Saturday, 17 October 2009

Jane Austen's Villains and Question 17

The reponses to the question yesterday about Wickham overall articulated an issue in Jane Austen that is really fascinating, and that is, her way of depicting her villains, more particularly her male villains. As Laura pointed out, even though they do terrible things that we condemn whole heartedly, they somehow seem to get away with it, perhaps because they continue to be "charming" in spite of being caught out, or perhaps because of the general attitude of Regency society towards bad boys, rakes, and sharps, who were never really held accountable, unless they did something against the nobility, in which case duels were really the only way to respond. There was the legal system, of course, but that was so slow and so public (especially when it came to a women's reputation) that it was rarely the first recourse. In fact, in my novel The Other Mr Darcy, I have a discussion about the issue of making duelling illegal at the time, in which I let my characters have their say. But when you think about it, there was very little you could do in response to someone like Wickham or Willoughby except challenge him to a duel.

I always wonder when we read Jane Austen how much we're actually missing, even though her writing sets out things so clearly that we think we're following along quite happily. But it seems to me there is a whole undercurrent in Pride and Prejudice about social status that is expressed through Lydia and Wickham, and I'd like to set it up as a question for discussion. For, as Mr Bennet says quite hopelessly, "Wickham's a fool if he takes her with a farthing less than ten thousand pounds." Mr Bennet is obviously distraught by the whole episode. It reveals his complete powerlessness to do anything. He is unfortunately aware that the only way he could have forced Wickham to marry Lydia is by physically fighting with him, and of course Wickham would have won. It is only when the powerful Mr Darcy steps in and pays off Wickham that the marriage can take place.

But here is my question:  

How much of Elizabeth's dismay at discovering that it was Mr Darcy who rescued Lydia comes from being put into her place i.e. really fully understanding the inescapable difference in their social levels? In other words, did Elizabeth's pride (despite seeing Pemberley and comparing it to Longbourn) and her insistence on their equality as descendants of gentlemen receive a heavy blow? Did Jane Austen intend her to be humbled at this point?

10 comments:

  1. Oh dear. I feel like an uneducated dunce right now. I'd never thought of the Darcy rescue as a way to put Elizabeth in her place. I always thought of it as a great way to redeem Darcy in her eyes, show his good side and generally sweep the reader off their feet. But now that you've presented this, I can see the possibilities in this plot point. I don't know if Austen intended Elizabeth to be humbled, but she certainly needed to be!

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  2. This one sent me back to the book, again! Like Laura, I never thought that Austen intended to put Lizzie in her proper place (socially). And, when I read the book, I can't find any evidence to indicate that Austen intended to do so. Lizzie is humbled, but she is humbled upon reflection of how badly she judged Mr. Darcy. At this point in the story, she has vehemently rejected him and is quite stunned to see him going to so much trouble for Lydia and Wickham. This kindles the hope that he has done this out of affection for her. I think this is a lot of what she is feeling.

    That Elizabeth was not brought down a notch is evident in the way she responds to Lady Catherine. Elizabeth reiterates that she is a gentleman's daughter and the alliance would in no way harm Mr. Darcy. I don't think she feels that she has been shown his superior social standing, but she has been shown the depth of his heart. This is what humbles her.

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  3. I agree with both Laura and jnaj! I don't think Austen intended to bring her down given her response to Lady Catherine, but I do think she wanted to humble her especially given her rude response to Darcy and the horrid way she treated him...though he redeemed himself in her eyes, I wonder if he would have seen his actions that way.

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  4. First of all I must say, what a great blog! I wish I had learned about it sooner!

    Now to answer the question, I feel that Elizabeth, although utterly humiliated that her own family could do nothing to fix the situation with Wickham, is not entirely humbled by Darcy paying off Wickham. Her pride remains constant to the end. The fact that she softens up to Darcy comes from the generosity he showed and not because she came to some realization that her family's status was below his.

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  5. I have to agree with jnja! Elizabeth is humbled by 'the depth of his heart' not his pocketbook. Elizabeth's pride is ingrained into her very being, she is a gentleman's daughter, and she proves that in her confrontation with Lady Catherine. Elizabeth's pride in her standing never wavers, but her heart is humbled enough to truely open itself to Darcy.

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  6. I have to agree with the others. If anything, Elizabeth seems less inclined to acknowledge the gap between them, not more. At Netherfield, she believes that the gap between them is so wide that a man of Darcy's high rank ("so great a man") could never be interested in her. By the end, she's arguing that there's no gap at all.

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  7. Hello Lyndsey, Malinda and Elizabeth B. Glad you found your way here. You're welcome to go back and answer other questions as well. I've had such thought provoking answers that I'd encourage everyone to go back and read them.

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  8. "Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can." This Austen quote sums up her intent. Elizabeth was humbled, but because she was an intelligent character who was able to reflect on her mistakes, see the folly in them, and take responsibility for the outcome. I find Austen's intent to be transparent. Had she intended to make a statement about social levels humbling Elizabeth, she would have made Lady Catherine a sympathetic character.

    Jeanne S.

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  9. What a great question. I always believed she was dismayed because she realized that Darcy was so far above her family financially that they would never be able to repay him for his help. I think her pride does take a blow. Did Austen intend for her to be humbled?

    Even though Elizabeth is dismayed, I don't think that she is humbled. She still has her pride at being a gentleman's daughter, and certainly gives Lady Catherine a piece of her mind when she comes to visit!

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  10. Hello, and sorry for chiming in late here.

    In thinking about this question I must come back to the very insightful observation by St. Augustine that "the surest invitation to love is loving first."

    We know that Elizabeth, however deeply angry she is, is not unmoved by the knowledge that such a man as Darcy could be so in love with her, and then later, when she meets him at Pemberley and notes the change in his demeanor, and then later yet when she learns what he has done for Lydia, she can't keep herself from thinking that it is because of his feelings for her. Part of her doesn't want to believe it, but part of her knows.

    Also by this point she has read his letter countless times and that document alone has had a very powerful effect on her. I would not necessarily use the word "humbled" -- I would say rather that she has been chastened, and has learned that her instincts were susceptible to flattery, and not always as trustworthy as she would have liked to believe.

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