Every story depicts instances in which individuals take major and minor initiatives. Sometimes these initiatives are critical determinants of the success or failure of major outcomes. Other times these conscious actions of individuals fail to have major impact and the most important results can be traced to ‘initiatives of life’, which the characters in the story view as chance events. In this section, we examine principles governing the success of human initiatives as illustrated in the story.
Mr. Gardiner and Mr. Bennet are compelled by their sense of responsibility to Lydia and the reputation of the family to take all possible steps to save Lydia and the family from disgrace after her elopement with Wickham. Although their individual actions do not directly generate the intended results, ultimately that intention is fulfilled by Darcy’s independent initiative, of which they had no knowledge until it was almost complete. The social atmosphere for marriage is positive; therefore, these initiatives are supported by ‘life’.
Collins proposal to Eliza is a characteristic instance of an initiative by one who lacks the basic qualifying capacity for accomplishment, yet acts out of ignorance and self-conceit.
Wickham’s attempted elopement with Georgiana fails because he tried to reach by ruse a level in society for which he lacked either the external qualifications or the inner strength of personality. Darcy’s family is too high in cultural endowment to be penetrated by ruse. That is why Darcy arrives in time and Georgiana frankly acknowledges to him their intended elopement on her own initiative. In fact, all Wickham’s initiatives fail. His effort to marry Mary King breaks down before he can consummate the marriage. His effort to elope with Lydia merely for physical enjoyment gets converted into matrimony.
In spite of his association with Lady Catherine, Collins lacks the social status to recommend himself for introduction to Darcy at Netherfield; therefore Darcy spurns his attempt.
Lady Catherine can successfully exert her authority over Mr. Collins’ choice of wife and over every detail of the furnishings of the parsonage. She will not have equal success when she applies the same force to deal with Darcy, of whom she wishes the ultimate boon of marriage to her sickly daughter, or with Elizabeth, who does not depend on her patronage or respect her haughty presumptions of superior breeding.
Darcy exerts a very strong influence over his friend Bingley arising from his superior social status and his more developed mind and character. However, in his interference with Bingley’s marriage to Jane, Darcy’s influence cannot ultimately succeed, because Darcy himself is subject to the same attraction and feels compelled to make an even greater social compromise by marrying Eliza. Darcy’s objections to Bingley’s marriage are also in direct conflict with the evolutionary direction of the society, the direction Darcy himself feels drawn to move in. Having no control over his own feelings, he cannot for long constrain Bingley’s.
Elizabeth longs to bring the speech and behavior of Lydia and her mother under control. She is later horrified to discover the same tendencies in her own thought and speech. She is powerless to control in others what she has not fully mastered in herself. Eliza is powerless to persuade her father to stop Lydia from going to Brighton, which leads to her elopement with Wickham, because Eliza herself is still unable to master her own attraction to Wickham and is unwilling to expose him to her family.
Mr. Bennet is unable to control either his wife’s or youngest daughter’s behavior. Having been unable to resist marrying Mrs. Bennet for her beauty and unable to control her once married, he lacks the power to control Lydia, who most takes after her mother.
Caroline’s efforts to influence Darcy’s opinion of Elizabeth fail because she is stationed at a lower level of the social hierarchy than Darcy. It is the higher station that sets the standards for what is or is not acceptable or fashionable. Caroline’s criticism of Darcy’s taste in feminine beauty only leads him to contradict her own opinion in a manner that reinforces the supremacy of his views.
Caroline herself responds in similar fashion to Sir Lucas’ offer to introduce her and her sister at St. James Court. Lucas attempts to elevate his position by the offer. Caroline is only aware of his assertion of equal or superior station in life, which she must reject to defend her own superior status based on wealth.
Lady Catherine’s advice to Collins in all matters relating to marriage and housekeeping is welcomed by him as a manifestation of grace, accepted and carried out with gusto. When she sends him on a mission to find a wife and Eliza refuses his proposal, he readily redirects his attentions to a more willing subject, Charlotte, and returns to Rosings victorious.
Lydia is able to descend effortlessly to a lower level by eloping with Wickham, whereas all Wickham’s efforts to rise meet with great resistance.
Although he is fully eligible in terms of status and future wealth, Collins’ proposal to Eliza meets with unexpected resistance. His wealth is only a future potential while hers is a present possession. Her breeding and quality of mind separate them by a great distance within the same plane. When Collins proposes to Charlotte, here too it is a movement within the same plane, but to one at a lower level. Lacking either wealth or beauty, Charlotte readily accepts what Eliza readily rejected.
Lady Catherine’s efforts to marry her daughter Anne to Darcy meet with resistance and ultimately fail, even though they are very much within the same social plane. Her social position, authority and family relationship fully qualify Anne for the marriage, but Anne’s weak constitution and personal insufficiencies present a drawback that Darcy is unwilling to overlook. The social will is seeking to reinvigorate the aristocracy and that movement takes precedence over Anne’s personal connections. Lady Catherine seeks to capitalize on the mutual pledge of her sister and herself that their children should marry, a practice whose value is passing out of existence. The light in Eliza’s eyes is enough to overcome the best-laid plans of the older generation to perpetuate itself in the old style. Had Lady Catherine sought a suitor for Anne from a lower plane, she would have met with ready success.
Not only does Darcy have to reverse that act. He has to match Lydia with Wickham as well. Darcy’s effort to get Lydia and Wickham married is a reversal both of his earlier interference with Bingley’s marriage to Jane and of his professed negative attitudes about Eliza’s family. His willingness to undertake this ‘mortifying’ task shows a great strength of determination and releases a great intensity of energy for accomplishment. He possesses the energy, the money and the social authority to accomplish it.
Eliza has to initiate the conversations with Darcy when they dance at Netherfield ball. It is also Eliza who is forced to break the formality and revive their personal relationship when Darcy returns to Longbourn. Her wanting Darcy to take the initiative to speak first does not work. Because she is at the receiving end of the relationship, the initiative has to come from her in order for it to be successful.
When Darcy and Georgiana extend an invitation to Elizabeth and the Gardiners to dine at Pemberley, Elizabeth turns her head away and is unable to reply. Mrs. Gardiner accepts on behalf of their party. The dinner is cancelled by news of Lydia’s elopement. Elizabeth’s failure to respond represents the difficulty she encounters responding to the initiative of a higher level of life, which she experiences consciously as embarrassment.
The most striking instances of unsuccessful initiatives in the story are those of Mrs. Bennet. All initiative in the family arises from her. All her initiatives lead to failure or postponement of positive results. The marriage of three daughters is a direct response to her intense aspiration and energy, but it is achieved in spite of her initiatives rather than because of them. Mrs. Bennet thinks of herself as the prime mover that presides over all successes, priding herself on methods that are, in fact, counterproductive and offensive to any accomplishment.
She is unaware how her behavior cancelled Jane’s opportunity with Bingley. Mr. Bennet’s initial visit to Netherfield on her suggestion leads to naught when Bingley and company desert Netherfield for the winter. Her first invitation to Bingley for dinner is cancelled when he goes to London to bring his friends. She resorts to the ploy of sending Jane to Netherfield on horseback in the hope that rain forces Jane to remain there for the night. It does rain; Jane falls ill and has to remain there for a week. But Jane’s presence brings Elizabeth into close contact with Darcy, who discovers the intensity of his attraction for Elizabeth and looks for a way to escape from temptation. Getting Bingley away from Jane becomes a good excuse for getting himself away from Eliza. The social atmosphere surrounding Jane’s marriage to Bingley is negative at this point. His sisters are critical. Darcy openly disapproves. Mrs. Bennet’s ploy, as well as her open discussion about the prospects of the couple at the Netherfield ball, only serve to alert the opposition and cancel the possibility. The result of a ploy in a negative atmosphere is to cancel opportunity.
It is not difficult to understand why Mrs. Bennet’s two dinner invitations to Bingley are not fulfilled, but why does the same thing happen to Darcy and Georgiana when they extend an invitation to Eliza and the Gardiners to dine at Pemberley? If Darcy represents the higher plane bending to embrace the lower, the social gradient is no obstacle. We can understand that his initiative of proposing to Eliza at Hunsford was unsuccessful because of the internal conflict which divided his energies and the crude manner of his proposal. But apparently that conflict has been resolved, at least to a significant extent, by this time. What obstacle remains?
From Darcy’s point of view, it is true that he has extended a gracious welcome to the Gardiners at Pemberley. Contrary to his earlier prejudice, he finds them far more genteel and respectable than he might have imagined. In fact, they represent the highest point in social attainments within Eliza’s family. Though Mr. Gardiner may lack Mr. Bennet’s aristocratic lineage, he has substantial wealth and sophisticated urban manners. By accepting the Gardiners, Darcy has embraced only the best and highest of Eliza’s family, not the worst and lowest. For that he must still save Lydia from disgrace.
Furthermore, Darcy has yet to reverse his initiative in separating Bingley and Jane. Bingley is among the guests who call on Eliza at Lambton. Caroline is present when Eliza and Mrs. Gardiner return the courtesy by visiting Pemberley the following day. Seeing Eliza and also seeing the very warm attention which Darcy pays to her cannot fail to remind Bingley of Jane and Darcy’s interference. His emotions could not possibly sanction Darcy’s attentions to Eliza, anymore than Caroline’s can, so long as he is estranged from Jane. Therefore, Darcy’s dinner invitation to Eliza must fail, just as two of Mrs. Bennet’s dinner invitations to Bingley failed.
Furthermore, from Eliza’s point of view, the meeting at Lambton and the following day at Pemberley generate tension and discomfort in her due to the elevated status in which she finds herself, not as a mere guest as at Rosings, but with real prospects of permanent ascension. Her response to Darcy’s invitation by turning her head away, leaving Mrs. Gardiner to answer, reflects her inner condition. The cool, uncomfortable atmosphere of the meeting with the ladies at Pemberley the following day shows that conditions are not yet prepared for accomplishment.
Her elopement leads to marriage and brings luck to the family. Why? Lydia has fresh energy – free expression of energy brings luck. She is bold and courageous and adventurous—requirements for great success. She is not constrained by social opinion. She rejects the confining limits of society, which is essential for luck to express. It can be done positively or negatively. She does it negatively, but it still has power.