Like the Bennets, I have a lot of sisters—five in fact. My real-life experience has always colored my view of the interactions between Lizzy and Jane because none of us is perfect—certainly not in my family—but then there’s Jane Bennet!
Frequently, in large families, the older siblings basically take on some of the responsibilities of a parent. (In my family, it was the three older “Big Girls” who took care of their three younger sisters when my mother worked the night shift at a bank.) In the Bennet family, all Mrs. Bennet’s hopes of rescue from the consequences of the entail and having five unmarried daughters are placed on Jane’s shoulders, and Jane seems resigned to it. While Lizzy tours Derbyshire with the Gardiners, it is Jane who takes care of the four Gardiner children. When news arrives of Lydia’s elopement, it falls to Jane to handle the hysterical Mrs. Bennet and hold down the fort until Lizzy arrives from the North and her father from London.
At seventeen, when I first read Pride and Prejudice, I found Jane too good to be true, possibly because, at the time, I was dealing with a sister who raided my closet and another who helped herself to my spare change. Jane would have sighed at such transgressions; I was a little more verbal. Even after Bingley leaves Netherfield Park without a word, and Caroline and Louisa ignore her letters knowing that their “friend” is in London, Jane accepts the outcome with resignation not anger.
As I have gotten older, I have come to view Jane Bennet quite differently. I have decided that in writing the eldest Bennet daughter, Austen created a character who represented the epitome of good Christian behavior—a better angel, if you will. After learning from Elizabeth of Wickham’s reprehensible behavior in connection with Georgiana Darcy, “Jane labour[ed] to prove the probability of error, and seek to clear one [Wickham or Darcy], without involving the other.” But Lizzy wasn’t having it:
Lizzy: “This will not do. You never will be able to make both of them good for any thing. Take your choice, but you must be satisfied with only one.”
Jane: “I do not know when I have been more shocked. Wickham so very bad! It is almost beyond belief. And poor Mr. Darcy! Dear Lizzy, only consider what he must have suffered… It is too distressing. I am sure you must feel it so.”
Lizzy: “Oh! no, my regret and compassion are all done away by seeing you so full of both… If you lament over him much longer, my heart will be as light as a feather.”
In contrast to Jane, Elizabeth is willing “to speak ill” of those whom she finds lacking, including Mr. Darcy. But I also think that Elizabeth’s reassessment of Mr. Darcy and her willingness to forgive Wickham—a man who caused great harm to the Bennet family—was influenced by Jane’s more temperate behavior and capacity for forgiveness. Elizabeth cannot think or feel as Jane does, but she can use Jane as a role model.
We do know that Jane Austen, the daughter of a clergyman, was a devout Christian. We are also told that she did not use her novels to proselytize. Or did she? Is the character of Jane Bennet meant to inspire one to be a better person? Is that the reason why Jane Austen named her character—this paragon of virtue—Jane—not because she was Jane Bennet, but because she aspired to be Jane Bennet?
Is Jane Bennet a saint? You tell me because in my mind she comes pretty close to it. I would like to think that I am a combination of Jane and Elizabeth. If that were true, I would be quite satisfied. What do you think?
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