Host–Guest Relationships in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

  • Maya Higashi WakanaEmail author


In this chapter on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), Maya Higashi Wakana analyzes the requirements of “warm” intimacy by mobilizing the concept of the host–guest relationship. In addition to the phenomena of people visiting one another is the subtler host–guest relationship, such as that between an initiator of a communication and the addressee. This host–guest perspective of interaction in the front- and backstages of everyday life is so taken-for-granted that situations and characters in realist fiction are frequently assessed without fully considering the influence the host–guest structure has on readers’ and characters’ perceptions and judgments. The chapter’s goal is to determine the face-related conditions that must exist before “warm” romantic alliances, such as those between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, and Jane Bennet and Charles Bingley, can emerge.

In this chapter, I apply the concept of the host–guest relationship to the analyses of reader–text intimacy and of the intimacies between characters in Jane Austen’s (1775–1817) Pride and Prejudice. The two types of intimacies are inseparable: the nature of intimacy between ideal readers and the text affects how these readers understand characters, and therefore, how they understand the intimacies between characters. I show in this chapter that all relationships, including the reader–text relationship, might be understood as variations of the host–guest relationship. In addition to the phenomena of people visiting one another—wherein one party literally assumes the role of host or hostess to another party, who in turn is expected to fulfill the duties of a guest—is the subtler host–guest relationship, such as that between an initiator of a communication and the addressee. This host–guest perspective of interaction is so taken-for-granted that situations and characters in texts are frequently assessed without fully considering the influence the host–guest structure has on ideal readers’ as well as characters’ perceptions and judgments. They likely also initially fail to consider the requirements of frontstage and backstage performances when reading about characters implementing (or not) the duties of hosts and guests in these everyday “regions” (Goffman 1959 , 106). Therefore, in asking “What conditions must exist for ‘warm’ intimacies, which involve friendliness and liking, to emerge?” this chapter examines the host–guest structural arrangement between ideal readers and the text and between characters in the text, considering also how judgments of interactions are swayed (or not) by the factor of whether they occur in the frontstage or the back.

First, I must outline the role the novel’s structure plays in encouraging ideal readers to adopt a microsocial perspective in reading, and particularly in rereading, Austen’s story. Indeed, Pride and Prejudice is undoubtedly one of the most frequently reread books in the history of the novel. Rereading, as in revisiting the novel “with a foreknowledge of what is to come” (Calinescu 1993, 38), is an integral part of reading the work. The book’s design of forcing its protagonist Elizabeth Bennet to recognize, midway through the story, the limitations of her capacity to “read” people suggests that the novel is simultaneously about reading and rereading in the sense of evaluating and reevaluating. Abruptly and in mid-novel—and this I know is old news—Austen shows first-time ideal readers, who have tended to endorse Elizabeth’s wittily expressed, sweeping assessments of characters and situations thus far in the book, that their confidence in Elizabeth’s judgments may have been misplaced. When these first-time readers discover that Elizabeth is neither omniscient nor infallible—more of a character among other characters than a standalone heroine—they likely feel as embarrassed as Elizabeth does. Yet, the novel is so engaging that reader–text intimacy survives.

And although an equally vexing moment occurs toward the end of the novel, the shock in mid-novel is so conspicuous that this second, even more drastic, authorial gesture, I claim, has yet to be fully acknowledged. Anticlimactically, Austen ([1813] 1966) invites ideal readers into Elizabeth and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy’s ultra-backstage, presents them with a subtly less dignified Darcy than they find in the rest of the book, and shows the couple comparing notes about what happened. For example, when Elizabeth confesses to Darcy that her behavior toward him was “always bordering on the uncivil,” Darcy claims that he interpreted Elizabeth’s “impertinence” as “liveliness of mind” (262). To be sure, Elizabeth makes full use of double-talk, a powerful weapon with which felt attacks are averted and counterattacks made, powerful because Elizabeth would be as unimpeachable in her essential manners as Darcy when he engages in similar behavior. More importantly, Elizabeth and Darcy become microsocial equals in their ability to double-talk with one another. Austen’s emphasis on Elizabeth’s ability to engage in double-talk, which renders Darcy and Elizabeth microsocial equals, is understandable, yet ideal readers may well wonder, “Why does the text insist on being so conscientious about detail?” As critics maintain and I later discuss, the happy alliance between Darcy and Elizabeth is likely an outcome of many such fortunate misunderstandings. Possibly also, Austen wishes to underscore Elizabeth’s need to satisfy her curiosity about Darcy’s motives for his actions, thereby encouraging her ideal readers to feel similarly inquisitive.

To these explanations, I would add, however, that by showing Elizabeth and Darcy engaging in prosaic exchanges—the kind a couple might have before turning in—Austen declares that this is what everyday, backstage “warm” intimacy ultimately looks like. And in describing the ultra-backstage of Elizabeth and Darcy’s everyday life, Austen, I claim, simultaneously presents the novel’s ultra-backstage, thereby revealing that what readers were shown in the rest of the novel was less so. The romantic narrative is thus abruptly demystified. But again, the romantic in the rest of the novel lingers, and reader–text intimacy survives .

Even so, the text’s design of betraying first-time ideal readers’ unconditional trust, first in Elizabeth’s quick judgments of people and situations and second in ideal readers’—if only in hindsight—somewhat romantic understanding of their implied author’s vision as depicted in the major bulk of the novel, encourages readers to gradually recognize the existence of yet another perspective from which to interpret what they have read. This is the reader–text ultra-backstage perspective that is based on the understanding that the everyday is a performatively expressed, microsocial, micropolitical order.1 I share Tony Tanner’s (1986) claim that “for Jane Austen, society was much more a matter of ‘company’ and ‘community’ (face-to-face relationships) than the whole state system of institutions and relationships” (12)—even though focusing on the “micro” seems to gender Austen’s contributions as comfortably and conventionally feminine.

And when Austen’s ideal readers begin to detect the microsocial in Austen’s novel, they recognize that even when alone, Elizabeth is half aware of her own performance in the drama of her life. After Elizabeth reads the confessional letter from Darcy, for example, Austen ([1813] 1966) describes Elizabeth’s state of mind as follows: “whenever she was alone, she gave way to it [reflection] as the greatest relief; and not a day went by without a solitary walk, in which she might indulge in all the delight of unpleasant recollections” (146). Here, Austen essentially confesses that Elizabeth indulges in the melodrama of pain and is semiaware of doing so.

Another important scene in which Austen informs ideal readers that Darcy and Elizabeth are semiaware of their performances is that of the passionate proposal. Austen describes Darcy responding to Elizabeth’s acceptance of his marriage proposal as follows: “The happiness which this reply [Elizabeth’s consent to marry him] produced, was such as he had probably never felt before; and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do.” Clearly, this role as a man who has just succeeded in securing a woman’s hand in marriage is new for Darcy—and, perhaps, for Austen. For her part, Elizabeth is embarrassed, unable to look Darcy in the eye: “Had Elizabeth been able to encounter his eye, she might have seen how well the expression of heart-felt delight, diffused over his face, became him” (252; emphasis added) . By then, ideal readers know that this romantic scene is clearly out of character for Elizabeth; a chatty, teasing format is infinitely more comfortable for her. Imagining what Elizabeth must be thinking and feeling during this proposal scene, ideal readers are encouraged to understand that she senses the scripted nature of the ritual, which has, in the words of microsociologist Erving Goffman (1963), “a distinctive ethos, a spirit, an emotional structure, that must be properly created, sustained, and laid to rest, the participant finding that he is obliged to become caught up in the occasion, whatever his personal feelings” (19) . When Elizabeth has to perform the role of a woman being proposed to, she is barely able to adapt herself to the part. That the courtship between Darcy and Elizabeth ends with the two not looking at one another is therefore appropriate. Theirs resembles the reality of everyday passions, which are not as mutual or natural as one would wish or suppose.2 Were Elizabeth to look, she would likely discover that her performance is not on par with Darcy’s.

And when Elizabeth tells her sister, Jane Bennet, “The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense” (Austen [1813] 1966, 94), the microsocially informed ideal rereader realizes that she is not just making an ironic statement—Elizabeth herself will be inconsistent later on in the novel—but is also expressing her author’s understanding of everyday life’s theater-like character,3 which requires its performers to be inconsistent. When a person in the course of an ordinary day assumes multiple roles with multiple audiences and must express each role according to shifting circumstances, chameleon-like malleability, rather than consistency, is called for.

I now examine the two “region[s]” of the theater of everyday life, the “front” and the “back” (Goffman 1959, 123), in conjunction with the characters in Austen’s novel hosting or being hosted by one another. These terms seem to refer to the public sphere and the private, as in visits, dinners, and dances held at Meryton, Rosings, Netherfield Park, Hunsford, and Pemberley as opposed to one’s living room parlor. But do everyday frontstages and backstages overlap with public and private spaces, respectively?

Backstage is a socially acknowledged safety valve. When backstage—that is, when away from official or public realms—individuals and parties let off steam so that smooth interaction can continue to occur in the front. Backstage is where “the performer can relax” and “drop his front, forgo speaking his lines, and step out of character” (Goffman 1959, 112). In a manner of speaking, backstage incivility facilitates civility in the frontstage; the objective of “polite formulae and broad abstentions from expression” is “to leave a great range of potentially disruptive material unacknowledged and therefore out of play” (Nagel 2002, 6). Ideal readers who understand this buffer function of backstage interaction comprehend that Austen exercises her knowledge of the front- and backstage realms when she describes the Bennets and the Bingley–Darcy group moving in and out of these regions, engaging in backstage talk when they are among their kind but behaving more officially when they interact with other parties in the front. When the Bennets talk to one another at their Longbourn home and when the members of the Bingley–Darcy group interact with one another at Netherfield Park, ideal readers see that the latter are no more virtuous than the former: each group talks behind the other group’s back, and in principle, they do so openly only behind each other’s backs.4 Neither party is rude in this respect. However, because everyone talks behind others’ backs, they seem to be able to detect what others are “really” thinking with the first available hint: when one puts oneself in another party’s shoes and imagines what one would mean if one said what the other party said in the way he or she said it, one seems to understand exactly what is meant.

Analyzing microsocially scenes in Pride and Prejudice that occur in public places, where characters literally host or are hosted by others during official events, reveals multiple aspects of the everyday that can fail to be registered because they are so taken-for-granted or because the reader–character intimacy of the moment prevents first-time ideal readers from seeing certain happenings for what they microsocially are. Take, for example, the following passage, which describes Elizabeth’s departure from Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s estate. It illustrates that when the requirements of the macrosocial order, such as those for socioeconomic hierarchical relations, override individuals’ need to observe the microsocial demands of host–guest relationships, the result is a politely polished, if subtly oppressive and somewhat disagreeable, picture, even when nothing happens—or perhaps because nothing happens:

When Lady Catherine and her daughter had played as long as they chose, the tables were broke up, the carriage was offered to Mrs. Collins, gratefully accepted, and immediately ordered. … [T]hey were summoned by the arrival of the coach, and with many speeches of thankfulness on Mr. Collins’s side, and as many bows on Sir Williams’s, they departed. As soon as they had driven from the door, Elizabeth was called on by her cousin, to give her opinion of all that she had seen at Rosings, which, for Charlotte’s sake, she made more favourable than it really was. (Austen [1813] 1966, 115−116)

Because Lady Catherine and her daughter are the hostesses in this scene, their playing cards for “as long as they chose” (115) is microsocially incorrect. However, Lady Catherine’s macrosocial position seems to reverse the roles, so that the hostesses are forgiven for allowing the guests to wait on them. When Elizabeth agrees to pay what Goffman (1967) would call “temporary lip service to judgments” with which Elizabeth may “not really agree” (11), she acts according to what Goffman (1959) would call a “working consensus,” an agreement on the need to avoid “an open conflict of definitions of the situation” and on “whose claims concerning what issues will be temporarily honored” (10). In Austen’s world as in ours, such a consensus protects the integrity of the interaction. Individuals are socialized to remain obedient to the regal demands of a situation in exchange for the royal protection such loyalty provides in the preservation of one’s social status, role, and identity.

When the flow of interaction is thus maintained, something literally conservative, as in protective, occurs.5 This is because a person’s “face,” or identity—“the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact” (Goffman 1967, 5)—is “something that is not lodged in or on his body, but rather something that is diffusely located in the flow of events in the encounter” (7). In this sense, as Daniel Cottom (1985) notes, “the rule of decorum is,” or rather can be, “a rule of domination” (102). And while first-time ideal readers may inwardly scoff at how everyone acts and reacts at Rosings, thanks to their as-yet little-examined intimacy with Elizabeth’s view of her world, the microsocially informed rereader realizes that the guests—including Elizabeth—are as actively complicit as the hostesses in allowing this somewhat distasteful picture to stand.

Civility’s function of maintaining the status quo is especially effective because those who are asked to conform—essentially everyone—willingly police themselves, as is clear in the following scene that takes place toward the end of Elizabeth and her sister Jane’s sojourn at Netherfield, in which the power of frontstage situational propriety necessitates that everyone behaves in a predictable manner, even when doing so is contrary to their furtive wishes. Jane has recovered from a violent cold, and Elizabeth is resolved against postponing their departure from Netherfield for fear of overstaying their welcome, finally convincing Jane to ask for Charles Bingley’s carriage: “The communication excited many professions of concern; and enough was said of wishing them to stay at least till the following day to work on Jane; and till the morrow, their going was deferred. Miss Bingley was then sorry that she had proposed the delay, for her jealousy and dislike of one sister much exceeded her affection for the other” (Austen [1813] 1966, 40). Elizabeth’s wish to immediately leave and Miss Caroline Bingley’s wish to hasten the women’s departure are both undermined to uphold what Goffman (1959) calls the “single over-all [sic] definition of the situation” (9), which consists of a narrative that defines the Bingleys as hospitable to the utmost degree, and Jane and Elizabeth as nothing less than infinitely grateful for the Bingleys’ hospitality. Elizabeth does, says, and perhaps even tentatively feels what is appropriate for the occasion and for her status as a guest, and Miss Bingley follows suit—doing, saying, and tentatively feeling what she knows a hostess should—so that no disruption occurs. Everyone in the scene needs and wants to be right both with others and the situation to feel right about themselves. And this can be expediently achieved by adhering to a frontstage script that everyone seems to know by heart.

The microsociologically aware ideal reader also sees that when something does go wrong, as it does during the Netherfield Park ball, all those present are expected to pitch into save the scene. After Mrs. Bennet and Mr. William Collins cause a series of highly embarrassing moments at the ball by behaving in unfastidious ways, readers who observe Elizabeth watching everyone else see that Mary Bennet threatens to aggravate the already embarrassing situation by dominating the scene with her mediocre piano performance. Mr. Bennet’s attempt to stop Mary by speaking bluntly and without due consideration of Mary’s feelings becomes yet another cause of embarrassment for Elizabeth, because now Mary is also embarrassed. Elizabeth’s embarrassment is at its peak. Enter Mr. Collins with his long and elaborate speech on music and the duties of a rector, so that “Many stared.—Many smiled” (Austen [1813] 1966, 71). Importantly, no one says anything openly to anyone else, though the stares and smiles themselves are less than polite. However, when everyone thus refrains from openly saying anything about the situation to anyone else at Netherfield, the full collapse of their “joint ceremonial labor” (Goffman 1967, 85) is averted.

In these ways, although Susannah Fullerton (2004) directs our attention to the looming threat of literal crime and criminals in Austen’s world, a microsociological reading uncovers yet another level of criminality in Austen’s work. Philip Dormer Stanhope, better known as Lord Chesterfield ([1774] 1792), writes that the “immoral man, who invades another’s property, is justly hanged for it; and the ill-bred man, who, by his ill manners, invades and disturbs the quiet and comforts of private life, is by common consent as justly banished [sic] society” (2:253). Simultaneously, however, as Goffman (1967) further asserts, “Those who break the rules of interaction” only “commit their crimes in jail” (115). Bound and prescribed by everyday rules of interaction, rules are broken under already constraining circumstances.

Socially correct individuals who perform the host–guest relationship according to the requirements of existing macrosocial power relations reify those hierarchical relations. When Charlotte Lucas, now Mrs. Collins, stands outside in the wind to receive Miss Anne de Bourgh at Hunsford, she expresses and thereby reifies her frontstage, macrosocial relationship with Miss de Bourgh. Microsocially, the one paying the visit—the guest—is the outsider, and if the macrosocially superior guest is to maintain the appearance of dignity, the host or hostess must more than reciprocate the willingness on the part of the hierarchically superior visitor to take the trouble to visit the macrosocially inferior party.6 Unsavory as the gesture may be, Mrs. Collins’s manner of waiting on Miss de Bourgh is, performance-wise, socially correct. Miss de Bourgh sits in her carriage, and Mrs. Collins goes out to meet her and stands in the wind. She more than politely attends to Miss de Bourgh during her visit, thereby substantiating Miss de Bourgh’s macrosocial position as superior to that of Mrs. Collins; otherwise, Miss de Bourgh is likely to appear merely sickly and insignificant. Mrs. Collins’s willingness to humble herself helps maintain the status quo. When Mr. Collins says that Lady Catherine “likes to have the distinction of rank preserved” (Austen [1813] 1966, 111), he voices the need for distinctions of rank to be performatively expressed. As Juliet McMaster (1997) explains, “[T]he differences in station … must be seen to be present” (115).

When differences in station are not seen to be present, as when, unannounced, Lady Catherine, the hierarchically superior guest, abruptly visits Longbourn in her desperation to put an end to Elizabeth’s rumored romantic involvement with Darcy in the latter half of Austen’s narrative, the interaction lacks the frontstage, hierarchical structure that otherwise emerges when a host or hostess is prepared to express and perform his or her macrosocial position. The uncalculated, desperate manner in which Lady Catherine undertakes her mission undermines her authority, because inevitably, no one at Longbourn is psychologically or physically prepared to receive her as an important guest. Under such circumstances, neither the guest’s dignity nor the host’s dutiful gratitude for the eminent guest’s condescension can be appropriately performed. This anomaly helps Elizabeth immensely in her confrontation with Lady Catherine.

In addition, because Lady Catherine engages in ultra-backstage talk about Elizabeth’s socioeconomic status, Elizabeth feels she has every right to respond to Lady Catherine’s ultra-backstage talk with her own, as critic Laura G. Mooneyham (1988) suggests: “That last conversation is as much about Lady Catherine’s and Elizabeth’s respective rights to say—or not say—exactly what they wish as it is about their relative authority to determine Darcy’s romantic future” (60). In this scene, Elizabeth might as well be talking to her outspoken mother in the family drawing room as to Lady Catherine. Even before this confrontation, Elizabeth realizes at Rosings that Lady Catherine’s dignity is not much more than, to use Elizabeth’s phrase, “dignified impertinence” (Austen [1813] 1966, 115).

Clearly, to command dignity and authority, Lady Catherine must perform her role as a guest in a way and in an environment that incites that kind of response, so she must first and foremost not go out of her way to visit Elizabeth unannounced, nor should she engage in ultra-backstage talk about Elizabeth’s socioeconomic status. As Chesterfield ([1774] 1792) aptly writes, “There is no one occasion in the world, in which le ton brusque is becoming a Gentleman” (3:190)—or a Lady, he might have added. Lady Catherine’s unceremonious backstage behavior licenses, even requires, Elizabeth’s resistance if Elizabeth is to claim the face of a gentleman’s daughter. Elizabeth must prevent herself from becoming further deferential or submissive.7

I am now well into the discussion of how a scene’s spatial environment may not align with front- and backstages. Longbourn itself is neither frontstage nor backstage, for example. Before proceeding to discuss the subtler host–guest relationship and its relation to front- and backstages, I next examine two scenes to demonstrate how during a public occasion in a public setting, a private, ostensibly backstage scene can occur or, conversely, how in a seemingly private situation in a relatively private setting, frontstage civility might prevail.

When George Wickham adopts what I call a guerilla approach in abruptly employing an ultra-backstage tone with Elizabeth at the Philipses’, revealing to her his troubled relationship with Darcy, he instantly succeeds in converting Elizabeth into his backstage confidante. He does not need to do much to achieve this objective. Wickham’s attitude toward Elizabeth as someone who would understand his backstage behavior makes Elizabeth want to assume the face he seems to expect. Elizabeth’s “demeanor” (Goffman 1967, 77) is defined by the “deference” (56) Elizabeth assumes Wickham shows her. Thanks also to Elizabeth’s partiality for Wickham and her mounting curiosity about Darcy, she becomes particularly willing to switch to a backstage tone even in a frontstage, public place and situation. Immediately, a greater sense of intimacy is generated between the two. Only much later does Elizabeth see the “indelicacy of his [Wickham’s] putting himself forward as he had done” (Austen [1813] 1966, 143).

The two regions, the front and the back, then, and as Goffman (1967) explains, are neither absolute nor merely spatial: “By invoking a backstage style, individuals can transform any region into a backstage” (128–129). The microsocially aware ideal reader sees that the same interaction is capable of instantaneously alternating between one kind and another, regardless of where the conversation takes place—as when Darcy oversteps his tentatively established boundary of formal intimacy with Elizabeth during a private conversation they have about Charlotte at Hunsford:

Mr. Darcy drew his chair a little towards her, and said, “You cannot have a right to such very strong local attachment [as Charlotte]. You cannot have been always at Longbourn.”

Elizabeth looked surprised. The gentleman experienced some change of feeling; he drew back his chair, took a newspaper from the table, and, glancing over it, said, in a colder voice,

“Are you pleased with Kent?” (Austen [1813] 1966, 124; emphasis in original)

Recognizing Elizabeth’s surprise at his hurriedly expressed backstage comment, Darcy takes his cue, retreats, and assumes his former frontstage demeanor. He adjusts not only his physical distance from Elizabeth but also his psychological one, and he adopts a cooler attitude to generate that distance. Darcy’s comment about Elizabeth being different from the others in Longbourn risks insulting Elizabeth if she feels attached to her family; it could also tarnish his image as a civil person unless she interprets the comment as a kind of compliment. When Elizabeth’s surprised look fails to convince Darcy that she does the latter, he retreats to ensure that both Elizabeth and the situation as a whole are comfortable, so that he might be comfortable. Ideal readers, who “take the attitude of” Darcy “tak[ing] the attitude of” (Mead 1934, 134) Elizabeth, understand that Darcy instinctively knows that as liberating as backstage talk can be, only when both parties consent to engage in such talk, and only when their opinions are in agreement, does it become palatable. Intimacy needs to be established before individuals feel licensed to indulge themselves in backstage behavior, even if the physical environment is relatively private.

Front- and backstages, then, have as much to do with humanly generated—manipulated, even—environments as with spatial and circumstantial ones. If being able to fully engage in backstage conversation with another individual is a sign of “warm” intimacy, then “warm” intimacy must also be something capable of being engineered into existence or, conversely, prevented from emerging.

Microsocially aware ideal readers understand that the frontstage and the backstage operate according to two separate sets of norms, which is to say that backstage is as social as the front. Moreover, while common sense would seem to indicate that individuals capable of engaging in backstage behavior with one another are intimate, this is not necessarily true. If the level of trust or intimacy between the two parties involved is one-sided or limited, “One may feel obliged, when backstage, to act out of character in a familiar fashion and this can come to be more of a pose than the performance for which it was meant to provide a relaxation” (Goffman 1959, 134). For example, when Elizabeth is asked by Charlotte Lucas, her longtime friend, to visit her at Hunsford after she marries Mr. Collins in Volume 2, Chapter 3, Elizabeth feigns intimacy. And when they exchange letters, they write “as regular[ly] and frequent[ly]” as they would if they were truly intimate: “[T]hat it should be equally unreserved was impossible. Elizabeth could never address her [Charlotte] without feeling that all the comfort of intimacy was over, and, though determined not to slacken as a correspondent, it was for the sake of what had been, rather than what was” (Austen [1813] 1966, 101). Therefore, the mere phenomenon of individuals engaging in backstage behavior does not automatically signify “warm” intimacy. When backstage behavior is expected, it is the only socially correct response .

Consider also that intimacies and backstageness are correlated to the phenomena of what sociologists call ingroups and outgroups, which are not fixed . One’s “teammate” (Goffman 1959, 83) may be on another “team” on a different day, and someone from another “team” may, as circumstances shift, come to be a member of one’s own “team” (79). Chesterfield ([1774] 1792) notes a similar kind of mobility in the royal courts, which he compares to “the World”:

Nothing in Courts is exactly as it appears to be; often very different; sometimes directly contrary. Interest, which is the real spring of every thing there, equally creates and dissolves friendships, produces and reconciles enmities; or, rather, allows of neither real friendships nor enmities; for, as Dryden very justly observes, Politicians neither love nor hate. This is so true, that you may think you connect yourself with two friends to-day, and be obliged to-morrow to make your option between them as enemies: observe, therefore, such a degree of reserve with your friends, as not to put yourself in their power, if they should become your enemies; and such a degree of moderation with your enemies, as not to make it impossible for them to become your friends. (2:208)

Everyday relationships in Austen’s narrative are also in this sense micropolitical, and ideal readers recognize that their “real spring” (Chesterfield [1774] 1792, 2:208) is also interest.8 Although the Bennets work as a team against the Darcy–Bingley group when Elizabeth is insulted at the Meryton community dance, the Bennets are made up of several other smaller alliances, such as the one between Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet and that between Jane and Elizabeth; these smaller alliances allow Elizabeth the benefit of feeling superior to the rest of her family.9 Members of the same microsocial team are conditioned to want to cooperate in sustaining “a given projected definition of the situation” (Goffman 1959, 104)—in this instance, Mr. Bennet’s, Jane’s, and Elizabeth’s definitions—but ideal readers see this only when they are able to objectify how they, as Austen’s first-time readers, immediately became backstage teammates with Austen, and by extension, with Elizabeth. First-time readers almost automatically side with Elizabeth—and by extension, her author—whom they like: “A regard for the requester would often make one readily yield to a request, without waiting for arguments to reason one into it,” as Austen ([1813] 1966, 34) has Elizabeth say. This liking, combined with ideal readers’ enjoyment of watching Elizabeth wittily taunting her purportedly inferior family connections and her supposedly reprehensible adversaries, encourages the initial, little-examined reader–text intimacy—but only until they experience their rude awakening mid-novel.

Just as reader–text relations undergo modifications, the alliances in Austen’s novel are in constant flux: the Charlotte–Mr. Collins team replaces the Charlotte–Elizabeth team, the Lydia–Wickham team replaces the Elizabeth–Wickham team, and the Jane–Elizabeth and the Charles Bingley–Darcy teams are realigned to become the Jane–Charles and the Elizabeth–Darcy teams. The need for universal discretion, then, explains Darcy’s pointed civility toward not just the Gardiners but also all of Elizabeth’s relatives and acquaintances, including Mrs. Bennet and Sir William Lucas in the final sections of Austen’s narrative. It also explains Elizabeth’s insistence on reinstating Lady Catherine into the Pemberley circle, with the latter’s grudging acceptance indicating the effectiveness of Elizabeth’s wise move. Lady Catherine, in turn, is discreetly conciliatory in agreeing to accept the invitation even though, as Austen makes clear, Elizabeth, Darcy, and Lady Catherine have not changed their opinions of one another. As Chesterfield ([1774] 1792) writes, although “polite manners, a versatility of mind, a complaisance even to enemies, and the volto sciolto [open face], with the pensieri stretti [concealed thoughts] … do not change the nature, they smooth and soften the manners of mankind” (3:1). The end of Austen’s narrative demonstrates that units of attachment can change in unanticipated ways. And if such attachments are the bases of “warm,” or friendly, intimacies, then even when one is romantically, intimately backstage with others, a level of prudence is recommended .

In discussing the subtler host–guest relationships that arise between individuals addressing one another, I next examine the letter Darcy writes to Elizabeth. This letter is what effectively changes Elizabeth’s mind about Darcy. Ideal readers who are able to objectify how their author successfully draws them into reading and rereading her novel may perhaps be better equipped to articulate how Darcy’s letter successfully begins to change Elizabeth’s opinion of him. Let me explain.

The frontstage airy wit with which Austen begins her novel generates the initial, sprightly reader–text intimacy in Pride and Prejudice. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (Austen [1813] 1966, 1)—so reads the clever, entertaining first sentence of “the gayest of Jane Austen’s novels” (Daiches 1960, 750). Having no special reason to deliberate the meaning of this statement, first-time ideal readers are easily encouraged to assume that the author is ready to defer to their capacity for the satirically imparted backstage intelligence and willingly approach the narrative with the face of readers capable of reading in this way. Wayne C. Booth (1974) suggests as much in describing the mentality of the reader of an ironic narrative in A Rhetoric of Irony: “The author I infer … is my kind of man, because he enjoys playing with irony, because he assumes my capacity for dealing with it, and—most important—because he grants me a kind of wisdom; he assumes that he does not have to spell out the shared and secret truths on which my reconstruction is to be built” (28). To translate this into microsociological terms, a reader’s demeanor is defined by the deference the reader assumes the author shows the reader—somewhat like the relationship between Elizabeth and Wickham, when he employs his guerilla approach with her. Austen is to the reader what Wickham is to Elizabeth. As David Hume ([1758] 1898) reasons, “No quality, indeed, more readily communicates itself to all around” by “a contagion or natural sympathy” than “chearfulness [sic]” (231). Figuratively speaking, when smiled at, one tends to automatically smile back, especially when the smile seems to signify the smiling individual’s acknowledgment of one’s intelligence. And only when ideal readers realize that Austen’s suggestive smile may not have been suggestive in the way they had automatically assumed it was when they first began reading her novel do they seriously pause and reconsider the nature in which their author may actually have been suggestive.

Darcy’s elaborately performed confessional letter, consisting of a private, backstage narrative, though not cheerfully communicated, successfully converts Elizabeth into Darcy’s backstage confidante without his first becoming close to her. Although the letter’s opening—“Be not alarmed, Madam, on receiving this letter, by the apprehension of its containing any repetition of those sentiments, or renewal of those offers, which were last night so disgusting to you”—is by no means friendly, it nevertheless eventually moves Elizabeth to adopt Darcy’s version of the story about Wickham and Darcy, because Darcy is even more adept than Wickham at self-presentation. When Darcy claims that he is writing “without any intention of paining” Elizabeth or “humbling” himself by “dwelling on wishes, which, for the happiness of both, cannot be too soon forgotten,” he ensures that neither he nor Elizabeth appears abject. And by confessing that “the effort which the formation, and the perusal of this letter must occasion, should have been spared, had not my [Darcy’s] character required it to be written and read,” Darcy arouses Elizabeth’s—and ideal readers’—curiosity. Just what kind of letter would Darcy have preferred not to write, were it not for the requirements of his “character” (Austen [1813] 1966, 135)? Producing an intensely personal narrative that includes information about his younger sister Miss Darcy that “no obligation less than the present” would move him to “unfold to any human being,” Darcy next moves to proclaim that he “feel[s] no doubt of” Elizabeth’s “secrecy” (139). Elizabeth is promptly molded into someone who is not only knowledgeable about Darcy’s private life but also discreet, trustworthy, and just: writes Darcy, “You must … pardon the freedom with which I demand your attention; your feelings, I know, will bestow it unwillingly, but I demand it of your justice” (135).

Although a letter is, in essence, an invitation to a communication, so that its reader retains the right to choose how to respond, including whether to finish reading the letter, Elizabeth will not know whether she wants to reject the invitation unless she reads the letter. And the one-way metamessage of Darcy’s backstage communication is that he trusts Elizabeth and believes her to be fair, that he takes her seriously—the sheer length of the letter seems to say so—that he feels responsible for failing to notify her of Wickham’s past, and that he cares enough to go through the trouble of writing a letter containing so much intensely personal information. This gesture has a profound influence on Elizabeth, because even though, as Elizabeth thinks to herself, “each recital [of Wickham’s and Darcy’s story about Pemberley] confirmed the other” and she “weigh[ed] every circumstance with what she meant to be impartiality,” ultimately, “[o]n both sides it was only assertion” (142). Although Elizabeth thinks she uses reason to determine the truth, her choice of what to recall and weigh is inevitably colored by her partiality, this time for Darcy, which results from Darcy’s backstage communication made in a frontstage tone in the form of a letter. As Elizabeth accurately acknowledges, “Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think, without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd” (143). Her reason is beleaguered by bias on all fronts.

Letter writing, then, affords Darcy an effective means of expressing his wish to maintain a certain distance from, while simultaneously moving intensely closer to, Elizabeth, because he discloses to her information that is available only to a privileged few. Giving Elizabeth the formal option of not reading his letter is one way in which Darcy demonstrates his theoretical willingness to give Elizabeth some elbowroom, even though he lies in wait so he might personally hand her the letter. Darcy, then, like Wickham, adopts the guerilla approach of using backstage talk to get closer to Elizabeth rather than first becoming intimate with her and then engaging in backstage exchanges. However, because Darcy applies this tactic via a letter, it feels less intrusive. Elizabeth also reads the letter multiple times, which influences her response: “Widely different was the effect of a second perusal” (144). This is much like Austen’s ideal readers’ experience of rereading her text: widely different is the effect of a second reading. And just as ideal rereaders’ foreknowledge of the rest of the novel likely colors their impression of the cheerful opening of Austen’s novel, Elizabeth’s foreknowledge of the rest of Darcy’s letter influences her interpretation of its somewhat unfriendly opening. As a result, Darcy will eventually win in the contest of partiality, with decorum presiding.

Clearly, the concepts of frontstage and backstage are slippery because they are behavioral and relational in addition to being spatial. Individuals can move in and out of the two regions relatively easily, and those who can successfully mold their behavior in a way that satisfies both their immediate needs and the requirements of the two regions are those who can manipulate interpersonal distances as well as the overall tone governing the nature of interactions. Wickham and Darcy, while not above reproach, are relatively well versed in this art, while Mr. Collins, whose behavior I next examine, is not. Indeed, analyzing Mr. Collins’s offensive conduct opens up a new way of understanding the requirements of “warm” intimacies. By employing what sociologists Randall Collins and Michael Makowsky (1998), in discussing Goffman’s microsociology, call the “strategy of revelation through disruption” (246), I focus on Mr. Collins’s case to make apparent those invisible taken-for-granted rules of face-to-face interaction that tend to go unnoted until, that is, somebody like Mr. Collins violates them—and almost constantly. I now move more deeply into a discussion of the subtler host–guest relationship, involving those rules that people expect everyone to somehow know .

The rule is simply this: individuals must command respect while adjusting gracefully to others and to the situation as a whole. Gentlemen need to exercise a “certain degree of firmess [sic]” in addition to “an outward modesty” (Chesterfield [1774] 1792, 1:268). Individuals must be self-respecting as well as respectful of others by being dignified but not overbearing, accommodating and humble, but not too humble. In other words, they must have pride, the ability to sustain a front, and prejudice, a biased, partial readiness, a favorable predisposition, and an openness to flexibly adapt to others as well as to the overall situation of which they are a part. Pride and prejudice, then, are the microsocial requirements of ladies and gentlemen in addition to being the microsocial basis on which “warm” intimacies are built. As straightforward as this instruction may seem, however, Austen demonstrates in her work that achieving such an ideal state is not easy.

Mr. Collins is a case in point. Although backstageness is only a matter of degree, and frontstage qualities can always be found in performative expressions of any kind, readers still sense that Mr. Collins is utterly confused about how to act. He is either too backstage (too familiar) or too frontstage (too stiff). He constantly alternates between front- and backstage modes of speaking wherever he is and in whatever context, using those modes to adjust the distance between himself and his audience. Mr. Collins tries to balance his need to be accommodating and friendly, which he overdoes, with his need to maintain his dignity—which he also overdoes. All in all, then, we see that Mr. Collins’s weakness lies in his inability to gauge, monitor, and appropriately adjust the distance between himself and the people with whom he interacts. Although he no doubt objectifies himself in deciding how to act “intelligently, or rationally” (Mead 1934, 138) in various situations—by putting himself in the other’s shoes and observing himself from what he understands to be the other person’s perspective—with Mr. Collins doing all the seeing, his constant desire to be inoffensive and respectable is futile. Quixotically, Mr. Collins tilts earnestly at windmills, which look very much like projections of himself. If Mr. Collins is an awkward, even terrible, navigator of everyday intimacies, this is not from lack of effort.

When Mr. Collins interacts with Darcy at the Netherfield ball, for example, he appears not only servile and abject but also pompous and self-important. However, the microsocially aware ideal reader understands that Mr. Collins’s failure to present himself as a gentleman at the ball is not entirely his fault. His brand of weakness only highlights already existing difficulties involving others. To illustrate Mr. Collins’s plight, I must first address Darcy’s weakness.

When Darcy and the Bingley group make their first public appearance as guests at the Meryton community dance, ideal readers immediately see that Darcy and the Bingley sisters are unable to act appropriately as guests. “The perfect guest,” writes etiquette writer Emily Post (1924), “not only tries to wear becoming clothes but tries to put on an equally becoming mental attitude” (437). Indeed, as Post aptly notes, guests are expected to both adapt to what the host has to offer and become partial to him or her, reciprocating the host’s hospitality with due appreciation through expressions of gratitude for what the host offers, or even does not offer (437–438). This pleases the host by informing him of his success in pleasing his guest. The Meryton community, however, finds that Darcy is “above his company, and above being pleased” (Austen [1813] 1966, 6). Elizabeth rightly sees that Darcy and the Bingley sisters’ behavior at the assembly “had not been calculated to please in general” (9). In fact, Darcy has “a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance,” “disagreeable” because it is “forbidding” (6), calculated not to invite familiarity.

Darcy’s weakness stems from his inability to negotiate the requirements of his macrosocial face as master of Pemberley with those of his microsocial face as a guest of the Meryton assembly. Wickham informs Elizabeth of the “powerful motive” for Darcy’s behavior in public: “Not to appear to disgrace his family, to degenerate from the popular qualities or lose the influence of the Pemberley House, is a powerful motive” (57). Because the “surest way for a person to prevent threats to his face is to avoid contacts in which these threats are likely to occur” (Goffman 1967, 15), Darcy’s first blunder consists of his decision to attend the Hertfordshire gathering. Then, rather than mingling with the local crowd once he is there, he avoids “activities that would lead to the expression of information that is inconsistent with the line he is maintaining” (16). If at Meryton, Darcy requires defensive walls to maintain his face as master of Pemberley, he would have fared better by staying at home or with people with whom such walls are unnecessary.

Clearly, the microsocial host–guest relationship has its own set of requirements apart from those that govern the more macro sphere. Generally, and differences in macrosocial statuses aside, only when a host acts like a host and his guests act like guests are gestures of pleasing and being pleased rendered dignified. One without the other for either of the parties compromises the decency of the interaction by upsetting the equilibrium: the friendly host who tries to please an unappreciative guest makes the host appear toadying, and a host who does not attempt to please a guest who is ready to be pleased makes the guest seem bootlicking. Because Darcy and his group are hierarchically superior to the Meryton crowd, unless the former are especially appreciative of the latter’s hospitality, the latter’s courtesy instantly appears abject.

In host–guest relationships, then, equilibrium is key. In fact, as Post (1924) so eloquently maintains, all relationships are, to a greater or lesser degree, host–guest relationships, which require the individuals involved to be somewhat feminine: “The ideal guest is an equally ideal hostess; the principle of both is the same. A ready smile, a quick sympathy, a happy outlook, consideration for others, tenderness toward everything that is young and helpless, and forgetfulness of self, which is not far from the ideal of womanhood” (439). The charge against the Darcy–Bingley team of insulting the Meryton community—with the notable exception of the highly gratified, pleasing and pleased Bingley, who is “lively and unreserved” (Austen [1813] 1966, 6)—is valid. The team does so by not observing the dictates of the microsocial situation, which would require them to act in a somewhat feminine manner. Mrs. Bennet’s proclamation that Darcy is “a most disagreeable, horrid man, not at all worth pleasing” (8) is a microsocially correct maneuver on her part, because she promptly rejects the party by whom she feels rejected, thereby maintaining the equilibrium and restoring her dignity. Post (1924) is right when she claims, “If you are an inflexible person, very set in your ways, don’t visit!” (431). Because Darcy’s temper is “too little yielding—certainly too little for the convenience of the world” (Austen [1813] 1966, 39), to use Darcy’s own words, he should never have attended the Meryton dance.

Yet despite Darcy’s miserable failure as a guest at Meryton, he later emerges as an excellent, most accommodating host at Pemberley: “Never … had she [Elizabeth] seen him so desirous to please, so free from self-consequence, or unbending reserve as now” (179). Contributing to this change in Darcy is the fact that he is at home at Pemberley, in all senses of the word, with its magnificent setting and “stage props” (Goffman 1959 , 22), and this frees him from having to be protective of his social standing, especially because Elizabeth herself is terribly embarrassed about being there. Moreover, Darcy’s role at Pemberley is as the host of his own prodigious estate, and as embarrassed as he is to find Elizabeth there, he is better at acting like a more than usually gracious host of his own estate than he is like a more than usually appreciative guest at other people’s gatherings.

At Pemberley, then, Elizabeth can no longer interpret Darcy’s previous instances of haughtiness as signs of “improper pride” (Austen [1813] 1966, 260). Instead, Elizabeth, who is as protective of her dignity as Darcy is of his own and who has by this time fallen into the habit of seeing what the world looks like from his perspective, understands Darcy’s experience at the community ball, now that she is confronted with the overwhelming reality of his wealth and power instead of just an idea of them. Darcy’s previous aloofness becomes symptomatic of a proper pride: for good or ill, how Elizabeth perceives him to be macrosocially and how he acts “match.” Although Elizabeth probably does not mind her extreme luck in eventually marrying a rich man, to attribute mercenary motives to Elizabeth is, I would claim, a hasty conclusion.

When Elizabeth sees Pemberley for the first time, she is moved by its natural dignity—the maintenance of which must no doubt require a level of wealth—which seems to speak of its owner’s grace and authenticity:

It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills;—and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. … and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something! (167; emphasis added)

Yet immediately after this, “while examining the nearer aspect on the house, all her [Elizabeth’s] apprehensions of meeting its owner returned” (167). Elizabeth is stricken with a sense of shame, which some readers take to be proof of her ulterior motives. This may be a misunderstanding. Explains Goffman (1959), “Knowing that his audiences are capable of forming bad impressions of him, the individual may come to feel ashamed of a well-intentioned honest act merely because the context of its performance provides false impressions that are bad. Feeling this unwarranted shame, he may feel that his feelings can be seen; feeling that he is thus seen, he may feel that his appearance confirms these false conclusions concerning him.” Elizabeth’s awareness of what such a visit would look like to Darcy if he were to discover her there is perhaps what supports such “false conclusions” (236) about her. Elizabeth’s chief concern, like Darcy’s, is her sense of self-respect, which she would do nothing to undermine.

Indeed, Darcy’s defining characteristic—Elizabeth’s, too, Austen’s ideal readers realize—is his need to unceasingly present a dignified front to the extent that he should appear “aweful” (Austen [1813] 1966, 34), in Bingley’s words. However, at an essential level, he is microsocially moral, whatever else he may be, in being consistent with his unstated claim “to be a person of a particular kind,” through which “he automatically exerts a moral demand upon the others, obliging them to value and treat him in the manner that persons of his kind have a right to expect” (Goffman 1959, 13). If he were to go back on his microsocial word and allow himself to be seen as other than consistently somewhat forbidding and stiff, his audience would feel betrayed. Thus, Darcy’s inflexibility is socially correct in its consistency and incorrect in its lack of flexibility, and this combination makes him the attractive figure that readers generally find him to be, though, to reiterate, Darcy, like Mr. Collins, has his share of faults in relating to people and situations.10

In the scene where Mr. Collins interacts with Darcy at the Netherfield ball, then, we see that Mr. Collins appears toadying in part because Darcy must perform his dignity as master of Pemberley. At Netherfield, Darcy is as much a guest as Mr. Collins is, so he feels no need to exercise his hospitality. Moreover, and not altogether wrongly, Mr. Collins “consider[s] the clerical office as equal in point of dignity with the highest rank in the kingdom—provided that a proper humility of behavior is at the same time maintained.”11 If Mr. Collins appears to perform his “proper humility of behavior” (Austen [1813] 1966, 68) too earnestly, this is partly because Darcy fails to balance the equation by adapting to Mr. Collins’s level of earnestness. Darcy’s flaw aggravates that of Mr. Collins.

True, Mr. Collins has weaknesses in his own right. Rather than being able to exercise the appropriate degree of self-respect and respect for others, Mr. Collins appears to be “a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility” (48).12 Were he a mixture of pride and humility, without the obsequiousness and self-importance, he would be a perfect gentleman. All the essential ingredients are there, but they emerge in the wrong combination and to the wrong degree vis-à-vis the person with whom he is interacting. As Mrs. Philips observes, Mr. Collins embodies “an excess of good breeding,” but he tends to engage in “pompous nothings.” (51; 49). He smiles way too much and then tries to make up for his excessive smiling with exaggerated claims to dignity, which are impossible to swallow. Not only does Mr. Collins fail to adjust his deference to the other’s demeanor, he fails to claim a demeanor to which others can smoothly show deference. Readers therefore find that sharing a sense of “warm” intimacy with Mr. Collins is difficult if not downright inconceivable.

Ideal readers capable of understanding Mr. Collins at this microsocial level may also be able to understand the Bingley sisters’ behavior, when a hierarchically nonsuperior Elizabeth arrives at Netherfield Park, unannounced and unattended, in muddy clothes. Reasons exist for why one must always be, in Mrs. Bennet’s words, “fit to be seen” (Austen [1813] 1966, 21). Guests dress properly not only to appear respectable but also to express their respect for their host13 and, in this case, in consideration of the host’s floors. Despite Elizabeth’s anomalous behavior on all fronts, however, the Bingley sisters receive her “very politely” (22). Even so, Elizabeth’s assessment of her situation as a guest at Netherfield Park is accurate when she realizes that only Bingley’s more than welcoming hospitality “prevent[s] her feeling herself so much an intruder as she believed she was considered by the others”: she knows she is an uninvited guest. This is because Elizabeth bases her understanding of her hostesses’ response on what she knows would be true for herself, were she in their position, and she seems to see what their only averagely polite reception signifies. If she were them, she would be as displeased with someone like herself. As Louise M. Rosenblatt ([1978] 1994) would say, “the observer is part of the observation” (181). A nagging sense lingers that their reasons for despising her are valid. Encouraged by her need to maintain her front with the Bingley sisters, Elizabeth therefore resorts to finding fault with them, including with their “indifference towards Jane when not immediately before them,” which “restore[s] Elizabeth to the enjoyment of all her original dislike” (Austen [1813] 1966, 23). If Elizabeth requires Bingley-like assurances or sought-out excuses to maintain her sense of legitimacy and noninferiority, she, like Darcy, should also have stayed at home.

If Austen’s ideal rereaders, who are not as blinded by their partiality for Elizabeth, can imagine how the Bingley sisters would perceive an only averagely apologetic Elizabeth, they can also see that, ultimately, Elizabeth and her hostesses are alike in their need to prioritize their sense of autonomy and self-respect: the Bingley sisters’ discontent about Elizabeth’s behavior is their way of maintaining the host–guest equilibrium. Unlike Bingley, whose need to be accommodating overrides his need to command respect and whose partiality toward Jane colors his assessment of the situation, his sisters do not have any particular reason to be partial to Elizabeth. From the sisters’ point of view, Elizabeth’s emphasis on her self-respect and her refusal to acquiesce too readily to the dictates of situational propriety are offensive. Although the “mixture of sweetness and archness” in Elizabeth’s manner—her willingness to please and her strong insistence on dignity—may make it “difficult for her to affront anybody” (Austen [1813] 1966, 35), when the archness is felt to supersede the sweetness, people are affronted. When both parties in an interaction wish to protect their respective dignity, yet neither party is able to be partial to the other, only a dance of caution and suspicion can ensue.

Darcy’s response at this juncture is telling. He is “divided between admiration of the brilliancy which exercise had given to her [Elizabeth’s] complexion, and doubt as to the occasion’s justifying her coming so far alone” (22). His response would shift more toward admiration if he were more partial to Elizabeth’s ways, and more toward doubt if he were less partial to her ways. The level of Darcy’s partiality for Elizabeth determines his reaction to Elizabeth’s behavior as much as his reaction reveals his level of partiality.

When Elizabeth arrives on foot in a less than presentable state and without an invitation, the Bingley sisters should have more than welcomed Elizabeth, and Elizabeth should have been more than usually appreciative. This would have prevented Elizabeth from feeling like an interloper and the Bingleys from feeling like servants in their own home. As if to illustrate an alternative way the two parties might have responded to one another, Austen describes Mr. Collins’s behavior with Mrs. Philips at the Philipses’. In this scene, Mrs. Philips “received him with her very best politeness,” which Mr. Collins “returned with as much more, apologising for his intrusion, without any previous acquaintance with her, which he could not help flattering himself, however, might be justified by his relationship to the young ladies who introduced him to her notice.” Mr. Collins clumsily tries to more than reciprocate his hostess’s gracious hospitality while attempting to balance his apologies with firm claims to his legitimacy in being there. When leaving, Mr. Collins again “repeated his apologies … and was assured [by Mrs. Philips] with unwearying civility that they were perfectly needless” (51). Whether Mr. Collins succeeds or not, his intentions are clear: he wishes to ensure that both his face as a guest and Mrs. Philips’s face as a hostess are rendered dignified. Had Elizabeth behaved a little more like Mr. Collins, and the Bingley sisters a little more like Mrs. Philips, the parties might have danced a dance of relative comfort.

Nevertheless, we do admire Elizabeth for her insistence on going to visit Jane—in bad weather, unaccompanied, and on foot—as well as for her capacity to present a dignified front. Indeed, this insistence on putting up fronts and faces of their own rather than behaving in a shamefaced, abject manner is what makes Darcy, Bingley, Wickham, Lydia, Miss Bingley, Jane, Mr. and Mrs. Collins, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, and even Lady Catherine noteworthy. This is true no matter how ludicrous, thick-skinned, brazen, or solemn they may be in insisting on being taken seriously. They command a degree of respect because of their ability to present a face that commands deference. When these characters claim deference, the other characters automatically give it to them, even if the gesture is not much more than “temporary lip service” (Goffman 1967, 11).

Lydia, for instance, has “high animal spirits, and a sort of natural self-consequence,” or pride, “which the attentions,” or deference, of the officers and later of Wickham, encourage “into assurance.” This makes her “very equal … to address Mr. Bingley on the subject of the ball” (Austen [1813] 1966, 31)—or any other subject, for that matter. Bingley is likewise capable of wittily counterattacking Darcy’s analysis of him (33–34) and is ultimately no mere wimp, while “we never see him [Mr. Collins] taken aback” (Morris 1987, 151), even after Elizabeth rejects his marriage proposal. And when Lydia and Wickham stop at Longbourn on their way north after they are hurriedly married, Wickham’s ability to hold his own helps him appear less inferior than he otherwise might seem, given that “to appear flustered … is considered evidence of weakness, inferiority, low status, moral guilt, defeat, and other unenviable attributes” (Goffman 1967, 101–102). Pride, the driving force behind the claiming of a demeanor, is a valuable commodity, because it obliges the audience to pay deference to whoever claims it. The frightened Miss Georgiana Darcy and the timid Miss de Bourgh will need to acquire pride before readers can take them seriously the way they take Elizabeth seriously.

In this way, what sociologist Randall Collins (1988) asserts in discussing Goffman’s microsociology I would maintain for Austen’s characters in Pride and Prejudice: “It is not just that different people might have different definitions of the same situation, but that each participant can be in several complex layers of situational definition at the same time” (58). I claim as Austen’s ideal reader that Darcy’s flaw of being too consistent in putting up a front contributes to the unfair assessment of Mr. Collins’s character as being impossibly abject, but this consistency of Darcy’s is ultimately his charm, which attracts Elizabeth, because she values and understands it. That the stiff Darcy should later appear dignified to readers is typical of human judgment: it is colored by one’s partiality, which can shift. Similarly, while Elizabeth’s refusal to appear subservient unfairly paints the Bingley sisters as primarily mean and haughty and Mrs. Bennet and Lydia as completely inferior,14 this same quality in Elizabeth is ultimately her charm, which attracts Darcy, because he values and understands it.

The difference between a passionate, persevering lover and a stalker lies in the acceptability of the advances from the point of view of the party being pursued, male or female (Cupach and Spitzberg 2004, 1–34). Although Austen’s ([1817] 2004) Henry Tilney says to Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey that “in both [a country dance and marriage], man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal” (94), the process of choosing whom to ask and then actually asking is as much a challenge as the one women face in having to wait until they are asked and then respond appropriately. Most people do not enjoy being uncomfortable or making others so, and the initial occasion of asking and being asked is a taxing one, which is why Post allots twenty-five pages in her Etiquette to the rules that must be observed during a ball. Couples must be capable of synchronizing their macro-/microsocial performances according to tacitly and commonly understood scripts of intimacy and decency, which, like the relationship between a host and a guest, rests on both parties’ ability to balance their degree of self-esteem and desire and express it in a way that is both macrosocially and microsocially appropriate.

Ideal readers see that when Darcy first proposes to Elizabeth, he fails to do so in a microsocially acceptable manner. He begins with a passionate expression of his personal feelings, but as Bruce Stovel (2002) notes, Elizabeth immediately discovers that Darcy is “much better at telling than asking” (32), which is “easy,” because “telling is a one-way communication, a transmission of opinion and fact, while question-and-answer is a two-way exchange” (25). In his inability to ask, Darcy is no better than Mr. Collins, who begins his proposal of marriage to Elizabeth with a long list of reasons marriage is generally commendable. Neither Mr. Collins nor Darcy realizes that in proposing marriage, they are required to observe strict microsocial boundaries of propriety from which they are not automatically exempt just because one is a relative, as with Mr. Collins, or because one is capable of understanding the other person’s double-talk, as with Darcy—even if, or especially because, they are capable of improving the Bennets’ lot. Indeed, the macrosocial advantage the two men have over Elizabeth requires them to modify their standing by getting down on their knees, figuratively speaking, so that Elizabeth is not obliged to feel as though she were being purchased. As with the dance ritual, men must ask their question, and women should be asked, not told. Men’s deference gestures toward women need to match the women’s claims to their demeanor.

Deference gestures that match claims to demeanors generate “warm” intimacies, such as the one between Darcy and Bingley. Darcy’s demeanor is supported by Bingley’s deference to it, just as Bingley’s demeanor is supported by Darcy’s deference. Bingley’s “easiness, openness, ductility of … temper” allows Darcy to assume the face of a solid character rather than that of a “haughty, reserved, and fastidious” man, which is one important reason Bingley is “endeared to Darcy.” On the other hand, Darcy’s deference for Bingley’s “easiness, openness, ductility of … temper” is what gives Bingley the face of an amiable character rather than that of an irresolute and wishy-washy one, which explains why Bingley has “the firmest reliance” on “the strength of Darcy’s regard” (Austen [1813] 1966, 10). Readers—and perhaps Bingley himself—understand Bingley’s character through Darcy’s regard, or partiality, for him. Given that Bingley is easily persuaded to leave Netherfield Park and then later to return according to Darcy’s advice, Bingley’s identity as a complaisant character rather than a weak one is precariously maintained by the partiality of his friends. Moreover, Darcy’s identity as a good brother to Georgiana Darcy rather than as an overbearing guardian—which Lady Catherine de Bourgh is understood to be with her daughter Miss Anne de Bourgh—can also be understood as being precariously maintained by the partiality of his friends, including Elizabeth and the ideal readers.

The mutual mirroring of favorable images on the part of Darcy and Bingley is in each man’s interest, fulfilling one essential condition for a “warm” intimacy. However, when Bingley becomes partial to Jane, who reciprocates his partiality, and Darcy becomes partial to Elizabeth, who likewise returns his partiality, the two men become less attached to one another and instead form a different kind of attachment with their respective female partners, which is in everyone’s interest.

The attachment between Jane and Bingley is in their mutual interest. As is true with Darcy and Bingley, Jane’s partiality and deference for Bingley, and Bingley’s for her, make Bingley appear complaisant, well-bred, and amiable rather than lax, feeble, and wimpy, and Jane appears prudent, unassuming, and gentle rather than passive, hesitant, and weak. Notably, the attachment between the immaculately polite Jane and Bingley is possible only because Darcy intervenes, or meddles .15 Without Darcy, their union may not have materialized. As Tanner (1986) rightfully detects, a “rather spineless plasticity” (124) characterizes Bingley, and as Emily Auerbach (2004) notes, “Like lively, the term ease is loaded with ambivalence” (150). In each other’s positive regard, Jane and Bingley can continue to feel amiable toward one another and humbly appreciative of the other’s company. Their partiality for one another is successful in transforming their weaknesses into strengths. Since neither dares to take the other for granted, the pair’s sense of indebtedness and gratitude for one another’s regard fuel the engine of partiality. One party constantly repays the other for the deference he or she receives, and the repayment is then duly reciprocated. Luckily for Bingley, Jane is quietly appreciative of his lack of concern about her financial situation and inferior connections, and luckily for Jane, Bingley is quietly appreciative of Jane’s regard for him and is wealthy enough to not be troubled by her lack of wealth. Instead, Bingley worries only that Jane’s gentle and partial regard be secured .

Another way of describing Bingley and Jane’s relationship is to say that as in an ideal relationship between a host and a guest, Jane and Bingley are both willing to please the other and are pleased when they succeed. Darcy’s complaint that Jane “smiled too much” and Bingley’s tendency to be “liked wherever he appeared” (Austen [1813] 1966, 10) attest to the pair’s need and propensity to be pleasing. That Jane is pretty and Bingley has “a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners” (6) helps them: their appearances are, literally, pleasing. And because the gestures of pleasing and being pleased become dignified gestures of civility when they are mutually given and reciprocated to the appropriate degree, Bingley and Jane are a perfect match. Theirs is a microsocially viable alliance. Although ascertaining who pleases whom first is difficult, two things are clear. First, the process has to begin, as it does when, after a long interval, Bingley is invited to dinner at the Bennets’ and must decide where to sit: “On entering the room, he [Bingley] seemed to hesitate; but Jane happened to look round, and happened to smile: it was decided. He placed himself by her” (233; emphasis added).

A smile is a blanket sign of acceptance, which brings us to the second aspect of the mechanics of mutual liking: such signs of acceptance initiate the cycle of “liking” gestures. And these signs must be communicated. In essence, both Bingley and Jane are pleased to be pleasing to a pleasing partner. They enjoy the state of being liked by a likable character. This is one way intimacies emerge, and Austen shows that this circumstance of Jane happening to turn around and smile just as Bingley enters the room—after Darcy intervenes, or meddles, to make the circumstance possible—is what allows the two to once again join forces. Mrs. Bennet’s aggressive move of sending Jane to the Bingleys’ on foot on a day promising rain, Darcy’s meddling a second time, and chance brought about the marriage of Jane and Bingley, both of whom are perfect hosts to guests like themselves, and perfect guests to hosts like themselves.

The relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth might, in turn, be described as one generated between two people who are pleased to be respected by people they respect. Elizabeth’s affection increases in proportion to the level of Darcy’s confessed admiration for her; only when his deference coincides with the demeanor she wishes to claim does Elizabeth provide Darcy the deference he needs. When Elizabeth rejects Darcy’s proposal of marriage the first time, Austen describes the scene in a way that clarifies the mechanism of their relationship: “In spite of her deeply-rooted dislike, she [Elizabeth] could not be insensible to the compliment of such a man’s affection, and though her intentions did not vary for an instant, she was at first sorry for the pain he was to receive” (Austen [1813] 1966, 131). Because Elizabeth seems to know him as well as she knows herself, she is flattered to know his feelings for her and sorry to have to hurt him. And when Elizabeth is unable to look Darcy in the eye during the second proposal scene, Austen writes, “though she [Elizabeth] could not look, she could listen, and he told her of feelings, which, in proving of what importance she was to him, made his affection every moment more valuable” (252). The more valued Elizabeth feels, the more valuable Darcy’s regard becomes .

However, given that Elizabeth will never be Darcy’s macrosocial equal, a series of events through which Darcy is microsocially lowered in stature and/or Elizabeth is microsocially raised would need to occur before they could feel comfortable with one another—but not in a way that would occasion a loss of respect for one another or themselves. Pivotal in this respect are Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s aforementioned ability to double-talk, Darcy’s letter, and the power of embarrassment. In addition to what I explained earlier about Darcy’s missive, his letter informs Elizabeth of his less-than-ideal family situation, consisting of his difficulties with Wickham’s attempted elopement with his sister Georgiana. Although the degree to which family honor is jeopardized proves greater for Elizabeth than it ever is for Darcy—Darcy has prevented his sister’s elopement, whereas, even though the subsequent marriage somewhat neutralizes the scandalous nature of the incident, Lydia and Wickham do elope—Darcy’s epistolary confession to Elizabeth makes him more accessible as a fellow human being with troubles of his own.

Add to this Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s embarrassment when they run into one another during her visit to Pemberley with her aunt and uncle:

She [Elizabeth] was overpowered by shame and vexation. Her coming there was the most unfortunate, the most ill-judged thing in the world! How strange must it appear to him! In what a disgraceful light might it not strike so vain a man! It might seem as if she has purposely thrown herself in his way again! … Never in her life had she seen his [Darcy’s] manners so little dignified, never had he spoken with such gentleness as on this unexpected meeting. … She knew not what to think, nor how to account for it. (172; emphasis added)

By the time this unanticipated encounter at Pemberley occurs, Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth has been rejected, and Elizabeth has read Darcy’s letter, so that both Darcy and Elizabeth are sufficiently humbled in the awareness of their misjudgments about their own behavior and their positions vis-à-vis the other. Therefore, when they meet unexpectedly at Pemberley, they are profoundly embarrassed, and Elizabeth finds herself at a loss about how to deal with Darcy’s ostensible vulnerability, embarrassment, and civility . In not being able to think or reason clearly, Elizabeth struggles to react appropriately to Darcy, just as Darcy struggles to react appropriately to Elizabeth. They no longer know what attitudes they should assume in interacting with one another, so that their faces in relation to one another are at long last reset. Indeed, as David Southward (1996) contends, “Embarrassment proves to be the great leveler in Austen’s fictional worlds,” embarrassment being “an all-too-human experience, a rude but necessary reminder of our common origins” (765; emphasis in original). Equally important, however, is that in managing this moment of embarrassment, both feel compelled to protect the moment by protecting one another’s face. Embarrassment therefore gives Darcy and Elizabeth an encouraging microsocial push toward their final union.

And judging from what we know of Darcy, he is on his knees, figuratively speaking, when he confesses his feelings for her the second time and asks for her hand in marriage. Darcy and Elizabeth, like Jane and Bingley, are perfect hosts to guests like themselves and ideal guests to hosts like themselves. What is important for both cases of passions of the everyday—the one between Bingley and Jane and that between Darcy and Elizabeth—then, is equilibrium between each party’s need for respect and/or encouragement, reciprocity, the ability to perform from the same script of intimacy, and chance.

The happy ending of Austen’s novel is achieved via a series of coincidences, or, in Stuart M. Tave’s (1973) expression, a “stroke of luck” (17)—a view shared by critics Auerbach (2004, 143) and Cottom (1985, 88). Mrs. Bennet, Darcy, Lady Catherine, and the Gardiners tend to meddle in others’ business, and all these individuals’ interventions, or interferences and meddling, ultimately produce fortunate results. It is Mrs. Gardiner’s misunderstanding about Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship that facilitates Elizabeth and Darcy’s actual reunion: Mr. and Mrs. Robert Gardiner, “by bringing her [Elizabeth] into Derbyshire[,] had been the means of uniting them” (Austen [1813] 1966, 268). This marriage prefigures the rise of a single class of civility, which will gradually enable individuals from all socioeconomic backgrounds to interact with one another in relative decency. As Susan Fraiman (1993) observes, thanks to “the apparent power of fishing”—and, in my microsocial reading, the need for Darcy as host to exercise his hospitality—“class differences” are “overcome” (86).

Austen’s fiction is highly conscious of itself. The author illustrates the scripted nature of everyday living, and her characters know that their lives are scripted, full of contradictions, misunderstanding, and distortions, which are swayed abundantly by arbitrary forces such as chance. They also sense the power of those slightly less arbitrary microsocial forces, such as a person’s need to adhere to the norms governing front- and backstage situations, to exercise tact to avoid embarrassment, and to pitch in when embarrassment threatens to cause a scene to collapse. And although Austen’s story has become a prototype of the romantic novel, which is “instrumental to the history of desire” (Armstrong and Tennenhouse 1987, 1), the microsocially aware ideal readers see that Austen’s Elizabeth and Darcy already use romantic conventions to frame and guide their responses to one another. Itself depicted in a novel, their behavior is guided by the conventions described in the novels they read.

However, in an exchange between Jane and Elizabeth in the latter parts of Austen’s work, the author seems to caution readers not to look too closely. When Jane inquires, “But why should you wish to persuade me that I feel more than I acknowledge?” Austen has Elizabeth respond as follows: “That is a question which I hardly know how to answer. We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing. Forgive me; and if you persist in indifference, do not make me your confidante” (Austen [1813] 1966, 236). Austen’s fiction provides readers with romantic scripts to guide them in their courtships and does this so well that they manage not to be self-conscious about what they learn. They may be better off not understanding her communication—Austen suggests—where the alliances between Elizabeth and Darcy and between Jane and Bingley are no different from those between Mr. Collins and Charlotte and between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. Engendered by forces that have less to do with will than with microsocial influences and chance, they are all alliances of macro-/microsocial conveniences.

Moreover, ideal readers would find little difference between Austen’s text’s view of human beings and Chesterfield’s ([1774] 1792) “Machiavellian”16 outlook as described in his Letters:

Intrinsic merit alone will not do: it will gain you the general esteem of all; but not the particular affection, that is, the heart of any. To engage the affection of any particular person, you must, over and above your general merit, have some particular merit to that person; by services done, or offered; by expressions of regard and esteem; by complaisance, attentions, &c. for him: and the graceful manner of doing all these things opens the way to the heart, and facilitates, or rather insures, their effects. (2:12–13)

One must be useful in some way to others, writes Chesterfield, and be graceful in so being if one desires to gain others’ regard. Indeed, when Austen’s ideal readers witness Darcy having specific merits to Elizabeth—when he ensures that Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle Gardiner are comfortable when they visit Pemberley, intervenes in the Bennet family’s crisis after Lydia runs off with Wickham, promotes the reunion between Bingley and Jane, and expresses his high regard for Elizabeth—they see that the moves do, in Chesterfield’s words, “[open] the way to the heart, and [facilitate], or rather [insure], their effects” (2:13). Austen would agree with Chesterfield when he claims that “[f]ew people have penetration enough to discover, attention enough to observe, or even concern enough to examine beyond the exterior; they take their notions from the surface, and go no deeper” (3:161)—until they are coaxed into discovering Austen’s microsocial perspective.

In this chapter, I have illustrated how Austen’s microsocial understanding of her ideal readers informs the structure of her novel, which in turn directs her ideal rereaders’ attention to the text’s focus on issues related to what microsociology calls “face” and to the novel’s understanding that all human relationships are in essence host–guest relationships. The relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy as described by Elizabeth is illuminating: “My good qualities are under your protection, and you are to exaggerate them as much as possible; and, in return, it belongs to me to find occasions for teazing and quarrelling with you as often as may be” (Austen [1813] 1966, 263). Darcy is to reflect a favorable image of Elizabeth back to Elizabeth, and Elizabeth is to continue to be flirtatious, that is, empowered, thanks to Darcy’s forgiving partiality. Let us hope that the rich Darcy remains on his knees so as to ensure Elizabeth’s comfort and that Elizabeth continues to be teasingly but seriously appreciative, so that she might continuously reciprocate his gesture of respectful, deferential partiality. To be sure, as Bernard J. Paris (1978) asserts, Elizabeth and Darcy are “happy at the end because they have a vested interest in exalting each other,” which creates “a rewarding, though … somewhat tense relationship” (139). I would maintain, however, that this relationship is an ideal couple relationship: they are ideal guests to hosts like themselves and ideal hosts to guests like themselves. The liking and respect they express and perform for one another are to their mutual satisfaction and reciprocal. Problems arise when they are not.

Only when a figurative host and guest are alike in their degree of self-respect and willingness to adapt to one another is the resulting relationship comfortable for both. When Austen’s ideal readers follow their cheerfully ironic implied author to the end of the novel and then repeat the reading—thanks to their unwavering partiality for their “minute and analytical” but “never prolix or redundant” (James 1875, 202) author, who writes in such a way as to cater to her ideal readers’ process of understanding as guided by their prejudices and prides—they are happy to be the kind of intelligent guests toward whom their implied author seems to direct her messages. To describe the microsocially informed readers’ view of their author, I would modify Booth’s (1974) statement in The Rhetoric of Irony as follows: “The author I infer … is my kind of” author, because this author “grants me a kind of wisdom” and “assumes” that she “does not have to spell out the shared and secret truths on which my” microsocial “reconstruction is to be built” (28). Although I fail to identify Austen’s “perfection of form” as either “narrow” or “unconscious,” as Henry James (1975) did in an 1883 letter to his friend George Pellow, “the extraordinary vividness with which she [Austen] saw what she did see” (189) is evident. Reading Austen’s “accurate and unexaggerated delineation of events and characters” in her novel is indeed “instructive” (Whately 1821, 353; emphasis in original)—although not necessarily in the way Austen’s contemporary Richard Whately meant it.


  1. 1.

    Focusing on the macrosocial elements in Austen’s work, such as the historical, the political, the philosophical, and the cultural has been an important tendency in Austen studies. Themes and topics, such as Jane Austen and food (Lane 1995), leisure (Selwyn 1999), the body (Wiltshire 1992), education (Devlin 1975), religion (Giffin 2002), politics (Neill 1999), crime (Fullerton 2004), Charles Darwin and naturalists (Graham 2008), ideas (Butler 1975), and the Enlightenment (Knox-Shaw 2004) have been examined.

  2. 2.

    As communication theorists William R. Cupach and Brian H. Spitzberg (2004) purport, “Mutuality is an ideal state; hence its achievement is relative rather than absolute” (34).

  3. 3.

    Penny Gay (2002), who observes that Austen’s novels deal with “a society that she perceives to be inescapably theatrical” (ix), is among those who note this aspect of Austen, but none have elaborated on this understanding in microsociological terms with an emphasis on structures of interaction.

  4. 4.

    Mrs. Bennet is generally civil in public. With the exception of occasional misjudgments, of which all Austen’s characters are guilty, Mrs. Bennet differentiates between the frontstage and the backstage, except when she feels she has good reason to reciprocate incivility with incivility—as does Elizabeth, when Lady Catherine de Bourgh insults Elizabeth and her family to her face. Mrs. Bennet’s lack of hesitancy to show her disdain for Darcy in public after his fatal blunder of publicly voicing his ultra-backstage first impressions of the Meryton public assembly and Elizabeth is not totally unwarranted.

  5. 5.

    Chesterfield ([1774] 1792) wrote, “Mutual complaisances, attentions, and sacrifices of little inconveniencies, are as natural an implied compact between civilized people, as protection and obedience between Kings and subjects: whoever, in either case, violates that compact, justly forfeits all advantages arising from it” (2:253).

  6. 6.

    During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when someone of a higher rank would visit, the host was expected to go out of his or her way to meet the guest upon arrival. Write Joan Wildeblood and Peter Brinson (1965), “The host’s duties are always more onerous than those of the visitor. Having assured himself that all was in readiness for the guest’s reception, consideration of the distance he should go to meet his visitor was a delicate one” (206).

  7. 7.

    At the Meryton dance, Elizabeth engages in the same kind of self-defensive maneuver to restore her pride when Darcy insults her by reducing her to the ranks of slighted ladies in want of partners at a dance. Mary Poovey (1984) writes, “Elizabeth’s ‘liveliness’ is primarily defensive” (196), and Bernard J. Paris (1978) likewise asserts, “In the defense of her pride, she [Elizabeth] becomes saucy, combative, and, sometimes, brutally frank. Some of this behavior seems like healthy self-assertion … but much of it is clearly defensive” (121).

  8. 8.

    The interest of the moment motivates individuals to form intimate alliances—as when George Wickham uses Elizabeth, who uses him, as Poovey (1984) asserts; their mutual interest is the font of their association (196).

  9. 9.

    Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet are fortunate, because if the outspoken Mrs. Bennet did not already exist, they would have to invent her. Mrs. Bennet’s “inferior” behavior is necessary for Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth to perform their superiority. Thanks to Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Bennet can continue to feel superior to his “silly” wife and daughters and play the part of the philosophical gentleman rather than the sarcastic and irresponsible one that he comes very close to being exposed as after Lydia Bennet’s elopement with Wickham. If Elizabeth is not directly vocal about certain things, this is because Mrs. Bennet vents Elizabeth’s feelings for her, with the faceless chorus of the Meryton community. She takes on the dirty work of backstage adjustments among the Bennet clan.

  10. 10.

    David Daiches (1960) condemns Mr. Collins as being “a kind of grotesque” (751), and Carole Moses (2002) calls him “both a fool and a perverse student of Milton” (n. pag.). Few critics would call Darcy these things. Yet as critics Ivor Morris and Gay assert, definite parallels exist between the two characters. Morris (1987) humorously points out that Darcy “contrives to speak with an eloquence upon the subject of Elizabeth’s socially disadvantaged condition that surpasses Mr. Collins’s own” and that he “almost out-Collins Collins in paying his addresses” (89). Gay (2002), in turn, writes that Mr. Collins is “a comic parody of Mr. Darcy’s pomposity and self-importance, even to the extent of assuming he is irresistible to the heroine” (84).

  11. 11.

    See W. M. Jacob (2007) for a discussion of how the clergy of the eighteenth century was highly professionalized.

  12. 12.

    Earlier, Mr. Bennet notes “a mixture of servility and self-importance” (Austen [1813] 1966, 44) in Mr. Collins’s letter.

  13. 13.

    Chesterfield ([1774] 1792) insightfully observes in a July 8, 1751, letter that one’s attire says something about at least two parties, not just one: “To neglect your dress, is an affront to all the women you keep company with; as it implies, that you do not think them worth that attention which every body else doth; they mind dress, and you will never please them if you neglect yours” (3:208). If one dresses well, one is a well-dressed individual who simultaneously, even if unwittingly, sends a message to the other person about his assessment of that person, such as “You are (not) worth dressing well for.” Indeed, all gestures say something about at least two parties.

  14. 14.

    Mrs. Bennet and her two daughters make Elizabeth’s faults less unpalatable. Emily Auerbach (2004) asserts that “compared to Lydia,” Elizabeth’s “remarkable unconventionality, impertinence, impropriety, and violation of conduct-book standards” would seem mild (141). Claudia L. Johnson (1988) notes that Lydia functions as “a decoy who attracts the disapproval to which Elizabeth herself could otherwise be subject” (76–77). John Wiltshire (2001) asserts that Elizabeth’s “provocative social manner … surely reproduces, in moderated form, her mother’s forwardness” (185), and Paul Goetsch (2004) observes that “like her mother and sister [Lydia], she [Elizabeth] misjudges other people,” “is attracted to Wickham for some time,” and “disregards social conventions” (32). Indeed, Elizabeth herself is at one juncture “shocked to think that, however incapable of such coarseness of expression herself, the coarseness of the sentiment [that Lydia expresses] was little other than her own breast had formerly harboured and fancied liberal!” (Austen [1813] 1966, 151).

  15. 15.

    Ultimately, meddling is interference or intervention, depending on whose side one is on—that is, depending on one’s partiality. See also Cecilia Salber (2000).

  16. 16.

    Jennifer Preston Wilson (2004) uses the phrase “Machiavellian philosophy” to refer to Chesterfield’s approach “toward winning influence and power” (n. pag.). Chesterfield ([1774] 1792) himself uses the term “Machiavel” in his Letters to describe the necessity for those in Court to combine “caution” with “seeming frankness and openness” to achieve “volto sciolto [open face]” accompanied by “pensieri stretti [concealed thoughts]” (2:209; emphasis in original).

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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Ritsumeikan UniversityKyotoJapan

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