I haven’t started reading Persuasion yet, so Pride and Prejudice is still my favorite book of all time. I seem to waffle back and forth between these two, but my waffling has nothing to do with any concrete, supportable impressions of the books; rather, my inclination towards one or another is based on which one I have most recently read, what my prevailing mood is that season, and, probably, what I had for breakfast. My rational self, who shows up to the party every now and then, believes that both books are equally excellent, yet different (rather like my children).
My favorite thing about Pride and Prejudice is that both Elizabeth and Darcy go on an incredible internal journey to get from their starting positions to their ending ones. My next favorite thing is the way that all the secondary characters (caricatures, all) influence Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s respective journeys. If these characters cannot go on a journey of their own, at least they have some impact on the main characters’ development, right?
My favorite of these influential secondary characters is Caroline Bingley, who is wonderfully awful throughout the book and is considerably more observant than Elizabeth (of course, nearly every character wins that prize). In a weird way, she acts both as Darcy’s confidante and as Elizabeth’s tormentor, and, throughout the Netherfield section of the book, she simultaneously helps Darcy to increase his affection for Elizabeth and helps Elizabeth to increase her dislike for Darcy.
Caroline Bingley has her own reasons for paying close attention to Darcy, but I wonder if she would have picked up on his burgeoning regard so quickly had he not rather flippantly made to her his initial comment about Elizabeth Bennet’s fine eyes. Darcy must have known that Caroline was angling for him–she isn’t subtle–so I wonder if he was trying to let her know that he just wasn’t into her. I’m not entirely certain, however, that Darcy’s motives are so virtuous. If he were really interested in discouraging Caroline’s regard, he ought not have made his vaguely smarmy “I can appreciate your figure better from over here, sexy ladies!” comment to Caroline and Elizabeth.
A lot of characters notice that Darcy frequently follows Elizabeth around with his creepy stalker eyes, but only Caroline knows with certainty that he looks out of admiration rather than censure, and only Caroline is in any position to talk to Darcy about his staring problem. As Caroline is consumed by jealousy, she takes every opportunity to needle Darcy about his attraction to Elizabeth, and her needling prompts in Darcy a consciousness of his growing feelings (and feeling of their being dangerous to him) and, perhaps, an increased awareness of Elizabeth’s attractiveness. After Elizabeth walks to Netherfield, Caroline slyly suggests that Elizabeth’s behavior may have dampened his appreciation for her ‘fine eyes.’ Darcy replies that they were brightened by the exercise. Once Elizabeth and Caroline are under the same roof, Darcy has the opportunity to compare their behavior: Elizabeth reads, and Caroline pretends to read; Elizabeth behaves with civility to most and friendly warmth to Bingley, and Caroline is cold and uncivil (sometimes downright rude) to Elizabeth and obsequious to Darcy. With such comparisons to hand, it’s no wonder Darcy develops an attraction to Elizabeth.
Caroline’s influence on Elizabeth is exactly the reverse. Elizabeth views Caroline’s obvious attempts to attract Darcy’s attention with contempt, and she, although indirectly, seems to blame Darcy for Caroline’s behavior. The more Caroline reacts to Elizabeth with jealousy and spitefulness and to Darcy with toadying, the lower Darcy sinks in Elizabeth’s estimation. This is not, in itself, all that surprising; how could Darcy possibly appear to advantage in such a setting? So, while Darcy is able to compare Elizabeth and Caroline and conclude that Elizabeth is far superior, Elizabeth views Darcy’s interactions with Caroline and concludes that Darcy is proud and vain. She assumes Darcy’s responses to Caroline are in keeping with his usual manner, proud, reserved, aloof, and awful (Bingley’s term: “I declare I do not know a more awful object than Darcy, on particular occasions, and in particular places; at his own house especially, and of a Sunday evening, when he has nothing to do.”), and she does not consider that Darcy’s responses to herself and Bingley are of quite a different tone.
In the end, it all comes down to Darcy’s letter and his amended behavior in Derbyshire to remove the last of Elizabeth’s resentments and misconceptions of Darcy. When she meets Caroline at Pemberley, Elizabeth is able to see and appreciate the difference in behavior between Darcy, Miss Darcy, and Caroline Bingley.
For those who are participating in this Jane Austen January, how is your reading going? If reading for the first time, what do you think of it? If this is a re-read, has anything stuck out to you as surprising or new during this read?