2013 Jane Austen Society of North America
Topic: Time in Pride and Prejudice
Though Pride and Prejudice may be regarded as timeless, nevertheless within the novel Austen plots her time very carefully. Timing is everything for important relationships and events. And the characters are deeply connected to the time in which they live, which is both like and unlike our times. What do we discover about time, times, or timeliness from reading Pride and Prejudice?
Time of the Season: Time as an Expression of the Individual in Pride and Prejudice
By Mackenzie A. Broderick
Though Jane Austen wrote during a time of immense social and political upheaval, her novels remain focused on microcosmic rather than macrocosmic shifts—“the little bit (two Inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush” she wrote to her nephew, James-Edward (Hannon 228). But besides witnessing the Revolutionary Era, Austen also witnessed the nascent Romantic period; William Blake was distributing his seminal The Marriage of Heaven and Hell two years before Austen was born (Nurmi 558); Lord Byron dazzled and scandalized London society while Austen was polishing First Impressions (Hannon 103); Charlotte Brontë was born in 1816, the same year Emma was published. And Brontë, perhaps the female epitome of the Romantic writer, described Austen’s work as a “carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck” (Hannon 225). Indeed, Austen’s pragmatic prose seem to have little in common with the passionate style the characterized the Romantic artists—but a deeper examination of Pride and Prejudice reveals that Austen wrote more pioneering story than immediately apparent. For the Romantics, nature played an integral role in the life of man, and in Pride and Prejudice, the passing of time and the subsequent change in the seasons comes to reveal the pivotal changes that occur in the important relationships and minds in the novel—time shows itself to be an illuminator of truths.
The action of Pride and Prejudice occurs over roughly the span of year; each season, as well as the London Season, reflects the changes that time inflict upon the relationships of the major characters. The novel opens around Michaelmas—near the end of September—and thus, the beginning of autumn, the season of the harvest. Indeed, the beginning of Pride and Prejudice throws the reader into a slew of events coming to fruition; the Bennets must now reap the misfortune of having sowed no son—“Mr. Bennet’s property consisted almost entirely in an estate of two thousand a year, which, unfortunately for his daughters, was entailed in default of heirs male” (Austen 61); Bingley, after scouring the countryside, has finally decided upon a home—“ ‘Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England’” (Austen 29). By having autumn as a backdrop, Austen is able to convey the idea that—even before the story began—every character’s life is thoroughly occupied. But, in keeping with a theme present throughout the novel, time has vastly different implications for the upper and lower classes, and for men and women; Bingley and Darcy view the autumn as a time for sports such as shooting (Austen 46), while Mr. Bennet must worry about the activity of the farmers of Longbourn; “ ‘Your father cannot possibly spare the horses, I am sure. They are wanted in the farm, Mr. Bennet, are they not?’” (Austen 65). For men of all incomes, however, the autumn is the time for robust activity, while for the women, domestic tasks remained the focus of daily life. Therefore, Lizzy’s trek to Netherfield is viewed by the Bingley sisters as not only a social misstep, but a flagrant disregard for the natural place of women; “ ‘It seems to me to shew an abominable sort of conceited independence’” (Austen 70). By creating a heroine out of a woman attuned with the natural world, Austen proved herself to be ahead of her own time, and more like the Romantics of the future than the Moralists of the past.
But autumn is also a presage to the barren winter, and the waning season sees the decline of Darcy’s character and his friendship with Bingley. Until their arrival at Hertfordshire, their friendship has been characterized as being “Very steady […] in spite of a great opposition of character” (Austen 48). Jane Bennet, however, becomes an apple of discord between them—“ ‘If they [Jane and Elizabeth] had uncles enough to fill all of Cheapside […] it would not make them one jot less agreeable’” (Austen 71)—one which forces Darcy to begin manipulating his friend.
The seasons of friendship play out in a variety of ways within the novel; the relationship between Lizzy and Charlotte can be viewed as a foil to that of Darcy and Bingley. Both Elizabeth and Darcy hold their friends to high standards—“ ‘There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well’” (Austen 175)—though the passing of time reveals that Elizabeth’s indignation with Charlotte’s upcoming nuptials has foundation (Austen 175) while Darcy’s is misguided, as Bingley truly does love Jane (Austen 387). Time exposes the malleability of opinions and even personalities, for While Darcy and Elizabeth are convinced of the truth of their opinions, those opinions are not irrevocable. Though Darcy’s reputation withers faster than autumn leaves in the eyes of Elizabeth and Meryton at the hands of Wickham (Austen 178), Lizzy later learns that “ ‘One has got all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it’” (Austen 264).
But time must pass before revealing such truths. As autumn wanes into winter, a frost descends not only over Hertfordshire but over the principle relationships as well; The Bingleys and Darcy suddenly depart (Austen 171), Charlotte goes through with her marriage to the odious Mr. Collins (Austen 186), Wickham shifts his attentions away from Elizabeth to Miss King (Austen 189), Mrs. Bennet’s anger over her daughter’s refusal shows no sign of thawing (Austen 177), and even the bond between Lizzy and Jane grows strained under separation and the latter’s reluctance to admit to depth of her sorrow over Bingley’s absence (Austen 187). Austen, though, glazes over this period; “With no greater events than these in the Longbourn family […] did January and February pass away” (Austen 191). There is some irony to this, as during this time of the year, the London Season would be beginning—normally a period of great excitement and action; by keeping her heroine bored at home, Austen further characterizes the Bennets as only the barest members of the gentry of their time.
It is interesting to note, then, that a young man of Darcy’s considerable fortune and social status would be spending an integral part of the Season visiting his elderly aunt during the spring (Austen 210); this reflects the differing views held by men and women in regards to time spent with others. While Lizzy sees her visit to Charlotte as a gift bestowed from friendship—“Absence had increased her desire of seeing Charlotte again” (Austen 191)—Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam view their perfunctory visit as stemming from duty, to family and to tradition; “Lady Catherine; who talked of his [Darcy] coming with the greatest satisfaction” (Austen 210). But spring provides a fertile ground for change. Darcy’s blossoming attraction to Elizabeth is reflected in the time of the season—“Gentlemen cannot always be within doors; and in the nearness of the Parsonage […] the two cousins found a temptation from this period of walking thither almost every day” (Austen 221). He has not been able to conquer his feelings, despite distance and time; his love can be seen as inevitable as the season. And Elizabeth makes the mistake of continuing to see Darcy as only a haughty figure, instead of a multi-faceted man—she does not understand the significance of his decision to spend more time alone with her: “He actually thought it necessary to turn back and walk with her. He never said a great deal, nor did she give herself the trouble of talking or of listening much; but it struck her in the course of their third recontre that he was asking some odd unconnected questions” (Austen 223). For while Darcy does ration his time with duty in mind, it also with deliberateness: Spring—the time of new life, blossoming flowers and mating—draws subtle emphasis to the erotic nature of Darcy’s attraction to Elizabeth. When he admits “ ‘It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed’” (Austen 230), he is speaking not only of love but of more elemental and earthy emotions as well. Due to this confession and the subsequent letter, Darcy re-emerges as a more sympathetic and human character. It is Darcy, previously depicted as stiff and almost awkward, who is the most attuned to the natural cycles of time; in desiring romance and marriage, he conforms exactly to the expectations of the season.
Lizzy, although breaking the cyclical archetype by refusing Darcy (Austen 232), nevertheless undergoes a springtime transformation; Darcy’s letter causes her to question every opinion and attitude she had previously held—“ ‘Till this moment, I never knew myself’” (Austen 249). This character crisis is her re-birth of sorts, as Elizabeth returns to Longborn humbled yet wiser; her admission of “ ‘From knowing [Darcy] better, his disposition was better understood’” (Austen 273) furthers not only the growth of the love story, but of Elizabeth as a young woman. Her rebirth sets her along the path towards apotheosis, a statehood of true and realized heroism, which is further developed as time continues to pass.
The summer is a season for leisure and relaxation, a season to flourish after growth; it provides an ideal backdrop for Lizzy’s holiday with the Gardiners to the Lake District. However, the timing of several key events enables Darcy and Lizzy to meet again; Mr. Gardiner cannot be too long absent from his work (Austen 279), and Darcy visits Pemberley a day earlier than expected. The timing of their visits corresponds exactly—an ingenious plot device, or fate? While at first the meeting between Darcy and Elizabeth seems like an extraordinary coincidence, their synchronized timing can be viewed as a manifestation of their increasing complement. “As [Elizabeth] stood before the canvas, on which [Darcy] was represented, and fixed his eyes upon herself, she thought of his regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before” (Austen 292)—a meeting with the actual so soon after Lizzy’s evaluation of Darcy’s portrait indicates that time is attuned to the desires of the characters. Time is not only a revealer of truths, but an instrument of destiny and, perhaps, the subconscious. In the same way, the season once again reflects the inner-state of the characters; Darcy appears more at-east than during any previous encounter—“Never had he spoken with such gentleness as on this unexpected meeting” (Austen 293)—just as his house is at ease with the summertime; “She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste” (Austen 283). The fair weather and sunshine of summer indicate an equally bright courtship; Darcy and Elizabeth finally cast aside their antagonism in exchange for a growing intimacy (Austen 312). But theirs is not the only burgeoning relationship—summer heat also reflects the lust which brings Wickham and Lydia together. Their elopement (Austen 318) seems to destroy any hope of a second proposal from Darcy; “Elizabeth felt how improbable it was that they should ever see each other again” (Austen 320). Quite suddenly, Pride and Prejudice moves from comedy to tragedy, and the upcoming autumn only confirms this shift, as the fortunes of the Bennets appear to be just what they were at the beginning of the novel—dismal. “ ‘The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison to this’” (Austen 336).
The very real possibility of tragedy lends weight to a novel that, superficially, only appears to be a comedy of manners; Elizabeth’s emotional vulnerability—previously hinted at—emerges at her sister’s betrayal; “She was humbled, she was grieved; she repented, though she hardly knew of what” (Austen 352). Isolated, Elizabeth and Jane seem destined for spinsterhood, as love is thwarted and misfortune prevails. But, at the darkest hour, Lydia returns a married woman and unwittingly reveals her unlikely champion—Darcy (Austen 362). The events at the end of the novel mirror those of the beginning to almost the exact date; Darcy and Bingley’s return completes the yearly-cycle, as time coincides with the inner-most hopes of the protagonist. Darcy’s proposal and its acceptance (Austen 408) break the archetype of the autumn—moreover, their love delays time, by prolonging the Paradise of summer. Elizabeth’s apotheosis is complete, as she at once gains power over time and enters a union with both love and wealth; “[Elizabeth] looked forward with delight to the time when [she and Darcy] should be removed […] to all the comfort and elegance to their family party at Pemberley” (Austen 426).
Time throughout Pride and Prejudice showcases both Austen’s pragmatism and passion; nearly every character changes through the year, revealing the fluidity of human nature. Opinion and prejudices fluctuate, but gradually; Lizzy and Darcy are not fickle, and neither is the love they share—time strengthens it. “His affection was not the work of a day, but had stood the test of many months’ suspense” (Austen 418); Indeed, change is celebrated, as is the individual’s power to mature and grow.
And while Austen and her work cannot be classified as Romantic, the treatment of the seasons in Pride and Prejudice is distinctly innovative, especially in context of the time during which it was written. The passage of time reflects the inner-drama of the characters, from the bustling autumn and bleak winter, to the promise and temptation of spring and summer. Elizabeth and Darcy gain a mastery of time, as their ideal marriage enables them to have within an endless summer, fulfilling the genre codes of romance and comedy as love triumphs. By having nature reflect the lives of those who occupy it, Austen further emphasizes the importance of individual experiences. In Pride and Prejudices, time is ultimately both enlightening and empowering.
Happiness in Marriage: What’s in a Twelve-month?
By Emma M. Brodey
Early in Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas makes a provocative claim to Elizabeth: “If [Jane] were married to [Mr. Bingley] to-morrow, I should think she had as good a chance of happiness as if she were to be studying his character for a twelve-month. Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance” (Austen, 16). In this statement Charlotte connects marital happiness, the study of character, and time. An array of different characters test her hypothesis in the course of the novel, and Austen forces us, through their varied actions, to consider the role of time and character study in proposals and marriages. Not only does Austen test Charlotte’s hypothesis through a variety of characters, she sets up the courtship of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth from meeting to engagement in almost exactly a “twelve-month,” as a test case for the reader to experience. Ultimately, by dividing the novel into two symmetrical “six-months,” Austen shows how Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy lay the foundation for a truly happy marriage.
If Mr. Collins had heard and understood Charlotte’s hypothesis, he would probably have subscribed to it entirely. In the course of eleven days, Collins goes through three potential spouses, fails to study the character of these potential spouses, proposes repetitively without displaying any growth, and simply does not care about whom he marries so much as that he marries somebody. Mr. Collins, with his absurd “mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility” (Austen, 48), does not take the time necessary to study the characters of his prospective brides. His repeated and affected proposals are both comical and enlightening as to his character. Mr. Collins first announces his intentions toward the eldest Bennet sister, Jane on November 18th: “Miss Bennet's lovely face confirmed his views, and established all his strictest notions of what was due to seniority; and for the first evening she was his settled choice” (Austen, 48). He decides this upon seeing Jane, though he knows nothing of her character. Because of this lack of studying, however, the match does not succeed. Had Mr. Collins waited to propose until the ball at Netherfield or even a few days to ascertain Jane’s character, he would have discovered that she was in love. He does not, however, and Mrs. Bennet is forced to point out to him that she may soon be engaged. Unfortunately, Collins does not learn from his mistake. “Mr. Collins had only to change from Jane to Elizabeth—and it was soon done—done while Mrs. Bennet was stirring the fire. Elizabeth, equally next to Jane in birth and beauty, succeeded her of course” (Austen, 48). Though Collins waits longer before proposing to Elizabeth, he fails to use this time in studying her character. His proposal to Elizabeth on November 27th is “less an invitation than a declaration” (Mathews, 248), and “Austen intimates that if Elizabeth had not interjected, he would have presumed, without a word of assent from her, that he had been accepted” (Mathews, 249). Thus, when finally convinced that Elizabeth does not want to marry him, Collins is shocked. Had Mr. Collins truly studied her character, he would have realized that she would not have accepted him. Austen uses Collins’s inability to learn about Elizabeth’s character to show Mr. Collins’s own character. He is obtuse and pompous, and will repeat something over and over again over time without learning anything from his mistakes. True to this characterization, two mornings later on November 29th, Collins makes yet another proposal to Charlotte Lucas and is (somewhat surprisingly) accepted. This is his third intended marriage in eleven days. Mr. Collins does not really care about whom he marries, so long as he marries someone and fulfills his mission for the Lady Catherine to bring home a wife.
Charlotte Lucas can study character perfectly well, but disregards this knowledge in favor of practicality. She rejects the possibility of happiness in a companionate marriage, and instead views marriage as almost like a financial transaction. Charlotte is not only capable of, but does, study Mr. Collins’s character. She is fully aware that “Mr. Collins … was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary” (Austen, 82). Nevertheless, she ignores all of this and accepts his proposal. For Charlotte marriage can provide stability. For Mr. Collins it is to do the bidding of the ever wise and condescending Lady Catherine de Bourgh. It is therefore more like a business transaction than a romance, an advantageous match for the both of them. The character of their partner is somewhat irrelevant to their plans, and therefore their chances of happiness in marriage are severely limited. They have not invested time and effort into a good relationship.
According to MacKinnon and Chapman’s timeline of Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy meets Elizabeth on the 15th of October; his first proposal occurs almost exactly six months later, on April 9th; and his second proposal occurs almost exactly twelve months from when he meets her, on the 6th of October. The first time Darcy proposes to Elizabeth, he has had six months in which to study her character. He fails, however, to have truly and earnestly done so. He is not in love with her character, her wit and tenderness, or her “sweetness and archness” (Austen, 35), but rather her “fine eyes” (Austen, 19, 25, 31). He submits condescendingly to her joking examinations of his character, failing to understand hers. In response to one of these Darcy makes a joking comment that Elizabeth’s defect “is willfully to misunderstand [people]” (Austen, 40). This comment, apt as it may be, Mr. Darcy does not himself mean or believe. Had he put greater thought into this, he might have understood how very astute this comment was at the time. Thus, without truly understanding Elizabeth’s character, he proposes to her and is sure of her acceptance: “He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance expressed real security” (Austen, 123). Darcy’s improper use of the six months he has had with Elizabeth prevents him from understanding that she will not accept him. As yet, he lacks the real desire to appreciate Elizabeth’s character.
While it is always dangerous to consider hypothetical situations within a fiction, it seems that Austen might have purposefully created a contrast between Darcy’s proposal at six months and his proposal at twelve months. How would this “first marriage” have turned out, had Elizabeth accepted Mr. Darcy’s first proposal? If she had accepted him, their marriage could only have been a very different one from the one that actually occurs. At the time of this proposal, Darcy and Elizabeth have as yet failed to understand one another’s character. If this hypothetical first marriage had occurred, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth’s marriage would have been one founded without respect or understanding, and might have grown worse over time as resentment grew. Even though Elizabeth would eventually have realized Mr. Darcy’s goodness, she could have felt nothing but defeat at her error rather than the gratitude she later feels. Austen means for us to envision this hypothetical marriage, contrasting it to the one that occurs six months later. Austen fully demonstrates that this “twelve-month” of courtship and character study is necessary to the marital happiness of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.
The next time Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth, he has learned from his mistakes. Our first indication of this is that when he finds Elizabeth at Pemberley, he makes efforts to seek her out and introduce her to his little sister Georgiana, showing his determination to reform himself and get to know her better. The two of them spend time together at Pemberley and later at Longbourn, allowing them to get to know one another and one another’s families. He has learned that to earn Elizabeth’s respect he must study her character more accurately and help her to understand his own. By the time the twelve-month has nearly passed, he proposes and “Elizabeth … immediately, though not very fluently, [gives] him to understand that her sentiments [have] undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances” (Austen, 235). Darcy fails at first in his proposal after six months, but with the proper employment of a twelve-month he is able to learn and succeed.
In the first “six-month” of Elizabeth Bennet’s acquaintance with Mr. Darcy, she is extremely prejudiced against him. Elizabeth has a set of problems almost the opposite of Mr. Darcy’s. She begins to study Mr. Darcy’s character from the beginning of their time together, but hopelessly misunderstands him almost from the moment of their meeting. As she expresses when Mr. Darcy first proposes to her, "From the very beginning, from the first moment I may almost say, of my acquaintance with you, ... I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry" (Austen, 126). Though character study is not lacking in Elizabeth, her manner of going about it is flawed. Because Elizabeth is unwilling to admit that she could be wrong in her interpretation, her character study may as well not have taken place.
Just as Elizabeth’s receiving Mr. Darcy’s letter is the turning point in their romance, it is also the exact middle of the book (Bonaparte, 141) and the turning point in Elizabeth’s character study. The whole of chapter thirteen in Volume Two is devoted to Elizabeth’s many readings of the letter Mr. Darcy hands her after his proposal. “With a strong prejudice against every thing he might say, she began his account of what had happened at Netherfield” (Austen, 132). She at first is disinclined to believe much of what he says, leaning on her past impressions of Darcy. After reading it she “put it hastily away, protesting that she would not regard it, that she would never look in it again … but it would not do; in half a minute the letter was unfolded again, and collecting herself as well as she could, … commanded herself so far as to examine the meaning of every sentence” (Austen, 133). Elizabeth goes back and repeats her reading, willing to reconsider. “Again she read on. But every line proved more clearly that the affair, which she had believed it impossible that any contrivance could so represent as to render Mr. Darcy's conduct in it less than infamous, was capable of a turn which must make him entirely blameless throughout the whole” (Austen, 133). Instead of sticking blindly to her prejudice, Elizabeth is able to admit that she might have been wrong. Eventually, “[s]he grew absolutely ashamed of herself.—Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think, without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd” (Austen, 135). Over the course of a morning, Elizabeth is willing to read Mr. Darcy’s letter multiple times and gain something new out of it each time. Unlike Mr. Collins’s proposals, these readings are not all the same. Each is different, and more accurate than the last. In reading this letter, Elizabeth is not only trying to understand it, but to understand Fitzwilliam Darcy himself.
In the second six months after Elizabeth reads Mr. Darcy’s letter so thoroughly, her approach to studying Mr. Darcy’s character is completely changed. Instead of distorting all of his actions to fit her preconceived notions, Elizabeth has learned to view Darcy with an open mind and know that she is not always correct. She is in many ways humbled. Her much improved character study allows her to eventually fall in love with Mr. Darcy, appreciating his true value. The reading of this letter and the forgiving of Mr. Darcy takes the course of a morning, but falling in love with him truly does take the twelve months that Austen provides.
Charlotte’s famous statement is tested by many of the characters in Pride and Prejudice and ultimately refuted. Mr. Collins is unable to study character and has no desire to spend time doing so. Charlotte has the ability to study character but purposefully ignores it. As a result this couple’s potential for happiness is severely limited. Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth use nearly the entire time of the novel (a twelve-month) to study each other’s character. They do not lack ability, but both often misread and need time to revise their opinions. Their marriage, therefore, is a more complex, intimate, and successful one. So in a way Charlotte’s words can be seen as foreshadowing: Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy do spend a twelve-month studying each other’s character. But disproving Charlotte’s statement, they need every day of it. Austen would have us know that happiness in marriage is not a matter of chance. Time is needed, as well as the study of character. Yet character study itself is not enough. The symmetrical time scheme of the novel helps us see that open-minded character study is necessary for true understanding, love, and the fullest marital happiness.
“The Difficulty of Finding Anything To Do”: Two Conceptions of Time in Pride and Prejudice
By David G. Yaffe-Bellany
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.