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Austen 2014: Pride & Prejudice, Volume 1

For those who aren't sure of the volume delineations, Volume 1 ends with Chapter 23 (which features Mr. Collins' return visit to Longbourne), so I will be dealing with only that section in this post. Volume 2 ends with Chapter 42 (discussing Elizabeth and the Gardiners proposed visit to Derbyshire), and Volume 3 ends with, well, the end.

As I promised to try to focus on the less obvious things in these posts, I'm going to be ignoring many famous scenes and wonderful moments and and instead discuss Austen's verbiage--particularly her usage of the word "chance." Austen uses chance (or its opposite, mischance), by my count twenty-one times in P&P, and over half of those occur in this opening section. She uses it in two of is main meanings here, where it is a rough synonym for both "luck" and of "opportunity." I think this is telling, especially as she almost always uses it in connection with the idea of marriage. Seeing its various uses allows us to approach that core topic, from the side, as it were, examining it in all its multivalent complexity.

The most prominent usage, of course, is in Charlotte Lucas' claim that "happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance." Elizabeth, of course, recoils at this notion, but Charlotte seems to believe it. Indeed, her actions leading to her engagement to Mr. Collins seem to support that Charlotte believes that happiness in marriage is a result of chance in both of these senses. Luck put Mr. Collins in her path, but she seized the opportunity of making him fancy himself in love with her. Here Austen seems to support the notion that, to some extent, good luck is the result of making the most of the opportunities which present themselves. Aware that Mr. Collins is determined to return to Hunsford with good news of the marriage front to relate to Lady Catherine, Charlotte assiduously courts his attentions as soon as Elizabeth rejects him. She sees a fortunate opportunity to achieve all that she has ever hoped for in a marriage--a comfortable home--and makes the most of it.

Of course, Mr. Collins is the beneficiary of chance as well, as it was a "fortunate chance" which had recommended him to Lady Catherine just when the living of Hunsford was vacant. Mr. Collins, however, like Charlotte, is aware that one must seize opportunities when they arise. His servile and flattering demeanor clearly pleased Lady Catherine, and he himself admits that he sometimes composes compliments which he can bestow upon her at a later date. Indeed, while his pursuit of Charlotte is couched in very flowery language--as is everything Mr. Collins says--he again here shows his willingness to seize opportunities which present themselves. Unwilling to return to Lady Catherine as a failure in his mission to secure a wife, he finds in Charlotte a willing bride, and the two almost accidentally enter into a conspiracy to become engaged, she contriving to listen to him and throw herself in his way, he sneaking out Longbourne before anyone is up to keep his mission a secret. This is a couple that knows how to make their own luck, to use that hoary cliche, and it seems that, while Austen doesn't endorse their behavior, she acknowledges its efficacy to achieve, if not happiness, then at least material comfort.

The final main explorations of the way chance operates involve the entail that governs the inheritance of the Longbourne estate, and the marriage prospects of the Bennet girls. Mrs. Bennet says it is "chance" which dictates who will inherit the estate given the nature of the entail, which is ridiculous given that, essentially, the entail is a set of rules dictating exactly who will inherit. It is not chance, it is order, but neither Jane nor Lizzie have ever been able to make their mother understand how the entail operates. In a broader sense, however, Mrs. Bennet is exactly right, for it was not pre-ordained that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet would not have any sons to inherit after their father. There is roughly a 3% chance (there's that word again) that a family of five children would have no sons, so in a way, Mrs. Bennet is right--chance is operating against them.

Which leads us to the other main discussion of "chance," namely the conversation among the Netherfield party of the chances of the Bennet girls marrying well. Mr. Darcy is and Miss Bingley adamant--and sadly correct--that the girls' relatively small fortunes and low connections will hinder their ability to make an advantageous match. This is intimately connected with the entail and the fact that the girls' dowry is limited by it. Here the two meanings are united, as the chance of their birth has diminished their opportunities of improving upon their situation.

There's further exploration to be made on this topic, building from the various discussion of games of chance, of winning and losing, and the stakes involved. Mr. Collins, upon losing at a gambling game at Mrs. Phillips' party, comments that loss at a game of chance is part of life, and that he is not a position to bemoan the loss of a few pounds, in a speech which both serves as a complaint about having lost and a boast of his financial status. Elizabeth, on the other hand, abstains from a card game while staying at Netherfield because she is afraid that the stakes would be too high for her--and it is this abstention which leads to the famous discussion of reading. However, I think I might return to this topic at the end of the book, for chance plays a large role in its outcome, so I shall just throw these ideas out there and let them stew for a while.

Because I have some catch-up to do, expect my write-ups of Volumes 2 and 3 to follow soon.

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