Elizabeth, like me, is tickled to have received letters in the mail. She's been expecting to hear from Jane for a while, and finally two letters from Jane have arrived. The Gardiners, once again proving how lovely they are, set off on a walk, leaving Lizzy alone to read her correspondence.
Hum-de-dum, chatty news from home, this is all so very pleasant until . . .
Lydia has run off with Wickham.
Apparently they were bound for Gretna Green, a town just over the border in Scotland. Parental consent was required in England for a child under the age of 21 to marry (regardless of gender, by the way), but Scotland didn't have such a requirement. As a result, it was a rather popular destination for elopements. Of course, an elopement to Gretna Green was terribly scandalous, so if Lydia and Wickham have run off, there's going to be an uproar. How very ill-considered of them.
WTF x 2!
The second letter brings worse news still: Lydia and Wickham didn't actually go to Scotland and get hitched. It appears they've gone to London (and gone to ground), and that they are, to use a term of art, living in sin. There are many places where such a thing is still considered scandalous today, but I can assure you that at that time, it was really, truly a serious scandal: so bad, in fact, that not just Lydia but also her entire family would be considered ruined (and quite possibly be treated as pariahs, of a sort).
Wickham is engaged in intentional debauchery of the worst sort – he's despoiled a young virgin outside the bonds of matrimony and has no intention of doing the right thing by her at all. (Shades of Willoughby from Sense & Sensibility – one can just imagine him keeping Lydia around as long as suits him, then discarding her in favor of the next Mary King, as long as he can get a fortune out of it.)
Enter Darcy, stage right
A distraught Elizabeth starts to dash for the door in order to find the Gardiners, only to encounter Mr Darcy, come to pay a call. She's pale and upset and barely able to communicate, leading Darcy to exclaim "Good God! What is the matter?" – a statement that Austen assures us is motivated by heightened emotion.
Mr Darcy is exceedingly sweet in this scene, really, although Austen cagily withholds his thoughts and opinions from us here, thereby precluding us from knowing all that's in his mind. It's a clever decision on her part, since we are thereby almost entirely forced to see things through the filter that Elizabeth employs, even though we are left to make our own conclusions about Darcy's motivation, thoughts and feelings.
[S]he sat down, unable to support herself, and looking so miserably ill that it was impossible for Darcy to leave her, or to refrain from saying, in a tone of gentleness and commiseration, "Let me call your maid. Is there nothing you could take, to give you present relief? —A glass of wine;— shall I get you one? —You are very ill."It is only now, as Darcy is pacing the room, lost in sober contemplation, that Elizabeth realizes that she's fallen for him and actually wanted him to renew his proposal to her. Only she is equally convinced that he will not do so, given the huge scandal hanging over her (already undesireable) family. Elizabeth starts sobbing in earnest, more because of Lydia's situation than her own loss. Darcy, realizing there's little comfort he can offer, decides to take his leave. Elizabeth is sure he's keen to distance himself from her and the scandal. I find her conclusion to be logical, of course, but not necessarily valid based on the way Austen has written Darcy's words and conduct here.
"No, I thank you;" she replied, endeavoring to recover herself. "There is nothing the matter with me. I am quite well. I am only distressed by some dreadful news which I have just received from Longbourn."
She burst into tears as she alluded to it, and for a few minutes could not speak another word. Darcy, in wretched suspense, could only say something indistinctly of his concern, and observe her in compassionate silence. At length, she spoke again. "I have just had a letter from Jane, with such dreadful news. It cannot be concealed from any one. My youngest sister has left all her friends—has eloped; — has thrown herself into the power of — of Mr Wickham. They are gone off together from Brighton. You know him too well to doubt the rest. She has no money, no connections, nothing that can tempt him to — she is lost forever."
Darcy was fixed in astonishment. "When I consider," she added, in a yet more agitated voice, "that I might have prevented it! — I who knew what he was. Had I but explained some part of it only — some part of what I learnt — to my own family! Had his character been known, this could not have happened. But it is all, all too late now."
"I am grieved, indeed," cried Darcy; "grieved — shocked. But is it certain, absolutely certain?"
"Oh yes! — They left Brighton together on Sunday night, and were traced almost to London, but not beyond; they are certainly not gone to Scotland."
"And what has been done, what has been attempted, to recover her?"
"My father is gone to London, and Jane has written to beg my uncle's immediate assistance, and we shall be off, I hope, in half an hour. But nothing can be done; I know very well that nothing can be done. How is such a man to be worked on? How are they even to be discovered? I have not the smallest hope. It is every way horrible!"
Darcy shook his head in silent acquiescence.
"When my eyes were opened to his real character. — Oh! had I known what I ought, what I dared, to do! But I knew not — I was afraid of doing too much. Wretched, wretched mistake!"
Darcy made no answer.
"I am afraid you have been long desiring my absence, nor have I anything to plead in excuse of my stay, but real, though unavailing, concern. Would to heaven that anything could be either said or done on my part, that might offer consolation to such distress! — But I will not torment you with vain wishes, which may seem purposely to ask for your thanks. This unfortunate affair will, I fear, prevent my sister's having the pleasure of seeing you at Pemberley today."Austen takes a moment to assess Elizabeth's relationship with Darcy. She goes on the offensive, essentially taking to task any reader who might claim that Elizabeth's love for Darcy makes no sense because it's not based on initial attraction. She as much as says "Look – her attraction to Wickham was based on initial attraction, and look how badly that turned out!"
"Oh, yes. Be so kind as to apologize for us to Miss Darcy. Say that urgent business calls us home immediately. Conceal the unhappy truth as long as it is possible. — I know it cannot be long."
He readily assured her of his secrecy — again expressed his sorrow for her distress, wished it a happier conclusion than there was at present reason to hope, and, leaving his compliments for her relations, with only one serious, parting, look, went away.
The Gardiners return and agree to depart immediately to help as they're able, and Mrs Gardiner is left wondering what, exactly, Lizzy told Darcy and what the exact nature of their relationship is. While it seems like a simple enough statement on its face, the Gardiners being unaware of the precise nature of the relationship between Lizzy and Darcy is a crucial plot point, as we shall see going forward. And now, one of my favorite scenes from the 1995 BBC production of Pride & Prejudice for the evident depth of feeling and distress conveyed wordlessly by Colin Firth: