As I continue the character studies of P&P, I keep coming back to Mr. Bingley. I have a hard time getting a read on him sometimes, so I am counting on all of you to help me figure him out. Here’s what I have so far.
Follow the leader
He is easily led. Actually, he isn’t led by just anyone, he is easily led by Darcy. He ignores his sisters as we see throughout the book – he would never have offered for Jane if he let them lead him around.
And we really don’t know if he is easily led anywhere else. He can’t be a complete idiot. He didn’t squander his family fortune and Austen herself says that while he is not clever like Darcy, he is “not deficient”. That isn’t glowing praise, but it does rule out stupidity.
This is an odd thing to notice and I am likely reading into things, but I do wonder about Bingley’s horse. The book says he rides a black horse, and that makes me think he must have hidden depths somewhere. I live in the heart of horse country and a black horse isn’t ridden by just anyone. They are often seen as more difficult or temperamental – wild, whether it’s true or not. Point being, Mr. Bingley must have an adventurous side, he must be brave in some areas if he has a black horse. Only a very tough rider chooses a horse like that – and survives it. And of course there is all the correlation to a dark horse, one that is mysterious and wins the race from a disadvantageous position. Sound like Bingley to anyone else?
Bingley is friendly and charming and nice to everyone. He is patient with ridiculous people and glosses over embarrassing situations like a pro (think Lydia demanding he hold a ball). These are all things we admire. In fact, Austen gives us 3 very charming people in this book. Charles Bingley, George Wickham, and the beloved Elizabeth Bennet. It hasn’t escaped my notice that Darcy is drawn to that sort of person: his childhood friend, his adult best friend, and his wife make for an impressive argument in favor of him purposely surrounding himself with people more easygoing than himself. And let’s not forget the lovable Colonel Fitzwilliam, another gregarious personality and Darcy’s chosen travel buddy.
Each of these charming people has a (somewhat fatal) set of flaws. Wickham is dishonest and a compulsive liar with no sense of responsibility and a loose moral compass. Elizabeth jumps to conclusions and willfully misunderstands, not to mention she is stubborn, defensive, and vain. Bingley has a weakness for ladies and doesn’t trust his own instincts when it comes to women, namely Jane Bennet.
Now, looking at the three of them, Bingley hardly seems like the worst, at least to me. I would venture to say that Bingley’s absence from Jane’s life wasn’t any more painful to her than Elizabeth’s set-down was painful to Darcy. Both Bingley and Elizabeth were led astray by their own weaknesses, and in the end, Bingley’s proved more easy to remedy than hers. Of course, he is easier in general – we think.
The Odd Couple
His relationship with Darcy has always seemed a little confusing to me. At first, I thought he was sort of the puppy and Darcy was the leader, and they had a somewhat symbiotic relationship. Darcy gave Bingley much needed guidance and a steadying influence plus some social clout, Bingley gave Darcy some cheer and easy company. Maybe Darcy enjoys being the higher-up in the relationship – he prefers things unequal so he always has the upper hand.
On closer inspection, I’ve changed my mind.
First of all, Darcy puts up with the snooty sisters and the dull Mr. Hurst. We know he’s a snob, and yet he is still close friends with a man whose money comes from trade. I don’t think a little easy company is worth putting up with that family and compromising those principles. There must have been something in it for him and some very real affection between him and Bingley.
We see Bingley tease Darcy at Netherfield. He makes fun of Darcy on a Sunday night with nothing to do. He also teases him about disliking balls and says he can go upstairs and go to bed if he doesn’t want to be bothered. That conversation is an excellent example of their relationship.
Bingley clearly sees Darcy as a fallible man and is not in awe of him, so it takes that motive away for listening to Darcy’s advice later about Jane Bennet. It shows that Bingley can make up his own mind and doesn’t always do what Darcy wants him to or act according to Darcy’s preference – Bingley is no lapdog. It also shows that there is a rapport, some good-natured ribbing that goes on between the two. Now, I think Darcy was embarrassed in this case, likely because they were in mixed company, but we’re focusing on Bingley for now.
Bingley also calls Darcy out for “standing about in this stupid manner” at the assembly in Meryton. Again, we see Bingley teasing Darcy (sound like an annoying male version of Elizabeth to anyone else?).
All this leads me to think that Bingley is his own man and is not constantly led about, but that he left Jane for other reasons – not just because someone told him to. What those reasons were is a mystery, but I think it was likely a combination of his trust in his good friend and that friend thinking it was a bad idea, Bingley knowing it was a bad idea practically, his own insecurity about his lovability and possibly concern about the longevity of his own feelings, and Jane not being demonstrative in her affection.
Bow to the Master
If I may digress for a moment, I have to say Austen’s brilliance continues to shine through in the contrast of Darcy and Bingley. Charlotte says early in the book that there are few people strong enough to be in love without proper encouragement. We see that in action with Bingley. He doesn’t have enough encouragement from Jane and that plays into him leaving her. However Darcy receives no encouragement from Elizabeth and pursues her anyway. Though, it must be said that in his own delusional mind, he thought he was being encouraged, so perhaps they aren’t so different in that regard.
In the end of P&P, Darcy leaves Hertfordshire with no intention of return based on Elizabeth’s lack of encouragement when he saw her at Longbourn. Even he, the great hero, needed encouragement in such a weighty matter. Was that Austen vindicating Bingley a bit? Humanizing Darcy? A little bit of both?
Austen also does a great job of showing off Elizabeth’s faulty reasoning through Bingley. She praises Bingley’s affability and willingness to accede to a friend’s wishes at Netherfield, but when that actually plays out in the form of Bingley leaving for London and suddenly deciding to remain there at the behest of his good friend Darcy, it doesn’t seem so great anymore. Elizabeth doesn’t really blame Bingley for his own actions – she blames Darcy. Is that because she accepts Bingley’s personality for what it is and knows Darcy is pulling the strings, or does she just hate Darcy so much and like Bingley so much that she isn’t willing to change her opinions?
Without realizing it, she is shown the difference between a steady temperament and a tractable one.
After all this thinking about Bingley I still don’t have him figured out, but I do think he deserves more respect than he usually gets in the fandom. It’s easy to make him dumb and weak in comparison to Darcy – we all want our guy to look good and many like an extreme alpha male. But I think we’ve done a disservice to Bingley in the attempt to make Darcy look better. I think he believed a friend. A trusted, loved, old friend. How many of us might do the same? Especially if there wasn’t a lot of evidence to refute their arguments? (And quite frankly, Darcy doesn’t need Bingley to make him look good.) 😉
Please weigh-in on Bingley and help me unravel this often glossed-over character.