In her classic novel Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen created several characters to act as foils for her heroine, Elizabeth Bennet.
There was Mr. Collins, who pursued Elizabeth, even though she did not welcome his attentions.
There was Mr. Wickham, who first befriended Elizabeth, then deliberately set out to hurt her and her family in order to exact revenge on his nemesis, Fitzwilliam Darcy.
And then there was Caroline Bingley, an ambitious social climber, who saw Elizabeth as an obstacle in her plan to marry Mr. Darcy.
When it comes to secondary characters, Caroline Bingley is my favorite mean girl. She intrigues me because I can see the good in her, as well as the bad.
It was Caroline, after all, who befriended Elizabeth’s sister Jane after she recognized her brother Charles was falling in love with her.
It was Caroline who tried to warn Elizabeth that George Wickham was not to be trusted, saying Wickham had “treated Mr. Darcy in a most infamous manner.”
And after Darcy and Elizabeth were married, it was Caroline who set out to make amends and “paid off every arrear of civility to Elizabeth.”
In the story, Caroline knows what family and society expect of her. But she also knows she’s in the same boat as Charlotte Lucas and the Bennet sisters: She must find a husband to marry.
As an attractive woman with £20,000 to call her own, Caroline was in a much better position to win a suitable husband than the single ladies of Meryton.
And she had another advantage over them: she was “accomplished.” We all recall Caroline’s description of an “accomplished woman:”
A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages.
She must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions.
Initially, Caroline must have felt very secure in her own accomplishments. She possessed an exclusive seminary education and was tutored in the very subjects she described.
She may have even attended a seminary like the one here, in an 1818 advertisement that promised private instruction in the improvement of young ladies:
Upon leaving school, Caroline took her place in London society, where she displayed all the skills she’d been taught; and all went well until her fateful trip to Netherfield.
I can imagine that up until that point, she felt she was making good headway with Mr. Darcy. She was on familiar terms with him—comfortable enough to tease him over Elizabeth’s fine eyes and the prospect of having Mrs. Bennet as a mother-in-law.
In turn, Darcy must have felt a degree of familiarity with Caroline, because he tolerated her teasings very well. Perhaps they were even becoming close. After all, wasn’t she the exact sort of woman he was expected to marry?
Poor Caroline! I sometimes wonder if she might have become Mrs. Darcy if only her brother had never leased Netherfield, because things began to go downhill pretty quickly after the Bingleys and Mr. Darcy took up residence. And the more things went south, the more Caroline struggled to maintain her hold on Mr. Darcy.
In that respect, I think Caroline Bingley is the most true-to-life character in the book. She isn’t perfect (like Jane), and she isn’t supremely self-confident (like Elizabeth). Instead, she has her ups and downs, just like the rest of us.
She can be witty and charming.
Or she can be arrogant and catty, especially when she feels pressured to compensate for her short-comings (such as her own humble beginnings as a daughter of trade).
She’s smart enough to learn to navigate her way through Regency England’s rigid social ranks.
But she can behave rashly when she feels hurt or rejected.
And most importantly, she’s able to recognize when she has gone too far and needs to change her behavior.
In other words, Caroline is perhaps one of the most human characters Jane Austen ever created. Maybe it’s the optimist in me that makes me think Caroline isn’t quite as bad as we’ve come to believe in the last two hundred years since she first appeared in the pages of Pride and Prejudice.
I’d like to know if you agree or disagree?
How do you like your Caroline?
Do you like it when Caroline is evil and mean and bad to the bone? Or do you see some glimmer of goodness in her?