When Elizabeth Bennet hears that her older sister Jane has fallen ill in Pride and Prejudice, part of her mother’s matchmaking scheme, she sets out to visit the invalid despite Mrs. Bennet’s protests. “How can you be so silly,” cried her mother, “as to think of such a thing, in all this dirt! You will not be fit to be seen when you get there.”
“I shall be very fit to see Jane — which is all I want.”
Austen often has her female characters walking, their chief mode of transportation as familiar to the Austen sisters as well, but she further elaborate’s on her lead character’s progress, “Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with wearing ancles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.” (Austen’s own spelling.)
Austen often documents the differences in meal times in her letters and novels. The dining schedule at home in Steventon was much earlier and less fashionable than at her brother’s in Godmersham, Kent.
Reflecting this, Elizabeth Bennet arrives when the party at Netherfield and arrives when the Bingley party at the great house is their taking breakfast. “She was shown into the breakfast-parkour, where all but Jane were assembled, and were her appearance created but a great deal of surprise. — 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 received , however, very politely by them; and in their brother’s manners there was something better than politeness; there was good humour and kindness.” (Austen’s own spelling.)
Mr. Bingley’s good humor aside, Austen duly notes the disapproval of the female members of the party, at Elizabeth’s daring to walk alone, unattended and during bad weather. Austen as author, notes the social impropriety while deftly building the character of her heroine and her relationship with her foil slash love interest Mr. Darcy. Darcy already ascribed both by his friends and the entire Meryton neighborhood as a lauded member of the gentry would have definite opinions on Elizabeth’s actions or impropriety but Austen takes the opportunity to convey Darcy’s own private debate about Elizabeth while inserting a little bit of wicked wit about Mr. Hurst, “Mr. Darcy said very little, and Mr. Hurst nothing at all. The former was divided between admiration of the brilliancy which exercise had given to her complexion, and doubt as to the occasion’s justifying her coming so far alone. The latter was thinking only of his breakfast.”
Elizabeth ends up remaining at Netherfield to look after Jane. The members of the house party continue to discuss and debate her long after she has settled into nurse her older sister. “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 importance; and she had no conversation, no stile, no taste, no beauty. Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley seem determined not to let the subject go, Mrs. Hurst thought the same, and added
‘She has nothing, in short to recommend her, but being an excellent walker. I shall never forget her appearance this morning. She really looked almost wild.'” (Austen’s own spelling.)
These sisters continue their discussion of Elizabeth Bennet, with Mrs. Hurst adding the famous observation, “Yes and her petticoat; I hope you saw her petticoat, six inches deep in mud.”
The sisters then try to draw Mr. Darcy into their bashing and optimally make sure he is on the same page. Miss Bingley obviously has the vested interest here, as she is trying to both make conversation with Darcy and engage him in more than just a friendship but on intimate matters. “You observed it, Mr. Darcy, I am sure, said Miss Bingley; “and I am inclined to to think that you would not wish to see your sister much such an exhibition.”
And of course Darcy answers (about his sister Georgiana): “Certainly not.”
Darcy is of course, as Austen often notes, a man of few words.
Again, the invoking here of appropriate behavior of young ladies, and using the example of Georgiana, Darcy’s young, beloved sister is two-fold. Miss Bingley is trying to make her point about how uncivilized their unwanted guest Elizabeth Bennet is, and she is trying to ascertain Darcy’s level of dislike as well. Perhaps this is to foreshadow that Miss Bingley is uncertain about her status with Darcy herself and also she suspects he may have some sort of an attraction to Elizabeth.
Miss Bingley, is appealing to the snob in Darcy, basically trying to appeal to him to officially condemn Elizabeth being from a lower class, and that way Elizabeth is dismissed formally as any kind of a love interest or rival.
After an exchange with her brother back and forth, Miss Bingley circles around again to Darcy, this time baiting him with a bit of irony, for his previous admiration of Elizabeth’s physical appearance, “I am afraid, Mr. Darcy,” observed Miss Bingley, in a half whisper, “that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of your fine eyes.”
We had to wait for it but here it is, the reply from Darcy: “Not at all,” he replied; “they were brightened by the exercise.”
So, Darcy was privately and internally debated Elizabeth’s walk across the countryside but he wasn’t going to own up to it, he wasn’t going to trash her as a woman of bad behavior, and of course his admiration for the beauty of her eyes remains. Here, he was officially on the record there for that compliment, and to Miss Bingley’s dismay, she is recognizing more so, that Elizabeth is attractive in Darcy’s eyes and a bit of a rival, so Miss Bingley then descends on pulling apart and reminding Darcy of the Bennet’s lower social class status and family connections.
The reply here may be that Darcy fell prey to their snobbery or perhaps he conceded the point in the larger, general conversation: “But it must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world,” replied Darcy.
The idea that six inches of mud, and all that it represents (Elizabeth’s independence nature), didn’t repeal Darcy is interesting, Austen is playing with the idea that Darcy has both private and public thoughts and statements about Elizabeth.
All Cites to Penguin Classics, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, reprinted 1985.