I thought I would take a different approach to writing about this classic to end all classics, by picking out ten key paragraphs from the novel and paying them some careful attention. This analysis assumes a familiarity with the key events and characters of the novel. Incidentally, despite the misleading headline description of this post, I am not suggesting that these are the only ten paragraphs that you need to read to understand P&P – that would be ridiculous. The novel is so rich and rewardingly complex that almost any ten paragraphs plucked at random would be worth studying. But these are ten that jumped out at me on a recent rereading.
Chapter 10 – Jane, the eldest of the five Bennet sisters, has paid a visit to nearby Netherfield, in the course of which she has been caught in a rain shower. Walking instead of going in a coach is in itself significant – the Bennet’s have a coach, but it is not available. This helps precisely locate their social status – a one-coach family. Jane inevitably catches a cold, and second daughter Elizabeth has to go to Netherfield to care for her (this time the coach is available). This is just the first of several occasions when fate conspires to bring Elizabeth and Darcy together. Elizabeth is a family guest, but one with a special status, invited to care for her sister but not otherwise part of the party. This makes her a little detached from the others. It is unusual for someone to be a house-guest (i.e. staying overnight) on such a brief acquaintance.
In the evening the company gathers for dinner, followed by witty conversation and music. Elizabeth and Darcy spar; she is aware of his reputation as a gruff, unfriendly character, which was confirmed by his rudeness about her at the recent ball. But her attitudes begin to soften during the course of their conversation:
“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed that were it not for the inferiority of her connections he should be in some danger.”
It is interesting to follow Austen’s masterful use of the narrative point of view here. In the first phrase the narrator gives us Elizabeth’s perspective – she is amazed by Darcy’s gallantry, confounding her earlier perception of him as someone gruff and rude. The next phrase is a more general observation about how Elizabeth is usually perceived – as both sweet and arch. We then are given Darcy’s confession – he is bewitched by her. Although we traditionally think of this romance as one in which the characters gradually fall in love, and struggle with their feelings, the reality is quite different – their mutual attraction is apparent from an early point, and from then it is only a question of navigating the various hurdles in their way, not least Darcy’s scruples about Elizabeth’s poorly connected family.
Chapter 15. Mr Collins, heir to Longbourn, the Bennet family home, comes to visit with the explicit intention of engaging himself to one of the Bennet daughters. Two preliminary points before I come to the paragraph in question. Firstly, I suspect ‘Longbourn’ is a little joke, referencing the phrase ‘long borne’, as in long suffered or tolerated. Precisely who is long suffering is another matter – most if not all of the Bennet household would probably lay claim to the phrase. The other more complex point relates to the business of the entail of Longbourn. When Mr Bennet dies the property will be left to his cousin, Mr Collins, not his daughters. This is the infamous ‘entail’.
We are given very little information about this entail – it is presented as an unfortunate fact of life about which little can be done, and Mrs Bennet is mocked for protesting about it and not understanding the details. Commentaries (I am sure correctly) claim that the practice of leaving a property to a single male heir was intended to avoid family wealth and estates being dissipated amongst numerous heirs, or going out of the family entirely through the female line. But that explanation doesn’t really help here – the effect of this will is that the Longbourn estate while preserved in its entirety is going out of the family, to a distant cousin with a different family name. If preserving the integrity of the modest estate is critical (and it is not a grand country house, after all, so the importance of this is less than it would be for Pemberly or Netherfield, for example) then Mr Bennet could simply leave the estate to his eldest daughter. It’s also unclear precisely who has imposed the entail on the estate – some commentaries suggests that the entail is like a long lease or another condition of occupation, imposed by a long-dead ancestor. But that can’t surely be right – can entails persist across the generations in the way this implies? It must be in Mr Bennet’s legal power to change the terms of his will and bequeath his property where he sees fit.
In the end of course the point becomes moot, because both Elizabeth and Jane marry well and into money, and are likely to produce a male heir to inherit Longbourn in any event.
Nevertheless, for now Mr Collins is the heir, and he is seeking to heal family rifts and keep the property in the family by marrying one of the sisters. His fancy alights on Jane, as the eldest, but when told by Mrs Bennet that she is likely to be engaged, his change of heart is swift:
“Mr Collins only had to change from Jane to Elizabeth – and it was soon done – done while Mrs Bennet was stirring the fire.
Affection is as ephemeral as that, a matter of simple choice rather than anything more complex – as long as Elizabeth is young enough to bear an heir, she will do. When she declines his kind offer the change to Charlotte Lucas is made with similar speed and as little disturbance. The casual brutality of his transferable affections here tells us all we need to know about Mr Collins, one of Austen’s great comic monsters.
Chapter 24. Jane and Elizabeth are discussing Charlotte Lucas’s marriage to the insufferable Mr Collins. Jane, as always seeing the positive in any situation, says that Charlotte “may feel something like regard and esteem for our cousin”. Elizabeth’s rejection of this is absolute
“Were I persuaded that Charlotte had any regard for him (Mr Collins) I should only think worse of her understanding than I now do of her heart…Mr Collins is a conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man….the woman who married him cannot have a proper way of thinking”
Charlotte Lucas’s decision to accept Mr Collins’s proposal is a pragmatic decision, in which affection, regard or esteem plays no part. She needs a husband with a reasonable income and Mr Collins is available. Aged 27, without a significant income of her own, and not being regarded as a beauty, it is hard not to see Charlotte as a portrait of the choices women, not least of course Austen herself, had to make all the time in Regency England. Not everyone was lucky enough to snare themselves an English country gentleman. Despite Elizabeth’s incredulity, the signs are that Charlotte has made a comfortable life for herself in the Rosings rectory.
Mr Collins is indeed a monster, but I don’t think the reader is invited to share Elizabeth’s judgment or condemnation of Charlotte. Charlotte’s decision to settle for Mr Collins plays an important part in the narrative, as it leads Elizabeth to re-evaluate her own attitudes towards her choice of a life partner.
Chapter 28. Elizabeth has gone to Kent to visit her newly married friend, Charlotte Collins nee Lucas. A carriage stops outside the Rectory – it contains Miss Anne de Bourgh, Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s daughter, and her governess. These are two of the numerous almost invisible and silent women that people the background of this novel. While Charlotte speaks to the carriage’s occupants, Elizabeth looks on:
“I like her appearance, said Elizabeth, struck with other ideas. “She looks sickly and cross. Yes, she will do for him very well. She will make him a very proper wife”.
That Anne is intended as Darcy’s wife, by familial arrangement rather than by way of formal engagement, is not something that has publicly discussed with Maria Lucas, so Elizabeth seems to be speaking more to herself than Maria. Darcy pops into Elizabeth’s thoughts at the sight of Anne- she refers to him as “him” here, not by name. The narrator tells us plainly that Elizabeth is in denial – while she says she like’s Anne’s appearance, she is actually “struck by other ideas”. She evaluates Anne, whether she realises it or not, as a competitor, and is pleased that she is not to be feared.
This aside almost certainly goes over the head of Maria Lucas, one of Charlotte’s younger sisters who is Elizabeth’s companion on this visit. Maria Lucas is another of the walk-on parts scattered throughout the novel, and while she is given a few lines of her own, she mainly acts as a foil to the more mature, more intelligent Elizabeth.
Chapter 31. The setting for this scene is a gathering at Rosings, Lady de Bourgh’s home. Elizabeth is playing the piano, and Mr Darcy comes over to observe her play. Archly, Elizabeth says:
“You mean to frighten me, Mr. Darcy, by coming in all this state to hear me? I will not be alarmed though your sister does play so well. There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”
“In all this state” is an ambiguous phrase. It could mean in an agitated state, or it could mean “in all this stateliness”. There is no indication in the text that Darcy is in any kind of a state – leaving the reader to infer either he is showing his emotions, and the narrator has chosen not to describe these, or that he is perfectly composed, but that Elizabeth is teasing him. This is the matter of fact paragraph which precedes this comment:
“Colonel Fitzwilliam reminded Elizabeth of having promised to play to him; and she sat down directly to the instrument. He drew a chair near her. Lady Catherine listened to half a song, and then talked, as before, to her other nephew; till the latter walked away from her, and making with his usual deliberation towards the pianoforte stationed himself so as to command a full view of the fair performer’s countenance. Elizabeth saw what he was doing, and at the first convenient pause, turned to him with an arch smile, and said:..
One of the reasons Elizabeth is so loved by readers, is that she stands up for herself, brilliantly and fiercely against Lady Catherine, but also here when Darcy attempts to put her off her piano playing simply by his presence. We see Elizabeth’s courage rise again when someone foolishly tries to intimidate her.