A Measure of Excellence: Modes of Comparison in Pride and Prejudice

J.F. Burrows

Abstract


In Pride and Prejudice, as in Jane Austen's other novels, the neighbourhood at large plays a subdued but uncongenial choric role, delivering narrow and frequently censorious comments on persons and events. At the Collins wedding, these bystanders have merely "as much to say or to hear on the subject as usual".1 The more unusual circumstances surrounding Lydia Bennet's elopement lead to more excited conjecture, after which the news that she is married after all must be borne "with decent philosophy":

To be sure it would have been more for the advantage of conversation, had Miss Lydia Bennet come upon the town; or, as the happiest alternative, been secluded from the world, in some distant farm house. But there was much to be talked of, in marrying her; and the good-natured wishes for her welldoing, which had proceeded before, from all the spiteful old ladies in Meryton, lost but little of their spirit in this change of circumstances, because with such an husband, her misery was considered certain. (p. 309)

This particular neighbourhood, however, departs a little from Jane Austen's customary rendering in its propensity for extravagant superlatives. It takes only a few minutes for the ladies of Meryton to determine that Mr Darcy - who had figured momentarily as "much handsomer than Mr. Bingley" (p. 10) - is in fact "the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world" (p. 11). As the novel develops, the solicitations of Wickham easily persuade "the society of Hertfordshire" that Darcy is "the worst of men" (p. 138). And, no less absurdly, Wickham himself will afterwards be condemned as "the wickedest young man in the world" (p. 294).

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