(guest post by Victoria Grossack)
I always want to play “what-if” with stories. Juliet should not have faked her death; Romeo should not have swallowed the poison, and heck, maybe the Montagues and the Capulets should have ended their feud earlier. So here’s a question: when Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth in Kent, should she have accepted him?
Some will cry out: Of course not! Because in that case we would not have had the second half of Pride & Prejudice (and amazingly, the proposal scene occurs at the exact midpoint of the story). And the second half, in which Elizabeth revises her opinion and Darcy atones for all his defects, is absolutely delightful.
But let us put aside the fact that an acceptance by Elizabeth would ruin the story. If you were living in the novel, how would you advise Miss Elizabeth Bennet?
If your primary concern were money, you would recommend that she accept the proposal immediately. We have not seen Pemberley yet, but Mr. Darcy seems to be very rich and Elizabeth Bennet’s expectations are fairly bleak. So if we were to take the attitude of Mrs. Collins, we would tell her to accept the proposal immediately. In fact, Mrs. Collins is one of the few (other than Miss Bingley) who detects Darcy’s interest in Elizabeth, and she is convinced that if Elizabeth knew of his interest in her that her dislike would vanish.
However, money is not everything. It is something, even quite a lot, in the worlds of Jane Austen, but it certainly is not everything. As Mr. Bennet says, “…let me not have the grief of seeing you being unable to respect your partner in life” (Chapter LIX). Mr. Bennet has been unable to respect his life partner for years, and so this is heartfelt. He advises her (after Darcy’s second proposal) to reconsider her answer.
So, let us consider Elizabeth and her relationship with Mr. Darcy at the novel’s midpoint. She has been angry with Mr. Darcy because she believes that he has interfered with respect to the romance between her sister Jane, and she gives this as one of her reasons for refusing him. However, her response may be understandable emotionally, but rationally, it does not make sense. If Elizabeth agrees to marry Darcy, making a match between Jane and Bingley is going to be pretty easy. So saying yes would make her both rich and would benefit her dear sister.
The second reason she gives for refusing him is his treatment of Wickham. But Wickham has not been treated badly by Darcy; Wickham is, in fact, a colossal liar. So this is also not a particularly good reason for refusing the proposal. So far we have three reasons for accepting the proposal, and none against.
Yet, I think she was right to refuse him, because what she has seen and heard has given her every reason to think the marriage would turn out badly. Darcy’s behavior to her up to this point merits, as he admits later, the severest reproof. Now, I think some of it has been because he is a little shy. He also has good reason to be standoffish – half the country wants his money.
However, as he realizes later, he insulted her at length during his proposal, dwelling on the inferiority of her connections and the degradation he is enduring by proposing to her. Elizabeth has good reason to think that this is how he would speak to her during their married life – with reproaches and insults. Being Mistress of Pemberley would not compensate for this type of conversation. Even Mr. Collins said that he was aware of the limits of her financial situation and would never reproach her after they were married.
So, Elizabeth was right to refuse him, because Darcy did not address her in a gentleman-like manner.
Victoria Grossack is the author of several novels, including The Highbury Murders: A Mystery Set in the Village of Jane Austen's Emma, and has published more than 70 articles on the craft of writing. For more about her, visit www.tapestryofbronze.com.
Collage - The scene of the first proposal from the most popular adaptations of Pride and Prejudice