding clothes'. And she detects that Caroline wants to get her brother married to Miss Darcy in the hope that it will precipitate her own marriage to Darcy himself. 

It is interesting that Caroline’s snobbery (and jealousy of Elizabeth) soon make us suspicious of anything she says. Consequently, when does speak the truth – in her warning to Elizabeth about Wickham – we, like Elizabeth, are prone not to believe her. It is a clever irony set up by the narrator to prejudice the reader as well as the heroine. 

Elizabeth's wit is everywhere a joy. When her mother prattles embarrassingly, Elizabeth can provide escape and relief with a joke. Jane's first admirer gave her up after writing poetry about her. Elizabeth says: 'I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love!' Then she stands up to Darcy's defence of poetry as the food of love, thereby making him smile. 

Interestingly, she does not oppose her mother's scheme in deliberately sending Jane in the rain on horseback to Netherfield. It is impossible to tell whether she approves of the plan or is merely being satirical when she gets her father to acknowledge that he needs the horse and is therefore unable to let Jane have the carriage. (There was a carriage horse tax of 54 shillings in 1797, trebled in the budget of 1798. Mr. Bennet seems to have succeeded in getting his horses assessed as animals kept for husbandry. Possibly he went in for a little legitimate tax avoidance!) 

Elizabeth is an energetic girl. She runs a great deal. Unlike her sister Jane, she is 'no horsewoman' and readily walks (through the mud) to Netherfield. 

Regarding relationships with the opposite sex, she has a proper sense of decorum. When Lizzy returns from Kent, Lydia wants to rush her off to Meryton in the hope of meeting men. Elizabeth thinks: 'It should not be said that the Miss Bennets could not be at home half a day before they were in pursuit of the officers'. And when her mother boasts that Jane will soon become engaged to Bingley, Lizzy blushes 'with shame and vexation' because Darcy can overhear. The way she handles the news of Charlotte's engagement demonstrates her notion of correct behaviour. Whereas Mrs. Bennet would have shrieked it all over the village, Elizabeth sits with her mother and sisters 'doubting whether she were authorized to mention it’.