2013 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner Graduate Division
“The adieu is charity itself”: One Timeless Feature of Pride and Prejudice
I would like to begin by attending to one very curious detail about verb tenses in the successful proposal scene of Pride and Prejudice (238-43). As Elizabeth and Darcy discuss the events leading up to their engagement, the famous (or infamous) letter is mentioned. Both dwell upon its contents for some time, and finally, Darcy hopes that it has been destroyed: “There was one part especially, the opening of it, which I should dread your having the power of reading again. I can remember some expressions which might justly make you hate me” (240). Elizabeth assures him that it will be burned if he wishes, but she also provides a comment about the letter that might give us a new inroad into the novel: “The letter, perhaps, began in bitterness, but it did not end so. The adieu is charity itself” (240, emphasis mine).
Why does Austen choose to have Elizabeth shift from the simple past in the first sentence to the present tense in the second? Why not say that which accords more with the language of time each interlocutor has been employing throughout the conversation: “The adieu was charity itself?” Both Elizabeth and Darcy speak, without exception, in the past tense when discussing the letter. This one simple declarative sentence stands out as unique, strange, curious and, for our purposes as readers, challenging.
First, I propose that the letter has grown over time to occupy a living space in its recipient’s mind. Darcy is justified in wishing that it might be destroyed; he has not until the intense present moment had the opportunity candidly to compare his imagination’s version of what Elizabeth must think of him as he presented himself in writing to her actual opinion. He also admits that he has since come to see that he was not master of himself when he wrote the letter: “I believed myself perfectly calm and cool, but I am since convinced that it was written in a dreadful bitterness of spirit” (240).
Elizabeth acknowledges that “the feelings of the person who wrote, and the person who received it, are now so widely different from what they were then, that every unpleasant circumstance attending it, ought to be forgotten” (240). The one exempt detail – the one feature that has been singled out and will be preserved when the mansion house of her memory has been purged of the written document of Darcy’s pride – is this “adieu.” Elizabeth has become the curator of that concluding sentence: “I will only add, God bless you” (134).
Austen is always very subtle, but the change which inevitably takes place in her heroes and heroines is frequently marked by revised opinions. Captain Wentworth, for instance, is made to say, on the day of his engagement to Anne Elliot, something very different from what he had said once before: when he proclaims “to my eye you could never alter,” we, along with Anne, are moved to smile “and let [the pleasing blunder] pass” (Persuasion 264), even though we remember what Mary Musgrove reported Wentworth to have sneeringly proclaimed about Anne in Vol. 1 Ch. 7: “You were so altered he should not have known you again” (65). “Altered beyond his knowledge”; “So altered that he should not have known her again!” – Anne re-works and re-fashions the saying as a means of “allaying agitation” and achieving some semblance of “composure” (65), but these words wound her, and it is a testament to her charity that she is able to meet an unselfconscious Wentworth’s revised opinion with a “smile.”
Similarly, one of the features of Darcy’s successful suit is a statement that would have been egregiously out of character at any earlier point in the novel. When Elizabeth thanks him, “in the name of all [her] family” for helping Lydia, Darcy asserts: “[Y]our family owe me nothing. Much as I respect them, I believe, I thought only of you” (Pride and Prejudice 239). That Darcy did not respect her family in the slightest was one of the gravest marks of his pride in Elizabeth’s opinion when he proposed for the first time (125). Even Austen’s narrator agrees: “His sense of her inferiority – of its being a degradation – of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit” (125). The “respect” he now claims to have for Elizabeth’s “family” is not merely a consequence of dewy-eyed, love-sick blindness or a desire to please or flatter the beloved. Indeed, the narrator’s concluding comments in the novel confirm that Darcy really has come to respect her family: “With the Gardiners, they were always on the most intimate terms. Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them; and they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them” (254). Again, that which is timeless in Pride and Prejudice – that of which these two characters, as long as Austen’s novel exists as either a printed or a digital text, will be “ever sensible” – is charity, a real love which, conspicuously in Darcy’s case, did not exist at the beginning.
The letter’s charitable “adieu is” fixed and lasting, but the conversation within which the successful proposal takes place is incredibly fluid. Elizabeth and Darcy’s topics range from proper “humility” to “hate,” “anger,” “pleasure,” “civility,” “conscience” and “forgiveness” (240-41). Weighty matters for an afternoon stroll. Then, “after walking several miles in a leisurely manner, and too busy to know any thing about it,” they consult their watches and discover that it is “time to be at home” (242). Any reader who would accuse Austen ultimately of rejecting social mores and formal institutions through sheer satirical annihilation would do well to note that the most rambunctious heroine in the canon, once she has come to know herself and see clearly what she is about and where she is most happy, honors the limitations placed upon her by time: shared meals with family, confidences with friends, and social expectations for conduct are respected (Tave 21). Furthermore, when Austen chooses to have her hero and heroine consult their watches, she catches them in the act of uniting their agendas, so to speak. They are, at this moment, submitting not only to each other, but also to the society into which they will enter as husband and wife. They look at their watches as two people for whom the hour has begun a new life. They consider the time with new eyes, refined consciouses, purified imaginations and enriched memories. It is time to be at home, to reenter – this time, together – that community which, challenging and even odious as it can be, is, to Austen’s way of thinking, necessary for their human flourishing.
Coming to an understanding with Darcy requires Elizabeth to “travel beyond her own knowledge” (243), to explore the uncharted territory of her memory and imagination, and to make connections between her own thoughts and his which lead to real discoveries. Things that either were not or at least were not known before now are. It is for this reason that we need not be alarmed by what might at first seem to be a startling observation made by the narrator on the evening of the successful engagement:
The evening passed quietly, unmarked by any thing extraordinary. The acknowledged lovers talked and laughed, the unacknowledged were silent. Darcy was not of a disposition in which happiness overflows in mirth; and Elizabeth, agitated and confused, rather knew that she was happy, than felt herself to be so” (243).
Elizabeth “felt” happy with Wickham, but knew that she was not: her confession to Aunt Gardiner confirms this (97). Through a chiasm, Austen suggests that knowledge of a good as precious as happiness is infinitely superior to the feelings which sometimes accompany happiness but which cannot be relied upon to do so. Elizabeth is not blind to the fact that Darcy remains imperfect. For instance, she knows that the best cure for his pride is good-natured laughter seemingly at his expense, and even in the conversation the fruit of which is their mutual commitment she can see that “he had yet to learn to be laughed at, and it was rather too early to begin” (243). Thus, when the narrator tells us that Elizabeth “knew” that she was happy, she is telling us that Elizabeth has become a mature woman capable of recognizing that her happiness lies in loving someone who will not always be able to make her feel happy. She is spirited, sarcastic and gregarious; he is “not of a disposition in which happiness overflows in mirth.” They will undoubtedly argue and disagree. Indeed, they cannot get through something as important as their own engagement without quarreling “for the greater share of blame annexed to that evening [of the dreadful proposal at Rosings parsonage]” (239-40). This is the aporia of human love: we bind ourselves to things that are mutable, change is always either for better or for worse, and it is well-nigh impossible to predict with certainty which type of change will win the day. Darcy’s reserve could dovetail into depression; Elizabeth’s propensity for rigorous athletic activity could lead to the kind of fall which almost spelled death for Louisa Musgrove. Life is full of dangers, errors, tragedies. Knowledge of happiness can take us much farther than feelings, but it is no guarantee.
But in Austen there is a safeguard: character. Darcy and Elizabeth come together on this summer afternoon walk as two people who have made a series of choices for their own good and the good of members of their families and communities. The pretense for the conversation is, after all, Elizabeth’s choice to muster up the courage to thank Darcy for the remarkably generous choice he made in putting himself, despite the obvious humiliations of the situation, at the service of a former friend whose profligate choices led to grave betrayal and a girl whose “high animal spirits” (31), once they had gained mastery over the rational part of her soul, led her to choose sexual immorality under the guise of an “elopement.” In the successful proposal scene, then, Wickham and Lydia are tacitly conjured as failed counterparts to Darcy and Elizabeth, whose deliberate choices have made them worthy of a happy marriage based upon hard-won compatibility. Stuart Tave, in his stunning analysis of Austen’s six novels, suggests that
The time is critical for Jane Austen’s heroines not because they must marry in the year or less of the novel’s action, but because it is a time in which they face a series of problems and must make the decisions that will determine their moral characters. . . . There is no choice of standing still. One cannot “dwell.” If the Elizabeth Bennet who begins her twenty-first year does not respond properly . . . [to] the many successive tests that face her, month by month, in this crucial year of her life, if she does not learn from their experience more of the world and of herself, and whom she should love, if she succumbs to disappointment, she will not be the same girl in the same place one year older. She will be worse. . . . The marriage is important not for itself – in Jane Austen most people who are married are not to be especially congratulated for that fact – but because the ability to be worthy of or to make the right marriage is dependent on the growth that the time of decision has required. (10, 14, 11)
Lydia and Wickham certainly are not “to be especially congratulated” for their marriage, but Darcy and Elizabeth, because they have consistently – though not always perfectly – chosen what is good in the time Austen has given them, are.
During the conversation in which they come to an understanding, Darcy rejects Elizabeth’s suggestion that he “learn some of [her] philosophy” and “think only of the past as its remembrance gives . . . pleasure” (240), but when we consider what Elizabeth has chosen to remember, we might be inclined to take seriously what she says half-jestingly. Though Austen likely never read St. Augustine herself, we can be sure that his most conspicuous saying about love was known to her: “Love, and do as you will” – appropriated by Dante’s Virgil (and misconstrued, in our times) as “let your pleasure be your guide” (Purg. 27. 131). The Darcy and Elizabeth who are, to employ the word each uses respecting the other, “angry” in Vol. 2 Ch. 12 have been, by Vol. 3 Ch. 16, transformed by love. And not just any love; by the “charity itself” which Darcy included, perhaps at the time as a mere matter of form, when he signed his letter. Regardless of the original purity of his intention, that “adieu” has taken on monumental status in Elizabeth’s memory. It is one of the features of the landscape of her imagination. It is and – given Austen’s exceptional verb choice – will forever be a reminder, to her, of his worth. Her “pleasure” in remembering comes from the kind of living “charity” she has begun to practice towards Darcy. If this is the tenor of her “philosophy,” then we – readers occupying a space which did not exist when Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice and a time so remotely future to her – can still approve with pleasure.
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy: Purgatorio. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Bantam Press, 1986.
Austen, Jane. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen: Persuasion. Ed. Janet Todd and Antje Blank. Cambridge: CUP 2005-08.
-----. The Norton Critical Edition: Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Donald Gray. New York: Norton and Co., 2001.
Tave, Stuart. Some Words of Jane Ausen. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1973.