13 August 2013
I’m impressed with this novel all over again. It’s decades since I read it, and one of the things I’d forgotten is how rounded a character Darcy is. In my mind, fed by at least three different television adaptations over the years, his early appearances are characterised by his unforgivable snobbishness, and dismissiveness of almost everything and everyone he encounters. In fact, it’s much more complicated than that. And more interesting.
Everybody – including me – thinks they know the arc of the storyline. It’s as well-known, and as straightforward, as Romeo and Juliet, with mutual dislike replacing love at first sight. Wrong. There is dislike but, following a single disastrous evening, it is all on Elizabeth’s side. She is the one whose pride is piqued, so that despite several days spent in the same house as Darcy – tell you later – she sees only hauteur and self-importance while Austen makes sure that the reader is seeing something quite different. She does this by telling us exactly what is going through Darcy’s mind at crucial moments. I was astonished to realise that she makes it absolutely clear what is going on as early as Chapter 6. By their second meeting, following the famously awful first encounter in Chapter 4, he is finding her face ‘rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes’ and other discoveries ‘equally mortifying’ concerning her figure and easy manner.
Meanwhile, in the same paragraph, Austen describes Elizabeth as ‘perfectly unaware’ of this, only remembering how ‘he had not considered her handsome enough to dance with.’ Austen has prepared us for this pride in the previous chapter, by having Elizabeth spelling it out for her friend Charlotte (and for us): ‘I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine.’ Of course, mortification is an aspect of Darcy’s complex feelings as well. He doesn’t want any of this, for the absolutely straightforward reason that any connection between him and her, based on their relative status in the strata of Regency society, is impossible. End of story. Except, of course, it isn’t. By Chapter 10, after she’s been at Bingley’s house for some days looking after her sister Jane, he ‘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 should be in some danger.’
This is Jane Austen doing that thing she always does in the early chapters: she makes it absolutely clear to the reader what it is that her main characters will have to learn, or un-learn, in order to find happiness. Through those careful revelations of hers, placed alongside scenes showing the characters in action, she makes sure that the reader always knows them better than they know themselves. Darcy’s fundamental error we know about: he is certain that Elizabeth isn’t good enough for him socially. Meanwhile Elizabeth, whose judgments otherwise are always shown to be right, is blind to qualities in Darcy that Austen makes sure we notice. He sees through the ‘cunning’ of Bingley’s sister as she tries to flatter him into liking her. He refers to this obliquely enough for it not to seem like a criticism, but in every conversation he has with her his unspoken disdain of her charmless attempts to engage him is clear. He, like Elizabeth, prefers reading to cards, and has spent time and money improving the library at Pemberley, his palatial family seat in Derbyshire. Without any complaint, he writes long letters to his sister, no doubt as serious-minded as his conversations…. And so on. He isn’t the life and soul of the party, and he really is a snob… but, basically, he’s sound.
There are other storylines, and other characters. I’ve always considered Mr Bennet to be one of my favourite characters in fiction, and I’m not going to change my mind now. There’s his ridiculous wife, often the cause of embarrassment for Elizabeth … and the other Bennet sisters. I’m sure I’ll come back to all of them before long, and to the Jane/Bingley storyline and, for that matter, to the endless comparisons being offered between more or less every character and at least one other. There’s often one feature singled out for comparison, so we have Elizabeth (lively) and Jane (placid), Bingley (impulsive and open) and Darcy (controlled and undemonstrative) and so on.
Guiding us through all these aspects of character is the suave, utterly self-assured narrator – a distinct presence in herself for the easy way in which she can arbitrate not only on character, but on any aspect of the workings of society that comes up. We can’t necessarily assume these to be Austen’s own views, of course: those famous opening lines are a satirical take on the opinions of women like Mrs Bennet, but presented as the irrefutable pronouncements of a judge who has weighed up all the evidence. Austen’s language is careful: truths ‘universally acknowledged’ are often those that she spends whole novels challenging, including this one.
Meanwhile, her characters endlessly make their own judgments. Some of them can apparently be relied on – particularly Elizabeth and, more sardonically, her father – but alongside them are variants of a different Austen type, the ones who get it wrong. In Austen’s previous novel, Sense and Sensibility, there had been the well-meaning but obtuse Mrs Jennings, utterly reliant for her opinions on her own impressions and the latest gossip, and always wrong. Mrs Bennet is like her, except her view of reality is always formed according to what she wants to be true: if there is the slightest possibility of Bingley being interested in Jane, well, he is clearly in love with her and they will be married.
There’s a more dangerous unreliable judge in Bingley’s sister Caroline. She is another Austen type – both her previous novels contain at least one such character – the calculating rival in love. In Sense and Sensibility – and I’ll stop referring to other novels soon, honest – it had been the gold-digging Lucy Steele. Miss Bingley is just as scheming, but rather clumsy. Like Mrs Jennings, her opinions are those of society, but in her case they represent a particular stratum of it. And, in her case, there is always an ulterior motive. Whenever she is in Darcy’s company, she cranks up the snobbery and class prejudice to throw the Bennet family into the worst possible light. He is only able to see through one aspect of her strategy, knowing perfectly well that she is after him – I’ve already mentioned his remark concerning the ‘cunning’ of certain ladies, and he is able to be satirical when refusing to join her and Elizabeth, taking a turn about the room: ‘You either choose 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.’ Austen couldn’t signal it more clearly to us that we should take notice of this man’s opinions when he is capable of such accuracy…. But he isn’t so good at seeing through the other thing that she’s doing, because it appeals to his own snobbery. He agrees wwith her about the Bennets’ unsuitability. But I’ve said enough about him for now. Perhaps I’ve said enough about all of them.
Except… Austen likes to wrong-foot the reader from time to time. As usual she, and most of her main female characters, worry away at the topic affecting them all: marriage. It’s interesting that the character with the most urgent sense of the ticking clock, Mrs Bennet, is also the silliest, and the daughters most occupied with the idea of seeking out eligible men, however idly, are the two youngest and most thoughtless. It is as though their flirting, and their mother’s obsessive fretting, are somehow ridiculous. Perhaps they are but, as ever, Austen is drawing attention to a fact of life for women in the early 19th Century. The Jane/Bingley subplot quickly makes it plain – so that no reader can be in any doubt – that marriage is vital to her happiness. There are other conversations about marriage, notably between Elizabeth and Charlotte, and in Miss Bingley Austen presents a woman who has set herself on an almost desperate course of action. We have no sympathy for her, but I imagine that her single-mindedness would have seemed utterly plausible to Austen’s first readers 200 years ago.
Chapters 13-23 – to the end of Volume 1
We’ve had the introduction of two new major characters, and I’m wondering how much of my understanding of them is based on prior knowledge. I don’t need to spend too much time worrying about the empty-headed, self-important Mr Collins. Austen makes sure, from the moment of Mr Bennet’s announcement of his imminent arrival, that he is going to be a comic turn. She has Mr Bennet and Elizabeth agreeing on the absurdities in his letter, and within a chapter of his arrival, in case we haven’t worked it out for ourselves, she offers a definitive pronouncement: ‘Mr Collins was not a sensible man, and the deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society.’ Ok.
But then there’s Wickham. As with Darcy in the earlier chapters, I wonder whether I’m making judgments about him based on what I know about his subsequent actions…. Or does Austen offer enough clues and warnings to ring alarm-bells? Whatever, she deliberately wrong-foots us by having Elizabeth find him so charming and attractive – to the extent that as she gets ready to see him again at the ball at Netherfield, Bingley’s place, she is ‘prepared in the highest spirits for the conquest of all that remained unsubdued of his heart.’ Goodness. When he doesn’t turn up, Austen adds to her disappointment a sense of resentment that Darcy, who she has been told doesn’t like him, must have influenced his decision to stay away. (I’ll come back to this ball because it becomes another crucial turning-point.)
Everybody likes Wickham. But the way he speaks to Elizabeth about the deliberate harm that Darcy has done to him reminds me of one of the most plausible villains in literature and one that Austen would have known well: Blifil in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, published in 1749. (I’m not the first to think of this: I just googled their two names, and the comparison is often made.) He is the boy brought up with Tom, in just the way that Wickham tells Elizabeth he was brought up with Darcy, and who prefaces all his damning criticisms of his former companion with plausible regrets about having to say something he isn’t comfortable with. Typical of Wickham is ‘I will not trust myself on the subject; I can hardly be just to him.’ Not long after this, he is alleging that absolutely everything Darcy does, including his seemingly generous actions, are down to pride. ‘Not to appear to disgrace his family, to degenerate from the popular qualities… is a powerful motive.’
How clear are these hints that Wickham is selling a highly partial view of Darcy? It’s too long ago since I first read it for me to remember whether I was as taken in as Elizabeth, but I think an alert reader would spot that she is letting her prejudiced view of Darcy blind her, again, to what she ought to be able to see. And Austen doesn’t leave it there. In another of those wrong-footing moments, she has Elizabeth talking about it to Jane, of all people. Jane, usually the one who hides any feelings behind a show of bland impassiveness, points out the trap that Elizabeth is in danger of falling into. Bingley, whose judgment there is no reason to doubt, is Darcy’s friend; and ‘do but consider in what a disgraceful light it places Mr. Darcy, to be treating his father’s favourite in such a manner, one whom his father had promised to provide for. It is impossible.’ It comes down to a fairly stark choice, and Elizabeth has made hers: ‘I can much more easily believe Mr. Bingley’s being imposed on, than that Mr. Wickham should invent such a history of himself.’ Ah.
It’s after all this that we get the dance at Bingley’s place. Many chapters ago, Darcy’s thoughts about Elizabeth were… well, we know what they were. And now he is finding it even harder to ignore her than he was then. But Elizabeth is angry with him, is impervious to his efforts to be civil to her – and is shocked when he asks her to dance. Their conversation during the dance is a wonderful set piece. She wryly prompts him in the basics of polite conversation (in a re-working of a more light-hearted exchange when Catherine first meets Mr Tilney in the then unpublished Northanger Abbey) and he, at first attempting to play along, eventually retreats into – what? – mortified hauteur. Which, of course, confirms Elizabeth in her view of him and his pride.
The evening isn’t over, and things get worse. Mrs Bennet, in a whisper that can be heard by all those around her, crows over the likelihood of a wedding between Jane and Bingley. Mr Collins, invited as the Bennets’ cousin, has earlier gauchely introduced himself to Darcy and now bores half the table with his usual absurdities about his own good fortune and the quality of the entertainment. Elizabeth can see Darcy and Miss Bingley, and wishes she couldn’t, as these two do their best to confirm their prejudices about life in this rustic backwater in general and about the Bennets in particular. And the next thing we hear, only two days later, is that everybody currently staying at Netherfield is joining Bingley in London, where he is to prolong what was to be a short visit. None of them will be back all winter.
At least, this is what Miss Bingley tells Jane in a letter. Ok. But it isn’t only the information that is of interest; it’s how Austen presents it – in discrete snippets which the mortified Jane reads aloud to Elizabeth – and how they attempt to deal with its contents. Jane, being Jane, considers Miss Bingley a real friend, but to Elizabeth she is jealous and calculating. A key part of the letter contains the news that Bingley has always fully expected to marry Darcy’s sister… and Austen places Jane’s deconstruction of this information side-by-side with Elizabeth’s. To Jane, it is her friend (‘most kindly!’) warning her not to get her hopes up. To Elizabeth, much more willing to examine the motives of someone she dislikes than of someone she is attracted to, like Wickham, ‘Miss Bingley sees that her brother is in love with you, and wants him to marry Miss Darcy. She follows him to town in hope of keeping him there, and tries to persuade you that he does not care about you.’
This is wonderful stuff. It brings right into the foreground the main theme of the novel, to do with the way we read in people exactly what we expect to find there. Elizabeth, for all her perceptiveness in ordinary circumstances, doesn’t always judge correctly while the balance of her mind is affected by dislike or its opposite. We’ve been presented with enough other evidence to suggest that she’s right about Miss Bingley, but she jumps to conclusions too easily. This is what she is going to have to learn over the next 40 or so chapters and, this being a Jane Austen novel, her pain will be in direct proportion to her error. She’ll have some suffering to do. As for Jane… well, the practice that has always stood her in good stead up to now, of behaving as though everybody is as without guile as she is, just won’t do. She’ll have some pain as well.
What have I missed? Mainly, everything to do with Mr Collins and his determination to find a wife. At first, scenes with him in them are always hilarious, often as Mr Bennet prompts him to new heights of absurdity. I was going to write that Mr Collins can’t believe his own luck in having found the person he sees as the perfect patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but in fact he can, and seems to believe that he deserves it. Austen makes almost too explicit for us the ‘mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility.’ Ok. But there’s a serious aspect to it all. First, he’s the beneficiary of one of those absurd ‘entails’ you get in Austen novels, which means he will inherit almost all Mr Bennet’s estate. (Mrs Bennet complains about it endlessly, and she’s right.) So he thinks it’s perfectly proper for him to take his pick of the Bennet sisters to marry, presenting it almost as an act of kindness.
The seriousness of it, following his immediate switch from preferring Jane – possibly unavailable – to Elizabeth, is made clear during and after his proposal. He is as ludicrous as ever, obviously, but Elizabeth is forced into a genuinely uncomfortable position. Her mother approves of the proposal, and while Austen keeps the comedy going – when she applies to her husband to force Elizabeth to accept, threatening to disown her if she doesn’t, he tells her that he will disown her if she does – the situation would have been crushingly familiar to her women readers. It might be presented as comic, but Mrs Bennet’s refusal to forgive Elizabeth for something like a month afterwards, and her mortification when Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte accepts within three days, are Austen’s sardonic take on a painful truth.
It becomes part of the marriage debate. Elizabeth, unlike her mother, finds it impossible to understand how her sensible friend could accept the idiotic Mr Collins. But, to put it simply, what else can she do? In the Austen universe, her action is utterly plausible. She knows what she’s taking on, and she’s willing to accept it – unlike, say, Mr Palmer in Sense and Sensibility, in the early chapters of the novel still almost speechless with anger at his realisation of his own wife’s foolishness. And unlike Mr Bennet, who must have left such feelings behind long ago – but only because he has a library where he can shut himself away.
Volume 2, Chapters 1-11 [24-34]
In Chapter 11 , as we reach the half-way point in the novel, Darcy makes his declaration to Elizabeth. Even readers who haven’t encountered the novel before can’t be at all surprised by this: added to the clear message we’ve been getting about his feelings almost from the start are some fairly broad hints about his intentions just before the proposal. He deliberately meets Elizabeth on her walks in the park, despite her having told him exactly where she goes. (She finds this inexplicable, because she thinks her dislike for him is mutual.) He has been asking for her opinions on Lady Catherine and her big house during her visit to the parsonage where Charlotte now lives, and even speaks of it as though she might one day expect to stay there. This seems at best irrelevant to Elizabeth and at worst absurd, but we recognise it as a prelude to something: Lady Catherine is Darcy’s aunt, and this is the milieu that any future wife of his needs to be comfortable with.
Her reaction to the proposal, of course, is no more of a surprise to us than proposal itself: ‘Elizabeth’s astonishment was beyond expression.’ She has recently had it confirmed, to her own satisfaction at least, that Darcy did indeed contrive to get Bingley out of Hertfordshire, and out of Jane’s reach: earlier on the very day of the proposal a friend of Darcy’s has told Elizabeth of how satisfied he, Darcy, had sounded over saving ‘a friend’ from an unsuitable marriage, and they decide he must have meant Bingley. It is claer from Jane’s letters that she is still grieving over the death of her hopes all these months later – it’s after Easter by now – and Elizabeth has ‘exasperated’ herself so much with thinking about Darcy’s dirty deed that she is too ill to go to the big house for tea. Ironically, he uses his concern for her health to pay her his visit.
The whole Elizabeth/Darcy thread has been leading to this, as though Austen set herself the task of bringing things to such a head that any shared future appears impossible. Darcy’s clumsy attempt to get Elizabeth to understand his dilemma, based mainly on his concern for his own status, crashes into the dangerous store of resentment that she has been building up. Most of the conversation is presented through her eyes, and we can see exactly why she would react as she does. Austen abandons direct speech for Darcy’s explanation of his difficulty, simply telling us instead what his mistake is: ‘His sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which … was very unlikely to recommend his suit.’ You bet.
It doesn’t stop there. Darcy, Elizabeth decides, clearly expects her to accept. He is mortified when she makes her dislike so plain , and bridles at her tone. By the time she has gone through the details not only of how badly he has behaved over Jane but over Wickham, he withdraws into what she sees as his usual coldness. He has not denied that he is glad that Bingley is out of Jane’s reach – despite the fact that earlier, even Elizabeth thought that Miss Bingley was the likelier instigator of the removal. He seems to admit it – ‘I have no wish of denying that I did everything in my power to separate my friend from your sister’ – but he is speaking in the heat of the moment. Austen is clever regarding the psychology of it – it would appear demeaning to him to defend himself – but she will be able to clear him of it later if she chooses. By the time Elizabeth gets on to Wickham he is too disgusted to put her right on anything, and he leaves. Austen quotes his coldly polite little speech before he goes, but she describes neither the tone of it nor his state of mind. The same can’t be said of Elizabeth’s. She cries for half an hour.
But I need to rewind. It feels as though everything in Volume 2 has been leading up to the catastrophe of the proposal, and perhaps it has. The question of how characters make up their minds about others continues to be a major concern: Elizabeth decides that it is perfectly understandable for Wickham to switch his interest rapidly from herself to a Miss King, who is suddenly and unexpectedly worth £10,000. The presence of her mother’s sister, Mrs Gardiner, helps her to come to terms with it: her aunt had counselled caution, and Elizabeth is pleased to be able to show the older woman, far wiser than Mrs Bennet and therefore someone whose opinion matters, that she can wish him happiness with Miss King. Austen clearly doesn’t expect the reader to be fooled by such self-deception.
Meanwhile the comic characters have their own ways of forming their opinions of others. For Mrs Bennet, Charlotte and her mother Lady Lucas are now calculating gold-diggers who couldn’t wait to make their bid for the highly eligible Mr Collins. And, once Elizabeth has got to the parsonage for a visit of some weeks with Charlotte and Mr Collins, Austen has fun laying before us the marked difference between Lady Catherine as he presents her and the reality we are shown for ourselves. In her own way she is as much of a comic grotesque as Mr Collins himself, so fond of her own opinion that she never stops giving it. She reproaches Elizabeth for her reluctance to practise at the piano, saying (often) that her own sickly daughter would have been an excellent player, had she been well enough to take it up.
Meanwhile, after Christmas – about a month after Bingley’s departure – Jane had gone to stay in London with the Gardiners. Where… she is forced to conclude that Elizabeth was right about Miss Bingley, who is highly reluctant to have any contact with her. It seems to me a crucial part of Austen’s strategy that Elizabeth is not easily deceived: she saw through Miss Bingley from the start. But this makes her complacent. She is inconsistent in her judgments – but, crucially, has no idea how wrong she is able to get it. Getting it right concerning Miss Bingley, Mr Collins, Lady Catherine and the like is easy but, as I’ve said before, if attraction or irritation come into play she suffers from near-blindness. (It’s a good job she’s in a novel by Jane Austen, who might make her favourites suffer for a while but strews their paths with endless opportunities to learn. You just wait.)
What else? The thought of marriage is still in the air for Elizabeth in these chapters, despite the proposal she’s already refused and the one she’s soon to reject. Just before Easter, Darcy brings a friend to stay with him at Lady Catherine’s – you can guess what fun Austen has with the way that invitations to her humbler acquaintances dry up almost completely while there’s loftier company to entertain – and he is the one who tells Elizabeth about the other friend Darcy helped out of an inappropriate marriage. He’s Colonel Fitzwilliam, and he’s almost as attractive to Elizabeth as Wickham. But… he seems to make it clear that he can’t afford to marry just anyone, being the younger son. Following so soon after the disappointment over Wickham – which Elizabeth has convinced herself is no disappointment at all, of course – it seems that Austen wants to bring her face to face with some hard truths. Meanwhile, constantly in view, are Charlotte’s everyday strategies to make bearable the life she has chosen, with her eyes wide open, to share with a fool.
I’ll have missed out a lot. For instance there’s Austen’s constant insistence that people whose wealth derives from trade are just like anybody else. Charlotte’s father, knighted almost on a whim, is a snob and a fool, whereas Mr Gardiner (and his wife) are the opposite: people ‘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.’ Whenever Elizabeth thinks about Darcy’s snobbery towards her own family, in amongst her list of grievances is that he will dislike their connection with this uncle, and another who, poor man, has to work as a lawyer.
And shall I mention the coincidence that brings Darcy to the very village where Elizabeth is staying, and the coincidence that he should tell a story of saving a friend from an unwise marriage to the very man who can relay it to Elizabeth? Probably not, because Austen’s narrative voice is so urbanely confident, and they move things along so nicely, that we don’t even notice them.
Volume 2, Chapters 12-19 [35-42]
What a change a few chapters make. Or two chapters: in the one following the declaration and refusal, Elizabeth receives a long letter from Darcy’s hands and, ‘with no expectation of pleasure,’ she begins to read it. The rest of the chapter consists of the letter itself, presented verbatim, and in the chapter following Austen offers us an account of how Elizabeth’s response moves, as she takes in the different things the letter covers, from ‘a strong prejudice against everything he might say’ to being ‘absolutely ashamed of herself. Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think without feeling she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.’ And in that list of four adjectives Austen helpfully summarises, for any reader who hasn’t been picking up on the hints she’s been dropping since half-way through Volume 1, what has been staring us in the face for some time now. Elizabeth sums it up for us in the next paragraph: ‘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 and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.’ Yep, that just about takes care of it.
I like everything about the way Austen achieves this turn-around. Some of it is to do with the relationship between the narrator and reader, something I always find myself wrestling with as I read any of her novels. In the first few chapters of the novel, she had appeared to be presenting Elizabeth as one of her reliable judges – specifically, in my mind, like Elinor in Sense and Sensibility who, although she has something to learn about the sensibility in the title, never gets it wrong – but she begins to subvert this from quite early on. There’s that mismatch I’ve already commented on between Elizabeth’s continuing dislike of Darcy and evidence that Austen offers the reader, without comment, that whilst he might be a snob and unbearably stiff in company, he’s otherwise extremely sound.
When Wickham arrives, the mismatch is the other way around: Austen makes it clear, all the time, that Elizabeth favours him and believes everything he says because she fancies him. She decides, when she meets him properly, that there is not ‘the smallest degree of unreasonable admiration’ in the way she has been thinking of him since she first set eyes on him. There are other men around, but he is ‘far beyond them all in person, countenance, air, and walk.’ And it carries on from there. She never, ever, looks beyond the charming way he has of presenting himself to the world, as when Austen wryly imagines her speaking in her head to this ‘young man… whose very countenance may vouch for your being amiable.’ It’s only after she has read Darcy’s account of what he is really like that she sees what an alert reader has known from the start – or what is there to see, even if we don’t pick up on it. Elizabeth’s views of both men are based entirely on first impressions (Austen’s working title for the novel) and this is the truth that has come crashing in on her.
I mentioned the relationship between Austen’s narrator and the reader. By this point in the novel, Austen can’t lose, however alert the reader has or hasn’t been. Early on, she made it easy for us to agree with Elizabeth regarding at least four other characters – to make sound judgments about Miss Bingley, Mr Collins and the like is like shooting fish in a barrel. In fact, by having Elizabeth an apparently safe judge she has wrong-footed the reader. Being able to agree with a character the author clearly likes lulls us into complacency, so it is very easy to be misled by Elizabeth’s views on the two characters who are most important. The clues are there that she is getting it wrong, and alert readers – or, of course, those who have encountered the novel before in some form or other – will see and understand them. When such readers reach Elizabeth’s moment of self-awareness they can feel smug all over again, this time about having been more alert to the signs than the character herself.
As for other readers… it’s as cataclysmic as for Elizabeth herself, and needs all the explanations that Austen can provide to ensure a convincing account of how such mistakes can be made. First Darcy provides those explanations in his letter – I’ll come back to that in a minute – then Elizabeth confirms them. Readers who had been carried along by her wrong-headed views previously are now impressed by the clever way that Austen has engineered such an outcome. Elizabeth’s mistakes – the outcome as much of manipulation on Austen’s part as on Wickham’s – seem utterly plausible. So, whether the reader has been taken in or not, the confounding of Elizabeth’s certainties is utterly satisfying.
A quick rewind to Darcy’s letter. It’s another marvel in the three chapters of marvels (34-36 or Volume 2, 11-13) that began with his proposal. It is absolutely consistent with the man we know: honest to the point of tactlessness – which reaches an extreme in his description of the Bennet family at their worst – and fiercely proud of the rightness of his own behaviour. As Elizabeth reads it for the first time it’s the pride and the tactlessness verging on rudeness that strike her. But she reads it again, and it’s the honesty and irreproachable behaviour that she comes to understand. By the time she’s finished with it, she doesn’t need the corroboration he asks her to seek from Colonel Fitzwilliam about Wickham. She knows everything he has written to be the truth.
This isn’t so easy when she returns to what he writes about the relationship between Jane and Bingley. He has admitted to her already that he opposed it and helped to end it. But now we get an explanation of why he did so, in forensic detail. He hadn’t known about their feelings for one another until the night of the fateful ball at Bingley’s. He observed Bingley carefully all night – and, crucially, he observed Jane for signs of genuine attachment. ‘Her look and manners were open, cheerful, and engaging as ever, but without any symptom of peculiar regard…. If you have not been mistaken here, I must have been in error.’ This is perfect. We know Jane, know that she is ‘open, cheerful and engaging’ with everybody, and can quite believe that a man as obtuse as Darcy when it comes to other people’s feelings – he knew nothing of what his friend felt for Jane until that night – would see her serene manner as indifference. We know he’s telling the truth, however hard Elizabeth finds it. And when she reads properly what he has written about her family, the adjudication is complete. There are still plenty of things she finds unbearable about him – in the rest of Volume 2 she is as keen to avoid him as ever – but she can’t fault his truthfulness.
Even after these earthquakes, Austen hasn’t finished with Elizabeth. Before the end of the chapter she makes a big thing of how not only has Darcy called to take his leave of her in person while she is out, still grappling with the contents of his letter – in which his parting line had been ‘God bless you’ – but so has Colonel Fitzwilliam, who had waited ‘at least an hour… almost resolving to walk after her till she could be found.’ Which doesn’t sound like the behaviour of someone who had no intentions of proposing….
There are still several chapters remaining of Volume 2. In order to get Elizabeth back home, where there are a couple of developments to deal with, Austen first has to get her out of Kent. This is easy enough, although she has a few more digs at Mr Collins and reveals the full extent of Lady Catherine’s selfishness along the way. She pretends Elizabeth’s mother would be perfectly happy not to see her for another month at least, revealing her definitively as one of those who believe utterly whatever they want to be true. (By the by, which character is the only one in this novel – and one of the very few in any novel by Jane Austen – to draw attention to this danger? Who writes, ‘my investigation and decisions are not usually influenced by my hopes or fears. I did not believe her to be indifferent because I wished it’? Darcy, of course.)
On the way home Elizabeth picks up Jane in London, which is useful for Austen. Elizabeth can run the idea of Wickham’s deceit past her and get confirmation of her response to her own feelings about what Darcy has said; and she can offer confirmation of another kind, that something like five months after her disappointment, Jane is still not over Bingley. (Austen has been keeping the way clear for a happy outcome here: Bingley, despite a habit of ‘falling in love’ to which Darcy refers, hasn’t met anybody else in all that time; and he hasn’t been to see Jane because nobody, including Darcy, has let him know that she has been in London since just after Christmas.) In fact, Elizabeth can talk about everything in Darcy’s letter except the way he helped to keep Bingley and Jane separate, so we have no doubt about where Elizabeth stands on most things.
There are other confirmations in these final chapters of Volume 2, mostly to do with the Bennet family. In his letter Darcy had seen fit to single out Elizabeth and Jane as being different from the others – this is only one of several things in it I haven’t mentioned – and we see how right he is. Mrs Bennet is at her worst, not only complaining about all the wrong things, as usual, but revealing deeper wells of silliness. Lydia is leading the way in grieving for the imminent departure of the regiment for Brighton, and Mrs Bennet joins her in trying, vainly, to get Mr Bennet to move them all there for the summer.
Elizabeth is more relieved than she can tell that Wickham will be away with the rest – his attempt to marry Miss King has come to nothing because her family have got her out of the way, and his attempt to ingratiate himself with Elizabeth again comes to nothing, obviously – because Lydia has shown herself incapable of behaving sensibly in the company of men in uniform. Only she knows that Wickham has form, having attempted last year to elope with Miss Darcy – possibly what Darcy was referring to when he told Fitzwilliam about the ‘friend’ he’d saved. (I don’t think she’s even told Jane about this.) And then… the young wife of Colonel Forster, the head of the regiment, invites Lydia to Brighton. Elizabeth is deeply concerned, so…
…she tells her father how ill-advised it would be for Lydia to go. And we see that Darcy was as right about him as he had been about the rest of the family. Mr Bennet likes a quiet life, and allowing her to go will prevent a lot of earache not only from Lydia but from Mrs Bennet: she has been telling her youngest daughters about how much she had enjoyed the company of officers in her younger days, and how cruel their father is being….
Oh dear. And Austen is left with just one thing to sort out for now. There had been a long-standing arrangement that Elizabeth would join the Gardiners on a trip to the Lake District – but the pressure of work means that Mr Gardiner can only manage a shorter trip, to Derbyshire. And, as we approach the end of Volume 2, Elizabeth has finally agreed to a visit to Pemberley because she’s been able to find out that ‘the family’ are away for the summer. She’s very relieved – but, as I’ve mentioned before, she doesn’t know she’s in a Jane Austen novel.
Volume 3, Chapters 1-6 [43-48]
Two or three pages from the end of Northanger Abbey Austen, relatively young and mischievous, makes the comment that her readers ‘will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.’ The older, more demanding author of Pride and Prejudice seems to be playing the opposite game now. The first three chapters of Volume 3 [43-45] seem to be bringing everything and everybody together to a similar perfect felicity. In fact, most of the work has been done in the long first chapter: a chance meeting at Pemberley – which, of course, Elizabeth had thought to be the last thing on earth she wanted – has led to such civilities on all sides that even she begins to realise that Darcy still feels the same about her.
Three chapters into Volume 3 there seems little to prevent a happy outcome. Elizabeth has wandered around Pemberley, seen out on to its superb grounds, and Austen has had her thinking, more than once, about how she could have been the mistress of all this. More important, she has had Darcy described in the most glowing of terms by his old servant. It’s one of the Gardiners, who doesn’t know as much about him as does either Elizabeth or the reader, who points out that this is highly partial testimony. But, cleverly, Austen winds this thread with the attractiveness of a miniature and a larger painting, and then with the man himself, so open and polite the Gardiners find it hard to reconcile him with the stories they’ve heard before that day. Meanwhile Pemberley becomes such a heaven on earth in Austen’s descriptions of it that soon she’s almost in the realms of fantasy. (The only other of her novels in which she does this is Mansfield Park, in which the house and estate become both a reward for those who deserve them and a tantalising, out-of-reach torment for those who don’t.)
Soon, to tie up the other loose end, Bingley has told her that he wants a conversation with her, and it must be Jane that he wants to talk about. He remembers not only how long it is since he was last at Netherfield, but the very date. He doesn’t need to say why he remembers it so clearly: Elizabeth has seen for herself, because Austen never likes to leave such things uncertain, that the feelings his sister alleges he has for Miss Darcy are non-existent. As for the jealousy-ridden Miss Bingley, there is nothing for her to do but simmer in a barely-suppressed rage over Elizabeth’s success. So why, we wonder, is there still over a quarter of the book left to run?
An obvious answer is that the mature Austen never makes it easy for her favourites after they have transgressed. She’ll allow an accidental meeting in order to clarify a few issues – far from having been put off, Darcy is moved to ever greater kindness and respect towards Elizabeth and the Gardiners, while she is gratified by his careful attentions – but she isn’t finished with them yet. For Elizabeth and Darcy to admit their mistakes and make a go of it together, which had seemed to be the direction that things were going in, just won’t do. The iron in the soul hasn’t been heated to a high enough temperature yet for either of them to be fully deserving of the true happiness we know will (eventually) be theirs.
There’s always a temptation to believe that this is all down to Austen simply deferring the devoutly wished-for consummation, as her characters come tantalisingly close to it whilst the reader is perfectly aware of all those pages yet unread. She also seems to have set herself the task of showing us how much their experiences have allowed, and continue to allow, her characters to grow. For instance, we’ve heard a lot at Pemberley about what a good man Darcy is, but favourable reports from a faithful servant are not the same as seeing it for ourselves. Austen is about to give him the chance of a lifetime to prove his mettle, while Elizabeth… well, we’ll see.
So, with an invitation to dinner next day, and the Gardiners suspecting that Darcy is very interested indeed in Elizabeth, Austen goes for maximum pain as she whisks it all away. Elizabeth reads first a delayed letter from Jane about Lydia running off to marry Wickham, followed without pause by a later one about him apparently not having marriage in mind at all. Not only is dinner at Pemberley cancelled after she tells Darcy exactly why she’s having to go home immediately; according to the mores of early 19th Century society, further contact with him will be impossible. As she leaves, Austen has her thinking about how she will probably never see him again.
Austen has brought some big guns into play here. Lydia’s crime – it becomes clear pretty quickly that she and Wickham are in London, and nobody really believes they are married – will put the Bennet family beyond the pale of polite society. Mr Bennet, with Mr Gardiner’s help, has had no luck finding the lovers, and he returns with no good news. But before that, for reasons of her own, Austen has two of her absurd characters describe the situation crudely, but with painful accuracy. Bookish Mary spouts moralising platitudes: ‘we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable; that one false step involves her in endless ruin…’ and so on. Mr Collins is worse. He has, of course, told Lady Catherine all about it, and she agrees that ‘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?’
However callous and obtuse this might be, it’s the simple truth. It’s another of those insurmountable obstacles that Austen lays before not only her characters – who will marry any of the Bennet sisters now? – but also before herself as author: how can she get them out of this one?
This is Darcy’s chance – but, reader, six chapters go by before Austen lets us know that he’s doing anything at all. It’s another of those times when she wrong-foots the reader, this time by focusing on the Bennet family to the exclusion of everything else while Darcy does a series of almost impossibly good deeds without us knowing. In the overwrought atmosphere of the Bennet household, Mrs Bennet takes to her bed in a stew of uselessness while the more sensible characters try to come to terms with the damage that seems to be mounting up day by day. As the clock ticks, Elizabeth grieves over the life she might have had – she finally realises that Darcy is ‘exactly the man who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her… It was an union that must have been to the advantage of both; by her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened….’ Oh dear. But hold on to that word, ‘liveliness’, because it comes up again later.
The perfect workings of Austen’s plots are sometimes astonishing to witness. As the reader is taken into these realms of depression a saviour enters the frame. This is Mr Gardiner, who finds Lydia and Wickham, and manages to cobble together enough of a contract to satisfy all parties. It’s wonderful for Lydia and the Bennets, but the damage is done. Neither Darcy nor Bingley could possibly contemplate… etc. Lydia’s triumphant return home as the first sister to be married – again, Austen lays it on almost impossibly thick – brings misery to all except her mother: Mrs Bennet has mutated into a village idiot of doting thoughtlessness, but hey. And then…
Lydia lets slip the name of Darcy, and a swift exchange of letters between Elizabeth and Mrs Gardiner – we’re now ten chapters into Volume 3 – reveals that the deus ex machina is the very man Elizabeth had been wishing was unaware of the affair. Darcy, perceiving himself to have been at fault in not warning his friends about Wickham, had left for London the day after Elizabeth told him. As we read Mrs Gardiner’s letter we realise that plans were in place before Mr Bennet left London, and that while he was being kept in the dark about Darcy’s role for something like five chapters, well, so were we. When it comes, the revelation is a kind of conjuring trick…
…which we are perfectly happy to have played on us because the outcome is so satisfying. Austen has Mrs Gardiner writing from the point of view of one who can see exactly what other motive Darcy might have for saving Lydia. She writes with a forgivable kind of archness about what Darcy really needs in his life. ‘His understanding and opinions all please me,’ she writes; ‘he wants nothing but a little more liveliness, and that, if he marry prudently, his wife may teach him.’ The echo of the very word that Elizabeth had used about herself is one we can’t help picking up on… and we’re a lot nearer the end of the novel than we were in Pemberley.
Elizabeth, strengthened by what she has read, is able to have a scrupulously civil conversation with Wickham in which she makes it clear that she knows absolutely everything about him. We await further developments with interest.
Volume 3, Chapters 11-19 [53-61] – to the end
‘This seems to be the novel in which Austen has decided to show that the minor aristocracy is a spent force.’ I wrote that few months ago, describing what she does in Persuasion, but she’d already done it nearly five years earlier in the final chapters of Pride and Prejudice. The terminally egocentric Lady Catherine, fighting the aristocrats’ corner, finds all her arguments demolished by the daughter of a mere gentleman. In Austen’s presentation – it’s a wonderfully memorable set-piece – it seems almost radical. In fact, of course, it’s another of Austen’s conjuring tricks. Darcy himself, as Elizabeth points out, is merely the son of a gentleman. But he’s got what it takes in the world that Austen is both satirising and celebrating. As so often in this novel, Austen chooses one of her most absurd characters to make the pronouncement: ‘Oh! my sweetest Lizzy! how rich and how great you will be! What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages you will have!’ And a few moments later: ‘’Tis as good as a lord!’ You got it. In the opinion not only of the right-thinking characters but of everyone else as well – even Lady Catherine relents in the end – there is absolutely nothing to do but applaud.
What can I say? It’s a fairy-tale? When Elizabeth, in mischievous mood, finally replies to Mrs Gardiner’s letter it’s impossible to disagree with her assessment of her own good fortune: ‘I am the happiest creature in the world. Perhaps other people have said so before but not one with such justice. I am happier even than Jane; she only smiles, I laugh.’ In fact, Austen has rung the satirical changes on that phase about being the happiest in the world several times in this novel… but no matter how manipulated I might feel, no matter how I try to work out what smoke and mirrors Austen has used to bring about this definitively happy outcome, I find myself laughing too. Ok.
I suppose it’s what you sign up for when you start reading any Jane Austen novel. If you accept the terms and conditions, she’ll provide you with the kind of service you simply can’t get anywhere else. In this particular one, if we stick with it, the longed-for catharsis arrives along with the absolute certainty that the main characters have achieved a heaven on earth, which they spell out for one another in that famous walk in the park after Elizabeth reassures Darcy that her feelings have indeed changed since his first proposal.
Before this there has been, in an almost unpalatably concentrated form, a version of that deferring of the longed-for gratification. I shouldn’t go on about it, but Chapters 11 to 15 of Volume 3 [53-57] are a teasing dance. Part of it is Austen’s continuing insistence that neither Jane nor Elizabeth knows her own feelings. When Bingley is back at Netherfield, Jane assures Elizabeth that she has no expectation that it will lead to anything – ‘It would be nothing; I could see him with perfect indifference’ – while Elizabeth still can’t work out what Darcy is doing, accompanying Bingley as before. It’s a kind of dramatic irony, with the difference that instead of an explicit knowledge of facts that are denied to the characters, the reader has what I’ve been referring to all along. The path might be strewn with obstacles, but even Austen’s first readers must have known that we are all heading towards that ‘perfect felicity’ Austen always provides. But, as I think I’ve promised before, I’ll shut up about it.
One of the impressive things about Jane Austen is the way she can make certain episodes do so many jobs. That conversation between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine does what I’ve already described, but it also galvanises Darcy into action: when the old harridan visits him in London he realises that Elizabeth would have been pleased to tell her she had no intentions of marrying him had it been the truth. In telling this story to Elizabeth later, in one of their long explicatory conversations, he is also able to refer to her ‘frankness’, one of her selling-points. And so on. Later, when Elizabeth tells her mother, Mrs Bennet’s reaction confirms both her dyed-in-the-wool shallowness and the ways of the real world: it’s fine to talk in the way that she does – as Austen tells us she soon will be, all over the neighbourhood.
Austen has her cake and eats it. She’s defeated the paper tigers of a the world’s opinion – Lady Catherine, Mr Collins, the uber-snobbish neighbours – and she has Darcy and Elizabeth firmly established at the very pinnacle of the society they worship. The question doesn’t arise as to whether the nay-sayers are really absorbed into a new order, as we read about them paying respectful visits to Pemberley as though they never had any objections – or whether, in fact, the old order has absorbed the newly married Mr and Mrs Darcy. They are the happiest people in the world, and by making us wait so long for it, Austen has made sure that this is good enough for all of us.