Friday, February 04, 2011

Pride & Prejudice, Volume II, chapter 12 (ch 35)

A secret letter

Elizabeth heads out for her morning walk the next day, avoiding her usual favorite spot because she knows Mr Darcy sometimes joins her there and she's being a big, fat chicken. Austen takes a moment to remind us that Elizabeth has been in Kent for five weeks, and then Elizabeth catches sight of a man. Could it be Darcy? It could be and it is, as she learns when he calls her name (undoubtedly "Miss Bennet"). Turns out that he's been waiting for her, so he can hand her a note.

Mr Darcy asks if she will do him the honor of reading the letter, to which she agrees, and he bows and takes his leave.

I take this opportunity to point out that Mr Darcy has just broken with propriety for the first time in the book. As those of you who read this post from our discussion of Chapter 26 in Sense & Sensibility will recall, it was (in general) not proper for unrelated men and women to correspond on personal matters unless they were engaged. Although he probably had no real wish to see Elizabeth in person, Mr Darcy is delivering the letter by hand so that nobody else – not even a servant – will be aware that he is corresponding with Elizabeth, thereby preserving both their reputations.

There is mention of an envelope, which bears description. The "envelope" was the outermost piece of paper, at least part of which was left blank so that when the entire letter was folded together, the outside contained only the address of the recipient and the wax seal closing it. However, as Mr Darcy was hand-delivering the letter, he may not have addressed (or sealed) it at all.

Mr Darcy has written quite a long letter indeed – two full pages (front and back), plus the inside of the envelope and, quite possibly, part of the second side of the envelope page (that gets folded inside). Here is an image of one of Austen's own letters, and you can see where the evidence of folds were and how much space was occupied with text.

What the letter says

But first, a word about style. This letter is a masterful piece of writing not just because of the information it contains, but also because of its style and tone. The letter opens with an obviously angry Darcy, but by the time it closes he's no longer angry – disappointed, still, but he has modified his tone and is keen to let Elizabeth off the hook for not having suspected Wickham. He even closes with "God bless you", which is a far cry from the haughty opening.

Darcy opens the letter by assuring Elizabeth that he's not repeating his proposal or dwelling on that. He's got a couple of things to say, and he is relying on her sense of fairness in expecting her to read it.

Two offences of a very different nature, and by no means of equal magnitude, you last night laid to my charge. The first mentioned was, that, regardless of the sentiments of either, I had detached Mr Bingley from your sister; -- and the other, that I had, in defiance of various claims, in defiance of honour and humanity, ruined the immediate prosperity, and blasted the prospects of Mr Wickham. -- Wilfully and wantonly to have thrown off the companion of my youth, the acknowledged favourite of my father, a young man who had scarcely any other dependence than on our patronage, and who had been brought up to expect its exertion, would be a depravity to which the separation of two young persons, whose affection could be the growth of only a few weeks, could bear no comparison.

First up: the Bingley affair

Darcy noticed that Bingley was in love with Jane, but didn't believe Jane was in love back. (Yeah – remember when Charlotte Lucas (now Collins) was all "Jane should be more obvious"? Turns out Charlotte was right.)

At that ball, while I had the honour of dancing with you, I was first made acquainted, by Sir William Lucas's accidental information, that Bingley's attentions to your sister had given rise to a general expectation of their marriage. He spoke of it as a certain event, of which the time alone could be undecided. From that moment I observed my friend's behaviour attentively; and I could then perceive that his partiality for Miss Bennet was beyond what I had ever witnessed in him. Your sister I also watched. -- Her look and manners were open, cheerful, and engaging as ever, but without any symptom of peculiar regard, and I remained convinced from the evening's scrutiny, that though she received his attentions with pleasure, she did not invite them by any participation of sentiment.-- If you have not been mistaken here, I must have been in error. Your superior knowledge of your sister must make the latter probable. -- If it be so, if I have been misled by such error, to inflict pain on her, your resentment has not been unreasonable.
Darcy got to talking to the Bingley sisters, all of whom were alarmed at the apparent ill-breeding of the Bennet family (Jane and Elizabeth excepted), and they followed Bingley to London and talked him out of the match. Bingley would have disregarded the Bennet family issues, except that Darcy's observations about Jane's apparent lack of feeling persuaded him that he was making a fool of himself. The one point on which Darcy is uneasy (and for which he acknowledges culpability) is that he withheld from Bingley the knowledge that Jane is in London – Darcy heard it from Miss Bingley, but neither of them told Charles Bingley. Darcy feels distaste over the concealment (as you may recall, "disguise of every sort" is abhorrent to him) – another way of saying that he prefers to deal honestly and openly. You'll note that he does apologize if Jane's feelings were hurt, even though he maintains that he behaved appropriately under the circumstances as he understood them.

The "more weighty accusation" about Mr Wickham

Our hero, Mr Darcy, writes about Wickham's relationship with Mr Darcy (meaning the dead father). The short version: Wickham bamboozled the old guy; he was a rogue and a bounder all along, but managed not to display his more "vicious" tendencies in such a way that old Mr Darcy could detect them. Our Mr Darcy, being of an age with Wickham, wasn't so easily snowed.

As part of the shift from anger to mere hurt, Mr Darcy expresses concern over causing Elizabeth pain by what he's about to say – and in doing so, he voices his concern that Elizabeth may love Wickham: "Here again I shall give you pain -- to what degree you only can tell. But whatever may be the sentiments which Mr Wickham has created, a suspicion of their nature shall not prevent me from unfolding his real character."

After the elder Darcy's death, Wickham was to go into the church and receive "a living"; instead, he told our Mr Darcy that he had no intention of going into the church, and was paid 3,000 pounds in lieu of receiving the living, which he then frittered away over the course of three years. In a tremendous display of what some might call "balls", Wickham then came back and asked for the living (talk about wanting to have his cake and eat it too!), whereupon Darcy told him to piss off (more or less). "His resentment was in proportion to the distress of his circumstances -- and he was doubtless as violent in his abuse of me to others, as in his reproaches to myself."

Now we come to the really scandalous part. "I must now mention a circumstance which I would wish to forget myself, and which no obligation less than the present should induce me to unfold to any human being. Having said thus much, I feel no doubt of your secrecy." Despite Elizabeth's having refused his proposal and having made her dislike of him clear, Darcy believes in her inherent goodness and is willing to tell her something shockingly embarrassing – and he trusts her to keep his secret, moreover. That is quite a tribute to his high opinion of Elizabeth. But I digress.

Turns out that Wickham turned up last summer and tried to elope with Georgiana Darcy while she was at the seaside resort of Ramsgate with her companion, Mrs Younge (who was in cahoots with Wickham, making her practically a procuress, when it comes down to it). Wickham wanted money, of course, and Georgiana comes with 10,000 pounds; Wickham also wanted to stick it to Darcy. Oh the pain of this section of the letter!

My sister, who is more than ten years my junior, was left to the guardianship of my mother's nephew, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and myself. About a year ago, she was taken from school, and an establishment formed for her in London; and last summer she went with the lady who presided over it, to Ramsgate; and thither also went Mr Wickham, undoubtedly by design; for there proved to have been a prior acquaintance between him and Mrs Younge, in whose character we were most unhappily deceived; and by her connivance and aid he so far recommended himself to Georgiana, whose affectionate heart retained a strong impression of his kindness to her as a child, that she was persuaded to believe herself in love, and to consent to an elopement. She was then but fifteen, which must be her excuse; and after stating her imprudence, I am happy to add that I owed the knowledge of it to herself. I joined them unexpectedly a day or two before the intended elopement; and then Georgiana, unable to support the idea of grieving and offending a brother whom she almost looked up to as a father, acknowledged the whole to me. You may imagine what I felt and how I acted. Regard for my sister's credit and feelings prevented any public exposure, but I wrote to Mr Wickham, who left the place immediately, and Mrs Younge was of course removed from her charge. Mr Wickham's chief object was unquestionably my sister's fortune, which is thirty thousand pounds; but I cannot help supposing that the hope of revenging himself on me was a strong inducement. His revenge would have been complete indeed.
Darcy closes by hoping that Elizabeth will believe him, and by trying to excuse her for having been deceived by Wickham.





Tomorrow: Chapter 36
Back to Chapter 34



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