Why is the news of the elopement of Lydia and Wickham in Chapter 46 such an important moment and how does it affect what follows in the novel?
A very key moment in the novel is when Elizabeth is informed of the elopement of Lydia and Wickham by two letters from Jane (while she is visiting Pemberley in Chapter 46). The two letters instead of one create more suspense and anticipation. This chapter is very important because that single event changes everything and has far reaching effects on relationships (such as Elizabeth and Darcy, Lydia and Wickham, Jane and Bingley, the Bennet family and its distant relations), attitudes, and the development of characters in the story.
It changes the perspective of many characters and the truth behind appearances begins to emerge. Everything in the novel builds up to this decisive moment of crisis where things could go either way; good or bad.
The build up to this chapter is very crucial as Elizabeth and Darcy slowly come closer and are on the most civil terms before the news of the elopement breaks, which makes the situation sadly ironic.
Elizabeth goes from rejecting him to having her prejudices lifted when he gives the letter, correcting her misconceptions and finally to respecting him and having a deep gratitude towards him: ‘She respected, she esteemed, she was grateful to him.’ Darcy even invites her to meet his sister and she begins to start thinking of ‘bringing on the renewal of his address.’ This is why it’s so ironic when the news arrives of Lydia’s scandalous elopement because just when Elizabeth’s feelings reach a new high point for Darcy, she is hit with the realisation that he may never want to be associated with her again: ‘Never had she so honestly felt that she could have loved him, when all love must be in vain.
However, Darcy does show great concern for Elizabeth when he arrives unexpectedly during her breakdown; an ironic and dramatic moment as he’s almost like her saviour coming to rescue her. His concern for her is an important factor showing the closeness of the two characters, and so the reader may be contemplating whether to agree with Elizabeth or not, on her opinion that ‘her power was sinking’. When Elizabeth gives him an account of the situation and how ‘nothing can be done’, according to her interpretations, he ‘shook his head in silent acquiescence’ and is seen to be ‘walking up and down the room in earnest meditation, his brow contracted, his air gloomy.’ Elizabeth thinks that this was evidence enough that his feelings are changing. But in fact, she misunderstands his actions which is ironic as she thinks she ‘instantly understood it’.
In fact, Darcy proves her wrong and does help the situation, showing the strength of Darcy’s love for Elizabeth which is the main reason that the elopement accelerates their love affair, instead of completely destroying it. It is ironic how Elizabeth regrets making Mr Darcy ‘acquainted with their fears for her sister’ in earlier chapters, but if he hadn’t known, the situation would have deteriorated.
Elizabeth had clearly underestimated him as instead of looking at Elizabeth’s status with scorn, he helps the Bennet’s escape from disgrace. Elizabeth learns about this through Mrs Gardiner’s letter: ‘“He left Derbyshire only one day after ourselves, and came to town with the resolution of hunting for them.”’ Such a quick reaction meant that he had probably decided his intentions during his and Elizabeth’s unexpected encounter. The elopement acts as a catalyst instead of hindrance as it develops trust, understanding and gratitude between the couple. Elizabeth, of course is grateful for his ‘unexampled kindness’ to her sister but Darcy also has his reasons to thank Elizabeth.
Darcy’s character is altered by the elopement, and his need to redeem himself before Elizabeth is a major part of how the effects of the elopement managed to take a positive turn for some people. Darcy undergoes a huge change in his behaviour after Elizabeth rejects his proposal as he says: ‘“You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.”’ He views the rejection as a ‘lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous’. His behaviour improves in Pemberley as he’s shown as ‘polite and unassuming’ opposed to the previous comments of his ‘disagreeable countenance’ in Meryton.
But it is nothing compared to the test that the elopement put his character through. He must have suffered to lower himself and negotiate with people who nearly destroyed his sister’s life; Mrs Younge and Wickham. ‘Every kind of pride must revolt from the connection’, but he does it to prove himself to Elizabeth: ‘“The wish of giving happiness to you, might add force to the other inducements that lead me on.”’ He also feels responsible for the fact that because of his ‘mistaken pride’, Elizabeth’s sister was going through something that his sister had been saved of; which is why he felt it ‘his duty to step forward and endeavour to remedy an evil which had been brought upon by himself.’ It shows how he is trying to make up for his past mistakes which brings light to his good nature.
However, for characters like Wickham and Lydia, the elopement does quite the opposite as their real images are finally revealed to the public. For Lydia, although her disgraceful behaviour really accentuates her flaws and the full extent of her shameless nature is shown, the elopement doesn’t tell us anything new about her character. Even previously, as Elizabeth notes, ‘Lydia had wanted only encouragement to attach herself to anybody…her affections had been continually fluctuating, but never without an object.’
Not many people had high expectations for her as Mr Bennet says, when Elizabeth is pleading to forbid Lydia to go to Brighton: ‘Lydia will never be easy till she has exposed herself in some public place or another’. It’s ironic as Mr Bennet’s predictions actually take place in Brighton. With Wickham, it’s a completely different matter as he always had a very ‘gentlemanlike appearance’ and an ‘agreeable manner’ but after the news of the elopement everyone realises, as Colonel Forster says, ‘W. was not a man to be trusted’. A few people, like Elizabeth, Jane and Darcy were already aware of Wickham’s true personality but most were not. Later on, when the town finds out about his debts to ‘every tradesman in the place’, they declare him to be ‘the wickedest young man in the world.’
The elopement itself is a shocking development as there was ‘“no symptom of affection on either side”’, as Elizabeth mentions, before Lydia goes to Brighton. From this, we can make an assumption that neither of the couple has strong feelings for one another as it seems a very rushed decision made in the heat of the moment rather than a well thought out marriage plan. In fact, in Jane’s letter, Denny says that Wickham ‘never intended to go there, or to marry Lydia at all’ (‘there’ in this context meaning Gretna Green: a place where young couples got married).
Lydia did believe she was going to get married, as Elizabeth thinks: ‘She did not suppose Lydia to be deliberately engaging in an elopement, without the intention of marriage’. But there was enough evidence to suggest that her little understanding would be her downfall: ‘neither her virtue nor her understanding would preserve her from falling an easy prey’. She definitely didn’t understand the repercussions of this scandalous affair and doesn’t seem to full grasp the meaning of a woman’s honour; something that was very important in the 19th century. As Mary says in her reflections: ‘“Loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable- that one false step involves her in endless ruin”’.
Thankfully, the couple end up getting married due to a payment of “considerably more than a thousand pounds” by Darcy but their characters seem the least affected by the whole incident. ‘“Lydia was Lydia still; untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy and fearless.”’ Lydia undergoes no change and thinks that ‘“my sisters must all envy me”’. She has absolutely no shame for her behaviour and instead, she continuously flaunts her married status around at every opportunity available: ‘“Ah! Jane, I take your place now, and you must go lower, because I am a married woman.”’ But, she doesn’t take the responsibilities that come with her married status very seriously. Although she seems to have an immense liking for Wickham, “he was her dear”, she still seems to be engaged with other men, ‘“Tell him I will dance with him at the next ball we meet, with great pleasure.”’
Wickham is unchanged too, still keeping up appearances: ‘His manners were always so pleasing…his smiles and his easy address…’ Despite this, Elizabeth is able to tell that ‘Wickham’s affection for Lydia, was just what Elizabeth had expected to find it; not equal to Lydia’s for him.’ He simply married her for the money. It seems like the beginnings of a terrible marriage: ‘“Small as their chance of happiness”’ and ‘“So imprudent a match on both sides”’. Their marriage has an uncanny resemblance to that of Mr and Mrs Bennet; characters of opposite natures and views, uncomplimentary personalities and a marriage that happened due to uncontrollable passion, not love: ‘How little of permanent happiness could belong to a couple who were only brought together because their virtue’.
Mr and Mrs Bennet, partly due to their unsuccessful marriage, prove to be terrible parents by the elopement. Jane’s letter gives us an insight in to the state at Longbourn. Mrs Bennet is described as quite unhelpful in the situation: ‘My poor mother is really ill and keeps her room.’ A good mother would try to at least provide comfort to her family and remain calm, steady and strong. Something Mrs Bennet does quite the opposite of, which is quite typical of her: ‘Could she exert herself it would be better, but this is not be expected’. Mrs Bennet influences Lydia to be flirty and exuberant from early on and it has a terrible effect.
Mr Bennet, on the other hand, actually tries to handle the situation although he is grieved by the incident: ‘I never in my life saw him so affected.’ He tries to retrieve Lydia: ‘My father is going to London.’ But, it seems like an anger induced decision, ‘his excessive distress will not allow him to pursue any measure in the best and safest way’, which is not the way a good, responsible parent should react. Especially, because Mr Bennet was partly to blame for the whole incident as he never gives enough parental attention to Lydia and agrees to send her to Brighton even after Elizabeth’s pleas to withdraw the offer, simply because ‘“We shall have no peace at Longbourn if Lydia does not go to Brighton.”’ This shows that he was lazy and couldn’t be bothered to deal with Lydia in the house, so it was easier just to send her away at that point.
In the long run, of course, it made things much more difficult but both parents don’t seem to learn from this terrible incident at all. Mrs Bennet is delighted and happy as soon as the marriage between Lydia and Wickham is almost confirmed and is completely ignorant of past grievances caused by Lydia: ‘She was disturbed by no fear for her felicity, nor humbled by any remembrance of her misconduct.’ It was almost as if there had been no scandal in the whole affair: ‘No sentiment of shame gave a damp to her triumph.’ Even the want of new clothes trumped the ignominy of the elopement: ‘She was more alive to the disgrace, which the want of new clothes must reflect on her daughter’s nuptials, than to any sense of shame at her eloping and living with Wickham, a fortnight before they took place.’
The effect on Mr Bennet is a little different as in the beginning, he is extremely guilty: ‘Who should suffer but myself? It has been my own doing, and I ought to feel it.’ But after being ‘rendered spiritless by the ill-success of all their endeavours,’ in London, he gives up and leaves Mr Gardiner to continue the search for Lydia, going back to his indifferent shell: ‘he naturally returned to all his former indolence.’ Although he feels no guilt doing that, one should think he would feel it after Mr Gardiner’s hard work pays off and he fixes a marriage between Lydia and Wickham, while he just lazed around. This does not happen though, instead, he feels pleasure: ‘That it would be done with such trifling exertion on his side, too, was another very welcome surprise.’
Finally, another aspect the elopement has an effect on, is the distant relations such as Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Mr Collins writes a letter to the Bennet family about the elopement, portraying his harsh characteristics. ‘The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison to this’, he writes selfishly, because at least that wouldn’t disgrace his household. He also mentions that all relations of the Bennet family will be disgraced, including Lady Catherine’s agreement to add more power: ‘This false step in one daughter, will be injurious to the fortunes of all others, for who, as Lady Catherine herself condescendingly says, will connect themselves with such a family.’
As a solution, he writes in a very unforgiving and non-Christian manner to banish Lydia: “throw off your unworthy child from your affection for ever, and leave her to reap the fruits of her own heinous offence.” He doesn’t change his views even after Lydia and Wickham’s marriage: ‘You ought to certainly forgive them as a Christian, but never admit them in your sight, or allow their names to be mentioned in your hearing.’ For Lady Catherine, however, the Bennet’s disgrace is a weapon as she tries to use it against Elizabeth, in warning her to keep off Mr Darcy since she hears of their relationship: ‘“I am no stranger to the particulars of your youngest sister’s infamous elopement…Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?”’ Ironically, it has the inverse effect and her visit becomes the means of uniting Elizabeth and Darcy, as Elizabeth’s reluctance to rejecting him, gives him new encouragement: ‘“It taught me to hope…had you been absolutely, irrevocably decided against me, you would have acknowledged it to Lady Catherine, frankly and openly.”’
In conclusion, the importance of the elopement is only truly understood after experiencing the aftermath, as the immediate effects and late effects of the elopement vary greatly for most people. It also has a different effect on different characters. For Elizabeth and Darcy, and Jane and Bingley, it is like a blessing in disguise but for Mr and Mrs Bennet, and Lydia and Wickham, it fails to have any good effect on the situation or characters. Instead, it reveals their flaws to others. This is the same for Mr Collins as he is shown as unforgiving of the disgrace extended to his household, and Lady Catherine’s insolent side is unveiled. The elopement changes the whole story and most characters revel in the change, thanks to Mr Darcy, with exceptions such as Lady Catherine and Miss Bingley.