This is a new thing I’m rolling out on the blog. Along with Wordless Wednesday and Thursday 300, it will be related to the Music Monday post…somewhat. So break out the tea pot and get cozy. We’re going to sit down for a nice long chat.
The Music Monday post made me think of Bingley and Jane. This week, let’s talk about Bingley and next week we’ll do Jane.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged in Fanon that Bingley is a spineless idiot entirely dependent upon Darcy.
I don’t know where people get this impression. The man had flaws, sure he did. So does everyone in the book. SO DOES EVERYONE. That’s what makes Austen so great. Her characters feel real because no one is perfect or flat.
Let’s look at some of the descriptions of Bingley before we really get to know him.
Bingley was endeared to Darcy by the easiness, openness, and ductility of his temper, though no disposition could offer a greater contrast to his own, and though with his own he never appeared dissatisfied. On the strength of Darcy’s regard, Bingley had the firmest reliance, and of his judgement the highest opinion.
Have you ever had someone you could depend on? Someone whose opinion you valued and respected? Most people would say yes. I think that’s all this passage means. Bingley respected Darcy’s opinion. There’s no reason to interpret this passage into the extremities that Bingley couldn’t do a thing without Darcy telling him.
Next, there’s this:
In understanding, Darcy was the superior. Bingley was by no means deficient, but Darcy was clever.
Have you ever had a friend that you thought was more intelligent than you? Someone who maybe understood things better or faster? I’m pretty good at history and reading. I can write a good story, but I need help with copy edits. I’m nearly hopeless with science or math. Does any of that make me think I’m stupid? No. I would hope no one else thinks I am simply because I have strengths in different areas. I can’t understand that chemical equation, but I can break down that Shakespeare poem for you.
Bingley was sure of being liked wherever he appeared, Darcy was continually giving offense.
So here we have the balance. Darcy is clever, with no real details given as to what he’s clever about, but then Bingley is the one who understands social cues and graces better.
You say, “That’s all well and fine, Rose but Bingley’s behavior in the story supports his spineless and stupid ways.”
As a writer, I will admit readers need to be careful about what we show and not just what we tell. Just the other day I mentioned to a friend that in Sense and Sensibility, characters are described in generally flattering terms (or at least relatively benign), and then their personalities reveal them to either be endearing or annoying. I’m looking at you, Mrs. Jennings. I would say, however, to never disregard how an author has described a character. Jane Austen does this frequently. Mrs. Jennings might have been intrusive and annoying, but she meant well and was kind-hearted. Does any of her behavior nullify this description?
Mrs. Jennings, Lady Middleton’s mother, was a good-humoured, merry, fat, elderly woman, who talked a great deal, seemed very happy, and rather vulgar.
No, it doesn’t. Likewise, I maintain that Bingley’s actions throughout Pride and Prejudice do nothing to nullify the intelligence and strength of character Austen describes him as having.
We all know about how Bingley left Meryton and stayed in London after Darcy told him Jane wasn’t that into him. People either blame Darcy or Bingley for that with very few splitting it between the two. However, let’s look at other things before we get there.
Bingley is obviously outgoing. He makes friends easily and mingles at the ball with strangers. Outings are referenced, and he continues to pay attention to Jane whenever the Bennets are present. Even when Jane is at Netherfield, he has plans to dine with the officers. However, there are no mentions of other people spending a lot of time in his inner circle. It is said that the Bennets returned a call on Netherfield. Nothing is said of them hosting dinners at Netherfield. It appears that regardless of how outgoing in a crowd Bingley is, he may not excell at fostering and deepening friendships.
That could be for a few reasons. Perhaps he cannot focus. Darcy does point out how easily Bingley’s attention can be redirected. However, he remained in Hertfordshrie for over six weeks. He had plenty of time to build relationships. Indeed, at the Assembly, he seems eager to please. He tells everyone he wants to host a ball. Then Lydia and Kitty remind him of that, and he emphatically agrees to it.
Hmm…he likes to make people happy.
Being a people-pleaser is not a bad thing. It does not by default make you weak or unintelligent. Notice that he’s friends with Darcy not a man like Wickham. Bingley is smart enough to choose his friends carefully. In fact, while generally pleasing the people of the area but not immediately becoming close friends with any of the other gentlemen is a prudent move. It shows he doesn’t make rash decisions.
Perhaps that is why he tip toes around Jane. He likes her. He singles her out, and Elizabeth even jokes that he ignores other ladies to the point of nearly being uncivil. However, he does not call on Longbourn frequently. He does not act as the besotted lover. For example, there’s an extreme difference in his behavior and Mr. Willoughby of Sense and Sensibility. Maybe Bingley is just more proper. However, he is not taking pains to get to know Mr. Bennet better. Even Mr. Collins made his plans plain to one of the Bennet parents as soon as possible. Finally, let us not forget that Darcy says Bingley had often been in love.
What I am getting at, is that I think there is a bit of insecurity or timidity in Mr. Bingley. Darcy says Bingley is modest but I think it’s a touch more than that. It’s not that he’s sitting in amazement that Jane is even talking to him. It’s that he’s clearly uncertain what she’s thinking and feeling. This, from the man who can easily read societal cues. Rather than just rushing in, he holds back. Even Charlotte says that Jane needs to show more, not only because Jane seems too serene but because Bingley is clearly following Jane’s lead.
After Elizabeth reads Darcy’s letter, she allows for the fact that Jane might have needed to show her feelings more openly to Bingley. This feels like it should be an exoneration for Darcy. Indeed, Elizabeth seems to allow any residual anger to evaporate over the issue. Instead, she’s left with regret that her family’s behavior contributed to the situation.
If Darcy is justified in believing Jane indifferent then why is Bingley often called spineless for believing him? The answer is that readers presume Bingley must have understood Jane better than Darcy did. True, he definitely spent more time with her than Darcy did. But did he understand her when even her closest friends can say that she concealed her feelings too much? For a man that seems to have innate feelings of modesty and insecurities, how could Bingley have acted differently? He deferred to a friend he trusted, who had never steered him wrong and bravely acknowledged his own weakness. How is that spineless?
When Bingley returns to Hertfordshire, he is immediately drawn to Jane again. Indeed, even when he saw Elizabeth the previous summer, he was attempting to ask about her. The poor man clearly has a loyal heart. Unfortunately, Jane is even more likely to act indifferent than before (more on her next week). What can make their story complete but the help of the same man who had previously intruded? Darcy saw what Bingley was too scared to see. Jane still loved Bingley. Once Bingley had that boost in confidence, he didn’t hesitate to propose.
Now, I believe every character is the hero of their own story. However, Bingley is not the hero of Pride and Prejudice. Therefore, one can argue he didn’t go through any big character development. Variations are different things, of course. We writers put in the character development that Jane didn’t show. In canon, however, Bingley doesn’t really evolve. He returns to Hertfordshire feeling insecure and modest. Granted, it takes quite a bit of courage just to come back. So, if Bingley was able to propose at the end and hasn’t gone through any evolution, then he was made of the same stuff at the beginning. If he’s not spineless at the end when he marries Jane regardless of Darcy or Caroline’s opinions, then he’s not spineless at the beginning. Instead, he has better information. And that’s not stupid of him.
What do you make of canon Bingley?