More Dancing Darcy: Chapter 4

In Chapter 4 of A Man of Few Words, Darcy and Elizabeth meet at the Netherfield Ball. This is the event where the Bennet Family thoroughly embarrasses itself.

Embarrassed Mr. Bennet at the Netherfield Ball.
In this chapter, I endeavored to clarify that the Bennet Family does indeed behave quite badly; during my revision of A Man of Few Words, I wrote "Why Darcy Is Often Justified" regarding his reaction to Mr. Collins's dreadful behavior at this ball. The genius of Jane Austen is that she creates events that can be interpreted in more than one way.

Take, for example, Darcy's interference in Bingley's life. Darcy is so appalled  by the Bennet Family's behavior at the ball that he maneuvers Bingley, who leaves for London the next morning, into staying away.

On the one hand, Darcy assuming that Jane will not be hurt by Bingley's abandonment and encouraging his friend to leave Netherfield immediatement is as officious and rude as anything Emma might do.

On the other hand, Darcy is trying to save Bingley from a breach of promise suit. For Frasier fans, Donny Douglas--Daphne's fiance--threatens to bring a breach of promise suit when she leaves him at the altar for Niles. Breach of promise suits are not that common in our modern age although they can be filed in some states.

The problem for Bingley is that what constitutes a "promise" from him is far more subtle than what constitutes a promise from men (and women) now-a-days. In Trollope's book The American Senator (1875),  the femme fatale Amanda desperately attempts to maneuver Lord Rufford into making a single compromising statement, anything that will enable her to say, "But you said you would marry me!" He is never trapped, partly because he is rather clueless and partly because he is well-protected by friends like Darcy.

Bingley is a much nicer bloke than Lord Rufford, and Jane certainly never goes as far as Amanda. But Darcy would still worry that Bingley's actions could be misinterpreted, especially after Mrs. Bennet actually claims that an engagement exists! In other words, Bingley simply paying more attention to Jane than to the other single women at the ball practically implies a proposal.

Darcy also knows his friend. Unlike Lord Rufford, Bingley would agree to an engagement--even if none existed--rather than hurt anyone's feelings. And Darcy honestly believes that Jane isn't interested in Bingley. Although Darcy never says so directly in Austen's account, he likely compares Jane disfavorably to Elizabeth. Why would Bingley want to marry this cold, seemingly passionless person when he could have lively, enchanting Elizabeth?!

Victorian Divorce Court
Moreover, although marriage is always a big deal--then and now--a bad marriage based on a mistake was not something that anyone in the nineteenth century would be walking away from. As detailed in the fascinating book Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace, "easy" divorce did not become possible in Britain until the mid-1800s. "Easy" means that while a man could get a divorce based on his wife's proven infidelity, a wife could only get a divorce for infidelity and another form of abuse. The two-fold consequences of these requirements were (1) the divorce court press became an instant hit with Victorians; (2) historical romance novelists who claim that the Divorce Act was a feminist triumph should keep in mind that far more men sought divorces and got them than women. (On the other hand, not a few of the Court of Divorce judges were remarkably even-handed in their judgments.)

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