Charles Bingley, Darcy’s affable and somewhat heedless best friend, is a curious character in Pride and Prejudice. His inclusion in the plot is a little odd. After all, the love story between Darcy and Elizabeth could be told without Bingley’s part at all. Strictly speaking his story arc is completely unnecessary. But Bingley is a more interesting and complex character than he first seems, and today I would like to show you why.
First, let’s review what we know about Bingley. He is a fairly young man, probably younger than Darcy, and quite wealthy. He is the son of a tradesman from Scarborough. He arrives in Hertfordshire to look for an estate to lease or purchase. In other words, he is “new money,” a gentleman only because his father worked for a living and passed his money on. He is not what some would consider a “true” gentleman at all. But Bingley is eager to make the most of his inheritance and take a step up the social ladder by becoming a member of the landed gentry.
We never find out how Darcy and Bingley met, nor do we discover how two men with such opposite personalities ever became friends. Most writers assume that they met at Cambridge and that they are friends because their opposing personalities balance each other out. Darcy can give Bingley advice and direction, while Bingley’s charm and cheerful personality soften Darcy’s more severe edges.
Here is where we begin to see why Bingley is in the story. Obviously his arrival at Netherfield is the impetus for the novel, and he is the reason why Darcy and Elizabeth meet. He also has a social climbing sister who gives us some moments of humor. 🙂 But there’s another reason for his inclusion. Bingley’s personality is in direct contrast to his friend Darcy. Darcy doesn’t need to climb any social ladder; he’s already pretty high on it. He doesn’t require anyone’s approval. Bingley, on the other hand, longs for acceptance and inclusion and, at least to me, comes across as a little needy. Darcy is his own man, while Bingley is still trying to find his place in the world.
For all these reasons Bingley is a flat character in Pride and Prejudice and he is mostly overlooked in JAFF. I can’t think of any stories featuring Bingley as a main character; he’s just not that interesting. Usually he is treated as a plot device.
For a long time I treated him that way too. But several years ago I had a chance to delve into Bingley’s mind a little bit when I wrote An Unexpected Turn of Events. This is a Pride and Prejudice continuation that takes place ten years after the events of the original novel. Bingley is not the focus of the story, but in it I asked the question, what if Mr. Bennet’s prediction about Bingley and Jane came true? What if they really were “so complying that nothing will ever be resolved on; so easy that every servant will cheat you; and so generous, that you will always exceed your income”?
Answering the question gave me a new sympathy for Bingley. When I took up my pen to write in Bingley’s voice I discovered an unexpected vulnerability behind his ever cheerful facade. In this passage Bingley explains to Mr. Bennet why he and Jane are struggling in their marriage, and how such an intelligent, well educated man would have servants that walked all over him.
“There is so much I don’t know about running an estate, Mr. Bennet. My father was in trade, as was his father before him. I was taught how to work with my hands, not how to rely on others to do the work for me. I thought that being prosperous was a matter of locating a suitable home, purchasing it, and then trusting your steward and other servants to run it for you. I had no idea that setting up and and administering a place like Vinings, with all of its servants and tenants and everything else involved, would be so difficult!”
A little later in the same passage we uncover what I think is Bingley’s greatest fear:
“Jane deserves the best of everything, but what have I given her instead? An estate in debt, servants who take endless advantage of us and children we cannot seem to manage. I am not the man she thought she married. . . . She deserves better than me, Mr. Bennet. She thought she was marrying a gentleman, not a man whose hands stink with the scent of trade. That’s what I am, you know; I will never be a gentleman in the way you and Darcy are.”
In my opinion Bingley has a massive inferiority complex. He doesn’t have the background that Darcy and Jane have. He is buying his way into a lifestyle that his family expects him to provide, and he doesn’t know if he is up to the job. He is afraid of letting his family down, and as a result he relies far too much on Darcy’s judgment instead of his own. Yet would we be any different in his shoes? How would any of us react if we had the pressure of an entire family’s social advancement riding on our shoulders at such a young age?
I would love to see a JAFF delve into Bingley’s back story. How old was he when his father began to prosper? Did he realize, growing up, how much responsibility he would have to assume? How did his upbringing affect his outlook on life? Most of all, what would it take for him to leave his insecurities behind and become a confident and decisive man?
So what do you think? Is there more to Bingley that you first thought? Would you read an entire novel based around him, or is he simply too bland for your taste? If he didn’t end up with Jane, who would you see him marrying? Please leave a comment and let me know your thoughts!