The Company They Kept

The Company They Kept

There’s a song where a drunk man ends up in the gutter with a pig. In the song, a passerby says:

 

“‘You can tell a man who boozes

By the company he chooses’

So the pig got up and slowly walked away

Yes, the pig got up and slowly walked away”

 

The Pig Got Up and Slowly Walked Away 

by

F. W. Bowers (music) & Benjamin Hapgood Burt (lyrics)

 

friend (frend)
n.
A person whom one knows, likes, and trusts.

Darcy said about Mr. Wickham, “Mr. Wickham is blessed with such happy manners as may ensure his making friends—whether he may be equally capable of retaining them, is less certain.”

Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst invite Jane to visit them at Netherfield Park. It is seen as a compliment to Jane, but what choice did the sisters have? In the absence of the gentlemen, the reader meets no one in the novel who would be more enjoyable for them to have as a guest. They could stay home with Mrs. Hurst playing with her bracelets and Miss Bingley pretending to read, but they did that even when the gentlemen were present.

One reason to like Elizabeth and Darcy is the quality of their friendships.

Darcy kept good company. Both Mr. Bingley and Colonel Fitzwilliam are nice men. Both appear to be good natured, and reasonably intelligent. What’s more, we see Darcy with Bingley in the fall and with Colonel Fitzwilliam in the spring, but he may have had other friends he saw in between. But Darcy had choices. He had the mobility that comes of being male and wealthy, making it so he could pick whom he associated with. I suspect he tolerated Mr. Bingley’s sisters for the sake of Bingley’s company. Some of the dialogue suggests that he wasn’t blind to Miss Bingley’s character. She reveals herself in her statement about Elizabeth and Darcy shows he recognizes it.

“Elizabeth Bennet…is one of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex by undervaluing their own; and with many men, I dare say, it succeeds. But, in my opinion, it is a paltry device, a very mean art.”

“Undoubtedly,” replied Darcy, to whom this remark was chiefly addressed, “there is a meanness in all the arts which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation. Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable.”

On the other hand, Darcy’s apparent blindness to Lady Catherine’s rude behavior is part of the pride that marks the first half of the novel. At least Elizabeth is embarrassed by her relatives’ bad behavior. It is a mark of Darcy’s growth that he recognizes his aunt’s flaws when she verbally attacks Elizabeth.

Elizabeth had considerably less choice than Darcy. She had her family and neighbors. Because the Gardiners choose to associate with her, she had them as good, but infrequently-seen, friends. She did not appear to be friends with any of her younger sisters nor with her mother, but she was friends with Jane and with her father. The only friend she saw frequently outside of her family was Charlotte Lucas. Charlotte was possibly the most perceptive person in Pride and Prejudice, having seen Darcy’s interest in Elizabeth and foreseen Jane’s behavior toward Bingley might not be in her best interests.

Elizabeth faulted Charlotte for choosing to marry Mr. Collins, but for Charlotte, it was a good choice. She got what she wanted out of marriage, and it was likely that she would end up as the mistress of Longbourn. Charlotte coped well with her situation. Elizabeth’s visit to Charlotte shows she eventually tolerated Charlotte’s choice, partially based on their previous friendship, but perhaps recognizing that it was Charlotte’s choice to make. She thought less of Charlotte, but clearly hadn’t given up on her. In spite of Elizabeth’s criticism of Charlotte, she remained her friend.

I like to think that Elizabeth and Colonel Fitzwilliam were becoming friends, but perhaps their acquaintance was too brief. They both thought they would not meet again. Perhaps at the time it would be difficult for two people of opposite sexes to be friends if they were not related.

Mr. Bennet had serious flaws, but Elizabeth’s relationship gives a positive impression. It is not wrong to be more forgiving of parents’ faults, although Elizabeth’s lack of a close relationship with her mother is understandable.

Jane Austen made Darcy and Elizabeth more likeable by their friendships with pleasant people, but Elizabeth’s friendship with Charlotte is the only one that is absolutely vital to the plot. She would not have met Darcy in Kent if she hadn’t gone there for the sake of her friendship. She could have traveled to Derbyshire with the Gardiners without being as close to them as she was, but it helped the plot that she was with people that she liked and Darcy could respect.

I don’t believe that Jane Austen used friendships in the same way in her other novels. She definitely used friendships. The plot of Emma depends on Harriet Smith. Without Lady Russell, Anne would have been happily married to Captain Wentworth long before the start of Persuasion. Catherine Morland’s friendships with Isabella Thorpe and Eleanor Tilney are important in Northanger Abbey as are Fanny Price’s lack of friends in Mansfield Park. I consider the friendship of Elinor and Marianne the most moving relationship in Sense and Sensibility. But in Pride and Prejudice friendships help the reader understand and approve of the two major characters.

14 Responses to The Company They Kept

  1. I could not agree more! Lizzy’s youthful prejudices prevented her understanding that one fact about Mr. Darcy. If all that Wickham had said about him were true, why would such excellent fellows like Mr. Bingley (who Lizzy knew better than Wickham) and later the genial Col. Fitzwilliam, be his friends?

    Good post!

    • You’re welcome.

      In Emma, people think that Emma and Jane Fairfax should be friends and they aren’t. It is more common for fiction to have people be friends who shouldn’t be friends. Trust Jane Austen to come up with something different.

  2. I like your insight here. I’m going to have to pay closer attention to the development of friendships in the non-P&P novels. And I think you’re right about women not being friends with men they weren’t related to. Even today it’s an issue.

    • I agree that we should look at friendships in other fiction. Often on TV people are friends only because the writers want someone for the main character to interact with. There sometimes seems to be little reason for their friendships.

      As to male-female friendships, I think it is more accepted for younger people, than for older people, at least those of my generation.

Your thoughts are precious!