What a terrific chapter this is - the letter from Mrs Gardiner gives us the whole story of how Lydia and Wickham were discovered and forced to marry, and then right on the heels of it, Wickham turns up and Lizzy repeatedly (albeit subtly) calls bullshit on nearly every assertion he makes.
Mrs Gardiner's letter
I can't help but notice how Austen again grounds us in temporal reality by giving us a date - the letter was written on September 6 (so it's now nearly a year since the start of the novel).
Mrs Gardiner's surprise at Elizabeth's having asked for an explanation is explained by her assumption that Darcy and Elizabeth are secretly engaged; she believes Lizzy will have heard it all from Darcy, you see, and both of the Gardiners, who had observed Darcy to be in love with Lizzy when they were in Derbyshire, were certain that the relationship must be quite serious indeed when Mr Darcy showed up, obviously privy to the entire affair involving Lydia and Wickham. After all, they don't think Lizzy would have shared all the details with him without there being a fixed relationship, and Darcy's decision to personally undertake the search and recovery mission bespeaks a relationship as well.
Turns out that Darcy left Derbyshire the day after Lizzy and the Gardiners, went straight to London, and tracked down Wickham and Lydia before Mr Gardiner had even arrived in town. He offered an explanation for his involvement in the matter that took full responsibility for Lydia's elopement upon himself, thereby making its rectification a sort of debt of honor - a means of taking the full expense of fixing things on himself so that Mr Gardiner wouldn't have to pay Wickham off.
From what I can collect, he left Derbyshire only one day after ourselves, and came to town with the resolution of hunting for them. The motive professed was his conviction of its being owing to himself that Wickham's worthlessness had not been so well known as to make it impossible for any young woman of character to love or confide in him. He generously imputed the whole to his mistaken pride, and confessed that he had before thought it beneath him to lay his private actions open to the world. His character was to speak for itself. He called it, therefore, his duty to step forward, and endeavour to remedy an evil which had been brought on by himself. If he had another motive, I am sure it would never disgrace him.Oh, Mrs Gardiner - I love how subtle, yet unsubtle, you are here all at once. It's plain you think something's going on between Lizzy and Darcy, and you're hinting at it, but still not asking Lizzy to explain. No wonder I love you so much.
We learn how far Darcy was willing to abase himself here: He had to bribe and/or threaten Mrs Younge, the woman who had tried to help Wickham run off with Georgiana, and then he had to do the same with Wickham. And the information about Lydia - well, she certainly isn't a good sort of girl after all:
He saw Wickham, and afterwards insisted on seeing Lydia. His first object with her, he acknowledged, had been to persuade her to quit her present disgraceful situation, and return to her friends as soon as they could be prevailed on to receive her, offering his assistance, as far as it would go. But he found Lydia absolutely resolved on remaining where she was. She cared for none of her friends; she wanted no help of his; she would not hear of leaving Wickham. She was sure they should be married some time or other, and it did not much signify when.How much of a blackguard is Wickham? Let us count the ways:
1. He never intended to marry Lydia
2. He said it was all Lydia's doing that she came with him, and she can live with the consequences
3. He still hoped to marry a young woman with a fortune, despite having ruined Lydia
4. He fled his regiment Brighton to escape pressing debts of honor (gambling debts)
5. He has no money and no plans for the future
Darcy had to meet with Wickham more than once to haggle over financial terms under which Wickham would agree to marry Lydia. Wickham started asking high, but was talked down to a "reasonable" amount.
There is an implied slight to Mr Bennet in the letter that I feel the need to make note of, and for which there are several possible explanations:
Mr Darcy's next step was to make your uncle acquainted with it, and he first called in Gracechurch-street the evening before I came home. But Mr Gardiner could not be seen, and Mr Darcy found, on further enquiry, that your father was still with him, but would quit town the next morning. He did not judge your father to be a person whom he could so properly consult as your uncle, and therefore readily postponed seeing him till after the departure of the former.The possible explanations for Darcy not wanting to deal with Mr Bennet himself follow, and I rather suspect it's possible that ALL of them play into Darcy's decision to come back once Mr Bennet is gone:
1. Darcy has actually spent time with Mr Gardiner and is friendly with him already.
2. Darcy considers Mr Gardiner to be a sensible man, and he's not so sure about Mr Bennet.
3. Darcy doesn't want to have to explain to Lizzy's father why he's taking a personal interest in the matter.
4. Darcy would prefer that the Bennet family not know of his involvement because he doesn't want them to feel indebted to him.
Darcy spends hours with Mr Gardiner, largely because Mr Gardiner wants to pay some or all of the money for Wickham himself, as does Darcy. Mrs Gardiner goes so far as to accuse Darcy of being stubborn: "I fancy, Lizzy, that obstinacy is the real defect of his character, after all. He has been accused of many faults at different times, but this is the true one. Nothing was to be done that he did not do himself[.]"
Lydia turns out to have behaved just as badly as you might expect. She sees nothing wrong with what she's done and she's not embarrassed. It's a wonder Mrs Gardiner didn't slap her silly.
It turns out that Wickham is indeed a fool, since he has married Lydia for far less than £10,000; instead, he's received a discharge of his gambling debts (over £1,000) and a commission in the regular army. Darcy's explanation - that he didn't out Wickham as a blackguard when he should have done - was accepted by the Gardiners as the reason he should pay everything himself. "But in spite of all this fine talking, my dear Lizzy, you may rest perfectly assured that your uncle would never have yielded, if we had not given him credit for another interest in the affair." Oh, Mrs Gardiner, there you go again, hinting and fishing!
I love how she closes the letter:
Will you be very angry with me, my dear Lizzy, if I take this opportunity of saying (what I was never bold enough to say before) how much I like him. His behaviour to us has, in every respect, been as pleasing as when we were in Derbyshire. His understanding and opinions all please me; he wants nothing but a little more liveliness, and that, if he marry prudently, his wife may teach him. I thought him very sly; -- he hardly ever mentioned your name. But slyness seems the fashion. Pray forgive me if I have been very presuming, or at least do not punish me so far as to exclude me from P. I shall never be quite happy till I have been all round the park. A low phaeton, with a nice little pair of ponies, would be the very thing. But I must write no more.Dear Lizzy:
Mr Darcy is a dreamboat, and your uncle and I both adore him. I cannot wait to visit you at Pemberley!
The reaction shot
Austen gives us a lengthy paragraph to clue us in on Lizzy's reaction - she suspects that Darcy is acting out of affection for her, but can't be certain. After all, the "debt of honor" explanation that he has offered is a passable one, and as highly as she esteems Mr Darcy, she's not so sure that love for her would be enough of an inducement to cause him to have to deal with Mrs Younge and Mr Wickham (and in such a way), in order to rescue Lydia, whom he always thought was foolish and who means nothing to him.
Oh! how heartily did she grieve over every ungracious sensation she had ever encouraged, every saucy speech she had ever directed towards him. For herself she was humbled; but she was proud of him. Proud that in a cause of compassion and honour, he had been able to get the better of himself.And just as Lizzy is thinking over all the information in her aunt's letter and daydreaming about how wonderfully heroic Darcy is and such, Wickham walks up and starts spouting his usual flummery. And Lizzy sets him down at every turn, although not in a directly cutting way.
He mentions the housekeeper, Mrs Reynolds, and Lizzy says "She says you turned out badly". He mentions seeing Darcy, possibly expecting her to cast aspersions at him, and she archly comments that perhaps Darcy was making wedding plans. He mentions Georgiana (who is about a year older than Lydia), and she says "Well, she's gotten past the most trying age." He mentions Kympton, and she calls bullshit over his wanting to be a clergyman, then tells him she knows all about his deal with Darcy. It's all terribly delicious, while being less than overtly snarky.
Jennifer Ehle's delivery of her lines in the 1995 BBC version really gives a better sense of how lines like "Perhaps preparing for his marriage with Miss De Bourgh" were actually cuts. (If you don't want to find out what happens next, stop at the 5 minute mark):