Author logo Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice - study guide

Elizabeth Bennet
Mrs. Bennet
Jane Bennet
The younger Bennet sisters
Charles Bingley Mr. Collins
Other characters
Humour in the novel
Satire and the absurd
Silly men
Silly women
The enduring relevance of the novel


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I have written this study guide for students taking GCE Advanced level (AS and A2) courses in English literature, and other comparable literature courses. It is suitable for undergraduates and the general reader who is interested in the study of the novel. It can be used as a way in to the study of Pride and Prejudice generally.

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Elizabeth Bennet

Although the novel is written in the third person, Austen only depicts scenes in which Elizabeth is present - and this is true of no other character. The content of the novel is the story of Elizabeth, of how she and Darcy arrive at nuptial happiness by an improbable and circuitous route. Austen is no expert on the conjugal delights of marriage and the nearest we come to references to sex are the discovery of Charlotte's pregnancy and some very delicate allusions to Wickham's dealings (intended and actual) with Georgiana and Lydia. The story Austen has written is that of Darcy's wooing and winning of Elizabeth. This seems of far more interest than the subsequent serenity and happiness of Mr. and Mrs. Darcy.

Darcy's capture of Elizabeth represents the triumph of reason over perversity. But Darcy does not win Elizabeth merely by persistence, though this helps greatly. When Darcy first proposes, Elizabeth entertains beliefs, which, if true, clearly constitute excellent grounds for refusal and she does refuse. When she accepts him it is partly because he has changed in fact, and largely because he has changed in her estimation, as she has seen that her earlier view of him was mistaken. When she at last accepts him, she does so very much on her own terms. He proves that he is not over proud by his deference to Elizabeth. He not only tolerates, but delights in, Elizabeth's spirited readiness for disputation. By speaking her mind freely and intelligently she impresses Darcy with her independence. To win the love of such a woman is not easy but Darcy believes it to be well worthwhile - she will love him, if ever she does, for himself, as she is not desperate to achieve great wealth or social status through marriage.

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This becomes clear to Darcy when she turns down first Collins then him. Austen (like Darcy) contrasts her with Caroline Bingley in this matter. Caroline is desperate to catch Darcy as husband but one feels her love is cupboard-love and social climbing - to gain great wealth and be mistress of a great and beautiful estate. She could never satisfy Darcy, for the intellectual realm he so values is meaningless to her. Worse, she lacks the grace to acknowledge this, and, instead, makes a preposterous pretence of enjoying the second volume of the book Darcy reads, though she soon reveals her true boredom.

In the novel, Austen confronts us with a number of marriages the relative merits of each of which can be discerned by comparison.

The model relationship is that of Darcy and Elizabeth. It has its own positive qualities but also avoids the failings that afflict the other marriages we see in the novel.

Arguably the worst marriage is that of Lydia and Wickham. Lydia (for Austen views these marriages principally from the wife's viewpoint) gains a husband who is treacherous (in love as in business), devoid of conscience, widely disliked (where he is known) and lacking real love for his wife. Lydia, encouraged partly by her mother and dazzled by Wickham's charm and plausibility, is so stupid as to think her marriage blissful. Wickham's remaining faithful to Lydia is not her achievement but that of Darcy (or his money). In Lydia's defence we can only say that her love for Wickham is sincere, though he is unworthy of it. The survival of the marriage may reflect the shallowness of Lydia's aspirations.

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There seems little love present in the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Hurst. For them it is more a convenience - their real loves lying elsewhere (socialising for Mrs. Hurst; card-playing for her husband). Both understand this so they are contented in their marriage; they are not fulfilled and have no real love, but seem not to know, or worry over, this. In a sense they are well-matched.

This cannot be said for Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. In her youth Mrs. Bennet had beauty, and her silliness was clearly not fatally repellent to Mr. Bennet. Now that his youthful ardour and her beauty have gone, while her silliness has grown, he feels painfully a lack of companionship. His wife cannot talk intelligently to him, being preoccupied with society, balls, fashion and match-making. Mr. Bennet finds this irksome but does not (much) blame his wife. She has not, after all, changed greatly. He sees the error to be his own and does his best to avoid his wife's worst excesses by retreating to his library. In time, Elizabeth becomes a valued and intelligent companion, supplying the deficiency Bennet finds in his wife.

Another interesting marriage is that of Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas. Charlotte is usually so sensible that Elizabeth is both baffled and hurt by the match. She has no reason to be. At twenty-seven, the rather plain Charlotte has little prospect of marriage - this in a society in which the option of work is not open to women. Charlotte inhabits a world in which men judge a woman's looks before examining her character. Charlotte is sensible and intelligent - more worthy of a good husband, say, than Mrs. Bennet, but this also makes Charlotte a realist. In an odd way Mr. Collins is what she wants. The kind of suitor Jane Bennet can attract is, as experience has shown, beyond Charlotte's scope. Given his rather odious character, Mr. Collins, because of his evident lack of passion, is more eligible to Charlotte than if he were full of amorous desire.

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Charlotte is able to achieve the dignity of a match of good status and material comfort, together with independence - she becomes mistress in her own house; she manipulates Collins by making him think he is doing what he wants. This marriage is no romantic idyll but many such marriages would have existed in reality in Austen's day. Charlotte's pregnancy may not be so much evidence of high passion between her and Collins as desire on Collins' part to beget an heir and secure the estate of Longbourn, and on Charlotte's part for the fulfilment of motherhood. The skilful depiction of this marriage shows that Austen does not have a generally romantic view of marital relations. Here all is practicality, convenience and expediency. But, within certain limits, Charlotte achieves what she wants.

A good example of a stable and mature marriage is that of the Gardiners They evidently enjoy each other's company, and are sensible, intelligent and kindly. Jane and Bingley - both of whom are generous to a fault - are also well-matched. Each is the sort of person of whom a manipulative partner could take advantage, but they are safe with and from each other. One wonders, though, how any decisions would ever be taken in their household, as each would defer to the other.

A truly fulfilling marriage, it appears in Pride and Prejudice, can only exist between partners of whom both have mature and developed characters, as Darcy and Elizabeth have. The slow process of learning the truth about the other is not just a matter of removing prejudice but also of replacing it with a positive appreciation.

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What does Darcy see in Elizabeth? He finds her beautiful but only after she has, by her wit and vivacity, challenged his more rigid preconceptions, according to which, of those at the Meryton assembly, only Jane is pretty. Elizabeth's unorthodox behaviour bespeaks an independent mind and this is confirmed in argument. Darcy values it highly. In itself it is attractive. But it is equally valued as a guarantee of sincerity. Elizabeth would not (as Caroline Bingley does) feign love for her social advancement. That Elizabeth is not preoccupied with balls and dresses, though able to enjoy them with a sense of perspective, is also attractive. That she prefers reading to cards tells Darcy that she is his kind of woman. He ought to see that such a woman cannot be viewed as a chattel but this attitude appears in his first proposal to Elizabeth - that she will automatically accept the honour of belonging to him. When he makes his second proposal he has come to see that she is his equal, not his possession, and that his wealth and eminence are not what have attracted her to him.

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Mrs. Bennet

Jane Austen represents Mrs. Bennet as the direct cause of Jane's and Lydia's misfortunes, and she also brings about Elizabeth's sufferings. How does she affect her daughters' lives?

  • Jane: because of Mrs. Bennet's manners, behaviour and stupidity, Darcy thinks that a match between Bingley and Jane would be most ill-advised. (This belief is compounded by Jane's careful concealment of her feelings.)
  • Lydia: Mrs. Bennet fails to educate Lydia socially, and by pampering her and encouraging her flirtatious ways she contributes to the elopement. Also it is her pressure which leads Mr. Bennet to allow Lydia's visit to Brighton.
  • Elizabeth: again it is Mrs. Bennet's manners and stupidity that cause suffering, though this is usually a direct and immediate suffering experienced as faux pas succeeds faux pas. (Another cause of suffering is Lydia's elopement, which originates from Mrs. Bennet).

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Mrs. Bennet typifies the life and behaviour of Meryton. Her intelligence and manners are not untypical of the place. It is her vigorous enjoyment of Meryton's social life that creates the atmosphere of bustling activity, since she is the only member of that society that we really meet.

This suggests another point of importance about Mrs. Bennet: she sketches in most of the details of Meryton people, and therefore establishes our attitudes towards any of them who are introduced directly into the story. She also exemplifies of bad manners and stupidity - she is a very useful vehicle for satire on society.

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Jane Austen presents Mrs. Bennet's character clearly in the first chapter:

“Mrs. Bennet was a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughter married; its solace was visiting and news.”

Her “mean understanding” and “little information” suggest that Mrs. Bennet lacks intelligence, and other evidence supports this. For example:

  • She is a lawyer's daughter, but cannot understand about entailment, no matter how often it is explained to her.
  • She is contrasted with her intelligent husband, and she totally fails to notice or understand his irony.
  • Her conversation at all times shows her lack of intelligence and lack of ideas.
  • The way she has brought up her daughters shows little good sense. (The wonder is that Elizabeth and Jane turn out so well.)
  • She is a poor judge of character, and fails to understand anyone. We see this in her enthusiasm for Collins and Wickham and her disapproval of Darcy (especially stressed when Elizabeth has just accepted Darcy's proposal of marriage).

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Jane Austen links Mrs. Bennet's “uncertain temper” to her supposed “nerves” (see Mr. Bennet's ironic comment on this). By taking to her bed when Lydia's elopement is discovered, Mrs. Bennet indicates her general unreliability since she allows her family to take the brunt of the trouble, and adds to it by her assumed indisposition.

“The business of her life was to get her daughters married.” This is typical of many mothers of the time, but with Mrs. Bennet it is an obsession. She is determined to get her daughters married off - and it doesn't really matter to whom, as long as they marry before the daughters of her neighbours. Anyone will do, even a pompous bore like Mr. Collins or a roué like Wickham. Chiefly she hopes that her daughters will marry men with money - an attitude typical of her mercenary nature.

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Mrs. Bennet is one example among many in the novel of ill-breeding and bad manners:

  • She lacks consideration for others.
  • She is overbearing and domineering.
  • She has no restraint.
  • She has no sense of propriety - she will discuss her family affairs with anyone.
  • She lacks intelligent conversation but is embarrassingly garrulous.
  • She is vulgar, not only in her loud, unintelligent chatter, but in the absence of decency in matters such as Lydia's wedding or the whereabouts of Lydia and Wickham when married.

She also has no moral shame. (Notice how she flaunts Lydia and Wickham when they come to visit her family.) She bullies people and is a snob - as we see in her reception of the news of Elizabeth's engagement to Darcy, and in her servile attitude to Lady Catherine.

Jane Bennet

Jane is clearly intended to contrast with Elizabeth, so that the weaknesses of one sister may highlight the virtues of the other, and vice versa. She is important to the plot since her romance affects the course of Elizabeth's romance.

She is presented as a very sweet personality, always cheerful and kind, and quick to appreciate any kindness done to her. Her sweetness of character is most clearly seen in her charitable attitude to everyone - she is incapable of thinking ill of anyone until really forced by circumstances to do so, and even then she takes a very kindly attitude. This is both a merit and a demerit since it makes her the only member of the Bennet family to see some good in Darcy in the early period of their acquaintance, while on the other hand it opens her to exploitation.

Outwardly Jane is placid, composed and cheerful - she does not give way to her feelings in public. Perhaps she hides her feelings too well, so that only Elizabeth sees the extent of her emotions, while others like Bingley and Darcy are deceived.

Though Jane may appear gentle and as compliant as Bingley, in fact she is not so easily swayed by others as he is. One cannot, for example, think of Jane being persuaded by a friend to give up Bingley.

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The younger Bennet sisters

Mary Bennet | Kitty Bennet | Lydia Bennet

Mary Bennet

Mary, like her younger sisters, plays a part in causing embarrassment to Elizabeth over the behaviour of her family. She is vain of her accomplishments, and wishes to show them off in public. Not only does Mary's vanity embarrass Elizabeth, but so does her lack of real talent and taste.

Mary also brings out the “Pride and Prejudice” theme, since she is vain about her learning and her musical skill.

Her affectation of learning bores her sisters yet entertains the reader. She is not pretty, and so has attempted to compensate for her lack of physical charms by making herself intellectually appealing - but fails.

Her study has not given her compassion, and her morality is cold and empty. For example, when after Lydia's elopement compassion and affection are in order, she has none to offer; instead she gives moral precepts and lessons. She shows a lack of good sense in her readiness to accept Mr. Collins - indeed she is the only one to be impressed by his pomposity.

Mary's speeches reflect her character - like her they are dull. She tends to speak in complex sentences and using polysyllabic words. She has accurate but dull diction, and is frequently verbose and periphrastic.

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Catherine (Kitty) Bennet

Kitty is the least important of the Bennet sisters to the plot of the novel. Like Mary and Lydia, she embarrasses Elizabeth by her behaviour - particularly by her forward ways.

She illustrates clearly Lydia's malign influence, which makes her giddy, irresponsible and flirtatious, but when she comes under Jane's and Elizabeth's influence she improves greatly. This in turn, illustrates Mr. Bennet's irresponsibility since he does not restrain Kitty.

Kitty also serves to illustrate Lydia's vitality through her own lack of it - she is a rather sickly young woman until she comes under the influence of her eldest sisters.

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Lydia Bennet

Lydia's elopement and marriage are typical of a relationship where physical desire has become more powerful than good sense. The cooling of Wickham's and Lydia's love is an inevitable outcome, and one can see a potentially disastrous married life in front of them.

Lydia is also instrumental in causing Elizabeth acute embarrassment by her behaviour, and creating an apparently impassable gulf between Elizabeth and Darcy - as well as providing a reason for Darcy to separate Bingley and Jane. But she is equally instrumental in bringing Darcy and Elizabeth together again since her elopement allows Darcy to win Elizabeth's gratitude and love - and it is Lydia who first lets slip the news of Darcy's involvement with the marriage. But she is a thoroughly bad influence on Kitty, whom she dominates.

  • Lydia is thoroughly selfish (she is Mrs. Bennet's favourite and is therefore overindulged), and she uses people so that she may get what she wishes - for instance, she exploits Mrs. Philips (why?) and Mrs. Forster.
  • She shows no gratitude - noticeably she has nothing but abuse for Darcy for his part in the marriage.
  • She is vain and wishes only to be noticed and admired. She is as ill-educated and empty-headed as her mother.
  • She loves social functions and in her pursuit of pleasure she has plenty of energy.

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Unrestrained by either her father or mother, she proves to be a thorough-going flirt, - “the most determined flirt that ever made herself and her family ridiculous”. This suggests that it is not so much the sexual element which is to be condemned as her lack of good sense and decorum. Lydia lacks any shame for her immoral behaviour, and is seen in her worst light after the wedding.

The key-note of her behaviour is irresponsibility, reflected in the elopement as well as in a minor event like the buying of an unwanted hat. Jane Austen condemns Lydia not so much of sin but more of silliness, suggesting that anyone who marries without due consideration of financial matters is thoroughly irresponsible.

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Charles Bingley

Bingley is not directly presented in much of the novel, though his romance with Jane is important to the plot. He provides a contrast to Darcy in terms of his pliable character and easy good manners contrasted with Darcy's strong character and unease in society.

  • Bingley's manners are pleasant and gentlemanly. He finds pleasure in social affairs like dancing, cards and dining as well as in conversation (though he dislikes argument).
  • His greatest fault is that his general affability makes him open to persuasion too easily, and he is too easily influenced by his sisters and Darcy in his love affair.
  • He is generous, and also impulsive (this impulsiveness leads him to rent Netherfield in the first place).
  • Bingley is also sensitive and afraid of being hurt - so he accepts Darcy's opinion of Jane instead of asking for her hand and risking a refusal from her.

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Mr. Collins

“Mr. Collins is a conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man…a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance, and humility.”

He is interesting for many reasons:

  • He is there for our amusement, as a person and through his conversation and behaviour.
  • He is crucial to Jane Austen's attack on conventional attitudes to marriage. We are given his view of the social necessity of marrying, and we see the emptiness of his marriage - a picture, perhaps, of a marriage to be avoided).
  • He brings out clearly the soundness of Elizabeth's attitude to marriage.

Mr. Collins is also useful in showing that Elizabeth acts according to the principles she values, and is right in rejecting society's fixed views. He also forms a link between Longbourn and Rosings, as he:

  • brings Elizabeth to Rosings, thus preparing for Darcy's proposal;
  • tells tales to Lady Catherine about Lydia, thus blackening still further the character of the Bennet family;
  • tells tales again, this time about Darcy and Elizabeth, thus bringing Lady Catherine to Longbourn which, in turn, gives Elizabeth hope.

Austen writes that “Mr. Collins was not a sensible man”, and all his actions prove this. It is noticeable that Charlotte wishes to marry quickly because his stupidity would make the period of courtship unbearable.

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Mr. Collins is pompous and full of self-importance. He talks of himself at inordinate length - apparently he thinks that everyone is as interested in himself as he is.

At the same time he is thoroughly obsequious to those of higher social standing - as in his attitude to Lady Catherine. He is a flatterer, and studies how to deliver the most appropriate flattery. His obsequiousness is illustrated clearly by the way he subordinates his religious duties to what he feels are his social duties.

He is selfish, for he puts himself first, before his duties as a parson, just as he puts his own well-being before that of any prospective wife when he proposes. His speeches reflect how self-centred he is, for he talks most enthusiastically - and most often - about himself or his relations with Lady Catherine.

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Mr. Collins not only loves speaking about himself; he loves speaking generally. He can be neither plain nor brief and he uses unnaturally elaborate sentences.

Despite his being a clergyman, he lacks any Christian charity, as when he advises Mr. Bennet “to throw off his unworthy child from his affection forever”.

Though rather ridiculous, he is socially respectable and acceptable, and at times speaks for society. Here, therefore, he acts as a vehicle for satire directed at a society that can think and behave like this man.

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Other characters

Charlotte Lucas | George Wickham | Lady Catherine de Bourgh | Miss Bingley and the Hursts | The Gardiners | Georgiana Darcy and Col. Fitzwilliam | The Lucases and Mrs. Philips

Most of the remaining characters are less well-developed (the minor ones are very sketchy), yet all have a sufficient feeling of life and reality. All have their place in the plot - and are sometimes of more importance for what they cause to happen to others or for what they represent than for what they are themselves.

Charlotte Lucas

Charlotte's attitude to marriage is very important, for she shows an entirely materialistic view. All she desires from marriage is security and comparative comfort; happiness would be a bonus, but she does not expect it.

Charlotte shows up defects in Elizabeth, particularly Elizabeth's short-sightedness (for example, Charlotte's warning about Jane). Conversely she also shows up Elizabeth's sensitivity by her own lack of it.

Her marriage to Mr. Collins illustrates her materialistic attitude. Elizabeth says that “the woman who marries him [Mr. Collins] cannot have a proper way of thinking”.

Charlotte cannot afford to be too sensitive and so can find a limited contentment with Mr. Collins - but she has the good sense to let Mr. Collins occupy the best room in the house, so that she is spared his company much of the time. She derives dignity as the wife of a clergyman, and more as a mother. She makes her husband's home comfortable, entertains correctly, and is quiet and tactful in her management of her husband.

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George Wickham

Obviously Wickham is intended as a contrast to Darcy, who embodies nobility of nature and gentlemanly conduct. Wickham's elopement with Lydia allows Elizabeth to learn more of Darcy's nature, since Darcy does so much for her sake, and brings himself to deal with Wickham. Like Lydia, Wickham is also responsible for keeping Darcy and Elizabeth apart initially, since his words encourage Elizabeth's prejudice.

On the surface, Wickham is attractive: he is handsome and has gained a polish and gentility during his years at Pemberley. But these manners are only superficial, and he lacks truly good manners, as his conversations with Elizabeth (about himself and Darcy) show.

He is a persuasive talker and completely self-possessed (even after the marriage on his return to Longbourn). But he is also a hypocrite, and his words are always contradicted by his behaviour and actions.

He is selfish, and pays court to Elizabeth and Miss King with the hope of a financially beneficial marriage, while he runs away with Lydia for his sexual gratification.

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In pursuing his selfish aims he is thoroughly calculating - as in the careful plan to gain Georgiana Darcy's money as well as revenge on Darcy.

In most of his pursuits he is thoroughly mercenary, as in his pursuit of a wealthy wife and his readiness to marry Lydia when offered enough money.

His style of living is debauched: he likes gambling to excess and drinking, and his sexual morals are weak or non-existent.

He is totally lacking in honour, and runs away from paying gambling debts, feels no guilt about the social stigma which will attach to Lydia after she has run away with him, and shows no intention of marrying her. Nor on his return to Longbourn after the marriage does he show any shame.

At the end, we feel that in marrying Lydia he gets the fate he deserves.

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Lady Catherine de Bourgh

Her principal function in the plot is to precipitate Darcy's proposal of marriage by telling him of her interview with Elizabeth and so giving him grounds for hope. But she shows us how Elizabeth will more than hold her own in so-called polite society.

Lady Catherine's character is little developed, but her pride is clearly established, and Jane Austen satirizes her unmercifully as a representative of aristocratic pride. Most of all she is the epitome of bad manners. She is directly comparable to Mrs. Bennet as both are mercenary, overbearing, selfish and bullying. Lady Catherine is also vulgar in her insolent inquisitiveness.

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Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner

Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner are used at crucial moments by Jane Austen - they take Elizabeth into Derbyshire and to Pemberley, Mrs. Gardiner tells Elizabeth the truth about Darcy's part in Lydia's marriage and so gives Elizabeth hope.

They are a kind, cultured, well-mannered, affectionate couple, and Austen always presents them in a favourable light. By their cultured and refined manners and tastes, they illustrate (like Elizabeth) the falseness of some of the beliefs of “polite” society - particularly that those connected with trade must be common and uncivil.

They act as a norm by which we can judge the excesses of Lady Catherine and the behaviour of Miss Bingley and the Hursts on the one hand, and the behaviour of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins on the other. They represent good-breeding at its best.

Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner are also the only couple to show Elizabeth a happy marriage - their financial stability (living within their means), restraint, decorum and mutual respect are evident, despite the snobbish criticisms other characters make of them.

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Miss Bingley and the Hursts

Miss Bingley is a hypocrite. She represents the ill-manners of so-called polite society and typifies the unmarried women who have been attempting to trap Darcy into marriage. As such she is an obvious contrast to Elizabeth, and this contrast helps to bring Elizabeth to Darcy's notice.

The Hursts typify ill-breeding. Theirs is a typical society marriage, with no love or understanding on either side, and no particular desire to have them, while Mr. Hurst seems to have married for money.

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Georgiana Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam

Both of these characters act with courtesy and live up to the highest standards of their social class - a welcome contrast to the Bingley sisters and Lady Catherine in whose company we see them. Colonel Fitzwilliam emerges as a trustworthy witness to the truth of Darcy's letter. Austen also uses Colonel Fitzwilliam to explore the problems of the younger son, for whom marriage is the only way to secure wealth.

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The Lucases and Mrs. Philips

Sir William Lucas's contribution to the plot is to bring to Darcy's notice the possibility of an engagement between Bingley and Jane. Principally he is a figure for satire, with his manners aping those of fashionable society. He and his wife and Mrs. Philips, together with Mrs. Bennet, typify the society of Meryton, which is rather vulgar and loud, and totally undiscriminating (for instance, they prefer Wickham to Darcy while they think Mr. Collins is a well-bred man). Mrs. Philips, in her vulgarity and delight in gossip, is a very fitting sister for Mrs. Bennet, and is one more obstacle in the way of Darcy's and Elizabeth's romance.

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Humour in the novel

Satire and the absurd | Marriage | Society | Silly men | Silly women

Though Austen attempts, in this novel, to depict honestly fashionable society and its etiquette, she is not uncritical of this world. Her criticism is, however, always very subtle and often more implicit, than explicit. She does not, as an author, tend to pass judgement on social institutions or manners, but may depict them in a humorous and unflattering light. In describing a character she may be critical, but, again, the fullest ridicule is occasioned not by this, but by what the characters do and say.

It would be wrong to characterise Austen as a highly comic writer: much of what she has to say is serious and without ironical intent and 'the novel's principal characters are not especially amusing. Elizabeth can be mischievous and finds others entertaining; we laugh a little with her but never at her as the reader is always too close to Elizabeth's experience and perspective. Elizabeth finds Darcy amusing, in his supposed pride, for a very brief duration but soon regards him seriously, first with animosity, then, in due course, sympathy leading to affection.

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Satire and the absurd

The principal, most widespread and most obvious form of humour in the novel is satire - lampooning by means of caricature or exaggeration customs and attitudes that the author disapproves, or characters who embody these hated attitudes.

Austen also has an eye for the absurd in human behaviour, and we meet, in the pages of the novel, a number of memorably silly characters who go beyond stereotypes: the best of these are probably Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine and Mr. Wickham. In some cases, Austen will use her chief character, Elizabeth, to point this ridicule, while in others she allows the absurdity to manifest itself. Mr. Bennet is also used as a more detached commentator on the society he evidently despises and from which he holds aloof.

Austen, despite or because of her sex, aims most of her satire at women. Her favourite target seems to be the small-mindedness of the sex, the typical preoccupation with fashion, comfort and domestic security. Men are also ridiculed, but more for their individual failings. Perhaps the exaggerated and undignified self-abasement of Collins and, to some extent, Sir William Lucas, is a more widespread fault, as, perhaps, is the philistinism of Hurst and the avarice of Wickham.

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Austen is not a critic of marriage as such but is deeply critical of the general female obsession with the institution. This is the novel's starting point, the ironical statement that a wealthy, single man must need a wife: this reflects the proprietorial attitude of those women who want to acquire a man and who know his needs better than he does. Great wealth and an elegant manner are a man's most important qualities; profundity and wisdom are unfashionable.

Mrs. Bennet best demonstrates this preoccupation in the novel. She and her friends (Mrs. Long, Mrs. Philips and Lady Lucas) spend all their time looking out for newcomers to the vicinity, Mrs. Bennet and Lady Lucas being especially eager to find husbands for their many daughters. Long before she knows anything of Bingley, other than his fortune, Mrs. Bennet declares to her perplexed husband: “You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them” (the Bennet girls) - adding that “it is very likely that he (Bingley) may fall in love with one of them”. There is fine irony in the fact that this most improbable expectation is realised.

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As it happens, Bingley is a fine son-in-law, but Mrs. Bennet is equally happy with anyone, however worthless. This is illustrated by her reaction to Lydia's marriage with Wickham. The shame of the elopement, the silliness of her daughter, the hopelessness of the marriage - all these are forgotten in her excitement that Lydia has gained a husband. Even more ridiculous is Mrs. Bennet's response to the news of the impending marriage: the man who has tried to seduce her daughter is now “dear Wickham”, but even more important is Lydia's trousseau: “But the clothes, the wedding clothes! I will write to my sister Gardiner about them directly. down to your father, and ask him how much he will give her”. She duly regales Jane with “all the particulars of calico, muslin, and cambric”. The same kind of attitude can be found in Lady Lucas, though less outrageously, in Mrs. Hurst and Caroline Bingley, and even, in some measure, in Lady Catherine.

Mrs. Hurst has entered an empty marriage, for convenience: she and her husband spend all their time in trivial social diversions. Caroline Bingley wishes to marry Darcy for the wealth and status this will confer on her - his interests and hers are very different and she doesn't really understand him, but this seems not to matter to her. Lady Catherine has let it be known that Mr. Darcy is intended for her daughter, Anne. We see that this claim is ridiculous when Elizabeth sees Anne de Bourgh - a sickly, unattractive creature. Lady Catherine's expectation is wholly unrealistic.

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Apart from marriage, what most women in the novel desire is to attend balls, attract admiration, wear fine clothes, and dance. In due course, the married women, as chaperones, enjoy vicariously the social triumphs of their daughters. There is no spiritual or artistic or serious interest in the lives of any of these women. Austen does not object to elegant clothes as such but is scornful of those to whom fashion is an obsession, or who show their lack of seriousness by worrying about clothes in moments of crisis - as when Mrs. Bennet becomes agitated over Lydia's trousseau, or when Lydia, in her letter to Harriet Forster, asks for Sally to mend her “worked muslin gown”. On an earlier occasion Lydia buys a bonnet which she declares not to be very pretty; her sisters say it is ugly but Lydia justifies her purchase on the ridiculous ground that “there were two or three much uglier in the shop” and that, with some embellishment, the bonnet will be “very tolerable”. She goes on to say she is glad she bought it because of “the fun of having another bandbox”.

Austen's best-drawn female characters are distinct individuals but it is possible to discern some general faults that characterise many of the sex, in the novelist's eyes. Probably more than half of the women we meet in the novel are vain, shallow and trivial: Lydia, Kitty, Mrs. Bennet, Bingley's sisters and, probably, Mrs. Philips and Lady Lucas all are more or less guilty. Against these we must set Elizabeth, Charlotte, Jane, Mrs. Gardiner and Darcy's sister who are serious and sensible. It is difficult to argue that Austen satirises the foibles of men in any such general or widespread way - instead each victim of her satire represents a different kind of folly. Some of these are very sketchy characters about whom Austen makes a single humorous observation: Mr. Hurst, expert at card-playing (perhaps a male counterpart to the female obsession with clothes, as the badge of triviality) is fixed in the reader's mind by a single sentence:

“Do you prefer reading to cards,” said he; “that is rather singular.”

What is amusing is not the preference (common enough in Austen's world) but the disbelief that it could be otherwise for someone else. We are similarly amused by the discovery that, having been knighted for his address to the King, Sir William Lucas should find his business disgusting and so retire from it.

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Silly men - Collins and Wickham

Mr. Collins | Captain Wickham

But the two chief comic creations of Austen, on the male side, are surely Mr. Collins and Mr. Wickham. We laugh at both of these. Mr. Bennet we sometimes laugh with, but usually at someone else (more often than not it is his wife.)

Mr. Collins

Mr. Collins is an obviously humorous character. First, lie is insufferably long-winded. The first sentence of his letter (chapter 13) gives this away.

In this letter he also hints at some undisclosed scheme of reparation for the entail. In due course we find that this is, in fact, his intended marriage to one of the Bennet girls, which he represents as a favour to them. We are at once suspicious of a clergyman who advertises his piety: “As a clergyman...I feel it my duty to promote and establish the blessing of peace on all families within the reach of my influence.” This is undermined by the reader's observing that the statement of Christian duty comes after his statement of duty to his patron. So devoted to his duty is Collins that he leaves his living for lengthy periods as when he is looking for a wife. He later advises Mr. Bennet to forgive Lydia and Wickham “as a Christian, but never to admit them in your sight, or allow their names to be mentioned in your hearing”. One wonders in what, other than mere empty words, the forgiveness can consist.

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Collins is ridiculous in his person and bearing. Though young in fact, he is so pedantic he seems ancient. He is gauche, and appears rather awkward. He has little idea of how to court women and strikes them as ridiculous. He drops frequent heavy hints (“At present I will not say more...”) about his intentions towards the young women. He is excessively formal, as well as windy, in his speech. Mr. Collins is also responsible for one of Austen's running gags - his obsequious sycophantic deference to Lady Catherine, his patron. This works rather in the manner of the shaggy dog story. Everything about Lady Catherine and her estate at Rosings excels: her taste, wisdom and generosity are beyond compare. Whether the deference is due to self-interest alone, or whether Collins by now really believes his own propaganda, is not clear. Lady Catherine certainly enjoys good value from her nominee and as Collins speaks so well of her she is ready to believe him to be fairly wise.

The reader is at first overwhelmed by the extravagance of Collins' praise, then, as we come to know him better, suspicious. When we see Lady Catherine for ourselves we are both surprised by her failure remotely to merit so much praise and not, after all, surprised as we see that she is a fit object for the praise of so foolish a man. Collins figures more prominently in the early part of the novel than later, though we do find rather amusing the way his new wife manages him. At Hunsford, Collins is almost invisible to Elizabeth. Charlotte has contrived to keep his and her paths and daily routine as separate as possible. Collins seems not to object to this arrangement (though they are at some point intimate enough with one another for Collins to beget an heir). Mr. Collins's ineffectual parting shot, like his first salvo, comes in the form of a letter - this time he warns Elizabeth against marriage to Darcy “which has not been properly sanctioned”, by Lady Catherine's approval. He concludes with his most uncharitable observations about Lydia. Mr. Bennet is moved by this letter to observe that Collins (as a source of amusement) is even more excellent than Wickham.

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Unlike Collins, Wickham does not immediately seem at all humorous. His folly is less evident, as he is handsome, well-spoken (eloquent without affectation or long-windedness) and has the various recommendations of charm, mystery (he is a newcomer to the area), associations with the dashing officers stationed in Meryton and, importantly, the dislike of Mr. Darcy. Wickham can only become humorous to the reader once the reluctant Darcy has exposed his part.

Such is his villainy and so shameful is his conduct that one would expect Wickham, on being found out, to be subdued by others' knowledge of these things. He has attempted to ruin Miss Darcy, has succeeded in ruining Lydia though he has been induced by Darcy's money to marry her and stay with her, to say nothing of his blackening of Darcy's character and his heavy gambling debts. In spite of this he shows no signs of shame and speaks to Elizabeth almost as if nothing has happened. Eventually she is able to silence him but only when, by a series of heavy hints, she has made it clear that she knows all the circumstances of his offences against Darcy. Mr. Bennet is greatly amused by his manner and praises him ironically:

“He simpers and smirks, and makes love to us all. I am prodigiously proud of him. I defy even Sir William Lucas himself to produce a more valuable son-in-law.”

Mr. Bennet is not quite consistent, though, for he later concedes the superiority to Sir William's son-in-law, Mr. Collins, on receipt of the latter's final letter. Mr. Bennet's judgement here is almost an invitation from Jane Austen to the reader, to compare these two, to see who is the sillier.

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Silly women - Miss Bingley and the de Bourghs

Miss Bingley | Anne de Bourgh | Lady Catherine de Bourgh

Though Austen satirizes women in general there are particular individual traits of character that make some of the women seem especially comic. Much the most humorous of these is the outrageous Lady Catherine, though others are visible in a less degree.

Miss Bingley

Caroline Bingley, in her desperate attempts to win the favour of Darcy, makes herself ridiculous. In trying to belittle Elizabeth she constantly points out her rival's merits. When she takes a book (the companion volume to the one Darcy is reading), yet only browses before giving up in boredom, her intention is transparent. She hopes to win Darcy's favour by trying to show interest in what he likes but cannot succeed as she lacks the intelligence to do so with conviction. She is more of a threat at the start of the novel - by the end she has lost Darcy utterly to Elizabeth.

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Anne de Bourgh

In a pathetic way, Anne de Bourgh is also an object of amusement. She is so feeble and repellent that Darcy cannot possibly find her attractive. While Elizabeth sees this, she also is amused by the notion that Darcy might marry her: though supposedly of his social class, she could not satisfy any of his needs, intellectual, personal or amorous. Lady Catherine entertains a nonsensical idea of her daughter's musical talents: “Anne would have been a delightful performer, had her health allowed her to learn.” Anne's taste is likewise praised - yet there is no evidence to substantiate either claim. It is one thing to say she might have been a good musician; to say she certainly would, though she has never played in her life, is ridiculous.

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Lady Catherine de Bourgh

Her mother may cause Anne's invalid state. If she were to attempt things and do them badly Lady Catherine's claims would be shown up as hollow. By keeping her from all exertion, Lady Catherine prevents any shortcomings from appearing. But Anne has become thin and sickly in consequence - she is now an invalid. Our sympathy is limited, however, as Anne seems so very selfish. She keeps Charlotte outside in very cold weather; she does not talk to her mother's guests but only to the housekeeper.

Lady Catherine is a ridiculous woman. She has an over-bearing manner and believes herself expert in every matter. She gets on well with those who, as Collins does, pander to this failing. Her taste whether in decor or music is, by her definition, the “correct” taste. She also wishes to exercise complete power over the lives of everyone she meets -telling people whom they should marry (naturally choosing the most eligible man she knows for her daughter) or not marry, as well as advising on less serious matters - that, for instance, Elizabeth should practise on the piano in Mrs. Jenkinson's room or demanding to know of what Elizabeth and Darcy are speaking. She is used to instant obedience, bullying others into submission, but fawning on Darcy whom she cannot control. She assumes that everyone has a price, as most of those she knows are intimidated by the power she wields over their material prospects. Elizabeth she cannot cope with, as Elizabeth has nothing to gain and nothing she fears to lose from Lady Catherine.

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The enduring relevance of Pride and Prejudice

How difficult is Pride and Prejudice for the modern reader to understand - There is some unusual vocabulary, but this is readily explained by a simple glossary - and, in any case, one can follow the narrative without knowing exactly what a chaise or phaeton looks like. Being accessible is, though, not the same as having enduring relevance.

So what is the novel about? Film and TV depictions can be seriously misleading in their attention to visual detail - long shots of stately homes and scenes of horses drawing coaches along turnpike roads. Pride and Prejudice contains very little set-piece pictorial description - there are exceptions like the presentation of Pemberley in Chapter 43 or the earlier accounts of Elizabeth's travels with the Gardiners. But most of the novel is taken up with accounts of social situations and conversations. Many of these could take place anywhere, and often we do not learn where they happen.

What is the world that Austen depicts. In this society

  • young women are escorted into social gatherings by mothers or chaperones;
  • young men and women cannot be alone together with propriety, save where parents have consented to courtship or in very public places where no scandalous conduct could occur;
  • men work little or not at all and women have no occupation save keeping house;
  • property is usually inherited by the male descendants, while women receive dowries from their fathers when they marry.

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Two things should, however, be noted about this.

  • Austen shows this etiquette to be more flexible than it is often represented as being. Elizabeth, for instance, is hardly oppressively treated and is allowed by her father to choose whom she will marry.
  • While the same etiquette does not hold today there still is an etiquette: women still frequently find themselves having to wait for a man to take the lead in courtship, and the use of the confidante or go-between seems as strong now as in Austen's day.

Those of other cultures will readily understand a society in which women are subservient and where, sometimes, arranged marriages occur. In any case, Austen suggests that there is, in this matter, more freedom for those, like the Bennets, with no high status to maintain than for those of Darcy's class. It is he who upsets his relation (Lady Catherine) by departing from her fixed notion as to whom he should marry.

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It is true that the novel depicts a class of people - the bourgeoisie (from the definitely petty bourgeois Bennets to the haute bourgeoisie of Mr. Darcy and Lady Catherine with whom we touch the fringes of the aristocracy) to which, statistically, few people in Austen's day would have belonged. On the other hand it should be noted that this is the class in which virtually all of her readers would have been found. In fact Austen is part of a movement that leads to the working class characters of much modern fiction. In Shakespeare one is confronted with characters that are almost exclusively aristocratic. Commoners appear but only for comic effect or as minor characters. We have to go back to Chaucer to find ordinary men and women in English Literature. With the earliest novelists Defoe and Richardson we see a move towards the depiction of the middle and lower classes. Austen does not move as far as these authors down the social scale but neither does she attempt to depict “great” characters of the kind we meet in Shakespearean drama. Much modern fiction both in the novel and in drama (especially television drama) is pre-occupied with those who are very well off materially, without necessarily being of royal or aristocratic descent.

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Austen chooses these characters because she and her readers know the class they inhabit. She does, in fact, also reveal an attitude to the behaviour of this class in general, but her attitude is far from complimentary. She is not at all snobbish, but many of her characters are, and she lampoons them for it. The best people in Pride and Prejudice are either free from such snobbery (as Elizabeth, Jane, Mr. Bennet and Bingley are) or learn the error of their ways (as Darcy does).

Austen shows that even where one has some grounds (as Darcy has) for supposing oneself superior, the superior attitude is a failing; but also that most people who have this attitude have no good grounds for it - the most snobbish characters in the novel are also the most worthless and unsympathetic: Lady Catherine, Mr. Collins, Miss Bingley, and Mr. and Mrs. Hurst. The best people, Elizabeth, Georgiana Darcy or Mr. Gardiner, do not consider social status to be important, nor even give it much attention.

Snobbery, as an attitude, of course persists, but merely takes on new and varied forms in our own day. Thus, we look down on people for the way they dress, their accent, lack of education or of material possessions.

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If we now look positively at the novel, what can we find that is of enduring value? The plot is not a promising one: a series of misunderstandings fuels a quarrel between two people whose intelligence, wisdom and good nature makes them ideally suited to each other. The misunderstandings are resolved, each learns humility of a kind from the experience and true love at last runs smooth. As a plot this is not Austen's invention, though she has used it with modifications of circumstance elsewhere, as have untold numbers of poorer novelists and dramatists since. In a way, it contains a moral for the reader.

The depiction of character is a much stronger suit in Austen's favour in two distinct ways. In the case of the major characters, Elizabeth and Darcy, Austen shows us how people are made better and wiser by their errors and recognition of them. Of course, a degree of wisdom and a lot of honesty are needed in the first place, if this is to happen, which leads to Austen's other skill in this area. In depicting unsympathetic characters, of whom there are far more in the novel, Austen mocks the general behaviour of the bourgeoisie of her day. Her genius here is found in the variety of kinds of silliness she mocks. The characters who exhibit this silliness are not developed (as Elizabeth and Darcy are) nor do they change (most of them never would, whatever happened, though the possibility of reform is demonstrated by Kitty's altered outlook). But Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine, Mrs. Bennet, Lydia Bennet and Mr. Wickham are all memorably ridiculous and unpleasant characters. Others who typify social attitudes the author despises (and which have changed little since she wrote the novel) are Miss Bingley and the Hursts. We also meet

  • those whose obvious merits (Jane, Mr. Bennet) are offset by small failings;
  • those who mean well but are too weak to resist society's false values (Sir William Lucas) and (to demonstrate that folly is not universal but only widespread)
  • decent, sensible people from various backgrounds: Charlotte Lucas, the Gardiners and Georgiana Darcy.

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Austen is especially harsh on the folly of those of her own sex. She shows (without explicitly excusing them) how a surplus of leisure and of money (or a belief in the latter) are partly to blame but seizes nonetheless on the vanity, triviality and small-mindedness of the endless social round. One symptom of this pettiness is a preoccupation with clothes, and it is the silliest characters, Lydia and her mother, who are most often guilty. This feminine vice is one that has certainly persisted into, or resurfaced in our own day where one is more likely to learn what some celebrity was wearing on some occasion than of a disaster in an obscure part of the world. Austen has a similar way of showing the folly of some men. In this case, it is gaming that suggests stupidity, and the classic culprit is Mr. Hurst. He is astonished to learn that Elizabeth prefers reading to card-playing and remarks on the circumstance as if it makes her unusual. In a sense, she is, but the supposed unorthodoxy is very much to her credit in the reader's eyes (and in Darcy's).

Though they are both extremely silly Lydia and her mother have some redeeming features: Lydia is at least sincere, if unwise, in her affection for Wickham, while Mrs. Bennet wants the best for her daughters, but her notion of the best is a dubious one. In the latter part of the novel she shows surprising tact in promoting Jane's cause with Bingley. The most worthless specimens of female vanity in the novel are Miss Bingley and Lady Catherine. (Mrs. Hurst is almost a duplicate of her sister, but it is Caroline who takes the lead and of whom we learn most - doubtless as she is single).

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Miss Bingley is

  • a parasite, living off her brother's or (rarely) Darcy's hospitality;
  • a snob, as she shows in her comments on Elizabeth's “country-town indifference to decorum” and on Jane's “low connections”, laughing at the occupation of Mr. Philips, and the fact, that the Gardiners live in Cheapside;
  • but above all, she is a hypocrite: she is polite to Jane in her presence but derides her behind her back. Fearing that Elizabeth is gaining favour with Darcy she is merciless in her assaults on the supposed rival, finding fault with everything about her: “she had no conversation, no style, no taste, no beauty”.

She is her own worst enemy as, in doing so, she draws Darcy's attention to Elizabeth's merits at every word. Darcy is not stupid and in no way is influenced by her judgement.

Miss Bingley's fawning upon Darcy is nauseating, especially as she has no real appreciation of what interests him, nor capacity to speak intelligently to him: her interest is purely material. Her attempts to show her knowledge of books by praising Darcy's library are as ridiculous as her choosing to read the second volume of the book of which Darcy is reading the first. She only chooses it for this reason, fails to see the silliness of starting with the second in the series, and does not, in any case, read the book but watches Darcy as he reads.

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Although Darcy is not fooled by the behaviour of Miss Bingley, her hypocrisy may influence his belief that Jane Bennet is not worthy of Bingley. Darcy sees how some women in his society pretend to be charming but are in fact devious and scheming, and assumes that Jane is like the rest. In the society he keeps, only his sister (whom he knows to be unusually virtuous and who is socially inexperienced) differs from this character. He has yet to learn that there are some women who really are what (as he knows) Miss Bingley pretends to be.

Lady Catherine's failing is, perhaps, not specifically feminine: one meets in both sexes people who are utterly convinced of their own superiority, expect deference from all others and speak with the assurance of the expert of subjects of which they know nothing. It may be that it is more comical, because less expected, in a woman. Wilde's Lady Bracknell may well owe something to Austen's earlier creation of Lady Catherine. Before we meet Lady Catherine we hear so much to her credit from Collins that it is difficult to believe. When we meet her, the contrast between the expectation and the reality is laughable. Lady Catherine's house is a kind of perversion of Darcy's.

  • In Pemberley, money has been expended to create a thing of beauty;
  • at Rosings money has been spent for show - there is ostentation unmoderated by taste.

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Collins' praise of Lady Catherine would be more admirable if it were disinterested and an expression of true loyalty. It is abhorrent because it is merely the sycophantic grovelling of a man whose lack of principle belies his clerical office, and who knows on which side his bread is buttered. In showing this folly Austen uses the humour of satire. And what is being satirised has not disappeared: small-mindedness, snobbery, hypocrisy, egotism, flattery are as active now as they ever were; only the circumstances of their expression change.

The novel is of course, principally about Elizabeth and Darcy, though Austen clearly relishes the humour achieved in lampooning secondary characters. In portraying the developing relationship of the two lovers Austen clearly addresses a profound subject of perennial interest. The psychology of the relationship, though very familiar to us now, thanks to endless variations on this theme, especially beloved of film-makers, is highly plausible. Interestingly enough, the novel anticipates what one might call a feminist attitude.

His wealth and the fawning attitude of most women he has met lead Darcy to think he has only to propose to Elizabeth and he will be accepted. There is a comic counterpoint to this in Collins' earlier assumption of the same thing. Collins' rebuff is not much of a surprise to many people (save himself and Mrs. Bennet). Darcy's refusal is a surprise to everyone but Elizabeth. He learns not to take for granted the power his wealth and status confer on him. Elizabeth will, of course, come to love him but not solely on his terms - there must be equality in the match. As there is equality of intelligence and learning, so must there be equality of status. Elizabeth knows too well from her own parents' case what are the results of a mismatch.

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In portraying Elizabeth's and Darcy's love Austen avoids sentimentality by making both the lovers slightly cynical. Elizabeth reacts against Jane's credulousness, which she sees to be excessive, to protect Jane as much as herself. But her readiness to suspect the worst makes her lap up Wickham's lies uncritically. She wants to hear ill of Darcy, so Wickham is believed. Darcv is suspicious of those who make a show of friendship, and so is unprepared for Jane in whom the show is genuine. We find sentimentality in the secondary narrative of Jane and Bingley, and this part of the plot shows by contrast how complex has been the process whereby Darcy and Elizabeth become lovers. Jane has little to do really: once Elizabeth tells Darcy of his error of judgement, he tells Bingley. He renews his suit with relish, and the outcome is simple. Jane never doubts Bingley's merits; she is merely disappointed when she thinks she has found him not to be interested in her. For Elizabeth the education is far more thorough.

What Austen presents us with is a portrait of ordinary people who, despite different clothes and a slightly more rigid and precise social etiquette, confront problems familiar to us all. In resolving these they also confront the vanity and folly prevalent in their world, as in ours, which are embodied almost comically in some of the more extreme of these. The continuity between Austen's world and our own is not hard to see.

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© Andrew Moore, 2002; Contact me

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