Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters in Pride and Prejudice are by now so familiar to many readers that it can be useful to slow down and look at the way they are first introduced. Jane Austen continues her focus on Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in the second chapter of the novel, adding only two lines from Lizzy—who gives a sensible reminder to her mother that Mrs. Long has promised to introduce them to Mr. Bingley, and provides a factual answer to her father about the date of the next ball—one line, spoken “fretfully,” from Kitty about her coughs, one line, spoken “stoutly,” from Lydia, about her height, no reply from Mary, who “wished to say something sensible, but knew not how,” and no mention at all of Jane.
I like the way Austen moves outward from Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s flawed marriage to examine the circle of their family, and then the neighbourhood and its newest inhabitants. Chapter 3 introduces Bingley, Darcy, the Hursts, and Miss Bingley in the context of the gathering of neighbours at the first assembly, and thus the drama of the story gathers momentum. This chapter, like the first two, stresses the problems between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. Mrs. Bennet speaks her mind near the beginning of the chapter, and again at the end; in between, Darcy delivers his famous rejection of Elizabeth: “She is tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me.”
Robert P. Irvine, editor of the Broadview P&P, calls attention to the way Austen uses the term “character”: in Chapter 4, Elizabeth says Mr. Bingley’s “character is thereby complete” because “he is also handsome,” in addition to being a “sensible, good humoured, lively” young man with “happy manners” and “perfect good breeding.” In Chapter 3, “every body” at the assembly judges Mr. Darcy: “His character was decided. He was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world, and every body hoped that he would never come there again.” Irvine writes that “Austen’s irony plays on different possible meanings of both words: his character (his actual personality) was decided (obvious); and his character (the role that he is to play in the life and gossip of Meryton) was decided (upon, by the locals in their discussion of him).”
When Darcy rejects Elizabeth as only “tolerable,” he gives readers evidence of his “character,” evidence that supports the general claim already “decided” by all Elizabeth’s friends and acquaintances. If any readers were inclined to doubt that he was a disagreeable character, the evidence of his own words seems to prove that he is truly unpleasant.
On earlier readings of the novel, I think I was inclined to speed up, to focus on what happens between Elizabeth and Darcy. This time around, I’m struck by how closely Jane Austen sticks to Mr. and Mrs. Bennet at the beginning, and by how she introduces other characters in relation to them. Of course I’ve thought before about the contrast between their marriage and that of the hero and heroine, but I haven’t paid as much attention as I might have to the way this famous novel of romance, with its happy ending and double wedding, opens with a vivid example of what can happen in the years after the wedding.
I wonder what the story of the courtship of young Mr. Bennet and pretty Miss Gardiner would look like? (But there—even in that moment I’ve been sidetracked into thinking about a hypothetical prequel, and I said I’d steer away from prequels and sequels. Besides, I think we know enough about how that story unfolded.)
Back to good humoured Mr. Bingley and disagreeable Mr. Darcy. There’s a “very steady friendship” between these two men, “in spite of a great opposition of character.” How did the two of them become friends? Is it believable here that opposites attract? Mr. Bingley is attracted to Jane, and her “character” is very similar to his. But I suppose he’s looking for different things from a friend and from a potential wife.
I’m struck, too, by the contrast between the way Austen introduces her main characters in Pride and Prejudice and the way she does so, for example, in Emma, which begins with “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich.” The narrator of Emma gives us a “decided” character right away. Elizabeth Bennet is the most famous of Austen’s heroines, and I find it really interesting to see how slowly her character is revealed. We get her parents’ conflicting opinions about her, then we get evidence of her saying sensible, factual things, and even when we get to witness a scene in which she’s insulted, we don’t hear her voice. At this point, we learn more about her from the narrator: “She told the story however with great spirit among her friends; for she had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in any thing ridiculous.”
Finally, in Chapter 4, Austen shows Elizabeth in conversation with Jane, and it’s here that her distinctive voice and character are revealed. “He is also handsome … which a young man ought likewise to be, if he possibly can.” “Compliments always take you by surprise, and me never.” “I give you leave to like him. You have liked many a stupider person.” “Oh! you are a great deal too apt you know, to like people in general.” From here on, her confident judgements amuse the reader, enliven the novel, and shape its plot.
What about other characters in the novel? What are your “first impressions” of them? Do you have favourites among the passages that introduce, for example, Mr. Collins, or Lady Catherine? Jane Austen uses a range of approaches to introducing character—including, in the case of Mr. Collins, showing the letter he writes, and then having members of the Bennet family comment on his writing and his character in turn, as if they were in a seminar or book club discussing a book they don’t like very much.
I’d love to hear your ideas—I hope you’ll share examples about the way Jane Austen introduces the other characters, major and minor, in P&P.
My page Pride and Prejudice at 200 collects all the posts in this series on rereading the novel, along with links to other essays and articles on P&P.