Jane Austen’s Bread Crumbs

Jane Austen’s Bread Crumbs

In the world of writing there’s a plot device known as foreshadowing. It’s when an author drops little bread crumbs of information that may not mean anything at the time, but hint at bigger things to come in the story.

Jane Austen was a skilled bread-crumb-dropper, and she used the device to great effect in her novel, Pride and Prejudice. Here’s what I mean:

Bread Crumb #1 – Who is this story about?

In the first few pages of P&P we learn Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have five unmarried daughters, and Mrs. Bennet intends to find husbands for each—preferably rich ones.

But of those five daughters, Austen hints that Elizabeth will be our focus, when Mr. Bennet suggests his wife call on Mr. Bingley:

“I will send a few lines by you to assure him of my hearty consent to his marrying whichever he chooses of the girls; though I must throw in a good word for my little Lizzy.”

“I desire you will do no such thing. Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good-humoured as Lydia. But you are always giving her the preference.”

“They have none of them much to recommend them,” replied he; “they are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters.”

And with those few lines of dialog, Austen lets us know Elizabeth is special; there’s something about Lizzy that sets her apart from the other Bennet daughters. She’s the sister to watch.

Bread Crumb #2 – The Hero Switcheroo

Sneaky Jane Austen. For two full chapters she writes only of Mr. Bingley, making us believe he will be the hero of her story.

Then, in Chapter 3, she takes us to the Meryton assembly where we meet Mr. Darcy, who . . .

. . . soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year.

Just as she did with Elizabeth, Austen hints that we readers need to adjust our focus; someone as gifted and blessed as Mr. Darcy is certain to play a major role in the story.

Bread Crumb #3 – Doing What Comes Unnaturally

Elizabeth and Darcy’s acquaintance gets off to a rocky start, but things change by the time Elizabeth is required to spend a few days at Netherfield. When she’s in the drawing-room one evening with Darcy, Caroline Bingley, and the Hursts, Caroline invites Elizabeth to “take a turn about the room. I assure you it is very refreshing.”

Elizabeth agreed to it immediately.

Mr. Darcy looked up . . . and unconsciously closed his book.

This little bread crumb is one of my favorites, because it shows just how physically attracted Mr. Darcy is to Elizabeth. He’s a man who never acts rashly and is always in control; but with these few words we readers now know that Elizabeth has the power to make Darcy abandon his reserve and behave in a way he never has before.

Bread Crumb #4 – Darcy asks for Lizzy’s Opinion

When dancing together at the Netherfield ball, Darcy and Elizabeth are interrupted by Mr. Sir William Lucas, and when he leaves them, Darcy remarks:

“Sir William’s interruption has made me forget what we were talking of.”

“I do not think we were speaking at all. Sir William could not have interrupted two people in the room who had less to say for themselves. We have tried two or three subjects already without success, and what we are to talk of next I cannot imagine.”

“What think you of books?” said he, smiling.

“Books—oh! no. I am sure we never read the same, or not with the same feelings.”

“I am sorry you think so; but if that be the case, there can at least be no want of subject. We may compare our different opinions.”

Their exchange is brief, but revealing. In his choice of words Mr. Darcy shows that he not only wants to spend time with Elizabeth, he wants to discuss different topics with her. He wants to know what she thinks, proving the attraction he feels for her isn’t just physical.

Bread Crumb #5 – Darcy’s Confession

At Rosings, Darcy approaches Elizabeth while she plays the pianoforte, but he doesn’t speak to her right away, perhaps because his previous attempts at conversation with her have all had less than satisfying outcomes. Finally, he confesses:

“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,” said Darcy, “of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”

In response, Elizabeth offers him a bit of (now famous) advice:

“My fingers,” said Elizabeth, “do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do . . . But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I will not take the trouble of practising.”

It’s a small jab, but Darcy not only accepts it, he sees the sense of Elizabeth’s metaphor:

Darcy smiled and said, “You are perfectly right.”

By having Darcy agree so readily with Elizabeth’s advice, Jane Austen hints at . . .

Bread Crumb #6 – Darcy Proves He Listened

By the time Elizabeth and the Gardiners visit Pemberley, Darcy is ready to show that he heard Elizabeth’s advice loud and clear. He greets Elizabeth, and then . . .

He asked her if she would do him the honour of introducing him to her friends. This was a stroke of civility for which she was quite unprepared; and she could hardly suppress a smile at his being now seeking the acquaintance of some of those very people against whom his pride had revolted in his offer to herself. “What will be his surprise,” thought she, “when he knows who they are? He takes them now for people of fashion.”

But it turns out Elizabeth is the one to be surprised. Darcy not only does an excellent job of demonstrating he has learned to talk to people he doesn’t know, he extends invitations to Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner in a way that leaves no doubt he is open to pursuing an acquaintance with them.

His actions confuse and delight Elizabeth, and cause her to muse, wonderingly:

“Why is he so altered? From what can it proceed? It cannot be for me—it cannot be for my sake that his manners are thus softened. My reproofs at Hunsford could not work such a change as this. It is impossible that he should still love me?”

That last question is, of course, one of the very best bread crumbs in the entire novel, because eventually Darcy does, indeed, prove that he still loves her—and he does so in a way she can never imagine.

Jane Austen’s skill in dropping bread crumbs to pique reader interest as she builds her story is really quite masterful. It’s one of the reasons I never get tired of reading Pride and Prejudice or watching the movie adaptations of the novel.

What do you think? Do you have a favorite “bread crumb” in Pride and Prejudice?

6 Responses to Jane Austen’s Bread Crumbs

  1. They are all good. Of course the “tolerable” comment comes back to haunt both Darcy and Lizzy throughout.

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