I was brought up to believe that we shouldn’t put too much weight on the kinds of cars people drive, the clothes that they wear, and the houses that they own. It is the character of the person that matters, not the external trappings.
This means that for a long time, there was a moment at the end of Pride and Prejudice that was very difficult for me. It comes just a few pages from the end of the novel, in chapter 17 of the third volume. All difficulties have been resolved. Wickham has been forced to marry Lydia, and they’ve been shipped off to Newcastle. Mr. Bingley and Jane are blissfully engaged. And Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth have, at last, found their way to love through the tangle of mistaken impressions and personal pride that divided them.
Jane and Elizabeth have found a quiet moment amid the chaos to enjoy their happiness and talk about their betrothals, and Jane asks Elizabeth how long she has loved Mr Darcy. Elizabeth tells her, “It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe it must date from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.”
I was pretty shocked. I remembered that when Elizabeth visits Pemberley at the beginning of volume 3 after refusing Mr. Darcy’s proposal, she observes with some regret that “to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” Though Austen is quick to assure her readers that Elizabeth “soon satisfied Jane by her solemn assurances of attachment” wasn’t there something a little…tacky in Elizabeth’s focus on Darcy’s possessions? It made me uncomfortable in the same way that my grandmother’s joke that “it’s just as easy to love a rich man as a poor one” always did.
But rereading that visit to Pemberley more closely over the years has encouraged me to judge Elizabeth more charitably and to appreciate why visiting Pemberley might, indeed, be an appropriate reason to fall more in love with Mr. Darcy than before.
Pemberley is, admittedly, beautiful and elegant. It certainly is a considerable signal of wealth and status, but it is not ostentatious or overwrought. Elizabeth notes of its grounds and exterior that “she had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty was so little counteracted by an awkward taste.” Stepping inside, she sees that “The rooms were lofty and handsome, and their furniture suitable to the fortune of their proprietor; but Elizabeth saw, with admiration of his taste, that it was neither gaudy nor uselessly fine; with less of splendor, and more real elegance, than Rosings Park.”
Mr. Darcy’s home is appropriate. He is extremely wealthy, so the home is elegant and fine. But he is not a showy braggart who uses his wealth to denigrate those who have less. (He is not, in other words, Caroline Bingley or Lady Catherine de Bourgh.) His choices about the decoration and furnishings at Pemberley reflect his character accurately, and must raise him in Elizabeth’s estimation, particularly after his letter from the end of volume 2 has satisfactorily explained so many of his objectionable actions.
Mr. Darcy has also not engaged in predation of his estate in order to maintain it. It was not uncommon, at the time, for owners to cut the timber on their estate and sell it to pay their bills. The action is generally considered a bit irresponsible, however, as was the equally common practice of selling off parts of the estate, or spending one’s capital rather than just the investment income from the capital. Clearly, Mr. Darcy has not just maintained his estate without selling off pieces of it. He is actively engaged in improving it. He is a responsible landowner. Consider, in contrast, Wickham’s likely behavior, if he had been owner of Pemberley.
More than this, though,Mr Darcy’s housekeeper’s clear fondness for her master, her long knowledge of his character, and her frank discussion of his many kindnesses–the purchase of a piano and careful redecoration of a sitting room for his sister, his care for his servants and the tenants on his estate–give Elizabeth more evidence that Mr. Darcy, comfortably at home, is notably different from Mr. Darcy, awkwardly out in public. She notes:
As a brother, a landlord, a master, she considered how many people’s happiness were in his guardianship!–How much of pleasure or pain it was in his power to bestow!–How much of good or evil must be done by him! Every idea that had been brought forward by the housekeeper was favourable to his character…She thought of his regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before.
Darcy’s generous and friendly treatment of Elizabeth and the Gardiners when they encounter each other unexpectedly during the visit to Pemberley, reveals a more relaxed and comfortable man than they have previously encountered. A man who may–like his sister–be more shy than proud.
Maintaining Pemberley and caring for its people–its staff and its tenants, as well as the Darcy family–is Mr. Darcy’s occupation. And he is very, very good at it. That Elizabeth’s love for him begins to take root when she visits Pemberley is not because she is mercenary and calculating. It is because it is here where she sees his true character on display. It is here where she really begins to know him.
Elizabeth is too wise to marry without an eye to her economic situation–especially after the good counsel of her Aunt Gardiner. But she is also too warm-hearted to think of marrying without respect, affection, and love. Pride and Prejudice is a cautionary tale about the many slips we make along the way to trying to find the perfect combination of economics and emotion, But it is also a reminder of the rewards that await us when we do.
- Am I right now? Was I right when I was a teenager? Is Elizabeth mercenary or not?
- There are four marriages that have taken place by the end of the novel. Which ones does Austen have faith in? Which ones does she seem to have concerns or objections about? Do you agree with her?
- Would modern lovers be wise to include more economic awareness in their wooing? Or is that less necessary now that both partners generally work?