Jane Austen loves to replay the same character archetypes in her stories. One archetype that Austen frequently makes use of is that of the heroine’s best friend. Her role is to support the heroine, to offer guidance or assistance in some way, or to set an example by her behaviour. Though several of Austen’s heroines have a figure in their life who qualifies as a “best friend”, today I will hone in on the friendship between Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas.
We are first introduced to the Bennets’ close friends and neighbors, the Lucas family, after the Meryton assembly, when they come to call the next morning. Among them is their daughter Charlotte.
The eldest of them, a sensible, intelligent young woman, about twenty-seven, was Elizabeth’s intimate friend. (Chapter 5)
Throughout the story, Charlotte’s advice to Elizabeth proves to be invaluable. While Mrs. Bennet is busy denigrating Mr. Darcy for his pride, Charlotte is the first to point him out in a positive light.
“His pride,” said Miss Lucas, “does not offend me so much as pride often does, because there is an excuse for it. One cannot wonder that so very fine a young man, with family, fortune, everything in his favour, should think highly of himself. If I may so express it, he has a right to be proud.”
When those dances were over, she returned to Charlotte Lucas, and was in conversation with her, when she found herself suddenly addressed by Mr. Darcy who took her so much by surprise in his application for her hand, that, without knowing what she did, she accepted him. He walked away again immediately, and she was left to fret over her own want of presence of mind; Charlotte tried to console her: “I dare say you will find him very agreeable.” “Heaven forbid! That would be the greatest misfortune of all! To find a man agreeable whom one is determined to hate! Do not wish me such an evil.” When the dancing recommenced, however, and Darcy approached to claim her hand, Charlotte could not help cautioning her in a whisper, not to be a simpleton, and allow her fancy for Wickham to make her appear unpleasant in the eyes of a man ten times his consequence. (Chapter 18)
Though her observations were most likely in reference to the two men’s difference in fortune and status, one cannot help but notice that in the end, Mr. Darcy truly was a much better catch than Mr. Wickham, even more so in his character than in his material wealth.
Charlotte is also the first to point out that Jane, in being reserved and guarded, might be hurting her chances with Mr. Bingley.
“It may perhaps be pleasant,” replied Charlotte, “to be able to impose on the public in such a case; but it is sometimes a disadvantage to be so very guarded. If a woman conceals her affection with the same skill from the object of it, she may lose the opportunity of fixing him; and it will then be but poor consolation to believe the world equally in the dark. There is so much of gratitude or vanity in almost every attachment, that it is not safe to leave any to itself. We can all begin freely—a slight preference is natural enough; but there are very few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement. In nine cases out of ten a woman had better show more affection than she feels. Bingley likes your sister undoubtedly; but he may never do more than like her, if she does not help him on.” (Chapter 6)
Elizabeth later recalls this conversation when Mr. Darcy states his belief in Jane’s indifference towards Bingley as a governing factor in his interference to separate the two lovers, admitting that perhaps Charlotte was right after all.
The Netherfield Ball was not the only time in which Charlotte suspected Mr. Darcy might have feelings for Elizabeth. When Mr. Darcy calls on Charlotte and Mr. Collins at the parsonage while Elizabeth is a guest there, this is her observation:
“What can be the meaning of this?” said Charlotte, as soon as he was gone. “My dear, Eliza, he must be in love with you, or he would never have called us in this familiar way.” (Chapter 32)
In my book, “Marriage and Ministry”, in which Charlotte is the main character, her close friendship with Elizabeth is prominent. In one scene, after Charlotte and her husband have had a major quarrel, Elizabeth is able to fulfil the role of best friend by offering her own advice on the matter. Here is a scene from the book, in which Elizabeth helps Charlotte to realize her own feelings for Mr. Collins.
“Lizzy,” I said, “have you noticed that both Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam have called on us rather frequently since their arrival?”
Lizzy shrugged. “I presume that they wish to escape from their aunt’s pretentious meddling, and that they find the company here to be more pleasant.”
“I would agree. But I think the company they find to be most pleasant would be yours.” I pointed out. Elizabeth was quick to disagree.
“They can have no particular preference for me. I am certain it is because you are a gracious host, and because even Mr. Collins’ nonstop chatter is better than feeling the weight of Lady Catherine’s opinions.”
Truth aside, I pressed on, “Still, I wonder, if you were to choose one of them to particularly recommend yourself to, which would it be?”
Lizzy laughed. “Naturally, Colonel Fitzwilliam is the more amiable of the two. I cannot help but feel whenever Mr. Darcy is near that he is aloof and somber, and that he somehow considers himself to be above us.”
“So, you prefer the colonel?” I asked.
Lizzy nodded. “He is quite handsome and charming, you know.”
“Do you suppose that he might have taken a fancy to you?” I suggested.
“Nonsense!” Lizzy laughed again. “I can see no reason to believe that Colonel Fitzwilliam has any partiality towards me, or that he ever shall.”
“Still, I see no reason why you could not have him in your power, if you so desired.”
“It is up to the gentleman to pursue me, if he wishes. I will not go throwing myself at him and making a fool of myself.” Lizzy insisted.
“What about Mr. Darcy then? Surely you must have noticed he appears quite keen on you.”
“That, Charlotte, is a most ridiculous notion!”
“Not at all.”
“Charlotte, why are you so determined to marry me off to someone or other?” Lizzy demanded.
“Because surely you must see the advantage for a woman of your station to be comfortably situated. It’s my firm belief that you could have any man you wanted. It certainly seems that no matter where you go, you are every man’s first choice.” My last comment came out much more bitterly than I wanted it to.
Lizzy seemed confused. “What do you mean by that?”
“First Mr. Collins, then Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham, and I’m fairly certain Colonel Fitzwilliam would fancy you too if you only encouraged him a little,” I started to choke up.
“Charlotte,” Lizzy chose her words carefully, putting two and two together, “are you upset because your husband first made an offer of marriage to me?”
I didn’t respond to her.
Lizzy continued, “You know perfectly well that I never cared for him one bit, nor encouraged him in any way.”
“I know you didn’t.” I said softly, wiping my eyes with a handkerchief. “It’s just that… I think my husband may still prefer you over me. Much like how I married him because I needed someone to be my husband and provider, he only married me because you turned him down, and he still desired to please Lady Catherine and the others of the parish by installing an acceptable lady as ‘wife to the parson’.” I strongly urged myself to stick with my resolution and not give any more details than that.
“Now, you know that is not true.” Elizabeth insisted. “I have seen the way that Mr. Collins looks at you. He has never once looked at me that way, not even when he was proposing. I don’t know what has happened between you two to make things go awry, but I can tell you this: Mr. Collins very much loves you and wants to make things right with you.”
“You think he…loves me?” William had made many professions of love to me, but I always dismissed them as his attempt to be amiable or as mere infatuation.
Lizzy placed her hand upon my shoulder. “I think you need to open your eyes and see that there is more between the two of you in this marriage than just a business arrangement.”
I still was not sure if I was ready to forgive my husband yet, but Lizzy’s words had given me much to think about.
You can read all about Charlotte and Mr. Collins’ love story and the trials they faced as a result of Charlotte’s efforts to rescue fallen women in “Marriage and Ministry: a Pride and Prejudice Novel.”