In Jane Austen’s novels, minor characters are satirical targets. They’re not as fully developed and “real” as the main characters but are, rather, caricatures for readers to laugh at or deplore. Alex Woloch notes that in Pride and Prejudice, for example, the brilliance of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy drives all other characters to the margins, where, as various critics have observed, they are flattened and regarded as “silly, shallow, pedantic, or naïve” (Neckles 31-32). In fact, the novel has been called a book filled with fools, phonies, and losers (Riatt 136, Auerbach 142). Ironically, Austen presents these characters to her readers without sympathy, inviting snobbery—or in other words, pride and prejudice! But where in this narrative hegemony does Charles Bingley belong? Are we to approve of him wholeheartedly as a suitable match for the sweet and lovely Jane, or is he one of the cartoons like Mr. Collins or Lady Catherine de Bourgh?
Film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice have tended to “restructure the text’s sympathies” by rehumanizing many of the minor characters (Neckles 31). The 1940 version, for example, features a benevolent Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who only pretends to be against Elizabeth’s marrying her nephew, in order to make sure she really loves him. The 2006 Joe Wright film version of the novel rehabilitates the formerly neglectful and foolish Mr. and Mrs. Bennet into wise and conscientious parents. Mr. Collins has also evolved, from fatuous through sinister into pitiable. By contrast, film treatments of Mr. Bingley have traveled in the opposite direction. Readers usually consider him sympathetic, with a sort of charming, genial innocence. In the movies, however, the bland but always compliant Charles of early films has gradually acquired varying degrees of comic overtones, growing eventually into a wide-eyed, naïve, ridiculous klutz, a sort of Labrador Retriever puppy who is not to be taken seriously.
The 1940 Pride and Prejudice, directed by Robert Z. Leonard, features a Mr. Bingley played by Bruce Lester. Lester’s Bingley is handsome, slightly effeminate, and polite, with a bland smile. He is essentially a vanilla straight man for Mr. Darcy, obsequious as a servant, even in his own home. He is formal and stiff: “In other words, Miss Jane, you have a bad cold and a headache,” he pronounces distantly at Netherfield when he visits her as she lies in bed. Bingley is only filmed answering doors and showing women here and there, like a footman. Instead of a ball, he hosts a carnivalesque “garden party,” during which the actor shows no emotion; if the film were more modern, we might even suspect Botox! After the garden party, we see almost nothing of him and learn of his eventual engagement to Jane at second hand. He is not ridiculous, not inferior, not anything, in fact: altogether forgettable and insignificant as a character, other than functioning to provide Jane the status of marriage.
In 1980, the BBC aired a five-part series of Pride and Prejudice, which with Fay Weldon as screenwriter has been acclaimed as the adaptation perhaps most faithful to the novel. In this series, Bingley is played by Osmund Bullock, a baby-faced actor who plays Charles Bingley as a sweet, but thoroughly henpecked young man dominated by, and even afraid of, his sisters and his friend Darcy. When, after the initial assembly ball, Darcy tells Bingley of Jane, “You may think of her as you choose,” Bullock’s Bingley does not recognize Darcy’s teasing but instead smiles gratefully. Later, when the company at Netherfield is deriding the Bennet family, Bingley tries to put up a defense of Jane, but after Caroline’s and Darcy’s pronouncements, he slumps and looks down, chastised and silenced. In this version, it’s hard to get Bingley in a frame by himself; the camera never focuses exclusively on him.
He is ingratiating and unfailingly polite. But we can see here some signs of weakness, and for the first time we feel a tiny bit of opprobrium toward Bingley. While we feel sorry for him, motherly perhaps, as if toward the object of bullying, we wish he had more strength of character, more resolution.
The next adaptation, the well-known 1995 Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth miniseries directed by Simon Langton, shows a Charles Bingley, played by Crispin Bonham-Carter, who has diminished in size: he’s a smaller, frailer person, perhaps reflecting a diminution in character. His curls suggest a little boy, and indeed, he gives the impression of being much, much younger than his friend Darcy. He’s eager to please, never sure of himself, and obviously looks up to Darcy, who tends to treat him dismissively, even rudely, as a subordinate.
Altogether, this Bingley does not inspire a great deal of confidence. As Elizabeth reads Darcy’s letter explaining why he persuaded Bingley against Jane, we are shown Darcy and the Bingley sisters standing over Bingley, delivering the ultimatum that he must give up Jane. Bingley sits below them in a chair, looking up piteously at the camera, the picture of a naughty child or perhaps a whipped puppy. His childishness is further underscored by scenes showing him too-enthusiastically over-clapping after Elizabeth’s solo at Pemberley and over-smiling at the Bennets when first returning to Longbourn with Darcy. After the visit, we are shown Darcy condescendingly apologizing to Bingley for separating him from Jane. Bingley asks, “Then I have your blessing?” Darcy raises an eyebrow and says, “Do you need my blessing?” Bingley stammers, “No, but I should like to know I have it all the same.”
Charles Bingley seems to be becoming more and more pathetically dependent, but in 2004 there’s a brief detour in Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice, the musical Bollywood adaptation. Bingley, a London barrister known as “Balraj” in the movie, is played by Naveen Andrews. This Bingley, like the one in the novel, is extremely sociable but also forceful and self-confident.
By contrast, Darcy, as an American coming to India for the first time, is shy and insecure. Bingley energetically leads the men at the wedding in dancing as Darcy looks on, bewildered. It is Bingley, or Balraj, who puts his arm around Darcy and urges him to join the festivities: “this is great—this is where the girls meet the boys and the boys meet the girls.” When the “ideal woman” conversation occurs, Bingley is not present but in the background swimming with Jane, or Jaya, and shortly after that he disappears from the movie. We don’t see Bingley display any disappointment in this adaptation because all the persuasion to give up Jane takes place off-screen. When Lalita (Elizabeth) learns in California from a chance acquaintance dropping a bit of gossip that Darcy has persuaded Balraj to break up with Jaya, it comes as a surprise to both her and the audience: viewers cannot imagine this Bingley taking advice from Darcy. As in the 1940 adaptation, the Bingley/Jane plot arc gets very little attention.
By 2005, Charles Bingley is back on the path towards becoming a figure of ridicule rather than respect. Played by Simon Woods in the Joe Wright production, Bingley is obviously a lightweight character. He’s shorter, slight even to scrawniness, and lighter in color than Darcy, thereby displaying less gravitas. He wears light colors when riding with Darcy, who is always in black, like his horse, perhaps evoking the brooding Romantic hero. Bingley is ingratiating, always smiling and eager to please, seconding everything Darcy says. When we first meet him at the assembly ball, despite the fact that Bingley as the renter of Netherfield is the primary visitor, the camera shows Darcy at the center of the frame, unmistakably alpha, with Bingley at his side. At his introduction to Jane and Elizabeth, Bingley is tongue-tied, twisting his hands nervously and stuttering about books at the local library. Defensively, he tells Jane, “I CAN read, of course,” with a nervous laugh.
His pompadour rises so high it’s a bit foppish. He is prone to hyperbole, calling Jane the “most beautiful creature I ever beheld,” which, although a quotation from the novel, makes him sound fatuous and contrasts unfavorably with Darcy’s more measured assessments. At Netherfield, this Bingley seems laughably indiscriminating, rather than polite, in the discussion of an “accomplished woman.” When Elizabeth says, “I never saw such a woman; she would certainly be a fearsome thing to behold,” he chortles with glee, nodding his head and seeming inordinately pleased with himself for perceiving the witticism. In his attempts to please, Bingley reminds us of what Emma’s Mr. John Knightley says of Mr. Elton: “‘every feature works’” (111). And finally, he’s prone to giggling, as when bidding goodbye to Jane leaving Netherfield in the carriage. If in this film Darcy is something of a sullen punk, Bingley is so nervously desperate for approval that it is difficult to believe Jane’s attraction to him.
In the Andrew Black Pride and Prejudice, an adaptation set in modern-day Utah, Charles Bingley has completed the journey to caricature. Ben Gourley is the actor who plays Bingley. Although this movie came out in 2003, two years before the Joe Wright version, I’m considering it last because in this version, Charles Bingley has clearly become a cartoon, right up there with Mr. Collins, definitely not to be taken seriously. Unlike Wright, who treats all the characters in deadly earnest, Black handles his characters with a light touch and tongue in cheek, much as Austen herself did. Although viewers have occasion to laugh at the foibles of almost everyone in this film, Bingley is perhaps the most ridiculous character. He is called Charlie. Wide-eyed and goodhearted but impossibly naïve and klutzy, he is shown in varying goofy outfits and situations: taking pratfalls, falling off a raft, losing at tennis, being left behind at a gas station, and running to catch up with the car
His job is selling music videos for dogs, called “Classics for Canines.” No one considers him important enough to pay attention to—except Jane, in this version Elizabeth’s native Brazilian roommate, who may not be able to pick up on his social ineptness.
It’s easy to see why directors have moved toward re-creating Bingley as a comic sidekick for Darcy. One pragmatic reason is Austen’s famous refusal to allow her narrators to get inside the heads of male characters. A sidekick can provide dialogue with the hero so that viewers can learn the thoughts of the main male character without the director having to resort to voiceovers or pedantic exposition by other characters. Another reason is the traditional function of the sidekick as a subordinate counterpoint to the hero, displaying inferior abilities in order to showcase the main character and make us like him. Comic relief is often part of the role. Thus, Sancho Panza’s, Robin’s, Tonto’s, and Dr. Watson’s stupidity makes Don Quixote, Batman, the Lone Ranger, and Sherlock Holmes seem more intelligent. Festus’s limp, whine, and backwoods accent make Marshal Matt Dillon appear strong, stoic, and articulate. Effeminate sidekicks make the hero look more masculine; talkative ones set off the strong, silent hero. Indecisive, dithering sidekicks emphasize the hero’s decisiveness. Charles Bingley plays this role for Mr. Darcy. When Bingley can be shown as overly friendly to everyone, Darcy is not standoffish but more discriminating. When Bingley is unsure of himself and wavering, Darcy’s implacability comes across as decisive and powerful. Bingley’s rashness in making decisions points up Darcy as a wiser, more rational man.
Austen provides clues in the novel that make Bingley’s onscreen deterioration in respectability less outrageous than readers might suppose. For example, in a novel where everyone knows exactly how much everyone else is worth financially, we learn early that Bingley’s fortune, while considerable, is half that of Mr. Darcy. This fact is important in establishing that Darcy is the hero, Bingley the also-ran. Furthermore, Bingley’s fortune has been “acquired by trade” (15). Although Bingley himself has not been in trade, still he betrays the taint of commerce, as Elsie Michie points out, when he admires women who can “‘paint tables, cover skreens and net purses’” (8; PP 39). Here we learn that he is thinking of products, as opposed to Darcy’s conceptions of more intellectual accomplishments in the arts. Interestingly, this distinction shows up in the Andrew Black movie, when Bingley, who presumably would have been a business major, sells his wares on television.
In contrast, Darcy, the English major, is an editor, involving himself with the life of the mind and leaving the selling of books to underlings and the less affluent, like Elizabeth Bennet, who works in a bookstore. So trade is seen as subordinate to the higher-class culture. Another status-lowerer for Bingley in the novel, though not emphasized in film adaptations, is the fact that, as Sandra Macpherson points out, he is merely renting Netherfield, rather than being the owner of an estate as is Darcy (9). Even today, the difference between being a homeowner and a renter is socially significant.
But although economic position is definitely important, more telling in the eyes of Austen is character. Bingley’s amiable persuadability calls into question, at least for Darcy, the strength of his principles. At Netherfield, Darcy and Bingley are having an argument about Bingley’s theoretical removal from Netherfield. Bingley has earlier told Mrs. Bennet that “‘if I should resolve to quit Netherfield, I should probably be off in five minutes’” (42). Darcy now says, “‘[I]f, as you were mounting your horse, a friend were to say, ‘Bingley, you had better stay till next week,’ you would probably not go—and, at another word, might stay a month. . . . To yield without conviction is no compliment to the understanding of either’” the persuader or the persuaded (49-50). He sees this impulsiveness, Elizabeth maintains, as evidence of a weak will, a character flaw. In Darcy’s view, honorable, manly men maintain logical consistency and make decisions based on principle rather than on the opinions of their friends. Elizabeth is quick to disagree with this opinion, but Austen leaves the issue for readers to ponder which of the two characters is correct, raising the question—which she will answer more definitively twenty years later in Persuasion—whether Bingley might not be too easily swayed by those around him.
Another clue that Bingley’s easy disposition might be less than ideal is found in Mr. Bennet’s assessment that Bingley is “‘so complying, that nothing will ever be resolved on; so easy, that every servant will cheat you; and so generous, that you will always exceed your income’” (348). Mr. Bennet’s joke is based on the truth that Bingley may be unable to make decisions by himself, and thus is not self-sufficient. A man so insecure and so fearful of injuring anyone’s feelings that he is easy prey for unscrupulous servants does not present the picture of an ideal husband or householder. Perhaps it didn’t take more than a hint from Darcy for such a man to give up the woman who loved him. This lack of discernment and inability to observe the faults of others suggests an unattractive gullibility that might well relegate Bingley to the ranks of comic sidekicks who lack the potential to become heroes of their own lives. Although, as Stefanie Markovits asserts of both Jane and Bingley, such passivity may well result from innate goodness, it doesn’t speak well for the ability to assert oneself and survive in a less-than-ideal world when ill fortune gets in the way (784).
Bingley’s persuadability is a feminine trait, according to conduct books of the time that identify womanly attributes as modesty, amiability, and timidity of disposition (Bennett 94-95, Gisborne 22-23). Bingley has all these characteristics. Manly characteristics, by contrast, include strength and judgment. In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth comments on the idea of firmness: “‘It is the worst evil of too yielding and indecisive a character, that no influence over it can be depended on.―You are never sure of a good impression being durable. Every body may sway it. . . . My first wish for all, whom I am interested in, is that they should be firm’” (88). So in this sense we can see Bingley as being wanting, in terms of traditional mores, as an ideal husband. That deficit makes Darcy’s potentially questionable traits of “‘implacable resentment’”—“‘My good opinion once lost is lost forever’”—and judgmental criticism more attractive by comparison (58).
In “An Evolutionary Approach to Jane Austen,” Stasio and Duncan present the theory that mate selection is subconsciously based on the goal of offspring survival. Attractiveness means attractive offspring, liable to be able to perpetuate the race. Bingley is “good-looking and gentlemanlike” (PP 10), so he scores well here. Manners and wit are seen in Austen as effective weapons for social dominance and evidence of moral superiority (Stasio and Duncan 138-142). Bingley has these. He also has money. But the highest male mate values are independence and social dominance.
Here Bingley fails to reach the status of Darcy due to his timidity and willingness to be persuaded so easily—he’s almost on the same plane with Mr. Collins in lacking independence of will, only relying on Darcy rather than Lady Catherine for his opinions. At the beginning of the novel, Darcy fails to measure up to the evolutionary imperative with his initial rudeness and snobbery, but as the pages turn he changes, thus becoming eligible for marriage to Elizabeth. Bingley, however, never does seem to achieve the independence and dominance necessary to become a prime mate selection. Not until Darcy gives him the go-ahead does he return to Jane, the woman he loves. This dependence relegates him to second-class, or sidekick, status.
One of the most disturbing aspects of Bingley’s character is the question of his ability to commit. He intends, at the beginning of the novel, to use his £100,000 to purchase an estate, but “it was doubtful to many of those who best knew the easiness of his temper, whether he might not spend the remainder of his days at Netherfield, and leave the next generation to purchase” (15). Being an indecisive renter shows Bingley’s preference for short- over long-term commitment. Moreover, when Mrs. Bennet tells him that she hopes he will not think of quitting Netherfield in a hurry “‘though you have but a short lease,’” he replies, “‘Whatever I do is done in a hurry’” (42). Certainly he falls for Jane in a hurry, but then so does he abandon her and Netherfield, at the slightest hint from Darcy (Macpherson 12). Is this a sign of instability? Later, Bingley says, “‘My ideas flow so rapidly that I have not time to express them’” (48). Elizabeth sees this claim as an indication of humility and sweetness of temper. But a young man who is precipitous, rash, and unable to commit suggests to readers a fickleness approaching that of Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park, or even of Sense and Sensibility’s Willoughby.
At the end of the novel, Bingley does commit, both to Jane and to the ownership of an estate. One only hopes, while closing the book, that his subsequent nearness to Pemberley and interaction with Darcy will be a continued stabilizing influence on a young man in whom, with other critics, we have begun to lose some of our confidence. Someone so intellectually malleable and unable to depend on his own judgment surely will need a mentor or guide throughout his life (Bonaparte). Will Jane regret her marriage to such an unstable husband? Not likely; as we know, Jane never sees anything wrong with anyone. But perhaps she, too, deserves a closer look as a character—and may emerge in the next film adaptation as a comic sidekick to her sister.
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