Just how proper were Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy? We all know that etiquette and proper behaviour were de riguer in the Regency period. Unmarried women had to be chaperoned at all time, they could not correspond with unmarried gentlemen, they were expected to be pure in mind and body, etc. But where there are human beings involved, rules and reality will always differ. From today’s vantage point, some readers feel that Darcy and Elizabeth are the embodiment of proper behavior. It’s a pleasant thought; unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be in keeping with the characters Jane Austen wrote. Both Darcy and Elizabeth constantly push the envelope on appropriate behavior to the point where it could have – and probably did – affect their reputations.
Let’s start with Elizabeth. We know that many of Austen’s contemporaries disliked the character of Elizabeth and felt that Jane Bennet should have been the heroine, and they had good reason. Elizabeth scampers all over the countryside on pleasure strolls by herself when she should always be accompanied by a maid or a sister. Modern readers may think that’s fine, but a Regency audience would agree with Miss Bingley that Elizabeth’s manners were “very bad indeed:”
“You observed it, Mr. Darcy, I am sure,” said Miss Bingley, “and I am inclined to think that you would not wish to see your sister make such an exhibition.”
“To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! what could she mean by it? It seems to me to shew an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum.”
Miss Bingley is not being hypercritical here, but the voice of Regency society. Elizabeth was being indecorous, and they all knew it.
Perhaps the most important rule for young ladies was never to be alone with an unrelated gentleman under any circumstances. Elizabeth flouts this one regularly. When Darcy comes to call at Hunsford and everyone else is away from home, Elizabeth should have refused to meet with him without a maid present, and Darcy should have politely declined to stay. They take long walks alone together at Rosings, which is enough to harm her reputation seriously, but she doesn’t stop there; she also walks alone with Colonel Fitzwilliam, and one assumes she would have no hesitation doing so with Wickham or any other gentleman.
Then there’s the famous letter Darcy writes her. Remember the part about young ladies not corresponding with gentlemen? Accepting Darcy’s letter is a complete breach of propriety, as the text itself tells us. Darcy holds out “a letter, which she instinctively took” (my italics). Jane Austen added that “instinctively” because she had to justify Elizabeth behaving in a completely unacceptable manner. But even having taken it instinctively, Elizabeth should have returned it unopened or refused to read it, as she does in my book, Mr. Darcy’s Letter. Of course, that action leads to trouble of a different sort, but it is proper!
Darcy is, if anything, worse. He goes along with all the impropriety I’ve mentioned, behavior which I’m quite sure he wouldn’t have condoned in Georgiana, who has a hired companion to protect her from those very mistakes. He goes out of his way to meet with Elizabeth alone in the grove at Rosings. He’s inexcusably rude at the Meryton Assembly. Modern readers tend to think of it as just his excessive pride, but look at the reaction of the people of Meryton. Mrs. Bennet and the other matchmaking mamas, who would still have considered Bingley eligible if he had been a slovenly middle-aged man as drunk as Mr. Hurst so long as he still had his 5000 pounds per year, write off handsome Mr. Darcy’s 10,000 pounds based solely on his outrageous rudeness. That’s not a reaction to pride, which could be expected in a man of his stature – it’s behavior that’s beyond the pale for them.
Then there’s the scene when Miss Bingley invites Elizabeth to take a turn around the room at Netherfield. Darcy refuses, and says to their faces, “… you are conscious that your figures appear to the greatest advantage in walking … [and] I can admire you much better as I sit by the fire.” It is indeed, as Miss Bingley says, a shocking and altogether abominable thing to say. Not only is he admitting publicly to looking at their figures for his pleasure, but he is making reference to the fact that their dresses were deliberately translucent as was the fashion, and sitting “by the fire” he would get an excellent view as they walk past the windows. He’s telling the ladies, “No, I’ll stay right here so that I admire your legs through your dresses which you are deliberately exposing in hopes of inflaming my lust.” This apparently isn’t even unusual behavior for him; Jane Austen tells us that he was “continually giving offence” wherever he appeared. That is most likely the reason Darcy, the nephew of an Earl, is spending his time with the children of tradesmen when it’s clear that he’s quite a snob. He doesn’t behave properly, and society holds it against him.
Both Darcy and Elizabeth are comfortable flouting almost any rule of etiquette that gets in their way. Yes, it’s true that they both see some things as too improper and immoral even for them, like Lydia running off with Wickham. However, that’s like saying that it doesn’t matter if your new in-laws are boorish slobs as long as they aren’t criminals.
Don’t get me wrong – I like it that Darcy and Elizabeth are the free spirits of their age. That’s a large part of what makes them so appealing to me. It’s just that when people tell me that Darcy or Elizabeth would never have approved of this or that, I sometimes wonder if we’ve been reading the same book. And now despise me if you dare!
I’d love to hear your comments!
Parts of this post originally appeared on My Jane Austen Book Club in 2011.