I will now give my opinion regarding the identity of the character who mentions to Miss Bingley that Mary Bennet was “the most accomplished girl in the neighbourhood.” in the following passage:
“The evening altogether passed off pleasantly to the whole family. Mrs. Bennet had seen her eldest daughter much admired by the Netherfield party. Mr. Bingley had danced with her twice, and she had been distinguished by his sisters. Jane was as much gratified by this as her mother could be, though in a quieter way. Elizabeth felt Jane's pleasure. Mary had heard herself mentioned to Miss Bingley as the most accomplished girl in the neighbourhood..."
It is my opinion that JA deliberately wrote this passage so as to raise this question in the minds of her readers, and that she provided evidence elsewhere in the novel which support not one, but several possible speakers.
The preferred choice of those who responded to me in these groups is Sir William Lucas, and he certainly is a plausible choice. What comes to mind as evidence supporting the claim that he would be highly complimentary of Mary Bennet is what he says to Mr. Darcy when he spots Lizzy nearby during the soiree at Lucas Lodge:
“..you must allow me to present this young lady to you as a very desirable partner. You cannot refuse to dance, I am sure, when so much beauty is before you. “
Sir William certainly knows his way around a compliment, especially to a young lady, and he seems to be amiably disposed toward the Bennet family, so it would be at first glance be totally plausible for him to have spoken so highly of Mary in this way.
It is also interesting to think about Sir William having a conversation with Miss Bingley, because my first thought would be that Caroline would have no desire to speak to him, but that he might have cornered her, the way he corners Darcy in that later chapter, in trying to prove to these sophisticated visitors that Meryton is not the primitive backwater they might think it to be. So it does “fit” the situation.
However, he is not the only character whose situation fits. Someone else suggested Mr. Bingley, and he too appears to be a man who, like Sir William, shows, on numerous occasions, a great and spontaneous willingness to be very vocal in compliment other people for their talents and skills. That is Bingley's primary characteristic. And, having already begun to fall for Jane, he would have extra motivation to speak well (especially to his snobbish sister) of the Bennet family, wishing to paint them in a very favorable light, to earn her approval of his interest in Jane. So, to me, he is equally as likely to have spoken those words as Sir William.
But don't forget Mrs. Bennet. I don't need to say how much of a cheerleader she is for her daughters in courtship settings. And she might be thinking that since (as John Thorpe tells us) one wedding leads to another, Jane's budding romance with Bingley might be the catalyst for other Bennet girl romances—and we know she is a firm believer that God helps those who help themselves. And we also know that Mrs. Bennet is not someone to be intimidated—Lizzy resembles her mother in getting her back up when treated in a dismissive way. So for all these reasons, Miss Bingley would be exactly the person whom Mrs. Bennet would speak to in a defiant way, exactly the way she will later confront Darcy about the merits of the people in her neighborhood.
To those who might respond that Mrs. Bennet would not necessarily want to lead cheers for Mary, who is not one of her favorites, Lydia and Jane), and who is in fact Mrs. Bennet's diametric opposite in female personality, I point out that the narrator tells us, right after Charlotte snares Mr. Collins, that Mrs. Bennet had recalibrated her matchmaking after Lizzy rejected Collins's proposal, and was all set to push Mary in his direction, when she got the bad news that she was already too late. So that pretty much disposes of that objection—Mrs. Bennet keeps her eyes on the prize for each of her daughters.
And Mrs. Bennet is also shrewd, and could have realized that Caroline herself is a connoisseur of female accomplishment, as we will hear a few chapters later: “A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word;”
If Caroline has heard anything about Mary, it would be clear that Mary indeed has a “thorough knowledge of music”. So Mrs. Bennet could be “selling” the Bennet family to Caroline, so that Caroline will not throw a monkey wrench in the gears between Bingley and Jane.
So I claim that, based on the above, any of the above three characters could be the unnamed speaker. But I also had in mind a FOURTH character, who, I would suggest, is ALSO plausible, if unexpected-- and that would be Mr. Darcy himself!
Sounds crazy? Well, consider what he says at Netherfield only a few chapters later, on the subject of the truly accomplished woman, in response to Caroline Bingley's checklist of attributes:
“All this she must possess," added Darcy, "and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading."
If you read the novel closely, and don't fly by the sporadic and very brief appearances of Mary Bennet in the spotlight, you will see that JA goes to extraordinarily great pains throughout the novel to point out how intensely Mary is committed to her own ongoing reading career. And it is precisely this attribute that Darcy places at the top of HIS list, calling it “more substantial”. I claim this is not in any way a coincidence!
So I could readily imagine Darcy, if he were made aware of Mary's passionate commitment to extensive reading, might be genuinely surprised, in a positive way, as he gazes contemptuously around the room, to learn that there was an autodidact in his midst, a young woman who wore her learning on her sleeve, a young woman who feels pride in her own accomplishment. A young woman who was strangely similar to HIMSELF!
And in regard to pride, note also the uncanny echoing between Mary and Darcy regarding the fine line between vanity and pride. If they each knew the other's opinion, I am sure they would both be thinking “Great minds think alike”!
So, in conclusion, I claim that JA deliberately created this ambiguity, and gave those of her readers who might have wondered (and I suspect that most Janeite have NEVER wondered about this) multiple plausible choices for who they think was overheard by Mary. Why? For a variety of reasons, but one of which surely is the pervasive theme of the novel,which is the likelihood that “first impressions” are likely to be either incorrect and/or incomplete. But also, I assert, to draw a strange but subliminal connection between Darcy and Mary.
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