Jane Austen frequently uses public and private lives of characters in Pride and Prejudice to help us create our own opinion of them, as variation in behaviour, be it good or bad, inevitably affects whether or not the reader takes a liking to the character in question. In the early 1800’s, there was a clear set of rules that were prominent in the middle and upper classes, and it was this etiquette that determined how these classes should ‘rightly’ behave. There was a clear distinction between public and private worlds, and it’s how these characters behave in these two worlds that help to enforce Jane Austen’s own impressions and thoughts and to make a case for or against them. More often than not, it’s the characters abusing these rules of etiquette that bring interest, and as a result opinion to the story, and it’s these kinds of discrepancies that end up influencing our judgement of these characters.
Mr and Mrs Bennet are perfect examples of how Jane Austen uses public and private worlds to mould the readers’ impression of characters, as they are both occasionally, or in Mrs. Bennet’s case frequently, guilty of breaking the rules of 19th century etiquette. Mrs. Bennet is renowned for her lack of manners, and the book has plenty of these written examples. Jane Austen purposely creates an alternative view to a seemingly well-intended woman by crafting her as someone who often embarrasses herself and family members by speaking irrationally. At one point in the story, Mr. Gardiner has appeared to have done the Bennet family a great favour by paying Wickham a large sum of money to marry Lydia, and Mrs. Bennet passes it off as something expected and obligatory; she believes that ‘who should do it but her own uncle?’ She goes on to disregard his generous nature by describing it as ‘the first time we have ever had anything from him, except a few presents.’
Mr Gardiner has gone out of his way to spare trouble and cost to the Bennet family, and this goes unacknowledged by Mrs Bennet. She is judged harshly as a result as she has no sense of correct thinking and behaviour, and comes across as rather unappreciative and rude. This is made worse by the fact that she states these opinions in private, an unguarded atmosphere in which Mrs. Bennet can air her true feelings, and so we, the reader, see a true snapshot of her unrefined personality.
Often she publicises her personal opinions and private life too much. In one example, she misinterprets a rather civilised conversation comparing city life and its eccentric characters to the country as something rather more aggressive, retaliating Darcy in front of distinguished company by stating that there is ‘quite as much of that going on in the country as in town.’ Answering back to a man of more importance than you in an aggressive manner two hundred years ago would have certainly been bordering upon rudeness, as well as against etiquette, which states that women should be refined and orderly at all times. This surprising outburst would have made Mrs. Bennet look not only foolish and impolite, but would have damaged the Bennet’s reputation as well. Elizabeth and Jane often comment on how shameful her public behaviour is, an example being her un-courteous reception of Bingley and Darcy on returning to the county, Austen’s narrative stating that ‘he was received by Mrs Bennet with a degree of civility that made her two daughters ashamed’.
Mr Bennet, although somewhat more refined than his wife, has also been known to behave incorrectly; inferring that women should flaunt themselves by telling Marie to ‘let the other ladies have time to exhibit’ after she delighted the company for one too many songs. This is not how true, polite ladies should act and proves Mr. Bennet not entirely sure of the laws of public behaviour and etiquette. It seems that in general, Jane Austen creates a couple who have no defined distinction of behaviour between public and private, and so we judge them accordingly.
Lydia and Wickham mirror this relationship and lack of decency, as like the Bennet’s, both are completely unaware of etiquette and when it should be used. Lydia disgraces the Bennet family by publicising her relationship with Wickham and by making her private life public for the world to see. Like her mother, Lydia often shows how out of proportion and unbalanced her private and public lives are, parading around her own scandalous marriage as if she’s proud of it. At one point in the story after Lydia becomes engaged, Austen’s narrative states that ‘[Lydia] went after dinner to show her ring and boast of being married’ which gives the reader the impression that she is unaware of peoples true, negative feelings towards the matrimony and is therefore rather clueless as to the outside world and the reality of how people behave in life.
This is worsened by the fact that Jane Austen portrays Lydia as being naï¿½ve and ignorant as to the manner in which she was betrothed to Wickham – Lydia often comments herself on the elopement as being a comical event. Writing to Elizabeth she describes the ordeal as ‘what a joke it will be!’ when really, the elopement drags the Bennet family name through the dirt – with Lydia unaware and oblivious. This behaviour, which, if etiquette were adhered to, should be refined to private, really makes the reader think twice about the validity and credibility of Lydia, and as a result the reader judges her harshly and critically as a silly and imprudent girl.
Like Lydia, Wickham is portrayed by Jane Austen as a real villain in the latter half of Pride and Prejudice, as his will to make private affairs public (and the opposite in regards to his own wrongdoing) and to misinterpret what politeness and courteousness really are affects the light in which he is cast.
Often he lies for his own benefit, telling Elizabeth that it was he who was the victim of Darcy as ‘there was an informality…a man of honour could not have doubted the intention, but Mr. Darcy chose to doubt it’ which shows he has complete disregard for appropriate behaviour as to us, the knowledgeable reader who knows the truth, he is just outright lying. The readers opinion is somewhat made worse by the fact that on numerous occasions he acts correctly and gentlemanly, his adieus described as ‘more affectionate than his wife’s’ and his appearance ‘handsome’ when departing the Bennet estate, as our knowledge of his wrongdoings means that when acting correctly, he is perceived as smug and arrogant. This strict difference between how he behaves in public and in private influences our judgement of him as Jane Austen intended, in a negative way.
Despite Wickham’s fault in lying to Elizabeth, the dispute that followed allowed her and Darcy’s relationship to grow and develop, as it is one of the main themes that the two of them bond over. With seemingly dissimilar personalities it seems odd that Lizzie and Darcy grow so fond of each other throughout the course of the book, although they are both similar in the way in which they hold themselves in different times and places and how they critic harshly the lives of others, as well as their own. At the beginning of the book, while un-knowledgeable as to the true character of Darcy, we believe very harshly of him. Jane Austen conveys this opinion particularly in the way that he behaves in public, as he comes across as an egocentric, pompous man – treating those lower than himself socially as less worthy and inferior, a theory that evidently comes in to place at his first ball when he describes Elizabeth as simply ‘tolerable’ but not ‘handsome enough to tempt me’. This facade strongly confirms our initial impressions of him as having a huge ego, and not a particularly nice man in general.
Although lacking appropriate decency in many parts of Jane Austen’s novel, Darcy does show on the whole to be fully aware of proper manners and behaviour, which becomes evident at his residence in Pemberley where his behaviour is impeccable; the Gardner’s refer him to as ‘more than civil’ and ‘attentive’. Again, Austen uses this stark contrast between the ways Darcy behaves in private, which is usually respectable and charming, and the way he behaves in public, often the opposite, to reflect upon the way the reader looks at him.
Elizabeth on the other hand is quite respectable in both Public and Private, and there are fewer discrepancies as to improper behaviour. She acknowledges her poorer connections and family ties, does not deny otherwise, and despite an upbringing that didn’t focus heavily on laws of etiquette – her mind is in the right place, and she knows how to behave respectably. Elizabeth can at least excuse any bad behaviour on her part as a result of her young age and bad role models, namely her mother. Like Darcy however, she is extremely critical of herself and the private lives of others, which becomes very apparent when she’s confronted with the idea that Lydia should exploit herself on a holiday to Brighton. She describes it as ‘a very great disadvantage to us all’ due to Lydia’s ‘unguarded and imprudent manner’ and her stark opposition continues when warning her father to check Lydia’s ‘exuberant spirits’ and to teach her that her ‘present pursuits are not to be the business of her life’.
Lydia’s uncontrollable will to chase after men has therefore not gone un-noticed by the critical mentality of Elizabeth. She knows all too well the misconduct of Lydia’s behaviour, and knows what should be done to minimise this potential embarrassment to the family.
It also proves however that she is heavily critical, almost too critical, of the private lives of others, and is worried by how they will affect her in the long run. Jane Austen changes Elizabeth’s behaviour according to how she wants the reader to see the character, and it’s her general stubbornness and defiance when pressured by the books heavier characters, like Catherine de Burgh, which impresses the reader.
Rather like Elizabeth, Jane has a clear-cut set of principles to adhere to, though her overall behaviour in the book is faultless – and it’s difficult to find a flaw in her overall character. Both Bingley and Jane are easily swayed by some of the books more ‘heavyweight’ characters like Darcy and Caroline Bingley, who both try to enforce their own ideals into the couple’s heads, and it’s this weakness of character that inevitably endangers their happy ending. Despite this, etiquette is followed completely, and both she and Bingley have learnt exactly what and what shouldn’t be done in their public and private lives, over the course of their maturity. Lizzie and Mr Bennet both agree that they are perfectly matched. They are described together as being ‘complying’, and lizzie is told by her father that she and him are ‘so easy, [that] every servant will cheat you’ and it’s because of their perfect behaviour that the reader finds it hard to criticise either one of them. They are both looked on as being polite and charming in public and private, which is why they are attributed a happy ending together in marriage.
Like the matured version of Jane and Bingley, Mr and Mrs Gardiner are portrayed as a couple responsible for perfectly balanced public and private lives, as they both have a good idea as to what should be done and said in both. They are perceived from their first introduction as being lovely, level headed people who would bring Elizabeth ‘cheerfulness to enhance every pleasure – and affection and intelligence’ in their companionship together. This dialogue is used by Austen to help the reader envisage exactly what the Gardner’s are like, a responsible and respectable family.
While at Pemberley, the Gardiner’s show manners and distinction in the company of Darcy, and, unlike lesser-dignified characters like Mr. Collins, wait to be introduced with him before initiating conversation. Mr Gardner in particular shows good understanding of etiquette when the Bennet family is embarrassed by Lydia’s elopement, as he takes it upon himself to minimise the impact of the incident. It shows that he knows the difference between public behaviour, that Lydia and Wickham don’t, and private, and can be trusted and relied on by his brother in times of need. Neither character in the novel speaks one out of place word, and it’s because of their credibility as a couple that leads to Lizzie’s relationship with Darcy.
It seems Austen uses contrast in behaviour to help the reader determine favourable characters, like Elizabeth and Jane whereas other ‘bad mannered’ characters like Lady Catherine are looked at less warmly. Lady Catherine and Mr Collins are both condemned by the reader for their outrageous and unforgivable behaviour, particularly in public. Catherine is one of the most obnoxious characters in the book, and this feeling is conveyed by her complete obsession with rank and importance. On first visiting Longbourn she disregards all laws of etiquette, rudely telling Elizabeth that ‘that lady I suppose is your mother.’ She goes one step worse by telling Mr. Bennet that he has ‘ a very small park [at Longbourn]’, a rude statement even by today’s standards, let alone in the 1800’s when your houses practically represented your wealth and social status.
These uncivil, impolite comments regarding the Bennet family and their estate create a bad image of Lady Catherine. She comes across as being very self righteous and ostentatious, and she does her best to meddle in any business other than her own, one example being her unreasonable expectation that Elizabeth should stay away from marrying Darcy, just for the sake of keeping within similar ranks. Her own pompous ego describes herself as having ‘a character celebrated for its sincerity and frankness’, which couldn’t be further from the truth. And it’s this obsession with rank, herself and the opinion of others that Jane Austen manages to convey a character with such atrocious behaviour begging for dislike, both from other characters in the book, and the actual reader.
Mr Collins, however much disliked, is used by Jane Austen to bring humour to the book. Again, she uses his behaviour in these two different worlds to shape the readers opinion of him. In both private and public situations, he is known for boasting about his connections with Lady Catherine and publicising his sickening admiration for the woman, describing her as ‘affable’ and always referring to her as ‘her ladyship’. It’s this constant barrage of his own opinions, the majority of which are just advertisements of Lady Catherine’s greatness and superiority, and his will to become involved in everyone’s lives that makes him such a hard character to like and respect. Again, it’s this lack of distinction between public and private behaviour which influences are feelings towards him.
Overall, it’s clear to see that Jane Austen is using and differentiating between public and private lives and behaviour in her novel to affect the readers’ opinion, and it’s her intention to use these contrasts and attitudes of characters to evoke reaction and judgement. This is the purpose of using these two contrastive worlds and 19th century etiquette – as it gives Jane Austen the chance to use her own dialogue and narrative to transform our own opinions as readers, which indeed influences our judgement of characters in Pride and Prejudice.