The “Quickness” of Elizabeth and the Question of Being the “Better” Woman In Pride and Prejudice

"...Being the "Better" Woman In Pride and Prejudice"  is a guest essay by Seth Snow

In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennet says

[my daughters] are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzie has something more of quickness than her sisters.

The above passage raises several issues pertaining to Mr. Bennet’s character, but the issue concerning this essay is his view towards females, particularly his daughters, and how that view sets the stage for a serious discussion on a female’s mind in the novel.

“Silly” and “ignorant”[1] both describe what Mr. Bennet believes is the condition of the average female mind (“like other girls”).  “Silly” normally means weak-minded, and “ignorant” refers to someone whose mind is uninformed.  Consequently, following Mr. Bennet’s logic, “silly” girls are incapable of intellectual seriousness; therefore, “ignorance” would naturally follow.  However, Mr. Bennet then goes out of his way to exclude Elizabeth from the female populace due to her “quickness,” which emphasizes her mind is different from other girls and is capable of true intellectual power.  That attitude towards the female mind would then push back against Mr. Bennet’s initial premise that all girls seem prone to be “silly” and “ignorant” because Elizabeth is obviously a girl, yet she has a “quick” mind.  Why, then, would Mr. Bennet single out Elizabeth from her sisters and “other girls” here solely based on the capabilities of her mind rather than on other factors? Initially, Mr. Bennet’s motivation may simply be his effort to separate Elizabeth from her sisters to make clear to his wife that Elizabeth is his favourite daughter.  In doing that, he is, as he often does throughout the novel, punishing his wife, for she wants him to give preference to all her single daughters since an eligible Charles Bingley is taking up residence nearby.  After all, the narrator says in the novel’s opening lines
a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
Mrs. Bennet would hold strongly to that view, and Mr. Bennet would obviously not be ignorant of a “truth” that is “universal” to those residing in his neighbourhood.  That means he would understand his role as a father in terms of introducing “all” his daughters to a single, wealthy man. Being the better woman in Pride and PrejudiceHowever, Mr. Bennet’s emphasis on Elizabeth’s “quickness” is an unusual tactic to torment his wife.  When broaching the topic of daughter-future husband, discussing the female mind is not normally relevant nor does it move events forward in terms of his daughters’ marital prospects.  So, Mr. Bennet’s effort to get at his wife has larger significance: he is distinguishing Elizabeth from the common social standard for women by emphasizing her “quickness.” Why might he evaluate Elizabeth from a different standard?  Mrs. Bennet had previously noted in their conversation that Elizabeth is not “better” than her other daughters, which clearly bothers Mr. Bennet (which may be another reason for his sarcastic tone).  While Mrs. Bennet is not making an unreasonable claim, for a parent usually would not want to promote one child as “better” than another, her criteria for assessing “better” is based mainly on appearance and/or limited personality, which society values:
[Elizabeth] is not half as handsome as Jane, nor half so good humoured as Lydia.
Obviously, having good looks and humour are not faults; even Elizabeth is an attractive woman who enjoys laughing; however, for Mrs. Bennet to base “better” entirely on those qualities leaves out the mind of a girl, which then makes Mr. Bennet’s praise of Elizabeth’s “quickness” stand out with even more significance and creates a challenge for the novel.  This challenge means that the novel asks a reader to re-think what constitutes “better” in terms of assessing a female: is having a “quick” mind “better” than the usual standard for assessing what is “better” for women?  Does the novel believe that “better” pertains only to the female-marriage sphere, as a moral standard for women, or both? To address the above questions, we should remember that the context of our main passage is daughters and marriage, so beginning with female-marriage and “better” is a logical starting point.  Moreover, because Mr. Bennet is also the first character to emphasize the priority of a female’s mind, his marriage may shed light on why a woman’s mind should have priority over what society prioritizes, for he married a “silly” woman.  This means that his sarcastic tone and push for Elizabeth’s “quick” mind is addressing a deeper internal need: he may want Charles Bingley to avoid a fate that he himself did not avoid but could have had he been wiser.  Specifically, Elizabeth, later in the novel, notes that her father married her mother solely for her beauty and charm, not for her mind.  Upon realizing his mistake of preferring beauty over mind and true character, Mr. Bennet, according to Elizabeth, developed a life philosophy to laugh at his wife’s expense, which is obviously problematic though understandable.  While much can be said about Mr. Bennet’s life ‘philosophy,’ what now concerns this essay is that he recognizes the problem of a woman whose mind has not been developed.  As his philosophy largely derived from his marrying a “silly” woman, his emphasis on Elizabeth’s “quick” mind now sets the table for several passages dealing with the question of what makes a woman truly “better.” One of the key passages, following Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s above conversation, is a discourse about what truly makes a woman “accomplished.”  Charles Bingley says that “all” women are “accomplished” because they
paint tables, cover skreens, and net purses.
He further emphasizes that he has never
heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished.
While much can be said about this passage, one issue is that Charles holds a conventional view of female “accomplishments”; these “accomplishments” are basic skills that women acquire to fulfill domestic duties, presumably one day as a wife.  These “accomplishments,” however, say nothing about the mind of a woman or even her character; moreover, Charles liberally praises “all” women, basing his view on what he “hear[s]” about them rather than judging them based on individual merit.  His way of thinking would prevent him from distinguishing Elizabeth from “other girls” as Mr. Bennet does. Mr. Darcy’s remarks on an “accomplished woman,” however, challenge Charles’ conventional views since he, like Mr. Bennet though without the negativity, makes an individual judgment about women:
I cannot boast of knowing more than half a dozen [women], in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are really accomplished.
While some could say that Mr. Darcy is narrow-minded since Charles says “all” women are “accomplished,” which is obviously a broad assessment, Mr. Darcy does know “half a dozen” “accomplished” women personally.  Mr. Darcy’s hesitancy to judge women, solely based on what he “hears” about them, suggests that each woman in the novel is to be evaluated individually, not as a collective “all,” and that “accomplished” means something deeper than merely completing household tasks.  Mr. Darcy’s assessment then would promote Mr. Bennet’s earlier endorsement of Elizabeth while resisting Charles and Mrs. Bennet’s respective views on females. Caroline Bingley soon, as she often does, interjects herself into the above conversation, and while there are several motives behind her doing so, we will look only at one issue concerning her definition of an “accomplished” woman.  She somewhat surpasses Charles’ definition of “accomplished” and says a woman must have
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.
In context, Caroline, at a basic level, seems to believe that a gentleman such as Mr. Darcy would be attracted to her “accomplishments,” which are per usual for her education, so it is not unreasonable to think that she is showing off her resume, so to speak.  If her definition of “accomplished” is the standard bearer, then Elizabeth would seem inferior to Caroline, which is what the latter wants. However, Mr. Darcy says that the more “substantial” element to a woman is
in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.
While Mr. Darcy has numerous motives for saying this, I will say only that his view of education is important for the novel since he believes in the development of a woman’s mind.  That is, a woman’s mind is active, not passive, during the educational process so that it can “improve” itself. (Caroline’s education involves, more or less, a familiarity with subjects but not necessarily a deeper understanding of them; moreover, her mind is not active.  Consequently, her mind never truly “improves,” which is what concerns Mr. Darcy; instead, she would be another version of “silly and ignorant.”). Darcy’s view of female education certainly would have its opponents.  While female education was on the rise, a woman whose mind spent too much time reading books would often be described as unkempt and one who has neglected other conventional, more appropriate female pursuits, or “accomplishments.”  Nonetheless, Mr. Darcy does not heed to that stigma of well-read females.  He also does not base his assessment of a “better” woman on limited personality and appearance alone as Mrs. Bennet does (though he is attracted to Elizabeth’s eyes, so beauty is relevant but not all that there is as the narrator later identifies the “danger” of Mr. Darcy’s paying Elizabeth too much attention). Still, if a woman with an active mind is one that the novel may prefer, then looking at Mr. Collins’ sermon and Mary’s didactic tendencies will be of some value.  In chapter 14, Mr. Collins reads three pages from Fordyce’s sermons; these sermons were religious in content and addressed topics relevant to women that included how to date, how to behave, how to become educated, and so forth.  In short, these sermons were meant to keep females in line; additionally, Collins’ strong disapproval of novels, which featured characters usually relatable to most readers, were viewed as a degradation to the mind of a woman and would presumably arouse her to excessive emotion. While one cannot overlook the obvious double-standard in the above paragraph, conduct books, in a theoretical sense, can produce positive results, but, in reality, they do not strengthen a woman’s mind; they simply tell her what to think and how to behave.  This failure to “improve” the woman can be seen in Lydia’s amusing interruption of Collins’ reading of the Fordyce sermon.  Her outburst, on one hand, is disagreeable to Elizabeth and Jane who “bid” Lydia to “hold her tongue.” Such outburst seemingly would reinforce, in Collins’ mind, the need for female conduct books.  However, at the same time, Lydia’s lack of propriety and grace can be seen as a logical consequence of an untrained mind because “complicated rules to adjust behaviour are weak substitutes for principles.”[2]  Lydia, then, can only be but “silly” and “ignorant,” lacking the appropriate conduct and “improvement” that Fordyce prefers. As an extreme contrast to Lydia, Mary is one whose didactic tendency presents a different look at the word “silly.”  That is, when she learns of the Lydia-Wickham debacle, she says
Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson; that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable—that one false step involves her in endless ruin—that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful—and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex.
The narrator suggests that Elizabeth could only look at Lydia in “amazement,” and Mary continues to “console” herself with moral extractions from the evil before them. A problem with Mary’s mind here is that her thoughts have been pre-determined prior to hearing the news itself about Lydia.  That is, moral extracts have obviously shaped her thinking to where she does not have a thought of her own on Lydia’s plight.  Additionally, her anti-female morality does not see the larger problem, which is Wickham’s obvious bad doings; she also has no compassion for Lydia’s well-being, which is a further indictment against Mary’s moralism.  While a person’s holding to morality is not bad, it becomes a problem when Lydia becomes an object study for the fallen woman rather than a human who needs her family’s support due to an obvious wrong committed against her.  A mind, freed from such prejudiced thinking, can only look at Mary’s assessment in “amazement” as Elizabeth does. To conclude, Mr. Bennet’s initial assessment of Elizabeth’s “quickness” is probably preferred to the other standards of femininity in this novel.  Certainly, as we know, Elizabeth’s thoughts do create problems for herself and for others at times, but at least her misjudgement of Mr. Darcy, for instance, was prejudiced thinking that arose from her inability to judge correctly, not from being told what to think.  Minds freed from dogma and strict morality (e.g., Mary’s moral extracts and Fordyce’s sermons) will still be prone to error, for to error is to be human, but Elizabeth’s errors only make her more human, which I would think is “better” than being “silly and ignorant,” beautiful but lacking authentic grace.  Therefore, Pride and Prejudice may hold the view that a female’s independent mind is “better,” both in a moral sense (how one treats another person and how one lives one’s life) and in a marital sense (husband and wife are equal to one another in the way, for example, that Darcy and Elizabeth improve, not change or indoctrinate, the other person).  Hence, Elizabeth may be the new standard-bearer for women in the book.


[1] Throughout this essay, when I refer to specific words from Pride and Prejudice¸ I will put these words in quotation marks. [2] From Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman  


About the author Seth Snow has a master’s degree in English Literature from The University of Akron and teaches a course called Jane Austen, where he and his students read and discuss Emma and Persuasion. He also teaches Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility in British Literature and Women’s Literature, respectively.

1 comment

I must strongly disagree with many points of this article. Mrs. Bennett was a fool, and a loud, undisciplined fool at that. She is, at best, shallow. Her opinion is of no consequence. She reacts badly to almost everything that happens. Mr. Bennett is not as watchful as a father of five daughters ought to be, but he allowed his girls to have any level of education they cared to pursue. Elizabeth is brighter and more intelligent than the other girls. Jane is lovely and placid, but not bright. She matches with Bingley quite well. Lydia is very much like her mother, and it is only by the intervention of Darcy that she escapes ruin. Kitty is almost invisible next to her sisters, and tends to be somewhat of a chameleon. Mary is foolish in not matching wisdom to her learning.

It does not do to try and judge a work from the 19th century by modern, liberal conventions.

birchpoint5 July 26, 2020

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