Persuasions #11, 1989                                                                                                                                                          Page 92-98

Reversal and Revelation: The Five Seasons of Pride and Prejudice 

Department of English, Shorter College
, Rome, Georgia 30161

Along with such critics as Andrew Wright and Joseph Kestner, I regard Jane Austen as a transitional writer.1  Her use of the seasonal cycle as narrative framework in Pride and Prejudice clearly demonstrates that her novels not only reflect the order and comic irony of the eighteenth century, but also contain the same sensitivity to nature and use of organicism associated with the Romantic period.  Although there are no long descriptive passages on the beauties or terrors of nature in her work, the events of Pride and Prejudice are clearly linked to the seasonal cycle.2  Susan Morgan notes, “the interdependence of the rhythm of the seasons and the rhythm of the characters,” and Stuart Tave discusses Austen’s use of the pressures of time within the limited chronology of a single year as a test of character.3  But Austen uses the seasonal cycle for narrative structure as well as for character development.  Motifs and ideas traditionally associated with each season become the source for comic ironic reversal and revelation, a device she would have learned from the eighteenth century writers she had admired from childhood, and the narrative setting, especially the events of the two autumn seasons, reflects an organicism which anticipates the romantic philosophy of Shelley and Keats.  

Clearly Austen was aware of the stimulus of fall’s brisk, invigorating weather; she begins five of her six novels in autumn, the exception being Northanger AbbeyPride and Prejudice both begins and concludes in the fall season, hence the five seasons of my title.  And this setting does not contain the traditional associations which depict fall as a season of decline, a time of lamentation over the loss of the gifts of spring and summer and of foreboding over the impending hardships of winter.  This traditional interpretation can be seen in such earlier works as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73:  “That time of year thou mayst in me behold / When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang / Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,” and in the Autumn section of the eighteenth century poet James Thomson’s The Seasons: “Fled is the blasted Verdure of the Fields; / And, shrunk into their Beds, the flowery Race / Their sunny Robes resign.”  Even Austen’s own Anne Elliot associates the “declining year, with declining happiness,” and, on that familiar autumnal walk to Winthrop, takes a melancholy pleasure in “repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn.”4  Perhaps the passages just quoted above were among them.  

In contrast, the autumn season in Pride and Prejudice functions in the Shelleyian sense as a time of preparation and a foreshadowing of new life and growth.  In “Ode to the West Wind,” Shelley describes this wind as the “breath of Autumn’s being,” driving dead thoughts like withered leaves over the universe to “quicken a new birth!”  The poem concludes with the triumphant line – “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”  

       The novel begins with three different autumn arrivals bringing fresh, new ideas and characters into the hitherto stagnant world of the Bennet family.  The first to arrive is the military regiment, which has established winter headquarters in the neighbouring town of Meryton and whose officers will come to include the dashing, but deceptive, George Wickham, who joins the regiment in November.  The presence of these officers provides Austen with numerous opportunities to satirize the folly of Mrs. Bennet and her younger daughters and to ensnare Elizabeth in the web of pride and prejudice woven by Mr. Wickham.  

       The arrival being discussed in the opening pages of the novel is, of course, that of the wealthy and eligible Charles Bingley and his companions, including his friend Fitzwilliam Darcy. Bingley’s rental of the neighbouring estate of Netherfield has a profound effect on the future lives of both Elizabeth and Jane Bennet, and Austen chooses a very significant time for his arrival. Mrs. Bennet says that he is expected to take possession of the estate by Michaelmas, or September 29th.  The date, the traditional time for the collection of quarterly rents, which would be particularly abundant during the harvest season, is an appropriate reminder both of Bingley’s temporary status in the neighbourhood as a tenant and of the wealth of schemes and activities prompted by his presence.  

       The third arrival is that of the Bennets’ cousin the Reverend William Collins, who comes to visit the family in November on a wife-hunting expedition.  This unusual variation on the fall sporting season will recur in the novel’s conclusion.  Mr. Collins’ comic courtship adventures change the lives of more women than just Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Lucas, whom he succeeds in marrying.  

       Autumn visits, dinner parties, and balls stimulated by these new arrivals develop the novel’s complex plot of love and misunderstanding.  Two particular events demonstrate Austen’s use of the typical rainy autumn weather as a narrative device:  Jane Bennet’s rainy ride to Netherfield and the later ball at Netherfield.  It is Mrs. Bennet, of course, who seizes the opportunity presented by an anticipated rainstorm to send Jane off on horseback to visit the Bingley sisters.  Her mother’s weather instincts prove correct, and Jane’s subsequent cold results in Elizabeth’s impulsive muddy walk to Netherfield to nurse her sister.  This generous act first attracts the secret admiration of Darcy, thus setting up the first major confrontation between both pairs of potential lovers.  The sisters’ impromptu stay not only fulfills Mrs. Bennet’s goal of encouraging the attraction between Jane and Bingley, but it also provides Austen with her first opportunity to juxtapose and reveal the conflicting emotions and personalities of Elizabeth and Darcy.  

       The second event, the highly anticipated Netherfield ball in late November is preceded by days of heavy rain.  This weather foreshadows the effects of the occasion itself, which ultimately dampen the hopes of most of those in attendance.  Elizabeth’s evening is spoiled by the absence of Mr. Wickham and by the persistent attentions and fawning behaviour of Mr. Collins.  And, although pleased by Bingley’s and Jane’s obvious delight in each other’s company, she is pained by the folly of her mother and younger sisters and the cynical indifference of her father.  The evening’s events also sufficiently alarm Darcy and the Bingley sisters (for different reasons) that they encourage the entire Netherfield party’s immediate departure from the dangerous charms of Longbourn to the safety of London.  

       This late autumn departure, plus the news of Mr. Collins’ engagement to Charlotte Lucas, does inspire some traditional autumnal lamentation.  Jane and Elizabeth unobtrusively mourn the loss of Bingley, while Mrs. Bennet constantly and openly complains of the frustration of all her matrimonial schemes.  As she tells her sister-in-law Mrs. Gardiner, “It makes me very nervous and poorly, to be thwarted so in my own family, and to have neighbours who think of themselves before anybody else.  However, your coming just at this time is the greatest of comforts, and I am very glad to hear what you tell us, of long sleeves” (III, p. 140).  Only later will the comic irony of these laments be apparent.  

       This mournful mood ushers in what appears to be a traditional winter of discontent for the Bennet family.  Certainly disappointed hopes and frustrated ambitions are usually associated with winter.  But the seeds of love which were nurtured by the autumn’s activities are not dead, merely awaiting the revitalization of the succeeding seasons to grow into blossom.  Ironically, the events of this apparently bleak winter’s season stimulates some of this rebirth.  

       The Gardiners’ Christmas visit offers more comfort than just the latest fashion news.  The discovery of Mrs. Gardiner’s familiarity with the neighbourhood of Derbyshire and her valuable, though unheeded, advice about the dangers of Elizabeth’s flirtation with Wickham foreshadow narrative developments of the following summer.  

       Jane’s return to London with the Gardiners also has several positive results.  Her London visit gives her a respite from the immediate sources of her embarrassment and disappointment at Longbourn, and it forces her to recognize the true nature of the Bingley sisters’ friendship.

The second important winter episode is the January wedding of Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins.  Igor Webb, in discussing this marriage in an entirely different context – that of economics – calls the Collinses’ union “a barren, emotionally chilling” marriage.5  These adjectives, so appropriate for the season, confirm that Austen was able to suggest the relationship between season and narrative to her readers without resorting to the detailed descriptions of the later Romantic novelists.  But the Collinses’ cold, pragmatic marriage does contain unsuspected organic opportunities.  The bride’s move to Hunsford Parsonage in Kent provides an opportunity for her friend Elizabeth to broaden her experience and understanding.  At the time of the wedding, the possibility of Elizabeth’s accepting Charlotte’s invitation to visit would seem remote.  However, the departures of the Netherfield party, Jane, and Charlotte, in addition to Wickham’s defection to pay court to an heiress, eliminate all sources of comfort or amusement from Elizabeth’s world.  A winter spent isolated amid the noise and folly of Longbourn renders any removal from home appealing to Elizabeth, and she becomes quite willing to make a springtime visit to the Collinses.  Spring, indeed, has not been far behind this deceptively bleak winter.  

In both the traditional and Romantic views, “Sweet lovers love the spring.”  But spring does not appear to be sweet for the lovers in Pride and Prejudice.  Jane remains in London, tantalized by the nearness of Bingley and tormented by his silence.  She is given no hint that the prospects for her future happiness are, in reality, being revived during that very time by her sister’s March journey.  

Elizabeth’s spring appears just as unpromising.  At Hunsford, she is subjected to the complacencies and compromises of the Collinses’ marriage, the arrogant patronage of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and the unwelcome presence of Darcy.  Elizabeth’s attitude toward Darcy does seem to be yielding to the softening influences of the season during their “accidental” meetings on her walks in the grounds of the Parsonage.  Ironically, this new warmth is extinguished on another spring walk when Colonel Fitzwilliam confirms all her suspicions about Darcy’s role in separating Jane and Bingley.  Patricia N. Hill contends that Austen’s use of nature in these and later Hunsford scenes suggests a growing awareness of the potentials of setting and that Elizabeth’s appreciation of the beauties of Hunsford foreshadows her even greater response to Pemberley.6  

       Darcy’s unexpected proposal, which immediately follows Colonel Fitzwilliam’s revelation, unleashes all of Elizabeth’s revived past and present resentment.  Her bitter rejection seems destined to kill Darcy’s April love, but the accusations she flings at him demand a response.  The revelations in his letter of explanation, read by Elizabeth in the springtime beauty of Rosings Park, signal the beginning of a new stage of development for the couple.

Elizabeth’s visit has been more productive than she yet imagines.  Darcy leaves, stung by her charges, to re-evaluate his actions.  Elizabeth herself has come to a more rational understanding of her friend’s marriage, the characters of both Darcy and Wickham, and her own behaviour.  She returns to Longbourn, however, with no expectations for the future beyond her summer excursion with the Gardiners.  And she needs this promise of escape to deal with the still flourishing folly of her mother and younger sisters.  If Elizabeth had listened carefully to Lydia’s seemingly pointless chatter on the carriage ride to Longbourn, she might have gained some clues that the spring season had not been so bitter for all lovers and that the springtime showers of tears over the regiment’s May departure for summer quarters may hint of a more serious storm to come.  

Thus, Austen practises ironic reversal in treating this season and the succeeding summer, and reversal, according to Dvora Zelicovici, is “the major shaping principle of the novel.”7  Her characters find none of the joys usually associated with these seasons, only continued discomfort and fresh disaster.  Yet, in actuality, the events of both seasons contain the potential of the traditional associations of new life, rebirth, and maturity.  Just as the excitement and hope inspired by the past autumn arrivals was deflated by the disappointments of the ensuing winter, so the spring and summer’s misfortunes will produce unimagined good fortune in the following autumn.  

Lydia’s ecstatic departure for the regiment’s summer headquarters in Brighton is the first step toward this reversal.  Elizabeth, Darcy’s valid criticisms of her family still fresh in her mind, has advised her father to refuse permission for this expedition.  But Mr. Bennet gives his consent, explaining with his usual philosophical detachment: “Lydia will never be easy till she has exposed herself in some public place or other, and we can never expect her to do it with so little expense or inconvenience to her family as under the present circumstances” (III, p. 230).  Lydia’s late summer elopement will reveal just how expensive and inconvenient ignoring Elizabeth’s warning will prove.  

Ironically, Elizabeth’s initial expectations about her own summer’s expedition to the Lake District are excessively optimistic.  On her brief spring stopover in London, in her bitterness over the winter’s disappointments and her desire to escape the folly and pettiness of her society, she has enthusiastically exclaimed, “What are men to rocks and mountains?” (III, p. 154).  Austen, however, will not allow her heroine to escape from her fellow men into the wilds of nature.  She sends her instead to Derbyshire which, as John Pikoulis points out, is significantly between the romantic splendour of the northern lakes and the fashionable world of the South.8  And Elizabeth’s graceful accommodation to the change of plans bodes well for her future: “It was her business to be satisfied” – and “certainly her temper to be happy” (III, p. 239).  She will eventually discover that the summer tour of Darcy’s home county is more than adequate compensation for the disappointments which precede it.  

Elizabeth’s unexpected and awkward encounter with Darcy at Pemberley in August proves that they have both profited from their springtime revelations.  She is receptive to the tasteful beauties of his estate, the glowing endorsement of his housekeeper, and his own decidedly improved manners.  He displays a genial hospitality which contrasts favourably with his earlier proud behaviour.  Austen utilizes the summer sport of fishing to demonstrate Darcy’s reformation.  Darcy insists that Mr. Gardiner, Elizabeth’s once-disdained uncle in trade, fish at Pemberley “as often as he chose … offering at the same time to supply him with fishing tackle” (III, p. 255).  Fishing is, in fact, a good metaphor for Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s behaviour during this encounter.  Both are testing the waters after their springtime clash, and both are angling for an encouraging response from the other.  The warmth of Darcy’s manner certainly nourishes Elizabeth’s hopes for a renewal of his addresses.  

       But, of course, these expectations are soon blighted.  The sudden summer storm of emotions provoked by the news of Lydia’s elopement with Wickham casts a wintry chill on Elizabeth’s growing dreams.  She returns to Longbourn, where she is confronted with her parents’ fruitless reactions to Lydia’s situation and by a distraught Jane, whose summer has already been barren enough.  She has been babysitting the Gardiners’ children in the company of a mother who expects, and indeed seems to hope, that she will die from disappointed love.  There is ironic reversal in Elizabeth’s assumption, apparently confirmed by Lady Catherine’s frosty visit, that the elopement will end her relationship with Darcy when it actually has the opposite effect.

The final resolution of the novel’s love affairs takes place in the same season which witnessed their commencement.  Joseph Allen Boone observes that Austen uses the circular repetition to convey a sense of the protagonists’ growth, and Joseph Wiesenfarth contends that the novel begins again in Volume Three with a repetition of the opening pages of Volume One.9  Austen does conclude the seasonal cycle with the organic force of another autumn’s arrivals, and these arrivals are essentially the same.  There are, however, subtle, but telling, differences.  This is not Shelley’s wind of “new birth,” but rather an autumn season such as Keats describes in “Ode to Autumn,” filled with “mellow fruitfulness,” prospects of continued development, and well-deserved celebration after the traumas of the previous seasons.  

Wickham returns, not as the dashing, eligible officer, but as Lydia’s husband.  Although the couple is seemingly unchanged and shamelessly celebrates their marriage, they have changed in the eyes of the principal characters.  Collins reappears only in the form of his sanctimonious letter, but his reference to the prospective “olive branch” proves that there is a type of organicism even in his loveless marriage.  

Austen employs the traditional fall sporting season to bring Darcy and Bingley back to Meryton, ostensibly for a few weeks of autumn shooting.  There is marvellous comic irony in Mrs. Bennet’s offering the two young men hunting privileges on Mr. Bennet’s property, for both do indeed hunt there successfully.  Bingley has no problem in obtaining Jane’s hand, and Darcy, to use my other autumn metaphor, reaps the harvest of his new-found tolerance when Elizabeth accepts his second proposal in the autumn beauty of Lucas Lane.  

Autumn celebration abounds.  Elizabeth writes her Aunt Gardiner: “I am happier even than Jane; she only smiles, I laugh” (III, p. 383).  And Mrs. Bennet’s ecstasies even exceed her earlier autumnal laments: “Three daughters married!  Ten thousand a year!  Oh, Lord! What will become of me.  I shall go distracted” (III, p. 378).  

Once again autumn arrivals lead to departures, but these departures produce no lamentations.  The late autumn weddings of Elizabeth and Darcy and Jane and Bingley signal the movement of the two sisters to a new centre of activity.  Both couples leave the Bennets’ sphere of sterile foolishness and indolence and settle in the neighbourhood of Pemberley.  In this organic setting, the beneficial results of the couples’ newly acquired knowledge of themselves and their world accrue to those individuals open to such influence, namely the younger sisters Georgiana and Kitty.  Even Mr. Bennet enjoys visiting, “especially when he was least expected” (III, p. 385).  The Gardiners are again expected for a Christmas visit; this holiday, however, they will spend at Pemberley, the physical embodiment of the tasteful sense of order of the eighteenth century and the natural beauties beloved by the Romantic age.  

       This autumn’s glorious harvest fulfills the promise of the first autumn.  The seasonal cycle of the novel is complete, but the organicism found in the final episodes suggests that this cycle – with its growth, renewal, and even ironic reversals – is endless.  Through her ingenious treatment of seasonal expectation, Austen has created a narrative which offers continued revelations not only for its characters, but also for its readers.   


1 Joseph A. Kestner, Jane Austen: Spatial Structure of Thematic Variation (Salzburg, Austria: Institut fur Englische Sprache und Literatur, Universitat Salzburg, 1974), p. 3; and Andrew Wright, Fictional Discourse and Historical Space (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987), p. 50.    

2 R. W. Chapman’s Chronology, in Vol. III, Appendix A of the Oxford Edition was of general use in this study.  His identification of specific dates and calendar years has been questioned.  See Ralph Nash, “The Time Schedule for Pride and Prejudice,” ELN, 4 (1967), pp. 194-98.   

3 Susan Morgan, In The Meantime (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 170; and Stuart M. Tave, Some Words of Jane Austen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), p. 10.    

4 Jane Austen, Persuasion, The Novels of Jane Austen, ed, R. W. Chapman, 3rd ed., 6 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1933-69), V, 884-85.  Further references in the text are to this edition.   

5 Igor Webb, From Custom to Capital.  The English Novel and the Industrial Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), p. 172. 

6 Patricia N. Hill,  “The Function of Setting in Jane Austen’s Novels,” Diss. Auburn University (1971), pp. 94, 97.   

7 Dvora Zelicovici, “Reversal in Pride and Prejudice,” Studies in Humanities, 12 (1985), p. 106.   

8 John Pikoulis, “Jane Austen: The Figure in the Carpet,” NCF, 1 (June 1972), p. 46.   

9 Joseph Allen Boone, Tradition Counter Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 117; and Joseph Wiesenfarth, “Austen and Apollo,” in Jane Austen Today, ed. Joel Weinsheimer (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1975), p. 52.

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