Originally published 1/14/2006.
The second chapter of Pride and Prejudice is completely concerned with how Mr. Bennet lets his family know that, actually, he did visit Mr. Bingley, so his family will be acquainted with him. Being the kind of person who likes to "put one over" on others, he plays a prank on them.
Mr. Bennet was among the earliest of those who waited on Mr. Bingley. He had always intended to visit him, though to the last always assuring his wife that he should not go; and till the evening after the visit was paid she had no knowledge of it. It was then disclosed in the following manner: --Observing his second daughter employed in trimming a hat, he suddenly addressed her with:
"I hope Mr. Bingley will like it, Lizzy."
Mr. Bennet opens with this perfectly acceptable non-remark.
"We are not in a way to know what Mr. Bingley likes," said her mother resentfully, "since we are not to visit."
And immediately, because Mrs. Bennet is harboring a grudge against Mr. Bennet about the fact that she thinks he's not going to visit Mr. Bingley, she comes right out with a statement that, on the face of it, is innocent enough. The actual words Mrs. Bennet speaks might not be quite so objectionable, had not Austen placed the word "resentfully" in there. You can just imagine the body language here shouting out to the whole world that Mr. Bennet is in hot water. In addition, that fact that she has to keep reminding him that she disagrees with his decision is nagging, not respectfully disagreeing. Arguing with your husband in a respectful way is, of course, fine. I think it would be wise in most instances, perhaps all instances, to do it away from the children, which Mrs. Bennet does not do. She is deliberately nagging Mr. Bennet right in front of the whole family. I say whole family, because it is no very great stretch to suppose that Jane is there. Everyone else in the family says something somewhere in this interchange, so we can assume they are all there. Incidentally, this may be instructive, because Jane does not feel the need to put herself forward in this instance. She is as mild as ever, unlike her mother.
"But you forget, mamma," said Elizabeth, "that we shall meet him at the assemblies, and that Mrs. Long promised to introduce him."
Lizzy defends her father by pointing out an alternative way they might meet Mr. Bingley, thus insinuating that perhaps Mr. Bennet does not need to do what Mrs. Bennet thinks he does. Notice the tactful way Lizzy says this; at least I think it's tactful. Some may disagree with me.
"I do not believe Mrs. Long will do any such thing. She has two nieces of her own. She is a selfish, hypocritical woman, and I have no opinion of her."
Mrs. Bennet shows her colors yet again by blatant gossip about Mrs. Long. (My readers can correct me if I am wrong, but I interpret the phrase, 'I have no opinion of her,' as meaning that Mrs. Bennet has a very low opinion of her, not that she does not have an opinion one way or another.) I really think gossiping is an extremely common sin these days; perhaps it has always been a very common sin. I've caught myself in it on several occasions.
"No more have I," said Mr. Bennet; "and I am glad to find that you do not depend on her serving you."
Now here's a question for my readers: how do you interpret that comment of Mr. Bennet's? Is Mr. Bennet being his usual sarcastic self, or does he actually agree with his wife? Being sarcastic would certainly fit in with his character. Moreover, because the text immediately states that Mrs. Bennet deigned not to make any reply, we might very well infer that if this is indeed the case, then Mrs. Bennet would follow her character, already mapped out for her by Austen in the first chapter with the phrase, "Her mind was less difficult to develop..." If, on the other hand, Mr. Bennet is agreeing with her, then this would simply be a case of Mrs. Bennet deciding the topic is now over.
Mrs. Bennet deigned not to make any reply, but, unable to contain herself, began scolding one of her daughters.
This reminds me of Matthew Henry's commentary on Proverbs 12:23, "1. He that is wise does not affect to proclaim his wisdom, and it is his honor that he does not. He communicates his knowledge when it may turn to the edification of others, but he conceals it when the showing of it would only tend to his own commendation. Knowing men, if they be prudent men, will carefully avoid every thing that savours of ostentation, and not take all occasions to show their learning and reading, but only to use it for good purposes, and then let their own works praise them. Ars est celare artem - the perfection of art is to conceal it. 2. He that is foolish cannot avoid proclaiming his folly, and it is his shame that he cannot: The heart of fools, by their foolish words and actions, proclaims foolishness; either they do not desire to hide it, so little sense have they of good and evil, honor and dishonor, or they know not how to hide it, so little discretion have they in the management of themselves."
"Don't keep coughing so, Kitty, for Heaven's sake! Have a little compassion on my nerves. You tear them to pieces."
This is peevishness, pure and simple. Mrs. Bennet is obviously allowing the fact that the foregoing conversation did not suit her to drive her to be unnecessarily short with Daughter Number Three.
"Kitty has no discretion in her coughs," said her father; "she times them ill."
I think Mr. Bennet is being sarcastic here, for sure. He is pointing out the ludicrousness of scolding someone for coughing if they need to cough. Most people cannot time their coughs, or else they would probably never cough.
"I do not cough for my own amusement," replied Kitty fretfully.
This would be an acceptable comment, perhaps, if Austen did not include the word "fretfully". To me this suggests that Kitty is being defensive, when perhaps the wise thing to do would be to let Mrs. Bennet's comment pass her by. Or perhaps she is even more silly, and thinks she has to defend herself against Mr. Bennet. Either way, it's probably an unnecessary comment.
"When is your next ball to be, Lizzy?"
I have a footnote in my copy of Pride and Prejudice which reads thus, "R. W. Chapman pointed out that this question, hitherto assigned to Kitty, must be Mr. Bennet's." I take it that the reason is because it begins a new paragraph, and the next-to-last (if you want to be fancy, penultimate) speaker was Mr. Bennet. Mr. Bennet, therefore, may be referring back to Lizzy's comment about the assemblies, sort of hinting that maybe he really would like the girls to meet Mr. Bingley, and is thus showing concern about when they might meet him. This seems a bit stretched, but it's possible.
This is obviously Lizzy speaking.
"Aye, so it is," cried her mother, "and Mrs. Long does not come back till the day before; so it will be impossible for her to introduce him, for she will not know him herself."
"Then, my dear, you may have the advantage of your friend, and introduce Mr. Bingley to her."
"Impossible, Mr. Bennet, impossible, when I am not acquainted with him myself; how can you be so teasing?"
"I honour your circumspection. A fortnight's acquaintance is certainly very little. One cannot know what a man really is by the end of a fortnight. But if we do not venture somebody else will; and after all, Mrs. Long and her daughters must stand their chance; and, therefore, as she will think it an act of kindness, if you decline the office, I will take it on myself."
The girls stared at their father. Mrs. Bennet said only, "Nonsense, nonsense!"
"What can be the meaning of that emphatic exclamation?" cried he. "Do you consider the forms of introduction, and the stress that is laid on them, as nonsense? I cannot quite agree with you there.
This interchange is talking about British forms of introduction. It helps to understand this passage if you know that it was a big deal to be introduced to someone. You were expected to keep up with that person, generally. So you did not want to be introduced to just anyone. One passage that might help to clear this up occurs in Chapter LXIII, when Darcy says the following: "There is also one other person in the party," he continued after a pause, "who more particularly wishes to be known to you. Will you allow me, or do I ask too much, to introduce my sister to your acquaintance during your stay at Lambton?" Now if being introduced to someone was a big deal, then presumably you would only want to be introduced to other people if they knew you enough to know whether you would want to be introduced. Incidentally, Mr. Bingley, in Chapter III, while perhaps not flouting the rules of introduction, certainly avails himself of them in order to show that he is an agreeable person: "Mr. Bingley had soon made himself acquainted with all the principal people in the room; he was lively and unreserved, danced every dance, was angry that the ball closed so early, and talked of giving one himself at Netherfield."
What say you, Mary? For you are a young lady of deep reflection, I know, and read great books and make extracts."
If you recall, this is a continuation of what Mr. Bennet is saying. I am not sure quite how to interpret this one. Is Mr. Bennet making fun of Mary, or is he simply trying to make a point?
Mary wished to say something sensible, but knew not how.
Mary, at least in this instance, shows some wisdom by keeping her mouth shut. As the saying goes, it is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.
"While Mary is adjusting her ideas," he continued, "let us return to Mr. Bingley."
Here again, Mr. Bennet is showing that he really does care about whether his daughters meet Mr. Bingley.
"I am sick of Mr. Bingley," cried his wife.
Mrs. Bennet shows here that her peevishness can even interfere with her avowed intention of marrying off all her daughters.
"I am sorry to hear that; but why did not you tell me that before? If I had known as much this morning I certainly would not have called on him. It is very unlucky; but as I have actually paid the visit; we cannot escape the acquaintance now."
This is Mr. Bennet speaking, of course. This is the moment the joke comes out. While this is a cute moment in one way, perhaps, it does bring up the question of the ethics of "little white lies." Mr. Bennet certainly engaged in such white lies, because of the statement Austen writes about "though to the last always assuring his wife that he should not go." I'm not sure I've thought the issue through, but I'm inclined to think that "little white lies" are not acceptable. Surely there are other ways to surprise people if you wish. Concealing things for the purposes of revealing them at a "proper" time is different from something that is misleading. It could lead to a break-down of trust.
The astonishment of the ladies was just what he wished; that of Mrs. Bennet perhaps surpassing the rest; though, when the first tumult of joy was over, she began to declare that it was what she had expected all the while.
"How good it was in you, my dear Mr. Bennet! But I knew I should persuade you at last. I was sure you loved your girls too well to neglect such an acquaintance. Well, how pleased I am! and it is such a good joke, too, that you should have gone this morning and never said a word about it till now."
This is very typical of someone who is not an expert in a field. If they find they are wrong, they try to cover up their mistakes and claim that they didn't really make the mistake. The real experts are the ones who honestly admit to making a mistake.
"Now, Kitty, you may cough as much as you choose," said Mr. Bennet; and, as he spoke, he left the room, fatigued with the raptures of his wife.
It does say that something is wrong with the Bennets' marriage, that Mr. Bennet is not able to rejoice when his wife rejoices. In any case, the phrase "fatigued with the raptures of his wife" is still very funny.
"What an excellent father you have, girls!" said she, when the door was shut. "I do not know how you will ever make him amends for his kindness; or me, either, for that matter. At our time of life it is not so pleasant, I can tell you, to be making new acquaintances every day; but for your sakes, we would do anything...
This actually strikes me as an acceptable comment on the face of it, except for all the preceding foolishness that renders it somewhat hypocritical. Now that Mr. Bennet has shown himself to have done what she wanted, she praises him, but not before. A somewhat ironic comment it is that "for your sakes, we would do anything." It is ironic because Mrs. Bennet's "total want of propriety" is the main reason Darcy interferes later on with Bingley and Jane. Jane and Bingley get married in spite of Mrs. Bennet.
...Lydia, my love, though you are the youngest, I dare say Mr. Bingley will dance with you at the next ball."
"Oh!" said Lydia stoutly, "I am not afraid; for though I am the youngest, I'm the tallest."
Here's Mrs. Bennet playing her version of favorites. Mr. Bennet played favorites with Lizzy and her intellect; Mrs. Bennet will play favorites with Lydia and Lydia's likeness to herself.
The rest of the evening was spent in conjecturing how soon he would return Mr. Bennet's visit, and determining when they should ask him to dinner.
Presuming that Lizzy and Jane remain in the room, which I think no great stretch, this would be the sort of "girl talk" I can imagine a man like Mr. Bennet disliking, though there is almost certainly no harm in it. Perhaps Mr. Bennet even foresaw this sort of talk coming up, and wanting to be no part of it was another reason, in addition to being fatigued with the raptures of this wife, for him to leave.