Chapter Sixteen, Part 1
Originally published 4/30/2006.
Chapter Sixteen has loads of dialogue in it, almost all of it between Lizzy and Mr. Wickham. It is an important chapter, because it is here that Lizzy's further prejudice sets in. Mr. Wickham deceives her into believing his side of the story, whereas Mr. Darcy is really in the right.
As no objection was made to the young people's engagement with their aunt, and all Mr. Collins's scruples of leaving Mr. and Mrs. Bennet for a single evening during his visit were most steadily resisted,...
We all know why: Mr. Bennet's aversion to having his cousin invade the library.
...the coach conveyed him and his five cousins at a suitable hour to Meryton; and the girls had the pleasure of hearing, as they entered the drawing-room, that Mr. Wickham had accepted their uncle's invitation, and was then in the house.
When this information was given, and they had all taken their seats, Mr. Collins was at leisure to look around him and admire, and he was so much struck with the size and furniture of the apartment, that he declared he might almost have supposed himself in the small summer breakfast parlour at Rosings; a comparison that did not at first convey much gratification; but when Mrs. Phillips understood from him what Rosings was, and who was its proprietor-- when she had listened to the description of only one of Lady Catherine's drawing-rooms, and found that the chimney-piece alone had cost eight hundred pounds, she felt all the force of the compliment, and would hardly have resented a comparison with the housekeeper's room.
Here we have all the shallowness of measuring worth by wealth. Not only are Mr. Collins' remarks unnecessary and vulgar, Mrs. Philips' reactions, as being offended at first and flattered at last, are also not in good taste.
In describing to her all the grandeur of Lady Catherine and her mansion, with occasional digressions in praise of his own humble abode, and the improvements it was receiving, he was happily employed until the gentlemen joined them; and he found in Mrs. Phillips a very attentive listener, whose opinion of his consequence increased with what she heard, and who was resolving to retail it all among her neighbours as soon as she could...
More of the same. Interestingly, Mr. Collins is less of a bore here than is usual, but as that is depending completely on his listener, my comment means less than it might otherwise.
...To the girls, who could not listen to their cousin, and who had nothing to do but to wish for an instrument,...
To dance to, I assume.
...and examine their own indifferent imitations of china on the mantelpiece, the interval of waiting appeared very long. It was over at last, however. The gentlemen did approach, and when Mr. Wickham walked into the room, Elizabeth felt that she had neither been seeing him before, nor thinking of him since, with the smallest degree of unreasonable admiration...
This must be judging on the basis of appearance, as Mr. Wickham has not spoken much at all with Lizzy, a situation soon to be "remedied."
...The officers of the ----shire were in general a very creditable, gentlemanlike set, and the best of them were of the present party; but Mr. Wickham was as far beyond them all in person, countenance, air, and walk, as they were superior to the broad-faced, stuffy uncle Phillips, breathing port wine, who followed them into the room.
But uncle Philips might still be more respectable than, uh, certain members of the party.
Mr. Wickham was the happy man towards whom almost every female eye was turned, and Elizabeth was the happy woman by whom he finally seated himself;...
Human nature has not changed much in this regard.
...and the agreeable manner in which he immediately fell into conversation, though it was only on its being a wet night, made her feel that the commonest, dullest, most threadbare topic might be rendered interesting by the skill of the speaker.
Naturally, this is true to some extent. However, I think it might well be that Lizzy is taking it to a bit of an extreme in Wickham's case. I think Lizzy is thinking right now that much stronger statement that whatever such a person (the person who can make the dull topic interesting) says is true.
With such rivals for the notice of the fair as Mr. Wickham and the officers, Mr. Collins seemed to sink into insignificance; to the young ladies he certainly was nothing; but he had still at intervals a kind listener in Mrs. Phillips,...
Thus showing that they both have bad taste...
...and was by her watchfulness, most abundantly supplied with coffee and muffin. When the card-tables were placed, he had the opportunity of obliging her in turn, by sitting down to whist.
"I know little of the game at present," said he, "but I shall be glad to improve myself, for in my situation in life--" Mrs. Phillips was very glad for his compliance, but could not wait for his reason.
Ha! Even Mrs. Philips has her limits.
Mr. Wickham did not play at whist, and with ready delight was he received at the other table between Elizabeth and Lydia. At first there seemed danger of Lydia's engrossing him entirely, for she was a most determined talker; but being likewise extremely fond of lottery tickets, she soon grew too much interested in the game, too eager in making bets and exclaiming after prizes to have attention for anyone in particular. Allowing for the common demands of the game, Mr. Wickham was therefore at leisure to talk to Elizabeth, and she was very willing to hear him, though what she chiefly wished to hear she could not hope to be told-- the history of his acquaintance with Mr. Darcy. She dared not even mention that gentleman. Her curiosity, however, was unexpectedly relieved. Mr. Wickham began the subject himself. He inquired how far Netherfield was from Meryton; and, after receiving her answer, asked in a hesitating manner how long Mr. Darcy had been staying there.
I think I detect a "testing of the waters." Wickham really wants to poison the atmosphere against Darcy, so he delicately extends a tentacle out to see if it will be acceptable to his victim.
"About a month," said Elizabeth; and then, unwilling to let the subject drop, added, "he is a man of very large property in Derbyshire, I understand."
"Yes," replied Mr. Wickham; "his estate there is a noble one. A clear ten thousand per annum. You could not have met with a person more capable of giving you certain information on that head than myself, for I have been connected with his family in a particular manner from my infancy."
Elizabeth could not but look surprised.
"You may well be surprised, Miss Bennet, at such an assertion, after seeing, as you probably might, the very cold manner of our meeting yesterday. Are you much acquainted with Mr. Darcy?"
Yet another tentacle.
"As much as I ever wish to be," cried Elizabeth very warmly. "I have spent four days in the same house with him, and I think him very disagreeable."
This is Wickham's cue. He may now say whatever he likes about Darcy, and basically does.
"I have no right to give my opinion," said Wickham, "as to his being agreeable or otherwise...
But he does anyway.
...I am not qualified to form one. I have known him too long and too well to be a fair judge...
Has he really? Or does Darcy understand Wickham too long and too well? The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not comprehended it. And we know that Wickham manages to form an ill opinion of Darcy in others despite what he has just said.
I am also not so sure that long acquaintance necessarily disqualifies one from giving an opinion as to amiability. Wickham, perhaps, is being guarded in an effort not to go so far as to lose Lizzy.
In short, there's going to be a good deal of both outright lies and also more deceptive hypocrisy in what Wickham says. Lizzy, being an avid listener, is also to blame for so blindly accepting what he says without other confirmation. It is not only wrong in a situation like this to speak ill of someone, it is also wrong to hear wrong of someone. Both parts of gossip are forbidden in Scripture.
...It is impossible for me to be impartial. But I believe our opinion of him would in general astonish-- and perhaps you would not express it quite so strongly anywhere else...
An indirect flattery. "Look at us, we are in our own Inner Ring," as C. S. Lewis would put it (I think it's in God in the Dock; certainly it's in The Weight of Glory). This is the flattery of "belonging." The next statement might be a hint that Wickham might like to become part of the family.
...Here you are in your own family."
Notice the "our opinion." So subtle is he! He has just told Lizzy, though not in so many words, that he shares her opinion of Darcy. It reminds me very much indeed of Satan tempting Eve in the garden.
"Upon my word, I say no more here than I might say in any house in the neighbourhood, except Netherfield. He is not at all liked in Hertfordshire. Everybody is disgusted with his pride. You will not find him more favourably spoken of by any one."
Lizzy here is not quite speaking the truth. I don't think she would say such things only excepting Netherfield. I think her better nature might intervene. However, she certainly is gossipping with Wickham about Darcy right now, and there is no excuse for it.
"I cannot pretend to be sorry," said Wickham, after a short interruption, "that he or that any man should not be estimated beyond their deserts;...
Whoa there! Too many nagatives all in a row. Let me try to parse this, and I have a feeling I shall not be terribly successful. One possible interpretation: emphasis on "pretend." He cannot pretend, as in, he really is sorry that Darcy is not estimated beyond their deserts. Or another possibility: emphasis on "pretend," as in, "I cannot even pretend to be sorry that any man..." Any help here would be nice.
...but with him I believe it does not often happen. The world is blinded by his fortune and consequence, or frightened by his high and imposing manners, and sees him only as he chooses to be seen."
This may actually be true, but certainly Wickham is attempting to paint it in as evil a light as possible. Lizzy speaks next.
I should take him, even on my slight acquaintance, to be an ill-tempered man." Wickham shook his head.
I ask, like Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park, what does that shake of the head mean? Perhaps Wickham is disagreeing with Lizzy in her saying that Darcy is ill-tempered. Wickham knows that to be false, at any rate. It may be that Wickham does not want to go too far, or else he will lose what deceptions he has gained. Unlike the Norwood Builder Sherlock Holmes story, Wickham has that knowledge of when to stop, and thus gains much more credibility than otherwise.
"I wonder," said he, at the next opportunity of speaking, "whether he is likely to be in this country much longer."
"I do not at all know; but I heard nothing of his going away when I was at Netherfield. I hope your plans in favour of the ----shire will not be affected by his being in the neighbourhood."
A cue to Wickham that Lizzy likes him very much.
"Oh! no-- it is not for me to be driven away by Mr. Darcy. If he wishes to avoid seeing me, he must go...
We know that this is false; Wickham fails to show up at the ball, the one where Darcy dances with her. Lizzy fails to see the significance of this at the time, but after the letter, she understands.
...We are not on friendly terms, and it always gives me pain to meet him, but I have no reason for avoiding him but what I might proclaim before all the world, a sense of very great ill-usage, and most painful regrets at his being what he is...
How this squares with earlier statements, I cannot see. Now that Wickham has got his cues from Lizzy, he intends to make the most of it.
...His father, Miss Bennet, the late Mr. Darcy, was one of the best men that ever breathed, and the truest friend I ever had; and I can never be in company with this Mr. Darcy without being grieved to the soul by a thousand tender recollections. His behaviour to myself has been scandalous; but I verily believe I could forgive him anything and everything, rather than his disappointing the hopes and disgracing the memory of his father."
Wickham here attempts to move the alleged "scandalous nature" of Darcy's behavior away from himself and onto Mr. Darcy senior, in order to try to persuade Lizzy that his dislike of Darcy is not personal and vindictive, as we know it is. As Lizzy says later, more or less, "One has all the goodness, the other all the appearance of it." How much easier this world would be if the bad guys always wore black hats, and the good guys always wore white, a la The Lone Ranger. As my Sunday School teacher is fond of saying, and as I'm fond of repeating, "The world is black and white, but we humans see in shades of gray."
Elizabeth found the interest of the subject increase, and listened with all her heart; but the delicacy of it prevented further inquiry.
Here I'll break up the chapter.