In the following three posts in late 2014….
…I first made the case for Elizabeth Bennet having been clueless about her own unconsciously selfish failure to tell sister Jane that Darcy had intentionally interfered in Bingley’s courtship of Jane. She apparently wanted a husband for herself more than she wanted one for Jane, and she behaved as if this was a zero sum game of love, in which only one of the two eldest Bennet sisters was going to get a rich husband who loved her, and Eliza wanted it to be herself.
The other day, prompted by a post by Diana Birchall about Caroline Bingley’s intense of jealousy of Elizabeth, I broadened my 2014 claims about Elizabeth’s selfishness vis a vis Jane, by adding the other side of the coin of her selfishness: i.e., her equally unconscious, strong jealousy of her sister Jane.
Jealousy of what? First of all, jealousy of Jane having Bingley fall in love with her, while Eliza was enduring the double whammy of (1) getting jilted by Wickham, plus (2) receiving mixed romantic signals from Darcy. That situational jealousy, combined with her aforesaid selfishness, led Eliza to not lift a finger at any point when she had chances, in order to undo Darcy’s meddling, and to try to bring Jane and Bingley back together again.
But behind that cocktail of selfishness and short-term jealousy, I now also see far deeper roots of Elizabeth’s jealousy, based on years of having to hear how extraordinarily beautiful her elder sister was, a cocktail so potent that it could account for Eliza’s clueless neglect of Jane’s happiness.
In 2016, it’s easy to forget how much the bright light of Jane’s great beauty in the novel casts Eliza’s less brilliant beauty in the shade. This is especially so for modern re-readers of P&P who’ve come to know by heart each of the romantic scenes in which we hear about Darcy’s obsession with Elizabeth’s fine dark eyes---even though it’s an obsession which no member of the Bennet family ever knows about. And it’s even more the case for modern devotees of the many film adaptations of P&P, who must try to glimpse the true Eliza of the novel obscured behind the vivid images of gorgeous screen Elizabeths from Greer Garson to Elizabeth Garvie to Jennifer Ehle to Keira Knightley to Lily James.
With all that, it’s easy to forget that in the novel text, the Bennet girl who gets the most and the strongest praise for her beauty---and nearly always in Elizabeth’s presence---isn’t Eliza, it’s Jane. We all know about this ancient pattern in families with sisters, which has repeated itself down through the ages in the stories and fairy tales of many cultures and eras: mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?
The only Austen scholar I can find other than myself to have considered this beauty issue at all vis a vis P&P is Stephanie Eddleman, who, in the 2009 Persuasions Online, #30, wrote the following in her article “ ‘Not half so handsome as Jane’: Sisters, Brothers, and Beauty in the Novels of Jane Austen“:
“…the labeling of sisters according to attractiveness causes pain. In Austen’s families this labeling is often done by a parent, quite likely within the hearing of the children being labeled…In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth’s own mother declares that she is “‘not half so handsome as Jane’”, and throughout the novel Mrs. Bennet repeatedly affirms Jane’s position as the most beautiful of the sisters. Although these mothers are quite likely worried about the marriageability of their eldest daughters and therefore further motivated to elevate their beauty, the repeated rankings must have some effect on the self esteem of their younger daughters...Female beauty was even more necessary and valued in Austen’s culture…”
Eddleman’s article, although replete with psychological insights like the above passage, skips past P&P too quickly to notice the crucial implications of her own acute observation that “the repeated rankings must have some effect on the self esteem of their younger daughters.” I’m not just talking about Mary Bennet, as to whom the narrator makes this point explicitly at the very end of the novel: “…she was no longer mortified by comparisons between her sisters' beauty and her own…”
No, I’m talking about the jealousy of Jane I believe Eliza must’ve struggled with all the years (no less than seven) of growing up as the beautiful, angelic, lovely Jane’s “tolerable, not handsome enough” sister, whose face was only rendered attractive to Darcy by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. It would require an extraordinary level of self-confidence for a young woman like Elizabeth to endure such chronic mortification, and not eventually be overtaken by a powerful jealousy of her elder sister, regardless of how much Eliza loved Jane. I.e., I detect, behind Eliza’s mask of witty bravado, the tears of a very sad clown.
Think I’m exaggerating things? For the remainder of this post, I’m going to try to counteract that forgetting, by presenting to you every passage in the text of P&P in which Eliza must endure hearing about Jane’s superior beauty. As you read them, put yourself in Elizabeth’s ears, and ask yourself why we do not even once do we hear her consciously express, either aloud or to herself, distress or irritation at this state of affairs.
What this tells me is not that Eliza wasn’t suffering, but that, in the dynamics of the Bennet family, there was simply no room for Eliza to even allow herself to think, let alone complain out loud, about the unfairness of this relentless drumbeat of Jane’s greater beauty favoritism. While her father never misses a chance to praise her wit---and that’s certainly a great thing, don’t get me wrong—he is not one to praise her looks. And don’t you think Elizabeth, who is after all, a girl of not one-and-twenty, has long since gotten really, really tired of being admired only for her mind?
Now read all these passages through that lens and tell me if the teenaged you could have avoided the terrible allure of poisonous jealousy, even of a beloved elder sister:
Ch. 1: "But consider your daughters. Only think what an establishment it would be for one of them. Sir William and Lady Lucas are determined to go, merely on that account, for in general, you know, they visit no newcomers. Indeed you must go, for it will be impossible for us to visit him if you do not."
"You are over-scrupulous, surely. I dare say Mr. Bingley will be very glad to see you; and I will send a few lines by you to assure him of my hearty consent to his marrying whichever he chooses of the girls; though I must throw in a good word for my little Lizzy."
"I desire you will do no such thing. Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good-humoured as Lydia. But you are always giving her the preference."
Ch. 3: "You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room," said Mr. Darcy, looking at the eldest Miss Bennet.
"Oh! She is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you."
"Which do you mean?" and turning round he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said: "She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me."
Mr. Bingley followed his advice. Mr. Darcy walked off; and Elizabeth remained with no very cordial feelings toward him. She told the story, however, with great spirit among her friends; for she had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous.
…. "Oh! my dear Mr. Bennet," as she entered the room, "we have had a most delightful evening, a most excellent ball. I wish you had been there. Jane was so admired, nothing could be like it. Everybody said how well she looked; and Mr. Bingley thought her quite beautiful, and danced with her twice! Only think of that, my dear; he actually danced with her twice! and she was the only creature in the room that he asked a second time. First of all, he asked Miss Lucas. I was so vexed to see him stand up with her! But, however, he did not admire her at all; indeed, nobody can, you know; and he seemed quite struck with Jane as she was going down the dance. So he inquired who she was, and got introduced, and asked her for the two next. Then the two third he danced with Miss King, and the two fourth with Maria Lucas, and the two fifth with Jane again, and the two sixth with Lizzy, and the Boulanger—"
… "But I can assure you," she added, "that Lizzy does not lose much by not suiting his fancy; for he is a most disagreeable, horrid man, not at all worth pleasing. So high and so conceited that there was no enduring him! He walked here, and he walked there, fancying himself so very great! Not handsome enough to dance with! I wish you had been there, my dear, to have given him one of your set-downs. I quite detest the man."
Ch. 4: [Jane] "I was very much flattered by his asking me to dance a second time. I did not expect such a compliment."
"Did not you? I did for you. But that is one great difference between us. Compliments always take you
by surprise, and me never. What could be more natural than his asking you again? He could not help seeing that you were about five times as pretty as every other woman in the room. No thanks to his gallantry for that….”
…The manner in which they spoke of the Meryton assembly was sufficiently characteristic. Bingley had never met with more pleasant people or prettier girls in his life; everybody had been most kind and attentive to him; there had been no formality, no stiffness; he had soon felt acquainted with all the room; and, as to Miss Bennet, he could not conceive an angel more beautiful. Darcy, on the contrary, had seen a collection of people in whom there was little beauty and no fashion, for none of whom he had felt the smallest interest, and from none received either attention or pleasure. Miss Bennet he acknowledged to be pretty, but she smiled too much.
Ch. 5: "Perhaps you mean what I overheard between him and Mr. Robinson; did not I mention it to you? Mr. Robinson's asking him how he liked our Meryton assemblies, and whether he did not think there were a great many pretty women in the room, and which he thought the prettiest? and his answering immediately to the last question: 'Oh! the eldest Miss Bennet, beyond a doubt; there cannot be two opinions on that point.'"
Ch. 8: When dinner was over, [Eliza] returned directly to Jane, and Miss Bingley began abusing her as soon as she was out of the room. Her manners were pronounced to be very bad indeed, a mixture of pride and impertinence; she had no conversation, no style, no beauty. Mrs. Hurst thought the same, and added: "She has nothing, in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent walker. I shall never forget her appearance this morning. She really looked almost wild."
Ch. 9: "Oh! dear, yes; but you must own [Charlotte] is very plain. Lady Lucas herself has often said so, and envied me Jane's beauty. I do not like to boast of my own child, but to be sure, Jane—one does not often see anybody better looking. It is what everybody says. I do not trust my own partiality. When she was only fifteen, there was a man at my brother Gardiner's in town so much in love with her that my sister-in-law was sure he would make her an offer before we came away. But, however, he did not. Perhaps he thought her too young. However, he wrote some verses on her, and very pretty they were."
"And so ended his affection," said Elizabeth impatiently. "There has been many a one, I fancy, overcome in the same way. I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love!"
"I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love," said Darcy.
"Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away."
Darcy only smiled; and the general pause which ensued made Elizabeth tremble lest her mother should be exposing herself again. She longed to speak, but could think of nothing to say;
Ch. 15: His plan did not vary on seeing them. Miss Bennet's lovely face confirmed his views, and established all his strictest notions of what was due to seniority; and for the first evening she was his settled choice.
…Mr. Collins had only to change from Jane to Elizabeth—and it was soon done—done while Mrs. Bennet was stirring the fire. Elizabeth, equally next to Jane in birth and beauty, succeeded her of course.
Ch. 25: When alone with Elizabeth afterwards, she spoke more on the subject. "It seems likely to have been a desirable match for Jane," said she. "I am sorry it went off. But these things happen so often! A young man, such as you describe Mr. Bingley, so easily falls in love with a pretty girl for a few weeks, and when accident separates them, so easily forgets her, that these sort of inconsistencies are very frequent."
27: It was a journey of only twenty-four miles, and they began it so early as to be in Gracechurch Street by noon. As they drove to Mr. Gardiner's door, Jane was at a drawing-room window watching their arrival; when they entered the passage she was there to welcome them, and Elizabeth, looking earnestly in her face, was pleased to see it healthful and lovely as ever.
Ch. 33: "To Jane herself," [Eliza] exclaimed, "there could be no possibility of objection; all loveliness and goodness as she is!—her understanding excellent, her mind improved, and her manners captivating. Neither could anything be urged against my father, who, though with some peculiarities, has abilities Mr. Darcy himself need not disdain, and respectability which he will probably never reach."
Ch. 39: Their reception at home was most kind. Mrs. Bennet rejoiced to see Jane in undiminished beauty; and more than once during dinner did Mr. Bennet say voluntarily to Elizabeth: "I am glad you are come back, Lizzy."
Ch. 53: Elizabeth's misery increased, at such unnecessary, such officious attention! Were the same fair prospect to arise at present as had flattered them a year ago, every thing, she was persuaded, would be hastening to the same vexatious conclusion. At that instant, she felt that years of happiness could not make Jane or herself amends for moments of such painful confusion.
"The first wish of my heart," said she to herself, "is never more to be in company with either of them. Their society can afford no pleasure that will atone for such wretchedness as this! Let me never see either one or the other again!"
Yet the misery, for which years of happiness were to offer no compensation, received soon afterwards material relief, from observing how much the beauty of her sister re-kindled the admiration of her former lover. When first he came in, he had spoken to her but little; but every five minutes seemed to be giving her more of his attention. He found her as handsome as she had been last year; as good natured, and as unaffected, though not quite so chatty. Jane was anxious that no difference should be perceived in her at all, and was really persuaded that she talked as much as ever. But her mind was so busily engaged, that she did not always know when she was silent.
Ch. 54: “…And, my dear Jane, I never saw you look in greater beauty. Mrs. Long said so too, for I asked her whether you did not. And what do you think she said besides? 'Ah! Mrs. Bennet, we shall have her at Netherfield at last.' She did indeed….”
Ch. 55: Then addressing her daughter, "Oh! my dear, dear Jane, I am so happy! I am sure I shan't get a wink of sleep all night. I knew how it would be. I always said it must be so, at last. I was sure you could not be so beautiful for nothing! I remember, as soon as ever I saw him, when he first came into Hertfordshire last year, I thought how likely it was that you should come together. Oh! he is the handsomest young man that ever was seen!"
Wickham, Lydia, were all forgotten. Jane was beyond competition her favourite child. At that moment, she cared for no other.
… It was an evening of no common delight to them all; the satisfaction of Miss Bennet's mind gave a glow of such sweet animation to her face, as made her look handsomer than ever. Kitty simpered and smiled, and hoped her turn was coming soon. Mrs. Bennet could not give her consent or speak her approbation in terms warm enough to satisfy her feelings, though she talked to Bingley of nothing else for half an hour; and when Mr. Bennet joined them at supper, his voice and manner plainly showed how really happy he was.
Ch. 61: Mary was the only daughter who remained at home; and she was necessarily drawn from the pursuit of accomplishments by Mrs. Bennet's being quite unable to sit alone. Mary was obliged to mix more with the world, but she could still moralize over every morning visit; and as she was no longer mortified by comparisons between her sisters' beauty and her own, it was suspected by her father that she submitted to the change without much reluctance.
So now you know why I am convinced that Elizabeth was indeed mortified by comparisons between Jane’s beauty and her own, a jealous mortification, which, when combined with the selfish motive of not wanting to upset Darcy, led her to take a terrible risk with Jane’s happiness with Bingley, only (ironically) to have Darcy cover her tracks and right his own wrong without any help from Eliza.
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