A man comes into a neighborhood where a woman lives. Financially, he would be a good marriage prospect. The man and the woman spend time together. The woman falls in love with the man. Many around the two of them think they will marry. The man suddenly leaves without making a commitment to marriage. It is later discovered that someone convinced the man that marrying the woman he had been spending time with was not in his best interests.
In Regency times, a man who deceived a woman by making her think she was likely to be his choice of a bride was dishonorable. That idea continued for a long time. The 1958 movie Indiscreet has a major plot point of Cary Grant not wanting to falsely raise Ingrid Bergman’s expectations about marriage.
This not only applies to marriage. In a job interview, if either a potential employer knows he will never hire a person or a potential employee knows he will not take the job, the interview should not take place. It is wrong to deceive someone, by wasting their time and efforts when there is no possibility of following through with what is sought, particularly in a high-stakes situation. I heard about an interview question about how to solve a certain problem and the interviewers were using that to get relatively free consulting with no intention of hiring anyone. I also heard of someone who would take job interviews to get travel expenses paid to cities he wanted to visit. I will not vouch for the truth of either story, since I don’t even remember my sources, but your reaction to them is proof enough of the social contract we all expect to be honored.
Now, back to Jane Austen. Take these two examples of the male/female interaction delineated above. If the man is Willoughby and the woman is Marianne Dashwood, we think of the man as dishonorable. Yet, he did say goodbye and did indicate he wasn’t likely to return within a year.
If the man is Bingley and the woman is Jane Bennet, he did not say goodbye and only his sister’s letters gave the information that he wasn’t returning. Considering that the letters implied Bingley was likely to marry Georgiana Darcy, it does not seem plausible that he knew the full content of the letter to Jane, or even knew the letter existed.
Admittedly, according to Darcy, the most important argument against the marriage was that Jane didn’t love Bingley. Bingley took Darcy’s word on that. But Bingley did know she liked him and that there was a general expectation of marriage. Surely, he knew Jane well enough to realize that his completely dropping her was not something she would take lightly. She wouldn’t respond like Emma when she learned Frank Churchill was engaged to someone else.
Bingley was partially redeemed in modern eyes by being motivated by the concern that Jane didn’t love him, rather than by monetary considerations. He also was redeemed by his returning to marry Jane. But if Elizabeth hadn’t met Darcy at Pemberley, would Bingley have returned? Possibly not.
Bingley was enough in love with Jane to consider marriage, and he does something that has to hurt her. Jane Austen makes a point of saying Bingley wasn’t stupid. He had to know Jane would be hurt, but he didn’t have the guts to come back to Hertfordshire and say goodbye.
When Willoughby left Marianne, he behaved better than Bingley did. Willoughby earned his status as a villain, not by his leaving Marianne, but by his behavior afterward, including his explanation to Elinor. He would apparently like her to live a life similar to Miss Bates rather than marry someone else. His behavior to Marianne in London was cruel.
There is another issue that shows Bingley’s character was not so stellar. At the infamous assembly, Darcy tells Bingley, “You know how I detest it [dancing], unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner.” Taking Darcy’s words to be true, what is Bingley doing by taking his guest to “entertainment” that he would not enjoy? Darcy arrived from London just a short time before the assembly. He couldn’t possibly know local women. Bingley took Darcy to an event he KNEW Darcy wouldn’t enjoy.
Darcy said in his letter, “I had often seen him [Bingley] in love before.” Had Bingley left a trail of broken hearts? He easily could have. Willoughby left a girl pregnant and that is certainly more serious. By that alone, he can be condemned. Willoughby’s offence, especially by modern eyes, is much more serious than Bingley’s. Willoughby’s place as a villain stands up.
Part of the difference between Bingley and Willoughby is shown not by their actions, but by the actions of Jane Bennet and Marianne Dashwood. Jane made a surface attempt to get on with her life. Or, to put it another way, just because she was miserable, she didn’t attempt to make everyone around her share it. Marianne’s behavior was designed to make everyone feel sorry for her, but that isn’t all that unusual in adolescents. Jane did have the advantage of being more mature.
I believe Jane Austen intended for us to like Bingley. Do you still like him? Why or why not?