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Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Some Thoughts on Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice'; especially Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy

For the story of Darcy and Elizabeth to zip along, it is necessary for the two of them to turn up simultaneously at specific places in Hertfordshire, Kent and Derbyshire - a most unlikely coincidence. Jane Austen must have enjoyed the logistical contrivance of plotting; and we have to admire the way she almost disguises the coincidences by having one relation of the Bennets – Mrs. Gardiner – grow up in Derbyshire and another – Mr. Collins – as the incumbent serving Lady Catherine at Hunsford. With its series of coincidences, crises and confrontations, Pride and Prejudice moves at a cracking pace. Its appeal is mainly due to Elizabeth's relationship with Darcy, with both pride and prejudice (on both sides) yielding at last to love. Elizabeth is fascinated by Darcy even in the early stages but thinks him arrogant and unjust.

Elizabeth's greatest lessons are learned when she is away from home. She needs the unsettlement of not being home to see the most difficult things, about herself and others. She ceases being a Beatrice, a witty girl moving in a social comedy, and becomes something more. In Kent, Elizabeth grows in stature. She is alone. She suffers. She finds out facts which make her rethink the world. First impressions give way to reflection.

Possibly Darcy had grown up a shy - or at least reserved - man. Shy people can affect a haughtiness that gives them the reputation of being a snob. They can also develop the listening and silent stance. Darcy's cutting remarks at the first ball could be a reaction to being in an unfamiliar setting. And does he really get along well with the Bingley women? His interactions with them seem just as stiff. He frequently seeks to distance himself.  It is only under duress that he airs his feelings regarding the perfect lady. It is also clear that the Bingley women do not really know him, although they think they do.

One of Darcy's attractive characteristics is the dry sense of humour he shares with Mr. Palmer of Sense and Sensibility and with Mr. Bennet. All three use irony in their dealings with tiresome ladies (Darcy with Miss Bingley). One can imagine that in years beyond the novel Darcy would share many a smile with his father-in-law.

The development of Elizabeth's love is wittily yet movingly conveyed. Other Jane Austen heroines do not go through parallel experiences. Darcy snubs Elizabeth at first. Although she makes a joke of it, her pride is hurt. Partly because of this and partly because she finds him attractive, she takes him on 'as a sparring partner' (in the perceptive words of Jennifer Ehle, who played the part in the 1995 BBC television adaptation of the novel). She is interested in scraps of information about him and even stands up for him against the embarrassing comments of her mother.

Elizabeth always enjoys new instances of human folly. She is interested in Darcy as an illustration of pride and conceit. This makes her believe she does not like him. She tells herself and others that she dislikes Darcy; yet he often provokes her into speech and displays of vitality that she does not show, for example, with Bingley.

As her reaction in Kent to Darcy's proposal makes clear, Elizabeth was not unconsciously in love with him (in the way that Emma was with Mr. Knightley). So why do readers feel some ambivalence on this matter? It is because Elizabeth has flirted with him, though less consciously than her younger sisters flirt with the army officers: 'I meant to be uncommonly clever,’ she says later, ‘in taking so decided a dislike to him... one cannot be always laughing at a man without now and then stumbling on something witty.'

Charlotte Lucas makes the point that 'In nine cases out of ten, a woman had better show more affection than she feels. ..  [A man] may never do more than like her if she does not help him on.' Lizzy - albeit unwittingly - 'helps on' Darcy in Kent. She gives him many clues that she would welcome a proposal from him. She participates with him in merry, teasing conversations. She takes 'care to inform him' that she may be found alone in the 'sheltered path' any morning. (He profits from this information). She does not question the hints he drops that on her future visits to Kent she will stay at Rosings rather than at the Parsonage. She blushes when he wonders whether she is the sort of person who - after marriage - would wish to live near her parents. She assures him she would not consider it necessary to do so, provided there was ample money to pay for travel. She accepts compliments from him, coupled with a sort of bonding with him ('We neither of us perform to strangers'). She earlier encourages such bonding herself (though in jest) when she tells him 'I have always seen a great similarity in the turn of our minds. We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the ├ęclat of a proverb.' After all that, it is hardly surprising he 'had no doubt of a favourable answer' to his proposal. No wonder the immediate effect of her rejection was to leave him 'pale with anger’.

Elizabeth attends the ball at Netherfield thinking of Wickham and 'determined to hate' Darcy. Yet, caught off guard, she accepts his invitation to dance. She notices the looks of the neighbours, amazed at the honour Darcy is according her. There is an undercurrent of sexual provocation throughout the scene. For the injury she thinks he caused Wickham she 'punishes' him with silence, arch remarks and an implied rebuke. She accuses him of being unsociable, though self-deprecatingly making a joke of it.

She later tells Darcy she is trying to make out his character and that she hears such different accounts of him that she is puzzled. She is clearly awed by his status and wealth, and teases him to protect herself from fear of him. This teasing attracts him. He teases her in return and this draws her in.

An important aspect is the way characters feel they or others have innate value. For example, Caroline Bingley and Anne de Bourgh would be thought to have more value on the marriage market than Elizabeth. They have birth, breeding, connections and money. Lizzy has little of any of these, but instead offers brains, wit and intelligence.

Lizzy buys into the concept of innate value to some extent. She is astonished at the honour she has risen to in being invited to dance by Darcy, of being an object of interest to such a great man. It is as much who and what he is that removes him from her list of eligible men and makes the first proposal such a shock to her.

It is worth remembering that Lizzy has five marriage opportunities (Wickham, Col. Fitzwilliam, Darcy twice, and Mr. Collins). Two reject her (Wickham & Col. Fitzwilliam) and both remind her that she's lacking in things a smart man needs in a potential wife. Darcy at last succeeds despite the objections to Lizzy's situation, not because her situation improves. Had Mr. Darcy not persevered, would Lizzy have married at all?

In battles of wits, she holds her own. This quality amuses and attracts him. When he gives his exacting definition of the perfect woman – one who has all the usual qualities and has improved 'her mind by extensive reading', Elizabeth tells him she is surprised he knows 'any' who fit the description. There was 'a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody, and Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her'. At Netherfield, Lizzy listens keenly to Darcy's every word while he writes to his sister and responds to the attention-seeking Miss  Bingley. She is also sufficiently sensitive towards Darcy not to risk offending him by laughing at him in public, even when he is the butt of Bingley's humour. One reason why Wickham appeals to her is that he seems able to give her information about Darcy. (It is after he has told her of Darcy's alleged cruelty that her head is full of Wickham.)

The tantalizing banter continues at Rosings. When Elizabeth plays the piano, Darcy's close attention leads her to accuse him of trying to intimidate her. She declares: 'There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others'. The development of Darcy's love during these Kent scenes is amusingly portrayed: unable to resist Elizabeth, he visits her alone next morning, takes an interest in her views on places to live and just happens to meet her whenever she is out walking, even though, to warn him off, she has told him where she walks!

But Fitzwilliam tells her how Darcy saved a friend (Bingley) from 'a most imprudent marriage' (to Elizabeth's sister Jane). This drives her to anger and tears; and, at this worst of all possible moments, Darcy proposes. He compounds the damage by dwelling on his 'sense of her inferiority, of its being a degradation...'. Surprisingly, however, in view of the severity of her refusal, 'she could not be insensible of the compliment' of his proposal and is sorry for the pain she is to give him. She realises it has been 'gratifying to have inspired unconsciously so strong an affection’.

It is easy to form the impression that Jane Austen keeps the focus on her heroine's consciousness and deliberately excludes information about the men's feelings, thus building up suspense. However, she exploits the dramatic irony of letting us know at all stages that Darcy is falling in love with Elizabeth. He knows he is succumbing to the charms of her eyes and her wit. When he proposes, it comes as a shock to Elizabeth, but not to the reader.

Her attitude towards him gradually changes after she receives his letter of explanation (just as he, after her condemnation, re-appraises his own behaviour). She constantly re-reads Darcy's letter and accepts that it vindicates him. Soon she almost knows it by heart.  'Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.' Like Emma Woodhouse, she has one of those blinding moments of self-discovery: 'Till this moment I never knew myself.' By the end of the chapter, 'Colonel Fitzwilliam was no longer an object. She could think only of her letter'. We note the force of 'her', as if the letter is a prized possession. Darcy's disappointed feelings become 'the object of compassion’.

Colonel Fitzwilliam is one of those minor characters one tends to forget between readings of Jane's novels. What are his functions? He adds a further 'love interest' for Elizabeth. (Jane Austen did not take much trouble developing this, though she makes it clear that he and Lizzy are charmed and entertained by each other - until he warns her off. Note that - even so - Lizzy's spirits are 'a little fluttered' at the idea that the person ringing the door bell late in the evening and coming to visit her when she is alone might be the Colonel. Would she have accepted him if he had come and proposed? I think she would, after asking for time to think it over.) Possibly he precipitates Darcy's proposal by (a) encouraging frequent meetings between the two gentlemen and the residents of Hunsford and (b) causing Darcy to be jealous of his own interest in Lizzy.

He is also valuable as a guarantor that Darcy's version of past events (and not Wickham's) is the true one. (This includes his uneasy reaction when Lizzy teases him about the difficulties of being guardian to a young lady such as Georgiana).

He usefully leaks the information to Lizzy that Darcy has 'saved' Bingley from his infatuation with her sister. He is the catalyst provoking sparkling comments from Lizzy to and about Darcy (comments which increase Darcy's attraction towards her).

Finally, he provides good contrast with Darcy, who is rigid in comparison with the easy manners displayed by the Colonel.

A revealing detail occurs when Elizabeth opposes Lydia's trip to Brighton. She hints to her father that a 'disadvantage' may arise - indeed has already arisen - to all of them because of Lydia's behaviour. Her father perceptively guesses: 'What! Has she frightened away some of your lovers?' Although Elizabeth denies any particular resentment, we know she is sorry to have summarily dismissed the possibility of marriage. And she has taken Darcy's words to heart. She is thinking of what Darcy said to her in his letter – how he had discouraged Bingley from closer association with Jane partly because of her family's behaviour, particularly at the Netherfield Ball. (Incidentally, nowhere does Jane Austen give a picture of united family happiness and it has been suggested that this might reflect on her own observations. However, the explanation is probably simpler: pictures of united family happiness would make dull material for fiction.)

In Derbyshire, Elizabeth does not want Darcy to think she is seeking him out. She checks that he is absent before consenting to visit Pemberley. She is impressed by its magnificence and realises 'that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something.’

Hearing the housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, praise Darcy, Lizzy longs 'to hear more'. She thinks, 'In what an amiable light does this place him!' Elizabeth reaches the point of 'a more gentle sensation towards' him. And embarrassingly, just after that, she bumps into the man himself. She recovers rapidly enough to be longing to know, within moments, 'whether, in defiance of everything, she was still dear to him'.

When crying about Lydia's elopement with Wickham, Elizabeth artlessly reveals that she now accepts the truth of Darcy's letter: 'I might have prevented it – I  who knew what he was!... When my eyes were opened to his real character...'. At this moment, needing strength and support, she knows she can love Darcy, but with her family in such disgrace 'all love must be vain'.

Later, hearing that Lydia is about to become an honest woman, what Elizabeth regrets most is telling Darcy about the disgrace. But she knows she can count on him not to spread news of the scandal. She 'wanted to hear of him... She was convinced that she could have been happy with him, when it was no longer likely they should meet'.

With what skill Jane Austen is charting the evolution of her heroine's affections! Elizabeth is more than half-way to knowing herself in love with him. In his extraordinarily courteous behaviour to everyone now, she has the pleasure of seeing how successfully she has reformed him.

She is grateful that he has forgiven her for her unjust accusations; and for apparently loving her still. She feels 'a real interest in his welfare' and she only wanted to know how far she wished that welfare to depend upon herself, and how far it would be for the happiness of both that she should employ the power, which her fancy told her she still possessed, of bringing on the renewal of his addresses'.

She knows, as Charlotte Lucas does, that a young woman can charm a young man into proposing marriage.

At the time of Darcy’s first proposal, Elizabeth considers herself superior to him, not socially, of course, but she believes herself more mature, more able to see people's good points. This is a fiction, of course. She is blind when it comes to the good and bad points of men. She has learned nothing from her recent experiences. And she seems unaware of her own charms. She has been right to refuse Mr. Collins, but his comments on her lack of fortune undoing the effects of her charming manner are not unreasonable. Wickham abandons her for Miss King of the ten thousand pounds and Colonel Fitzwilliam tells her unambiguously he can marry only for money. Yet she does not seem to appreciate that she has nothing much to offer apart from her own charms. She considers her family rather high-class, for they are one of the leading families in Meryton. She needs to learn that her family is rather low compared with the likes of Darcy and that their behaviour reflects on her.

Later, of course, with Lydia's disgrace, she comes to form a very low opinion of her worth. Were Darcy to ask for her hand prior to Lady Catherine's visit, she would accept: it would not be a marriage of equals. She needs to rebuild her confidence; and that is what happens during the visit. Pronouncing herself the daughter of a gentleman, she makes a stand. It works, and they meet, finally, as equals, just in time for the second proposal. (Of course there is a fallacy in Elizabeth's argument. She may be a gentleman’s daughter, but so is Lydia.)

Part of the ever-present irony is that the happy ending is brought about by so many inappropriate actions along the way. Etiquette would demand that Elizabeth plead a headache and stay away from Pemberley the day the Gardiners visit. By going, she happens to bump into Darcy and their relationship is re-charged. Then Lydia's elopement gives Darcy a chance to be a hero for Elizabeth and her family; and Lydia's betraying a confidence to blurt it out is how Elizabeth learns of it. Finally, Lady Catherine's woefully miscalculated report to Darcy about her woefully miscalculated visit emboldens Darcy to propose for a second time.

The elopement of Lydia seems to wreck her chances. But the proof it is to give of Darcy's love ensures an even more satisfying emotional climax to the novel. Elizabeth's behaviour during Lydia's elopement appeals because it is decorous and yet full of pent-up sexual tension – creating a suspense readers like to share.

There is a sublime hint of joy: Lydia lets slip that Darcy was at her wedding. Desperate to know why, Elizabeth dashes off a letter to her aunt, unable to bear the suspense: '...my dear aunt, if you do not tell me in an honourable manner, I shall certainly be reduced to tricks and stratagems to find out'. The reader empathizes with the flutter of her spirits. Jane Austen deliciously prolongs the suspense, through the letter from Mrs. Gardiner (Elizabeth suspects Darcy acted so generously 'for her'), the visit of Lady Catherine and the letter from Mr. Collins to Elizabeth's father.

The final coming together of Elizabeth and Darcy provides the kind of emotional satisfaction so many readers today, saddened by its absence from modern serious literature, like to derive from Jane Austen's writing.