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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Does Bingley amuse himself by subtly ridiculing Elizabeth’s delusions of grandeur as a “studier of character”?

There are two very famous and very memorable scenes in Pride & Prejudice in which the pretensions of a man with an unjustified pride in his own abilities derived from serious studies are subtly ridiculed, providing amusement to the heroine, Elizabeth Bennet.

The first is in Chapter 11, when Elizabeth, with her razor-sharp satire, punctures Darcy’s narcissistic self-delusion of having his pride under good regulation:

"Mr. Darcy is not to be laughed at!" cried Elizabeth. "That is an uncommon advantage, and uncommon I hope it will continue, for it would be a great loss to me to have many such acquaintances. I dearly love a laugh."
"Miss Bingley," said he, "has given me more credit than can be. The wisest and the best of men—nay, the wisest and best of their actions—may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke."
"Certainly," replied Elizabeth—"there are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I hope I never ridicule what is wise and good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can. But these, I suppose, are precisely what you are without."
"Perhaps that is not possible for anyone. But it has been the STUDY of my life to avoid those weaknesses which often expose a strong understanding to ridicule."
"Such as vanity and pride."
"Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride—where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation."
Elizabeth turned away to hide a smile.
…"There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil—a natural defect, which not even the best EDU CATION can overcome."
"And your defect is to hate everybody."
"And yours," he replied with a smile, "is willfully to misunderstand them."

The second is in Chapter 14, when Mr. Bennet has a private laugh, shared with his favorite daughter Elizabeth, at Mr. Collins’s unwitting expense, over the latter’s skill in paying “pleasing attentions”:

“…I have more than once observed to Lady Catherine, that her charming daughter seemed born to be a duchess, and that the most elevated rank, instead of giving her consequence, would be adorned by her. These are the kind of little things which please her ladyship, and it is a sort of attention which I conceive myself peculiarly bound to pay."
"You judge very properly," said Mr. Bennet, "and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous STUDY?"
"They arise chiefly from what is passing at the time, and though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as UNSTUDIED an air as possible."
Mr. Bennet's expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and, except in an occasional glance at Elizabeth, requiring no partner in his pleasure….

I suspect I am not the first reader of P&P to notice the striking parallels between the above two scenes, particularly because this is far from the only parallel between Mssrs. Darcy and Collins. Several years ago, I pointed out several others here:

However it was only today that I realized that in Chapter 9, shortly before the above two scenes, Mr. Bingley, of all people, shares a private laugh with his sister and Mr. Darcy at Elizabeth’s unwitting expense, when he suckers Elizabeth in exactly the same way that Mr. Bennet plays his little trick on Mr. Collins. I.e., Bingley appeals to Elizabeth’s Achilles Heel—her overinflated, unjustified vanity in her own abilities as what Bingley called a “studier of character” and we today would call a “psychologist”:

"Whatever I do is done in a hurry," replied [Bingley]; "and therefore if I should resolve to quit Netherfield, I should probably be off in five minutes. At present, however, I consider myself as quite fixed here."
"That is exactly what I should have supposed of you," said Elizabeth.
"You begin to comprehend me, do you?" cried he, turning towards her.
"Oh! yes—I understand you perfectly."
"I wish I might take this for a compliment; but to be so easily seen through I am afraid is pitiful."
"That is as it happens. It does not follow that a deep, intricate character is more or less estimable than such a one as yours."
"Lizzy," cried her mother, "remember where you are, and do not run on in the wild manner that you are suffered to do at home."
"I did not know before," continued Bingley immediately, "that you were a STUDIER of character. It must be an amusing STUDY."
"Yes, but intricate characters are the most amusing. They have at least that advantage."
"The country," said Darcy, "can in general supply but a few subjects for such a STUDY. In a country neighbourhood you move in a very confined and unvarying society."
"But people themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them for ever."
"Yes, indeed," cried Mrs. Bennet, offended by his manner of mentioning a country neighbourhood. "I assure you there is quite as much of that going on in the country as in town."
Everybody was surprised, and Darcy, after looking at her for a moment, turned silently away. Mrs. Bennet, who fancied she had gained a complete victory over him, continued her triumph.
"I cannot see that London has any great advantage over the country, for my part, except the shops and public places. The country is a vast deal pleasanter, is it not, Mr. Bingley?"
"When I am in the country," he replied, "I never wish to leave it; and when I am in town it is pretty much the same. They have each their advantages, and I can be equally happy in either."
"Aye—that is because you have the right disposition. But that gentleman," looking at Darcy, "seemed to think the country was nothing at all."
"Indeed, Mamma, you are mistaken," said Elizabeth, blushing for her mother. "You quite mistook Mr. Darcy. He only meant that there was not such a variety of people to be met with in the country as in the town, which you must acknowledge to be true."
"Certainly, my dear, nobody said there were; but as to not meeting with many people in this neighbourhood, I believe there are few neighbourhoods larger. I know we dine with four-and-twenty families."
Nothing but concern for Elizabeth could enable Bingley to keep his countenance.

Notice in particular how Mrs. Bennet tries to shut Lizzy down before she can embarrass herself, but then Bingley “immediately” hands Elizabeth the forbidden fruit with his flattery about her being “ a studier of character”, and Lizzy takes the bait hook, line and sinker.

And the final brilliant touch is that last quoted line---while Elizabeth believes that Bingley cannot keep his countenance because of her mother’s gauche and strident advocacy for the supposed sophistication of the limited social circle of the Bennet family, what Elizabeth does not realize is that Bingley is finally unable any longer to keep from cracking up at Elizabeth’s cluelessness as to his having made fun of her to Darcy and his sister without Elizabeth having the slightest inkling of same.
Now, of course I am well aware that the suggestion that the gentle, kindly, and unassuming Bingley might enjoy—indeed, might generate—the same sort of unkind humor at the expense of Elizabeth that Mr. Bennet enjoys at the expense of the pompous Mr. Collins, is likely to shock pretty much all readers of P&P.

But I believe the parallels between the above quoted scene in Chapter 9 and those two scenes which follow not long afterwards, are too strong to be coincidental. Jane Austen meant for those parallels to be noticed upon rereading (and this is probably the 20th time I am reading those scenes in P&P). And there is a final, very sharp Austenian irony in this parallel—i.e., the enjoyment Elizabeth takes in the zinging of Mr. Darcy and then of Mr. Collins, which we, the readers who identify with Elizabeth, readily enter into ourselves, is tempered when we realize that Elizabeth had just been unwittingly hoist on her own satirical petard right before those memorable scenes.

What a genius Jane Austen was, to hide this in plain sight for 200 years!       

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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