"Lady Catherine, it appeared, had actually taken the trouble of this journey from Rosings, for the sole purpose of breaking off her supposed engagement with Mr Darcy."
The chapter opens just after Lady Catherine's visit, as Lizzy spends hours trying to figure out how on earth Lady Catherine got the idea that Darcy might marry Elizabeth in the first place - she determines it must have been supposition by the Lucases passed through the Collinses to Lady Catherine - and what is likely to happen next.
Lady Catherine pretty much promised to take the matter up with Darcy, and Elizabeth spends additional hours wondering how he'll react to his aunt's interference. Since so much of what Lady Catherine said to Lizzy is similar to the reservations that Darcy gave Lizzy during his first proposal - only with far better basis in fact, given Lydia's indiscretion and the attendant scandal - it makes sense to Elizabeth that Lady Catherine has a good chance at warning Darcy off.
She figures that Lady Catherine will catch Darcy in London on her way home to Rosings, so she figures she'll know quite soon whether he's written her off: she half expects that he'll simply send his regrets to Bingley, rather than returning to Netherfield Park as promised, in order to avoid seeing her again. Poor Lizzy.
"The next morning, as she was going down stairs, she was met by her father, who came out of his library with a letter in his hand."
Lizzy's first concern is that Lady Catherine may have sent a letter to her father, but the news is both better and worse than that: it's a letter from Mr Collins. It's better because Mr Bennet has no respect whatsoever for Mr Collins, whereas he might have been expected to give more deference to a woman of Lady Catherine's position. It's also worse for the same reason: since Mr Bennet has no respect for Mr Collins, he naturally decides not to credit Mr Collins with knowing what he's talking about; consequently, he feels free to mock Collins and, indirectly, Lizzy.
Mr Collins warmly praises Darcy (as one might expect), but cautions that Lady Catherine is set against the match. Mr Bennet assumes that Collins is completely misguided and, knowing nothing of what has passed between Lizzy and Darcy, believes Darcy has no interest whatsoever in Elizabeth. He likewise believes she dislikes Darcy, not knowing that she is already in love with the man, which leads to these horrifying digs:
"Mr Darcy, you see, is the man! Now, Lizzy, I think I have surprised you. Could he, or the Lucases, have pitched on any man within the circle of our acquaintance, whose name would have given the lie more effectually to what they related? Mr Darcy, who never looks at any woman but to see a blemish, and who probably never looked at you in his life! It is admirable!"Austen then uses Mr Bennet to take a swing at Collins and, by extension, any and all clergy who are intolerant, by reporting Collins's comments about Lydia and Mr Bennet's response:
Elizabeth tried to join in her father's pleasantry, but could only force one most reluctant smile. Never had his wit been directed in a manner so little agreeable to her.
"'I am truly rejoiced that my cousin Lydia's sad business has been so well hushed up, and am only concerned that their living together before the marriage took place should be so generally known. I must not, however, neglect the duties of my station, or refrain from declaring my amazement at hearing that you received the young couple into your house as soon as they were married. It was an encouragement of vice; and had I been the rector of Longbourn, I should very strenuously have opposed it. You ought certainly to forgive them as a Christian, but never to admit them in your sight, or allow their names to be mentioned in your hearing.' That is his notion of Christian forgiveness!"To which I say, "Preach it, sister." Or, if you prefer, Mister Bennet.
Mr Bennet notices that Lizzy isn't entirely entertained here, and comments with one of the best-loved quotes from all of Austen, and one that seems like to be part of Austen's personal philosophy, if you've read her letters: "For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?"
He also cannot refrain from further commenting on how terribly unlikely a match with Darcy is, thereby ridiculing Elizabeth, her beloved, and the Collinses that much more: "Had they fixed on any other man it would have been nothing; but his perfect indifference, and your pointed dislike, make it so delightfully absurd! . . . And pray, Lizzy, what said Lady Catherine about this report? Did she call to refuse her consent?"
Mr Bennet has hit the nail on the head there, although he thinks he's just being terribly funny. We've all experienced such sorts of teasing, I'm sure, so it takes little imagination to figure out exactly how nauseated Lizzy probably felt by the end of this particular torture session, compounded with her now wondering whether her father has the right of it and there's not a snowball's chance in hell that Darcy will renew his proposal.
I am soooooo excited about tomorrow's chapter, you don't even know.
Tomorrow: Chapter 58
Back to Chapter 56