Chapter Eight, Part 1
Originally published 2/19/2006.
Chapter Eight has some bona fide examples of gossip. We're going to see Mrs. Hurst, Miss Bingley, and perhaps even Mr. Darcy engage in it (though of those, I think Darcy the least offensive). Mr. Bingley shows that he is a real man, and perhaps even more than Darcy appreciates what is really important.
At five o'clock the two ladies retired to dress, and at half-past six Elizabeth was summoned to dinner. To the civil inquiries which then poured in, and amongst which she had the pleasure of distinguishing the much superior solicitude of Mr. Bingley's, she could not make a very favourable answer. Jane was by no means better. The sisters, on hearing this, repeated three or four times how much they were grieved, how shocking it was to have a bad cold, and how excessively they disliked being ill themselves; and then thought no more of the matter: and their indifference towards Jane when not immediately before them restored Elizabeth to the enjoyment of all her former dislike.
From the wording here, it does seem as if Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst are being a bit cavalier with Jane. That does not excuse Lizzy's attitude, which I think wrong. Lizzy talks about it later in Chapter 40, talking with Jane. She says, "And yet I meant to be uncommonly clever in taking so decided a dislike to him, without any reason. It is such a spur to one's genius, such an opening for wit, to have a dislike of that kind. One may be continually abusive without saying anything just; but one cannot always be laughing at a man without now and then stumbling on something witty." I have no doubt this attitude, which, while snobbish, is at least snobbish about something that matters, is something she inherited from her father. It seems to me her father has the same aloof disdain of the ridiculous.
There is a textual variant here, and I'd be interested to know, dear readers, what your versions say. In the last sentence of the above paragraph, the Project Gutenberg text says "all her former dislike." In the Everyman's Library copy that I have, it says "all her original dislike." There is a slightly different shade of meaning here. The word "former" does not imply that Lizzy disliked them from the get-go. "Original," of course, does.
Their brother, indeed, was the only one of the party whom she could regard with any complacency. His anxiety for Jane was evident, and his attentions to herself most pleasing, and they prevented her feeling herself so much an intruder as she believed she was considered by the others. She had very little notice from any but him. Miss Bingley was engrossed by Mr. Darcy, her sister scarcely less so; and as for Mr. Hurst, by whom Elizabeth sat, he was an indolent man, who lived only to eat, drink, and play at cards; who, when he found her to prefer a plain dish to a ragout, had nothing to say to her.
Here's snobbishness on the part of Mr. Hurst about things that don't really matter. Is it really that important what sort of dishes you like? Naturally, we all have our preferences, and sometimes we don't understand if someone else is different. But God did make them that way. Mr. Hurst has been treated less than reverently by Austen before, in the last chapter in fact: "The latter was thinking only of his breakfast."
When dinner was over, she returned directly to Jane, and Miss Bingley began abusing her as soon as she was out of the room. Her manners were pronounced to be very bad indeed, a mixture of pride and impertinence; she had no conversation, no style, no beauty...
This is a textbook example of gossip; I really see no way around it. By just about anyone's definition, here it is. Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, as we can plainly see, have no influence whatsoever on Lizzy, so she is outside their sphere of influence. Their talking about it will not solve the "problem" as they see it. Lizzy's manners, as described by Darcy in his mind earlier, "were not those of the fashionable world, [yet] he was caught by their easy playfulness." So Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst are not giving Lizzy the benefit of the doubt; they might be wrong about her. Finally, what are their motives for bringing it up? Obviously, it is to contrast Lizzy with themselves so they can feel superior. There is no charity at all. Their own manners are well-established; I somehow doubt they are discussing this matter in order to improve their manners.
...Mrs. Hurst thought the same, and added:
"She has nothing, in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent walker. I shall never forget her appearance this morning. She really looked almost wild."
"She did, indeed, Louisa. I could hardly keep my countenance. Very nonsensical to come at all! Why must she be scampering about the country, because her sister had a cold? Her hair, so untidy, so blowsy!"
Miss Bingley here.
"Yes, and her petticoat; I hope you saw her petticoat, six inches deep in mud, I am absolutely certain; and the gown which had been let down to hide it not doing its office."
Mrs. Hurst here. Note the "I hope you saw her petticoat." Believe it or not, this statement actually gets my ire up a bit. Here they are, hoping other people have seen someone's faults. Where is love to cover over a multitude of sins?
"Your picture may be very exact, Louisa," said Bingley; "but this was all lost upon me. I thought Miss Elizabeth Bennet looked remarkably well when she came into the room this morning. Her dirty petticoat quite escaped my notice."
Here Mr. Bingley shows his worth. Not only does he remark on a good fact that Darcy also notices later on (the exercise brightens her fine eyes), but he somewhat disagrees with Louisa in a very charitable way. He does not bite back at her; but his comment shows he is thinking of more important things than Lizzy's appearance. For him, Lizzy's appearance only matters to him as to whether or not she is in good health. He cares about Lizzy in the right way.
"You observed it, Mr. Darcy, I am sure," said Miss Bingley; "and I am inclined to think that you would not wish to see your sister make such an exhibition."
Darcy here. I am wondering about this comment. Darcy later says to Miss Bingley that Lizzy's eyes are brightened by the exercise; we have already seen that he is divided in his mind between admiration for Lizzy's brilliant eyes, and doubt as to whether the occasion deserved the three-mile walk. Would Darcy claim this exhibition is not a good idea for any woman, or is he making an exception for Lizzy? His decided denial in the case of Georgiana does not preclude, I think, an exception for Lizzy. As mentioned before, Lizzy's manners have, in his mind, an easy playfulness.
"To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! What could she mean by it? It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country-town indifference to decorum."
Miss Bingley here. It seems to me that, in addition to all the other faults of the gossip that I mentioned above, Miss Bingley is evidencing her ignorance of the country. Horses are not always to be had in the country, (nor are carts; see Mansfield Park, Chapter 6, in which Miss Crawford is unable to rent a horse and cart to transport her harp) and we the readers already know that Lizzy is no horsewoman. Again, Miss Bingley is not giving Lizzy the benefit of the doubt.
"It shows an affection for her sister that is very pleasing," said Bingley.
Again, the suave, soothing remark by Mr. Bingley. Something here makes me wonder how come Mr. Bingley can be so diplomatic, and yet his sisters, raised presumably by the same people (governess or parents), can be so tactless.
"I am afraid, Mr. Darcy," observed Miss Bingley in a half whisper, "that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of her fine eyes."
"Not at all," he replied; "they were brightened by the exercise." A short pause followed this speech,...
A rather pregnant pause, I should think. Miss Bingley sees that, in spite of it all, Darcy admires Lizzy, perhaps more than ever. This is disturbing to her, because by all indications she wants to marry Darcy.
...and Mrs. Hurst began again:
"I have a excessive regard for Miss Jane Bennet, she is really a very sweet girl, and I wish with all my heart she were well settled. But with such a father and mother, and such low connections, I am afraid there is no chance of it."
This statement is not so bad. It was a sad truth at the time, that a woman without connections sometimes had a hard time getting married. You could see this statement as commiseration.
"I think I have heard you say that their uncle is an attorney on Meryton."
And now we have a speaker issue. I don't know for sure who says this last speech. Mrs. Hurst said the paragraph before, and Darcy and Miss Bingley were sort of having their own private conversation before that. At the moment, I think it will be Bingley speaking. The reason is that being an attorney in Meryton, while not the same as being a gentleman, is respectable. (Bingley, perhaps disapproving of his sisters' views, would be trying to disprove their thesis.) Whereas the next statement would be rather belittling, since Cheapside is obviously regarded as a lower part of town on the social totem pole. See also Bingley's statement about filling all Cheapside (two paragraphs down). If I am right, then it is likely Mrs. Hurst says the following paragraph. As a further clue, we have the pun either Miss Bingley or Mrs. Hurst says (That is capital).
"Yes; and they have another, who lives somewhere near Cheapside."
As this is brought up probably for the sake of making themselves feel good at the expense of another, I cannot condone it.
"That is capital," added her sister, and they both laughed heartily.
"If they had uncles enough to fill all Cheapside," cried Bingley, "it would not make them one jot less agreeable."
Yet again, Bingley sees the heart of the issue: people are not to be blamed for circumstances beyond their control, and they can work to do the best they can with what they have. Jane has made herself agreeable to all; that point is undisputed. I really am beginning to be of the opinion that Austen's statement about "Bingley not being deficient, but Darcy was clever," is rather an understatement. At this point, I think Bingley sees some things more clearly than Darcy. On the other hand, because I identify with Darcy so much, maybe I'm only being harder on him for that reason.
"But it must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world," replied Darcy.
See my point above with regard to Mrs. Hurst's speech.
To this speech Bingley made no answer; but his sisters gave it their hearty assent, and indulged their mirth for some time at the expense of their dear friend's vulgar relations.
Bingley knows Darcy is right, and he wisely avoids further argument. His sisters make idiots of themselves.
With a renewal of tenderness, however, they returned to her room on leaving the dining-parlour, and sat with her till summoned to coffee...
This seems a good break point; in the middle of this transition paragraph.