Taking a little time here to follow up, examining the scene in Pride and Prejudice, where Mr. Darcy, quite unexpectedly visits Elizabeth in the parsonage. Austen describes that Elizabeth happened to be alone and the conversation did not exactly flow. Elizabeth first tries to make polite inquiries about Mr. Bingley and Netherfield — but sort of hits a wall with Mr. Darcy: “Elizabeth made no answer. She was afraid of talking longer of his friend; and having, nothing else to say, was now determined to leave the trouble of finding a subject to him.”
Darcy though does pick up his end of the conversation, choosing to the discuss the parsonage and her cousin Mr. Collins: ‘This seems a very comfortable house. Lady Catherine, I believe, did a great deal to it when Mr. Collins first came to Hunsford.'”
And Elizabeth’s response — another line often tweaked for film or adaptations: “I believe she did — and I am sure she could not have bestowed her kindness on a more grateful object.” Bit of Austen’s wicked wit here, as she is poking fund not just of her hapless and often sniveling cousin Mr. Collins but also of Lady Catherine to an extent with the choice of the word “kindness” owing again to Austen’s descriptions of Lady Catherine’s domineering personality.
Their talk then turns into the Collins marriage and the distance that Charlotte resides from her family, with Darcy commenting: “It must be very agreeable to her to be settled within so easy a distance of her own family and friends.”
Elizabeth shoots back: “An easy distance do you call it? It is nearly fifty miles.”
So Darcy sort of mansplains here: “And what is fifty miles of good road? Little more than half a day’s journey. Yes I call it a very easy distance.” (Emphasis is Austen’s own.)
This exchange is interesting on a number of levels. First, it shows perhaps the differences of opinion between a member of the social classes of the time nobility (Darcy) and the gentry (Elizabeth). As well as a marked difference between the genders, Darcy a man who sees little more than a half day of travel being no big deal, and Elizabeth as woman of the time period, who like her author, considers 50 miles to be a much longer distance because she must take into account: scheduling, being escorted, time, and money — issues and concerns that don’t apply to Mr. Darcy. As a gentleman he has the money, resources and male freedom to come and go as he pleases.
As the discussion continues because Darcy doesn’t back off from Elizabeth pushing back, rather he continues to fish for information, “It is proof of your own attachment to Hertfordshire. Anything beyond the very neighbourhood of Longbourn, I suppose, would appear far.” (Austen’s own spelling.)
Darcy is trying to find out, in the wake of his interest for her and I presume in trying to form his upcoming proposal, how Elizabeth feels about the distance from the family home. And, again that I will comment here that Mr. Firth, did a very fine and subtle portrayal in the BBC’s adaption, of Mr. Darcy in this particular scene: “As he spoke there was a sort of smile, which Elizabeth fancied she understood; he must be supposing her to be thinking of Jane and Netherfield, and she blushed as she answered, ‘I do not mean to say that a woman may not be settled too hear her family. The far and the near must be relative, and depend on many varying circumstances.'”
Per Austen, Elizabeth felt the smile was a reference back to her earlier questions about Mr. Bingley and in her sister Jane. I’m not sure if Austen intended for the reader to really feel that Elizabeth missed this line of questioning by Darcy and/or his interest in her, and his trying to gauge perhaps worried that his Pemberley estate — would be too far and some sort of a deal breaker.
Sort of Shakespearian in nature, two people having a conversation and taking away different meanings as a result. Austen sort of sets it up, Elizabeth got a smile which was it seems a rarity for Darcy, and he turned his chair and gave her this directive — a little chiding in tone it seems was directed squarely at Elizabeth — she cannot have mistake it for a Jane/Bingley reference. “Mr. Darcy drew his chair a little towards her, and said, ‘You cannot have a right to such a very strong local attachment. You cannot always have been at Longhorn.”
Jane Austen lets the reader fill in the blank or not. She simply writes: “Elizabeth looked surprised.”
And I’m left to wonder — okay, how was she surprised? In the mind of Elizabeth Bennett was she asking herself: “why does he care?” Or did it go completely over her head, which seems to be the latter. Elizabeth seems to unintentionally to be missing all of Darcy’s clues of his apparent interest in her.
Austen then details how Elizabeth’s reaction impacts Darcy: “The gentleman experienced some change of feeling; he drew back his chair, took a newspaper form the table, and, glancing over it, said in a colder voice, ‘Are you pleased with Kent?'” To sum up, there is something going on here, because Darcy turns his chair again, goes for a prop, the newspaper — and/or item of distraction/protection, and Austen notes his tone changes, specifically Austen writes he now has a “colder voice.”
Darcy is either frustrated, scared or both and he retreats into his usual short, clipped and disinterested stance. He pretty much clams up. The whole fishing for information, the intimacy or Darcy’s attempt at it was over, “A short dialogue on the subject of the country ensured, on either side calm and concise — and soon put to an end by the entrance of Charlotte and her sister, just returned from their walk.” Because immediately Darcy takes the opportunity to just get himself out of there.
Charlotte, for the rest of the visit seems more aware of Mr. Darcy’s possible interest in Elizabeth. “She had once or twice suggested to Elizabeth the possibility of his being partial to her, but Elizabeth always laughed at the idea.” From here it’s clear that Austen perhaps either intended for their to be a sort of mix up and misunderstanding from Darcy’s parsonage visit, or that Elizabeth just dismissed Darcy because of his personality.
And Charlotte, per Austen, did not want to raise Elizabeth’s hopes of marrying someone in nobility, “from the danger of raising expectations which might only end in disappointment; for in her opinion it admitted not of a doubt, that all her friend’s dislike would vanish, if she could suppose him to be in her power.” Austen seems to be giving readers a little bit a preview or a clue — if Charlotte her dear friend could see it, then we all should right?
Austen continues really with a practical notation on women trying to plan for other women, for Charlotte is savvy enough to realize Colonel Fitzwilliam does not have as much money or connections, but Charlotte it seems, prefers Darcy’s cousin as a choice via the Regency marriage market, “In her kind schemes for Elizabeth, she sometimes planned her marrying Colonel Fitzwilliam. He was beyond comparison the pleasantest man; he certainly admired her, and his situation in life was most eligible.”
Colonel Fitzwilliam certainly may have had some polite or overt interest in Elizabeth, that motivated his cousin to realize his attachment for Elizabeth was not fleeting, and perhaps that is what spurred Darcy’s visit to the parsonage but Austen does not detail that, she leaves it again to us, her readers to decide.
However, I do think this parsonage/visit scene was Austen’s way of showing another, softer side of Darcy that he was trying to convey, as well as his interest in Elizabeth. The very practical discussion of distance and settling near/far from your family, as well the details about his tone, smile, and moving his chair closer and then away. Austen conveys through all of this — how Darcy was definitely interested in Elizabeth. Austen also notes to her readers, that Elizabeth could not see it or understand it, but as an author she plants the idea for us by using the Charlotte character, Elizabeth’s friend, a married woman who sort of settled in her own life, and is a little more neutral and perceptible in these observations and interactions.
All cites to Penguin Classics, Jane Austen’s, Pride and Prejudice, reprinted/ed. 1985.