Disclaimer: I realize that Pride and Prejudice is a comedy of manners, and as such, the natures of some of its characters are exaggerated. This tries to take a little bit more of a serious approach.
When it comes to Caroline Bingley, she is the sort of character that one loves to hate. Her character can be quite useful in variations, as she can be used as a vulture circling Fitzwilliam Darcy and aching to get her talons in him.
Here, however, I am going to try to defend her. I am playing the devil’s advocate, if you will, and I realize there are many arguments to be made against her.
First off, I believe it worth noting that our perception of her is colored by Elizabeth’s point of view. Since Elizabeth is not on good terms with her, it stands to reason that Caroline’s bad qualities would be emphasized.
Second off, I like to think of the relationship between Elizabeth, Caroline, and Jane as like that which one might find among high schoolers. They are, after all, not much older than modern high schoolers, and as such, their emotions are still those of young people.
To Caroline, Elizabeth is the rival for her crush, Mr. Darcy. Jane is the sweet girl whom no one can help but love, but she is still a potential road block in the way of Caroline’s goal. If Caroline were the focus of Pride and Prejudice, then Caroline might seem to be more sympathetic—and it might look like Elizabeth was doing all she could to get in Caroline’s way of attracting the notice of her crush!
Caroline is often complimented in the novel (though the compliment is often colored by Elizabeth’s negative opinions) and is on occasion shown in a good light:
- His sisters were fine women, with an air of decided fashion.
- “Oh! my dear, I am quite delighted with him. He is so excessively handsome! And his sisters are charming women. I never in my life saw anything more elegant than their dresses. . . . “
- [Elizabeth’s POV:] They were in fact very fine ladies; not deficient in good humour when they were pleased, nor in the power of making themselves agreeable when they chose it, but proud and conceited. They were rather handsome, had been educated in one of the first private seminaries in town, had a fortune of twenty thousand pounds, were in the habit of spending more than they ought, and of associating with people of rank, and were therefore in every respect entitled to think well of themselves, and meanly of others. They were of a respectable family in the north of England; a circumstance more deeply impressed on their memories than that their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade.
- When the ladies removed after dinner, Elizabeth ran up to her sister, and seeing her well guarded from cold, attended her into the drawing-room, where she was welcomed by her two friends with many professions of pleasure; and Elizabeth had never seen them so agreeable as they were during the hour which passed before the gentlemen appeared. Their powers of conversation were considerable. They could describe an entertainment with accuracy, relate an anecdote with humour, and laugh at their acquaintance with spirit.
- On Sunday, after morning service, the separation, so agreeable to almost all, took place. Miss Bingley’s civility to Elizabeth increased at last very rapidly, as well as her affection for Jane; and when they parted, after assuring the latter of the pleasure it would always give her to see her either at Longbourn or Netherfield, and embracing her most tenderly, she even shook hands with the former.
- Jane pictured to herself a happy evening in the society of her two friends, and the attentions of her brother; and Elizabeth thought with pleasure of dancing a great deal with Mr. Wickham, and of seeing a confirmation of everything in Mr. Darcy’s look and behavior.
- His being such a charming young man, and so rich, and living but three miles from them, were the first points of self-gratulation; and then it was such a comfort to think how fond the two sisters were of Jane, and to be certain that they must desire the connection as much as she could do.
To be complimented in front of Caroline is viewed as a good thing:
- Mary had heard herself mentioned to Miss Bingley as the most accomplished girl in the neighbourhood; and Catherine and Lydia had been fortunate enough never to be without partners, which was all that they had yet learnt to care for at a ball.
Jane does seem to care for Caroline (though she is later hurt by Caroline’s actions):
- [Elizabeth:] ” . . . And so you like this man’s sisters, too, do you? Their manners are not equal to his.”
[Jane:] “Certainly not—at first. But they are very pleasing women when you converse with them. Miss Bingley is to live with her brother, and keep his house; and I am much mistaken if we shall not find a very charming neighbour in her.”
While it is sometimes difficult to ignore Jane’s rose-colored glasses, Caroline does seem to care for Jane in her own way:
- Miss Bennet [Darcy] acknowledged to be pretty, but she smiled too much.
Mrs. Hurst and her sister allowed it to be so—but still they admired her and liked her, and pronounced her to be a sweet girl, and one whom they would not object to know more of. Miss Bennet was therefore established as a sweet girl . . . .
- Miss Bennet’s pleasing manners grew on the goodwill of Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley; and though the mother was found to be intolerable, and the younger sisters not worth speaking to, a wish of being better acquainted with them was expressed towards the two eldest.
- “MY DEAR FRIEND,—
“If you are not so compassionate as to dine to-day with Louisa and me, we shall be in danger of hating each other for the rest of our lives, for a whole day’s tete-a-tete between two women can never end without a quarrel. Come as soon as you can on receipt of this. My brother and the gentlemen are to dine with the officers.—Yours ever,
- [Jane] was not equal, however, to much conversation, and when Miss Bingley left them together, could attempt little besides expressions of gratitude for the extraordinary kindness she was treated with.
- “I have a excessive regard for Miss Jane Bennet, she is really a very sweet girl, and I wish with all my heart she were well settled. But with such a father and mother, and such low connections, I am afraid there is no chance of it.”
- [Caroline:] “I do not pretend to regret anything I shall leave in Hertfordshire, except your society, my dearest friend; but we will hope, at some future period, to enjoy many returns of that delightful intercourse we have known, and in the meanwhile may lessen the pain of separation by a very frequent and most unreserved correspondence. I depend on you for that.”
- [Caroline:] ” . . . Many of my acquaintances are already [in town] for the winter; I wish that I could hear that you, my dearest friend, had any intention of making one of the crowd—but of that I despair. I sincerely hope your Christmas in Hertfordshire may abound in the gaieties which that season generally brings, and that your beaux will be so numerous as to prevent your feeling the loss of the three of whom we shall deprive you.”
Elizabeth seems to always view Caroline with suspicion, even though her perspective may not always be an entirely fair one:
- By Jane, this attention was received with the greatest pleasure, but Elizabeth still saw superciliousness in their treatment of everybody, hardly excepting even her sister, and could not like them; though their kindness to Jane, such as it was, had a value as arising in all probability from the influence of their brother’s admiration.
Caroline does seem to care about when Jane gets sick:
- [From a letter Jane writes:] “I find myself very unwell this morning, which, I suppose, is to be imputed to my getting wet through yesterday. My kind friends will not hear of my returning till I am better. They insist also on my seeing Mr. Jones—therefore do not be alarmed if you should hear of his having been to me—and, excepting a sore throat and headache, there is not much the matter with me.—Yours, etc.”
- When breakfast was over they were joined by the sisters; and Elizabeth began to like them herself, when she saw how much affection and solicitude they showed for Jane.
- Miss Bingley offered [Elizabeth] the carriage, and she only wanted a little pressing to accept it, when Jane testified such concern in parting with her, that Miss Bingley was obliged to convert the offer of the chaise to an invitation to remain at Netherfield for the present.
- Bingley urged Mr. Jones being sent for immediately; while his sisters, convinced that no country advice could be of any service, recommended an express to town for one of the most eminent physicians. This [Elizabeth] would not hear of; but she was not so unwilling to comply with their brother’s proposal; and it was settled that Mr. Jones should be sent for early in the morning, if Miss Bennet were not decidedly better.
- Elizabeth passed the chief of the night in her sister’s room, and in the morning had the pleasure of being able to send a tolerable answer to the inquiries which she very early received from Mr. Bingley by a housemaid, and some time afterwards from the two elegant ladies who waited on his sisters.
- “Removed!” cried Bingley. “It must not be thought of. My sister, I am sure, will not hear of her removal.”
“You may depend upon it, Madam,” said Miss Bingley, with cold civility, “that Miss Bennet will receive every possible attention while she remains with us.”
- The day passed much as the day before had done. Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley had spent some hours of the morning with the invalid, who continued, though slowly, to mend; and in the evening Elizabeth joined their party in the drawing-room.
Caroline’s opinion of Elizabeth is not always unjustified. Shouldn’t she be surprised when someone walks three miles in the mud without worrying about getting dirty? (Is that so unreasonable?)
- That she should have walked three miles so early in the day, in such dirty weather, and by herself, was almost incredible to Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley; and Elizabeth was convinced that they held her in contempt for it. She was received, however, very politely by them . . . .
And while Elizabeth seems to think that Caroline is paying lip-service when it comes to expressing how she feels terrible about Jane being sick, is the fact that someone caught a bad cold supposed to be the only topic discussed until that person is better? Jane is not Caroline’s sister, after all, and talking about someone’s sickness all day long does not seem to be necessary.
- To the civil inquiries which then poured in, and amongst which [Elizabeth] had the pleasure of distinguishing the much superior solicitude of Mr. Bingley’s, she could not make a very favourable answer. Jane was by no means better. The sisters, on hearing this, repeated three or four times how much they were grieved, how shocking it was to have a bad cold, and how excessively they disliked being ill themselves; and then thought no more of the matter: and their indifference towards Jane when not immediately before them restored Elizabeth to the enjoyment of all her former dislike.
- Bingley was quite uncomfortable; his sisters declared that they were miserable. They solaced their wretchedness, however, by duets after supper, while he could find no better relief to his feelings than by giving his housekeeper directions that every attention might be paid to the sick lady and her sister.
And while it is not right to say negative things behind someone’s back, doesn’t it seem normal to try to discourage one’s crush to turn their eyes away from someone and to you? (And certainly, even Elizabeth acknowledges to herself that her relatives’ behavior is not something to be proud of.)
- When dinner was over, she returned directly to Jane, and Miss Bingley began abusing her as soon as she was out of the room. Her manners were pronounced to be very bad indeed, a mixture of pride and impertinence; she had no conversation, no style, no beauty.
- To this speech Bingley made no answer; but his sisters gave it their hearty assent, and indulged their mirth for some time at the expense of their dear friend’s vulgar relations.
- “Elizabeth 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 is a paltry device, a very mean art.”
- Bennet and her daughters then departed, and Elizabeth returned instantly to Jane, leaving her own and her relations’ behaviour to the remarks of the two ladies and Mr. Darcy; the latter of whom, however, could not be prevailed on to join in their censure of her, in spite of all Miss Bingley’s witticisms on fine eyes.
- Persuaded as Miss Bingley was that Darcy admired Elizabeth, this was not the best method of recommending herself; but angry people are not always wise; and in seeing him at last look somewhat nettled, she had all the success she expected.
And is it not normal for someone to praise one’s crush excessively, support said crush, and try to impress said crush, even if it may mean bringing someone else down a bit?
- Elizabeth took up some needlework, and was sufficiently amused in attending to what passed between Darcy and his companion. The perpetual commendations of the lady, either on his handwriting, or on the evenness of his lines, or on the length of his letter, with the perfect unconcern with which her praises were received, formed a curious dialogue, and was exactly in union with her opinion of each.
- Darcy smiled; but Elizabeth thought she could perceive that he was rather offended, and therefore checked her laugh. Miss Bingley warmly resented the indignity he had received, in an expostulation with her brother for talking such nonsense.
- When that business was over, he applied to Miss Bingley and Elizabeth for an indulgence of some music. Miss Bingley moved with some alacrity to the pianoforte; and, after a polite request that Elizabeth would lead the way which the other as politely and more earnestly negatived, she seated herself.
- Miss Bingley saw, or suspected enough to be jealous; and her great anxiety for the recovery of her dear friend Jane received some assistance from her desire of getting rid of Elizabeth.
She often tried to provoke Darcy into disliking her guest, by talking of their supposed marriage, and planning his happiness in such an alliance.
- “Have you anything else to propose for my domestic felicity?”
“Oh! yes. Do let the portraits of your uncle and aunt Phillips be placed in the gallery at Pemberley. Put them next to your great-uncle the judge. They are in the same profession, you know, only in different lines. As for your Elizabeth’s picture, you must not have it taken, for what painter could do justice to those beautiful eyes?”
- But when the gentlemen entered, Jane was no longer the first object; Miss Bingley’s eyes were instantly turned toward Darcy, and she had something to say to him before he had advanced many steps.
- When tea was over, Mr. Hurst reminded his sister-in-law of the card-table—but in vain. She had obtained private intelligence that Mr. Darcy did not wish for cards; and Mr. Hurst soon found even his open petition rejected.
- Miss Darcy, on her brother’s entrance, exerted herself much more to talk, and Elizabeth saw that he was anxious for his sister and herself to get acquainted, and forwarded as much as possible, every attempt at conversation on either side. Miss Bingley saw all this likewise; and, in the imprudence of anger, took the first opportunity of saying, with sneering civility:
“Pray, Miss Eliza, are not the ——shire Militia removed from Meryton? They must be a great loss to your family.”
And is Caroline to be blamed for wanting to speak to Jane but not to Mrs. Bennet? After all, Mr. Darcy is the same way.
- [Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley] were delighted to see their dear friend again, called it an age since they had met, and repeatedly asked what she had been doing with herself since their separation. To the rest of the family they paid little attention; avoiding Mrs. Bennet as much as possible, saying not much to Elizabeth, and nothing at all to the others. They were soon gone again, rising from their seats with an activity which took their brother by surprise, and hurrying off as if eager to escape from Mrs. Bennet’s civilities.
Caroline even tries to warn Elizabeth about Mr. Wickham, but because Elizabeth dislikes Caroline, she does not heed the warning and isn’t exactly polite in her response:
- They had not long separated, when Miss Bingley came towards her, and with an expression of civil disdain accosted her:
“So, Miss Eliza, I hear you are quite delighted with George Wickham! Your sister has been talking to me about him, and asking me a thousand questions; and I find that the young man quite forgot to tell you, among his other communication, that he was the son of old Wickham, the late Mr. Darcy’s steward. Let me recommend you, however, as a friend, not to give implicit confidence to all his assertions; for as to Mr. Darcy’s using him ill, it is perfectly false; for, on the contrary, he has always been remarkably kind to him, though George Wickham has treated Mr. Darcy in a most infamous manner. I do not know the particulars, but I know very well that Mr. Darcy is not in the least to blame, that he cannot bear to hear George Wickham mentioned, and that though my brother thought that he could not well avoid including him in his invitation to the officers, he was excessively glad to find that he had taken himself out of the way. His coming into the country at all is a most insolent thing, indeed, and I wonder how he could presume to do it. I pity you, Miss Eliza, for this discovery of your favourite’s guilt; but really, considering his descent, one could not expect much better.”
“His guilt and his descent appear by your account to be the same,” said Elizabeth angrily; “for I have heard you accuse him of nothing worse than of being the son of Mr. Darcy’s steward, and of that, I can assure you, he informed me himself.”
“I beg your pardon,” replied Miss Bingley, turning away with a sneer. “Excuse my interference—it was kindly meant.”
And Caroline does try to exhibit politeness:
- Miss Bingley’s letter arrived, and put an end to doubt. The very first sentence conveyed the assurance of their being all settled in London for the winter, and concluded with her brother’s regret at not having had time to pay his respects to his friends in Hertfordshire before he left the country.
- After sitting in this manner a quarter of an hour without hearing Miss Bingley’s voice, Elizabeth was roused by receiving from her a cold inquiry after the health of her family.
With regard to Georgiana Darcy, think about what Jane notes below. This is not entirely without merit, is it?
- “Beyond a doubt, they do wish him to choose Miss Darcy,” replied Jane; “but this may be from better feelings than you are supposing. They have known her much longer than they have known me; no wonder if they love her better.
And Caroline has no doubt seen her brother in love many times before. Isn’t what Mrs. Gardiner says below not something to be considered when Caroline thinks of her brother’s regard for Jane?
- “It seems likely to have been a desirable match for Jane,” said [Mrs. Gardiner]. “I am sorry it went off. But these things happen so often! A young man, such as you describe Mr. Bingley, so easily falls in love with a pretty girl for a few weeks, and when accident separates them, so easily forgets her, that these sort of inconsistencies are very frequent.”
Elizabeth thinks of Caroline negatively quite frequently:
- “So much the better. I hope they will not meet at all. But does not Jane correspond with his sister? She will not be able to help calling.”
“She will drop the acquaintance entirely.”
But even though Elizabeth says Caroline will drop the acquaintance entirely, she does meet with Jane briefly at least:
- “My aunt,” she continued, “is going to-morrow into that part of the town, and I shall take the opportunity of calling in Grosvenor Street.”
She wrote again when the visit was paid, and she had seen Miss Bingley. “I did not think Caroline in spirits,” were her words, “but she was very glad to see me, and reproached me for giving her no notice of my coming to London. I was right, therefore, my last letter had never reached her. I inquired after their brother, of course. He was well, but so much engaged with Mr. Darcy that they scarcely ever saw him. I found that Miss Darcy was expected to dinner. I wish I could see her. My visit was not long, as Caroline and Mrs. Hurst were going out. I dare say I shall see them soon here.”
And later, though trying to keep her brother away from Jane, Caroline meets again with Jane, albeit briefly:
- After waiting at home every morning for a fortnight, and inventing every evening a fresh excuse for her, the visitor did at last appear; but the shortness of her stay, and yet more, the alteration of her manner would allow Jane to deceive herself no longer.
We are so apt to forgive Mr. Darcy for his part in the separation of Mr. Bingley and Jane, but why not Caroline as well? Is it not at least somewhat understandable that they may be concerned about allying themselves with a family that claims Mrs. Bennet and Lydia as members?
- That he had been concerned in the measures taken to separate Bingley and Jane she had never doubted; but she had always attributed to Miss Bingley the principal design and arrangement of them.
- “The part which I acted is now to be explained. His sisters’ uneasiness had been equally excited with my own; our coincidence of feeling was soon discovered, and, alike sensible that no time was to be lost in detaching their brother, we shortly resolved on joining him directly in London. We accordingly went—and there I readily engaged in the office of pointing out to my friend the certain evils of such a choice. I described, and enforced them earnestly.
In spite of all that happened, Caroline does try to maintain an appearance of cordiality at least:
- Miss Bingley’s congratulations to her brother, on his approaching marriage, were all that was affectionate and insincere. She wrote even to Jane on the occasion, to express her delight, and repeat all her former professions of regard. Jane was not deceived, but she was affected; and though feeling no reliance on her, could not help writing her a much kinder answer than she knew was deserved.
- Miss Bingley was very deeply mortified by Darcy’s marriage; but as she thought it advisable to retain the right of visiting at Pemberley, she dropt all her resentment; was fonder than ever of Georgiana, almost as attentive to Darcy as heretofore, and paid off every arrear of civility to Elizabeth.
Certainly, Caroline is not an extremely kind-hearted soul the way that Jane is. But I rather think that she deserves a little more credit than we give her. She isn’t evil like Wickham; rather, she seems to me more like a desperate high-schooler trying to get her crush to notice her. I rather think that if Jane hadn’t been connected with Elizabeth, Caroline would have tried a lot harder at maintaining their friendship. There are just too many compliments paid to Jane for me to believe otherwise.
What are your thoughts? Has the hardness of your heart lightened just the slightest bit toward Caroline Bingley?