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|PERSUASIONS ON-LINE||V.25, NO.1 (Winter 2004)|
Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet
University lecturer, then Free Church minister, Ivor Morris is author of Shakespeare’s God (1972), a reassessment of the great tragedies, Jane Austen & the Interplay of Character (1972), a study of motivation in the novels, and Hamlet, King of Denmark, a tragicomical ending.
“‘They have none of them much to recommend them,’” declares Mr. Bennet of his five daughters; “‘they are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters’” (5). With this reflection upon his own flesh and blood he assails the susceptibilities of his wife, with predictable success. What in particular will incense Mrs. Bennet is the preference openly affirmed in this remark, and in the “good word for my little Lizzy” that he has made so bold as to “throw in” (4).
Elizabeth, as she and her father are well aware, is the least dear to her mother of all her children, as the author states it. Who is to say that Mrs. Bennet’s resort, in her befuddled consciousness of being the butt of her husband’s ridicule, is not to take it out of the sibling who is most like him in critical propensity? But equally involuntary, we may also infer, is Mr. Bennet’s confession of regard, indeed, affection, for his second daughter: yet one more instance of a truth being spoken in jest, even by a person customarily as undemonstrative as he.
That roundness in the creation of characters which is the hall-mark of dramatic and literary achievement extends, in Jane Austen’s writing, to the whole families from which they spring, attributes of the elders being present or reflected in varying proportion in the children: a fact often noted and intriguingly explored. Certainly, Elizabeth displays a decided likeness to her mother in her tendency to indignant expostulation, and, if not ignorance of them, momentary forgetfulness of the demands of the polite conventions. But this is little more than a trick of temperament, in comparison with the substantial qualities of personality which show her so evidently to be her father’s daughter.
One respect in which she seems not at all to resemble Mr. Bennet is in his aloofness and imperturbability both as to persons and events. What we soon learn about the lesser detail of his everyday comportment is indication enough. He takes little if any interest in his neighbors, is with a book regardless of time, and pays social functions the compliment of absenting himself from them. The invitation from the newcomers, the Bingleys, to the ball at Netherfield must perforce be accepted; but the diversion it affords him is not of the kind that such gatherings would normally be thought to promote. It consists in watching with silent enjoyment, and entire absence of embarrassment, the gaucheries and discomfiture of his own family, from Mr. Collins’s bizarre address to the company on the duties of a cleric, and Mary’s distressing endeavours at the pianoforte, to Lydia’s all too natural yawnings, and the repulse by their disdainful and wearied hosts of his wife’s obtuse civilities.
His manner at Longbourn House during the uproar which follows Elizabeth’s rejection of Mr. Collins differs not a whit from that he has displayed at Netherfield. When the distrait Mrs. Bennet bursts into his library, he fixes his eyes on her “with a calm unconcern which was not in the least altered by her communication,” and expresses itself in the remote and ironic courtesy of, “‘I have not the pleasure of understanding you. Of what are you talking?’” (111). And his first instinct, when the state of affairs is spelled out to him, is to detach himself from it, despite its consequence for the family: “‘And what am I to do on the occasion? – It seems an hopeless business.’” His words here belie his intention, which, as it turns out, is most purposeful; but the coolness with which they are delivered aptly denotes a man whose relationship to his own wife is one of being “very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement“ (236).
No such distance from people and happenings close at hand is observable in his daughter. It is on the contrary only natural in a young woman of Elizabeth’s vivacity that she should be intimately involved in her immediate world. Yet she does display a capacity for detachment amidst its impressions and demands which must be seen as estimable, and notably contributes to making her the person she is. Nowhere is it more evident than after she has looked in vain for Wickham at the Netherfield ball, and learned that his absence is due indirectly to Darcy’s influence. For a moment her disappointment, and its accompanying anger, is extreme. But, we are told, she was not formed for ill-humour: this destruction of her own pleasure for the evening “could not dwell long on her spirits,” and was soon deliberately made to yield place to the recreation of pointing out Mr. Collins’s oddities to Charlotte Lucas. Another vexation closer to home is similarly assuaged. Though her appeal to Mr. Bennet concerning Lydia’s unbridled behaviour scarcely gains a hearing, she departs from the interview with composure. A consciousness of having done her duty helps to sustain her; but more flows from the fact that “to fret over unavoidable evils, or augment them by anxiety, was no part of her disposition” (232). Her aunt Mrs. Gardiner is right in judging that it would have been better if Jane’s being jilted had happened to Elizabeth, since she would have laughed herself out of it sooner.
The same attribute enables her to be relaxed in the unfamiliar surroundings at Rosings. As the little party draws near to it, she is troubled by none of those apprehensions which afflict two of her companions, from a certainty alike that Lady Catherine has nothing extraordinary about her, and that “the mere stateliness of money and rank” was something she herself “could witness without trepidation” (161). She is, in consequence, equal to the scene within. That at Hunsford Parsonage when Darcy is making his declaration is more threatening. There, Elizabeth is beset with emotions, strong and conflicting – with shock and embarrassment, with dislike, gratitude, and resentment – but she is by no means overwhelmed by them while he remains, or in any degree deprived of her usual ability to see and think clearly. The inflexibility of her opinion of Darcy, true enough, might well have enabled her to retain a proper perspective; but it is not insignificant nevertheless that, despite the surprise, the lover’s urgency, the greatness of the offer and the tumult of her own feelings, “she could easily see that he had no doubt of a favourable answer,” despite his professions of anxiety (189).
A capacity to distance oneself from the immediacy of event and the threat of emotion’s dominance, necessarily an individual trait, is most often the distinguishing feature of a very able mind. Ability, Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth possess in plenty; and in both of them it manifests itself in a certain formality or methodicalness of approach in matters of judgment and within their own mental processes: what might be termed a correctness, or a principled way of thinking. Thus, for all his laxity and indolence of disposition, and his straightened means, we would never be tempted to doubt Mr. Bennet’s declaration that, had the financial settlement with Wickham been Elizabeth’s uncle’s doing, “‘I must and would have paid him’” (377). This same punctiliousness might be thought to inform his estimate of Mr. Collins as a suitor, and his manner of conveying it to Elizabeth after Mrs. Bennet’s ultimatum. “‘From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. – Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do’” (112). And it is surely to be detected in the more serious circumstance of his trying to dissuade her from yoking herself to the “proud, unpleasant” Mr. Darcy. After the initial astonishment he is as deeply moved in the endeavour as father can be; but he has first, with what may be regarded as a laudable paternal rectitude, given his daughter his consent upon her tearful assurance of her affection for the man she has chosen (376-77).
The principled approach is more evident in Elizabeth, if only for the reason that we see more of her than her father. Even in so very personal a discussion as that between Jane and herself on the conduct of Charlotte Lucas in accepting Mr. Collins, Elizabeth’s eloquence is engaged not so much in presenting the attitude she has formed as upon defining the concepts it embodies:
“You shall not defend her, though it is Charlotte Lucas. You shall not, for the sake of one individual, change the meaning of principle and integrity, nor endeavour to persuade yourself or me, that selfishness is prudence, and insensibility to danger, security for happiness.” (135-36)
And though such severity of emphasis might be imagined to have no place in episodes of laughter and happiness, there is a rare delightfulness in the question to Darcy after their betrothal as to the seemliness of her disclosing to him her knowledge of what he had done for Lydia, in the hope that it would bring on his proposal. “‘My resolution of thanking you for your kindness to Lydia had certainly great effect. Too much, I am afraid; for what becomes of the moral, if our comfort springs from a breach of promise, for I ought not to have mentioned the subject?’” (381).
This propensity to detach the significance from the happening, and to view it in its abstraction as perhaps the greater reality, is present in the lightest instances of Elizabeth’s conversation and reflection. Jane’s deploring the disappointment Darcy must have suffered upon being so unceremoniously rejected provokes from her the mock-assertion that its effect is to render her correspondingly indifferent and unconcerned. “‘Your profusion makes me saving; and if you lament over him much longer, my heart will be as light as a feather’” (225). After this conversation she is left thinking about the disclosure in Darcy’s letter of Bingley’s affection for her sister, which she cannot mention to her until there is perfect understanding between the parties: in which presumptive event Bingley is far better suited to be the informant. Between frustration and mirth, she tells herself, “‘The liberty of communication cannot be mine until it has lost all its value!’” – ending, characteristically, with a syllogism (227).
For it is in much the same way upon the logic, or lack of it, in the position taken by Mrs. Gardiner with respect to Wickham’s new-found interest in Miss King since her acquisition of £10,000, that Elizabeth has pronounced with such peremptory frankness. Her aunt had suggested a venal motive in Wickham, and frowned upon Miss King’s acceptance of his hasty attentions. Elizabeth, struck by Mrs. Gardiner’s past warning her against an imprudent match with him, and present condemnation of his seeking a fortune upon which to marry, is moved to defend both persons. An impoverished young man, she argues, has not time for the “elegant decorums”; and if the lady herself is content, none can reasonably make objection. But the continuance of her aunt’s disapproval provokes her to impatience with inconsistency, even in someone she is so fond of. “‘Well,’” she cries, “‘have it as you choose. He shall be mercenary, and she shall be foolish’” (153)
Elizabeth Bennet is shown to be as susceptible to her feelings as are any of us. But she is unusual in that their very potency can quicken her thinking into new orderliness. The last place where one would expect to find this aptitude is in her angry dialogue with Darcy, but it is most evident there. The final affront – indeed, insult – of his passionate reference to her family’s social inferiority induces only the contrasting reserve of her stating that the mode of his declaration merely spares her the concern she would have felt had his behaviour been more gentlemanlike. What follows is like nothing so much as the stages of a reasoned case. In no way could she have been tempted to accept him; the arrogance of his disposition noted on early acquaintance had formed a “ground-work of disapprobation”; and upon this basis succeeding knowledge of him had built an “immovable” dislike. It is only when the successive charges reach their unequivocal conclusion that emotion finds scope in the rather less controlled affirmation of his being “‘the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry’” (193).
An innate tendency to consider the behaviour of others and oneself in terms of the principles underlying it will present rather starkly to its possessor the strange contrarieties and anomalies that subsist in social norms and in the human lot generally. To this kind of awareness Elizabeth is at all times prone; and it accounts for a charmingly philosophical element in her make-up which guards against any waywardness on her part, while endearing her to the reader. When, for example, the object they have all longed for is secured in the arrangements for Wickham’s marriage to Lydia, Elizabeth rejoices; but in an instant her mood has changed to a near-horror at the implications: “‘And they must marry! Yet he is such a man’” (304). She is astonished by the strangeness of their present joy, and need for thankfulness, at the prospect of a union which will afford no chance of happiness, and in which the profligate inclination of the husband is a certainty. But the vagaries of her own dealings can come under as critical a scrutiny; for, with such thinking, there is no room for evasion or dissimulation in one’s contemplation of them. It will exact the penalty of always “Doubting sad end of principle unsound,” wherever such principle may reside. How ruefully Elizabeth considers her past rashness with respect to Darcy after he has taken his leave at Lambton, as she throws “a retrospective glance over their whole acquaintance, so full of contradictions and varieties, and sighed at the perverseness of those feelings which would now have promoted its continuance, and would formerly have rejoiced at its termination” (279).
What, we might wonder, is the quality of Mr. Bennet’s brooding thoughts? He may be as well equipped for introspection as his daughter, though, one suspects, less given to the practice from the consequences of an unsuitable marriage. Happily for them both, however, it is the external sphere which commands their main interest, and provides their greatest pleasure; and it is for the outward aspect of things, further, that their keenly analytical powers of mind make them both suited. In Mr. Bennet they are elsewhere directed while, tiring of his family, he devotes himself to his books; but his ability quickly to grasp and see through a situation when occasion demands it is impressive. Talking with Elizabeth about Jane’s disappointment, and offering only the dubious consolation that, next to being married, “‘a girl likes to be crossed in love a little now and then,’” he asks her when her turn is to come, and with prophetic insight urges, “‘Let Wickham be your man. He is a pleasant fellow, and would jilt you creditably’” (137-38). The same perceptiveness determines that the provisions set out in Mr. Gardiner’s letter for Wickham and Lydia’s marriage conceal the chief fact of money having been put down. “‘Wickham’s a fool, if he takes her with a farthing less than ten thousand pounds,’” he affirms; with contemptuous solicitude then adding, “‘I should be sorry to think so ill of him, in the very beginning of our relationship’” (304).
Such mental achievement Elizabeth can readily equal. Had she not straight away seen from the pompous style and needless apology in the letter from Mr. Collins read out to the family that their clerical cousin must be an oddity? And does she not, contradicting he uncle’s hopes of an intention in the eloping couple to marry in London, deduce the worst from the secrecy, and fear of detection in their disappearance, and from the one’s need of money and the other’s inability to supply it, and unreservedly affirm, “‘Oh! No, no, this is not likely’”? As swift, and correct, is her judgment that in the Bingley sisters’ estimation the Bennets are “‘not rich enough, or grand enough for them’”; or, when once shut in her room at the Parsonage, that Col. Fitzwilliam must have been referring to
There is nothing remarkable in Elizabeth’s crediting, despite strong initial reservations, the whole of the studied and detailed account of his actions that Darcy had set out in the communication he puts into her hand in the park at Rosings. That the affair of his relation with Wickham “was capable of a turn which must make him entirely blameless throughout the whole” would have been evident in any careful perusal. But what is worthy of note is the rapidity with which she ranges through their entire acquaintance and applies this possibility to her own previous suppositions. The impropriety of Wickham’s confidences at a first encounter; the unreliability of subsequent professions; the insincerities detectable in his attentions to Miss King, and to herself; the confidence of a man like Bingley in Darcy’s being blameless; the lack of any sign of the unprincipled or the unjust in Darcy, for all his repellent manners: all these contrary tokens are immediately before her. Though unable to overcome her fixed disapproval of the man who has made it, the revelation heightens her chagrin at the indecorum of her family, and acquaints her with a novel and demoralizing dissatisfaction with her own conduct.
Her humiliation is the more profound because she had herself anticipated and all but reached the assessment of Wickham that Darcy puts before her. But for the charm of first liking and the flattery of his attentions, the flaws she had detected in Wickham’s intimations would have been further dwelt on, and probably led to disbelief; puzzlement, at least, they do bring about in her. Again and again during their discussion at the Phillipses, she exclaims in surprise and wonder at what she is being required to accept as truth. “‘Good heavens! but how could that be?’” (79) is her justified reaction to the idea of so definite an intention as the gift of a living being set aside at Darcy’s instigation. The plea of his jealousy and dislike of the companion of his youth, Elizabeth can doubt from her own limited experience. “‘I had supposed him to be despising his fellow-creatures in general, but did not suspect him of descending to such malicious revenge, such injustice, such inhumanity as this!’” (80). The known fact of Darcy’s pride is here not persuasive. She has found it insufferable, and levelled scorn at it while a guest at Netherfield; but she speaks her incomprehension that pride itself had not constrained him to be just – “‘If from no better motive, that he should not have been too proud to be dishonest, - for dishonesty I must call it’” (81). And, pondering the question while other subjects are being reviewed, she suddenly ventures upon it once more, in surprise that an assured relationship should subsist between Darcy and Bingley. “‘How can Mr. Bingley, who seems good humour itself,’” she asks, “‘and is, I really believe, truly amiable, be in friendship with such a man? How can they suit each other?’” (82). Her queries gain answers from Wickham that are sufficiently plausible; but the whole conversation testifies to Elizabeth’s perspicacity. She has come close to detecting Wickham for what he is in the very process of his gaining her affections.
Analysis of her own feelings, not surprisingly, she finds much more difficult; and, indeed, is entirely capable of being at a loss when it is essential she should be clear. The change in Darcy’s manner, when they meet by accident at Pemberley for the first time since their stormy interview in Hunsford Parsonage, is something the reader might think she should at once understand; but, amazed as she is at the striking alteration in him, she has no idea what to attribute it to: “She knew not what to think, nor how to account for it” (252). The principled nature of her thinking is perhaps the reason for her failure, the assured grounds of her past aversion to the man and estimate of the effect upon him of her denunciation combining to preclude the possibility of affection as a cause. And, after the visit in Derbyshire from the Pemberley party, Elizabeth is so unsure of her feelings respecting him that “she lay awake two whole hours, endeavouring to make them out”: methodically dismissing hatred and dislike, admitting respect, allowing esteem, and venturing at last to contemplate the presence of gratitude. But nothing at all hinders her capacity later on to see through the complexities of their earlier acquaintance, and determine exactly what it was that had made Darcy admire and fall in love with her.
“The fact is, that you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking and looking, and thinking for your approbation alone. I roused, and interested you, because I was so unlike them.” (380)
Is she not perfectly right?
When, in the throes of her nervous discontent at the thought of being denied formal introduction to the new owner of Netherfield Park, Mrs. Bennet falls to berating her next-youngest daughter, Mr. Bennet comments to the assembled family on Kitty’s lack of discretion in her coughs: “‘she times them ill’” (6), he declares. But upon his wife’s recovering composure and good humour through his announcement of having paid the necessary visit, he gravely advises, as if the paroxysm were voluntary, “‘Now, Kitty, you may cough as much as you chuse’” (8). The novel shows him a master of laconic and sardonic utterance; but it conveys also the reason for his being so, in his vigour of mind and instant apprehension, the “quick parts” whimsically demonstrated in the opening discourse with Mrs. Bennet. This degree of mental capacity itself accounts for that strongly developed sense of the inconsistent and incongruous in human relationships which makes for and gives force to the well-judged terse remark, expressive as it is of an underlying mirth. Thus his wife’s detestation of the man who is next in the entail of the estate, and dispossessor of the mother and daughters she is incapable of seeing as any other than its rightful beneficiaries, brings from him the unstinted concurrence of, “‘It certainly is a most iniquitous affair, and nothing can clear Mr. Collins from the guilt of inheriting Longbourn’” (62). In the act of diplomatically putting an end to Mary’s endeavours at the pianoforte he cannot forbear the briefest hint as to their significance, in his, “‘That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough. Let the other young ladies have time to exhibit’” (101). And his method of bringing solace to Mrs. Bennet, in her wilful desolation at the notion of living to see Charlotte Lucas become mistress of Longbourn, is to put before her a neglected contingency which would spare her such distress. “‘My dear, do not give way to such gloomy thoughts. Let us hope for better things. Let us flatter ourselves that I may be the survivor’” (130).
It is the same suppressed laughter which prompts an equally ceremonious rejoinder from Elizabeth when Lady Catherine de Bourgh, sweeping aside its mistress’s prerogatives, insists that she stay longer at Hunsford Parsonage. “‘I am much obliged to your ladyship for your kind invitation, but it is not in my power to accept it’” (211). As toneless and proper a response is forthcoming from her when Mrs. Bennet, in her indignation at the report of Darcy’s having deemed her daughter “‘Not handsome enough to dance with!’” (13) seriously advises, “‘Another time, Lizzy, I would not dance with him, if I were you’” (20). Darcy’s asking her, and her taking the unheard-of liberty of asking him, being both seemingly precluded, Elizabeth is nothing but correct in solemnly replying, “‘I believe, Ma’am, I may safely promise you never to dance with him.’”
Darcy and his associates fare no differently when she is in their company. The affront which the former has perhaps unknowingly administered, and Elizabeth’s sense of the pretentiousness prevailing amongst them, Bingley alone excepted, contrive if anything to lend her remarks a greater brevity and emphasis. Darcy’s unexpectedly offering her his hand as a partner upon Sir William Lucas’s over-enthusiastic recommendation, with its accompanying assurance of the gentleman’s having no objection to dancing with her, for all his dislike of the amusement in general, draws from her the astringent compliment of “‘Mr. Darcy is all politeness’” (26). As ironic is her amused entry to the conversation at Netherfield about handwriting that arises from Miss Bingley’s admiration for Darcy’s epistolary skills, and denigration of her brother’s. Bingley does not deny the charge that he writes “‘in the most careless way imaginable’” (48) and cheerfully confesses to a flow of thoughts so rapid that his letters sometimes convey no ideas at all to his correspondents. Elizabeth’s contribution of the simple “‘Your humility, Mr. Bingley, must disarm reproof,’” dispraising both handwriting and implicit boast, brings Darcy into the fray, and leads to that confrontation between the two keenest minds present whose ending is no less than a relief to the rest of them. But it is one of short duration. The rudeness of the sisters next day, in having Darcy as their escort on a narrow path and leaving Elizabeth to walk by herself, brings from her a succinct pronouncement that is amply critical, but withering in its incorporation of Gilpin’s classic commonplace as to the number of cows for an aesthetically pleasing tableau: “‘No, no; stay where you are. –You are charmingly group’d, and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth’” (53).
Darcy had noted, and tried to do away, his friends’ incivility; but he is destined, for all his dawning tenderness towards their guest, to be treated to some of the most intelligible of her brief utterances. He himself, by unwisely claiming to have sought to avoid such weaknesses in character as can invite ridicule, creates that demur in Elizabeth which gives rise to her sardonic, “‘Such as vanity and pride’”; and Miss Bingley’s disdainful inquiry as to the result of her examination of her idol serves only to inspire the derisive acquiescence of “‘I am perfectly convinced by it that Mr. Darcy has no defect. He owns it himself without disguise’” (57). And not yet is she finished with him. Any of his failings, as she will designate them to be, is a mark for her to tilt at; and their next encounter, at Rosings, supplies one, in his offering in defence of his having danced only with members of his own party at the ball in Meryton, the plea of not having been acquainted with any other lady in the assembly. “‘True,’” Elizabeth replies; “‘and nobody can ever be introduced in a ball room’” (175). Darcy proceeds to explain himself at length; but, with such an opponent, he will not expect to get the better of the exchange. Fortunately, admiration of the lady renders it no issue. What she will have to say to him when he proposes will be as explicit, but more fluent and expansive than the remarks just cited, and so come into another category.
But her greatest triumph in the laconic art is reserved for her former admirer, George Wickham. After her return from Hunsford, he inquires as to her visit; and, learning that she had met Darcy and Col. Fitzwilliam there, observes with some temerity that the latter’s manners are very different from those of his cousin. “‘Yes, very different,’” Elizabeth agrees composedly. “‘But I think Mr. Darcy improves on acquaintance’” (234). In apprehension as to her meaning, Wickham jocularly suggests that the improvement is in civility, rather than in essentials. Again, there is the terse seeming accord of, “‘Oh no! In essentials, I believe, he is very much what he ever was.’” In his disquiet at the drift of her words, Wickham can only look for some clue in her expression, while she amplifies these brief statements in terms of such neutrality as can only intensify his alarm. “‘When I said that he improved on acquaintance, I did not mean that either his mind or manners were in a state of improvement, but that from knowing him better, his disposition was better understood.’” So has Elizabeth by these minimal remarks paid off scores for past deceptions, that the two of them part at last “with mutual civility, and possibly a mutual desire of never meeting again.”
“‘I dearly love a laugh,’” Elizabeth confides to the company at Netherfield; and, to make matters clearer, adds, “‘Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can’” (56). Her confession has been prompted by Miss Bingley’s certainty of there being nothing in Darcy’s disposition capable of giving rise to laughter – a possibility which for Elizabeth is itself a delicious piece of nonsense, as she thereupon gives him to understand. It is this idiosyncrasy which has ensured her not being long dismayed when Darcy declares her no more than “tolerable” at their first meeting. Though harboring “no very cordial feelings towards him,” she is soon with much merriment telling the story among her friends; “for,” we then learn, “she had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in any thing ridiculous” (12). Life clearly provides for her a plenitude of such objects. Caroline Bingley’s commendation of Darcy’s letter-writing had kept her “sufficiently amused”; the sight of Sir William Lucas stationed in the doorway of the Parsonage in earnest contemplation of the greatness before him in the phaeton at the gate, “and constantly bowing whenever Miss De Bourgh looked that way,” sustains Elizabeth in “high diversion” (159); and she is reduced to such helplessness by the idea of the solemn Mr. Collins being run away with by his feelings as to be incapacitated from halting him in his amorous declaration. Nor is it the more obvious follies, at moments of ease, that charm her. In the very midst of the embarrassment of having to introduce Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner in the grounds of Pemberley to their owner, she cannot resist “a sly look at him, to see how he bore it” in going through the formidable ritual, and the half expectation “of his decamping as fast as he could from such disgraceful companions” (255).
That this characteristic in Elizabeth is a paternal endowment is beyond doubt; indeed, it is what closely unites the two, as we see for instance from the looks and glances they exchange when first exposed to Mr. Collins’s conversation. Mr. Bennet’s “resolute composure of countenance” masks “the keenest enjoyment” he finds in the guest who has answered all his hopes of being the very reverse of a sensible man, and thus is, by his own definition, “a valuable acquaintance.” Not with dismay, but with the same glee as Elizabeth is to view Sir William’s bowings, does he greet Collins’s egregious peroration at the Netherfield ball: no-one there “looked more amused than Mr. Bennet himself” (101). Elizabeth, one suspects, cannot evince such reverential delight at follies and nonsense; the very brainlessness of his own spouse is the source of endless pleasure for him. Tenderly he considers her incomprehension of the legalities by which the Collinses are to become the possessors of Longbourn. “‘If it was not for the entail,’” she has pronounced to him, “‘I should not mind it.’” The gentle question, “‘What should you not mind?,’” secures for Mr. Bennet the answer he has ardently hoped for: “‘I should not mind any thing at all.’” With profound satisfaction, both intellectual and comical, he serenely concludes, “‘Let us be thankful that you are preserved from a state of such insensibility’” (130).
The fact that his dearest daughter cannot accompany him into the highest flights of humour is explained by Mr. Bennet’s having irresponsibly almost withdrawn from family life, as from that of society round about him. His wife’s maladroitness in both contexts means for him nothing other than amusement; in the closer concerns she is no real hindrance, being capable of little more bothersome than a querulous compliance. But with Elizabeth it is otherwise. In her situation as the second of five almost dowerless sisters, family affairs are components of her destiny, and the mother presiding over them a force – erratic, and often perverse – to be reckoned with. Mrs. Bennet’s excesses cause Elizabeth not only embarrassment but anxiety: as when, blushing for her, she tries in vain to end her attack on Darcy for what she takes to be his contempt for country living; or, at supper during the ball at Netherfield, with “inexpressible vexation” to interrupt the flow of her mother’s self-congratulation at the prospect of Jane’s engagement from reaching and offending Darcy sitting opposite. “‘What is Mr. Darcy to me, pray, that I should be afraid of him?’” is the very audible response. “‘I am sure we owe him no such particular civility as to be obliged to say nothing he may not like to hear’” (99). Not only by Mrs. Bennet’s actions is Elizabeth’s task made uncomfortable, and occasionally distressing: she has also to endeavour “to forget what she could not overlook” in her father’s treatment of her, and so “banish from her thoughts that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum” which daily exposed her mother to the contempt of her children. Tested as she is, it is not as easy for her mind as for her father’s to register and contemplate the humorous aspects of existence in their purity (236).
She is unable, therefore, to express an unqualified agreement to Mr. Bennet’s question, “‘For what do we live, but to make sport of our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?’” Nor, what is more, greatly value his comment upon Jane’s disappointment over Bingley, “‘that, whatever of that kind may befal you, you have an affectionate mother who will always make the most of it’” (138). Though quite capable in her livelier moments of causing it, she is not free to enjoy social disharmony; nor, with a becoming modesty, is she so given to abandoning scruple as to seek to provoke and expose folly in the way her father does. His method, often enough, is by the type of mocking query Mrs. Bennet correctly terms tiresome or nonsensical: like the “‘How so? how can it affect them?’” in response to her exclaiming, “‘What a fine thing for our girls!’” at Bingley’s coming to Netherfield Park; and the, “‘Is that his design in settling here?’” upon her explanation that she is thinking of his marrying one of them (4).
Mr. Bennet’s questioning is at its most sinister when it has the appearance of being judicially serious; as when Mr. Collins, elaborating upon those “‘little elegant compliments’” he considers ladies to enjoy, and himself to be gifted in presenting, is told that he judges very properly, and politely asked “‘whether these pleasing attentions proceed form the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?’” (68). But the apparently casual and innocent observation can with equal effect serve as prelude to folly’s enactment. The assurance that she is as handsome as any of her daughters, producing from Mrs. Bennet an affected disclaimer on the plea of a grown up family, gains for her the knavish speech of “‘In such cases, a woman has not often much beauty to think of’” that will, mercifully, sleep in her foolish ear (4). And his mere remarking of the hat Elizabeth is engaged in trimming that he hopes Mr. Bingley will like it, introduces the singular episode of the girls’ bewilderment and their mother’s expostulation which ends with the latter’s, “‘I am sick of Mr. Bingley’” (7), Mr. Bennet’s announcement, full of pretended dismay, of acquaintance with him having already been established, and his departure in fatigued contentment at the domestic squall so induced and allayed.
Elizabeth admittedly makes an attempt in this kind, but she is incited thereto by high spirits, and, falling short of the finesse in which her father excels, rather comes to grief. Impelled by the surge of happiness that runs through the family when the invitation to the ball at Netherfield is given, she mischievously inquires of Mr. Collins “whether he intended to accept Mr. Bingley’s invitation, and if he did, whether he would think it proper to join in the evening’s amusement” (87). The outcome, in combination with a wordy affirmative, is a request for her hand for the first two dances that she has no choice but to accept with as good grace as she can muster.
Behind the enjoyment of follies and nonsense lies a developed appreciation of incongruity; and this, in turn, as it relates to character and conduct, necessarily implies the perception of fault. And since the social milieu possesses more meaning for Elizabeth than for her father, it is as natural that she should exhibit a greater readiness than he to direct blame, and in fact to confront an offender. Thus there is to be found in her a type of ready remonstrance to which Mr. Bennet is hardly drawn. It exists in her meaningfully presenting to Mr. Darcy the twin vices of vanity and pride as failings to be guarded against, and in her more vigorous challenge of “‘But these, I suppose, are precisely what you are without’” (57). She has previously defended Bingley’s self-declared easiness of temper, and attacked Darcy’s studied disrespect for it, in her cry to the latter, “‘You have shewn him off now much more than he did himself’” (49). Such criticisms, while pointed enough, are the incidental products of discussion; but in her dealings with George Wickham, Elizabeth does not flinch from the strictest confrontation. When he asks concerning the old housekeeper at Pemberley, she is not restrained from reporting her adverse comment upon him, with the sarcastic observation, “‘At such a distance as that, you know, things are strangely misinterpreted’” (327). Her aim, be it said, is to silence him; but, not succeeding, she proceeds to put a stop to his reflections on the clerical life he claims has been denied him, with the facts about the forfeited living she has learned from Darcy. And she counters his facetious reference to the making of sermons with the incisive, “‘I did hear, too, that there was a time, when sermon-making was not so palatable to you as it seems to be at present; that you actually declared your resolution of never taking orders, and that the business had been compromised accordingly’” (329). Then, as if her moral ascendancy had not been complete, she imposes it with a change of direction as masterly in its way as anything Mr. Bennet has ever accomplished. “‘Come, Mr. Wickham, we are brother and sister, you know. Do not let us quarrel about the past. In future, I hope we shall be always of one mind.’” At this, she holds out her hand. Wickham kisses it, the author tells us, “with affectionate gallantry”; but the fact that when so engaged “he hardly knew how to look” can occasion no surprise.
She has administered – executed is perhaps the better word – a “set down.” Of this gentle art, Mr. Bennet is, by his wife’s report, and the single example he provides for us, a consummate practitioner. The recommendation he sends Mr. Collins that, while consoling Lady Catherine at the news of Elizabeth’s engagement to Darcy, he should stand by the nephew, since “He has more to give,” is as potent as his daughter’s, but superior in being so much more economical. The disadvantage he is under, of having to conquer a reluctance to exert himself in this or any other way, is not present in Elizabeth. She has been so liberal in these attentions as to set upon a startled Lady Catherine within her own fastness at Rosings on the subject of a daughter’s “coming out,” with the unheard-of proposition that “‘The last born has as good a right to the pleasures of youth, as the first’”; for better measure appending, on the assumption of the elder’s being unwilling or unable to marry, the insufferable, “‘And to be kept back on such a motive!’” (165). For his pains in frankly confessing the normal inability of a younger son “‘to marry without some attention to money,’” Col. Fitzwilliam is rewarded with the derisive, “‘And pray, what is the usual price of an Earl’s younger son? Unless the elder brother is very sickly, I suppose you would not ask above fifty thousand pounds’” (183-84).
The personal note present here has, naturally enough, already been repeatedly sounded in Elizabeth’s acrimonious dealings with Darcy. At Netherfield, her making at first no response to his invitation to dance a reel with him is explained as the confounding of a wish on his part to despise her taste; but, she tells him, “‘I always delight in overthrowing those kind of schemes, and cheating a person of their premeditated contempt’” (52). His advancing in stately manner at Rosings while she is at the pianoforte earns him a similar rebuff. This time his intention can only be to frighten her, but she will not be alarmed: “‘My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me’” (174). These set downs are in fact accusations, though they lack the denunciatory vehemence of her offering while a guest at Netherfield, when, on Darcy’s going so far as to concede that every disposition must have some natural and ineradicable defect, she exclaims, “‘And your defect is a propensity to hate every body’” (58). But even this is a trifle compared to her charges at Hunsford Parsonage; the substance of what she has to say there, if it is anything, is one extensive and strident set down. She makes atonement for it in due course by accepting Darcy as her husband; but that she has no intention of abandoning this notable expertise is apparent when, calling upon him, with proper feminine curiosity, to account for having fallen in love with her, she reminds him of their initial encounter with, “‘My beauty you had early withstood’” (380). It is a set down of superb quality, the more so for its being spoken in jest.
As with so many manifestations in father and daughter, it is the fundamental excellence of their minds that promotes and pervades them. And their quick recognition of failings in others is more than matched by the rigour with which realisation of their own shortcomings affects them. Both are victims of transient moods of bitter self-accusation and depression. Mr. Bennet is transfixed by guilt upon Lydia’s infamous elopement. “‘I never saw any one so shocked,’” Jane reports of his reaction. “‘He could not speak a word for full ten minutes’” (292). And he so far interrupts the composure he has reassumed by the time of his return from London as to decline Elizabeth’s proffer of sympathy for what he has gone through. “‘Say nothing of that,’” he declares. “Who should suffer but myself? It has been my own doing, and I ought to feel it”; adding, however, for their mutual comfort, the assurance, born of self-knowledge, that far from the impression’s being able to overpower him, “‘It will pass away soon enough’” (299).
Less severe, possibly, at the time, but longer-lasting, has been Elizabeth’s self-reproach when awareness comes of how “‘blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd’” she has been in her relation with Darcy and Wickham. What makes worse her suffering at the discovery is recognition that it is in direct proportion to the high esteem in which before she had held herself. “‘I, who have prided myself on my discernment!’” she cries. “‘– I, who have valued myself on my abilities!’” (208). From such comprehension there can be no escape – and relief only in the truth of its being “‘how just a humiliation!’” So also she views her share of responsibility for what has happened with Lydia, upon the news of the elopement. Certainty that she might have prevented it overcomes all that she feels at this moment for herself, and for Darcy who attends her. The compelling thought is of her failure to take action despite the recently-acquired knowledge of Wickham’s character: of the “Wretched, wretched mistake!” Like her father, in a different circumstance, she must admit the full force of blame.
What distinguishes the love between Mr. Bennet and his daughter, and makes it as admirable as it is affecting, is its clear-sightedness. There is no vestige of sentimentality in it. Their relationship is founded upon full knowledge – which, on one side at least, is often wished less. However different by kinship and convention their status might be, and unlike their usual employments and concerns, in intellect they are equals: and it is as equals that they respond to each other. When her father, accurately surmising a personal motive, dismisses out of hand her warning to him of “‘the very great disadvantage to us all,’” as she puts it, of Lydia’s flirtatious behaviour, Elizabeth, too, puts courtesy aside, and gives him without embellishment her opinion of his neglect of paternal duty. “‘Excuse me – for I must speak plainly. If you, my dear father, will not take the trouble of checking her exuberant spirits, and of teaching her that her present pursuits are not to be the business of her life, she will soon be beyond the reach of amendment’” (230-31). Thus is rebuke given, and received, where reciprocal understanding is complete. Roles are reversed when Mr. Bennet, under the impression Elizabeth has consented to marry a man she dislikes for the sake of his wealth, greets her with the greater plainness of, “‘Are you out of your senses, to be accepting this man?’” and answers her faltering assurance of sincere attachment to Mr. Darcy with the scorn of “‘Or in other words, you are determined to have him. He is rich, to be sure’” (376). The tone and substance of what he has to say to her change dramatically once the reality of the bond between them is apparent to him; but his advice that it be broken, though to a daughter, has the candour of the truest comradeship.
“I know your disposition, Lizzy. I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband; unless you looked up to him as a superior. Your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage. You could scarcely escape discredit and misery. My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life. You know not what you are about.” (376)
A congruity of mind and outlook, and respect for each other that is profound, though never blind, is the basis of the fondness apparent here, as in lesser instances through the novel. Elizabeth’s devotion to her father is proof against any criticism that can be levelled at him. The “very strong objections against the lady” which Col. Fitzwilliam had given as the cause of Darcy’s detaching Bingley from Jane, Elizabeth knows relate to her family; but she cannot herself admit that anything could justifiably be urged against the father “who, though with some peculiarities, has abilities which Mr. Darcy himself need not disdain, and respectability which he will probably never reach” (187). The only pain she experiences when setting off with Sir William Lucas and Maria to Hunsford, we learn, is “in leaving her father, who would certainly miss her” (151); and his contentment at her return is evidenced by his more than once during dinner saying “voluntarily to Elizabeth, ‘I am glad you are come back, Lizzy’” (222). Is it not therefore inevitable that, when marriage has taken her away from Longbourn, “Mr. Bennet missed his second daughter exceedingly,” and that he should have “delighted in going to Pemberley, especially when he was least expected” (385)? How could he do otherwise, with a kindred spirit?
As to her mother, it is a different story. Elizabeth remarkably manages almost throughout, despite the temptations, to maintain filial duty and reserve. But once, and once only, at an apparently idle moment – it is while Mrs. Bennet is tiresomely lamenting the departure of Lydia and her husband – she slips perfectly into Mr. Bennet’s ironic mode of inquiry into his wife’s cerebral confusions. “‘This is the consequence you see, Madam, of marrying a daughter’”, she tells her. “‘It must make you better satisfied that your other four are single’” (330). This mild onslaught upon Mrs. Bennet’s chief preoccupation in life evokes a retort that would have gladdened her father’s heart. “‘It is no such thing. Lydia does not leave me because she is married; but only because her husband’s regiment happens to be so far off. If that had been nearer, she would not have gone so soon’” (331).
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1932.
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