‘Pride and Prejudice’ does not initially strike one as a didactic novel, and one could argue that it is a light-hearted comedy from the many witticisms and caricatures Austen uses throughout the novel. However being such an intelligent author, it is perhaps inevitable that some of her values and principles come through in the way her characters interact with one another and the result of these interactions. It is characteristic of Austen to ‘reward’ the good characters and ‘punish’ the ones she disapproves of.
In chapter 56, Catherine de Bourgh intrudes on Longbourne in an attempt rule out the possibility of a potential engagement between Elizabeth and Darcy. As she enters the room ‘with an air more than unusually gracious,’ she makes ‘no other reply to Elizabeth’s salutation, than a slight inclination of the head, and sat down without saying another word.’ Despite living in such a polite society, Lady De Bourgh makes no effort at pleasantness, and has no regards of the duty she holds as a Lady of such high societal standing. Having been ‘begged’ to ‘take some refreshment’ by the very flattered Mrs Bennet, ‘Lady Catherine very resolutely, and not very politely,’ declined eating anything. By using indirect discourse, Austen conveys the thoughts of Elizabeth as she questions the motive of Lady Catherine’s visit, initially expecting ‘a letter for her from Charlotte’, and when one does not follow, her being ‘completely puzzled.’ The contrast between the total awe of Mrs Bennet and the cautiousness with which Elizabeth approaches shows how much more intelligent Elizabeth is by not immediately submitting to the difference in social status. Here Austen is implying that one should treat another based on their actions rather than the position they hold in society. Elizabeth decides she will make ‘no effort for conversation with a woman, who was now more than usually insolent and disagreeable.’
Although the blunt opening of Lady Catherine’s confrontation as they enter the copse together takes Elizabeth by surprise she simply looks with ‘unaffected astonishment’. The juxtaposition of the words ‘unaffected’ and ‘astonishment’ make for a very humorous oxymoron, whilst conveying an admirably composed response from Elizabeth. Lady Catherine however quickly loses her temper and in an ‘angry tone’ states that ‘however insincere you may choose to be, you shall not find me so.’ The italics draw attention to the separation in status as perceived by Lady de Bourgh whilst establishing a battle between herself and Elizabeth. She continues ‘Though I know it must be a scandalous falsehood […] I instantly resolved on setting off for this place, that I might make my sentiments known to you.’ The pretentiousness of Lady Catherine de Bourgh stating what a ‘scandalous falsehood’ it must be is quickly picked up on by Elizabeth who responds by questioning her purpose of coming if she should be so confident. She cleverly avoids answering the question, by mirroring the same supposing style in which Lady Catherine asks her questions such as when Elizabeth ‘coolly,’ replies ‘Your coming to Longbourne […] will be rather a confirmation of it; if, indeed such a report is in existence.’ This is effectively contrasted with the erratic response of Lady Catherine: ‘Do you pretend to be ignorant of it? Has it not been industriously circulated buy yourselves? Do you not know that such a report is spread about?’ The repeated questioning show that Lady Catherine is beginning to feel out of control, and she desperately tries to gather the information that will support her theories. Here, Elizabeth is more in control of her behaviour and speech than the seemingly erratic behaviour of Catherine de Bourgh, implying that power is not necessarily restricted to social class.
Lady Catherine attempts to bring the consequences of such an engagement to Elizabeth. She tells Elizabeth that she will be ‘censured, slighted and despised by everyone connected with [Mr Darcy]’ and that her ‘alliance will be a disgrace’. By using a pattern of three, Lady Catherine emphasises the extent to which she expects Darcy’s family to treat her. The sibilance of the phrase ‘censured, slighted and despised’ shows what an angry state of mind she is in, as she spits out her words in disgust at the lower class.
As Lady Catherine discovers at length that Elizabeth is not yet engaged to Mr Darcy, she asks Elizabeth to promise ‘never to enter into such an engagement’ to which Elizabeth replies ‘I will make no promise of the kind.’ These are the first outwardly challenging words from Elizabeth and the reader rejoices to see her summon the courage to stand up to Lady Catherine. She finally addresses Lady Catherine; ‘Your ladyship wants Mr. Darcy to marry your daughter; but would my giving you the wished-for promise, make their marriage at all more probable? Supposing him to be attached to me, would my refusing to accept his hand make him with to bestow it on his cousin?’ The use of rhetorical questions show how obvious the point Elizabeth is making is. As Lady Catherine pushes her further, by mentioning the elopement of Lydia, Elizabeth decides to end the conversation, ‘resentfully’ answering ‘You have insulted me, in every possible method. I must beg to return to the house.’ By addressing Lady Catherine directly with the word ‘you’ as opposed to the slightly mocking words of ‘your ladyship’ that she had been using previously, Elizabeth establishes a more serious tone and takes complete control of the situation as they turn to head back to the house.
The petulant way in which Lady Catherine leaves sending ‘no compliments’ to her mother, is quite ironic as Mrs Bennet is left exclaiming ‘what a very fine-looking woman’ Lady Catherine was and how ‘prodigiously civil’ she was in visiting, as is the essential result of Lady Catherine’s visit, as the fact that Elizabeth did not tell Lady Catherine that she disliked Mr Darcy encouraged him to propose a second and final time.
Austen voices her own values through Elizabeth as her quietly challenging responses quickly grow to eventually stand up to Lady Catherine despite her social class. Elizabeth’s personal triumph against Lady de Bourgh could be seen as a protest against the social hierarchy of class and Austen shows that power comes in many other forms such as the playful wit Elizabeth initially responds with and the fierce independence of thought as she refused to submit to a higher authority.