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“Do you prefer reading to cards?” said he; “that is rather singular.”

“Miss Eliza Bennet,” said Miss Bingley, “despises cards. She is a great reader and has no pleasure in anything else.”

“I deserve neither such praise nor such censure,” cried Elizabeth, “I am not a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things.”

I’m still rereading Jane Austen, and finding moments which surprise me, or make me rethink the version I remember of particular scenes.  Since I’m currently reading Pride and Prejudice, many of these moments involve being momentarily taken aback that the book isn’t a BBC TV series written by Andrew Davies in the 1990s, and I don’t want to suggest that Davies didn’t do a marvellous job with his version.  Nonetheless, the story I remember isn’t always the story in the book, and they often diverges in ways that highlight how Austen has been smoothed over and toned down over recent years.  How the books are sometimes more cynical and less romantic than we give them credit for.

Today I’m discussing the sequence I quoted above, which takes place whilst Lizzie is staying at Netherfield, taking care of Jane after the latter has caught a cold (or a chill, perhaps) visiting Mr Bingley’s sisters.  Instead of joining in the card game in the drawing room, she opts to read, causing the little verbal clash which Mr. Bingley hastens to smooth over by offering to fetch her any book she likes from his library and wishing he kept up a better one.  The subject of reading, and the sort of people who do it, does not disappear, however.  In the conversation which ensues about how accomplished modern young women are, Miss Bingley argues that skill and intellect are not enough:

“Oh! certainly,” cried [Miss Bingley], “no one can be really esteemed accomplished, who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with.  A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.

This continues the sense that Bingley’s sisters are women of decided fashion, and pride themselves on this being what distinguishes them from the country families who surround their brother’s newly-rented estate.  Darcy, however, makes another stipulation:

“All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”

I had always read this moment (aided by the way it is delivered in the BBC TV series) as evidence of Darcy’s increasingly open admiration for Lizzie (see also: “fine eyes”).   I assumed that he was endorsing Lizzie’s activities as worth more than Miss Bingley’s, and agreeing that reading is better than cards.  Behind all this verbal fencing there is clearly an attempt by Caroline Bingley to demonstrate to Darcy how inadequate provincial women are when compared to fashionable ladies like her; how they lack tact, accomplishment, poise and grace, so Lizzie’s honest response to Darcy apparently makes her point for her:

“I am now no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women.  I rather wonder now at your knowing any.”

Miss Bingley assures her that very many of their friends come up to this daunting standard, and returns to the attack when Lizzie leaves:

“Eliza Bennet,” said Miss Bingley, when the door was closed on her,” is one of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex, by undervaluing their own; and with many men, I dare say, it succeeds.  But, in my opinion, it was a paltry device, a very mean art.”

“Undoubtedly,” replied Darcy, to whom this remark was chiefly addressed, “there is meanness in all the arts which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation.  Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable.”

Despite Caroline’s apparent triumph – Lizzie has indeed been wrong-footed into sounding as if she was deprecating other women and trying to make herself sound special by comparison – Darcy will not concede her point.  He seems to hint that tricking other people in conversation is just as bad, and can also be aimed at gaining men’s approval by discrediting other women.

As I said, I read this as an endorsement of reading.  Lizzie’s virtues, as apparently demonstrated in this scene, consist in her unfashionable qualities of straightforwardness, love of books, and clear-sightedness about the society around her.  These are certainly traits which Austen values elsewhere in the novel, and reading is an unsurprising pastime to find her encouraging.  After all, the great defence of novels and novel-reading appeared in her earlier book Northanger Abbey:

It is only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.

Austen approves heartily of young women who read, judging by this statement, and it is a plausible reading of the scene in Pride and Prejudice.  It is also likely to appeal to a lot of people reading the novel today: since Austen passed from the category of entertainment to canonical English literature, many of her modern readers are surely going to be invested in bookishness.  To read Austen today requires a higher degree of literary skill and commitment than it did at the time, and to watch an Austen adaptation is to be aware of the weight of heritage being leveraged through the screen.

There’s also the fact that Austen is often read by young people – young women in particular – at a formative age.  Whether because it’s a set text in school, or because Austen has become associated with modern romance fiction and the mode of writing which we call “chick lit” for want of a better and less pejorative term, a lot of women encounter Pride and Prejudice in their teens.  Thus Lizzie fits comfortably alongside a number of heroines in women’s bildungsroman who discover and define themselves via their reading and writing.  To pick two at near-random: Darrell’s discovery in the last Mallory Towers novel that literature (not sport) is where her future lies, and Jo’s devotion to the page in Little Women, particularly her tough conversion to domestic realism (in more than one sense) by the end of the book.  Austen appears to be advising us, in words of the rather objectionable meme that went round some time ago, to Date A Girl Who Reads.  Or at least to Value A Young Women Who Reads.

lizzie bennet reading

She also appears to be taking the side of one approach to being a young women over against another, and reflecting on the difficulties of being a reader in the vicinity of young men.  If you happen to enjoy both books and young men, and you don’t see why people think you have to choose.  Caroline Bingley’s carefully weighted barb sounds like praise, but is calculated to put Darcy off her.  It’s recognisable both in form and content from a good deal of fiction, and perhaps from some young women’s experience.  A scene from Dorothy L. Sayers springs to mind which wittily and ruefully turns over this theme, set in an women’s college in the 1930s:

“Curse Flaxman!” said Miss Haydock. “Can’t she leave other people’s men alone?  She’s bagged Farringdon; I do think she might leave Pomfret for Cattermole.”

“She hates to leave anybody anything,” said Miss Layton.

“I hope,” said Miss Millbanks, “she has not been trying to collect your Geoffrey.”

“I’m not giving her the opportunity,” said Miss Layton, with an impish grin.  “Geoffrey’s sound – yes, darlings, definitely sound – but I’m taking no chances.  Last time we had him to tea in the J.C.R., Flaxman came undulating in – so sorry, she had no idea anybody was there, and she’d left a book behind.  With the Engaged Label on the door as large as life.  I did not introduce Geoffrey.”

“Did he want you to?” inquired Miss Haydock.

“Asked who she was.   I said she was the Templeton Scholar and the world’s heavyweight in the way of learning.  That put him off.”

“What’ll Geoffrey do when you pull off your First, my child?” demanded Miss Haydock.

“Well, Eve – it will be awkward if I do that.  Poor lamb!  I shall have to make him believe I only did it by looking fragile and pathetic at the viva.”

Sayers knew from her own personal life how being praised for your intellectual abilities did not always attract men in the way other accomplishments did.  So the scene in Pride and Prejudice seems to not only present Lizzie as a book lover, but to demonstrate how this maligned virtue may provide problems in her love life.  Her exclamation that she is “not a great reader” is partly modesty, but mostly a defence against Caroline’s attempts to paint her into a corner from which no man will ask her to dance.

However, on rereading the book I found that Austen – always a writer fond of telling you what is going on, despite her subtlety – slipped in a detail which changed the whole complexion of the scene.  It seems that Lizzie may be telling the truth:

On entering the drawing-room she found the whole party at loo, and was immediately invited to join them; but suspecting them to be playing high she declined it, and making her sister the excuse, said she would amuse herself for the short time she could stay below with a book.  Mr. Hurst looked at her with astonishment.

“Do you prefer reading to cards?” said he; “that is rather singular.”

“Miss Eliza Bennet,” said Miss Bingley, “despises cards. She is a great reader and has no pleasure in anything else.”

“I deserve neither such praise nor such censure,” cried Elizabeth, “I am not a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things.”

Austen tells us directly that Lizzie’s reason for not joining the game is not her high-minded devotion to the world of books, but the low ebb of her personal pocketbook.  As with so much in Pride and Prejudice, and the Austen canon more generally, money is an issue.  This is, after all, a novel which starts by mentioning the possession of a fortune, and harps continually on the fact that Mrs Bennet’s daughters need to get married because when their father dies, someone else will inherit his money.  (No, I’m not going to insert that meme again to remind of which someone…)  Lizzie may well want to play cards – the paragraph seems to assume that she does, and that playing cards is more fun than reading, because it explains what stopped her – but she can’t afford to keep up with her company.

Lizzie is reading because it doesn’t cost anything.  A rather different impression of the scene than the idea that she’s reading because she’s a bookish type like Austen’s readers.  But Austen’s work insists that money matters, that money can affect how enjoyable or secure or bearable a life you have.  That the irritations and problems and missed opportunities to which not having money will subject you can make you into a different person than you would otherwise have been.  It can mould characters just as much as reading can.  It can affect the way you relate to people around you and your sense of whether you belong with them or not.

Austen is a very conservative writer in many ways, but there is a radical edge to this theme in her novels.  For readers and viewers enjoying the nostalgic picture of Georgian England which can be extracted from her novels, many of whom experienced the kind of education which makes them feel at ease in the presence of literary classics, this is too easily missed.  Being part of society costs money, whether on the larger scale of being able to take a house in London for the season your daughters become old enough to marry or being qualified to vote because you own sufficient property, or on the smaller scale of being able to sit down at a table and join in the game your social group are playing.  Lizzie may be telling the truth, and Austen may be sketching a more far-reaching critique of social arrangements.  Never mind dating a girl who reads.  Give her the financial security to find out whether she even likes reading or not.