Yesterday was the 235th anniversary of the birth of Jane Austen, creator of my favourite fictional heroine, Lizzie Bennet (Lizzie shares the top spot with Hermione Granger and Anne Shirley). It was my dear friend Anna who informed me of the anniversary, which was appropriate, as it it was Anna who first introduced me to Pride and Prejudice. Anna was a precocious reader and attempted Austen far earlier than I did, and when we were about ten or eleven, she stuck a quotation from the book up on her wall. It read:
No one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.
Readers familiar with the book will remember that this little speech is given by Caroline Bingley, sister of the man who falls in love with Jane Bennet, and unsuccessful pursuer of Mr. Darcy. At this point in the book, Caroline isn’t merely describing what she thinks an accomplished woman should be able to do. She’s describing herself, in an attempt to demonstrate to Mr. Darcy she’s far superior to Lizzie Bennet, who is also in the room at the time. Readers familiar with the book will also remember that it’s around this point in the story that you start to realize that Caroline Bingley is a real piece of work.
Caroline Bingley is the closest thing Pride and Prejudice has to a villain (she shares the title with Lady Catherine DeBurgh and with Mr. Wickham). She’s snobbish, rude and manipulative. She talks about people behind their backs. She’s classist, and sexist, and I’ll admit that sometimes when I’m reading Pride and Prejudice, I’ll find myself saying aloud, “Man, Caroline Bingley is such a bitch!”
But here’s the thing. If Caroline Bingley is a bitch, it’s not her fault. Society made her that way.
Pride and Prejudice is a critique of gender roles and, in particular, of the strictures placed on upper class women in Georgian England. It’s about the role that money played in women’s lives, and the things that women had to do to survive (Lizzie’s best friend Charlotte Lucas, in order to survive, marries the contemptible Mr. Collins). Austen critiques the customs that keep women largely powerless, sometimes in her narration, sometimes in the dialogue that she writes for her characters. Lizzie Bennet, the beloved heroine, is a symbol of Austen’s more modern values. Lizzie’s ultimate triumph is a triumph of the new ways over the old ones. And Caroline Bingley is the perfect symbol of those old ways.
Caroline Bingley is everything a proper lady is meant to be. She’s wealthy, beautiful, accomplished and she has impeccable manners (in public, at least). She maintains the boundaries between the classes, believing herself to be above anyone who has less money than her, or who earned their money rather than inheriting it. She is accomplished in all the ways listed above and looks down on any woman who isn’t. She has impeccable manners and while Austen never tells us what becomes of her, chances are she would have married a very wealthy man and had several very wealthy children.
She’s also a perfect example of internalized sexism – a woman who has been socialized to believe, espouse and enforce her culture’s ideas about gender, even though, as a woman, they harm her. For example, when Lizzie walks several miles through muddy fields to visit Jane at the Bingley’s, arriving dirty and sweaty, Caroline is scathing in her criticism. “To walk three miles… above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! Whatever could she mean by it?” Caroline demands. “It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence…” Which is pretty damn sexist, no doubt. But it’s also a pretty standard reaction for the era.
Lizzie Bennet, as much as we love her, isn’t your average Regency-era gentleman’s daughter. She’s a rebel with unorthodox ideas (for the period) about class and gender. In fact, that’s why we love her. But her case, in which rebellion against gender norms is rewarded with a loving marriage to a very wealthy man, is unusual. In order to survive in Edwardian England, most women had to be less like Lizzie and more like Caroline.
So yes, Caroline Bingley is classist and sexist and manipulative and mean. And I’m not excusing that. I root for Lizzie all through the novel, and relish her triumph and the more symbolic victory of a modern woman in an antiquated social structure. But classism, sexism, manipulation and meanness are rewarded by that structure. Women who looked down on those poorer than themselves, who adhered to dominant ideas about a woman’s proper role, and who used their feminine charms to manipulate men and exclude other women, were rewarded with wealth and security. Without that wealth, as Austen reminds us often in Pride and Prejudice, a woman would die impoverished, or forever be a financial burden on her family. Caroline Bingley isn’t very nice, but that’s because she’s playing by the rules of the game.
So I guess what I’m saying is, if you decide to celebrate the anniversary of Austen’s birth by re-reading her best novel, or if you’re in the midst of reading it for class, resist the urge to hate on Caroline Bingley. Remember: don’t hate the player. Hate the game. Jane Austen did, and it made her one of the most adored authors of all time.