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“What Are Men to Rocks and Mountains?” Examining Environment in the Proposals and Courtships of Pride and Prejudice

When Mrs. Gardiner asks her niece Elizabeth to join herself and her husband on a summer tour of the Lake District, Elizabeth’s joyous reply contains the not-entirely rhetorical question, “What are men to rocks and mountains?” (146). Coming from Elizabeth Bennet, the question could easily be rephrased as, “what are men to freedom and independence?” In Pride and Prejudice, the environments and settings of the multiple proposals and courtships provide a subtle commentary from Austen on the manner of relationships her characters build together. Thus, it is inevitable that readers observe courtships and proposals where the indoors represents the essence of naturally restricting marriages while the outdoors acts as a symbol for independence and open-mindedness.

In her examination of space in Pride and Prejudice, the critic Lisa Hopkins states that “houses can be claustrophobic” for both men and women. Houses play a significant role in the proposals and courtships of Jane and Bingley and Charlotte and Mr. Collins, so it is best to begin an investigation of environment through their relationships. These couples are representative of two patterns in marriages, a love story and a marriage of convenience. Bingley and Jane exemplify the former. Their courtship takes place primarily within ballrooms and country houses (locations ideal for budding romance), culminating in Bingley proposing to Jane while they are indoors (326). It can be assumed that, in the same vein as their courtship, their marriage will follow in the path of traditional unions of Austen’s time, with the home as the principal environment of the woman and the center around which the marriage revolves. The clearest indication of this is when Elizabeth comes upon “her sister and Bingley standing together over the hearth” before Jane reveals they are now engaged (326). Austen could not write the implications of this scene more overtly. Jane and Bingley’s home-based relationship is cemented and acknowledged before a hearth, the unrivaled symbol of the home since antiquity.

Turning to Charlotte and Mr. Collins, Austen states that Mr. Collins’s proposal is in a lane (116). While it does take place outside, the setting of a lane strongly symbolizes narrowmindedness and restrictions. Charlotte and Mr. Collins’s subsequent marriage is then based on mutual gain and tolerance of each other’s company, especially on Charlotte’s side, though even she occasionally blushes at her husband’s tactless excess of pomp (148). Truly, it is impractical to expect anything more of an agreement made in such a narrow, confining place. The very wording of the scene is reminiscent of a business arrangement, with Austen writing that “everything was settled between [Charlotte and Mr. Collins] to the satisfaction of both” (116). Even Mr. Collins’ idealized visions of love are not enough to produce heartfelt affection, instead shrouding their home in the ghostly drapings of love’s shadow.

Austen wrote during an era when a woman’s place in the social hierarchy was largely considered to be in the home and shouldering domestic responsibility. Elizabeth Bennet stands out as a woman who subtly defies these expectations. Through her own acknowledgment to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Elizabeth does not play the piano well nor does she draw (155). These are home-based skills which, both by Lady Catherine’s and Miss Bingley’s decree, are the marks of an “accomplished woman” (35). Under their estimation, Elizabeth cannot be called such. Her family, too, does not meet this particular mark of respectability, as is declared first by Miss Bingley (48), then Darcy (182), and finally Lady Catherine (338). Lady Catherine, during her visit to Longbourn, also remarks upon the “prettyish kind of a little wilderness on one side of [the] lawn” (332), which can be read as an indirect pejorative aimed at the slightly unrefined Bennet girls. Moreover, both Elizabeth and her younger sister Lydia are referred to as “wild” a number of times in the text. With Lydia, this label is meant to imply that she is an irresponsible flirt whereas Elizabeth can claim the more worthy quality of being independent.

Elizabeth’s more liberal nature is prominently reflected in her enjoyment in being outdoors and walking unchaperoned. It is an aspect of her character which is disparaged by her supposedly more elegant peers. Her walk to Netherfield is scorned by Bingley’s sisters, causing them to claim disdainfully out of her hearing that “She has nothing, in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent walker” (32). Darcy, also admitting to the impropriety of this, then adds that those “fine eyes” he so admires were all the more striking for being “brightened by the exercise” (32); he, apparently, does not condemn equity and open-mindedness in one’s spouse, not when they seem to add such vivacity to the expression of the woman he admires. It is one of the earliest suggestions that the “conceited independence” (32) of Elizabeth Bennet is a feature of her character which Darcy finds intriguing, much to the irritation of Miss Bingley. She herself attempts to attract Darcy’s attention by walking around the drawing-room during Elizabeth’s stay at Netherfield in an amusing parody of Elizabeth’s ramblings. “Her [Miss Bingley’s] figure was elegant, and she walked well,” but it is in vain, for “Darcy, at whom it was all aimed, was still inflexibly studious” (51). Miss Bingley gains nothing from her attempted flirtation except humiliating herself and an even clearer indication that it is Elizabeth’s authenticity which Darcy finds attractive, for when she convinces Elizabeth to join her in walking about the room, the previously inflexible Darcy finds himself suddenly unable to resist watching them (52).

Darcy believes he understands Elizabeth, as implied during their exchange of witticisms at Netherfield (52 – 54) and at Rosings (164 – 166). Yet it is a sign of how painfully Darcy misjudges Elizabeth’s character that, when he makes his initial proposal to her at the Hunsford Parsonage, he expects her to accept him after he clearly states his awareness of “her inferiority—of its being a degradation” (178). Elizabeth’s established desire for autonomy, respect, love, and equity in marriage—already displayed in her adamant refusal of Mr. Collins’s proposal (102)—makes it unsurprising that she is unwilling to enter into a marriage where, in the words of Mr. Bennet, “[she] could be neither happy nor respectable, unless [she] truly esteemed [her] husband” (356). Adding to Darcy’s disregard for her financial and social status is the fact that his fortune far exceeds her own. This has every potential of leading to feelings of imbalance and dependency in a marriage with him, which would defeat Elizabeth’s goals for her married life. A further noteworthy detail is that, while Elizabeth’s dislike of Darcy is prominent in her thoughts, as are his many perceived injustices, there is the subconscious awareness this proposal is taking place within the confines of a house. As a woman, Elizabeth is aware of the latent symbolism of domestic confinement this represents, just as she must have been when Mr. Collins proposed to her in the breakfast room at Longbourn (99 – 104). Now, she is faced by a proposal equally inconsiderate of her desires as an autonomous woman taking place in the very house which would have become her marital prison if she had accepted Mr. Collins’ similarly constricting proposal. Even Darcy feels confined by the limiting space. When he came to see her, “He sat down for a few moments, and then getting up walked about the room” (178) and at her refusal he “hastily left” (183). Hopkins explains this by writing that “Under the pressure of strong emotion, the walls of the house press down” on men just as much as women. This caging environment makes it clear that for Elizabeth to accept Darcy’s offer at this stage in their relationship would lead not to a marriage where each recognizes the other’s value over time, but rather result in a matrimony where resentment is an ever-present threat to any happiness they might find together.

Elizabeth and Darcy’s last encounter that spring is in the grove at the edge of the park where Elizabeth spent many happy walks during her stay with the Collinses (171). It is here that Darcy gives her the letter explaining his role in separating Jane and Bingley and his previous history with Wickham (184). To accompany this scene of parting, Austen writes that “every day was adding to the verdure of the early trees” (184). However, the adamant refusal of the previous evening has defeated any hopes of a spring-time wedding, when love is said to be at its strongest. Yet with the coming of spring there is hope and renewal. The contents of Darcy’s letter have confused Elizabeth’s opinions of him while making her acutely aware of the injustice of her accusations regarding Wickham. This plants both the seeds of hope for a revival of their relationship and for a renewal of Elizabeth’s character. This is the spring where she leaves behind her youthful prejudices, blossoming and maturing into a more broad-minded individual.

Four months later, Elizabeth has the opportunity to witness firsthand the extent of Darcy's wealth when she visits Pemberley with her aunt and uncle. Her first view of Pemberley is the beginning of the turning point in her relationship with Darcy:

The eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House . . . It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills;—and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place where nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. (228)

Since her refusal of Darcy in March, Elizabeth’s understanding of his character has altered, though her desire for a relationship based on equity remains intact. As, apparently, does her love of the outdoors. Her delight at seeing Pemberley is not solely based upon the grandeur of the house but the area as a whole. She later confides to Jane that she became conscious of her growing love for Darcy on “first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley” (353). While before her views of Darcy were limited to knowing he had an expensive home and large fortune, she can now see him as a whole person, independent of the confining, domestic marriage he previously represented. She likewise realizes that, while marrying Darcy would have inevitably involved numerous responsibilities as mistress of Pemberley, this would have been balanced by the authority which came with that position (229). Seeing Pemberley in all its natural and constructed splendor gives Elizabeth the opportunity to acknowledge that a marriage with Darcy could be one based on autonomy as well as companionship.

Their hesitant courtship at Pemberley is short-lived, yet it leaves the impression of Pemberley fleetingly taking on the role of a Garden of Eden, a Paradise where Darcy and Elizabeth can, briefly, see each other in a humble and unprejudiced way. There are no previous obligations between them, no debts that must be acknowledged and thanked. Essentially, they are meeting each other anew. They may begin their courtship as if that, too, were fresh, while still taking to heart what they have learned from the errors of their previous meetings. Their walk in the woods at Pemberley acts as a metaphor for their muddled thoughts and feelings (239), but walking side by side, as equals, they manage to come to a tentative understanding of each other. However, before this growing knowledge can be thoroughly explored, their time together is broken by news of an unforeseen temptation, Lydia’s seduction by Wickham.

The intervening drama separates Elizabeth and Darcy for up to six weeks, after which they are once again united. During Darcy’s second proposal to Elizabeth as they walk in the Hertfordshire countryside, Elizabeth teases him that “You must learn some of my philosophy. Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure” (348). This is a strategic statement for Elizabeth to make. Forgetting the shameful moments of her relationship with Darcy allows her to overlook the debt of gratitude her family owes him for the crucial role he played in Lydia and Wickham’s marriage, sacrificing his highly valued pride (53) in the process (307). Yet it is a statement which defeats the ultimate purpose of Darcy and Elizabeth’s troublesome romance, that they must first see the worst in each other in order to feel sincere respect and affection. Elizabeth’s willingness to forget the unpleasantness of their past puts her in danger of appearing to marry Darcy for wealth and out of feelings of obligation rather than genuine love. She frankly admits to Jane that her feelings for Darcy grew in concurrence with her admiration for his “beautiful grounds” (353). Yet the outdoors is a symbol for independence. Thus, it is not the wealth that attracts Elizabeth; it is the prevalent sense of equity Pemberley stands for. She is not marrying Darcy out of a mercenary craving for his wealth, as suggested by Lady Catherine (338), but with the hope of realizing her dream of a marriage where she is not seen merely as a decorative extension of her husband, which is what Mr. Collins had desired her to be (101).

Despite this, Elizabeth and Darcy do come dangerously close to misunderstanding each other and falling into a marriage born of obligation or simple parting ways, for their walk first takes them to Lucas Lodge (345), the place where Charlotte and Mr. Collins’ made their agreements on marriage. They pause there, then continue beyond, “without knowing in what direction” (346), and are thus able to avert dispute as they enter the countryside and an enlightening conversation on the fluctuations of their tempestuous courtship (345 - 351). An equally significant facet of this proposal is that Darcy offers Elizabeth a choice, rather than arrogantly expecting her to accept him. He says, “My affections and wishes are unchanged; but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever” (346). It is an indication of his development into a person who has respect for the feelings and opinions of others, suggestions which are echoed in the natural environment surrounding them, the setting for this second proposal which results in the happy marriage both have been wishing for.

Perhaps the greatest suggestion that Austen views the outdoors as representing more open-minded and happy relationships is seen through Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner. It is easy to see how their surname relates to the words “garden” and “gardener.” They are a married couple who represent a strong, healthy, happy marriage, taking pleasure in each other’s company while harboring high esteem for each other. They are crucial characters in Elizabeth and Darcy’s reunion and helping them develop a stronger connection. Their names, too, symbolize how love, like a garden, must be cultivated. Charlotte and Mr. Collins find it convenient to be married, with Charlotte desiring security through marrying a man of comfortable economic means (120) and Mr. Collins, as a clergyman, to “set the example of matrimony” (100) and simultaneously please his patron, Lady Catherine (101). Perhaps, though, if Charlotte had joined Mr. Collins in tending to the garden at Hunsford Parsonage which he is so devoted to (148), they might have found greater success in love. It can also be argued that neither Jane nor Bingley exert themselves, instead expecting their love to be self-evident. It is only when they speak openly with each other that they can allow their already existing affection to flourish. Considering how the Gardiners welcome Jane to their home when she goes to London in hopes of seeing Bingley (139), their efforts in finding Wickham (276), and being “the means of uniting” Elizabeth and Darcy (368), they are truly “gardeners,” watching over the relationships of their nieces. This is cemented by a final detail: their home in London, on Gracechurch Street. It is a name which historically derives from “grass-church” (Sanborn). With a church as the place of union and grass as a mark for the natural world, the Gardiners’ home acts as a final, subtle sign for how the marriages and courtships of Pride and Prejudice are tended to by the devoted Gardiners, who themselves represent the benefits of nurturing strong relationships and love while embodying the freedom and equality signified by the natural world.

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