Elizabeth Bennet, Barrister, Part 1

elizabethbennet-jenniferehleBy Deborah Guyol

    Of course I’ve always wanted to be Elizabeth Bennet, from the moment I first encountered her on the page. But in my younger days, I confess, I was most taken by the fact that Fitzwilliam Darcy, in all his aristocratic pomp and stiffness, fell madly in love with her. Yes, it was my dream, as it is the dream of every right-thinking young lady, to attract first the attention and then the overpowering adoration of the tall handsome guy who seems just out of reach. Preferably by appearing indifferent to his attention and adoration.

Then I grew up, and the more times I reread Pride and Prejudice the more I admired Elizabeth for more than her ability to attract the aforementioned attention and adoration. Her buoyant spirit, her scintillating wit, her supreme self-confidence. These qualities came to mean more to me than the love of Mr. Darcy. If only I could glide through life like that – happy most of the time, angry or sad only at the rare appropriate times. If not exactly impervious to, at least able to withstand with equanimity the occasional slights and failures, ill-natured attacks and outright reversals of fortune that intrude upon even the most charmed of lives. Sigh. That was never me.

But, though I failed to win my own Mr. Darcy, and failed to face life’s every challenge with Elizabeth’s wit and grace, I did not abandon my desire to equal her in something. Alas, in riper years I discovered yet another way in which I could not match the light and lovely Elizabeth. Having become a lawyer myself – examined witnesses, argued positions, asked the court to rule in my favor – I realized that Elizabeth would have made a far better lawyer than I could hope to be. Or let us give her a proper British designation: barrister. The least I can do now is to present my case.

In the early parts of the novel, the reader could be forgiven for mistaking her abilities for mere lively wit. For example:

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

This exchange, of course, takes place at Netherfield Park, where Elizabeth is tending her sick sister, Jane, and enduring the incivility of the Bingley sisters and the (apparently) equally unwelcome interest of Mr. Darcy. As the days pass, Elizabeth’s wit takes a more lawyerly turn:

“Miss Bingley,” said [Mr. Darcy], “has given me more credit than can be. The wisest and the best of men – nay, the wisest and best of their actions – may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke.”

“Certainly,” replied Elizabeth – “there are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I hope I never ridicule what is wise and good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can. But these, I suppose, are precisely what you are without.”

[Note the implication that Mr. Darcy is neither wise nor good; that he even exhibits follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies.]

“Perhaps that is not possible for anyone. But it has been the study of my life to avoid those weaknesses which often expose a strong understanding to ridicule.”

“Such as vanity and pride.”

“Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride – where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation.”

Elizabeth turned away to hide a smile.

“Your examination of Mr. Darcy is over, I presume,” said Miss Bingley; “and pray what is the result?”

“I am perfectly convinced by it that Mr. Darcy has no defect. He owns it himself without disguise.”

Oh Elizabeth, you sly thing! Conducting an “examination” of the defendant that lesser lawyers can only dream of, and turning it, in the end, into a gentle joke at his expense. The legal language cues continue when, visiting Charlotte Lucas Collins in Kent, Elizabeth unexpectedly finds herself once again in the company of Mr. Darcy.

“Pray let me hear what you have to accuse him of,” cried Colonel Fitzwilliam. “I should like to know how he behaves among strangers.”

“You shall hear then – but prepare yourself for something very dreadful. The first time of my ever seeing him in Hertfordshire, you must know, was at a ball – and at this ball, what do you think he did? He danced only four dances, though gentlemen were scarce; and, to my certain knowledge, more than one young lady was sitting down in want of a partner. Mr. Darcy, you cannot deny the fact.”

“I had not at that time the honour of knowing any lady in the assembly beyond my own party.”

“True; and nobody can ever be introduced in a ball-room. Well, Colonel Fitzwilliam, what do I play next? My fingers wait your orders.”

“Perhaps,” said Darcy, “I should have judged better, had I sought an introduction; but I am ill-qualified to recommend myself to strangers.”

“Shall we ask your cousin the reason of this?” said Elizabeth, still addressing Colonel Fitzwilliam. “Shall we ask him why a man of sense and education, and who has lived in the world, is ill qualified to recommend himself to strangers?”

“I can answer your question,” said Fitzwilliam, “without applying to him. It is because he will not give himself the trouble.”

“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,” said Darcy, “of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”

“My fingers,” said Elizabeth, “do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault – because I will not take the trouble of practicing. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman’s of superior execution.”

Elizabeth “accuses” him as cleverly as she previously examined him – and manages, at the same time, to flirt with both Mr. Darcy and his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam. To bewitch them both. Leading, eventually, to the Colonel’s apologetic explanation that younger sons cannot marry where they please, and then to Darcy’s first awkward proposal.

Here again, Elizabeth demonstrates her mastery of refutation and rebuttal, even in the grip of strong emotion. At the end of this scene, Darcy for the first time truly fights back. Well, he does his best to fight. As expected, he is badly overmatched.

“And this,” cried Darcy, as he walked with quick steps across the room, “is your opinion of me! This is the estimation in which you hold me! I thank you for explaining it so fully. My faults, according to this calculation, are heavy indeed! But perhaps,” added he, stopping in his walk, and turning towards her, “these offenses might have been overlooked, had not your pride been hurt by my honest confession of the scruples that had long prevented my forming any serious design. These bitter accusations might have been suppressed, had I, with greater policy, concealed my struggles, and flattered you into the belief of my being impelled by unqualified, unalloyed inclination; by reason, by reflection, by everything. But disguise of every sort is my abhorrence. Nor am I ashamed of the feelings I related. They were natural and just. Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? – to congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?”

Elizabeth felt herself growing more angry every moment; yet she tried to the utmost to speak with composure when she said: “You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner.”

She saw him start at this, but he said nothing, and she continued: “You could not have made the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it.”

    The gloves are definitely off. No more parlor games or polite ripostes. Here, when Darcy insults not only Elizabeth herself but the “inferiority” of her connections, she responds with the ultimate slam – he has behaved in an “ungentlemanlike manner.” As the frequent rereader well knows, these words will haunt poor Mr. Darcy.

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