What’s So Bad about Caroline Bingley?

What’s So Bad about Caroline Bingley?

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?

17 Responses to What’s So Bad about Caroline Bingley?

  1. The costume designer for the 1995 P&P is directly responsible for all of the orange clothing references in JAFF. 🙂 When you see references to orange clothing, the author is usually referring to the Caroline Bingley character. Anna Chancellor did wear some orange, but it wasn’t the only color she wore.

    • I didn’t realize when I put this post together that every photo of “Caroline” I selected (with one exception) showed her gowned in orange. You’re right; she did wear other colors in the production. Maybe everyone thinks of orange because it just looks so good on her. Thanks for pointing that out, Robin!

  2. First, let me say that the gal who played Caroline Bingley in the 1995 was way too old for the part. Second, I think Miss Bingley was capable of anything because the only person she cared about was herself: not her sister, not her brother, not her brother-in-law, nor Jane, nor Elizabeth. I agree that her making up to Jane and Elizabeth was strictly for selfish reasons. Don’t think she would ever be redeemable because she would refuse to do what it took to fall into that category. That’s why I portray her as the stinker she is. 🙂

    • Caroline really is the woman we love to hate! 😀 I’ve read stories that redeem Caroline, and others where she’s a conniving and scenery-chewing villain. That’s the great thing about JAFF—there’s something for everyone’s mood or taste. Thanks for commenting, Gianna!

  3. I’ve always felt she’s an ideal product of her society. Not good or bad, but exactly what the world saw her crafted into. I do think, though, that when she befriended Jane and then, much later, Elizabeth, that was done for selfish reasons. Jane, to keep an eye on her. Elizabeth, as the wife of a wealthy and connected gentleman. Caroline was always looking out for herself first, which also meant taking an interest in her brother’s connections, but it would have been a rare woman who shouldn’t do that, in the world in which they lived. Women had few choices to make which might lead to happiness and many, many pitfalls to avoid.

    • You bring up an important and thought-provoking point, Summer. For the majority of women at the time, their status or “worth” was a product of who their father or husband or brother was. A smart woman who wanted to change her social status had few options other than to use the people around her to help her climb the ladder. That’s what makes Caroline a great foil for Elizabeth; she wanted to rise in society’s ranks, while Lizzie had no ambitions other than to marry for love. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  4. As individuals, we aren’t always bad or always good; we are balanced, and are sometimes good and sometimes bad. Thank you for pointing out Caroline’s redeeming qualities.

  5. Caroline B is one of my favourite Austen characters (so much so that I had to include her in the cast of my new book!), and I dare say the archetype of a kind of person all of us have encountered at some point (I, for one, met a Caroline in my early twenties…). Thanks for this very enjoyable post.

  6. This was an interesting post. I love the pictures of our dear Caro. What a versatile character. We have seen her as good, bad, ugly, demented, maniacal and insane. And, she play her part beautifully. I have felt sorry for her, hated her and loved her in equal measure. I love a good Caroline story. I agree that Darcy may have considered her but, due to her ‘trade’ origins, held off. It was one thing to be friends with Charles but to marry trade was something completely different.

    Helping Charles distance himself from those origins may have been an alternate goal for Darcy. Until Charles had his own estate, he couldn’t consider Caroline. Netherfield changed everyone’s perspective. Darcy then saw Caroline’s true colors and he didn’t like what he saw. She would NEVER do as mistress of Pemberley. She could run a house, but she didn’t like the land and she wouldn’t have been good to the servants or tenants that Darcy loved and cared for. Darcy quickly learned that he needed a woman of the earth.

    • You make some excellent points! I agree Darcy wouldn’t be able to justify marrying a daughter of trade over a gentleman’s daughter. And I hadn’t considered before that Caroline might treat the staff at Pemberley in a way Darcy would never tolerate. Hmm, maybe Caroline wasn’t as close to capturing Darcy’s heart as she thought. 🙂 Thank you for commenting!

  7. I do enjoy reading stories were Caroline is given a chance to be redeemed or shown in a more positive light. I agree that she had the potential to be a good character depending on how the author chooses to interpret and write her.

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