Imagine, if you can, that you have never read Pride & Prejudice, never saw a film version, and never heard of Mr. Darcy. It’s an exercise in which I constantly engage, and still it is incredibly difficult. I first read the book almost 30 years ago, when I was twelve or thirteen, and am so familiar with the story that any memory of my first impressions of it are largely buried beneath the weight of countless rereads and endless analysis, but I do remember being completely floored when Mr. Darcy proposed to Elizabeth. I saw he had some interest in her, but did not think (especially not only halfway through the novel) that he would find her an acceptable wife. Having embraced all of Elizabeth’s prejudices, my astonishment was, like hers, “beyond expression.”
As argued in my last post, Austen utilizes accepted contemporary notions of physiognomy, the “art” of determining a person’s internal attributes by assessing their exterior, to manipulate the expectations of her readers while simultaneously providing a potent critique of of the pseudoscience. Appearances are deceptive. Character should be determined by actions, never a person’s words, smiles, and polished manners alone. This is the dominant theme of Pride and Prejudice, which Austen originally titled First Impressions. Do not trust them, the authoress urges us, and she proves her point by playing upon physiognomical assumptions.
“Poor Wickham; there is such an expression of goodness in his countenance! such an openness and gentleness in his manner.”
“There certainly was some great mismanagement in the education of those two young men. One has got all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it.”
Let’s juxtapose Darcy and Wickham. Superficially, they are equally endowed. Both are handsome, were reared in the same environment, and received the same education. It is their deportment (and financial circumstances) they they distinguish themselves from the other. Wickham is relaxed and comfortable, while Darcy is rigid and off-putting. Physiognomy judges not merely a person’s physical attributes, but also how their eyes move, the rapidity of their movements, the modulation of their voice, their intensity of expression: all were considered representative of the internal state. A person’s social discomfort could be interpreted as a reflection of some moral or mental failing, while easy manners might be presumed the result of a person’s honesty.
This dichotomy between the two men is established when each is introduced. First their appearances are discussed, both favorably, but it is their manners that determine how they are perceived by their new acquaintances. Here is where we first meet Darcy:
[Mr. Bingley’s] brother-in-law, Mr. Hurst, merely looked the gentleman; but his friend Mr. Darcy 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. The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.
When the people of Meryton hear disparaging information about Darcy, it is because he has already behaved disagreeably that they are so quick to believe it, particularly because their source seems so trustworthy.
[Wickham’s] appearance was greatly in his favour; he had all the best part of beauty — a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address. The introduction was followed up on his side by a happy readiness of conversation — a readiness at the same time perfectly correct and unassuming …
Repeatedly, Mr. Wickham is described as not merely charming, but as a man whose appearance professes his integrity. He looks like a good man. After reading Mr. Darcy’s letter, Elizabeth reflects, “His countenance, voice, and manner had established him at once in the possession of every virtue.” While care in judging character based on appearance alone is a theme in all of Austen’s novels, this is probably her most transparent and decisive disproval of physiognomy. Had she not led us into the trap of using the conventions of physiognomy to judge character in the first place, she could not have so thoroughly proven her point.
To return to this notion of imaging you know nothing of the plot of Pride and Prejudice, try to rediscover the shock of Mr. Darcy’s letter. As unexpected as his proposal was, it is Wickham’s trespasses that are the true bombshell. We can far more easily believe good of Mr. Darcy (after all, he is equally handsome, and has given us no additional reason to feel offended since his opening salvo), but that Wickham should be so morally deficient is almost incredible. Elizabeth’s struggle to accept the truth mirrors our own, and we are all forced to reconcile with the folly of our assumptions.
It would be remiss of me to not mention the less dramatic, though equally poignant, example of being led astray by physiognomy that occurs in Mr. Darcy’s letter. He writes of the ball at Netherfield:
Your sister I also watched. — Her look and manners were open, cheerful, and engaging as ever, but without any symptom of peculiar regard, and I remained convinced from the evening’s scrutiny, that though she received his attentions with pleasure, she did not invite them by any participation of sentiment. … the serenity of your sister’s countenance and air was such as might have given the most acute observer a conviction that, however amiable her temper, her heart was not likely to be easily touched.
Oh, the vanity (or should I say pride?) of believing one can know another’s heart and mind through mere observation! Mr. Darcy does great harm to both Jane and Bingley in his cold assessment of their emotional states. He was very wrong to assume he could know Jane’s feelings based on an evening’s worth of sporadic observation. To understand a person’s character, a variety of information is required. Austen does not suggest ignoring appearances, but rather urges us to also consider a litany of other variables: reputation, financial conduct, consistency of opinion, and, above all, whether a person’s words and actions correspond. Had Elizabeth attended to Wickham’s inconsistent statements regarding his respect for the Darcy name, rather than indulging in the flattery of his attention, she might have been on her guard against him from their very first evening in company together.
I should like to think that I will return to this subject for one more post, but summer vacation (finally!) begins for my daughter the same day as I’m next scheduled, and the prospects seem slight that I will find the time to properly devote to it between now and then. I’m more likely to provide something lighthearted and easy, as my brain will be shot for anything else, but perhaps part three will manifest itself later this summer or in the fall. Please let me know if you’re interested in more of this analysis. It would be a great motivator. Thanks for reading!