In my final look at Pride and Prejudice, I’m going to focus on foolishness. Much of the novel’s considerable humour is found in the behaviour of foolish characters, whose actions and dialogue not only provide comic relief, but also an interesting commentary on class snobbery and the consequences of poor parental guidance. I think one of the most enduringly appealing aspects of Austen’s writing is that she is so good at capturing people who are blind to their own faults. Let’s take Mrs Bennett, to start off with. Poor Mrs Bennett has become the epitome of the ‘embarrassing mother’ – she is totally socially unaware, and sees no shame in talking indiscreetly about her daughter’s marriage prospects, or lack of them, in the most inappropriate of company. She is easily flattered and likes a bit of fun as much as her wayward younger daughters, thoroughly enjoying the attentions of the soldiers without realising how vulgar she is being. She refuses to hear criticism, always thinks she is right, and is shallow to almost painful proportions; as soon as Lydia’s marriage is confirmed, Mrs Bennett starts ordering clothes and talking about how wonderful it will be to have a married daughter to brag about. The shame of the circumstances and the blight this will bring on the prospects of her other daughters doesn’t even seem to occur to her. Mrs Bennett only sees and understands what she wants to, and she is quickly brought around in her dislikes of others when her personal gain is involved.
Mrs Bennett is comic relief because she is undeniably hilarious; her melodramatic, gossipy nature is is brought to life wonderfully in Austen’s portrayal of her speech and actions, and we can’t help but laugh at her. However, Mrs Bennett isn’t totally lacking in wits. Her desperation to see her daughters married isn’t because she’s stupid or shallow, but because she knows they will have practically nothing to live on when their father dies, and she wants them to be financially secure. Her artful wiles, such as getting Jane to go over to Netherfield on horseback in the rain so that she will catch cold, are silly, but they work. Even so, this isn’t to say that Mrs Bennett goes about things in the right way. Austen gives her the credit of having motivations, but her poor intelligence and childlike desire to get her own way have serious consequences. It is thanks to her poor parenting and poor governance of her own tongue that Mr Darcy removes Mr Bingley from Netherfield and poor Jane and Elizabeth nearly have their hearts broken, not to mention Lydia running off with Mr Wickham and causing not only much shame, anxiety and embarrassment, but a lifetime’s worth of an unhappy and unfulfilling marriage. Mrs Bennett is funny, yes, but Austen never lets us lose sight that her foolishness is dangerous, and causes far more harm than good.
Up next is Mr Collins. Oh, Mr Collins! Austen is a genius at portraying the deluded, and Mr Collins is on a par with Mr Elton when it comes to total lack of self awareness and genuine belief in his own fabulousness. What I especially love about Mr Collins is this self belief; where he has got it from, I don’t know, but his confidence in himself and his own abilities is truly astounding. He comes to stay at the Bennetts with the express purpose of leaving with a wife; the thought that he might get turned down never seems to enter his head. When Elizabeth refuses him, he thinks that she is playing a game as ladies are wont to, and proceeds to inform her that really he’s the best offer she’s ever likely to get, and she’d be mad to refuse him. Part of Mr Collins’ belief in his own immense value – not just to the opposite sex but to mankind in general – is his relationship with the De Bourgh family, to whom he grovels with an intensity one might liken to a pet dog. Mr Collins is a huge snob, and will do anything to be noticed by someone with a title. He thrives on Lady Catherine’s condescension and it is the highlight of his sad little life to think up appropriate compliments that he may drop oh-so-casually into later conversation to please Lady Catherine and her sickly daughter.
However, like Mrs Bennett, Mr Collins is not completely stupid; he may be totally insufferable with a hugely overinflated ego, but he has his head screwed on. His patronisation of the right sort of upper class type – namely that who also has an overinflated ego and thrives on being flattered – is hugely beneficial to his career and fortune. Lady Catherine’s patronage has assured him an excellent parish with promotional opportunities, not to mention good connections and a free meal at the big house several times a week. The old adage of ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ certainly rings true for Mr Collins, and though he values style over substance and money over morals, it can’t be denied that his laughable egotism and toe curlingly cringeworthy flattery of his social superiors have helped to secure him a very comfortable life indeed. Even though he does prosper financially, however, he never prospers emotionally; he has no true friends, and his wife married him for convenience, not love. Everyone with sense and heart can’t stand him, and his company is suffered, not desired. His inability to see the true value in other human beings will ensure that he never experiences the true happiness of life, that of loving and being loved, which really makes him the greatest of fools.
Finally, there is Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She is a well built, handsome woman, with a huge house, a large fortune and a massive ego. She loves nothing better than putting other people in their place and reminding them of hers; she enjoys Mr Collins’ company so much because he shows her the deference she believes she deserves. Lady Catherine takes every opportunity to make those she considers to be beneath her feel small, and Elizabeth’s spirited exchanges with her and refusal to be cowed into submission takes her completely by surprise because she has clearly never been challenged before. Lady Catherine’s identity and sense of wellbeing is built on her high opinion of herself, but she is sadly deluded about many aspects of her life. She believes that her nephew Mr Darcy loves and respects her; he doesn’t, because she has never given him any reason to. She believes that her daughter, the silent and sickly Miss Anne, is a genuine catch and that Mr Darcy, handsome and eligible as he is, will marry her. She believes that she is a Lady Bountiful, valued and appreciated by those to whom she dispenses her advice; really she is a strongly disliked busybody who is more of an inconvenience than a blessing. Lady Catherine is a fool because she is blind to the realities of her behaviour and how it impacts on others; she is blind because she cannot see the human value in people beyond their parentage and their bank balance; and she is blind because she cannot see that she only inspires respect in those who need her for her money and influence, and no one truly loves her for who she is. Her demeanour and dialogue are funny because they demonstrate her pompousness and her delusion, but they are also rather sad, because they demonstrate how lacking in kindness and love she is. She will forever be stuck in her big house, alone with the pathetic daughter she knows deep down will never make a good marriage, visited only out of duty rather than pleasure. What a fool she is indeed.
Austen’s depiction of foolishness is not just for comic effect, or to mock. It raises questions of what is good, and what is moral; it raises questions about the duties of parents, and of those blessed with rank and influence. It sets up comparisons between characters, demonstrating that those in society who deserve respect are not those with money and titles, but those who put others first and judge people’s worth on their actions rather than the size of their house and their connections. There is also a degree of sadness about the foolishness of her characters; their behaviour prevents them from enjoying the respect of those around them, and from entering into meaningful, fulfilling relationships. All of them are lonely in their own way, and compared to the happiness of those they are wont to criticise, their lives are small indeed.
Re-reading Pride and Prejudice has once again highlighted just how brilliant Austen is; every time I come back to her novels, they offer me a fresh and delightful new perspective. I notice new details, new insights, and marvel at just how complex Austen’s supposedly simple, romantic tales are. All of humanity is within her pages, and as we as readers grow and change over time, so do her novels, offering us further riches each time we return, a little older and a little more experienced. I think really, if it came down to it, I could just get rid of all my other books and read Austen for the rest of my days, and never cease to be satisfied. I am so pleased I started on this re-reading project; next up will be Emma. I hope some of you will join me to read this wonderful novel next month.