My Year with Jane Austen: “Pride and Prejudice” Part II

1886._sy475_Book: “Pride and Prejudice”

Publication Year: 1813

Book Description: The romantic clash between the opinionated Elizabeth and her proud beau, Mr. Darcy, is a splendid performance of civilized sparring. And Jane Austen’s radiant wit sparkles as her characters dance a delicate quadrille of flirtation and intrigue, making this book the most superb comedy of manners of Regency England.

Part II – Chapters 35 – 61

Story – “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

While out walking the morning after the disastrous proposal, Elizabeth runs into Mr. Darcy once again who quickly passes off a letter to her and leaves. She reads it and discovers some shocking news. First, while she was correct about Darcy separating Jane and Mr. Bingley, she gets a better insight into his evaluation of her family’s behavior. He points to instances where all of her family, her father, mother, and three younger sisters behaved badly in public. He excludes Jane and Elizabeth, noting that they have always been perfectly proper and charming. Elizabeth is angry, but also recognizes the truth in what he says. He also points out Jane’s calm demeanor as misleading him into thinking she didn’t care much for Mr. Bingley. Again, Elizabeth is angry, but then reflects back on what Charlotte had advised months ago about Jane’s needing to show more of what she feels and concedes that perhaps for those who don’t know her, Jane might be hard to interpret.

But then the more shocking tale comes out, that of Darcy’s history with Wickham. While the first half of Wickham’s story is true, Darcy alludes to poor behavior in Wickham’s lifestyle almost from the moment of his reaching adulthood. And once Darcy’s father passed away, Wickham asked for money instead of the living. This was given and Wickham went his own way. But then when the living became vacant, he returned, presumably much in debt, and demanded the living be given to him anyways. This was refused. Later, Wickham went on to pursue Georgiana, only sixteen at the time, when she was staying with a governess and convinced her to elope with him. It was only Darcy’s surprise visit and Geogiana’s love for her brother that prevented her from not sharing the truth that prevented the elopement from happening. Darcy suspected that while Georgiana’s fortune was part of Wickham’s goal, revenge on Darcy was also part of it. He also writes that Colonel Fitzwilliam is also Georgiana’s care taker and thus knows all of these details if Elizabeth is so suspecting of him as to need to double check the truth.

Elizabeth is horrified, not only be the truth of these claims which she quickly realizes can’t be lies (it’s close to Wickham’s story, no brother would make up a story like that about his sister, and, of course, he’d not suggest she check with Fitzwilliam if it were untrue) but by her own lack of solid information to justify her prior opinions. Thinking back, she realizes that Wickham’s behavior has always been odd, sharing this information with her in the first place, having only known her for a day. And his avoidance of Darcy at the ball and the fact that once Darcy was gone from the neighborhood, suddenly the story was everywhere, even though Wickham had first claimed he’d never share it, for his supposed love of Darcy’s father. Elizabeth is miserable and is secretly relieved when she returns to the Collins’ and learns she’s missed Darcy’s leave-taking of the neighborhood.

Elizabeth heads back home. On the way, she stops in London to meet up with Jane and travel the rest of the way back with her. Jane is still obviously upset about Bingley, but Elizabeth distracts her with news of Darcy’s proposal and Wickham’s true history. Jane desperately tried to create a situation where they’re both good people, but Elizabeth claims that she now believes all goodness to be only Darcy’s. Back home, the hear that the regiment is scheduled to leave their town. Elizabeth is relieved. However, Lydia is soon asked to be the special companion of the wife of the colonel of the regiment and accompany them. Elizabeth warns her father about the evils of Lydia continuing to run about as a wild flirt, that it hurts not only Lydia’s own future respectability but she also harms her sisters by proxy. Mr. Bennett essentially pats Elizabeth on the head and says that peace will only be had at home if Lydia is allowed go. And so she does.

Elizabeth’s travels continue as she joins her Uncle and Aunt Gardner on a tour of the countryside. They eventually come into the neighborhood of Pemberley and the Gardner’s express an interest in seeing it. After learning Darcy is not at home, Elizabeth agrees. However, while they’re their, Darcy unexpectedly returns catching Elizabeth by surprise. Much awkwardness ensues, but Darcy is quick to put on the most social and friendly face that Elizabeth has ever seen from him. He is kind to her aunt and uncle and expresses a wish to introduce his sister to Elizabeth while she’s in the neighborhood. He’s so intent on this goal that he brings his sister to visit the very next day, the same day she arrives home. With her comes Mr. Bingley who fishes around for information about Jane.

The next day Elizabeth and her aunt call on Georgiana while at home. While there, Caroline needles Elizabeth about the militia leaving her town, clearing hinting about Wickham, much to Georgiana’s dismay. Later, once the guests have gone, Caroline once again begins negatively evaluating Elizabeth. She finally goads Darcy into speaking only to hear him proclaim that he thinks Elizabeth is one of the most handsome women he knows.

The next day still Elizabeth finally hears from Jane. She writes of terrible news, that Lydia has eloped to London. Worse, they’re not sure the marriage has taken place and she begs for Elizabeth and co. to return. Darcy comes upon Elizabeth right after she finishes the letter and she confesses all of it to him. He comforts her, but leaves fairly quickly; she imagines this is the last she’ll see of him given this new shame on her family.

Once home, Mr. Gardner quickly goes to London to meet up with Mr. Bennett who is already there. Eventually, however, Mr. Bennett has to return after not accomplishing much. Soon enough, though, they hear news from Mr. Gardner that Wickham and Lydia have been found, they are to married, and there will be some money leftover after it all. Mr. Bennett sees this for what it is: Wickham has been paid off handsomely to persuade him to marry Lydia, likely by Mr. Gardner himself. Mrs. Bennett insists they invite the new Wickhams to visit and they do. While there, Mr. Wickham once again starts up conversations with Elizabeth about his wrongs at the hands of Mr. Darcy. She hints enough about knowing the truth that he quickly shuts up.

While visiting, Lydia lets it slip that Mr. Darcy was at their wedding. Elizabeth quickly writes to her Aunt Gardener to get to the truth of the matter. Her aunt writes back saying Darcy did everything: located Wickham and Lydia, arranged all matters, and paid off Wickham to marry Lydia. Darcy claimed responsibility for Wickham’s bad reputation not being known and thus Lydia falling into his clutches. Her aunt also hints that they were OK with him taking such a lead because he obviously has an interest in the family…if Elizabeth knows what she means.

Shortly after Wickham and Lydia leave, Mr. Bingley unexpectedly comes back to the area, bring Mr. Darcy with him. On their visit, Mr. Bingley clearly remains interested in Jane, but Darcy in stand-off-ish. Soon enough, Mr. Bingley finally proposes to Jane. Everyone is overjoyed, but Elizabeth is worried to hear Darcy has gone back to town before she is able to thank him for what he did for her family. Not long later, Lady Catherine makes a sudden appearance. She demands a private audience with Elizabeth and proceeds to inform her that she’s heard that Elizabeth is soon to be engaged to Mr. Darcy; Lady Catherine is not pleased. The two argue, with Lady Catherine insisting that Elizabeth promise never to do such a thing and Elizabeth adamantly refusing to agree to such a ridiculous request. Lady Catherine leaves, unsatisfied.

Soon after, Mr. Darcy returns. On a walk with Elizabeth, while Jane and Bingley  wander behind them, Elizabeth finally manages to thank him for his help with Lydia. He protests and says he did it for her and again asks her to marry him. This time she agrees.

The book concludes with some shorter scenes describing Elizabeth breaking the news to her mother, writing a joyous letter to her aunt, and sharing her happiness with her sister. After the wedding, we learn that she forms a good friendship with Georgiana, and that after a year living close to the Bennett family, Jane and Bingley break down and move close to Pemberley themselves. All is well, and Mrs. Bennett ends with not one, not two, but three daughters married (though no one really wants to talk about the one…)

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

Oh, Elizabeth, our beloved Austen heroine. Many people point to her as the most approachable heroine for modern readers due to her wit and independence. Alongside her, Emma is often also named, another witty, independent lady. But do you know what else both of these favorites have in common? Both of their stories revolve largely around their own personal growth. Each starts out feeling very comfortable with themselves, but over the course of the story, they both realize they have some pretty big flaws that have misled them and hurt people. And then they go on to do the personal work to improve themselves. What’s more, this personal work is directly responsible for bringing about their own happy endings. Elizabeth wouldn’t have ended up with Darcy if she didn’t acknowledge her own role in their previous bad relationship. Emma wouldn’t have ended up with Mr. Knightley if she didn’t realize that she shouldn’t play games with other people. This is what I think truly makes these two heroines people’s favorites. There’s nothing more sympathetic to a reader than a character who reflects ourselves, flaws and all. One who highlights that these flaws can be overcome, past wrongs can be made right (or at least avoided in the future), and maybe this effort will be rewarded with some hot, rich dude falling in love with you! Cuz it’s still a wish-fulfillment book, let’s be real.

For me, personally, the other big appeal of Elizabeth is her smart conversation. Particularly her come-backs to the attacks from Lady Catherine. I’m definitely one of those people who spends too much time in the shower thinking up all the smart responses I should have said in the midst of some argument. I’ve pretty much given up hope of every having the perfect response come off my tongue at the right time. But Elizabeth, she’s a master. Lady Catherine says something rude. Boom! Elizabeth has the perfect zinger in reply. One after another. It’s all very cathartic.

Poor Jane, on the other hand. First she’s in London having to endure the harsh realization that Caroline Bingley is kind of a b. Then she ends up being home without Elizabeth, her other source of sanity, when all of the Lydia nonsense first goes down. And even in the end, with her happy ending in hand, there’s a line about how the Wickhams would often over stay their welcome with the Bingleys. Ah well, there’s the price of too much niceness! It’s all well and good, but Elizabeth had several wise points about there being a line between reason and foolish goodwill. At least they eventually moved away from Netherfield and at least go some semblance of distance from the more immediate Bennett drama.

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

In many ways, the reader experiences a similar sense of surprise and shock as Elizabeth does by Mr. Darcy’s about face at Pemberley. What’s more, we have even more insights into his changed behavior as we see his interactions with Caroline Bingley later. But what makes these changes feel real, and not just a facade put on to please a woman who has called him out (like perhaps the relationship between Fanny and Henry Crawford in “Mansfield Park”) are all the smaller moments they are paired with.

Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle rightly recognize the weight of the praise that comes from the housekeeper. And Mr. Bingley’s good opinion begins to reassert itself as an important testament to Darcy’s long-standing goodness, even if it was shrouded in pride before. We also see enough evidence of Darcy remaining the same in many ways, if better behaved overall. Elizabeth notes that Mr. Bingley likely got something like permission/a blessing from Darcy before pursuing Jane again. Darcy is still removed and distant in large groups. And, of course, the secrecy and rather forceful (if still good) insistence on doing everything himself with regards to Wickham.

Whenever I re-read this book, I always find myself falling into a similar camp as Elizabeth does early on with regards to Mr. Bingley: any man who can be talked out of his love for a woman based on his friends’ criticisms of her is not worth having. But then we get the letter that highlights, in particular, the fact that Bingley was convinced by others that Jane didn’t actually care for him. And then as the book continues, and as we come across Mr. Bingley again at Pemberley, all the smaller character moments for him begin to settle in again and it becomes easy to understand and forgive. From very early moments in the book, we see how, while confident in general, Mr. Bingley does look to Darcy as a source of sound judgement. We also see a lot of reminders of Bingley’s humble nature (of the extreme sort, similar to Jane) that would make him even more prone to not trusting his own opinion with regards to Jane’s feelings for him.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

Wickham is by far the most famous of Austen’s villains, and for good reason. While Willoughby was potentially worse (unlike Wickham who probably did intend to marry Georgiana for her fortune and his revenge on Darcy, Willoughby seduces Brandon’s ward for nothing and then ends up abandoning her to her ruin),  we see a lot more of Wickham in this book, both before and after his character is known. But like Elizabeth, it is easy to be taken in by him at first. There are a few clues sprinkled here and there that reveal his true character, but they are of the sort that only become glaring after Darcy’s history is provided and Elizabeth reflects back.

But the letter itself is condemning in all of the worst ways. It’s impossible not to feel for Elizabeth as months-worth of preconceptions come crashing down around her, revealing unflattering aspects of her own self she hadn’t been aware of. But what is even worse is the sheer sense of sliminess that exudes from even the mention of Wickham from there on out. Lydia, on first meeting back up with Elizabeth, crows about how Wickham is freed from having to marry the unpleasantly-freckled Miss King. But Elizabeth sees this for what it was: yet another botched, mercenary attempt by Wickham to pursue a vulnerable young woman.

And, of course, his coup de gras, the elopement with Lydia. But in this re-read, what really stood out was Wickham’s behavior when he and Lydia return to the Bennett household. First off, the sheer ballsiness of returning at all! This is a family whose daughter he recently whisked away and who knows he had planned to simply abandon at a moments notice had he not been paid off! There has to be something off in the head of a person who could walk back through that door, apparently without any shame or remorse. And then, to go a step further, and start up a conversation with Elizabeth again about his past. If it ever needed to be made more clear that Wickham never truly respected or cared for Elizabeth, this conversation confirms it. If he had had any true respect for her, she would have been the one to avoid the most, let alone start up a conversation about lies that he must have suspected she already had begun to question. Even without that, any respect for her or understanding of her character would have a made it clear to him that she would not forgive and forget, even if the more silly members of the rest of her family would. This all makes it clear that his friendship with her was based on nothing more than his enjoyment in basking in her attention and growing esteem without sharing any similar respect for her.

The other villain pales in comparison to Wickham, but I have to think Lady Catherine belongs in this category. That her efforts had no effect on one party and actually encouraged the other is beside the point; her intentions were clearly villainous. Though I will say that this is one of the instances of having a “villain” who you love to hate. I’m pretty sure one of my high school friends, Hallie, loved this book almost purely for this last scene between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine.

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

I think it’s fairly undisputed that the romance between Darcy and Elizabeth is one of literature’s greatest love stories. Of course, many lovers of romance stories enjoy the “enemies to lovers” tropes and this is one of the early examples of it. And it still holds up as one of the best examples of it, in my opinion. Mostly because Austen wasn’t lazy about it. Both of these “enemies” had to reconcile within themselves their own failings that lead them to being enemies in the first place. And from there, we see each have to make concrete steps to self-betterment and have the grace to accept what the other is offering. Darcy makes a concentrated effort to be welcoming to the Gardners (two people he had previously scoffed at, if only in theory). And Elizabeth makes her own efforts to re-start their relationship, being open to the revised histories that she’s now hearing of him (from the housekeeper and from Georgiana). All of this leg work that is done in the middle of their romance is the part that is all too often left out of modern “enemies to lovers” stories. There, we often see two characters “hate” each other (usually for no real reason), then realize how super hot the other one is, make out for a bit, and then suddenly be in TRU LUV 4EVER. The middle section is completely skipped over. They literally go directly from enemies to lovers. It’s not only unbelievable, but nowhere near as compelling as the very human changes we see Darcy and Elizabeth go through. Not to mention, we all love that scene where Darcy shuts down Caroline with the line about Elizabeth being one of the most handsome women in his acquaintance.

All of this presents a stark departure from the romances we saw in “Sense and Sensibility.” Like the first half of the book, we have brief moments where we see our heroes experiences (the Caroline/Darcy moment that I mentioned just a bit ago). And we also see the lead up to, the actual engagement itself, and even several scenes after the fact. This is a lot more payoff than we saw between either Elinor/Edward or Marianne/Brandon.

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

There’s really not a whole lot of comedy in this second half. The serious nature regarding Wickham’s past and the even more serious real time events with regards to him and Lydia overwhelm many of the comedic characters. Mrs. Bennett is still ridiculous, but beneath that is a mother who is truly worried about a lost daughter. And her nerves, in the past a largely harmless quirk, become an active burden upon a family who has more than enough on their plate without having to devote extra care to a needlessly bedridden woman. It is also harder to laugh at her nonsense when that nonsense includes the complete 180 back to adoring both Lydia and Wickham, with her fawning over the two of them during their visit, all past harms forgotten. And for her part, Lydia is so obnoxious that it’s hard to not feel viscerally uncomfortable whenever she or Wickham are on page.

Mr. Collins, too, is mostly represented in this half by the truly awful letter he writes to the Bennetts while Lydia is lost, saying that it would be better for her to be dead than their current situation. Sure, there are elements of the comedic here, but again, it’s overwhelmed by the terrible things he’s saying to those who are his family. Also, one can only imagine that he also joined in with Lady Catherine’s toxic assessment of Elizabeth’s failings as a potential Mrs. Darcy.

Favorite quotes – “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.”

There a bunch of popular quotes from this book, but I want to focus on a few that aren’t always seen on mugs and the like. Not that I don’t love those, too.

“Angry people are not always wise.”

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Very true, very insightful, and should in fact be on a mug.

“If gratitude and esteem are good foundations of affection, Elizabeth’s change of sentiment will be neither improbable nor faulty. But if otherwise – if regard springing from such sources is unreasonable or unnatural, in comparison of what is so often described as arising on a first interview with its object, and even before two words have been exchanged, noting can be said in her defense, except that she had given somewhat of a trial to the latter method in her partiality for Wickham, and that its ill success might, perhaps, authorize her to see the other less interesting mode of attachment.”

This is a very thoughtful little paragraph towards the end of the book. And it’s especially interesting after having just read “Sense and Sensibility.” Between that entire book’s theme and this paragraph, I think we can definitively say that Austen was skeptical to the highest degree of the romantic, sentimental “love at first sight” attitude. I suspect that had Austen been alive today, she’d be writing novels, “Northanger Abbey-like,” in response to the YA trend about ten years ago of over-the-top love at first sight found in books like “Twilight” and its ilk.

“Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?”

This line makes me laugh out loud every time. It’s so ridiculous and hyperbolic that in one fell swoop Lady Catherine shows all her cards as far as her poor manners and character go.

Final thoughts – “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”

This was my first favorite Jane Austen novel, as it is for many fans, I think. As I’ve re-read all of Austen’s books and gotten older, others have risen, and I’d probably have a hard time now picking an all-time favorite. But it’s easy to see the general appeal of this story. Elizabeth is by far the easiest Austen heroine to immediately love. She’s smart, independent, charming: pretty much everything every woman wants to be! And on top of it all, she has flaws that keep her grounded as a believable character, flaws of the sort that many of us likely catch ourselves struggling with every now and then.

It has a whole host of great comedic characters, with Mrs. Bennett and Mr. Collins likely vying for the best comedy throughout all of Austen’s works (though “Emma” does have a good number of great ones, too). The other supporting characters all offer interesting insights into the story as it goes, with Jane’s goodness (sometimes to the point of blindness) and Charlotte’s sense of practicality (sometimes to the point of foolishness).

And, of course, the romance is of the sort that still greatly appeals to people today. The “enemies to lovers” trope is everywhere and anywhere to be found. But Austen does it best! By grounding both our hero and heroine on solid foundations, their original conflicts are believable and the slow process of their growing to understand and appreciate each other is not rushed. They aren’t even on the same time line with this process, making it all the more realistic. But I think a lot of it comes down to the simple fact that many of us whole-heartedly agree with this sentiment:

“It was gratifying to have inspired unconsciously so strong an affection.”

In two weeks, I’ll review the 1995 version of “Pride and Prejudice.”

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