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The world of Pride and Prejudice revolved around the relationships between its men and women. Austen made this theme obvious from the opening sentence. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” (3; vI chI). The pages that followed dealt almost exclusively with the problems faced when trying to acquire a wife (or husband). This quest for a spouse was made difficult by the narrow focus of the book’s social gatherings. Jane and Bingley could not make their feelings for each other obvious because they were “never for many hours together; and as they always [saw] each other in large mixed parties, it [was] impossible that every moment should be employed in conversing together,” (15; vI chVI).
This conversing together was the desired result of any gathering, because it was the only way potential suitors and suitees could get to know more about each other. Faced with life devoid of In-N-Out burgers, movie theaters, and frat parties, Jane Austen’s characters resorted to attendance at balls and afternoon teas to meet and better acquaint themselves with each other. Their interaction with members of the opposite sex was limited to the pleasantries exchanged while sipping or dancing.
They knew each other almost exclusively through this polite conversation, and how well or poorly they conveyed their thoughts had a huge impact on how they were perceived. The eloquence of the characters of Pride and Prejudice, their ability to converse politely and entertain each other through interesting conversation, their wit or spirit, the extent to which they were able to show their intelligence, and their ability to convey an idea or point of view, was greatly esteemed because so much of what they knew about each other was based upon their words.
Words, or a lack thereof, earned Darcy a reputation for pride and a disagreeable nature when he refused to speak to anyone he did not already know at his first ball at Meryton. “… he is such a disagreeable man that it would be quite a misfortune to be liked by him. Mrs. Long told me last night that he sat close to her for half an hour without once opening his lips,” (13; vI chV). Mrs. Bennet later added that he would have talked to Mrs. Long if he had been agreeable, making the connection between not speaking and being disagreeable is unmistakable. He was expected to converse, and his failure to do so reflected poorly upon his character. Darcy’s worth in society was based upon how well he was able to express himself, and half an hour of silence with Mrs. Long greatly lessened his social worth.
Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst also fall victim to a character analysis based upon their conversation. Elizabeth was surprised by them when they exerted themselves so much to please, saying she “had never seen them so agreeable” and that, “Their powers of conversations were considerable,” (37; vI chXI). Not only was a quiet member of society condemned, but one that was outgoing and blessed with the gift of entertaining speech was praised. In this case, two women who had put little effort into their conversations and relationship with Elizabeth up to that point, resulting in her marked dislike, suddenly decided to try to improve Elizabeth’s opinion of them. This was accomplished by simply including her in an animated discussion. Elizabeth spent so much time talking with the people around her that her quality of life changed dramatically based upon how well they expressed themselves. If the people around Elizabeth could converse well and entertain, the many hours spent in conversation would pass by much more quickly and enjoyably.
An entertaining friend was worth a great deal more than a talented or pretty one when extended periods of time were spent exchanging ideas. Beauty seemed to be an emphasis in the book since many references were made to the beauty or lack of beauty where the Bennet sisters and other characters were concerned. “[Mr. Bingley] had entertained hopes of being admitted to a sight of the young ladies, of whose beauty he had heard much,” (7; vI chIII). The reputation for beauty, not intelligence preceded the Bennet sisters, and yet the most desirable quality in the book is intelligence, specifically intelligence shown through conversation. Darcy fell in love not with Elizabeth’s looks, although her “fine eyes” were an added bonus once he got to know her, but with her eloquence. He even said initially that, “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me,” (9; vI chIII). Since he was later sufficiently tempted by her to propose marriage twice, something had to have changed his opinion of her. Her looks certainly did not change drastically during the course of the book; it was, rather, her conversation that won him over. Only two chapters after he told Bingley that Elizabeth did not interest him, he told Miss Bingley that she (Elizabeth) was pretty. His only exposure to her between these two events was when he, “as a step towards conversing with her himself, attended to her conversation with others,” (16-17; vI chVI), and so he got to know her by simply listening to her talk. If she had spoken poorly, used bad grammar, been rude, or even not spoken, Darcy would have gotten a very different impression of her character and her intelligence, and would have found nothing to merit a change in his opinion of her. Darcy even says, after he and Elizabeth are engaged, that he fell in love with her because of the “liveliness of [her] mind,” (248; vIII chXVIII). He liked the wit and, as she says, impertinence, of her conversation. Her subsequent marriage was a direct result of her intelligence, shown through her eloquence.
Darcy’s eloquence, his ability to explain his actions and his history with Wickham, was also a very important part of his courtship of Elizabeth, playing a huge role in her change of heart. Elizabeth initially detested Darcy because she overheard him insult her. When her mother condemns him for not speaking at the Meryton ball, she replies by saying, “I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine,” (14; vI chV). His written words later won her over. Darcy’s letter explaining both his behavior and Wickham’s marked the turning point in his relationship with Elizabeth. Upon reading it “She grew absolutely ashamed of herself.— Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think, without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd,” (137; vII chXIII). She began to consider the unthinkable, to realize that, despite his difficulty expressing himself vocally, that he was eloquent, that he was intelligent, and that, perhaps, she had made a mistake in turning him down. She was not completely won over until he went to so much trouble to be charming to Elizabeth and her uncle and aunt when they visited his home. She realized when she was forced to leave that her feelings where Darcy was concerned had changed, that he had been very kind, and that she regretted having to leave so suddenly.
…Elizabeth felt how improbable it was that they should ever see each other again on such terms of cordiality as had marked their several meetings in Derbyshire; and as she threw a retrospective glance over the whole of their acquaintance, so full of contradictions and varieties, sighed at the perverseness of those feelings which would now have promoted its continuance and would formerly have rejoiced in its termination. (180-181; vIII chIV).
It is then that she finally saw what he was capable of and began to allow herself to fall in love. Marriage to Darcy did not seem as undesirable on reflection as it had initially, once he proved that he was intelligent and capable of interesting conversation.
Interesting conversation was really the only way Austen’s characters had to display their intelligence. The only mention of university in the whole book involved Wickham. Darcy said, “My father supported him at school, and afterwards at Cambridge,” (132; vII chXII), and all the female characters were taught at home if they were taught at all. Elizabeth said of her education that, “We [the Bennet sisters] were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle, certainly might,” (110; vII chVI). There were no science fairs, SAT scores, or class ranks to impress a prospective suitor, so everyone was forced to rely upon their rhetorical skills to show that they were indeed clever. Practical knowledge was not even very highly esteemed, as none of gentry had to make a living. None of them made serious business decisions since for the most part they were born into their money, nor were they forced to worry about the inner workings of their own homes; servants did all that thinking for them. The only thing that could be done with intelligence was talk, and so the art of talking well was nurtured.
Austen obviously valued intelligence above many other qualities that would have been arguably more useful in the same setting. Manual dexterity could have manifested itself much more obviously in needlework and other crafts than intelligence was able to show through in conversation. Coordination and a musical ear were necessary for dancing and playing an instrument, yet we know that Elizabeth did not play particularly well, and Darcy fell in love with her in spite of it. The same day Darcy first remarked on Elizabeth’s “fine eyes” she played piano for the whole group, and, “her performance was pleasing, though by no means capital,” (17; vI chVI). Eloquence and love were even paired together as if they were two parts of the same thing in the description of Mr. Collins’s proposal to Charlotte, although this was said with tongue in cheek as it is obvious to the reader that he had a different definition of both than Elizabeth and, arguably, Austen. (83; vI chXXII). Austen was a firm believer in the power of words, and her characters showed that. Darcy said to Elizabeth, about the effect the things she said to him when refusing his proposal had on him, “Those were your words. You know not, you can scarcely conceive, how they have tortured me,” (240; vIII chXVI). Austen believed that words were capable of really impacting those who heard or read them, and Darcy was evidence of that.
It is interesting that Austen placed so much importance on words and eloquence since everything we know about her characters is related to us through her words and her eloquence. Austen instilled her own priorities into her characters, and her own intelligence and wit manifests itself in Elizabeth’s intelligence and wit. She says in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, after the novel was published that, “I think her [Elizabeth] as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, & how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know,” (273; 29 Jan 1813). Elizabeth was clearly the embodiment of all the characteristics that Austen admired. Had Austen been unable to express herself so clearly and humorously, had she spent more time perfecting her embroidery or piano skills than writing, this book would not have been able to capture the reader, and would have been a failure. Luckily Austen did not perfect her embroidery. Instead she wrote and left us with a legacy of books, stories, and letters to enjoy and remember her by. Not only was eloquence important to Austen’s characters, but it was obviously also important to Austen herself, since she spent so much of her life using and improving it.
All the emphasis on eloquence was not so misplaced. People in relationships now are often so busy that little time is allotted for serious conversation, and we often know little about the people we care most about. How often during the course of the day do we come across someone who has a great deal of difficulty functioning in the “real world” because he unable to express himself? Eloquence was emphasized in Pride and Prejudice because so much of what the characters knew about each other was based upon their words. Are we so different? We ought to take a cue from Jane Austen and begin making the things we say and the way we say them a little more of a priority. A focus on interesting, intellectual, clear, witty, and polite conversation would make all the trips to In-N-Out Burger much more entertaining, and much more worth our time.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Norton & Company, 2001.
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