PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.34, NO.1 (Winter 2013)

Anne De Bourgh Smiles

Theresa M. Kenney


Theresa Kenney (email:, associate professor and former chair of English at the University of Dallas, is the author of “Women Are Not Human”: An Anonymous Treatise and Responses and co-editor of and contributor to The Christ Child in Medieval Culture: Alpha es et O!  She has authored essays on Jane Austen, John Donne, Robert Southwell, Dickens, and Dante, among others.


richard Jenkyns has observed that “the distinctive feature of Pride and Prejudice is the number of its subplots, knit into one another with confident mastery” (34).  Jane Austen’s mastery is indeed confident:  there is nary a false step, no extraneous characters or details that are not mustered to her various thematic ends in this book with its famous lapidary attention to detail.  As every student knows from studying Shakespeare, it is theme that generally does this kind of knitting.  A notable subplot, the marriage of Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins, for example, has many thematic ties to the main plot.  Likewise, minor characters are knit into the fabric of the whole by virtue of their being interpretable in comparison to major characters.  That interpretability, however, entails regard for whatever theme the author has in mind.  Henrietta Ten Harmsel points to Elizabeth Bennet’s role in “unify[ing] the whole novel artistically.  All the action of the book is related somehow to her action; all the characters are related somehow to her character and its development” (72).


Ten Harmsel alerts us to look everywhere in Pride and Prejudice for foils to Elizabeth because they are necessary to Austen’s development of the novel’s themes.  As their likenesses or mutual relationships draw them to desire the same objects, protagonists and their foils can come to vie with each other in earnest and sometimes vicious competition (Girard 1-52).  Such competition does occur in Pride and Prejudice, wherein both our heroine and her sister have seeming rivals for their future spouses’ hands, though not for their affections.  In Elizabeth’s case, these rivalries are of different orders:  one rival has a claim upon Darcy but no interest in him; the other has a great deal of interest, but no claim . . . and no chance. Ten Harmsel points out, “Even the romances that do not evolve successfully—those of Miss Bingley and Miss De Bourgh—obviously owe their failure to the all-pervasive character and action of the lively heroine” (72).  To say that neither of these relationships evolves successfully is an understatement.  Darcy downright dislikes Caroline.  But Elizabeth is probably also not the cause of the failure of the other potential relationship.  Although Anne De Bourgh is the character Austen supplies as the most serious rival to Elizabeth for marriage to Mr. Darcy, Anne does not seem to want him.


In the scenes in which we see them together, Anne never seeks Darcy’s attention the way Caroline does, and he never gives her any, not even the scornful put-downs Caroline’s persistence invites.  Speaking to no one but Elizabeth and Charlotte on his arrival at Rosings, Mr. Darcy indicates immediately his complete lack of interest in his cousin as a future wife.  The reader already knows of his attraction to Elizabeth, but Austen has not let us know at this point what Anne De Bourgh thinks about him.  The narrative gives important clues, though, as Anne reveals her personality through her silence, through her unheard speech, through her differences from Elizabeth and from Darcy’s other potential wife, Caroline, and especially through a very significant smile she shares with her mother―as Margie Burns has pointed out, her only smile in the novel (232).  Anne may be “bland, sickly, and stupefyingly uninteresting,” as Burns says, but this “subtle part of the picture” Anne provides with one smile is a moment when Austen, importantly, emphasizes her imitation of Lady Catherine to reveal her self-delusion.  What is wrong with Anne De Bourgh?  I would say that, above all, it is this smile.


Initially Austen clearly distinguishes between mother and daughter.  The first thing Elizabeth notices is what seems to be a total difference between the two women.


When, after examining the mother, in whose countenance and deportment she soon found some resemblance of Mr. Darcy, she turned her eyes on the daughter, she could almost have joined in Maria’s astonishment, at her being so thin, and so small.  There was neither in figure nor face, any likeness between the ladies.  (183-84)


Austen may be indicating, as she does of the younger Bennet girls, that Anne is deficient in gifts of nature, but she clearly does not physically resemble Mr. Darcy if she does not have her mother’s countenance or stature.  Her physique also helps to give the reader the sense that Anne is completely dominated by her mother, who is physically intimidating, both in stature and demeanor.  Lady Catherine, interestingly, though they are not characteristics she herself shares, prizes and in fact touts Anne’s delicacy and sickliness, saying, according to Mr. Collins, there is “‘that in her features which marks the young woman of distinguished birth’” (75).  Indeed, we know in detail from authors such as Mary Wollstonecraft that moralists of the day lauded women whose languor reflected the infirmity of the female mind and advertised the wealth and idleness of the woman who could afford to feel tender about her poor nerves.


Because resembling one’s parent is, to say the least, not always a good thing in this novel, perhaps Austen is indicating that Anne, if she is different from her mother, has the potential to be better than Lady Catherine.  One of the novel’s main actions is, after all, the heroine’s freeing herself from her beloved father’s defects; imitating his acerbic ways has been a principal temptation to bad behavior and could well lead her to a bad marriage even were she to accept Darcy at his first proposal, because her prejudice and her enjoyment of that hatred that endows her with brilliant sarcasm could alienate the one man in her universe who is a match for her.  Fortunately for her, these traits are among the very things that attract him, along with her fine eyes.  Nonetheless, Austen presents Elizabeth with both the aristocratic Anne de Bourgh and that zealous marketer of herself, Caroline Bingley, so that her alienating Darcy might threaten to result in his marriage to another claimant.


Neither Anne nor Caroline, despite their very different pretensions to the claim, is ever a serious rival for Darcy’s affections, however, so the reader wonders why Austen includes Anne—a character who never speaks, who never glances with envy or jealousy at our heroine, who never raises an ounce of interest in the man her mother thinks she will inevitably marry.  Anne could well have been jealous of her neighbors’ pretty guest, could well have noticed Darcy’s attentions to her at Rosings, but Austen does not pounce on this narrative fodder even once.  Once Darcy’s devotion to Elizabeth is discovered, Austen will ascribe all jealousy to Lady Catherine’s character.  So Austen creates Anne, includes a reference to her even in one of the most famous scenes in the novel—her mother’s meeting with Elizabeth in the “‘prettyish kind of a little wilderness’” (391)—and simultaneously shuts down almost all potential for development in her character.  Why?


Anne could merely be a narrative placeholder existing only to be the theme of her mother’s boasting and invidious comparisons; Elinor’s rival Miss Morton in Sense and Sensibility is just such a placeholder.  While Miss Morton never appears upon the scene in her novel, Anne is not only mentioned:  she appears; she speaks (offstage); she interacts with Elizabeth and Maria Lucas, among others.  Nevertheless, the very fact that she does very little and never says a word the reader can overhear indicates something significant.  This apparent taciturnity differentiates her from her mother, who has the predilection Darcy appears to have inherited from his mother for making impressive statements loudly enough to be heard or overheard.  It may be that Austen gives us precious little information about Anne from which to deduce any interiority, but, as Samuel Johnson says in his Life of Cowley, “actions are visible, though motives are secret” (11).  The silence itself is a kind of action and may help the reader discern the motivation behind it.  Austen seems to be using Anne’s silence to show something—but what?  That she feels her prior claim excludes competition, or even that she really has no interest in Darcy?  That she is too fatigued and retiring due to her long-standing infirmity to care about her hale and hearty rival, Elizabeth?  How can we understand her behavior in her scenes at Rosings?


A most important clue is that Anne does not react to Darcy’s pronounced neglect.  A smug Elizabeth recalls Caroline to mind during the scene in which Darcy and Anne De Bourgh are first together, inviting the reader to compare the two rivals.  Anne, however, does not react with jealousy to Elizabeth though she might have once she discovers, as her mother does to her slight displeasure, that Elizabeth already knows Darcy.  Anne may feel her prior claim and elevated status exclude competition; her station may have blinded her, as it has Darcy, to the possibility that someone less wealthy and less high born might yet have a better nature, or better gifts.  Elizabeth may for this reason be beneath her notice.  Austen chooses instead to tell us about Lady Catherine’s noticeable reaction.  Austen tells us about Anne’s appearance, but not a word about how that appearance reveals her reactions—yet.


She does show us that devoted retainers Mr. Collins and Mrs. Jenkinson observe and react to Anne’s appearance and behavior.  Mr. Collins sings Anne’s praises to the Bennets at Longbourne in the following form:


“She is unfortunately of a sickly constitution, which has prevented her making that progress in many accomplishments, which she could not otherwise have failed of; as I am informed by the lady who superintended her education, and who still resides with them. But she is perfectly amiable, and often condescends to drive by my humble abode in her little phaeton and ponies.”  (75)


Mr. Collins’s “perfectly amiable” may be another’s “sickly and cross,” but it is impossible to know from his testimony what she really is because, though he is not given to lying, he is an inveterate flatterer.  Anne’s teacher, Mrs. Jenkinson, too, may be parroting Lady Catherine, speaking only what that great lady would deem acceptable when evaluating her pupil to the local clergyman.  Mrs. Jenkinson is described as overly attentive, even slavish.  When we see the two together, she is “entirely engaged in listening to what [Anne] said, and placing a screen in the proper direction before her eyes” (184).  Later, she is “chiefly employed in watching how little Miss De Bourgh ate, pressing her to try some other dish, and fearing she were indisposed” (184).  Anne has nothing to say to anyone except to this, her personal version of her mother’s flatterers, but her ill health does not prevent her from socializing.  In this brief sentence, we not only see that a lagging appetite might indicate unusual ill health to Mrs. Jenkinson—Anne is not always reluctant to eat—but we also see that Anne has a devoted companion with whom she will chat all evening.  Silent throughout dinner to Elizabeth, who sits at her side both surprised and amused at Anne’s incivility to a guest, she nonetheless dominates the conversation with her governess.


Mr. Collins and Charlotte were both standing
at the gate in conversation with the ladies.

Is that kind of incivility to strangers but amiability to acquaintances something we have seen elsewhere in the novel?  Yes, indeed.  So is Anne the perfect wife for Mr. Darcy, who in this episode at Rosings proclaims to Elizabeth that he is ill qualified to recommend himself to strangers?  Rather than being too weak for speech, is she perhaps not used to exerting herself to speak with those she does not know well?  She speaks with Charlotte nearly every day, after all, and makes a point of stopping by to do so at the parsonage, though Elizabeth notes that she rudely detains Charlotte out in the wind and cold, intimating that a polite visitor would come into the house if only for the comfort of her hostess (180).  Given her familiarity with Charlotte, it is odd that Elizabeth’s presence at Rosings seems to prevent Anne De Bourgh from being conversational even with Charlotte and Mr. Collins, but Austen may be indicating that when Anne has Mrs. Jenkinson by her side, even her familiarity with Charlotte does not compel her to make polite conversation with a relative outsider.  The latter is likely when we consider the following:  it is the narrator’s voice, uncolored by Elizabeth’s, that at the end of the visit to Hunsford tells us, “Miss De Bourgh exerted herself so far as to curtsey and hold out her hand to both [Elizabeth and Maria Lucas]” (237).  The otherwise friendly gesture comes accompanied by narrative irony.  Though Deirdre Le Faye reminds us that “to shake hands was not so much as sign of greeting or of leavetaking but more a mark of unusual affability or intimacy” (114), the narrator reveals that gestures of even the most basic politeness (the curtsey) require exertion and that Anne’s languor is, at least to a certain extent, an affectation.  “What a mighty feat!” the narrator seems to be saying.  “The girl shook hands with her guests.  Ah, the condescension involved in such a labor.”


Austen could of course have it both ways and portray Anne as condescending and limp, and shy and physically frail.  Lady Catherine may be over-protective of her aristocratically languid daughter, but she also may be attempting to hide the fact that Anne is, in fact, relentlessly average.  She may not wish to admit that her daughter is indeed like herself, without the inclination to master any art or skill, a disinclination that might have arisen from having no need to please others.  Her assumption that there would be some likeness between her daughter and herself in the Never Neverland of potential artistic accomplishment is revealing:  “‘If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.  And so would Anne, if her health had allowed her to apply.  I am confident that she would have performed delightfully’” (194).  Lady Catherine’s tendency to crowd others out of the limelight, out of the conversation, and out of other people’s lives may also have consistently nullified Anne, who with Mrs. Jenkinson may be repeating her mother’s behavior of excluding others in order to remain the sun in her solar system.


Unbeknownst to her, however, Anne De Bourgh is not the sun in the Pride and Prejudice solar system.  Elizabeth Bennet is.  Even were she not, Anne would still have a rival in Caroline Bingley, although she probably is not even aware of Caroline’s existence.  Austen sets the three young women up against each other and, as she does in “The Three Sisters,” plays with their degrees of awareness of the dynamics of rivalry.  For instance, unlike Anne, Elizabeth refuses, on several occasions, to be crowded out at Lady Catherine’s whim.  And unlike Anne, Caroline Bingley perceives Elizabeth as a rival for Darcy’s attentions and engages her actively as a rival.  Cecilia Salber has noted that this dynamic even colors her affectedly kind warning to Elizabeth about Wickham.  One could say that Elizabeth’s alertness to Caroline Bingley as a rival—though at first she does not desire the perceived object—guides her toward her own observation of and attraction to Mr. Darcy because the hostile Caroline is always directing her attention toward him (and his attention toward Elizabeth).  It is Lady Catherine, however, who both creates the rivalry between Anne and Elizabeth and simultaneously erases Anne from action at Rosings:


“Miss Bennet would not play at all amiss, if she practised more, and could have the advantage of a London master.  She has a very good notion of fingering, though her taste is not equal to Anne’s.  Anne would have been a delightful performer, had her health allowed her to learn.


Elizabeth looked at Darcy to see how cordially he assented to his cousin’s praise; but neither at that moment nor at any other could she discern any symptom of love; and from the whole of his behaviour to Miss De Bourgh she derived this comfort for Miss Bingley, that he might have been just as likely to marry her, had she been his relation.  (197)


Anne is present but takes no part in a conversation that should draw her attention.  Instead, Austen foregrounds the inquisitive glances of the two future lovers as each attempts to assess the other.  Elizabeth is prompted to expect cordial praise by Darcy’s previous warm praise of his sister’s progress in music; he does not even seem to respond.  Darcy has just been watching her as she converses about music with his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam; Austen does not say he is jealous, but he is most attentive.  The air is crackling with possibility, and Anne does not sense it, or does not care.  Caroline Bingley, always alert to the least hint of Darcy’s interest in Elizabeth, would have been at his elbow in a moment, would have started up some inquiry, made some deflating comment about Elizabeth to get his attention, or spoken of Miss De Bourgh’s talent to draw Darcy’s eyes to herself.


Austen knows how to portray a jealous woman; Anne is not that:  she never puts herself forward, never desires her cousin’s glance or his words.  We are more aware of this inattentiveness because we have seen Caroline Bingley in action and because Austen reminds us of Caroline here.  In fact, Elizabeth seems to take her part and herself play a substitutionary role that makes us examine her motives; why is she constantly thinking of Caroline and looking at Darcy and Anne with Caroline’s desire to marry him in mind?  As Austen keeps Caroline in the forefront of Elizabeth’s speculations about Darcy, she perhaps deflects from Elizabeth herself knowledge of her own growing interest in her haughty soon-to-be suitor.


Though Lady Catherine’s speech is meant to direct the men’s attention away from Elizabeth to Anne, it does not succeed.  Austen here illustrates the substitutionary role the mother is playing in the daughter’s life as she for all intents and purposes courts Darcy on Anne’s behalf (little wonder this courtship fails).  She is another Mrs. Bennet, hawking her daughter.


Mr. Darcy has with great intrepidity ignored the advertisement, but perhaps Anne does not much care because she has other, loftier goals than marriage to her cousin?  A later passage reveals Anne’s feelings about Darcy and their planned marriage, however, and they are not disinterest:


Their first subject was the diminution of the Rosings party.—“I assure you, I feel it exceedingly,” said Lady Catherine; “I believe nobody feels the loss of friends so much as I do.  But I am particularly attached to these young men; and know them to be so much attached to me!—They were excessively sorry to go!  But so they always are.  The dear colonel rallied his spirits tolerably till just at last; but Darcy seemed to feel it most acutely, more I think than last year.  His attachment to Rosings, certainly increases.”


Mr. Collins had a compliment, and an allusion to throw in here, which were kindly smiled on by the mother and daughter.  (233-34)


This “compliment” and “allusion” can only mean that Mr. Collins has referred to a certain happy event the future might hold, and the narrator states clearly that the daughter smiles on the compliment just as her mother does.  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Anne never displays jealousy because she is too smug, too self-assured even to notice a potential rival.


A smile can mean many things in Pride and Prejudice, just as laughter in the novel can indicate scorn, joy, relief, heedless amusement, disbelief, and so forth (Spacks 74; Casal).  Elizabeth and Darcy themselves smile frequently, and their smiles are not consistently warm or affectionate, but even evince scorn or ruefulness on occasion.  To smile or laugh at someone else can be divisive while smiling or laughing with another can be unitive (Fergus 104-05; Kenney 269).  The fact that Austen has Lady Catherine and Anne De Bourgh smile together is therefore a notable action.  For Lady Catherine, it is not the only smile in the novel.  She also has given smiles to the effusive praises bestowed upon the novel dishes at Rosings by Mr. Collins and Sir William Lucas (184).  Thus, we may compare Lady Catherine’s smile here to her earlier one: the likeness between the two situations is obvious.  This similarity between the two sets of smiles Lady Catherine affords Mr. Collins reinforces Austen’s emphasis on mirroring between mother and daughter; it connects Anne’s smile to this earlier event.


Anne mirrors her mother here; because this smile is in concert with her mother’s, it may not indicate she particularly wants Darcy.  She does not even seem to know him.  They never converse, and he never speaks of her.  Though Anne is clearly aware of her mother’s expectations, she evinces not one single sign of the symptoms of love Juliet McMaster reviews in Jane Austen on Love.  “It is one of the conveniences of the love convention,” McMaster states, “that it externalizes the emotion, and so enlarges the action, the working out of the love between two people, beyond the principals” (16-17).  Austen, McMaster makes clear, is familiar with the traditional vocabulary of meaningful silences, sighs, languid carelessness about one’s appearance, etc., as Rosalind reviews it in As You Like It.  Elizabeth can observe external signs of love, first in her sister Jane but, as she herself notes, not in Anne De Bourgh.  Nothing about Anne De Bourgh bespeaks the “careless desolation” (As You Like It 3.2.381) of a lover.  If “[a] lover’s eyes will gaze an eagle blind,” as Berowne says in Love’s Labour’s Lost (4.3.331), any eagles in the vicinity of Rosings are quite safe.  Anne never once fixes her gaze on Mr. Darcy, though she accepts with complacence the mention of her future union with him.  The observant Charlotte Lucas even deduces the truth about Darcy’s being in love with Elizabeth, but why does Anne delude herself at this point?  If she pays any attention to Darcy at all, how can she be unaware?


Austen suggests that Anne De Bourgh does not pay attention to Fitzwilliam Darcy.  She need not.  For Anne, as for her mother, the expectation of an event seems to mean its inevitable occurrence:  if Lady Catherine in her argument with Elizabeth over her suitability for marriage to Darcy makes patently false statements because she thinks what she wills is what will happen, what is (Bourbon), then Anne also reflects this kind of self-involved assurance.


The De Bourghian smile shows a concord between mother and daughter, a sameness of response that Austen finds significant enough to record though she records so little about Anne.  Anne can smile.  When does she smile?  When Mr. Collins flatters her and her mother with talk of a marriage between herself and her cousin that is a pure figment of all their imaginations.  The “compliment, and . . . allusion throw[n] in here, . . . were kindly smiled on by the mother and daughter.”  They not only smile together, they smile upon something, just as Lady Catherine earlier bestowed smiles upon the admiring compliments of her meal.  The idiom indicates approval and nothing else, and thus, though “motives are secret,” the motive for this smile is not too hard to understand.  Mother and daughter alike offer their deific approval to the blandishments of Mr. Collins.  The smile is a sign of their pleasure but also of their superiority to a groveling inferior making a votive offering.  It is a physical manifestation of condescension in both senses of the word:  willing deference to a social inferior and patronizing superiority.


Although Anne says nothing here, again, she looks upon talk of her marriage to Mr. Darcy with a favorable eye and seems placidly unconcerned with any potential apathy on his part.  She does nothing to forward the nuptials in the way of developing a relationship with her supposed groom.  Lady Catherine, however, is eager to speak and act for her especially in regard to her marriage.  Anne, if nothing else, lets her.  When it comes to fighting for her man, Lady Catherine, hearing reports about Lizzie’s relationship with her nephew, is ready to engage the enemy.  Anne does nothing of the kind, and her not mirroring her mother on this point is significant.  When Darcy and Elizabeth are married, it is Lady Catherine whose resentful feelings are paramount in the narrator’s description (430).  What are Anne’s feelings?  Austen chooses not to tell us.


Whether because of her ill health or Lady Catherine’s nurturing of her delicate image, Anne has been prevented from pursuing any goal or excellence.  She has no talents and no abilities, except playing cards and driving her phaeton―and a servant may well be performing that task while she merely sits.  Now a woman in her twenties and responsible in some part for her moral self, Anne is portrayed by her creator as unpleasant.  She is becoming a lesser Lady Catherine, able to talk without intermission to those who must listen and to demonstrate her condescension by the limp offer of a hand to shake.  That self-confidence that provokes the smile at the mention of her future marriage to Darcy also betrays her self-delusion and her ignorance of the man who in reality prefers, in Sir William Lucas’s phrase, “the brightest jewel of the country” (425).



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  Pride and Prejudice.  Ed. Pat Rogers.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.

Bourbon, Brett.  “‘—Not to Be Trifled with’: Lady Catherine vs. Elizabeth Bennet.”  JASNA North Texas Spring Tea.  Adolphus Hotel, Dallas.  21 Apr. 2013.  Lecture.

Burns, Margie.  “George and Georgiana: Symmetries and Antitheses in Pride and Prejudice.”  Persuasions 29 (2007): 227-33.

Casal, Elvira.  “Laughing at Mr. Darcy: Wit and Sexuality in Pride and Prejudice.”  Persuasions On-Line 22.1 (Win. 2001).

Fergus, Jan.  “The Power of Women’s Language and Laughter.”  The Talk in Jane Austen.  Ed. Bruce Stovel and Lynn Weinlos Gregg.  Edmonton: U of Alberta P, 2002.

Girard, René.  Deceit, Desire, and the Novel.  Trans. by Yvonne Freccero.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1965.

Jenkyns, Richard.  A Fine Brush on Ivory: An Appreciation of Jane Austen.  Oxford: OUP, 2004.

Johnson, Samuel.  “Cowley.”  The Lives of the English Poets.  Ed. Geoffrey Cumberlege.  2 vols.  Oxford: OUP, 1952.  Vol. 1.

Kenney, Theresa.  “‘Slyness seems the fashion’: Dexterous Revelations in Pride and Prejudice.”  Persuasions 27 (2005): 263-69.

Le Faye, Deirdre.  Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels.  London: Lincoln, 2003.

McMaster, Juliet.  Jane Austen on Love.  ELS Monograph Series 13.  Victoria: U of Victoria, 1978.

Salber, Cecilia.  “‘Excuse my interference’: Meddling in Pride and Prejudice.”  Persuasions On-Line 21.2 (Sum. 2000).

Shakespeare, William.  The Riverside Shakespeare.  Ed. G. Blakemore Evans.  Boston: Houghton, 1997.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer.  “Austen’s Laughter.”  Women’s Studies 15 (1988): 71-85.

Ten Harmsel, Henrietta.  “Pride and Prejudice.”  1964.  Elizabeth Bennet.  Ed. Harold Bloom.  Philadelphia: Chelsea, 2004.  65-86.


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