The Trip Home to Longbourn
Austen tells us it is now the second week of May. Jane, Lizzy and Maria have travelled from London to an inn along the way, where Mr Bennet's carriage is to meet them to convey them home. They are surprised (and possibly not in a pleasant way) to see Lydia and Kitty waiting for them at the inn – Lydia and Kitty have bought hats at the milliner's shop and have ordered an early luncheon for themselves and the travellers. A nice thought, although it falls on Jane and Elizabeth to pay for it, since the younger girls spent their money.
Although we've been introduced to the younger Bennet girls before now, this chapter we really get to know Lydia much better, and to appreciate how irresponsible and frivolous she truly is. She has purchased a new bonnet despite it being so ugly that she won't wear it until she has pulled it apart and replaced its ribbons – hardly a sensible purchase. She is willing to gossip in front of the waiter (though Elizabeth and Jane forestall her and send the waiter away), and perfectly willing to through Mary King under the bus (so to speak). She spends an inordinate amount of time talking about Wickham, presumably because she knows Elizabeth was fond of him, although that particular detail is never stated. And she is desolated at the imminent departure of the regiments, which are moving to Brighton for the summer.
Lydia tells stories that reveal how high spirited (and, in some ways, lowbrow) she is. For instance, she and Kitty dressed a young man in one of their Aunt Philips's gowns and tried to pass him off as a young woman. By her own admission, Lydia's raucous laughter is what tipped off Wickham, Denny and the other officers that something was amiss. Lydia regales her sisters with similar stories all the way home, frequently mentioning Wickham (to Lizzy's dismay). Lydia expresses a desire to be the first of the Bennet girls to marry, believing she would then chaperon all of her (older) sisters. Dear Lydia: Be careful what you wish for 'cause you just might get it.
The Brighton Pavilion "Pleasure Palace"
A word about Brighton
Brighton is to Regency England as Las Vegas is to modern day America, more or less. The Prince Regent was fond of high living and wild parties and Brighton contained his playhouse by the sea. Being associated (as it was) with Prinny and his set, it was full of fast women and faster men, set on gambling and carousing and what have you (wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more).
Readers in Austen's time would have known of Brighton's association with the Prince Regent and of its (and his) reputation for fast living. It was considered a fashionable resort, of course, with its patrons drawn from high society, but it was not what solid country folk with good family values would consider entirely respectable, if you catch my drift. Heck, even Weymouth (mentioned in Emma) and Ramsgate (where Georgiana Darcy spent her summer the previous year) were considered a bit "fast" due to their societal associations, which was probably why Austen selected them for the meeting of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax in Emma and for the scene of Georgiana Darcy's near-elopement in this novel.
I mention it now, since Brighton is going to continue to come up in this novel, and I figured you might want to have the proper mindset when reading it. Lydia really really really wants to go to Brighton, after all, and asking yourself "would I send my 16 year-old daughter to Las Vegas for the summer to be chaperoned by a newlywed couple?" is a fine way to assess what's about to happen in this novel. (Sorry for the wee spoiler.)
The Lucases have turned up to welcome Maria home, and both families sit down to dinner – probably around 5 in the afternoon, since it's likely they keep country hours and dine early. Mrs Bennet is quick to praise Jane's good looks, and Mr Bennet says more than once (and unprompted) how pleased he is to have Lizzy home again.
Lydia chatters along, reciting the details of their day to the party at the large. Mary (who is nothing if not a stick in the mud), shows herself to be a somber female version of Mr Collins with her response: "Far be it from me, my dear sister, to depreciate such pleasures. They would doubtless be congenial with the generality of female minds. But I confess they would have no charms for me. I should infinitely prefer a book."
"I should infinitely prefer a book", like Caroline Bingley's declaration back in chapter 11: "How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book!" are quotes frequently pulled out and attributed to Austen. Out of context they are lovely. In context, they are hilarious. I must say, though, that given my choice between Lydia's high-spirited account of the day and a book, there are many times when I, too, would "infinitely prefer a book." But I digress.
We are told of Lydia's reaction (or lack thereof) to Mary's proclamation: "But of this answer Lydia heard not a word. She seldom listened to any body for more than half a minute, and never attended to Mary at all."
Lydia and Kitty try to convince Jane and Elizabeth to walk into Meryton to visit with the soldiers after dinner, but are turned down. Elizabeth is trying to avoid seeing Wickham if she can – a fact that only she and we know about, since she hasn't yet had her tête-à-tête with Jane. Besides, [i]t should not be said, that the Miss Bennets could not be at home half a day before they were in pursuit of the officers."
On the plus side, it appears that Mr Bennet will not be taking the family to Brighton after all – even if his wife is too dim-witted to understand his demurrals.
Tomorrow: Chapter 40
Back to Chapter 38