PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, By William Dudley Foulke 1912
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THE narrow horizon of Jane Austen's life was perhaps one of the reasons why her perception of human nature was so keen and accurate in the matters which fell under her observation. Her novels contain no extraordinary types nor incidents, but she makes the most of the average and the commonplace, which become more than usually interesting under her treatment. He who reads "Pride and Prejudice " will get a faithful picture, not only of English country life, but of a great deal that belongs to life everywhere. None of the characters are exaggerated; they are entirely human and natural. The conversation is not too brilliant to be lifelike. When bright things are said they are introduced in a spontaneous and almost inevitable manner. All through the book we recognize in the author a quiet yet acute observer of actual occurrences, who has culled largely from her own recollection many of the most attractive incidents and has grouped them together with simple yet effective art. The satire is so unobtrusive that sometimes it appears unconscious.
The Bennet household is well described. "Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humor, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news."
And again: "Her husband was very little otherwise indebted to her than as her ignorance and folly contributed to his amusement. This is not the sort of happiness which a man would in general wish to owe to his wife, but where other powers of entertainment are wanting, the true philosopher will derive benefit from such as are given."
There are five daughters in the family, whose characters are excellently set off by comparison with one another,— Jane, the eldest, beautiful, gracious, kindly, sweet-tempered, always believing the best of everybody; Elizabeth, high-spirited, brilliant, and decidedly the most attractive, although by no means so charitable as her sister in her judgment of others. The three other sisters, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia, are as empty-headed as their mother. Lydia, the youngest, in particular, is a wild, giddy girl, continually running after the officers with their fine coats.
The book deals with a society where woman's sole resource is matrimony, and through the entire story there runs a great deal of talk of catching a husband, and of schemes for this purpose. The silly Mrs. Bennet flings her daughters, in the most transparent way, first at one man and then another, much to the mortification of Jane and Elizabeth. It appears that Mr. Bingley, a young, unmarried, and wealthy gentleman, has recently taken the estate of Netherfield, and moves into the neighborhood, bringing with him his two sisters, women of selfish and supercilious character. His friend Darcy, the proprietor of the large estate of Pemberly, in Derbyshire, also accompanies him. The book opens with the following sentence:
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters."
The partiality of Bingley for Jane is soon apparent, but the young man is hurried away from Netherfield by his sisters and his friend Darcy, who desires to preserve him from an undesirable connection. By mutual misunderstandings Jane and he are kept apart until near the close of the book, and the main interest in the story centers around Darcy and Elizabeth. Darcy's manner is proud, cold, and disagreeable, and Elizabeth resents his conduct in a lively and spirited fashion, which renders her all the more attractive in his eyes. She hears, however, from Wickham, a young officer in the militia, of his evil conduct in disregarding his father's wishes and depriving this companion of his boyhood of a living, which he had been recommended by his father's will to bestow upon Wickham.
Mr. Collins, a young clergyman who has inherited by entail the reversion of Longbourn, the Bennet property, visits the Bennet household, resolving to marry one of the daughters — any one of them will do; and on learning that Jane is likely to be disposed of, he at once transfers his suit to Elizabeth. He is a formal, pompous, ridiculous toady, filled with great awe of his patroness, Lady Catherine De Bourgh. The manner in which he pays his addresses to Elizabeth is related with delightful particularity:
"'Almost as soon as I entered the house,' [he says], 'I singled you out as the companion of my future life. But, before I am run away with by my feelings on this subject, perhaps it will be advisable for me to state my reasons for marrying — and, moreover, for coming into Hertfordshire with the design of selecting a wife, as I certainly did.'
"The idea of Mr. Collins, with all his solemn composure, being run away with by his feelings, made Elizabeth so near laughing, that she could not use the short pause he allowed in any attempt to stop him further, and he continued:
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"'My reasons for marrying are, first, that I think it a right thing for every clergyman in easy circumstances (like myself) to set the example of matrimony in his parish; secondly, that I am convinced it will add very greatly to my happiness; and thirdly — which, perhaps, I ought to have mentioned earlier, that it is the particular advice and recommendation of the very noble lady whom I have the honor of calling patroness. Twice has condescended to give me her opinion (unasked, too!) on this subject; and it was but the very Saturday night before I left Hunsford — between our pools at quadrille, while Mrs. Jenkinson was arranging Miss De Bourgh's footstool — that she said, "Mr. Collins, you must marry. A clergyman like you must marry. Choose properly, choose a gentlewoman, for my sake; and for your own, let her be an active, useful sort of person, not brought up high, but able to make a small income go a good way. This is my advice. Find such a woman as soon as you can, bring her to Hunsford, and I will visit her." Allow me, by the way, to observe, my fair cousin, that I do not reckon the notice and kindness of Lady Catherine de Bourgh as among the least of the advantages in my power to offer. You will find her manners beyond anything I can describe; and your wit and vivacity I think must be acceptable to her, especially when tempered with the silence and respect which her rank will inevitably excite. Thus much for my general intention in favor of matrimony; it remains to be told why my views were directed to Longbourn instead of my own neighborhood, where, I assure you, there are many amiable young women. But, the fact is, that being as I am to inherit this estate after the death of your honored father, (who, however, may live many years longer), I could not satisfy myself without resolving to choose a wife from among his daughters, that the loss to them might be as little as possible, when the melancholy event takes place — which, however, as I have already said, may not be for several years. This has been my motive, my fair cousin, and I flatter myself it will not sink me in your esteem. And now, nothing remains for me but to assure you, in the most animated language, of the violence of my affection. To fortune I am perfectly indifferent, and shall make no demand of that nature on your father, since I am well aware that it could not be complied with; and that one thousand pounds in the four per cents., which will not be yours till after your mother's decease, is all that you may ever be entitled to. On that head, therefore, I shall be uniformly silent; and you may assure yourself that no ungenerous reproach shall ever pass my lips when we are married."
"It was absolutely necessary to interrupt him now.
"'You are too hasty, sir,' she cried. 'You forget that I have made no answer. Let me do it without further loss of time. Accept my thanks for the compliment you are paying me. I am very sensible of the honor of your proposals, but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than decline them."
"'I am not now to learn,' replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the hand, 'that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favor; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second or even a third time. I am, therefore, by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long.'
"'Upon my word, sir,' cried Elizabeth, 'your hope is rather an extraordinary one, after my declaration. I do assure you that I am not one of those young ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time. I am perfectly serious in my refusal. You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who would make you so. Nay, were your friend Lady Catherine to know me, I am persuaded she would find me in every respect ill qualified for the situation.'
"'You must give me leave to flatter myself, my dear cousin, that your refusal of my addresses is merely a thing of course. My reasons for believing it are briefly these: — It does not appear to me that my hand is unworthy your acceptance, or that the establishment I can offer would be any other than highly desirable. My situation in life, my connections with the family of De Bourgh, and my relationship to your own, are circumstances highly in my favor; and you should take it into further consideration that, in spite of your manifold attractions it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. Your portion is unhappily so small, that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications. As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall choose to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females."
"'I do assure you, sir, that I have no pretensions whatever to that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable man. I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed sincere. I thank you again and again for the honor you have done me in your proposals, but to accept them is absolutely impossible. My feelings in every respect forbid it. Can I speak plainer? Do not consider me now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart.'
"'You are uniformly charming!' cried he, with an air of awkward gallantry; 'and I am persuaded that when sanctioned by the express authority of both your excellent parents, my proposals will not fail of being acceptable.'
"To such perseverance in wilful self-deception, Elizabeth would make no reply, and immediately and in silence withdrew; determined, that if he persisted in considering her repeated refusals as flattering encouragement, to apply to her father, whose negative might be uttered in such a manner as must be decisive, and whose behavior at least could not be mistaken for the affectation and coquetry of an elegant female."
But after Collins is persuaded that he is rejected by Elizabeth, he at once makes suit to her friend, Charlotte Lucas, and Charlotte, who has an eye to the main chance, snaps up the foolish clergyman with little ceremony, and, like many another woman under similar circumstances, manages him adroitly and bears patiently and cheerfully her dull life with him at the parsonage.
Elizabeth, while on a visit to her friend at this place, again sees Darcy on several occasions. His manners are constrained; she dislikes him heartily; and it is with the utmost surprise that she listens at last to a confession of love, in which he declares that he has struggled vainly, that his feelings will not be repressed, and in which he speaks most inappropriately of his sense of her inferiority, of the marriage being a degradation, and of the family obstacles which judgment has always opposed to his inclination. She rejects him with indignation, and reproaches him for separating his friend Bingley from her sister, and for his unjust treatment of Wickham. He on his part is astounded at her refusal, and the next morning places in her hand a letter, explaining, with great candor and rather brutal frankness, his motives for his action, and justifying very fully his treatment of Wickham, whose bad character is clearly shown.
It is not long before Wickham elopes with the foolish Lydia, and lives with her in hiding in London, but refuses to marry her. Darcy, without the knowledge of any of the Bennet household, sets about to discover the fugitives, and finally persuades Wickham to marry the girl, to whom he gives a portion sufficient to make her an object of attraction to her unprincipled lover.
These two characters, Darcy and Wickham, are not clearly described when they are first introduced to us, and Elizabeth, the heroine, though she is generally a shrewd observer, makes a serious mistake in estimating their respective merits, a mistake that we would be very likely to make ourselves under the same circumstances.
In the later chapters of the book Darcy overcomes his pride, and Elizabeth her prejudice, Bingley and Jane are again brought together, and the marriages of the two couples form a fitting conclusion for the novel.
Perhaps the character of the Lady Catherine de Bourgh is the most graphically drawn of any in the book. Her rank, her wealth, and her arrogance make her the general adviser of the inferior race of mortals whom she deigns to notice. She criticises every household but her own, resents the expression of an opinion by any one except herself, points out the mistakes of everyone else at the card tables, constantly relates anecdotes of her personal experience, determines what the weather is to be next day, finds fault with the employments of her neighbors and the arrangement of their furniture, detects their housemaids in negligence, impresses upon the young women of her acquaintance that they will never play well unless they practice more, etc., etc., etc. All her hospitality is attended by intolerable dullness and ill-breeding. Her interview with Elizabeth, in which she insolently directs that young woman not to marry Darcy, because she has selected him for her own daughter, is drawn with a masterly hand, and, as might be expected, her conduct turns out to be the very means of reconciliation between those she would keep apart.
In the following letter of condolence sent by Mr. Collins to Lydia's father, after her elopement became known, the nature of the reverend clergyman appears, unconsciously painted by his own hand far better than it could be characterized by others:
"'My dear Sir:
"'I feel myself called upon, by our relationship, and my situation in life, to condole with you on the grievous affliction you are now suffering under, of which we were yesterday informed by a letter from Hertfordshire. Be assured, my dear sir, that Mrs. Collins and myself sincerely sympathize with you, and all your respectable family, in your present distress, which must be of the bitterest kind, because proceeding from a cause which no time can remove. No arguments shall be wanting, on my part, that can alleviate so severe a misfortune; or that may comfort you under a circumstance that must be of all others most afflicting to a parent's mind. The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison to this. And it is the more to be lamented, because there is reason to suppose, as my dear Charlotte informs me, that this licentiousness of behavior in your daughter has proceeded from a faulty degree of indulgence; though, at the same time, for the consolation of yourself and Mrs. Bennet, I am inclined to think that her own disposition must be naturally bad, or she could not be guilty of such an enormity, at so early an age. Howsoever that may be, you are grievously to be pitied, in which opinion I am not only joined by Mrs. Collins, but, likewise, by Lady Catherine and her daughter, to whom I have related the affair. They agree with me in apprehending that this false step in one daughter will be injurious to the fortunes of all the others, for who, as Lady Catherine herself condescendingly says, will connect themselves with such a family? And this consideration leads me, moreover, to reflect with augmented satisfaction on a certain event of last November; for had it been otherwise, I must have been involved in all your sorrows and disgrace. Let me advise you, then, my dear sir, to console yourself as much as possible, to throw off your unworthy child from your affection forever, and leave her to reap the fruits of her own heinous offence.'"
While "Pride and Prejudice" is not a book of absorbing interest, it is a very faithful portraiture of life, and a quiet and effective satire on some of the commonest foibles of mankind.