Last week, I wrote about the ways in which Austen surprises us with her plot developments, urges us to reconsider and re-examine our initial assessments of characters and situations, and reminds us how very bad we all are at this project of trying to judge other people. The second volume of the novel continues this theme, with the shocking revelations of Mr. Darcy’s letter at the end of the volume causing an almost complete reversal in the reader’s (and Elizabeth’s) understanding of his character and actions.
Austen’s initial title for Pride and Prejudice was, after all, First Impressions.The game of the novel is to warn us, over and over, that our initial assessments are unreliable and will be overturned, and yet to make us feel astonished when they are overturned.
But there is one kind of assessment that Austen thinks we mistake-prone humans are very good at. Like bowerbirds sizing up prospective mates, we are extremely good at estimating how wealthy other humans are. While the neighborhood may have been consistently wrong in their guesses about how many people Mr. Bingley would bring to Netherfield with him, they were entirely correct about his investment income of about £4-5000 annually. (Linda Slothouber explains that this means Mr. Bingley would have had a fortune of about £100,000 invested in stocks or bonds, with the £4-5000 as the annual interest from that capital investment.) They are equally accurate their reporting of Mr. Darcy’s £10,000 annual investment income, and his ownership of Pemberley. (Bingley does not own an estate at the beginning of the novel, in part because his money is “new money” acquired by his father in trade.)
While readers, and Elizabeth Bennet, are shocked by the discovery of Wickham’s immoral character, no one is surprised by his entire lack of fortune. It is openly discussed throughout the novel by Wickham and by others and is frequently referenced when his potential as a husband is assessed. In chapter three of volume two Mrs. Gardiner, Elizabeth’s aunt (watch her! She’s a minor character, but one of considerable importance as the novel unwinds) warns her about her fondness for Wickham:
I would have you be on your guard. Do not involve yourself, or endeavour to involve him in an affection which the want of fortune would make so very imprudent. I have nothing to say against him; he is a most interesting young man; and if he had the fortune he ought to have, I should think you could not do better. But as it is–you must not let your fancy run away with you.
Although she is just as fooled by Wickham’s charm as everyone else, Mrs. Gardiner’s sound economic assessment of his and Elizabeth’s equal lack of fortune prompt her to caution Elizabeth away from her growing attachment to him. This proves a wise warning, as Wickham soon transfers his attentions to a Miss King, whose “sudden acquisition of ten thousand pounds was [her] most remarkable charm.”
It is very important to recognize that no one condemns Wickham for this change. The narrator tells us that Elizabeth “did not quarrel with him for his wish of independence,” and Elizabeth tells her aunt directly that “handsome young men must have something to live on, as well as the plain.” Wickham’s poverty and his attempts to rectify it are not what make him a scoundrel. (Plenty of other things make him a scoundrel, as we discover at the end of the volume.)
Although Elizabeth is less able to extend that same understanding to her friend Charlotte, who marries the odious Mr. Collins shortly after Elizabeth rejects him, her visit to their home in Hunsford does seem to help her understand what Charlotte has gained from her marriage. Mr. Collins is as stupid as ever, but he is kind, and Charlotte has a comfortable home, standing in her community, and economic stability she never could have had if she had remained a spinster. Her economic judgements–though not the same as Elizabeth’s–prove to be sound.
Indeed, it is Elizabeth who makes the most questionable economic decision in this volume of the novel. Though her assessments of others’ economic status is as accurate as everyone else’s in the novel, the actions she takes in response to that knowledge is open to question. We justly applaud her offended reaction to Mr. Darcy’s insultingly phrased proposal: “I might as well enquire…why with so evident a desire of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character?” But we should also remember that when she refuses him, his £10,000 annually, and his family estate, her family is a heartbeat away from poverty.
When Mr. Bennet dies, his wife and daughters will lose their home (It is entailed to Mr. Collins). Each of his daughters has only £40 a year, a sum that isn’t even enough to keep them in genteel poverty. Someone must marry and marry well. With Mr. Bingley, at this point, no longer a viable marriage possibility for Jane, and with the remaining sisters too young and too unappealing to attract a good match, Elizabeth’s pride could well be her entire family’s undoing.
Why do you think Austen’s characters are such good judges of economic status? Is it a sign of shallow thinking that only cares about money, or is it something else?
How do Elizabeth and Darcy demonstrate the ways in which their interactions with each other have changed their viewpoints and personalities?
Which characters are the most economically responsible? The least? Who would you want to help choose a husband or wife for you?