Saturday, February 05, 2011

Pride & Prejudice, Volume II, chapter 13 (ch 36)

We've read the contents of Mr Darcy's letter, and now Austen is going to let us in on Elizabeth's reactions and responses as she reads (and re-reads) the letter.

On her first reading of the first half of the letter, she decides his comments regarding Jane are patently false and is insulted by the way he talks about her family. On reading the second half of the letter - pertaining to Mr Wickham - she is struck by how close much of Darcy's account is to Wickham's own tale. The differences, however, would require her to entirely reverse her opinion of Wickham: she would have to think ill of Wickham, a man she quite likes, and would also have to acknowledge how mistaken she was in forming her opinion of Wickham AND Darcy. She reaches the end of the letter and tries to convince herself to pay no attention to it whatsoever; but, of course, she ends up pulling it out again for a closer reading.

Her second reading begins with Darcy's account of his dealings with Mr Wickham. She parses that portion of the letter sentence by sentence, noting how it parallels Wickham's account (and offers her even more information about how much the elder Mr Darcy liked Wickham than even Wickham had done). When she gets to old Mr Darcy's will, she wishes to exonerate Wickham, and tries to think of anything she knows of that might make the conduct described by Darcy impossible or, at least, improbable. But as she starts to truly think about Wickham's conduct, she begins to suspect that Darcy's account is correct. On her walk with Colonel Fitzwilliam the other day, he'd told her he was Georgiana Darcy's co-guardian, and she had guessed that he and Darcy had faced some sort of difficulty with her, even though the Colonel said only kind things about his ward - that certainly comports with Darcy's account, which describes them dealing with something quite troublesome indeed (a near elopement), while not meaning that Georgiana was a particularly unpleasant person.

Then she begins to think over Wickham's statements and conducts. Wickham had, after all, maligned Darcy rather easily, and on more than one occasion he did the opposite of what he said. He'd said that Darcy would have to leave Hertfordshire if he didn't want to see Wickham, yet it was Wickham who bolted to London rather than attend the ball at Netherfield Park. He said he would never tell people what Darcy had (allegedly) done to him, yet he had told Elizabeth after only one day's acquaintance, and - once Darcy was off in London - he told the whole town his tale of woe.

The more she thinks about Wickham, the more Elizabeth realizes that Mr Darcy has told the truth. Moreover, it means that Wickham is actually a somewhat wicked man, and Darcy, whom she has been so busy looking down on, is actually blameless here - and likely an honest, honorable man.

She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. -- Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think, without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.

"How despicably have I acted!" she cried. -- "I, who have prided myself on my discernment! -- I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity, in useless or blameable distrust. -- How humiliating is this discovery! -- Yet, how just a humiliation! -- Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly. -- Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself." [Emphasis added.]
You can almost hear Elizabeth's palm smacking her own forehead, can't you? Talk about a turning point in a novel.

Her reconsideration of the first half of the letter causes mortification. Having decided that Mr Darcy is an honest man, she decides to re-read the part of the letter to do with Jane and Bingley. "How could she deny that credit to his assertions, in one instance, which she had been obliged to give in the other?"

As she does so, she is forced to acknowledge that Jane didn't act like she was smitten with Bingley - something Elizabeth and Charlotte had discussed, as you may recall. And remembering the ball at Netherfield, she dredges up her recollection of her family's behavior and is mortified to find that Mr Darcy's comment about a "want of propriety" is probably an understatement.

Elizabeth returns to Hunsford parsonage to learn that Messrs Darcy and Fitzwilliam had called, and that Colonel Fitzwilliam had waited for her to return for some time (perhaps in case she wanted to check with him about the statements in the letter?). She can't even be bothered of thinking about the colonel anymore; she thinks only of her letter. (And by thinking of the letter, she is thinking of Mr Darcy, is she not?)

Tomorrow: Chapter 37
Back to Chapter 35



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