Persuasions #11, 1989 Page 92-98
Reversal and Revelation: The Five Seasons of Pride and Prejudice
Along with such critics as Andrew Wright and
Joseph Kestner, I regard Jane Austen as a transitional writer.1 Her use of the
seasonal cycle as narrative framework in Pride
and Prejudice clearly demonstrates that her novels not only reflect
order and comic irony of the eighteenth century, but also contain the
sensitivity to nature and use of organicism associated with the
Romantic period. Although there are no long descriptive passages on the beauties
terrors of nature in her work, the events of Pride and Prejudice are
clearly linked to the seasonal cycle.2 Susan Morgan notes, “the interdependence of the rhythm of the
and the rhythm of the characters,” and Stuart Tave discusses Austen’s
the pressures of time within the limited chronology of a single year as
of character.3 But
Austen uses the seasonal cycle for narrative structure as
well as for character development. Motifs
and ideas traditionally associated with each season become the source
ironic reversal and revelation, a device she would have learned from
eighteenth century writers she had admired from childhood, and the
setting, especially the events of the two autumn seasons, reflects an
which anticipates the romantic philosophy of Shelley and Keats.
Austen was aware of the stimulus of fall’s brisk, invigorating weather;
begins five of her six novels in autumn, the exception being Northanger
Abbey. Pride and Prejudice both
begins and concludes in the
fall season, hence the five seasons of my title. And this setting does not contain the traditional associations
depict fall as a season of decline, a time of lamentation over the loss
gifts of spring and summer and of foreboding over the impending
winter. This traditional
interpretation can be seen in such earlier works as Shakespeare’s
Sonnet 73: “That time of year thou mayst in me behold / When yellow leaves,
none, or few, do hang / Upon those boughs which shake against the
in the Autumn section of the eighteenth century poet James Thomson’s The
Seasons: “Fled is the blasted Verdure of the Fields; / And, shrunk
their Beds, the flowery Race / Their sunny Robes resign.” Even Austen’s own Anne Elliot associates the “declining year,
declining happiness,” and, on that familiar autumnal walk to Winthrop,
melancholy pleasure in “repeating to herself some few of the thousand
descriptions extant of autumn.”4 Perhaps the passages just quoted above were among them.
contrast, the autumn season in Pride and Prejudice functions in
Shelleyian sense as a time of preparation and a foreshadowing of new
growth. In “Ode to the West
Wind,” Shelley describes this wind as the “breath of Autumn’s being,”
driving dead thoughts like withered leaves over the universe to
“quicken a new
birth!” The poem concludes with
the triumphant line – “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”
The novel begins with three different
autumn arrivals bringing fresh, new ideas and characters into the
stagnant world of the Bennet family. The
first to arrive is the military regiment, which has established winter
headquarters in the neighbouring town of Meryton and whose officers
will come to
include the dashing, but deceptive, George Wickham, who joins the
November. The presence of these
officers provides Austen with numerous opportunities to satirize the
Mrs. Bennet and her younger daughters and to ensnare Elizabeth in the
pride and prejudice woven by Mr. Wickham.
The arrival being discussed in the
pages of the novel is, of course, that of the wealthy and eligible
Bingley and his companions, including his friend Fitzwilliam Darcy.
rental of the neighbouring estate of Netherfield has a profound effect
future lives of both Elizabeth and Jane Bennet, and Austen chooses a
significant time for his arrival. Mrs. Bennet says that he is expected
possession of the estate by Michaelmas, or September 29th.
The date, the traditional time for the collection of quarterly
which would be particularly abundant during the harvest season, is an
appropriate reminder both of Bingley’s temporary status in the
as a tenant and of the wealth of schemes and activities prompted by his
The third arrival is that of the
cousin the Reverend William Collins, who comes to visit the family in
on a wife-hunting expedition. This
unusual variation on the fall sporting season will recur in the novel’s
conclusion. Mr. Collins’ comic
courtship adventures change the lives of more women than just
friend Charlotte Lucas, whom he succeeds in marrying.
Autumn visits, dinner parties, and
stimulated by these new arrivals develop the novel’s complex plot of
misunderstanding. Two particular
events demonstrate Austen’s use of the typical rainy autumn weather as
narrative device: Jane Bennet’s
rainy ride to Netherfield and the later ball at Netherfield.
It is Mrs. Bennet, of course, who seizes the opportunity
presented by an
anticipated rainstorm to send Jane off on horseback to visit the
sisters. Her mother’s weather
instincts prove correct, and Jane’s subsequent cold results in
impulsive muddy walk to Netherfield to nurse her sister.
This generous act first attracts the secret admiration of Darcy,
setting up the first major confrontation between both pairs of
The sisters’ impromptu stay not only fulfills Mrs. Bennet’s goal
encouraging the attraction between Jane and Bingley, but it also
with her first opportunity to juxtapose and reveal the conflicting
personalities of Elizabeth and Darcy.
The second event, the highly
Netherfield ball in late November is preceded by days of heavy rain.
This weather foreshadows the effects of the occasion itself,
ultimately dampen the hopes of most of those in attendance. Elizabeth’s evening is spoiled by the absence
Wickham and by the persistent attentions and fawning behaviour of Mr.
And, although pleased by Bingley’s and Jane’s obvious delight in
other’s company, she is pained by the folly of her mother and younger
and the cynical indifference of her father.
The evening’s events also sufficiently alarm Darcy and the
sisters (for different reasons) that they encourage the entire
party’s immediate departure from the dangerous charms of Longbourn to
safety of London.
This late autumn departure, plus the
of Mr. Collins’ engagement to Charlotte Lucas, does inspire some
autumnal lamentation. Jane and
Elizabeth unobtrusively mourn the loss of Bingley, while Mrs. Bennet
and openly complains of the frustration of all her matrimonial schemes.
As she tells her sister-in-law Mrs. Gardiner, “It makes me very
and poorly, to be thwarted so in my own family, and to have neighbours
of themselves before anybody else. However,
your coming just at this time is the greatest of comforts, and I am
very glad to
hear what you tell us, of long sleeves” (III, p. 140).
Only later will the comic irony of these laments be apparent.
This mournful mood ushers in what
to be a traditional winter of discontent for the Bennet family.
Certainly disappointed hopes and frustrated ambitions are
associated with winter. But the
seeds of love which were nurtured by the autumn’s activities are not
merely awaiting the revitalization of the succeeding seasons to grow
blossom. Ironically, the events of
this apparently bleak winter’s season stimulates some of this rebirth.
The Gardiners’ Christmas visit offers
more comfort than just the latest fashion news.
The discovery of Mrs. Gardiner’s familiarity with the
Derbyshire and her valuable, though unheeded, advice about the dangers
Elizabeth’s flirtation with Wickham foreshadow narrative developments
Jane’s return to London with the Gardiners also has several positive results. Her London visit gives her a respite from the immediate sources of her embarrassment and disappointment at Longbourn, and it forces her to recognize the true nature of the Bingley sisters’ friendship.
second important winter episode is the January wedding of Charlotte
Mr. Collins. Igor Webb, in discussing this
marriage in an entirely
different context – that of economics – calls the Collinses’ union “a
barren, emotionally chilling” marriage.5 These adjectives, so appropriate for the season, confirm that
able to suggest the relationship between season and narrative to her
without resorting to the detailed descriptions of the later Romantic
novelists. But the Collinses’ cold, pragmatic marriage does contain
organic opportunities. The bride’s move to
Hunsford Parsonage in Kent provides an
opportunity for her friend Elizabeth to broaden her experience and
understanding. At the time of the
wedding, the possibility of Elizabeth’s accepting Charlotte’s
visit would seem remote. However,
the departures of the Netherfield party, Jane, and Charlotte, in
Wickham’s defection to pay court to an heiress, eliminate all sources
comfort or amusement from Elizabeth’s world. A winter spent isolated amid the noise and folly of Longbourn
removal from home appealing to Elizabeth, and she becomes quite willing
a springtime visit to the Collinses. Spring,
indeed, has not been far behind this deceptively bleak winter.
both the traditional and Romantic views, “Sweet lovers love the spring.”
But spring does not appear to be sweet for the lovers in Pride
Prejudice. Jane remains in
London, tantalized by the nearness of Bingley and tormented by his
silence. She is given no hint that the
prospects for her future
happiness are, in reality, being revived during that very time by her
spring appears just as unpromising. At Hunsford, she is subjected to the complacencies and compromises of the
marriage, the arrogant patronage of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and the
presence of Darcy. Elizabeth’s
attitude toward Darcy does seem to be yielding to the softening
the season during their “accidental” meetings on her walks in the
the Parsonage. Ironically, this new
warmth is extinguished on another spring walk when Colonel Fitzwilliam
all her suspicions about Darcy’s role in separating Jane and Bingley. Patricia N. Hill contends that Austen’s use of nature in these
later Hunsford scenes suggests a growing awareness of the potentials of
and that Elizabeth’s appreciation of the beauties of Hunsford
even greater response to Pemberley.6
Darcy’s unexpected proposal, which immediately follows Colonel Fitzwilliam’s revelation, unleashes all of Elizabeth’s revived past and present resentment. Her bitter rejection seems destined to kill Darcy’s April love, but the accusations she flings at him demand a response. The revelations in his letter of explanation, read by Elizabeth in the springtime beauty of Rosings Park, signal the beginning of a new stage of development for the couple.
visit has been more productive than she yet imagines. Darcy leaves, stung by her charges, to re-evaluate his actions.
Elizabeth herself has come to a more rational understanding of
friend’s marriage, the characters of both Darcy and Wickham, and her
own behaviour. She returns to Longbourn,
however, with no expectations for the future beyond her summer
the Gardiners. And she needs this
promise of escape to deal with the still flourishing folly of her
younger sisters. If Elizabeth had
listened carefully to Lydia’s seemingly pointless chatter on the
to Longbourn, she might have gained some clues that the spring season
been so bitter for all lovers and that the springtime showers of tears
regiment’s May departure for summer quarters may hint of a more serious
Austen practises ironic reversal in treating this season and the
summer, and reversal, according to Dvora Zelicovici, is “the major
principle of the novel.”7 Her characters find none of the joys usually associated with
seasons, only continued discomfort and fresh disaster. Yet, in actuality, the events of both seasons contain the
the traditional associations of new life, rebirth, and maturity. Just as the excitement and hope inspired by the past autumn
deflated by the disappointments of the ensuing winter, so the spring
summer’s misfortunes will produce unimagined good fortune in the
ecstatic departure for the regiment’s summer headquarters in Brighton
first step toward this reversal. Elizabeth,
Darcy’s valid criticisms of her family still fresh in her mind, has
her father to refuse permission for this expedition. But Mr. Bennet gives his consent, explaining with his usual
detachment: “Lydia will never be easy till she has exposed herself in
public place or other, and we can never expect her to do it with so
expense or inconvenience to her family as under the present
(III, p. 230). Lydia’s late
summer elopement will reveal just how expensive and inconvenient
Elizabeth’s warning will prove.
Elizabeth’s initial expectations about her own summer’s expedition to
Lake District are excessively optimistic. On
her brief spring stopover in London, in her bitterness over the
disappointments and her desire to escape the folly and pettiness of her
she has enthusiastically exclaimed, “What are men to rocks and
(III, p. 154). Austen, however,
will not allow her heroine to escape from her fellow men into the wilds
nature. She sends her instead to
Derbyshire which, as John Pikoulis points out, is significantly between
romantic splendour of the northern lakes and the fashionable world of
the South.8 And Elizabeth’s graceful accommodation to the change of plans
well for her future: “It was her business to be satisfied” – and
“certainly her temper to be happy” (III, p. 239). She will eventually discover that the summer tour of Darcy’s
county is more than adequate compensation for the disappointments which
unexpected and awkward encounter with Darcy at Pemberley in August
they have both profited from their springtime revelations. She is receptive to the tasteful beauties of his estate, the
endorsement of his housekeeper, and his own decidedly improved manners. He displays a genial hospitality which contrasts favourably with
earlier proud behaviour. Austen
utilizes the summer sport of fishing to demonstrate Darcy’s reformation.
Darcy insists that Mr. Gardiner, Elizabeth’s once-disdained
trade, fish at Pemberley “as often as he chose … offering at the same
to supply him with fishing tackle” (III, p. 255). Fishing is, in fact, a good metaphor for Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s
behaviour during this encounter. Both
are testing the waters after their springtime clash, and both are
angling for an
encouraging response from the other. The
warmth of Darcy’s manner certainly nourishes Elizabeth’s hopes for a
of his addresses.
But, of course, these expectations are soon blighted. The sudden summer storm of emotions provoked by the news of Lydia’s elopement with Wickham casts a wintry chill on Elizabeth’s growing dreams. She returns to Longbourn, where she is confronted with her parents’ fruitless reactions to Lydia’s situation and by a distraught Jane, whose summer has already been barren enough. She has been babysitting the Gardiners’ children in the company of a mother who expects, and indeed seems to hope, that she will die from disappointed love. There is ironic reversal in Elizabeth’s assumption, apparently confirmed by Lady Catherine’s frosty visit, that the elopement will end her relationship with Darcy when it actually has the opposite effect.
final resolution of the novel’s love affairs takes place in the same
which witnessed their commencement. Joseph
Allen Boone observes that Austen uses the circular repetition to convey
of the protagonists’ growth, and Joseph Wiesenfarth contends that the
begins again in Volume Three with a repetition of the opening pages of
does conclude the seasonal cycle with the organic force of another
arrivals, and these arrivals are essentially the same. There are, however, subtle, but telling, differences.
This is not Shelley’s wind of “new birth,” but rather an autumn
season such as Keats describes in “Ode to Autumn,” filled with “mellow
fruitfulness,” prospects of continued development, and well-deserved
celebration after the traumas of the previous seasons.
returns, not as the dashing, eligible officer, but as Lydia’s husband. Although the couple is seemingly unchanged and shamelessly
their marriage, they have changed in the eyes of the principal
characters. Collins reappears only in the form of his sanctimonious letter,
reference to the prospective “olive branch” proves that there is a type
organicism even in his loveless marriage.
employs the traditional fall sporting season to bring Darcy and Bingley
back to Meryton, ostensibly for a few weeks of autumn shooting. There is marvellous comic irony in Mrs. Bennet’s offering the
men hunting privileges on Mr. Bennet’s property, for both do indeed
successfully. Bingley has no
problem in obtaining Jane’s hand, and Darcy, to use my other autumn
reaps the harvest of his new-found tolerance when Elizabeth accepts his
proposal in the autumn beauty of Lucas Lane.
celebration abounds. Elizabeth
writes her Aunt Gardiner: “I am happier even than Jane; she only
laugh” (III, p. 383). And Mrs.
Bennet’s ecstasies even exceed her earlier autumnal laments: “Three
daughters married! Ten thousand a year! Oh,
Lord! What will become of me. I
shall go distracted” (III, p. 378).
again autumn arrivals lead to departures, but these departures produce
lamentations. The late autumn
weddings of Elizabeth and Darcy and Jane and Bingley signal the
movement of the
two sisters to a new centre of activity. Both
couples leave the Bennets’ sphere of sterile foolishness and indolence
settle in the neighbourhood of Pemberley. In
this organic setting, the beneficial results of the couples’ newly
knowledge of themselves and their world accrue to those individuals
open to such
influence, namely the younger sisters Georgiana and Kitty. Even Mr. Bennet enjoys visiting, “especially when he was least
expected” (III, p. 385). The
Gardiners are again expected for a Christmas visit; this holiday,
will spend at Pemberley, the physical embodiment of the tasteful sense
of the eighteenth century and the natural beauties beloved by the
autumn’s glorious harvest fulfills the promise of the first autumn.
The seasonal cycle of the novel is complete, but the organicism
the final episodes suggests that this cycle – with its growth, renewal,
even ironic reversals – is endless. Through
her ingenious treatment of seasonal expectation, Austen has created a
which offers continued revelations not only for its characters, but
also for its
Joseph A. Kestner, Jane Austen: Spatial Structure of Thematic
(Salzburg, Austria: Institut fur Englische Sprache und Literatur,
Salzburg, 1974), p. 3; and Andrew Wright, Fictional Discourse and
Space (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987), p. 50.
R. W. Chapman’s Chronology, in Vol. III, Appendix A of the Oxford
of general use in this study. His
identification of specific dates and calendar years has been questioned.
See Ralph Nash, “The Time Schedule for Pride and Prejudice,”
4 (1967), pp. 194-98.
Susan Morgan, In The Meantime (Chicago: University of Chicago
1980), p. 170; and Stuart M. Tave, Some Words of Jane Austen
University of Chicago Press, 1973), p. 10.
Jane Austen, Persuasion, The Novels of Jane Austen, ed, R. W.
3rd ed., 6 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1933-69), V, 884-85.
Further references in the text are to this edition.
5 Igor Webb, From Custom to Capital. The English Novel and the Industrial Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), p. 172.
Patricia N. Hill, “The Function
of Setting in Jane Austen’s Novels,” Diss. Auburn University (1971),
Dvora Zelicovici, “Reversal in Pride and Prejudice,” Studies
Humanities, 12 (1985), p. 106.
John Pikoulis, “Jane Austen: The Figure in the Carpet,” NCF, 1
1972), p. 46.
9 Joseph Allen Boone, Tradition Counter Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 117; and Joseph Wiesenfarth, “Austen and Apollo,” in Jane Austen Today, ed. Joel Weinsheimer (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1975), p. 52.