Persuasions #9, 1987 Page 49
An Amusing Study: Family Likenesses in Pride and Prejudice
JOCELYN CREIGH CASS
Fraser Valley College, Abbotsford Campus, 33844 King Road, R.R. #2,
Abbotsford, B.C. V2S 4N2, Canada
Families are a particularly entertaining aspect of Jane Austen’s art. The Bennet family, for example, is a study in contrasts: Mr. Brain, Mrs. Birdbrain, Miss Goodheart, Miss Goodwit, Miss Pedant, Miss Silly, and Miss Folly. Should we conclude intelligence is recessive in the Bennet genes? Hardly. Mendel was not born until 1822 and similarities and differences occur in Jane Austen’s fictional families for literary and not for genetic reasons. The contrast between the parents reappears in the children; limitations and folly, or virtue and good sense, are transmitted from the older to the younger generation and there contribute substantially to the events and significance of the narrative.
Jane Austen uses family similarities not simply to entertain but also to illuminate. This is particularly evident in the Fitzwilliam family. Colonel Fitzwilliam remarks that his cousin “likes to have his own way very well” (P&P, 183). This is not the only resemblance between Fitzwilliam Darcy and his Aunt Catherine. Elizabeth Bennet finds them alike in appearance and manner and their behaviour is certainly similar. Darcy takes charge of Bingley, Lady Catherine supervises Mr. Collins and his parishioners; Darcy finds Elizabeth Bennet not handsome enough to dance with, his Aunt offers her the use of the housekeeper’s piano. Their dominance and arrogance are based on the family commitment to property and pedigree. It is present in Colonel Fitzwilliam and plain in Darcy:
“Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? To congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?” (192)
Lady Catherine echoes him in blunter terms:
“But who was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunt? … Do you not consider that a connection with you, must disgrace him in the eyes of everybody?” (356, 357)
Lady Catherine’s scene with Elizabeth is simply a louder variation on the Fitzwilliam family theme.
When Darcy begins to be ashamed of his Aunt, we are prepared to believe he will soon be ashamed of himself. When the reformed Darcy describes the evils of his upbringing, we thoroughly understand him, for, in the person of Lady Catherine, the family past is alive and well and living at Rosings:
“I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately an only son, (for many years an only child) I was spoilt by my parents, who though good themselves, (my father particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable,) allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing, to care for none beyond my own family circle, to think meanly of all the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own.” (369)
Lady Catherine’s continuing arrogance also enables us to measure the change in Darcy. The “proud, unpleasant sort of man” shows himself courteous to the Gardiners, rescues Lydia, and risks making a second proposal to Elizabeth who can now truthfully exonerate him from the family failings: “Indeed he has no improper pride. He is perfectly amiable” (376).
Another aspect of Darcy’s personality is illuminated by his sister Georgiana, also reputedly “very, very proud” (82, 261). Elizabeth finds her “only exceedingly shy.” It was “difficult to obtain even a word from her beyond a monosyllable” (261).
Darcy too is shy. He is contrasted – and contrasts himself – with Bingley who is both easily pleased and naturally pleasing.
“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess … of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.” (175)
“As I often see done.” The unobtrusive verb reveals the spectator, the non-joiner, the one who watches while the naturally gregarious enjoy themselves. Does this alter our view of the “horrid man” who “walked here, and … walked there, fancying himself so very great”? (13). The Darcy who sits in Mr. Collins’s parlour for ten minutes together without opening his lips, who amuses Colonel Fitzwilliam by being so stupid, is unmistakably Georgiana’s brother. Once we understand Darcy’s natural stiffness, we can interpret accurately the movement of his chair along the floor at Hunsford, his apparent coldness when visiting Longbourn. “What made you so shy of me when you first called and afterwards dined here?” asks Elizabeth (381).
When we realize Darcy’s careful efforts to form new relationships and reshape old ones are made by a man painfully incapable of spontaneity, we understand him better. And if we picture him at the centre of the Fitzwilliam family group, we gain an increased appreciation of the ending of Pride and Prejudice. During the novel Darcy has overcome the errors of his upbringing; his marriage to Elizabeth Bennet promises him a degree of freedom from the constraints of his own nature.