2006 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner High School Division
Elizabeth Honor Wilder
St. Gregory College Preparatory School
Tucson, AZ

Cameo: Reserve and Revelation in Pride and Prejudice

In a familiar portrait of Jane Austen, the author sits turned slightly to the side, a smile playing on her mouth.  Her eyes are quiet and sure, revealing nothing. Her visage seems created for an antique cameo brooch, an ivory figure silhouetted against a blue background.  Like a litotes in poetry, this Jane Austen is shaped by the negative affirmation of her opposite.

The dual-colored cameo depicts a struggle between the obvious and the hidden, and hints at how one shapes the other. While this tension exists in many aspects of Jane Austen’s novels, it is especially prevalent in Pride and Prejudice and is evident in one of her favorite themes: the unreliability of “first impressions.” It exists as a fine line between reserve and revelation, between what is concealed and what is exposed. And, like an ivory-colored figure illuminated by a darker tone, reserve itself exists in two spheres to create one portrait. In its obvious, “ivory” sense, reserve is a social virtue. Yet, like a cameo itself, the conventional meaning of the word is cut in relief onto the background layer of its deeper significance. Austen explores the nuances of reserve by examining three of its manifestations: as a social quality, as an indication of moral complexity, and as an obstacle to intimacy.

Reserve in the most ordinary sense is simply a gauge of social acceptability. In a world governed by strict dictates of social conduct and propriety, ladies learned to be as demure and elegant as society demanded. Reserve was an intrinsic part of this elegance, the “certain something” Miss Bingley cites as a requisite for a truly accomplished woman.  Miss Bingley, knowing how crucial it is to success in the fashionable world, affects reserve in order to comply with an idea of elegance, but does not have the delicacy or substance needed to give it a deeper meaning. Her reserve is false for she is constantly in a state of near-transparent self-revelation. While her taunts and machinations are subtler than those of other unreserved characters, Miss Bingley cannot hide her love for Mr. Darcy, her jealousy of Elizabeth, or her scorn for the Bennets.

In contrast, Mrs. Bennet and her daughter, Lydia, are genuinely unreserved. While Miss Bingley uses reserve to manipulate and deceive—“she often tried to provoke Darcy into disliking her guest”—Lydia and her mother practice no such subterfuge (PP 39).  They scheme but make no effort to hide it. For instance, Mrs. Bennet urges Jane to visit Netherfield on horseback, rather than take the carriage, “because it seems likely to rain; and then you must stay all night” (PP 23). She is openly delighted with the success of her plan when Jane does not return after dinner.

Mrs. Bennet’s lack of reserve extends to public events. She humiliates Elizabeth at the Netherfield Ball because she “would talk of her views in the same intelligible tone” while “Elizabeth blushed and blushed again with shame and vexation” (PP 74).  This type of social faux pas is agony for Elizabeth because she recognizes reserve as a social virtue long before she is able to see it as a moral attribute. She does not realize that while her mother is less socially acceptable than Miss Bingley, her candor is more principled than Miss Bingley’s flimsily disguised cunning.

Yet Miss Bingley’s pettiness falls short of real immorality, such as that displayed by George Wickham, a charlatan who carries his act farther than any other unreserved, unprincipled character in the novel. He begins his deceit by pretending to be reluctant to speak on a subject he is actually desperate to discuss.  He feigns reserve but does not hesitate to be openly dishonest. Rapidly he is able to manipulate the conversation so that he can speak without seeming too eager, and he discloses a story of his own misfortunes at the hands of Darcy. Elizabeth, his interlocutor in this conversation, at first does not see the impropriety of his revealing so much to a new acquaintance because he hides his lack of reserve behind a gloss of reticence.

Elizabeth’s trust in Wickham is based only on his trustworthy appearance: she finds his manner open and easy.  When her sister Jane voices doubts about his story, Elizabeth squelches them, saying, “If it be not so, let Mr. Darcy contradict it. Besides, there was truth in his looks” (PP 64).  However, she realizes her judgments were superficial after Mr. Darcy reveals Wickham’s true character in a letter.  Elizabeth is astounded by her blindness: “She was now struck with the impropriety of such communications to a stranger, and wondered it had escaped her before. She saw the indelicacy of putting himself forward as he had done … he had then no reserves, no scruples in sinking Mr. Darcy’s character …” (PP 150).

In his letter, Darcy exposes Wickham’s corruption, referring to his “life of idleness and dissipation” and his mercenary seduction of Darcy’s own sister, Georgiana. Wickham’s litany of offenses expands to include gambling, debts, more deceptions, and an eventual elopement. After reading his letter, Elizabeth struggles to mitigate Darcy’s portrait of her friend with her own impressions, but fails because “she could remember no more substantial good than the general approbation of the neighbourhood, and the regard which his social powers had gained him in the mess” (PP 150).  After reading his letter, Elizabeth is able to contrast the veracity of Darcy’s reserve with the sham of Wickham’s honesty. Reserve begins to emerge as a profoundly moral attribute.

Just as the novel’s unreserved characters range from merely superficial to blatantly immoral, the presence of reserve in other characters is an indication of morality. This range is exemplified by Wickham and his antithesis, Darcy. Wickham’s fall from grace is mirrored by Darcy’s ascent in Elizabeth’s esteem. Mr. Darcy’s morality is subtler than Wickham’s iniquity, but his actions are no less definitive: he fulfills all the requirements of his father’s will, refrains from openly disgracing Wickham, treats his servants and tenants with kindness, and tries to atone for past mistakes with Elizabeth by helping her family. He does all this without comment, unlike Wickham, who draws attention to his own supposed restraint.

The juxtaposition of reserve and openness is especially evident when Elizabeth reads Darcy’s letter.  Darcy accounts for the letter by explaining “I was not then master enough of myself to know what could or ought to be revealed,” highlighting his reserve and its corresponding propriety (PP 148).  The letter marks the major turning point in Elizabeth’s change of perception, a change that is further solidified when she speaks to the Pemberley housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds.  Mrs. Reynolds tells her “Some people call him proud; but I’m sure I never saw anything of it. To my fancy, it is only because he does not rattle away like other young men” (PP 178). She interprets his reserve as revealing his “sweet temper and good nature” thereby confirming Elizabeth’s nascent belief that Darcy’s social reserve does not reflect his coldness, but his integrity. According to John Halperin, an Austen biographer, Elizabeth’s misinterpretation of Darcy’s reserve is characteristic of “Austen’s special brand of shyness” in which “shyness and arrogance are often confused” (Halperin, 71).

Carol Shields, in her biography of Austen, writes that “Austen’s heroines possess an implicit moral system … [and] require … no laborious arrivals at the gates of perception” (Shields, 25). But while Elizabeth’s morality is natural, it is not always easy. Her vivacity and emotional attachment often overwhelm her reserve, as when she offends Charlotte by openly disapproving of her engagement. Unlike Jane, whose unswerving goodness makes her a static character, Elizabeth’s struggle to live up to her principles forces her to grow. It is precisely because Elizabeth’s “arrival at the gates of perception” is laborious that she is able to change.

Austen’s treatment of reserve as a virtue is complicated by instances when reserve hinders intimacy. This is especially true in Darcy’s and Elizabeth’s relationship, where reserve is an obstacle to their romance and a source of misunderstanding. Austen beautifully explores these dynamics at the Netherfield Ball, where Darcy and Elizabeth, while dancing together, also dance metaphorically around the implications and interpretations of their conversation. It is a dance of reticence punctuated by revelation: Elizabeth initiates conversation, deciding that “it would be the greater punishment to her partner to oblige him to talk”, and Mr. Darcy side-steps, answering with brevity (PP 68). They are both anxious to examine the other without revealing too much of themselves. He asks her the purpose of her questions; she replies, “Merely to the illustration of your character … I am trying to make it out” (PP 70).  Their miscommunication, so full of information, is complete when Elizabeth admits that his character “puzzles her exceedingly” and they leave each other, “each side dissatisfied” (PP 70).

Paradoxically, the virtue of reserve must be overcome to achieve intimacy. Darcy and Elizabeth have to break down the reserve that stands between them as an obstacle to understanding and trust.  Yet they never lose their natural quietude: these break-downs in reserve occur in the most discreet settings, in a letter, an empty room. The first of these lapses in reserve is Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth, which revolutionizes Elizabeth’s perception of Darcy, and even of herself. After reading Darcy’s letter, Elizabeth reflects, “Till this moment I never knew myself” (PP 151). Far from the tentative thrusts and parries that characterize their conversations before the letter, Darcy’s revelations open the door to straightforward communication.

Elizabeth breaks the silence next, telling Mr. Darcy of Lydia’s misadventure with Wickham. This disclosure, although Elizabeth initially regrets it, gives Darcy a decisive opportunity to prove his character.  Darcy immediately sets out to find Wickham and force him to marry Lydia but attempts to conceal this generous effort from the Bennets. He is thwarted by Mrs. Gardiner, who tells Elizabeth that because Darcy imputes the scandal to “his reserve and want of proper consideration,” he is determined to rectify the situation (PP 233).  This impresses Elizabeth with the full force of his good character. Her appreciation leads her to admit to knowing what Darcy did for her sister and to thank him for it. This confession is essential to the ultimate realization of intimacy, for it prompts Darcy to propose one last time and for Elizabeth to accept with joy.

Reserve, in all its manifestations, is only one component of a moral see-saw that Austen’s characters, especially Elizabeth and Darcy, struggle to balance, as they are poised in the tension between concealment and revelation. Reserve distinguishes the ethical characters in Pride and Prejudice: the observers, the thinkers, the readers, and the letter-writers of the novel. While unreserved characters are superficial or false, reserved characters use their reticence to authenticate and define their morality. Even when reserve gives way to intimacy, the context of reticence in which revelation takes place gives it depth, just as an ivory cameo is illuminated by its shadowy backdrop.