As someone who has read Austen multiple times (at this point, I can’t even remember how many!), something that strikes me each time are the different themes and concepts I connect to. Over the years, I have gone from being a teenage, heterosexual reader of Austen to a (slightly) more mature college student questioning everything in the world and finally to a married, lesbian, mother of two daughters. As you can imagine, the connections one makes as one steps from one identity to another to another are simply endless, and I think Austen in particular (along with other greats like Henry James, Edith Wharton, E.M. Forster, etc.) lends herself well to the multi-varied experience of the reader who returns to her works over and over again.
This time around, I find myself particularly connected to the many ways in which the characters of Pride & Prejudice suffer from their own and others’ refusal to communicate.
From the perspective of a writer, it makes complete sense that Austen is going to find every means by which to thwart her characters and throw conflict after conflict among them. And yet, as a reader and human, I see how so much of the conflict of these characters arises from their refusal to communicate.
First, of course, there is Mr. Bennet, and his eternal teasing of his wife, which demonstrates itself immediately when he states that he will not go visit Mr. Bingley, then does perform the expected visit secretly, and then divulges the visit after his wife has declared “I am sick of Mr. Bingley” (Austen, 7)
But it is not just Mr. Bennet and his use of false, teasing, or omitted communication as a source of his own personal humor. Indeed, there is a telling omission when Elizabeth begins to sense what Mr. Collins and her mother is about, but chooses not to discuss it. It is written that “Elizabeth however did not chuse to take the hint [about Mr. Collins showing her preference] being well aware that a serious dispute must be the consequence of any reply. Mr. Collins might never make the offer, and till he did, it was useless to quarrel about him” (Austen 88). This is actually a perspective I quite agree with! And yet, had Lizzie stated her truths to her mother, and had her father and mother been able to authentically communicate with one another, they might have accomplished a more happy outcome both for themselves, Mr. Collins, and Charlotte Lucas by pointing Mr. Collins toward a character who would have been an actual partner and helpmate: Mary Bennet.
In fact, this idea is covered brilliantly in this Persuasions Online article by Gracia Fay Ellwood.
So there we have it: Mrs. Bennet is thrown into another fit of temper and pique. Lizzie is put in a very awkward position. And Mary loses out on a husband and future that would likely have been to the very great benefit both to herself and Mr. Collins.
Next, though, we have the communication of Mr. Wickham’s true nature via Darcy’s letter. It is no real surprise that Darcy does not convey this before as it touches so closely to his family. No, the cost of lost communication is the result of another of Lizzie’s choices, albeit one made with Jane’s assistance.
In this scene, Lizzie and Jane determine whether to reveal what they know of Wickham. Elizabeth begins:
“…There is one point on which I want your advice. I want to be told whether I ought, or ought not to make our acquaintance in general understand Wickham’s character.”
Miss Bennet paused a little and then replied, “Surely there can be no occassion for exposing him so dreadfully. What is your own opinion?”
“That it ought not to be attempted…. The general prejudice against Mr. Darcy is so violent, that it would be the death of half the good people in Meryton, to attempt to place him in a good light.”
And in the same speech to the one just above, Elizabeth goes on, “Sometime hence it will be all found out, and then we may laught at their stupidity in not knowing it before.”
Jane ends the exchange with ironic hopefullness: “You are quite right. To have his errors made public might ruin him for ever. He is now perhaps sorry for what he has done, and anxious to re-establish a character. We must not make him desperate.” (Austen 226-227)
So here, we have Jane and Elizabeth discussing whether to reveal or conceal what they know – to speak or not to speak! They choose not to, but in so doing, they end up causing the exact reversal of what they hope – it does all get found out and they are the ones being laughed at.
Ironically, the very steadfastness of dislike against Darcy can also be laid nearly as squarely on Elizabeth’s own doorstep as that of Wickham’s belovedness because Lizzie was the first to disparage Darcy widely amongst her own acquaintance and if a person who is so well-educated and even-tempered as Elizabeth Bennet dislikes someone, there must be good cause.
But Elizabeth comes to feel her omission deeply when Lydia absconds with Wickham. Here, she laments her silence, even amongst her own family: “…for what use could it apparently be to any one, that the good opinion which all the neighbourhood had of him, should then be overthrown? And even when it was settled that Lydia should go with Mrs. Forster, the necessity of opening her eyes to his character never occurred to me. That she could be in any danger from the deception never entered my head. That such a consequence as this should ensue, you may easily believe was far enough from my thoughts” (Austen 285). Then later, “Oh, Jane, had we been less secret, had we told what we knew of him, this could not have happened” (291).
Whether this knowledge actually would have prevented Lydia from eloping with Wickham is a debate for another time. (Personally, my guess is that Wickham would have either convinced her he was utterly changed and totally sincere in his most frequent elopement attempt. Or Lydia, whose virtue and understanding have consistently shown themselves wanting, simply wouldn’t have cared and gone off anyway!)
And finally, we have lost communication via concealment – i.e. Kitty’s knowledge of a closer connection between Lydia and Wickham than others were aware of, but who was bound to silence as “a matter of confidence” according to Jane (Austen 275). Here, Jane excuses Kitty’s silence, though had she made anyone aware of what Lydia was planning (which Kitty “had known, it seems of their being in love with each other, many weeks” (290)), a great deal of trouble and scandal could have been avoided. In this case, giving one’s word to stay silent apparently overruled speaking to protect that person, and the family who would be involved and sunk as a result of the scandal (and here’s another deep failing of the times – that all the Bennet family would suffer from the scandal committed by one wayward child).
So here we have it: two of the most significant conflicts of the novel are themselves reliant upon Austen forcing her characters to be silent. Whereas my last post accused her of neglect in omitting Mr. Collins’ delightfully ridiculous dialogue, I am here applauding her skill in utilizing the constraints of her time to demonstrate how choosing to remain silent can be as harmful and flippant speech. The silence is given good reason and excuse, and the constraints of her society also both necessitated and pardoned the silence. So here again,Austen may be commenting upon the ills of her society and how certain perceived ideas about “right” and “wrong” can themselves lead to the opposite result. It may be “right” to say as little as possible to avoid a social faux-pas, and yet, the failure to speak in these particular instances at least, led to very great problems for fellow characters.