To get a feel for the kind of problems that Austen presents for her critics, consider the Margaret Oliphant (1870) review, an article prompted by the publication of the Austen-Leigh (1870) memoir, triggering as it did the resurgence of interest in Austen that continues to the present.
Curiously enough, it would seem that Miss Austen herself felt for this same Elizabeth, and for her alone, the enthusiasm of a parent for a child. I have got my own darling child from London,’ she writes to her sister, in a little flutter of pleasure and excitement. ‘Miss B——dined with us on the very day of the book’s coming, and in the evening we fairly set at it and read fully half the first volume to her, prefacing that having intelligence from Henry that such a book would soon appear, we had desired him to send it as soon as it came out; and I believe it passed with her unsuspected. She was amused, poor soul! That she could not help, you know, with two such people to lead the way, but she really does seem to admire Elizabeth. I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least I do not know. In a letter she adds—‘Fanny’s praise is very gratifying. My hopes were tolerably strong of her, but nothing like a certainty. Her liking Darcy and Elizabeth is enough; she might hate all the others if she would.’ This is as curious a piece of revelation as we know, and proves that the young woman who had just given so original a work to the world was in reality quite unaware of its real power, and had set her heart upon her hero and heroine like any schoolgirl. Our beloved Mr Collins, upon whom the spectator would be tempted to think a great deal of pains and some proportionate anxiety must have been expended, evidently goes for very little with his maker. It is her lovers she is thinking of, a commonplace pair enough, while we are full of her inimitable fools, who are not at all commonplace. This curious fact disorders our head a little, and makes us ponder and wonder whether our author is in reality the gentle cynic we have concluded her to be, or if she has produced all these marvels of selfish folly unawares, without knowing what she was doing, or meaning anything by it. Genius, however, goes a great deal deeper than conscious meaning, and has its own way, whatever may be the intentions of its owner; and we but smile at the novelist’s strange delusion as we set aside Elizabeth and Darcy, the one a young woman very much addicted to making speeches, very pert often, fond of having the last word, and prone to hasty judgments, with really nothing but her prettiness and a certain sharp smartness of talk to recommend her; and the other a very ordinary young man, quite like hosts of other young men, with that appearance of outward pride and hauteur which is so captivating to the youthful feminine imagination, though it must be admitted that he possesses an extraordinary amount of candour and real humility of mind under this exterior.
— Margaret Oliphant (1870) on Jane Austen
This is perhaps a little ironic given the theme of the novel, explained in the key passage in the book, Elizabeth’s eclaircissement, where she uncovers the demon of the piece.
“How despicably I have acted!” she cried; “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.”
— Pride and Prejudice (36.8)
While the novel is about Darcy’s pride and Elizabeth’s prejudice, it is also about Elizabeth’s pride induced prejudice, or more precisely, her vanity induced prejudice, for as Mary reminds us (5.20) ‘pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us’; against this we have Jane Bennet’s candour and consequent clear seeing. While Jane was the dupe of Caroline Bingley this is was of little consequence compared to Elizabeth’s blunders. (See Candour for a more detailed explanation of why Jane Bennet is not as imposed upon by Caroline Bingley as appearances would suggest.) While Jane Bennet correctly read Bingley’s and Darcy’s qualities and suspected that ‘Mr. Wickham is by no means a respectable young man’. Elizabeth blunders because of her lack of candour, but the meaning of candour was starting to change in Austen’s time and the modern reader needs to be wary. The change is revealing.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary [candour] is derived from the Latin candor—dazzling whiteness, brilliancy, innocency, purity, sincerity (candle being derived from the same root: see the full OED entry for Candour), and this is how the word is used from the 15th century until the 17th century when it gets split into three related meanings: a character of purity, integrity and innocence, and a disposition that is free from mental bias (impartiality, openness and justice) and a disposition that is kindly and not malicious. In the late eighteenth century we see the modern meaning of openness, frankness, ingenuousness and outspokenness (according to the OED the meaning of fairness and impartiality remains, but according to the Paperback Oxford English Dictionary, candour means only ‘the quality of being open and honest’).
We are given every reason to think that Jane’s character, though less intricate than Elizabeth’s, is no less inestimable, (9.13) as Elizabeth says herself of Jane:
“If you were to give me forty such men, I never could be so happy as you. Till I have your disposition, your goodness, I never can have your happiness. […]”
— Pride and Prejudice (55.52)
Austen is careful to get Elizabeth to mock Jane’s efforts to generally think well of people, even at the expense of (objectively) implausible rationalisations of what she is seeing.
Elizabeth related to Jane the next day, what had passed between Mr. Wickham and herself. Jane listened with astonishment and concern; – she knew not how to believe that Mr. Darcy could be so unworthy of Mr. Bingley’s regard; and yet, it was not in her nature to question the veracity of a young man of such amiable appearance as Wickham. – The possibility of his having really endured such unkindness, was enough to interest all her tender feelings; and nothing therefore remained to be done, but to think well of them both, to defend the conduct of each, and throw into the account of accident or mistake, whatever could not be otherwise explained.
“They have both,” said she, “been deceived, I dare say, in some way or other, of which we can form no idea. Interested people have perhaps misrepresented each to the other. It is, in short, impossible for us to conjecture the causes or circumstances which may have alienated them, without actual blame on either side.”
“Very true, indeed; – and now, my dear Jane, what have you got to say in behalf of the interested people who have probably been concerned in the business? – Do clear them too, or we shall be obliged to think ill of somebody.”
— Pride and Prejudice (17.1-3)
It is easy enough to mock Jane but Elizabeth’s effort to objectively reconcile the situation—by assuming that Wickham has been mistreated by Darcy—leads her into the character misjudgement that nearly undoes here and her family. By not making an effort to think well of people in general she becomes vulnerable to her vanity, reinforcing a prejudice created by Darcy’s ungallant behaviour at the assembly.
The biggest misjudgement isn’t that between Darcy and Wickham but between Elizabeth and Jane. As Elizabeth realizes after receiving Darcy’s letter, she has entirely underestimated her sister’s wisdom and over-rated her own discernment. But what makes the novel really interesting is the way she gets the reader to partake in this misjudgement, to share in Mrs Bennet’s propensity for snap prejudicial judgment and Mr Bennet’s worldly cynicism, while laughing at both; we are being set up. The zoo that is the dysfunctional Bennet extended family (including Mr Collins) helps right away to join the heroine in feeling a sense of superiority; the naïve and unworldly Jane being imposed upon by the shallow Caroline Bingley; Elizabeth’s charged witty fencing with Darcy; all manoeuvre us into joining in Elizabeth’s smugness, and misunderstanding Darcy’s character. We can also feel Elizabeth’s sense of loss and maybe wonder at our own judgement as Darcy’s true character is revealed. On a conventional level the novel’s success clearly rides on our identifying with the heroine and the suitor she falls in love with, but this is also critical for the novel’s ethical purpose (just as the critic and reader are confronted reverse problem in Mansfield Park).
It was essential to the success of the novel that we fall in love with Elizabeth’s (and Darcy’s) ‘bright and sparking’ surfaces so remaining blind to her faults. To the extent that we identify with the heroine we can undergo the same exercise in self-revelation about our own character, and this process becomes no less interesting with each rereading, possibly more so as the reader starts to tune in to the contours of the story and start to observe their own reactions to it and perhaps better appreciate the reader’s interest in the ethical problems.
Those who have for some paragraphs now been chafing at this extended sermon, the tastelessness of moralising in a discussion of ethics, may like to consider the following point. How come Margaret Oliphant, in an historically important article, starts by wondering at ‘the fine vein of feminine cynicism which pervades’ Austen’s mind only to later wonder at Austen setting ‘her heart upon her hero and heroine like any schoolgirl’—the very same author who was within the year to create Fanny Price and Mansfield Park. How much did Margaret Oliphant know about her own mind, and how much did those that were to later follow in her footsteps (starting in 1940 with Harding’s Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen). To what extent do we know ourselves any more.