Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Pride & Prejudice, Volume II, chapter 1 (ch. 24)

It is easy, I think, to dismiss Jane Bennet in many instances as being a milquetoast or too wishy-washy or too kind-hearted or some such thing. Certainly she has a less forceful personality than does Elizabeth, our acknowledged heroine. She seems, indeed, pale next to Elizabeth, which might have something to do with why she's been cast as blonde to Elizabeth's rich brunette in the most recent versions of Pride & Prejudice (both the 1995 BBC and 2005 movie productions) - Jane is quite literally made paler than Elizabeth. I would argue that the 2005 production got right, however, something that the 1995 production did not, in casting a more stunning actress in the role of Jane (Rosamund Pike), who is supposed to be the acknowledged beauty of the family (no offense meant to Susannah Harker, but Jennifer Ehle was prettier than her). But I digress.

The point is that one can be so easily pulled into Elizabeth Bennet's orbit that it can be hard sometimes to appreciate other characters when their opinions diverge from hers. This is true of Charlotte Lucas, who has opted to marry Mr Collins - Charlotte is willing to overlook his odious personality in favor of his house and income and the prospect of being mistress of her own establishment and having a family of her own. (Were Mr Collins not so stupid, pedantic, obsequious, etc., I'd have no problem understanding Charlotte's choice, by the way, even if it's not one I'd make myself.)

The same is true of Jane Bennet, who Elizabeth repeatedly tells us wants to see only the good in other people. That is, I believe, an oversimplification, but one that it's easy for the reader to buy into. I'd like to take a moment, however, to focus on what Jane is saying in this chapter, and to pick up on what she said back in chapter 17, when Lizzy first told her Wickham's tale about Mr Darcy.

Elizabeth has made the point that Darcy and the Bingley sisters (that's my new band: Darcy & the Bingley Sisters) want Bingley to marry Georgianna Darcy and/or that they do not want him to marry Jane. Elizabeth believes that all of them want Bingley to marry a woman with better social standing and more wealth, and that Caroline wants him to marry Georgianna Darcy because Caroline hopes to marry Darcy herself and she thinks that closer family connections will only help her cause. Her arguments are forceful and, I might add, seem likely, which makes it that much easier for us to dismiss Jane's opinion:

"Beyond a doubt, they do wish him to choose Miss Darcy," replied Jane, "but this may be from better feelings than you are supposing. They have known her much longer than they have known me; no wonder if they love her better. But, whatever may be their own wishes, it is very unlikely they should have opposed their brother's. What sister would think herself at liberty to do it, unless there were something very objectionable? If they believed him attached to me, they would not try to part us; if he were so, they could not succeed. By supposing such an affection, you make every body acting unnaturally and wrong, and me most unhappy. Do not distress me by the idea. I am not ashamed of having been mistaken -- or, at least, it is slight, it is nothing in comparison of what I should feel in thinking ill of him or his sisters. Let me take it in the best light, in the light in which it may be understood."
Jane, you see, prefers to think well of people until they are absolutely proven to be bad.

Speaking of bad people, now that it's clear that the Bingleys and Mr Darcy are gone from the neighborhood for quite some time, word of Mr Wickham's treatment by Darcy is being spread throughout the community, both by Mr Wickham and others. "Miss Bennet (that would be Jane) was the only creature who could suppose there might be any extenuating circumstances in the case, unknown to the society of Hertfordshire; her mild and steady candour always pleaded for allowances, and urged the possibility of mistakes -- but by everybody else Mr Darcy was condemned as the worst of men."

Whereas Elizabeth lets the subject of Bingley drop, not wishing to hurt Jane further by belaboring it, Mrs Bennet cannot let it go - instead, she repeats pretty much the same conversation day after day. Mr Bennet is more philosophical. Time will tell whether he is also prescient:

"So, Lizzy," said he one day, "your sister is crossed in love I find. I congratulate her. Next to being married, a girl likes to be crossed in love a little now and then. It is something to think of, and gives her a sort of distinction among her companions. When is your turn to come? You will hardly bear to be long outdone by Jane. Now is your time. Here are officers enough at Meryton to disappoint all the young ladies in the country. Let Wickham be your man. He is a pleasant fellow, and would jilt you creditably."

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