Do Elizabeth and Darcy really improve "on acquaintance"?
Moreover, in reassessing Elizabeth, my thinking about Darcy has altered so much that I here propose that he has been misunderstood not just by Elizabeth for the first half of the novel (as she finally admits after knowing his letter by heart) but also by most readers. He has been labeled as everything from a Byronic hero (described by Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay as "proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection" [38-39]]) to a subject of mild Asperger's Syndrome. The least idiosyncratic and most oft-repeated view of Darcy is that he is socially awkward. (1) Rejecting these interpretations of Darcy--as a Byronic hero, as a subject of mild Asperger's Syndrome, or even as socially awkward--I offer in their place a remarkably patient, clever man, who at times, unfortunately, manifests ungentlemanly alpha-male grumpiness.
Late in the novel, two chapters after Darcy's second, good proposal, Elizabeth initiates a typical lovebirds' conversation by asking Darcy about how he first came to love her and admits that '"my behaviour to you was at least always bordering on the uncivil, and I never spoke to you without rather wishing to give you pain than not. Now be sincere; did you admire me for my impertinence?"' (380). Here she frankly acknowledges the full extent of her bad behavior and her desire to hurt him--in modern parlance, she was extracting payback from him. Darcy's flattering and euphemistic answer reminds us of the gallantry that "amazed" Lizzy at Netherfield Park: '"For the liveliness of your mind, I did.'" She continues: "'You may as well call it impertinence at once.'" Elizabeth is correct about herself: this attribution of her behavior to "the liveliness of [her] mind" comes from a gentleman in love with her in spite of her consistent impertinence and rudeness. To elucidate my thesis that Elizabeth is not as delightful as even Jane Austen thought, and that Darcy is far better than just about everyone thinks, I shall discuss the heroine and hero in tandem by proceeding chronologically through the novel.
The best place to start is the Meryton Assembly, where, "within five minutes after" Darcy's entering the assembly and the novel, the locals gossip about his "ten thousand a year," admiring both his handsome looks and fortune for the first half of the evening (10). With Darcy's annual income on all the locals' tongues, we may speculate that it lias also reached Darcy's ears (10). (2) No wonder Darcy dances only with the Bingley sisters: he has enough dealing with Miss Bingley's dancing pirouettes of admiration around him without falsely encouraging the husband- and fortune-hungry Meryton females to join her. Moreover, two important parts of Darcy's backstory are crucial to his disengaged and ungentlemanly behavior at the Assembly.
First, because Darcy's Pemberley estate is in the country, he surely knows what a country assembly, such as Meryton's, is: a public dance, held in a country market town, open to persons who have bought tickets, as the Austen sisters and their friends did for the Basingstoke assemblies. He would surely know the typical attendees at this kind of seasonal assembly: persons like the formerly mercantile and now pretentious Sir William Lucas and his family and the lower gentry Bennets, along with others of their brackets. The country assembly is neither a private ball (like Bingley's at Netherfield) nor a dance limited to the rich and socially elite. So while Darcy is certainly impolite not to dance with young women lacking partners, may he not also be hesitant to dance with young women of a country market town interested in him for his good--indeed, very good--fortune, the subject of the Assembly's hot gossip? Darcy knows that he must be guarded, for he has much at stake in choosing a wife.
The second key to his backstory concerns the chronology of the Meryton Assembly and Georgiana Darcy's Wickham adventures. Bingley takes possession of Netherfield before Michaelmas (20 September 1811), with the Meryton Assembly three weeks later, on 21 October. (3) During the recent summer of 1811, Darcy has dealt with the potentially highly damaging Ramsgate episode. With that event still painfully fresh in his mind, why wouldn't Darcy be chary about money- and status-hungry women? Caroline Bingley is only the most transparent, and Darcy endures her only because her brother is his best friend.
Darcy's refusal to dance with the local young women is, of course, an affront to the little Meryton community's self-esteem. Although there are reasons for his refusal, even Bingley notices Darcy's not dancing when women lack partners and pulls himself away from the beautiful Jane Bennet to encourage his friend to dance. As we recall, Darcy grumpily replies that he '"detest[s]"' dancing '"unless [he is] particularly acquainted with [his] partner'" (11). He then grouses about how dancing with the Meryton women would be a "'punishment.'"
Readers have not been kind to Darcy in terms of his Meryton behavior, nor have they really understood him. Patricia Meyer Spacks explains Darcy's reluctance to dance as "a combination of awkwardness and arrogance" (41, n. 24). She says his "unwillingness to dance unless he is particularly acquainted with his partner hints that he has difficulty making polite conversation" (41, n. 24). In a similar vein, June Dwyer argues that despite "Darcy's physical attractiveness, he is socially awkward and unable to indulge in small talk" (75)--an assessment that is now commonplace.
But claiming that Darcy cannot engage in small talk fails to acknowledge Darcy's "silent indignation at ... passing the evening" at Lucas Lodge "to the exclusion of all conversation" (25). It overlooks even Wickham's admitting to Elizabeth during their first lengthy conversation that "'Darcy can please where he chuses. He does not want abilities. He can be a conversible companion if he thinks it worth his while'" (82). And it ignores that Darcy converses with and even pursues conversations with Elizabeth at Netherfield, Rosings, and Pemberley.
Furthermore, if Darcy is only conversable, as Wickham states, when "he thinks it worth his while," then how do we account for Darcy's befriending and traveling around with Charles Bingley, who is neither a member of the landed gentry (not an estate owner), nor even half as rich as Darcy (Bingley's worth is 4,000 [pounds sterling] per annum), nor from "ancient" or "noble" families, as Lady Catherine reminds Elizabeth that Darcy is (356). Bingley is merely from "a respectable family in the north of England, ... [whose] fortune ... had been acquired by trade" (15). An arrogant snob would not socialize with such a person. For as Austen's contemporary readers would know from this line, the late Mr. Bingley senior was a self-made businessman from one of England's new northern manufacturing cities. An arrogant snob in the period of Pride and Prejudice would have used the pejorative term nouveaux riches to describe the Bingleys (OED Aa, 1796, 1802 usages). An arrogant snob would have found an easy-going younger son of an earl or upper-gentry landowner to befriend as opposed to the son of a mere tradesman, however wealthy. But Darcy socializes with Charles Bingley and his siblings, whose family heritage and money bear the taint of mercantile roots--a taint that offended the sensibilities of those who had inherited their wealth and rank well into the late nineteenth century.
To explain Darcy's stubborn refusal to dance at the Meryton Assembly, I turn to one of the world's foremost Darcy experts: Colin Firth. In The Making of Pride and Prejudice, published in conjunction with the 1995 television series, Firth reveals an astute understanding of what I call Darcy's alpha-male grumpiness at the Meryton Assembly:
Bingley immediately engages with the most attractive woman in the room. ... I say, "You've got the best-looking girl in the room," and he exacerbates the position I've put myself in. Then I say, "She's okay, but not good enough for me," but what I am really saying is, "Look, I'm supposed to be better than you, so don't give me the plain sister." (101)
Recall the narrator's telling us that Darcy is richer, from a higher-ranking family (not a mere tradesman's family from the North, where they speak with accents that the Bingley sisters learn to lose at their finishing school in London), taller, cleverer, and "much handsomer" than Bingley.
Firth's comment explains Darcy's alpha-male grumpiness at Meryton and thus the reason for his "turning around" to Elizabeth, not "beautiful" like Jane but "very pretty"--that is, second best--"catching her eye" (11), and uttering his grumpy comment about her looks within her earshot. But while Firth explains, he does not excuse Darcy's bad behavior because it is inexcusable. Like his female counterpart, Emma Woodhouse, the Queen Bee at Box Hill, Darcy "could not resist" insulting Elizabeth any more than Emma could resist insulting Miss Bates. But unlike Emma, Darcy does not have a Mr. Knightley to remind him that '"It was badly done, indeed!'" (Emma 375) (4) Darcy has only the now silenced Bingley, who simply returns to dance with the beautiful Jane.
Elizabeth, though left "with no very cordial feelings towards him," initially handles his insult with cleverness and aplomb: "She told the story ... with great spirit among her friends; for she had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in any thing ridiculous" (12). Here Elizabeth is the clever daughter of her clever father as she makes fun of Darcy's rejecting her, thus making Darcy the butt of the joke.
The following day, however, when Charlotte Lucas joins the Longbourn ladies to discuss the dance, Elizabeth's true feelings emerge, whereby she reveals herself as her stubborn mother's stubborn daughter, as well as her witty father's witty but irritable daughter. The ladies' chatter soon turns to Darcy, with Mrs. Bennet stupidly announcing that everyone thinks Darcy is "'ate up with pride'" because, having heard that Mrs. Long owns no carriage and so came to the Assembly in a hack chaise, Darcy refused to talk with her (19). Charlotte loyally replies, "'I do not mind his not talking to Mrs. Long, ... but I wish he had danced with Eliza.'" This reminder immediately prompts Mrs. Bennet's motherly advice, '"Another time, Lizzy, ... I would not dance with him, if I were you'" (20). Lizzy actually accepts her mother's advice, assuring her, "'I believe, Ma'am, I may safely promise you never to dance with him.'" Here she is her stubborn mother's stubborn daughter, as well as her grumpy father's grumpy daughter.
Although during the assembly evening, she has turned the incident into a joke on Darcy, on October 22, the morning after the assembly Elizabeth confesses to Charlotte, '"I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine'" (20). Now we hear from Elizabeth that she considers Darcy's comment as much more than "ridiculous": it has mortified her. The Latin root of "mortify" is mors, meaning death, and the verb "to mortify" means "to deprive of life" (OED 1 a, c, c). In common parlance, mortification makes one die of embarrassment.
Had Elizabeth felt that Darcy's insult was merely "ridiculous," as the narrator claims she does, she would not stew over it for days, weeks, even months following the episode. Moody's calendar for the novel reminds us that Darcy gives his letter to Elizabeth on 10 April 1812: not until then, six months after the Assembly insult, does she finally begin reassessing his behavior and her own. As D. H. Lawrence long ago reminded readers, "Never trust the artist, trust the tale" (14).
As abundantly playful as she is, Elizabeth neither forgets nor forgives Darcy's insult. She begins playing the role of Miss Pert (to borrow Mitford's term) with Darcy in order to pay him back for his mortifying her--all the while oblivious to his trying patiently to explain himself to her.
Granted, Darcy does not apologize for the insult until the couple's two post-second-engagement apology contests. But shortly after the Meryton episode, Darcy reveals that he is dynamic, in movement, as he begins revising his first impressions of the young woman whose looks he insulted. On the other hand, Elizabeth--one of fiction's most physically active heroines as she leaps over stiles, runs up a hill, jumps over puddles, and walks rapidly through fields--is ironically psychologically static, insofar as Darcy is concerned. She is virtually entrenched in mortified pride.
Early in chapter 6, which culminates in the Lucas Lodge evening, we learn that Elizabeth and Darcy have attended various social gatherings together since the Meryton Assembly. Over this three-week period of offstage events, Darcy has begun re-thinking his opinion of Elizabeth: he finds "her face ... rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes" and "her figure to be light and pleasing"; he is "caught by [the] easy playfulness" of her manners. "Of this," the narrator tells us, "she was perfectly unaware;--to her he was only the man who made himself agreeable no where, and who had not thought her handsome enough to dance with" (23, my italics). So while Darcy experiences psychological movement, Elizabeth dwells for three weeks on her "mortification" from Darcy's far-from "ridiculous" remark: she is both emotionally and psychologically mortified, stuck in one place.
She verbalizes this psychological stasis at the Lucas's evening party (November 12), where the first post-Mery ton dramatized exchange between Elizabeth and Darcy occurs. Talking with Charlotte, Elizabeth observes Darcy's '"very satirical eye'" and says, "'[If I do not begin by being impertinent myself, I shall soon grow afraid of him'" (24). Her word "impertinent" is especially striking because from this time until after she memorizes his letter of April 10 (six months after the Assembly), Elizabeth plays "Miss Pert" with Darcy: she is saucy, cheeky, even rude toward him. But he is already in movement--dynamic, now behaving politely and even gallantly toward her as he starts to recognize her physical and intellectual attractiveness.
Elizabeth exploits her first opportunity to play Miss Pert with Darcy when the well-meaning Sir William Lucas suggests to Darcy that he dance with her. Darcy "was not unwilling to receive" her hand, which Sir William offers to him (26). She draws back, saying that she does not seek a dancing partner. She is true to her word to her mother (October 22) when she promised Mrs. Bennet that she would "never" dance with Darcy (Austen's italics). But Sir William persists in coaxing '"Miss Eliza'" and obviously believes he is flattering her with what he thinks is a rhetorical question: '"for who would object to such a partner?'" (27). She, however, has been stewing for twenty-two days about Darcy, who has mortified her precisely by objecting to such a partner. Of course, Elizabeth's "resistance" does not injure her with Darcy because (as Elizabeth later guesses) he is undoubtedly sick of young women playing up to him the way Miss Bingley does.
Spending four days (November 13-17) at Netherfield, Elizabeth finds that circumstances force her into Darcy's company. During those chatty evenings in the drawing room, Darcy begins trying to explain himself to her, but Elizabeth pertly rejects his overtures. Miss Bingley and Darcy dominate the conversation during the first Netherfield evening, enumerating the qualities of an accomplished lady, a discussion that Elizabeth abruptly shuts down by saying pertly, '"I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any"' (39).
Despite Elizabeth's abruptness, Darcy shows his growing interest in her during their next drawing-room conversation. Finishing his letter, Darcy asks for some music. When Miss Bingley plays "a lively Scotch air," Darcy draws near Elizabeth, asking, "'Do not you feel a great inclination, Miss Bennet, to seize such an opportunity of dancing a reel?'" (51-52). She ignores him, so he repeats the invitation. Elizabeth immediately baits him:
"You wanted me, I know, to say 'Yes,' that you might have the pleasure of despising my taste; but I always delight in overthrowing those kind of schemes, and cheating a person of their premeditated contempt. I have therefore made up my mind to tell you that I do not want to dance a reel at all--and now despise me if you dare." "Indeed I do not dare." (52)
This is an interesting exchange between hero and heroine. Elizabeth, we are told, had "rather expected to affront him," but she is "amazed at [his] gallantry" (52). Of course, she could have easily rejected his invitation to dance simply by saying, "No, thank you; I prefer continuing my needlework." But she chooses, instead, to needle Darcy and chatters on, in the voluble mode of her mother, attributing to him a hostile motive--that of despising her taste--in asking her to dance a reel. Thus, our otherwise intellectually and physically active heroine ironically remains physically and emotionally in stasis over Darcy's insult--uttered twenty-five days earlier. Austen ensures that readers feel affection for her "delightful" heroine by interjecting narrative commentary that directs our thinking: "there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody" (52). And because Darcy is in movement toward Elizabeth, he acts gallantly towards her, simply replying that he would not "dare" despise her. He reveals remarkable maturity and patience toward Miss Pert.
The next day at Netherfield, Elizabeth and Miss Bingley encounter Darcy and Mrs. Hurst walking outside. Miss Bingley immediately takes Darcy's free arm. Sensitive to the Bingley sisters' "rudeness" to Elizabeth on a path that is wide enough to accommodate only three walkers, Darcy graciously suggests that the four of them go to a wider avenue. Elizabeth laughingly rejects his courteous offer and runs off uttering her joke about a group of three preferred for achieving the picturesque effect (53). In addition to spurning Darcy's gesture of amiability and courtesy, Elizabeth subtly and wittily insults the three remaining walkers: to achieve the picturesque effect, artist William Gilpin recommended groups of three in drawing large animals, particularly cows. (5)
The final Netherfield drawing-room conversation involving Elizabeth and Darcy occurs the next evening, when Darcy goes to some lengths to explain his character to her. Darcy teases Miss Bingley and Elizabeth, saying that he knows that they know that walking about the room flatters their figures; Elizabeth urges Miss Bingley to tease Darcy, who has just teased them. But Caroline refuses: '"Teaze calmness of temper and presence of mind!"' (57). So Miss Pert readily takes up the task: '"Mr. Darcy is not to be laughed at!' cried Elizabeth. 'That is an uncommon advantage, and uncommon I hope it will continue, for it would be a great loss to me to have many such acquaintance. I dearly love a laugh'" (57).
Darcy seizes this opportunity to defend himself, and in so doing, to explain his character to her: "'Miss Bingley,' said he, 'has given me credit for more than can be. The wisest and the best of men, nay, the wisest and best of their actions, may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke'" (57). Darcy, who is as clever and witty as Elizabeth, and like her, liable to rudeness, challenges her here as a shallow individual. But the subsequent dialogue of this scene highlights both Darcy's increasing dynamism as he attempts to explain his character and Elizabeth's psychological stasis, shown in her baiting him. First, she defends herself: '"I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.'" And then, she deliberately tries to bait Darcy with a sarcastic accusation: '"But these, I suppose, are precisely what you are without'" (57). Darcy immediately leaps to his own defense: '"Perhaps that is not possible for any one. But it has been the study of my life to avoid those weaknesses which often expose a strong understanding to ridicule.'" '"Such as vanity and pride,"' suggests Elizabeth. Darcy explains: "'Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride--where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation'" (57). "Elizabeth," the narrator tells us, "turned away to hide a smile." Perhaps readers join her in smiling at Darcy's apparent stuffiness.
Yet Darcy has a valid point here: his aunt, Lady Catherine, inherited her courtesy title as an earl's daughter, but she is not clever, as Elizabeth and Darcy are. Because she lacks "real superiority of mind," Lady Catherine's pride in her noble birth is vulgar: she cannot keep it "under good regulation." And Darcy himself can be guilty. After Elizabeth berates Darcy in the First proposal scene for failing to act like a gentleman, he "starts" or winces and later apologizes for his ungentlemanly behavior: in other words, for failing to regulate his pride.
Impatiently listening to Darcy and Elizabeth spar, Miss Bingley now interjects, "'Your examination of Mr. Darcy is over, I presume,' said Miss Bingley;--'and pray what is the result?'" Like Emma at Box Hill and Darcy at the Meryton Assembly, Elizabeth cannot "resist" the opportunity to try to ruffle Darcy yet again: "'I am perfectly convinced by it that Mr. Darcy has no defect. He owns it himself without disguise'" (57). But this conversation is not yet ended. Darcy will not let Elizabeth have the last word because he wants her to understand him:
"No"--said Darcy, "I have made no such pretension. I have faults enough, but they are not, I hope, of understanding. My temper I dare not vouch for.--It is I believe too little yielding--certainly too little for the convenience of the world. I cannot forget the follies and vices of others so soon as I ought, nor their offences against myself. My feelings are not puffed about with every attempt to move them. My temper would perhaps be called resentful.--My good opinion once lost is lost forever."
Elizabeth admits, "'Implacable resentment is a shade in a character. But you have chosen your fault well.--I really cannot laugh at it. You are safe from me'" (58). Of course she cannot laugh at it: Elizabeth, herself, nurtures implacable resentment against Darcy. She, too, cannot forget another's offense against herself because she is stubborn like her mother, but she articulates this stubbornness in the clever and witty style of her father.
A sharp difference, however, exists in the causes of each character's "implacable resentment." Darcy's "implacable resentment" is directed against George Wickham, and it is perfectly legitimate: Wickham tried to run off with Darcy's younger sister. Elizabeth's "implacable resentment" toward Darcy, on the other hand, is based on his rejecting her as a dancing partner--more than three weeks earlier. She is holding a grudge, over-reacting to a comparatively trivial event, particularly since Darcy has been repeatedly and patiently attempting to explain himself to her.
And so in this Netherfield scene Darcy still has more to say in self-explanation: '"There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil, a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome'" (58). The clever, mortified Elizabeth sees this admission as an invitation to deliver her coup de grace: '"And your defect is a propensity to hate everybody.'" His response to her accusation reminds us that Darcy, as Austen earlier states, is also "clever" (16); he is not defeated: "'And yours,' he replied with a smile, 'is willfully to misunderstand them'" (58, my italics). He is absolutely right, for as readers know, Elizabeth unquestionably believes Wickham's story simply because it verifies her anger toward the man who disparaged her looks. Darcy's smiling at her as he replies suggests the smile Elizabeth observes in his Pemberley portrait, a likeness that raises "a more gentle sensation towards the original, than she had ever felt" (250). We may infer from her reaction to Darcy's smiling face in the portrait that his smile in the scene just discussed is congenial and gracious. He is amused and challenged by her behavior toward him because he is trying to help her understand him.
Just as Darcy has been in psychological movement between the episodes at Meryton and Lucas Lodge, and then during the Netherfield drawing room conversations, so he exhibits overt progress in chapter 18, at the Netherfield Ball, by inviting Elizabeth to dance. Elizabeth is taken "so much by surprise in [(Darcy's] application for her hand, that, without knowing what she did, she accepted him" (90), causing her to "fret over her own want of presence of mind." Charlotte consoles her friend, "'I dare say you will find him very agreeable.'" "'Heaven forbid!"' [[replies Elizabeth]]--"'That would be the greatest misfortune of all!--To find a man agreeable whom one is determined to hate!"' (90).
Taking her place in the set opposite the silent Darcy, Elizabeth springs into action to verbalize her self-proclaimed hatred: she "suddenly fancies] that it would be the greater punishment to her partner to oblige him talk" (91). Her motivation is to punish Darcy: for what? He mortified her at Mery ton. So she makes a "slight observation on the dance"; Darcy "replied, and was again silent":
After a pause of some minutes she addressed him a second time with,
"It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy.--/ talked about the dance, and you ought to make some remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples."
He smiled, and assured her that whatever she wished him to say should be said.
"Very well.--That reply will do for the present.--Perhaps by and bye I may observe that private balls are much pleasanter than public ones.--But now we may be silent." (91)
With the motivation of punishing Darcy, Elizabeth needles him by raising the subject of public balls--like the Meryton Assembly--where five weeks earlier, he insulted her. Elizabeth, for all her charm, cannot resist provoking him about his rejecting her as a partner back then, at a public ball, even as he has requested her hand to dance now at the private ball. But rather than riling Darcy, her playing Miss Pert attracts her patient suitor. Indeed, Elizabeth's baiting keeps him interested in her. Although she turns Wickham's opinions into accusations to throw at Darcy, they leave him with "a tolerable powerful feeling towards her, which soon procured her pardon, and directed all his anger against another" (94)--an indication of Darcy's maturity and wisdom.
He displays his increasing self-knowledge with even a little humility during his subsequent encounter with Elizabeth. In Lady Catherine's drawing room at Rosings on Easter evening, 29 March 1812--five months after the Meryton Assembly--Elizabeth is extremely rude to Darcy, still chafing at his insult. The Rosings musical evening is Elizabeth and Darcy's first sustained conversation since the Netherfield ball. Darcy joins Colonel Fitzwilliam, who sits in a chair next to Elizabeth as she plays the pianoforte. Seeing Darcy looking directly at her, she "archly" smiles and accuses him of having come over to frighten her. But she defiantly assures the silent Darcy that this behavior only raises her courage. She repeats her performance from Lucas Lodge of ascribing a negative motivation to Darcy. To Elizabeth's accusation, Darcy calmly replies that she knows he has no intention to alarm her, adding that he has had '"the pleasure of [[her] acquaintance'" long enough (five months) to know that she occasionally voices opinions that are not her own--such as those she has adopted from Wickham.
Colonel Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth remain seated by the Rosings pianoforte while Darcy stands next to it (174). Laughing "heartily" at Darcy's reply, Elizabeth tries to pique him further by telling Colonel Fitzwilliam about Darcy's failing to ask partner-less ladies to dance, referring, once again, to the Meryton Assembly. She is openly aggressive as she tries to humiliate Darcy in front of his cousin. But Darcy calmly pursues his explanation: "'I had not at that time the honour of knowing any lady in the assembly beyond my own party'" (175). "'True, and nobody can ever be introduced in a ball room,"' retorts the pert Elizabeth, still trying to humiliate Darcy. Dropping the subject, she turns back to Colonel Fitzwilliam and asks what she shall next play. Undaunted, Darcy now pushes the conversation back to his behavior at Meryton, possibly with even some subconscious acknowledgement that he had behaved badly back then. Raised to be a gentleman, he knows it is impolite for gentlemen to ignore partner-less ladies at dances: "'Perhaps,' said Darcy, 'I should have judged better, had I sought an introduction, but, I am ill qualified to recommend myself to strangers'" (175).
Colonel Fitzwilliam falls right into Elizabeth's game: '"I can answer your question,' said Fitzwilliam, 'without applying to him. It is because he will not give himself the trouble'" (175). Colonel Fitzwilliam can say this, like this, about his cousin Darcy, who is standing right there, because they have known each other for their entire lives: this is one guy razzing another. But Darcy ignores his cousin's tweaking because he is serious about explaining himself to Elizabeth: "'I certainly have not the talent which some people possess ... of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done'" (175). And of course, Darcy must be circumspect around husband-seeking females in want of men of good fortune. Deprecating his social skills, Darcy forces the conversation about his behavior at Meryton to resume in spite of, or perhaps because of, her needling. Yet in trying diplomatically to explain himself, Darcy here risks humiliation in front of his cousin while Elizabeth remains in stasis as Miss Pert.
At Darcy's saying that he has not the "talent" for socializing--and perhaps his social and financial circumstances compel him to be something of an introvert--Elizabeth chastises and corrects him, saying that her piano fingering would be quicker if she took "'the trouble of practising'" (175). Darcy does not argue but, with a smile, simply offers the compliment that nothing in her playing is lacking, followed by the memorable comparison between them that '"neither of us perform to strangers'" (176). His failing to answer directly her implied criticism that he would be more skilled in social situations if he practiced being more sociable is understandable from both the character's situation and the author's point of view.
A lengthy dialogue between hero and heroine on Darcy's needing to learn to comport himself more easily with others would have entailed a back-and-forth within earshot of Lady Catherine, who would likely be interrupting as she earlier has interrupted Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam's conversation. Moreover, Darcy is not yet conscious of his need to apologize to Elizabeth. As his "start" reveals when she rejects his first proposal at Hunsford and accuses him of failing to behave '"in a ... gentleman-like manner'" (192), he has no idea, because of his alpha-male attitude and his still poorly regulated pride, that he has behaved badly. Finally, this moment at Rosings is narratively not the right place to unfold the story of Wickham's attempted seduction of Georgiana, about which Lady Catherine is ignorant. Indeed, if Darcy should respond to Elizabeth in any way other than he does, readers would be robbed of the memorable first proposal scene and his full-chapter letter, which we read as Elizabeth reads, causing her to see that she, too, has been in error. (6)
Near the end of their dance at Netherfield, Elizabeth told Darcy that she was "'trying to make ... out'" his character, that his character "'puzzled'" her (93). Here at Rosings, he continues what he began at Netherfield: trying to clarify his character for her. But Elizabeth is so entrenched in the mortification from his insult at the Meryton Assembly that she refuses to take him seriously or positively, even as he tries to help her solve the puzzle that is Darcy.
Darcy's initial proposal to Elizabeth--a reminder that forthright honesty to the point of bluntness in emphasizing her social inferiority and how his judgment has been in conflict with his feelings for her is not the best way to win the lady's assent--deserves Elizabeth's frank and angry response. Her response is, indeed, a revelation to Darcy. He even admits to her after his second, brief, and gracious proposal that her words--"'had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner'"--have "'tortured'" him (192, 367).
Likewise, his letter is truly revelatory to her, not only about him but, more important, about herself. Hence, Elizabeth, so long entrenched in her mortified pride, begins to revise her feelings about Darcy. When I teach this novel, I urge my students to notice the stages of her changing attitude towards him. After nearly memorizing his letter, she first feels "gratitude" for his "attachment" to her and "respect" for "his general character," "but she could not approve him" (212). About three months after this proposal, Elizabeth--visiting Pemberley and now understanding what he has at stake in selecting its next mistress, hearing Mrs. Reynolds's praise, and witnessing his congenial courtesy towards her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner--encounters a changed Darcy. When the next day he brings Georgiana and Bingley to visit the Gardiner party, Elizabeth realizes that she not only no longer hates Darcy but respects, esteems, and feels "gratitude ... for [his] loving her still well enough to forgive" her "petulance" and "acrimony" (265); indeed, she sees such an improvement in Darcy that it must be attributed to "ardent love" (266). She wonders if she should encourage his renewed address to her. When she tells Darcy of the contents of Jane's letter regarding Wickham and Lydia and sees "his brow contracted, his air gloomy"---a reaction not of Byronic heroism but rather his recognition
that, as the one person with the insight into Wickham's whereabouts and the money to buy Wickham's cooperation, he must deal with the man he least wants ever to see again--Elizabeth believes that, even as she now recognizes that she loves Darcy, "all love must be in vain" (278).
Finally, when Wickham and Lydia visit Longbourn and Elizabeth again witnesses her parents' incompatible characters, she (oblivious to Darcy's role in rescuing Lydia and the Bennet family from shame, and believing that she will never see him again) begins "to comprehend that [Darcy] was exactly the man, who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her" (312). But she still has more to learn about Darcy's character. For her remaining misperception of Darcy's nature causes her to think that he will "triumph" in her family's shame--as if Darcy had assumed the vindictive and nasty personality of Miss Bingley!
After Darcy's second, successful proposal to Elizabeth, the two have something of an apology contest, in which our heroine admits forthrightly to "'abusing'" Darcy '"so abominably to your face'" (367). But Darcy gallantly replies, "'What did you say of me, that I did not deserve? ... [M]y behaviour to you at the time, had merited the severest reproof. It was unpardonable.'" He is acknowledging that he has behaved badly, in an ungentlemanly manner, when his pride was under no regulation. Elizabeth, however, has more for which to apologize than her angry rebuff of Darcy's First proposal.
Elizabeth now recognizes that she has been repeatedly rude to Darcy. Thus, Austen has her heroine praise to his face Darcy's amiability and "'noble and just'" feelings (380). Darcy truly is as "'really amiable'" as Elizabeth finally comes to acknowledge. Indeed, he has been amiable much longer than Elizabeth recognizes: since the evening at Lucas Lodge. But because we readers "read" Darcy the way Elizabeth "reads" Darcy and thus take her side against his, we may not see how early in the novel he begins patiently trying to make amends by explaining himself to her. To his attempted explanations, Elizabeth, stewing for months over his Meryton insult that she, herself, publicized, has responded only with deliberately unpleasant, hurtful remarks. But blessed with the cleverness and wit that her father manifests in his complaints, Elizabeth is "delightful," even when she speaks thoughtlessly like her mother, whose doing so is stupid and tedious. Elizabeth's talkativeness, of course, sparkles with the cleverness--and generally good grammar--that Mrs. Bennet's lacks. Even complaints and rudeness spoken in a witty way can make those same remarks humorous to a bystander's ear. (In screen adaptations of the novel, we even anticipate hearing Mr. Bennet's complaints about his wife and daughters because, as nasty as they are, his complaints make us laugh.) When the witty Mr. Bennet and Lizzy speak rudely, the habitual tedium of griping becomes even charming.
In calling Elizabeth "delightful," Austen, I suggest, was as much seduced by Elizabeth's physical, intellectual, and verbal energy, along with her incredible self-possession, as Darcy is and as Austen's readers are. And because Elizabeth is so charmingly and intellectually attractive, readers fail to see that Darcy is in emotional and psychological motion soon after his early alpha-male grumpiness and ungentlemanly rudeness. Consistently dynamic, ever moving toward the woman he comes to love, Darcy has even surprised himself: '"I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun'" (380), he confesses to Elizabeth. So when the happily engaged Elizabeth tells her sister Jane that '"in such cases as these, a good memory is unpardonable'" (373), I propose that if Darcy were a fly on the wall of the sisters' room, that extremely patient suitor would have thought, "It's about time!"
Austen, Jane. Jane Austen's Letters. Ed. Deirdre Le Faye. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1997.
--. The Novels of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1965.
Austen-Leigh, William, and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh. Rev. Deirdre Le Faye. Jane Austen: A Family Record. London: British Library, 1989.
Birtwhistle, Sue, and Susie Conklin. The Making of Pride and Prejudice. London: Penguin, 1995.
Bottomer, Phyllis Ferguson. So Odd a Mixture, Along the Autistic Spectrum in Pride and Prejudice. London: Kingsley, 2007.
Coolidge, Frederick L., and Karenleigh Overmann. "Darcy was not Autistic, Part II: On Darcy's Character and the Methods of Modern Psychology." JASNA Pikes Peak Colloquium. UCCS Kraemer Family Library, Colorado Springs. 7 July 2013.
Dwyer, June. Jane Austen. New York: Continuum, 1989.
Gilpin, William. Observations, Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, Made in the Tear 1772: On Several Parts of England; Particularly the Mountains, and Lakes of Cumberland, and Westmoreland. 3 vols. 3rd ed. London: Balmire, 1792.
Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. Ed. Ezra Greenspan, Lindeth Vasey, and John Worthen. Cambridge: CUP, 2003.
L'Estrange, A. G., ed. The Life of Mary Russell Mitford Related in a Selection from Her Letters to Her Friends. 3 vols. London: Bentley, 1870.
Macaulay, Thomas Babington. Lord Byron. London: Longman, 1856.
Moody Ellen. "A Chronology of Pride and Prejudiced www.jimandellen.org/austen/p&p.calendar.html.
Oxford English Dictionary Online, www.oed. com.
Overmann, Karenleigh. "Darcy and Emma: Austen's Ironic Meditation on Gender." Persuasions 31 (2009): 222-35.
--. "Darcy Was Not Autistic, Part I: Cartesian Dualism, Real Literary Madness, and the Mind and Madness in Austen's Novels." JASNA Pikes Peak Colloquium. UCCS Kraemer Family Library, Colorado Springs. 7 July 2013.
Spacks, Patricia Meyer. Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2010.
Wootton, Sarah. "The Byronic in Persuasion and Pride and Prejudiced Modern Language Review 102 (Jan. 2007): 26-39.
Joan Ray, a plenary speaker at the 2013 AGM, cheerfully retired in December 2012 as Professor Emerita of English from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Joan remains President of the North American Friends of Chawton House Library. In retirement she is devoting more time to Grace Episcopal Church as editor of its journal and lector director. NOTES
(1.) See particularly Sarah Wootton, on Darcy's Byronism, and Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer, who argues that Darcy suffers from "subtle Asperger's" (111). Arguments against Bottomer's location of Darcy on the autistic spectrum have been made by both Overmann ("Darcy Was Not Autistic, Part I") and Coolidge and Overmann. Patricia Myer Spacks's otherwise excellent and scholarly Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition (2010) interprets Darcy's behavior as awkwardness.
(2.) Who would be privy to and start the chatter about Darcy's income? Other than Darcy, the only three persons in the room likely to be familiar with his finances are Bingley, his two sisters, and his brother-in-law, Mr. Hurst. Bingley is too busy admiring Jane Bennet to discuss Darcy's income; furthermore, he could not have remained Darcy's closest friend if he announced Darcy's finances every time they entered a new neighborhood together. I suspect Caroline Bingley, ever anxious to impress, as the initiator of the gossip. She would certainly desire everyone to know that her brother is the best friend of the richest man at the Assembly, especially because this same rich man dances only with her and her sister--though just once each.
(3.) See Ellen Moody's helpful online chronology for the novel.
(4.) See Leee Overmann's insightful "Darcy and Emma."
(5.) "[W]ith three, you are almost sure of a good group" (Gilpin 2: xiii).
(6.) I thank the ever-observant and thoughtful Juliet McMaster for prompting me to think about why Darcy answers Elizabeth as he does when she raises the need for practice.
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|Title Annotation:||AGM 2013: Minneapolis|
|Author:||Ray, Joan Klingel|
|Publication:||Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2013|
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