This post is, primarily, about the “tacit engagement” between Fitzwilliam Darcy and Anne de Bourgh, but also about our role as authors. Before discussing the latter, I wish to speculate on the former, but before discussing the nature of that engagement, there is another question to be considered. How old is Anne de Bourgh? It is not that Darcy cannot marry a woman over a certain age but, rather, that making Anne over a certain age complicates the idea of them wedding, as you shall see.
As to Anne’s age at the time of Pride and Prejudice, I found this clue in the novel, a statement by Lady Catherine: “The engagement between them is of a peculiar kind. From their infancy, they have been intended for each other. It was the favorite wish of his mother, as well as of hers. While in their cradles, we planned the union…”
A reasonable interpretation of this is that Anne and Darcy were infants at the same time. Darcy is twenty-seven or twenty-eight when Lady Catherine’s statement occurs. This would make Anne at least twenty-six and no more than twenty-nine. Babies do not stay in cradles for very long. If Darcy and Anne were in cradles simultaneously, they are almost certainly within a year of each other in age and more likely within a few months.
A second interpretation is that when Darcy was born, Lady Catherine and Darcy’s mother, Lady Anne, agreed that it would be a good idea that Darcy marry any daughter Lady Catherine subsequently bore. When Anne de Bourgh was born, some years later, this desire was reaffirmed.
Although I usually place Anne de Bourgh in her twenties when I write about her, it makes more sense for her to be about eighteen. It is hard to imagine Lady Catherine accepting Darcy’s not marrying her daughter before she was twenty-eight. Continued hope for and adherence to the engagement would be somewhat dependent on prime birthing years. Lady Catherine would want issue from the union, and encourage the wedding to take place while Anne was as young as possible. This argument also eliminates the possibility that Anne was more than a few months older than Darcy.
Furthermore, Anne’s meek personality might better fit a younger individual. I tend to assume Lady Catherine dominated Anne to the point where she became somewhat withdrawn. However, by her late twenties, Anne may very well have chaffed at her mother’s domineering ways. On top of that, an Anne younger than twenty-one would be much more subject to her mother’s will than one over twenty-one, and Jane Austen portrays Anne de Bourgh as very much under her mother’s influence.
But, putting aside Anne’s age, what was the nature of the agreement? It is possible that there was an agreement between Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Lady Anne Darcy. They really intended for the marriage to take place. In that case, presumably Darcy knew about it. Had he denied it to Lady Catherine or to Anne? We don’t know. If Anne was twenty-seven, it seems unlikely anyone was taking it seriously.
Alternately, there was no engagement. If this is true, it is likely that Lady Anne and Lady Catherine discussed it as a possibility, even something to be wished for, but they did not consider it to be an engagement. This is plausible, even with Wickham saying, “Her daughter, Miss de Bourgh, will have a very large fortune, and it is believed that she and her cousin will unite the two estates.” Lady Catherine could have started that rumor, even if she hadn’t discussed the possibility with her sister. In fact, the rumor could have started with speculation and gone from mere speculation of the possibility to fact.
In either case, it is understandable to assume that Lady Anne would want her son to marry Anne de Bourgh. After all, most estates were inherited by men, making Anne an unusually attractive catch even for Darcy. Darcy is very wealthy in his own right, but to the very rich, there is no such thing as too much money.
On paper, Anne is an excellent match for Darcy. We don’t know the size of her dowry, but if Rosings is even half as wealthy as Pemberley, Anne is a very wealthy heiress. It is possible that Rosings is more valuable than Pemberley. We don’t know.
Obviously, by any modern standard, Fitzwilliam Darcy and Anne de Bourgh were not engaged. An engagement requires a verbal agreement between both parties. At the time, there was no such agreement. If an engagement existed, Lady Catherine would have said so, and Darcy would not have proposed to Elizabeth. Also, breach of promise was taken very seriously, both then and at least until 1875, when Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury was based on breach of promise.
How does all of this relate to our role as authors? I’ve written the draft of a story with a working title of After Anne. The premise of the story is that Anne de Bourgh runs away, and Lady Catherine wants her nephews to find Anne without creating a scandal. In this story, it is pivotal that Lady Catherine fooled herself. She believed there was a tacit engagement, but when she looks over old letters, she finds the engagement between Darcy and her daughter didn’t exist. Lady Catherine and Lady Anne discussed the possibility, but there was nothing more than that.
This happens often outside of fiction. Witnesses to crimes report very different things. Two friends both recall an argument quite differently. If the topic interests you, you can learn a lot more about how memory works at the Sheldon Memory Lab out of McGill University: http://sheldon-memory.lab.mcgill.ca/
After Anne is, in my opinion, a mediocre story. It isn’t a bad story, but it isn’t up to our standards. Summer hasn’t seen it, so you only have my opinion. Thus, I have three questions for you. I’m not a teacher anymore and can’t grade anyone down for an incomplete answer, but it would be nice if you could support your answer for the first two 🙂
- Was there really a tacit engagement between Anne de Bourgh and Fitzwilliam Darcy?
- How old is Anne de Bourgh?
- Should I give After Anne to Summer Hanford (my co-author) and risk publishing a mediocre book?