It’s November 20th! This date may not be of particular significance to you, but it is the same day that Mr. Collins’ proposed to protagonist Elizabeth in Jane Austen’s ‘Pride & Prejudice.’ Now, I am going to propose an idea to you, which you may vehemently reject – in the same vein Elizabeth did poor Mr. Collins – if you so desire. Yet, I profess to you, most eloquent and admirable reader, that I have just as much persistence and determination as the latter to make you believe this most illuminating idea.
It is common conjecture in the literary world that Mr. Darcy’s standoffish and rude manners stem from a quality of awkwardness. Perchance, this version of Mr. Darcy is easier to reconcile with the dashing and romantic man that the movies portray. Certainly, this version of Mr. Darcy is easier to forgive than the man who thought others so beneath him he had no qualms in telling them so and who interfered in his relations’ relationships based on this prerogative. Yet, our astute protagonist never did allow the trait of awkwardness as a pass for his horrible (not simply rude) words and actions – and I assert that the reader should not either.
Mr. Darcy’s character arc (that is, what he overcomes) is represented by the first half of the title ‘Pride & Prejudice.’ Notice, Austen did not entitle her work ‘Awkwardness & Prejudice,’ a title that would render Mr. Darcy’s transformation much less drastic than it truly is. The reader is supposed to be taken on a journey of understanding and forgiveness along with Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth; the central theme of the story is about the power of love as a driver of inward change and pardon. The reader can indeed make no excuses for the horribly prideful man Mr. Darcy is at the beginning of the story – and by the end, still view him as favorably, or even better, than when excuse had been made.
Mr. Darcy was not a man so inept at interacting with others that he did not know rules of conduct and words to refrain from to avoid giving offense. When Wickham shares information with Elizabeth about Mr. Darcy’s connections, he describes him as believing that “everyone connected with him should have an understanding of the first class” (73). Well, dear reader, what does it mean for someone to be “understanding of the first class?” Other than knowing the level of propriety required and the activities customarily taken up by these members of society, I am quite sure this “understanding” also involves not giving offense. I do not think that “first class” members are exempt from the ability of being snubbed. This point means that Mr. Darcy must refrain from speaking the things less kind to people such as Lady Catherine de Borough and Miss. Bingley. Think with me now of when Elizabeth visits Netherfield and observes Miss Bingley speaking steadfastly on to Mr. Darcy as he writes a letter to his sister. The clipped tone of Mr. Darcy’s replies suggests enough about his being perturbed, but no word is directly spoken to bring insult to Miss Bingley station of life or to suppose her inferior to him. Furthermore, when Mr. Darcy later exposes the faults of Mr. Bingley, he does so in a playful manner, making sure to smile and tease his friend at the close of the ordeal. When Lady Catherine recounts to the whole dinner table at Rosing’s that Elizabeth is free to come practice playing the pianoforte every day, Mr. Darcy “looked a little ashamed of his aunt’s ill breeding, and made no answer” (148). He may find her offer too forward, but he would not dare tell her so or even to voice his opinion in a ‘light-hearted’ quip. You see, most intelligent friend, with all these people – Miss Bingley, Mr. Bingley, Lady Catherine – there was something for Mr. Darcy to lose: amity and purposeful connection to the movers-and-shakers of town. These people are refined, dignified, and deemed important, so Mr. Darcy stays hushed and relents from exposing the true feelings he harbors inside. If only he could be persuaded to choose his mode of conduct based on a law of kindness rather than the judgement of high-society. But hearken, most humble and learning student! He does learn to do so over time, as I have told you, and your admiration for him can thus flow unrestrained.
Elizabeth is as astute a person I have ever read about, and I am sure she would have been able to link a quality of awkwardness to his harsh words and feelings of superiority – should that have made any sense at all. There is a quote that all pre-Pemberley-Mr. Darcy-absolvers want to point to: “I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,” said Darcy, “of conversing easily with those I have never met before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done (149).” Does Elizabeth then feel as though she understands his whole character? Perhaps so, if she had said something to the tune of “Oh, Mr. Darcy! Your inaptitude to speak with strangers is the reason you called me barely tolerable within earshot and thought it your place to split my beloved sister with her beloved suitor – how silly of me!” No, that is quite preposterous of us to think she would say. Rather, Elizabeth brings up how she does not employ her time to practice playing the piano, and thus she is not very proficient in doing so. In the same light, she is suggesting that Mr. Darcy practice conversing with strangers in order to improve his social graces – little is said about his character thus being made better. I remind you, dear reader, that there is nothing wrong in forgiving Mr. Darcy, but it is not good practice (I digress, excuse me) to simply paint over another’s weaknesses in order to make them more pleasing to us.
Mr. Darcy is clearly unaware of how to engage with a woman so keen and challenging as Elizabeth – but did he really have to insult her as he explained his intrigue? After Mr. Darcy’s first confession of love to Elizabeth, in which he openly shared his feelings about her family, Elizabeth objects, “I might as well inquire…why with so evident a design of offending and insulting me you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character? (161-162)” Granted, dear reader, she inquires so after knowing Mr. Darcy struggles in social situations. Yet, she still thinks she should “as well inquire” as to the audacity of sharing such brazen and offensive things as he did about her family during his proposal to her. She goes on to state she sees in him “arrogance…conceit…[and] selfish disdain of the feelings of others” (164). I understand that Elizabeth’s part of the story involves prejudice and that we learn more of the truth with Mr. Darcy later on – however, one uses body language around others, separates themselves from others, and speaks of others does generate a good idea of any kind of pomp that lies within. Since you ask, this is advice I would have given to Mr. Darcy: “Oh, so I see you are falling in love with the clever and enchanting Elizabeth. What is this? She is so unique to everyone else, but you are struggling with the situation of her family? Why, my dear friend – what is intelligence if it is not moving away from these old ideas of classist structures? Speak to Elizabeth in kind words of what she means to you. You will learn to love her family as well. Or at least barely tolerate them (*wink*).” You see, most patient reader, just because we come across a new situation, it does not mean that we should bring forth from within ourselves negative reactions. Mayhap, Mr. Darcy was afraid of the feelings he was having towards Elizabeth because he would then, for the first time, be connected to a rambunctious group of people (her family). Mr. Darcy could have handled his apprehension with more kindness. Being kind does not involve knowing how to speak perfectly to someone – sometimes, all one must do is remain quiet and learn.
Thank you for taking this journey with me, most kind reader! I do hope it was not too taxing of a trip – why, I should think it as easy a road as a walk into Meryton from the Bennets. The material discussed, while I had claimed audacious at the beginning, I most dearly hope you have taken a liking to. One of the things I most admire about you, most excellent friend, is your willingness to learn. Your objections to my word were simply taken as a token of your prompting me to better explain myself. All in all, I know that I have equipped you with the knowledge about not excusing Mr. Darcy, but rather admiring him for his change and growth – as we do with our dear Elizabeth. Take heart, friend! Isn’t the story of life and love all about bearing our mistakes and resolving to improve for the better? How touching. It is a good thing I am already most highly esteemed in the estate of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Mr. Collins recommended me to her, and he is my mentor, you know. Some say we are quite similar. Whatever that means…Farewell, dear reader!
Alessandra | Fall 2020