2013 JASNA Essay Contest Third Place Winner High School Division
“The Difficulty of Finding Anything To Do”: Two Conceptions of Time in Pride and Prejudice
In the opening scene of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet engage in a hilarious back-and-forth. Mrs. Bennet begs her husband to visit wealthy Mr. Bingley, who has just moved into the neighborhood and is about as eligible a bachelor as they come. Mr. Bennet resists: “You and the girls may go, or you may send them by themselves,” he says, “which perhaps will be still better, for as you are as handsome as any of them, Mr. Bingley might like you the best of the party” (6).
Exchanges like this one are a big a part of Austen’s continued appeal; she fashioned genuinely entertaining moments out of unremarkable family situations. For despite the lively dialogue, most of the Bennet family’s daily experiences are fundamentally banal. When, much later, Jane remarks that because “a thousand things may arise in six months,” Bingley may well move on to other women, the reader knows that Miss Bennet’s affections will remain as strong as ever. Six months at Longbourn represent a lot of letter-writing and maybe the occasional ball, and when time moves that slowly, old love dies hard (96).
Which isn’t to say that Pride and Prejudice is merely a pedestrian narrative that chronicles the thoughts, feelings and fleeting crushes of a handful of young women. The book is partly about the clash between two different types of time: the slow pace of daily life, which is all that characters like Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Maria Lucas care about, and the high-stakes intensity of the Bennets’ financial woes. Through no fault of her own, Mrs. Bennet is caught between these two conceptions of time; her overbearing personality, which emerges as early as that first conversation, is a function of the pressure she’s under and the societal mores that make that pressure so unbearable. Mrs. Bennet becomes a husband-chasing monster who has to embrace the inherent ridiculousness of courtship, something Austen acknowledges in the book’s famous opening lines, in order to keep her family afloat. So she badgers her husband, and Austen mocks the whole pathetic spectacle.
Mrs. Bennet lives in a society in which people move in a kind of slow motion – a society in which boredom and banality rule. And she’s not the only character for whom time passes slowly.
Charlotte and Elizabeth, for instance, attribute Darcy’s constant presence at Mr. Collins’ parsonage near Rosings to “the difficulty of finding anything to do, which was the more probable from the time of year” (141). Of course, love motivates Darcy, but rather than communicating affection, his visits come across to Elizabeth as the justifiably, perhaps inevitably, antsy behavior of someone who sees quite a lot of Lady Catherine.
On the carriage ride home from the Collinses’, Maria Lucas exclaims “Good gracious…it seems but a day or two since we first came….We have dined nine times at Rosings, besides drinking tea there twice! How much I shall have tell!” (168-9). This scene is funny not only because Elizabeth, who really has had an unusually eventful few days, is sitting in the same carriage, but also because Maria’s excitement is so ludicrously unwarranted: sure, Lady Catherine is rich and titled, but she’s dour and conceited as well. So monotonous is Maria’s existence that any social gathering, however tedious, inspires jubilant letters home and relentless boasting. This is very much Mrs. Bennet’s world. As a nineteenth-century woman, she’s confined, for better or worse, to the all-encompassing quiescence of what might be called “Longbourn-ian time” – the quotidian dullness of country life.
Elizabeth, whom Mrs. Bennet treats particularly badly, is smart, witty and delivers putdowns like nobody’s business. But even she – who comes closer than any other female character in the novel to establishing herself as a person in her own right and not just as somebody’s future wife – succumbs to Longbourn-ian time. Bereft of other amusements, she turns her attention to the ins and outs of the dinner parties and formal visits that fill the Bennets’ social calendar. Indeed, she “perfectly remember[s] everything that had passed in conversation between Wickham and herself, in their first evening at Mrs. Philips’s” (161). Wickham is handsome, charming and not inexperienced in the art of seduction, but isn’t it a little strange that Elizabeth remembers “everything that had passed in conversation,” several months after the fact? Doesn’t this suggest that, on the whole, her life is a bit of a drag? But, after all, what else – what, apart from parsing the minutiae of every neighborhood get-together, every chance conversation with a good-looking stranger – does she have to do?
Lydia, one of the least sympathetic characters in all of Pride and Prejudice, produces the novel’s most cutting commentary on life at Longbourn. After marrying Wickham, she announces, “My sisters may write to me. They will have nothing else to do,” which is a mean thing to say mostly because it’s true (253). Time doesn’t exactly fly when the sum total of your existence is the pursuit of marriage, when your mother is obsessive and your father apathetic, when a trip to the Lakes with your aunt and uncle is pretty much the highlight of your year.
But here’s the catch: all this daily tedium – every letter, every ball, every excruciating minute – belies the underlying urgency of the Bennets’ lives. When Mr. Bennet dies, his family will lose its home, and unless the Bennet sisters manage to acquire husbands, they won’t have anywhere to go. That’s why Mrs. Bennet insists that “if it was not for the entail, I should not mind…anything,” why she convinces herself that whenever Mr. and Mrs. Collins visit the estate or write a letter to Mr. Bennet or invite Elizabeth to the parsonage, they’re either mocking the Bennet family or considering interior decoration (105). The entail adds existential tension to lives that might otherwise seem leisurely – lives that seem to consist only of 150 million ways to kill time.
Longbourn-ian days move slowly, but Mr. Bennet could drop dead at any moment. Mrs. Bennet is tightly wound because she’s the only person in the family who truly understands the gravity of the situation. When pressed on the subject, Mr. Bennet teases his wife, saying things like “my dear, do not give way to such gloomy thoughts. Let us flatter ourselves that I may be the survivor” (105). Mrs. Bennet is described as “a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper,” but stop a moment to consider her predicament (7). Mr. Bennet never saved money for his daughters because he assumed his marriage would eventually yield a son who would inherit the estate and support his sisters and mother. “With a book [Mr. Bennet] is regardless of time,” and it becomes pretty clear that he is just as regardless when he’s not reading; he responds to his wife’s (admittedly pathetic) attempts to marry off her daughters by mocking courtship in general and Mrs. Bennet in particular (12). Mr. Bennet sees only the deceptively slow passage of Longbourn-ian time – the parties and letters and visits from neighbors – and refuses to acknowledge a more pressing countdown, the (potentially imminent) prospect of his own death.
Mrs. Bennet is the only character in Pride and Prejudice who looks beyond Longbourn-ian time to the ultimate consequences of long-term procrastination, yet she manages to raise the banality of dinners and balls and neighborhood strolls to a sort of art. She contributes to the tedium because that’s the only way to respond to the exigencies of the family’s existential crisis; Mrs. Bennet is forced to embrace a courtship process whose slow-moving, Longbourn-ian character is at odds with the urgency of her quest. So she cynically manipulates that process (sending Jane out in the rain, for example, in an effort to get her face time with Bingley) and complains constantly (about her poor nerves, about Elizabeth, about the deep, cosmic unfairness of all things). Mrs. Bennet is frightened: she knows the world is turning, she knows that if her daughters don’t marry now, they might never marry, but all that social expectations for women of her class and time allow her to do is wallow in the enforced idleness of Longbourn-ian time. Mrs. Bennet is not just a typically pushy mother; she’s a typically pushy mother playing an urgent, high-stakes game in a community to which urgency is foreign – a community, moreover, in which women are at the mercy of decisions made by men like the irresponsible Mr. Bennet. A thousand things may arise in six months, but Mrs. Bennet knows that it’s possible none of them will signify a more stable future; no wonder her anxiety, and with it her proclivity for idiotic conversation, runs so high.
Lydia’s elopement throws the lurking contrast between slow-moving Longbourn-ian hours and the seemingly inexorable momentum of the family’s crisis into even sharper relief. After receiving Jane’s second letter, Elizabeth leaves Lambton in a hurry, stopping only to apologize to a more-infatuated-than-ever Mr. Darcy. Despite this rush, however, she has little to do at Longbourn and spends her days trying to convince Jane – who, of course, doesn’t understand the concept of a glass half empty – that Wickham wants Lydia solely for sex. Mrs. Bennet is similarly helpless: she greets Elizabeth with “tears and lamentations of regret, invectives against the villainous conduct of Wickham, and complaints of her own suffering and ill-usage; blaming everybody but the person to whose ill-judging indulgence the errors of her daughter must be principally owing” (219).
In London, the Bennet men rush to salvage Lydia’s respectability; meanwhile, Mrs. Bennet and her daughters wait for the mail to arrive: “Every day at Longbourn was now a day of anxiety; but the most anxious part of each day was when the post was expected” (226). This section is torturous for the characters involved: the entail may seem remote and theoretical (at least, to everybody but Mrs. Bennet), but the ramifications of Lydia’s disappearance are impossible to ignore and utterly irrevocable. As Mr. Collins notes, the Bennet family’s “present distress proceeds from a cause which no time can remove” (227).
Mr. Bennet can close his book, travel to London and investigate elopements whenever he pleases – after all, he’s a man, and men do what they want. Mrs. Bennet, however, is trapped in Longbourn-ian time; she has to watch from afar as her notoriously undependable husband tries to save the day. That her subsequent frustration manifests as “complaints of suffering” and a steady increase in her rate of obnoxious comments per hour shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
On the face of it, Mrs. Bennet succeeds. Elizabeth, Jane and Lydia marry, and the family’s future is secure. But the Mrs. Bennet readers remember is not the delighted mother who celebrates Jane and Bingley’s engagement, but the “woman of mean understanding” who ostracizes Elizabeth after she rejects Mr. Collins (7). Which is a little unfair. Mrs. Bennet is asked to perform an inherently difficult task, to cover for her husband’s failings by venturing outside of her enforced passivity. She is a woman who is compelled to take the initiative – a product of her time, stranded in the no man’s land between two radically different types of time.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London: The Zodiac Press, 1980. Print.