Elizabeth Bennet, Barrister, Part 2

     By Deborah Guyol


Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Lady Catherine in the BBC P&P 1995

Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Lady Catherine in the BBC P&P 1995

Elizabeth displays her most impressive debating skills in her encounter with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who has come to warn her against marriage to Darcy. Here at the start of the encounter we see Lady C’s haughty wordiness countered with Elizabeth’s simple impeccable logic:

Miss Bennet,” replied her ladyship, in an angry tone, “you ought to know, that I am not to be trifled with. But however insincere you may choose to be, you shall not find me so. My character has ever been celebrated for its sincerity and frankness, and in a cause of such moment as this, I shall certainly not depart from it. A report of a most alarming nature reached me two days ago. I was told that not only your sister was on the point of being most advantageously married, but that you, that Miss Elizabeth Bennet, would, in all likelihood, be soon afterwards united to my nephew, my own nephew, Mr. Darcy. Though I know it must be a scandalous falsehood, though I would not injure him so much as to suppose the truth of it possible, I instantly resolved on setting off for this place, that I might make my sentiments known to you.”

“If you believed it impossible to be true,” said Elizabeth, colouring with astonishment and disdain, “I wonder you took the trouble of coming so far. What could your ladyship propose by it?”

Shortly thereafter Elizabeth employs the nonbarrister equivalent of “Objection, hearsay,” or “Objection, irrelevant” – “Objection, none of your business”:

“I do not pretend to possess equal frankness with your ladyship. You may ask questions which I shall not choose to answer.”

“This is not to be borne. Miss Bennet, I insist on being satisfied. Has he, has my nephew, made you an offer of marriage?”

“Your ladyship has declared it to be impossible.”

* * *

“Let me be rightly understood. This match, to which you have the presumption to aspire, can never take place. No, never. Mr. Darcy is engaged to my daughter. Now what have you to say?”

“Only this; that if he is so, you can have no reason to suppose he will make an offer to me.”

    * * *

“Obstinate, headstrong girl! I am ashamed of you! Is this your gratitude for my attentions to you last spring? Is nothing due to me on that score? Let us sit down. You are to understand, Miss Bennet, that I came here with the determined resolution of carrying my purpose; nor will I be dissuaded from it. I have not been used to submit to any person’s whims. I have not been in the habit of brooking disappointment.”

“That will make your ladyship’s situation at present more pitiable; but it will have no effect on me.”

Elizabeth out-argues poor Lady Catherine at every turn, but when it comes to the direct question, she, abiding by her own standards as well as rules of legal ethics, will not lie.

“Tell me once for all, are you engaged to him?”

Though Elizabeth would not, for the mere purpose of obliging Lady Catherine, have answered this question, she could not but say, after a moment’s deliberation: “I am not.”

And, having told the truth, she turns on Lady Catherine, now in the role of judge rather than opposing counsel, accusing her of making frivolous arguments in support of an “ill-judged application.”

Lady Catherine seemed pleased. “And will you promise me, never to enter into such an engagement?”

“I will make no promise of the kind.”

“Miss Bennet I am shocked and astonished. I expected to find a more reasonable young woman. But do not deceive yourself into a belief that I will ever recede. I shall not go away till you have given me the assurance I require.”

“And I certainly never shall give it. I am not to be intimidated into anything so wholly unreasonable. Your ladyship wants Mr. Darcy to marry your daughter; but would my giving you the wished-for promise make their marriage at all more probable? Supposing him to be attached to me, would my refusing to accept his hand make him wish to bestow it on his cousin? Allow me to say, Lady Catherine, that the arguments with which you have supported this extraordinary application have been as frivolous as the application was ill-judged. You have widely mistaken my character, if you think I can be worked on by such persuasions as these. How far your nephew might approve of your interference in his affairs, I cannot tell; but you have certainly no right to concern yourself in mine. I must beg, therefore, to be importuned no farther on the subject.”

Desperate, unable to accept that she has been bested, Lady C pulls yet another frivolous argument out of her arsenal, again with no effect.

“You are then resolved to have him?”

“I have said no such thing. I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me.”

“It is well. You refuse, then, to oblige me. You refuse to obey the claims of duty, honour, and gratitude. You are determined to ruin him in the opinion of all his friends, and make him the contempt of the world.”

“Neither duty, nor honour, nor gratitude,” replied Elizabeth, “have any possible claim on me, in the present instance. No principle of either would be violated by my marriage with Mr. Darcy. And with regard to the resentment of his family, or the indignation of the world, if the former were excited by his marrying me, it would not give me one moment’s concern – and the world in general would have too much sense to join in the scorn.”

I rest my case. Elizabeth handily vanquishes the powerful Lady Catherine.

But I am tempted now to engage in the dangerous game of speculation. Let us consider this scene with reference to Jane Austen’s own life. We know that, when she was around Elizabeth Bennet’s age, she engaged in public flirtation – and perhaps fell in love – with a young man whose family was concerned enough to send him away before he became too entangled. Worse, one of the senders had to be the young man’s aunt, a close friends of Austen. Still – the young Jane Austen clearly was not an eligible match for him. Is it not possible that, in constructing Lady C’s confrontation with Elizabeth, Austen saw herself in the role of Elizabeth, lucidly demolishing every frivolous objection to the match, arguing her way into the marriage of her dreams?

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