Elizabeth is one of the truly great heroines of English literature. She has fine eyes; she’ll walk three miles of muddy countryside without fear of censure or ruined hemlines; she has tremendous chemistry with Colin Firth, and these days she’ll even put down a zombie uprising for you. But there’s one thing that really keeps readers coming back to this novel and this character, time and time again: the sass.
When Caroline Bingley, in an attempt to cosy up to Mr. Darcy, identifies “that little something, bordering on conceit and impertinence, which your lady possesses”, she’s not wrong, although she herself is far ruder than Elizabeth on occasion and generally less funny. For a novel that’s ostensibly about manners and morals, there’s a lot of “unguarded” speech bandying about this book, and by that I mean that nearly every character gets a chance to insult someone (or embarrass themselves spectacularly) at some point; Lydia, Mrs. Bennet, Caroline Bingley and Lady Catherine de Bourgh all come out with rather regrettable statements at various times. However, Lizzy, whose main amusement in life is observing other people and finding out what makes them tick, works on a different level of conversational sophistication. Not only can she hold her ground in polite conversation with even the most intimidating or irritating of persons, she also possesses the near-miraculous ability to make fun of someone to their face – and make them like her for doing it, despite themselves.
Of course, there are times when she falls headlong over the narrow boundary between wit and impudence – but then, where would a social novel be without a little conflict?
6. And pray, what is the usual price of an earl’s younger son? Unless the elder brother is very sickly, I suppose you would not ask above fifty thousand pounds.
Elizabeth and the pleasant young aristocrat Colonel Fitzwilliam, who are out for a stroll in the grounds of Rosings Park, have just navigated a tricky patch of conversation in which he obliquely apologises for not being able to entertain any matrimonial hopes in her direction, because of his (relative) poverty: he is a younger son, and “younger sons cannot marry where they like”.
As a young lady with a prospective income of just £50 per annum after her father’s death, Lizzy is not very impressed by this revelation from the son of an earl, and takes him to task over it (“Now seriously, what have you ever known of self-denial and dependence?”) They manage to smooth things over, however, and Lizzy makes an attempt at defusing the tension with the above joke about Colonel Fitz’s worth as an eligible-but-not-exactly-minted bachelor, which – somewhat amazingly – seems to succeed.
It’s a shame that Austen doesn’t provide us with details of the rest of the conversation, merely saying that “he answered her in the same style”, because I would be highly interested to know what Colonel Fitzwilliam made of this extremely cheeky – and probably quite accurate – valuation of his worth on the marriage market.
(On closer inspection, Lizzy’s estimate of £50,000 might actually be over-generous here. Georgiana Darcy, who is surely one of the country’s top heiresses in the world of the novel, has a fortune of only thirty thousand pounds.)
5. These are heavy misfortunes … But the wife of Mr. Darcy must have such extraordinary sources of happiness necessarily attached to her situation, that she could, upon the whole, have no cause to repine.
The above statement occurs in the full and frank exchange of ideas between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, toward the end of the novel, on the subject of Lizzy marrying Mr. Darcy; it’s her response to Lady C’s declaration that none of their relatives will ever have anything to do with her, if she were to be so bold as to aspire to such a match. There are obviously plenty of good lines in this conversation, but this one stands out – to my mind at least – because it can be read in two rather different ways.
What Lizzy is saying here, perhaps unbeknownst even to herself at this stage of the novel, is that Mr Darcy is likely to make a good husband – at least to the right wife. His aunt, however, almost certainly interprets the statement as meaning that “his wife will be able to console herself with her new husband’s enormous wealth”. And really, it’s not that big of a stretch to assume Elizabeth – or anyone with an interest in Darcy – is a gold-digger, so although Lady Catherine has been horrendously rude throughout the whole exchange, her aggrieved reaction to this particular flippant remark is a bit more understandable. Lizzy might as well have said “Yes, I’m going to marry your nephew, and then I’m going to have ALL THE CARRIAGES MWAHAHA”.
With a little reading between the lines and a little educated guesswork, there’s quite an interesting story to be told about Lady Catherine’s side of the family and their finances… but that’s another day’s blog post.
4. No one who has ever seen you together can doubt [Mr. Bingley’s] affection. Miss Bingley, I am sure, cannot. She is not such a simpleton. Could she have seen half as much love in Mr. Darcy for herself, she would have ordered her wedding clothes. But the case is this: We are not rich enough or grand enough for them; and she is the more anxious to get Miss Darcy for her brother, from the notion that when there has been one intermarriage, she may have less trouble in achieving a second…
It’s quite a testament to the strength of the bond between Jane and Elizabeth that their relationship survives all of Lizzy’s plain speaking. Jane only wants to believe good things about everyone in the world, but Elizabeth’s view is a little more… jaded. While she’s able to laugh off insults, machinations and general poor intentions aimed towards herself, she is exceptionally prickly about any slight toward her beloved sister.
As a result of this, Jane spends a considerable chunk of the book making excuses for unworthy characters like the two-faced Bingley sisters, which goads Lizzy into denouncing them all the more angrily. Although her dislike of Darcy turns out to be based on shaky foundations – hence the “prejudice” of the book’s title! – we later find out that she is 100% correct about Caroline Bingley’s motivations for trying to scare Jane away from her brother.
3. Shall we ask him why a man of sense and education, and who has lived in the world, is ill qualified to recommend himself to strangers?
Darcy, in this conversation, is making excuses to Elizabeth for his behaviour at the assembly in Meryton on the night when they met. Elizabeth is gently mocking him – in front of his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam, who appears to be enjoying himself hugely – for barely dancing at all, despite the lack of male dancers and the number of ladies sitting down for want of a partner. She doesn’t specifically mention his infamous comment on her looks (“she is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me”), but it’s definitely the elephant in the room.
Darcy, in his own defence, tells her essentially that he didn’t know anyone, and was shy. She ribs him for this answer, while his cousin says that he just doesn’t want to bother meeting new people. Darcy’s rebuttal to this particular roasting is refreshingly honest, and quite an interesting insight into his character:
I certainly have not the talent which some people possess … of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.
Elsewhere in the novel, we’re told that while “Bingley was sure of being liked wherever he appeared, Darcy was continually giving offense”. If we’re to take Darcy at his word, it begins to sound as though despite all his wealth and grandeur, he really is rather uncomfortable and socially awkward with people he doesn’t know well. This would explain why he spends so much time trailing around after his more popular friend Mr Bingley, and why he puts up with Caroline’s continual poking at him to get his attention; she may be deeply annoying, but at least she’s familiar.
2. …I think Mr. Darcy improves upon acquaintance.
If anyone in this novel deserves to be on the receiving end of some grade-A Elizabeth Bennet sass, it’s Wickham.
At the point in the book where this quote appears, Wickham has come to Longbourne to say his goodbyes before he leaves Meryton with the regiment for Brighton. Lizzy, meanwhile, has just returned from Hunsford, where she’s had a rather illuminating discussion with Darcy on the subject of Wickham’s rakely activities at the seaside, the previous year.
Lizzy is still horribly embarrassed at the things she said to Darcy in Wickham’s defence, before she knew about his money-grubbing and sister-seducing ways. He’s told her bald-faced lies; he’s made her look foolish for liking and defending him; and he been revealed as an amoral cad. Although she doesn’t intend to make her new knowledge of him public, she decides to have a little fun at his expense, by hinting at him that she and Darcy are now best buddies, and that BY THE WAY HE HAS TOLD HER SOME THINGS.
Wickham’s not sure what to make of this.
While she spoke, Wickham looked as if scarcely knowing whether to rejoice over her words, or to distrust their meaning. There was a something in her countenance which made him listen with an apprehensive and anxious attention…
He tries to distract her once again with tales of his harsh treatment at the hands of the Darcy family, but this is somewhat less successful than before.
Lizzy walks away from this conversation feeling that she’s got the upper hand, but as Dr. Margie Burns argues in an intriguing 2007 article on symmetry in Pride and Prejudice, it may actually have backfired upon her:
While it shows Wickham’s continuing efforts to keep Darcy from Elizabeth, with great narrative economy this conversation also gives Wickham a motive to elope with Lydia.
It takes all the tribulations of the book’s final volume, and a few even more unsubtle hints, for Elizabeth to finally convince Wickham to stop telling her tales of woe.
1. Engaged to Mr. Collins! Mr dear Charlotte – impossible!
Poor Charlotte Lucas. We say the cruellest things to the ones we love the most. Mr. Collin’s future wife is understanding about Lizzy’s accidentally-too-honest outburst here, but this must have been a bit painful to hear.
Having gone over to break the good/bad news of her engagement to her best friend, Charlotte’s feelings are probably fairly mixed to begin with. The book makes it clear that she has accepted Mr. Collins out of the “pure and disinterested desire of an establishment”, and despite the many and obvious shortcomings of her prospective husband. Still, there are a few sweeteners in the deal, not the least of which must be the fact that upon Mr. Bennet’s eventual death, Mr. Collins will inherit Longbourne. This will allow Charlotte not only to move back to the place where she grew up as a child, near her family, but to become a prominent member of the local landed gentry. The downside, though, is that in doing so, she will almost certainly displace some of Mr. Bennet’s surviving family, which likely includes Lizzy, “whose friendship she valued beyond that of any other person”.
In a fascinating article on money in Jane Austen’s works, Robert Hume lays out a rather persuasive case in support of Charlotte’s pragmatic decision. The Bennets, as much as the Lucas daughters, are really in dire financial straits; it will be extremely difficult for them to maintain any semblance of genteel life once their father dies, because he has completely failed to save anything to provide for them financially. Seen in this light, Mrs. Bennet’s attempts to persuade Lizzy to marry her cousin seems more reasonable; if he had married one of the Bennet daughters, it would have secured the family home and the prospect of a comfortable life for the rest of them (turfing out your wife’s family being considered a bit churlish). From a practical perspective, Elizabeth really should have taken one for the team and accepted Mr. Collins’s proposal.
In Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet, the “literary detective” John Sutherland argues that Elizabeth’s outburst offends Charlotte so much that she deliberately pursues revenge, by tattling on her to Lady Catherine de Bourgh later in the book. Personally, I think this is a misreading of Charlotte’s character – she is very fond of Elizabeth, and under no illusions about how her friend will view her marriage.
Still, it must be a considerable relief for Charlotte when Elizabeth makes an advantageous match, and she can get on with planning her eventual redecoration of Longbourne with a clear conscience.
The views expressed above are those of the author of the paper, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer or probably most of the many, many Pride and Prejudice appreciators out there.
Disagree angrily with my choices? Feel free to comment and let us know!
Here’s the scholarship mentioned above – all of these are well worth a read if you’re a fan of Austen’s work!
Burns, Margie, ‘George and Georgiana: Symmetries and Antitheses in Pride and Prejudice’, Persuasions, 2007, 227–33
Note: this article contains the only example I’ve found to date of the word “smutfest” being used in an academic context