Flower Garden or Genetics' Laboratory?
Nature or Nurture?
Even if they haven’t read Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen, most people have heard of the formidable Mrs Bennet and her comic attempts to prise her five daughters into matrimony. I have read the book a number of times, and seen film and television adaptations without number. However, for years I puzzled over two non-happenings in its plot that never quite made sense. At the opening of the story, Mrs Bennet is in a fever of excitement. She has just heard that Netherfield Park, the local “big house” has been let (at last) to a Mr Bingley, young, single and with a good income. Immediately, she begins plotting as to how she can convince Mr Bingley (without ever having met him) to marry either of her elder daughters; the very lovely Jane or the pretty, witty and intelligent Elizabeth.
The three younger sisters are the plain, bookish Mary, the rather insipid Kitty and the youngest, the giddy and exuberant Lydia. After a few hiccups, the scheming of Mrs Bennet begins to take effect. Before the story is half-ways over, Jane has engaged Mr Bingley’s affections sufficiently for the family – and the reader – to anticipate one wedding, at least. This leaves Mrs Bennet free to work on another problem. Mr Bennet owns the house that the Bennet family lives in, but by a legal hiatus it is entailed. This means that Mr Bennet is not free to leave it to the family. When he dies, it goes to the nearest male heir; in this instance, a young cousin named Mr Collins. In the dark recesses of her mind, Mrs Bennet sees herself and any daughter that remains unmarried out on the roadside if Mr Bennet should die suddenly. There is a solution, however.
Mr Collins has just been instigated as a clergyman on the estate of a grand patron named Lady Catherine de Bourgh – and he is coming to visit the family. Mrs Bennet’s mind sets to work; Collins can marry one of her girls! Mr Collins is interested. His initial interest in Jane cools when Mrs Bennet tells him that she is practically engaged. He turns his attention to Elizabeth. In one of the high-comedy scenes of this very funny book, Collins proposes to her and she turns him down flatly – to the fury of her mother. Eventually, Mr Collins finds a wife in the person of Charlotte Lucas, plain, twenty-eight and with few prospects. This twist in the plot had always puzzled me; why did Mr Collins (evidently able to transfer his affections with ease) simply not propose to Mary Bennet? The answer, of course, lies in the question.
In his essay, The Nerds of Pride & Prejudice, Benjamin Nugent describes Mary Bennet and Mr Collins as “a plausible match” in both their physical plain-ness and lamentable attempts at self-expression. He explains that the chief deficiency of the pair lay in their inability to connect emotionally with anyone in company. Mr Collins had the sense, at least, to know that if he were to have even a chance of happiness, he would have to “marry upwards” in the emotional sense. Thus he found his anchor in Charlotte Lucas – and afforded a lucky escape to Mary Bennet. At only eighteen, she was bound to improve in temperament and emotional intelligence, especially under the auspices of her sister, Elizabeth Darcy. In short, the author gave Mary a chance.
The other great P&P puzzle is why Elizabeth’s intended, Fitzwilliam Darcy, had held back from marrying the very eligible Anne de Bourgh (daughter of Lady Catherine and immensely wealthy) before the story even began? Pride & Prejudice was published in 1813, forty-six years before Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species. However, the scientific Enlightenment had been in full swing since the late 1500s. Poets and writers had long been questioning where the human species fitted into the natural world. John Keats, who died in 1820, wrote in his poem The Poet “a man may be ‘twixt ape and Plato…” Even with scant scientific knowledge, Keats – and Jane Austen – knew empirically that humanity was a progression, but one that regressed slightly now and then. The author, who no doubt had witnessed many hopelessly inbred members of the English upper classes, describes Anne as a “pale, sickly creature who makes no conversation and has no talent".
Mr Darcy knew that not only was Anne unsuitable company for him, but any attempt to produce offspring would have been disastrous (Anne and Darcy were related). In marrying the intelligent and desirable Elizabeth, Darcy closed his eyes (though not his mind) to her horde of vulgar relatives. No doubt, he consoled himself with the thought of their future handsome and quick-witted children. With his typical arrogance, he probably also canoodled himself into thinking that marriage to him would “improve” Elizabeth. I suspect though, like many a P&P reader, that marriage to Elizabeth was bound to improve him, emotionally. As with Mr Collins, I believe that Mr Darcy went on to marry "upwards”.
A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Reasons Why We Can't Stop Reading Jane Austen, edited by Susannah Carson, Particular Books, 2009.
English Romantic Verse, Introduced and Edited by David Wright, Penguin Books, 1968.
Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen