Monday, January 28, 2013

Pride and Prejudice Readathon: Chapter Forty-six (Lydia)

After building us up over the past three chapters, Austen now sends her readers crashing down. The news goes from bad to worse: Lydia has eloped with Wickham, Wickham has no intention of marrying her, Mr. Darcy seems to withdraw his affections. Poor Elizabeth!
Darcy made no answer. He seemed scarcely to hear her, and was walking up and down the room in earnest meditation; his brow contracted, his air gloomy. Elizabeth soon observed and instantly understood it. Her power was sinking; every thing must sink under such a proof of family weakness, such an assurance of the deepest disgrace. She should neither wonder nor condemn, but the belief of his self-conquest brought nothing consolatory to her bosom, afforded no palliation of her distress. It was, on the contrary, exactly calculated to make her understand her own wishes; and never had she so honestly felt that she could have loved him, as now, when all love must be vain.
The modern reader may not always comprehend the dire consequences for a genteel family of small fortune that behavior like Lydia's denotes. It is rational for Elizabeth to assume that here ends all hope of contracting desirable marriages for herself and her sisters. They may even be shunned by all their former friends. To expect Mr. Darcy to renew his proposal amid such disgrace is nearly preposterous, and such sentiments fuel Elizabeth's regrets and lamentations:

If gratitude and esteem are good foundations of affection, Elizabeth's change of sentiment will be neither improbable nor faulty. But if otherwise, if the regard springing from such sources is unreasonable or unnatural, in comparison of what is so often described as arising on a first interview with its object, and even before two words have been exchanged, nothing can be said in her defence, except that she had given somewhat of a trial to the latter method in her partiality for Wickham, and that its ill-success might perhaps authorise her to seek the other less interesting mode of attachment. Be that as it may, she saw him go with regret; and in this early example of what Lydia's infamy must produce, found additional anguish as she reflected on that wretched business. Never, since reading Jane's second letter, had she entertained a hope of Wickham's meaning to marry her. No one but Jane, she thought, could flatter herself with such an expectation. Surprise was the least of her feelings on this developement. While the contents of the first letter remained on her mind, she was all surprise -- all astonishment that Wickham should marry a girl whom it was impossible he could marry for money; and how Lydia could ever have attached him had appeared incomprehensible. But now it was all too natural. For such an attachment as this, she might have sufficient charms; and though she did not suppose Lydia to be deliberately engaging in an elopement, without the intention of marriage, she had no difficulty in believing that neither her virtue nor her understanding would preserve her from falling an easy prey.
The entire episode is nothing less than disastrous, already teetering on the edge of society.

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