What better way to start the year that to focus on one of Jane Austen’s most beloved characters? Join Austen Variations as we spend January looking into the lovely Jane Bennet.
I have often wondered what Jane and Mr. Bingley talked about when they were alone. Austen gives us so few clues. Also, what if Jane was bolder in trying to straighten out the misunderstandings between them when he returned to Hertfordshire after nearly a year of silence?
“Mr. Darcy is not with you today,” Mrs. Bennet observed after Mr. Bingley arrived at Longbourn alone.
“He had business in town. I am not certain when or if he will return,” Mr. Bingley informed them.
Jane watched her sister Elizabeth’s face, but saw no hint that would give away her thoughts on the matter. For her part, Mrs. Bennet looked smugly pleased, and plunged into bringing their guest up to date on the latest Meryton gossip. Mr. Bingley listened politely and inquired about the health of their mutual acquaintances in the community. When she insisted he join the family for supper that evening, he eagerly agreed. From time to time, he turned to smile at Jane, but she tried to keep her face calm and serene.
Jane let her mother carry the conversation while she allowed her mind to roam over the questions that had been plaguing her for the better part of the past year. Why had Mr. Bingley not returned to Netherfield last autumn after promising to do so? Why he had not called on her when she was in town over the winter? And most importantly, what did he mean by suddenly appearing at Longbourn after such a long period of silence?
She knew she should guard her heart, but it was difficult when he turned that charming smile on her. How could she be certain this time it was something more than just a way for him to pass the time while in the country as it appeared he had done a year ago?
After visiting with the Longbourn ladies for about a quarter hour, Mr. Bingley asked permission to escort Jane for a walk into Meryton.
“A walk into town sounds like a lovely idea,” cooed Mrs. Bennet. “Kitty, run along and chaperon your sister and Mr. Bingley. I would go myself, you understand, but I must confer with the cook about our dinner this evening. I am so pleased you have agreed to join us, Mr. Bingley.”
Jane excused herself and went up to her room briefly to retrieve her gloves, bonnet, and reticule before they walked out. As she descended the stairs, she heard the hum of voices drifting out from the sitting room. There were the higher tones of her mother and sisters’ voices, and the lower pitched sound of his, which sent warmth straight to her heart. How she had missed him!
Once outside, Mr. Bingley offered his arm, and she carefully placed her gloved hand lightly upon it. Yes, she remembered how this felt—the strength of his arm, the security of his guiding her. She wanted to trust him again, but even her open, trusting heart was finding it difficult. Each time she saw him, however, a little more of her wariness dissolved.
At first, he talked about mundane things, the change in the weather and the scones he’d been served that day. Gradually, their pace slowed, and after a short time, Kitty had moved far enough ahead that she would not be able to hear them talking.
Jane was just gathering her courage to speak, when Mr. Bingley blurted out, “Please forgive me for being so forward, Miss Bennet, but something has been on my mind for some time. I am just not certain where or how to begin.”
Jane’s heart sank. He was going to tell her he was leaving again. She swallowed down the disappointment as best she could.
“I suspect you have been wondering why I did not return to Netherfield last autumn.”
She started. This was not what she’d been expecting. She had always hoped he would explain but talking openly such personal matters made her uncomfortable. It was simply not done. On the other hand, being polite, quiet, and obedient had been getting her nowhere except hurt. Perhaps, it was time to bend the rules. If they were ever going to be anything to each other except indifferent acquaintances, she would have to be bolder.
“I did wonder. I had thought we were…” she hesitated, searching for the right word, “friends.”
“I thought so, too.”
“Then your behavior has confused me, sir.”
He stopped abruptly and his face took on a reddish hue.
“Oh, blast!” He grew even redder. “Please forgive my language, Miss Bennet.”
“Of course, you are forgiven.”
“You may not think so well of me after you hear what I have to say.”
“Then it is all the more important that you explain,” Jane said.
Bingley looked down and scuffed his boots in the dirt. Finally, he looked up at her.
“Very well. My sisters told me they were certain you did not have any special feelings for me, that you were just pretending interest in me because your mother encouraged it.”
Jane turned away and looked at the ground. Her eyes filled with tears that she did not want him to see.
“I am so very sorry I allowed them to influence me. I knew it couldn’t be true, but…”
His feet appeared in front of her, but she still refused to look up at him.
“Miss Bennet, is something wrong?”
She wanted to shout at him that of course, something was wrong, but instead she controlled her voice and asked, “What did I do that made your sisters think that?”
“They did not say.”
“And yet you believed them?” Her voice came out shriller than she’d been hoping.
Bingley scrubbed a hand over his face. “Oh, what a mess I have made of this.”
Jane had to get though this. She had to say what was on her mind no matter what happened.
“You said you would return in a few days, but instead I received a letter from Caroline saying you were settled in London for the winter. She made it clear your…interests…were in another direction.”
“Interests? I do not understand. To what other interests did she refer?”
Was he truly this thick? Was he going to make her say the words aloud? When she stared at him silently, he gave her a reassuring smile.
“Shall we sit over here?” he said, indicating a fallen tree near the road. Jane allowed him to guide her there. When she sat down, Bingley took a seat beside her. Not too close, but close enough that Jane’s heartbeat quickened until she could hear her pulse thrumming in her ears. It was now or never. She was simply going to have to tell him what his sister had said.
When she finally finished telling him about Caroline’s letter and her intimations about Miss Darcy, he was silent for a minute or two, during which time she waited in dread for his response. Had she made a mistake? Losing him again would serve her right for being so forward. In Jane’s experience, nothing good ever came of speaking your mind. She plucked at her gown anxiously.
“Miss Bennet, I am speechless. My sister’s impertinence in writing those things to you shocks me. I do not know what she could have been thinking.”
His response made her braver again. “I believe her intent was quite clear.”
“I have never been interested in that way in Miss Darcy. She is a lovely girl, but I have always looked upon her more as a younger sister. I assure you I have never entertained any serious idea of courting her.”
The pained look on his face convinced Jane he was telling the truth. “At the time I received the letter, I thought…well, you may imagine what I thought.”
“I knew Caroline had written but had no idea this was what she had told you. I am so sorry, Miss Bennet. Can you ever forgive me?” His eyes seemed to plead with her. She of all people understood what it was like to have a relative whose behavior could be an embarrassment.
“You cannot be held responsible for your sister’s actions,” Jane replied softly.
“Did you write back to her?”
Bingley took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Caroline led me to believe you never answered her. Every time we talked about it, she tried to convince me your silence meant your only thought was for my fortune. She even implied you had another beau in the neighborhood, who was courting you. I thought I had no chance.”
Jane shifted uncomfortably. “I was always taught it was not polite or ladylike to display one’s feelings too eagerly.”
Bingley hung his head. “Miss Bennet, what a mess I have made of things!”
The silence between them seemed to go on interminably.
“So Caroline knew you were coming to town this past winter?”
Still astonished at the turn this conversation had taken, Jane managed to find her voice again. “Yes, I wrote, but when I arrived, I heard nothing from her. After several weeks, I called on your sisters, thinking perhaps my letter had somehow become lost.”
“You called on them? But they never mentioned this to me.”
“I was not there five minutes before I realized I had made a mistake.”
He frowned but did not ask her to explain. “Did she return your call?”
“Yes, but only after several weeks.”
Bingley put a hand over his eyes and sighed. “I apologize for my sister’s rudeness. I had no idea of any of this.”
“She made it quite clear you were busy with other pursuits. That is why I was so surprised when you and Mr. Darcy came to call last week.”
Bingley anxiously ran a hand through his hair. “How you must despise me! I understand if you wish me to return you home immediately. I cannot believe you received me at all after what happened.”
Jane was confused. “You think I despise you?”
He looked at the ground and nodded his head.
Jane tried to think of how she could explain to him what she was feeling, but she had no idea how to express what she was thinking. When she saw his hand resting on the bench between them, she simply set her hand over his. “I do not despise you, nor do I wish to return home now.”
When he looked up at her hopefully, she felt unsteady.
“Are you certain you do not wish me out of your sight?” he asked, sounding almost like a sheepish little boy.
“Is that a ‘yes’ you wish me to stay or a ‘yes’ you wish me to go?”
“It is my wish that we begin again, but only if that is what you desire, also.” She held her breath.
“More than anything.” Bingley squeezed her hand. “May we be friends again?”
Jane looked away so he would not see the tears in her eyes. “Nothing would make me happier, Mr. Bingley,” she whispered.
She felt a light touch of his fingers on her chin as he gently turned her face towards him. “I hear your words, but you do not look happy, my dear sweet Jane.”
Had she heard him correctly? My dear sweet Jane? Her heart began to race as if she had just run all the way from Longbourn to Meryton. Taking a deep breath, she looked up and gave him her warmest smile. “Truly, I am very happy now.”
“In spite of the tears?” He brushed the wetness from her cheek with his thumb.
“I plan to speak harshly to Caroline about this.”
“I would prefer if you did not. I am certain she was only doing what she thought was right for you.”
“I would never want you to be hurt, especially if it were over something I could prevent.”
Any last remaining doubts she might have had about him fell away, and she tumbled back into love even more than she had been before.
“I would not blame you if you did not forgive me.” Then turning his clear blue eyes on her, he said, “But I pray that you do.”
Jane felt a shiver all the way down to her toes. “There is nothing to forgive. You are here now and that is all that matters.”
“You are generosity itself, Miss Bennet. How I have missed talking with you! You always seem to make me feel as if all is right in the world.”
That night, Jane lay awake long after the rest of the household was asleep. Moving to the window, she looked out across the countryside in the direction of Netherfield. Was Mr. Bingley awake, too, thinking of her? Could the months of loneliness and heartbreak finally be behind her? No matter what happened now, she was glad she had taken a chance and told him what she was thinking.
What have you imagined they talked about when they were alone?