The heroes of “Pride and Prejudice”
Last Friday, the meeting of the Anglican leaders called by the Archbishop of Canterbury broke up without a formal split in the Communion, and issued a statement. I am intending to post a blog about this, but am still gathering thoughts and information.
In the meantime, something frothy, squarely aimed at fellow lovers of Jane Austen.
THE HEROES OF “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”
On one famous night in the 1790s in the world of story, two rich handsome strangers arrived at a country assembly dance in the small town of Meryton. One of them was about to embark on his career as perhaps the Most Famous Romantic Hero of All Time. The other was his friend.
The MFRHOAT did not want to dance. His friend encouraged him to do so, pointing out a pretty girl in the room. The refusal is famous – “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.”
It seems to me that Mr Darcy (for of course it is he) is treated remarkably leniently by Elizabeth, by his author, and by fans through the ages, for the shocking rudeness of this remark. In the same author’s “Emma”, Mr Elton rejects the suggestion that he should dance with Harriet Smith. Everyone present, and all readers, understand at once that his words are appalling, placing Harriet in a position of misery from which she has to be literally rescued by Mr Knightley.
Is not Darcy equally rude here, or ruder? Unlike Elton, he is not motivated by vindictive spite. But on the other hand Elizabeth is a complete stranger to him. He is a gentleman who seems later to understand courtesy – why has he said in effect, “She is not good enough for me, and the fact that she is sitting down partnerless suggests that she is not good enough even for the other men here”?
It could be argued that he does not know she can hear him. This is an inadequate excuse. He can see her; and she can hear; it should be obvious to him that she might. In any case, she knows everyone in the room except his party – someone is plainly going to hear – and to tell her. One of the main purposes of assemblies like these is to enable young women to meet the young men they need to attract for their economic future. Darcy has publicly humiliated Elizabeth (whose considerable resilience he does not know) at one of the most important events of her life. He did this because he felt cross about attending a social event that he could have chosen not to come to.
Elizabeth is welcome to him, in my view.
Darcy does improve over time, although I always wonder why we are not given any details of the conversation at Pemberley with which he wins Elizabeth’s good will. But improvement is certainly needed.
His friend, on the other hand…
There are a few characters in books whom one feels are undervalued by readers, and even by their own author. Among these surely Charles Bingley of “Pride and Prejudice” stands first. Merely the hero’s best friend… One of the worst sins committed by the Joe Wright/Deborah Moggach/Keira Knightley/Matthew McFadyen film of P & P was its turning Bingley into an (amiable) upper-class twit. No sensible woman would have married that man for other than mercenary reasons – so the film also ruined the characterisation of Jane Bennet.
Back to the Bingley of the book. I urge, indeed challenge, anyone to read chapters 8 – 10 of “Pride and Prejudice” (where Jane is ill and Elizabeth is staying at Netherfield) and not be completely captivated by Bingley’s charm, tact and all-round niceness. His conversation, admittedly with Elizabeth as a sparring partner, marks him out as the most entertaining of Jane Austen’s heroes after Henry Tilney.
At every turn he is considerate to his uninvited guest, and her feelings and needs. He even manages to administer a gentle rebuke to Lydia (“you would not want to be dancing while [Jane] is ill”.) Does anyone else in the book achieve this? And this is at a time when the woman he is falling in love with is staying in his house, but for reasons of propriety he is not permitted to see her or speak to her.
The apparently casual discussion as to whether Bingley would, or should, give in to a friend’s request foreshadows the apparent ease with which Darcy and Miss Bingley later persuade him to abandon Jane. But the conversation itself shows Bingley as fully able to stand up for himself when attacked, leading up to this gorgeous description: “If Darcy were not such a great tall fellow, in comparison with myself, I should not pay him half so much deference. I declare I do not know a more awful object than Darcy, on particular occasions, and in particular places; at his own house especially, and of a Sunday evening, when he has nothing to do.”
(Oh, those 19th century Sunday evenings!)
Elizabeth does not laugh, out of consideration for Darcy. Yes, the MFRHOAT needs her protection, and from his sidekick.
Bingley does not put a foot wrong in the entire book, except, as stated above, that he abandons Jane at the demands of his friend and sister. They tell him that they don’t think she is particularly attached to him (which Darcy believes), and that she has an embarrassing family and no wealth (which is true).
And I think we can deduce that they may have also said the following:
“…You now see, my dear Charles, all the disadvantages that must follow if this is to be a match. No one doubts that she is a most deserving and admirable young woman. If you do love her more than all the world, and if you are convinced that she loves you – Caroline, her intimate friend, has seen no sign of it – then try for her.
But one thought more. You know – we all know – the gossip at Meryton. Her mother and her mother’s friends have already betrothed you. If you return now, they will be certain that you come to make an offer. Your proposals to her father will be looked for daily. Think of the distress that will cause her if she does not love you. Think of the awkwardness that will attend your every meeting, while her family watch, and she perhaps wonders how she can kindly refuse. Would she even dare to refuse you, such a great match as it would be for her? How would her mother and father treat her – how would even her conscience treat her if she did refuse, gentle and obliging as she is? Do you want her to feel forced into a marriage with someone whom she indeed likes, but no more than that? Is that the kind of marriage you want?
While you are at Netherfield, no other young man will dare to approach her. Is it really in her interests for you to go back? And I need hardly say, that if you are not determined to marry her, better a clean break now, while you are both comparatively unscathed, rather than actual heartbreak later.”
Bingley, modest as he is, puts Jane’s welfare above his own, and tears himself away. Every now and then perhaps, in London, he wistfully asks his sister if she has heard from Jane… and she says, “Oh, dear Jane! She wrote last week, happy as a lark. There was a young man who was very attentive – I do hope it comes to something…”
Perhaps I am seriously wronging Miss Bingley in this scenario. But perhaps not.
So I am hereby nominating Charles Bingley as the most underrated character in literature. Any other nominations? (Or anyone for the Darcy defence?)
The Partial, Prejudiced and Ignorant Blogger