2013 JASNA Essay Contest Second Place Winner High School Division
Happiness in Marriage: What’s in a Twelve-month?
Early in Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas makes a provocative claim to Elizabeth: “If [Jane] were married to [Mr. Bingley] to-morrow, I should think she had as good a chance of happiness as if she were to be studying his character for a twelve-month. Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance” (Austen, 16). In this statement Charlotte connects marital happiness, the study of character, and time. An array of different characters test her hypothesis in the course of the novel, and Austen forces us, through their varied actions, to consider the role of time and character study in proposals and marriages. Not only does Austen test Charlotte’s hypothesis through a variety of characters, she sets up the courtship of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth from meeting to engagement in almost exactly a “twelve-month,” as a test case for the reader to experience. Ultimately, by dividing the novel into two symmetrical “six-months,” Austen shows how Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy lay the foundation for a truly happy marriage.
If Mr. Collins had heard and understood Charlotte’s hypothesis, he would probably have subscribed to it entirely. In the course of eleven days, Collins goes through three potential spouses, fails to study the character of these potential spouses, proposes repetitively without displaying any growth, and simply does not care about whom he marries so much as that he marries somebody. Mr. Collins, with his absurd “mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility” (Austen, 48), does not take the time necessary to study the characters of his prospective brides. His repeated and affected proposals are both comical and enlightening as to his character. Mr. Collins first announces his intentions toward the eldest Bennet sister, Jane on November 18th: “Miss Bennet's lovely face confirmed his views, and established all his strictest notions of what was due to seniority; and for the first evening she was his settled choice” (Austen, 48). He decides this upon seeing Jane, though he knows nothing of her character. Because of this lack of studying, however, the match does not succeed. Had Mr. Collins waited to propose until the ball at Netherfield or even a few days to ascertain Jane’s character, he would have discovered that she was in love. He does not, however, and Mrs. Bennet is forced to point out to him that she may soon be engaged. Unfortunately, Collins does not learn from his mistake. “Mr. Collins had only to change from Jane to Elizabeth—and it was soon done—done while Mrs. Bennet was stirring the fire. Elizabeth, equally next to Jane in birth and beauty, succeeded her of course” (Austen, 48). Though Collins waits longer before proposing to Elizabeth, he fails to use this time in studying her character. His proposal to Elizabeth on November 27th is “less an invitation than a declaration” (Mathews, 248), and “Austen intimates that if Elizabeth had not interjected, he would have presumed, without a word of assent from her, that he had been accepted” (Mathews, 249). Thus, when finally convinced that Elizabeth does not want to marry him, Collins is shocked. Had Mr. Collins truly studied her character, he would have realized that she would not have accepted him. Austen uses Collins’s inability to learn about Elizabeth’s character to show Mr. Collins’s own character. He is obtuse and pompous, and will repeat something over and over again over time without learning anything from his mistakes. True to this characterization, two mornings later on November 29th, Collins makes yet another proposal to Charlotte Lucas and is (somewhat surprisingly) accepted. This is his third intended marriage in eleven days. Mr. Collins does not really care about whom he marries, so long as he marries someone and fulfills his mission for the Lady Catherine to bring home a wife.
Charlotte Lucas can study character perfectly well, but disregards this knowledge in favor of practicality. She rejects the possibility of happiness in a companionate marriage, and instead views marriage as almost like a financial transaction. Charlotte is not only capable of, but does, study Mr. Collins’s character. She is fully aware that “Mr. Collins … was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary” (Austen, 82). Nevertheless, she ignores all of this and accepts his proposal. For Charlotte marriage can provide stability. For Mr. Collins it is to do the bidding of the ever wise and condescending Lady Catherine de Bourgh. It is therefore more like a business transaction than a romance, an advantageous match for the both of them. The character of their partner is somewhat irrelevant to their plans, and therefore their chances of happiness in marriage are severely limited. They have not invested time and effort into a good relationship.
According to MacKinnon and Chapman’s timeline of Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy meets Elizabeth on the 15th of October; his first proposal occurs almost exactly six months later, on April 9th; and his second proposal occurs almost exactly twelve months from when he meets her, on the 6th of October. The first time Darcy proposes to Elizabeth, he has had six months in which to study her character. He fails, however, to have truly and earnestly done so. He is not in love with her character, her wit and tenderness, or her “sweetness and archness” (Austen, 35), but rather her “fine eyes” (Austen, 19, 25, 31). He submits condescendingly to her joking examinations of his character, failing to understand hers. In response to one of these Darcy makes a joking comment that Elizabeth’s defect “is willfully to misunderstand [people]” (Austen, 40). This comment, apt as it may be, Mr. Darcy does not himself mean or believe. Had he put greater thought into this, he might have understood how very astute this comment was at the time. Thus, without truly understanding Elizabeth’s character, he proposes to her and is sure of her acceptance: “He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance expressed real security” (Austen, 123). Darcy’s improper use of the six months he has had with Elizabeth prevents him from understanding that she will not accept him. As yet, he lacks the real desire to appreciate Elizabeth’s character.
While it is always dangerous to consider hypothetical situations within a fiction, it seems that Austen might have purposefully created a contrast between Darcy’s proposal at six months and his proposal at twelve months. How would this “first marriage” have turned out, had Elizabeth accepted Mr. Darcy’s first proposal? If she had accepted him, their marriage could only have been a very different one from the one that actually occurs. At the time of this proposal, Darcy and Elizabeth have as yet failed to understand one another’s character. If this hypothetical first marriage had occurred, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth’s marriage would have been one founded without respect or understanding, and might have grown worse over time as resentment grew. Even though Elizabeth would eventually have realized Mr. Darcy’s goodness, she could have felt nothing but defeat at her error rather than the gratitude she later feels. Austen means for us to envision this hypothetical marriage, contrasting it to the one that occurs six months later. Austen fully demonstrates that this “twelve-month” of courtship and character study is necessary to the marital happiness of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.
The next time Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth, he has learned from his mistakes. Our first indication of this is that when he finds Elizabeth at Pemberley, he makes efforts to seek her out and introduce her to his little sister Georgiana, showing his determination to reform himself and get to know her better. The two of them spend time together at Pemberley and later at Longbourn, allowing them to get to know one another and one another’s families. He has learned that to earn Elizabeth’s respect he must study her character more accurately and help her to understand his own. By the time the twelve-month has nearly passed, he proposes and “Elizabeth … immediately, though not very fluently, [gives] him to understand that her sentiments [have] undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances” (Austen, 235). Darcy fails at first in his proposal after six months, but with the proper employment of a twelve-month he is able to learn and succeed.
In the first “six-month” of Elizabeth Bennet’s acquaintance with Mr. Darcy, she is extremely prejudiced against him. Elizabeth has a set of problems almost the opposite of Mr. Darcy’s. She begins to study Mr. Darcy’s character from the beginning of their time together, but hopelessly misunderstands him almost from the moment of their meeting. As she expresses when Mr. Darcy first proposes to her, "From the very beginning, from the first moment I may almost say, of my acquaintance with you, ... I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry" (Austen, 126). Though character study is not lacking in Elizabeth, her manner of going about it is flawed. Because Elizabeth is unwilling to admit that she could be wrong in her interpretation, her character study may as well not have taken place.
Just as Elizabeth’s receiving Mr. Darcy’s letter is the turning point in their romance, it is also the exact middle of the book (Bonaparte, 141) and the turning point in Elizabeth’s character study. The whole of chapter thirteen in Volume Two is devoted to Elizabeth’s many readings of the letter Mr. Darcy hands her after his proposal. “With a strong prejudice against every thing he might say, she began his account of what had happened at Netherfield” (Austen, 132). She at first is disinclined to believe much of what he says, leaning on her past impressions of Darcy. After reading it she “put it hastily away, protesting that she would not regard it, that she would never look in it again … but it would not do; in half a minute the letter was unfolded again, and collecting herself as well as she could, … commanded herself so far as to examine the meaning of every sentence” (Austen, 133). Elizabeth goes back and repeats her reading, willing to reconsider. “Again she read on. But every line proved more clearly that the affair, which she had believed it impossible that any contrivance could so represent as to render Mr. Darcy's conduct in it less than infamous, was capable of a turn which must make him entirely blameless throughout the whole” (Austen, 133). Instead of sticking blindly to her prejudice, Elizabeth is able to admit that she might have been wrong. Eventually, “[s]he grew absolutely ashamed of herself.—Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think, without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd” (Austen, 135). Over the course of a morning, Elizabeth is willing to read Mr. Darcy’s letter multiple times and gain something new out of it each time. Unlike Mr. Collins’s proposals, these readings are not all the same. Each is different, and more accurate than the last. In reading this letter, Elizabeth is not only trying to understand it, but to understand Fitzwilliam Darcy himself.
In the second six months after Elizabeth reads Mr. Darcy’s letter so thoroughly, her approach to studying Mr. Darcy’s character is completely changed. Instead of distorting all of his actions to fit her preconceived notions, Elizabeth has learned to view Darcy with an open mind and know that she is not always correct. She is in many ways humbled. Her much improved character study allows her to eventually fall in love with Mr. Darcy, appreciating his true value. The reading of this letter and the forgiving of Mr. Darcy takes the course of a morning, but falling in love with him truly does take the twelve months that Austen provides.
Charlotte’s famous statement is tested by many of the characters in Pride and Prejudice and ultimately refuted. Mr. Collins is unable to study character and has no desire to spend time doing so. Charlotte has the ability to study character but purposefully ignores it. As a result this couple’s potential for happiness is severely limited. Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth use nearly the entire time of the novel (a twelve-month) to study each other’s character. They do not lack ability, but both often misread and need time to revise their opinions. Their marriage, therefore, is a more complex, intimate, and successful one. So in a way Charlotte’s words can be seen as foreshadowing: Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy do spend a twelve-month studying each other’s character. But disproving Charlotte’s statement, they need every day of it. Austen would have us know that happiness in marriage is not a matter of chance. Time is needed, as well as the study of character. Yet character study itself is not enough. The symmetrical time scheme of the novel helps us see that open-minded character study is necessary for true understanding, love, and the fullest marital happiness.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1993.
Bonaparte, Felicia. “Conjecturing Possibilities: Reading and Misreading Texts in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.” Studies in the Novel 37:2 (Summer 2005): 141-161.
MacKinnon, and Chapman.
“Chronology of Pride and Prejudice, According to MacKinnon and Chapman.”
Pride and Prejudice Hypertext.
The Republic of Pemberley, 2004.
Web. 15 May 2013.
Mathews, Peter. “Miscellany: An Open Invitation, Or How to Read the Ethics of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.” Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal 29 (2007): 245-254.