In summarizing Mr. Wickham’s infamous conduct towards Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Caroline Bingley sneeringly remarks to Elizabeth Bennet, “‘I beg your pardon. . . . Excuse my interference.—It was kindly meant’” (95). Though actually correct in her assessment of Wickham, her interference is hardly out of concern for Miss Bennet. Rather, jealous of Mr. Darcy’s attraction to Elizabeth, Miss Bingley delights in seeing her hurt and angry. Though a minor incident, it is by no means an isolated one. From Mrs. Bennet to Mr. Darcy, from Lady Catherine De Bourgh to the kindly Mrs. Gardiner, in Pride and Prejudice Austen prominently presents interference in many guises. In fact, meddling is the dominant action that propels the plot. These incidents starkly portray many of the social and economic realities in Austen’s world, realities quite different from our own. Yet, in portraying motivations from the selfish to the altruistic, Austen also uses interference as a litmus test of the intelligence and integrity of her characters—qualities valued equally in her time and our own.
Mrs. Bennet’s role as an interfering mother is established from the opening scene. She declares that she is thinking of their new neighbor, Mr. Bingley, as a prospective husband for one of her five daughters. In her view, Mr. Bennet must pay his respects and establish an acquaintance with the wealthy and promising young man. We find it hilarious when she insists that her daughter Jane visit Mr. Bingley and his sisters on horseback, in the hope that the threatening weather will force her to spend the night at their Netherfield home. When Jane gets soaked and falls ill, we are amazed to find that Mrs. Bennet is thrilled. She maneuvers to make Jane stay on as long as possible, even refusing to send a carriage to fetch her home. Mrs. Bennet is a determined meddler. We are told, “The business of her life was to get her daughters married” (5).
Austen reinforces this point in Mrs. Bennet’s subsequent dealings with daughters Elizabeth and Lydia. It would be preferable to sacrifice Elizabeth to the ridiculous Mr. Collins and Lydia to the ignoble Mr. Wickham rather than see them unmarried. She interferes out of pride. But she also does so out of a sense of responsibility to her family, fully aware that her daughters’ security, financial and otherwise, lies in marriage.
At Netherfield to attend to Jane, Elizabeth is forced to socialize with the Bingleys and their friend Mr. Darcy. Here Caroline Bingley first perceives Elizabeth as an interloper in her campaign for Mr. Darcy’s attentions and mercilessly ridicules her and her family. Miss Bingley is motivated by self-interest and continues her campaign even as it compels Mr. Darcy to come to Elizabeth’s defense. All of this plot development evolves from Mrs. Bennet’s insistence on Jane’s horseback ride to Netherfield. Her pushy interference has the overall effect of establishing the desired acquaintance, while Miss Bingley’s more subtle meddling is enlightening to Mr. Darcy.
Though he may be appalled by Mrs. Bennet’s behavior and bemused by Miss Bingley’s, Mr. Darcy is not averse to meddling. His quiet but firm interference in the relationship of Mr. Bingley and Jane is significant and instrumental to the plot. Along with Bingley’s sisters, Darcy is not in favor of a match between Jane and Bingley. The sisters want their brother to marry Darcy’s younger sister, Georgiana. For his part, Darcy objects to the inferior social status of the Bennet family, but he is even more disturbed by the behavior of Mrs. Bennet and her younger daughters. If that were not enough, he sees Jane’s quiet and restrained love for Bingley as mere indifference. He plots with the Bingley sisters to keep their brother in London for the winter, far away from Netherfield. He then purposely prevents Bingley from discovering Jane’s presence in London and convinces his impressionable friend of her indifference. Broken-hearted, Jane suffers for months trying to come to terms with such a sudden turn of events. Although pragmatically class-conscious and attuned to the importance of a suitable match, Darcy is able to overcome his snobbery and prejudice. Enlightened by Elizabeth, he eventually admits that his interference was “‘absurd and impertinent’” (371). His change of heart leads directly to the resumption of Jane and Bingley’s courtship, followed swiftly by their marriage.
One marvels at the power of Mr. Darcy’s interference. Capable of keeping lovers apart, he can also orchestrate a most unlikely wedding. He is the force behind the marriage of runaways Lydia Bennet and Mr. Wickham: the best possible outcome to be expected from the scandalous affair. Although Lydia does not seem to notice or care, Darcy salvages her reputation and rescues the Bennets from a shocking and humiliating episode. His altruistic interference proceeds from an inherent goodness of character. According to Mrs. Gardiner, Darcy blames himself for having kept quiet about Wickham’s “‘worthlessness,’” and interferes to “‘remedy an evil, which had been brought on by himself’” (321-22). But Darcy also admits to Elizabeth that he intervenes for a selfish motive, “‘that the wish of giving happiness to you, might add force to the other inducements which led me on, I shall not attempt to deny. . . . I thought only of you’” (366).
Not to be undone by anyone, the interference of the haughty Lady Catherine De Bourgh unfolds on a grand scale. Her meddling is ultimately (and unwittingly) responsible for facilitating the marriage of her nephew, Darcy, to Elizabeth Bennet.
In the first place, the Bennets have Lady Catherine to thank for the sudden appearance of their estranged, distant relative—Mr. Collins, a clergyman, the rightful heir to the Bennet estate. When advised by his patroness, Lady Catherine, to marry as soon as possible, Mr. Collins comes to Longbourn to choose a wife from among the Bennet sisters. The pompous fool is rejected by Elizabeth but finds a wife in her friend Charlotte Lucas. His foolish behavior pervades the lives of the Bennet family, and Lady Catherine deserves a large measure of the credit for his plaguing them.
But it is in the name of self-interest that Lady Catherine’s interference knows no bounds. She and her sister long ago decided that Darcy would marry her daughter and she is not about to let Elizabeth Bennet upset that plan. Hearing a rumor of an impending engagement between Elizabeth and Darcy, most likely emanating from the Lucas-Collins household, Lady Catherine travels to Longbourn to confront Elizabeth and insist that she give up any claims on Mr. Darcy. Though certainly not engaged, and hardly aware of where she stands with him, Elizabeth is infuriated by Lady Catherine’s demands. In defiance she refuses to cooperate and, in an extraordinary exchange, reveals that she is not opposed to the idea of such a match:
If Mr. Darcy is neither by honour nor inclination confined to his cousin, why is not he to make another choice? And if I am that choice, why may not I accept him? . . . Whatever my connections may be, if your nephew doesn’t object, they can be nothing to you. . . . How far your nephew may approve of your interference in his affairs, I cannot tell; but you have certainly no right to concern yourself in mine. . . . I am only resolved to act in that matter, which will, in my opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you.” (355-58)
Incensed and desperate to stop the match, Lady Catherine compounds her missteps and appeals directly to her nephew. Little does she realize that in relating Elizabeth’s sentiments she has in fact done Darcy’s work for him. He realizes that Elizabeth has had a change of heart and within days sets out with renewed hope to see her. Of his aunt’s report, he tells Elizabeth, “‘It taught me to hope. . .as I had scarcely ever allowed myself to hope before.’” And so Elizabeth “soon learnt that they were indebted for their present good understanding to the efforts of his aunt” (367).
Thanks to the ice-breaking efforts of Lady Catherine, Elizabeth and Darcy sort out all of their previous misunderstandings and rejoice in their compatibility and love for one another. They are married on the same day as Jane and Mr. Bingley.
While the meddling of the major characters is the chief device that moves the plot along, even the interference of minor characters has significant plot consequences. If Colonel Forster’s wife had not irresponsibly invited Lydia to Brighton after her father vetoed such a trip, she might not have had the chance to run off with Mr. Wickham. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner invite their niece Jane to London for the winter to cheer her up. Their well-meaning interference, establishing her near Bingley, only furthers her disappointment and unhappiness. It provokes the slights of Mr. Darcy and Miss Bingley and, in her mind, confirms the disinterest of Mr. Bingley.
The kindly Gardiners, in turn, do the same for Elizabeth. Knowing she is upset about her sister and thinking she is despondent over Wickham’s fickleness, they invite her to join them for a summer tour. It is on this trip that Elizabeth tours Pemberley, Darcy’s impressive home, at her aunt’s instigation. This leads to an unexpected and revealing face-to-face encounter with the reformed Darcy. In all likelihood, Lady Catherine’s subsequent interference would not have had such a happy consequence if Elizabeth had not been softened by her pleasant experience at Pemberley with the Gardiners.
For many of the characters in Pride and Prejudice, meddling in the lives of others seems to be second nature. Interference, subtle or blatant, mirrors human nature. Although the prevalence and the degree of the meddling may astonish us, this is precisely where we find significant differences between Austen’s world and our own. We do not live in such small communities. Class distinctions play a negligible role in our society. Women have more options and opportunities today; marriage is not their only salvation. They are not socially dependent on their mothers or financially dependent on fathers and husbands. Interference, born of a sense of duty or of desperation, is not the only viable option.
While Austen uses interference to propel her plot, it is obvious that she does not always approve. In fact, she subverts precisely that interference that strives to keep class distinctions intact. The effect of the interference is evidenced in the most egregious cases to be exactly the opposite of what was intended. In this romantic comedy, with Austen’s penchant for providing her heroines with happy endings, astonishingly rude and invasive behavior invariably results in failure. Darcy repents for interfering between Jane and Bingley. Caroline Bingley does not win Darcy’s heart. Neither do Lady Catherine’s machinations secure him for her daughter.
Ironically, Austen even faults those who skirt their duty and do not interfere. Darcy, and later even Elizabeth and Jane, are loath to interfere and expose the unscrupulous Mr. Wickham. Mr. Bennet does not interfere to stop Lydia. In both cases, the results are disastrous. Elizabeth turns a blind eye to the impropriety of her father’s behavior towards his wife. For her negligence, she is pained.
The narrative ends on a hopeful note for Kitty Bennet. Her father finally interferes to keep her from following in Lydia’s footsteps. Jane and Elizabeth bring her into their sphere, giving her “proper attention and management,” and, we are told, “her improvement was great” (385). The novel’s final sentence acknowledges that the well-meaning interference of the Gardiners is responsible for “uniting” Elizabeth and Darcy (388). Austen’s message is clear: interference is permissible, desirable and successful—when it is “kindly meant.”
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933.