Monday, January 03, 2011

Pride & Prejudice, Volume I, chapter 3

Before I get into the contents of this chapter, I want to take a second to note when it takes place, which is sometime around Michaelmas (the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel, which is marked on September 29th, and pronounced "mickle-" and not "Michael-"). We are about to meet not only Mr Bingley, but also his two sisters, his brother-in-law and one of the best-known character names in literature, Mr Darcy. I'm pointing the date out now because I'm going to refer back to it much, much later in the book.

Meet Mr Bingley

While we haven't gotten to know the Lucases just yet, we are asked to rely on their opinion of Mr Bingley. Later on we shall find that Sir William Lucas is easily delighted with pretty much anyone and that Mrs Lucas is almost as bad a gossip as Mrs Bennet, but for now, let us see what the Lucases report about Mr Bingley:

He was quite young, wonderfully handsome, extremely agreeable, and, to crown the whole, he meant to be at the next assembly with a large party. Nothing could be more delightful! To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love; and very lively hopes of Mr Bingley's heart were entertained.
"To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love." My, but you have to admire such a summation. This is as good a time as any to point out that dancing will play a rather important role in this book, and that the way people dance is a metaphor for their innate qualities and personalities. Dancing is depicted similarly in Emma, and we've already seen how Marianne and Willoughby's conduct in Sense & Sensibility (by dancing too many dances together and occasionally being a bit too ebullient while doing so) reflected their personalities and the nature of their relationship. I suppose people don't refer to courtship as a kind of dance for nothing - or at least Austen saw a clear connection. But I digress.

Mr Bingley did return Mr Bennet's call, so a relationship has been furthered. We learn only "that he wore a blue coat and rode a black horse." Don't you love the image of the Bennet sisters crowding the upstairs windows to get a peek at him?

Our narrator gets her first look at him at the Assembly at Meryton (a local assembly at which there is conversation and dancing, of course). "Mr Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners." After the physical description, we get a better idea of his personality by listening to our narrator summing up the local gossip:

Mr Bingley had soon made himself acquainted with all the principal people in the room; he was lively and unreserved, danced every dance, was angry that the ball closed so early, and talked of giving one himself at Netherfield. Such amiable qualities must speak for themselves.
We learn a bit more about Mr Bingley by direct observation - he tells his friend to dance and stop standing about "in this stupid manner", expresses delight in the general female population and then wins our hearts in his unreserved praise of Jane Bennet. He danced with Jane twice (a rather obvious mark of preference on his part - and dancing with a young lady a third time would have been close to scandalous and of the "they must be getting married" variety. We have every reason to like open, unaffected, happy Mr Bingley. And so we do.

Meet the Bingley sisters

We learn that they are Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst, and otherwise don't get too much of a read on them here, but what we get isn't 100% flattering. Here's the sole piece of description in this chapter, in which Austen damns them with faint praise: "His sisters were fine women, with an air of decided fashion." They are so putting on airs, and we all know it based on this one short sentence. Mr Hurst is a gentleman in name only, so we can already write him off as a lout, yes?

Meet Mr Darcy

Ah, the moment we've all been waiting for.

Mr Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year. The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.
Things we know about Mr Darcy:

1. He is Bingley's friend.
2. He is tall and handsome.
3. He carries himself proudly (with a "noble mien").
4. He is terribly rich.

The very first impression he makes is favorable - tall, handsome, wealthy, and proper, he associates himself with someone everyone has already decided is "good company." But before the night is out, the entire neighborhood has decided NOT to like him because he seems to look down on their assembly and he doesn't interact easily with people but holds himself apart.

Much of the negative impression of Darcy is based on a comparison with Bingley: Bingley dances indiscriminately with everyone; Darcy dances only with the two ladies with whom he is already acquainted: Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst. Bingley talks to pretty much anyone he meets; Darcy speaks only with people he knows. There could be many reasons for Darcy's behaviour, not all of which lead to the conclusion that he's a proud, selfish prig, but the good folks of Meryton jump straight to the conclusion that he's a pompous ass (more or less).

True, it does not help that Elizabeth overhears his conversation with Mr Bingley, wherein he refuses to dance and criticizes the country bumpkins at the dance. Worst still is what Elizabeth overhears about herself. I see now that it makes sense to put the whole conversation here, after a quick comment to establish a bit of context. First, Elizabeth is sitting down because there are far more women than men at this particular ball, so there are simply not enough dance partners to go around. However, back then (just as back in my high school days) it was not uncommon for popular girls to dance every single dance while some girls danced not at all or very little. Second, Elizabeth is eavesdropping, which is bad form, but leads to much amusement for her and for us:

Mr Darcy had been standing near enough for her to overhear a conversation between him and Mr Bingley, who came from the dance for a few minutes to press his friend to join it.

"Come, Darcy," said he, "I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance."

"I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this, it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with."

"I would not be so fastidious as you are," cried Bingley, "for a kingdom! Upon my honour I never met with so many pleasant girls in my life, as I have this evening; and there are several of them, you see, uncommonly pretty."

"You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room," said Mr Darcy, looking at the eldest Miss Bennet.

"Oh! she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you."

"Which do you mean?" and turning round, he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said, "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. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me."

Mr Bingley followed his advice. Mr Darcy walked off; and Elizabeth remained with no very cordial feelings towards him. She told the story however with great spirit among her friends; for she had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in any thing ridiculous.
Mr Darcy, a newcomer to Meryton, cannot be expected to know that Elizabeth is not, in fact, a wallflower or unpopular. Still, there's not a single person I know who would not be put out if they realized they'd been appraised and found wanting, the way Elizabeth just has. And sure, Mr Darcy might just be out of spirits or in a bad mood, but Elizabeth doesn't know him enough to know whether that's the case or he's just like this at all times. She jumps to the conclusion that he's a haughty, pompous jackass and then delights in spreading the word to others. (Tsk tsk tsk, and yet it's exactly what pretty much anyone I know would do, which is why, I believe, Austen still resonates with readers 200 years after publication of her first novel - she nails basic human nature so well.)

The Bennets again

I love how Mrs Bennet comes home and starts rattling off the events of the evening in detail to Mr Bennet, who really only wanted the short summary (along the lines of "We had a nice night, and Jane danced twice with Mr Bingley, and now we're home", but definitely with a side of "Mr Darcy is a git", since he does have a finely honed appreciation for the ridiculous). He gets so annoyed by the minute details of Mr Bingley's activities that he actually wishes Bingley had sprained his ankle so he wouldn't have to hear it. Funny man.

Tomorrow: Chapter Four
Back to Chapter Two

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