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Wednesday, August 28, 2019

"Considering Caroline" — guest post from author Maria Grace!

Today we have our final post of the year (frowny face) from perennial Austen in August -supporter Maria Grace, who is tackling one of my new favorite things to consider: Caroline Bingley. I've found as I've gotten older, and become better able to parse our motives and circumstances from initial reactions, that I've begun considering Caroline in a new, much more forgiving light. And though I don't know that I'll ever come around on certain characters (coughLucySteelecoughMrsNorriscoughcough), I do find myself softening a bit on ol' Caro.
Click through to see what Maria has to say on this favorite Austen "villain," and let us know your thoughts — and if you've been convinced to look at Caroline in a new light! — in the comments! And make sure to check out Maria's other Austen in August posts, including her series on Regency women's archery, her part in this year's Janeite Conversations, and her contributions to this year's giveaways!

Considering Caroline

by Maria Grace

I get it. Caroline Bingley is the character Pride and Prejudice fans love to hate. Really, what is there likeable or redeemable about her? She is after dear Mr. Darcy for his money, she puts down Elizabeth, and discard’s Jane’s friendship like a wet newspaper. What more do we need to know?
What more indeed?

While I grant you, Caroline’s personality could definitely use some polishing, is it just possible that there is something more to this character that we are missing? Honestly, I think there is. If we try to slip ourselves inside Caroline’s shoes (and perspective), I think there are more than a few interesting things to be learnt.

First off, what is Caroline’s place in the world? She is the daughter of a wealthy tradesman. He sold off his business, leaving a large inheritance to his son and substantial dowries for his daughters. Clearly, father Bingely’s plan was to see his family become part of the gentry class in his son’s generation. (You can read more of what that entailed here. http://randombitsoffascination.com/2019/03/26/joining-the-gentry/) On first blush, this seems to mean he intended for his son to buy and estate and become one of the landed class. However, there was more to becoming part of the than that.

Moving into the gentry required education, connections and social graces to be able to move amongst and mingle with the upper crust. Although a son’s education was first priority, if there was money available, girls might be educated, too.

Such was the case for Caroline Bingley who attended an expensive girl’s seminary (finishing school.) There she would have learned to speak and read French and possibly Italian. She would also have been taught music, in Caroline’s case, proficiency in the pianoforte. Her manners would have been polished to a high shine and her dancing perfected. Moreover, her school masters would have helped her refine the fine art of conversation, enabling her to be a social asset to her husband. So, upon leaving her schooling, she was assured she was proper material for a gentleman’s wife.

Though we might look down on these ‘accomplishments’ today, make no mistake, Caroline would have worked hard in acquiring them, knowing the future of her family rested (in part) on her ability to do so. By marrying a gentleman, she too could take part in her father’s ambition of raising his family to the gentry class.

Then along comes Elizabeth Bennet, and everything goes a bit mimsy.

I have to imagine from Caroline’s eyes, Elizabeth represented not just a threat to Caroline’s chances, but in some ways a huge insult as well.

Elizabeth was born into a gentry family, a gentlewoman. She had no fortune (which isn’t entirely true, 1000 pounds wasn’t pocket change, but it wasn’t a big dowry either,) no good connections, no accomplishments, and no manners, but she is securely in the place that Caroline is trying to get to. How incredibly frustrating.

Think about it this way. If Caroline were a high school gymnast today and spent years getting coached by excellent coaches, and practicing to become a very, very good gymnast, only to lose a spot on the high school team to the high school coach’s mediocre gymnast daughter, we’d probably be a little more sympathetic to her snotty attitude toward her rival. In a lot of ways, that is exactly what has happened to Caroline in Pride and Prejudice. She is a far more accomplished woman than Elizabeth, a far better social asset to a potential husband, and yet, she is dumped into the country market town of Meryton by her brother, where good prospects are few and far between, and the best prospect around, Mr. Darcy, is distracted by a woman who (undeservingly) has the status Caroline so desperately wants and has worked hard to acquire. Who wouldn’t be at wits end?

We also have to keep in mind the social and economic realities of the era. Women like Caroline had only one career option—marriage. They had no job skills and there were few occupations open to them. Yes, governess and companion were possibilities, but they also brought with them a tainted reputation and lousy pay and even worse working conditions. Gentlemen were scarce and about one third of women never married. So, we can also assume a certain level of desperation over a scarce good, in this case, marriageable gentlemen, on Caroline’s part.

Even though, as I said earlier, it does seem that Caroline’s personality could use some work, I think even this assumption needs further examination. We only get to know Caroline through the eyes of an unreliable narrator, not through her own point of view. I would suggest that the narrator of Pride and Prejudice might just be a little bit jaded against Caroline and her kind.

Remember, social climbers like the Bingley’s, the nouveau riche, were viewed with some discomfort and suspicion In the era. Afterall, they were trying to climb out of the sphere to which they had been born. While the modern American culture finds that admirable, the opinions of the day were hardly so complimentary. Perhaps it is possible that our narrator views her through that lens and we are led, rather unfairly, to conclusions about Caroline that might not be justly earned?

While I probably haven’t won you over to team Caroline, I hope I’ve given you a few things to consider about why she might have been a bit—ah—grumpy regarding the Bennets, and some food for thought as to why she might not have been given quite a fair shake all in all.
What do you think?

Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate in Educational Psychology. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

She has one husband and one grandson, two graduate degrees and two black belts, three sons, four undergraduate majors, five nieces, is starting her sixth year blogging on Random Bits of Fascination, has built seven websites, attended eight English country dance balls, sewn nine Regency era costumes, and shared her life with ten cats.

Jane Austen, Austen in August, blog event, Jane Austen fan fiction, JAFF, The Book Rat, BookRatMisty
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  1. I am sure that Caroline would be at her wit's end to understand someone like Elizabeth. It would be super frustrating for her to view E's successes. I am with you there! Poor Caroline. Though, I do admit to loving a great evil Caroline story as well. :)

  2. I agree on everything you said about Caroline. She can be mean, but she is not stupid. Though I am one of the fans who love stories with Caroline as an evil villainess, I like stories where she grows and learns to be a better person. And I believe some of her cattiness might have been learned in her finishing school. Thanks for a great post Maria.

  3. She was definitely in desperate straits during the course of P&P and it's understandable that she would feel threatened by Elizabeth. I can even see her wanting a woman with a large dowry and better family than Jane for her brother, too.
    But, yeah, she did let her mean girl fly.

    Great analysis, Maria Grace!

  4. I'm equally irritated by, sympathetic toward Caroline. Certainly she was in a difficult position, but she was not self-aware enough to see how her airs and graces and "witty snark" could drive away anyone with genuine taste and some sense of compassion for other people. It's her desperation which drives her to such harmful behavior, I suppose. Perhaps, in time, she will come to greater insight. Thanks for the thoughtful analysis.

  5. I think your gymnast analogy was a great way to explain it and I can certainly sympathize with Caroline to some extent. My biggest complaint about her is that I feel she aimed too high and gave herself too many airs. She might have been educated to be a gentleman's wife but she was still a tradesman daughter and Darcy was a catch for women of the ton who were a much better match. To use your analogy, she might have been a better gymnast than Elizabeth but she was not the best gymnast to send to the Olympics. Perhaps that is what makes her even more perturbed to lose out to Elizabeth as she might have understood better if Darcy's choice was the daughter of an Earl. Personally, I don't consider Caroline a villain and don't dislike her although I am glad she doesn't end up with Darcy.

  6. I like Carolyn to play the villain, though I feel sorry slightly that a new comer stole her love (husband) interest.I can't completely feel sorry for her (part because of her attitude and pride)but because of her selfishness. She wants to possess FD mostly due to his riches than love him. Like the others,I like stories where in the end there was hope for a HEA for her too. (Though I prefer for her not to marry somebody greater than FD as it will feed into her arrogance).

  7. The reason I cannot wholly enter into a "poor, poor Caroline" refrain is that she keeps everything in the material. She really does not like anyone. She lies with impunity about relationships which do not exist. Her "eyes are on the prize." She refuses to see that Darcy has NEVER been interested in her. Her obsession is close to pathological. But, she does not know the first thing what a mistress of a huge estate does. Everything she exhibits is her selfishness. She does not show any interest in her brother's leased estate -- that is the key. She is cit through and through.

    1. I don't know if we can really speculate too much on what she does behind the scenes as far as the estate goes, but it's probably fair to say that she's more interested in the trappings of the landowner life than the actual minutae of making it work.
      I will say, though, that it's not surprising that she'd pursue Darcy even if he hasn't shown interest, because honestly, romantic interest didn't really "matter" -- she wasn't taught to seek a lovematch, that was something for the lower classes. Her marriage is to be one of property (which she has) contracts and bloodlines (which she's lacking), so as far as she's concerned, it doesn't really matter what she wants OR what Darcy wants -- it matters that the match would be decent (more so, for her), would elevate her family, and would draw the Bingley's and Darcy's closer together, potentially pushing Bingley and Georgiana together and further raising their place in the world.

    2. I am not sure that Caroline had never noticed Darcy's indifference, she noticed his interest in Elizabeth and must have seen a difference in his behavior towards her. Maybe she thought she would have worn him down? Not too smart though, much better candidates from the Ton hadn't managed to lower Darcy's defenses for years.


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