2013 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner High School Division
Time of the Season: Time as an Expression of the Individual in Pride and Prejudice
Though Jane Austen wrote during a time of immense social and political upheaval, her novels remain focused on microcosmic rather than macrocosmic shifts—“the little bit (two Inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush” she wrote to her nephew, James-Edward (Hannon 228). But besides witnessing the Revolutionary Era, Austen also witnessed the nascent Romantic period; William Blake was distributing his seminal The Marriage of Heaven and Hell two years before Austen was born (Nurmi 558); Lord Byron dazzled and scandalized London society while Austen was polishing First Impressions (Hannon 103); Charlotte Brontë was born in 1816, the same year Emma was published. And Brontë, perhaps the female epitome of the Romantic writer, described Austen’s work as a “carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck” (Hannon 225). Indeed, Austen’s pragmatic prose seem to have little in common with the passionate style the characterized the Romantic artists—but a deeper examination of Pride and Prejudice reveals that Austen wrote more pioneering story than immediately apparent. For the Romantics, nature played an integral role in the life of man, and in Pride and Prejudice, the passing of time and the subsequent change in the seasons comes to reveal the pivotal changes that occur in the important relationships and minds in the novel—time shows itself to be an illuminator of truths.
The action of Pride and Prejudice occurs over roughly the span of year; each season, as well as the London Season, reflects the changes that time inflict upon the relationships of the major characters. The novel opens around Michaelmas—near the end of September—and thus, the beginning of autumn, the season of the harvest. Indeed, the beginning of Pride and Prejudice throws the reader into a slew of events coming to fruition; the Bennets must now reap the misfortune of having sowed no son—“Mr. Bennet’s property consisted almost entirely in an estate of two thousand a year, which, unfortunately for his daughters, was entailed in default of heirs male” (Austen 61); Bingley, after scouring the countryside, has finally decided upon a home—“ ‘Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England’” (Austen 29). By having autumn as a backdrop, Austen is able to convey the idea that—even before the story began—every character’s life is thoroughly occupied. But, in keeping with a theme present throughout the novel, time has vastly different implications for the upper and lower classes, and for men and women; Bingley and Darcy view the autumn as a time for sports such as shooting (Austen 46), while Mr. Bennet must worry about the activity of the farmers of Longbourn; “ ‘Your father cannot possibly spare the horses, I am sure. They are wanted in the farm, Mr. Bennet, are they not?’” (Austen 65). For men of all incomes, however, the autumn is the time for robust activity, while for the women, domestic tasks remained the focus of daily life. Therefore, Lizzy’s trek to Netherfield is viewed by the Bingley sisters as not only a social misstep, but a flagrant disregard for the natural place of women; “ ‘It seems to me to shew an abominable sort of conceited independence’” (Austen 70). By creating a heroine out of a woman attuned with the natural world, Austen proved herself to be ahead of her own time, and more like the Romantics of the future than the Moralists of the past.
But autumn is also a presage to the barren winter, and the waning season sees the decline of Darcy’s character and his friendship with Bingley. Until their arrival at Hertfordshire, their friendship has been characterized as being “Very steady […] in spite of a great opposition of character” (Austen 48). Jane Bennet, however, becomes an apple of discord between them—“ ‘If they [Jane and Elizabeth] had uncles enough to fill all of Cheapside […] it would not make them one jot less agreeable’” (Austen 71)—one which forces Darcy to begin manipulating his friend.
The seasons of friendship play out in a variety of ways within the novel; the relationship between Lizzy and Charlotte can be viewed as a foil to that of Darcy and Bingley. Both Elizabeth and Darcy hold their friends to high standards—“ ‘There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well’” (Austen 175)—though the passing of time reveals that Elizabeth’s indignation with Charlotte’s upcoming nuptials has foundation (Austen 175) while Darcy’s is misguided, as Bingley truly does love Jane (Austen 387). Time exposes the malleability of opinions and even personalities, for While Darcy and Elizabeth are convinced of the truth of their opinions, those opinions are not irrevocable. Though Darcy’s reputation withers faster than autumn leaves in the eyes of Elizabeth and Meryton at the hands of Wickham (Austen 178), Lizzy later learns that “ ‘One has got all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it’” (Austen 264).
But time must pass before revealing such truths. As autumn wanes into winter, a frost descends not only over Hertfordshire but over the principle relationships as well; The Bingleys and Darcy suddenly depart (Austen 171), Charlotte goes through with her marriage to the odious Mr. Collins (Austen 186), Wickham shifts his attentions away from Elizabeth to Miss King (Austen 189), Mrs. Bennet’s anger over her daughter’s refusal shows no sign of thawing (Austen 177), and even the bond between Lizzy and Jane grows strained under separation and the latter’s reluctance to admit to depth of her sorrow over Bingley’s absence (Austen 187). Austen, though, glazes over this period; “With no greater events than these in the Longbourn family […] did January and February pass away” (Austen 191). There is some irony to this, as during this time of the year, the London Season would be beginning—normally a period of great excitement and action; by keeping her heroine bored at home, Austen further characterizes the Bennets as only the barest members of the gentry of their time.
It is interesting to note, then, that a young man of Darcy’s considerable fortune and social status would be spending an integral part of the Season visiting his elderly aunt during the spring (Austen 210); this reflects the differing views held by men and women in regards to time spent with others. While Lizzy sees her visit to Charlotte as a gift bestowed from friendship—“Absence had increased her desire of seeing Charlotte again” (Austen 191)—Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam view their perfunctory visit as stemming from duty, to family and to tradition; “Lady Catherine; who talked of his [Darcy] coming with the greatest satisfaction” (Austen 210). But spring provides a fertile ground for change. Darcy’s blossoming attraction to Elizabeth is reflected in the time of the season—“Gentlemen cannot always be within doors; and in the nearness of the Parsonage […] the two cousins found a temptation from this period of walking thither almost every day” (Austen 221). He has not been able to conquer his feelings, despite distance and time; his love can be seen as inevitable as the season. And Elizabeth makes the mistake of continuing to see Darcy as only a haughty figure, instead of a multi-faceted man—she does not understand the significance of his decision to spend more time alone with her: “He actually thought it necessary to turn back and walk with her. He never said a great deal, nor did she give herself the trouble of talking or of listening much; but it struck her in the course of their third recontre that he was asking some odd unconnected questions” (Austen 223). For while Darcy does ration his time with duty in mind, it also with deliberateness: Spring—the time of new life, blossoming flowers and mating—draws subtle emphasis to the erotic nature of Darcy’s attraction to Elizabeth. When he admits “ ‘It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed’” (Austen 230), he is speaking not only of love but of more elemental and earthy emotions as well. Due to this confession and the subsequent letter, Darcy re-emerges as a more sympathetic and human character. It is Darcy, previously depicted as stiff and almost awkward, who is the most attuned to the natural cycles of time; in desiring romance and marriage, he conforms exactly to the expectations of the season.
Lizzy, although breaking the cyclical archetype by refusing Darcy (Austen 232), nevertheless undergoes a springtime transformation; Darcy’s letter causes her to question every opinion and attitude she had previously held—“ ‘Till this moment, I never knew myself’” (Austen 249). This character crisis is her re-birth of sorts, as Elizabeth returns to Longborn humbled yet wiser; her admission of “ ‘From knowing [Darcy] better, his disposition was better understood’” (Austen 273) furthers not only the growth of the love story, but of Elizabeth as a young woman. Her rebirth sets her along the path towards apotheosis, a statehood of true and realized heroism, which is further developed as time continues to pass.
The summer is a season for leisure and relaxation, a season to flourish after growth; it provides an ideal backdrop for Lizzy’s holiday with the Gardiners to the Lake District. However, the timing of several key events enables Darcy and Lizzy to meet again; Mr. Gardiner cannot be too long absent from his work (Austen 279), and Darcy visits Pemberley a day earlier than expected. The timing of their visits corresponds exactly—an ingenious plot device, or fate? While at first the meeting between Darcy and Elizabeth seems like an extraordinary coincidence, their synchronized timing can be viewed as a manifestation of their increasing complement. “As [Elizabeth] stood before the canvas, on which [Darcy] was represented, and fixed his eyes upon herself, she thought of his regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before” (Austen 292)—a meeting with the actual so soon after Lizzy’s evaluation of Darcy’s portrait indicates that time is attuned to the desires of the characters. Time is not only a revealer of truths, but an instrument of destiny and, perhaps, the subconscious. In the same way, the season once again reflects the inner-state of the characters; Darcy appears more at-east than during any previous encounter—“Never had he spoken with such gentleness as on this unexpected meeting” (Austen 293)—just as his house is at ease with the summertime; “She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste” (Austen 283). The fair weather and sunshine of summer indicate an equally bright courtship; Darcy and Elizabeth finally cast aside their antagonism in exchange for a growing intimacy (Austen 312). But theirs is not the only burgeoning relationship—summer heat also reflects the lust which brings Wickham and Lydia together. Their elopement (Austen 318) seems to destroy any hope of a second proposal from Darcy; “Elizabeth felt how improbable it was that they should ever see each other again” (Austen 320). Quite suddenly, Pride and Prejudice moves from comedy to tragedy, and the upcoming autumn only confirms this shift, as the fortunes of the Bennets appear to be just what they were at the beginning of the novel—dismal. “ ‘The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison to this’” (Austen 336).
The very real possibility of tragedy lends weight to a novel that, superficially, only appears to be a comedy of manners; Elizabeth’s emotional vulnerability—previously hinted at—emerges at her sister’s betrayal; “She was humbled, she was grieved; she repented, though she hardly knew of what” (Austen 352). Isolated, Elizabeth and Jane seem destined for spinsterhood, as love is thwarted and misfortune prevails. But, at the darkest hour, Lydia returns a married woman and unwittingly reveals her unlikely champion—Darcy (Austen 362). The events at the end of the novel mirror those of the beginning to almost the exact date; Darcy and Bingley’s return completes the yearly-cycle, as time coincides with the inner-most hopes of the protagonist. Darcy’s proposal and its acceptance (Austen 408) break the archetype of the autumn—moreover, their love delays time, by prolonging the Paradise of summer. Elizabeth’s apotheosis is complete, as she at once gains power over time and enters a union with both love and wealth; “[Elizabeth] looked forward with delight to the time when [she and Darcy] should be removed […] to all the comfort and elegance to their family party at Pemberley” (Austen 426).
Time throughout Pride and Prejudice showcases both Austen’s pragmatism and passion; nearly every character changes through the year, revealing the fluidity of human nature. Opinion and prejudices fluctuate, but gradually; Lizzy and Darcy are not fickle, and neither is the love they share—time strengthens it. “His affection was not the work of a day, but had stood the test of many months’ suspense” (Austen 418); Indeed, change is celebrated, as is the individual’s power to mature and grow.
And while Austen and her work cannot be classified as Romantic, the treatment of the seasons in Pride and Prejudice is distinctly innovative, especially in context of the time during which it was written. The passage of time reflects the inner-drama of the characters, from the bustling autumn and bleak winter, to the promise and temptation of spring and summer. Elizabeth and Darcy gain a mastery of time, as their ideal marriage enables them to have within an endless summer, fulfilling the genre codes of romance and comedy as love triumphs. By having nature reflect the lives of those who occupy it, Austen further emphasizes the importance of individual experiences. In Pride and Prejudices, time is ultimately both enlightening and empowering.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1st. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010. Print.
Hannon, Patrice. 101 Things You Didn't Know About Jane Austen: The Truth about the World’s Most Intriguing Romantic Literary Heroine. 1st. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2007. Print.
Nurmi, Martin. “On The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” in Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Eds, Mary Lynn Johnson, John E. Grant. New York: Norton. 1979. Print.
Frye, Northrop. “The Archetypes of Literature.” The Kenyon Review. Gambier, OH: Kenyon College, 1951. . Rpt. in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 1st. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. 1452-53. Print.