Ascending the Scale of Romance
The scale of romance is not a fixed and rigid set of cubbyholes in which relationships can be classified. It is rather an ascending stairway of graded levels defining the possibilities for any relationship to rise. Often we find partners fall to a lower level after the initial phase of infatuation is passed. Sometimes we see movement in the other direction, when couples who initial clashed or came together without strong binding feelings later grew to know and love one another deeply, elevating their partnership from lower to higher levels of romantic relationship. In a few rare instances we find partners traversing the entire scale from the lowest to nearly the highest levels. Such is the case of Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet as described by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice.
Elizabeth and Darcy first met at a party in the country town of Meryton where the Bennet family occupies an important place. Elizabeth is watching the dancers because there are too few men for all the ladies who need partners. Darcy is also by standing himself because he does not care to socialize with people of lower status than himself, who constitute the bulk of those present. Elizabeth is a pleasant and sensible girl, the daughter of a local gentleman. Darcy is of the aristocracy, and is visiting this town of Meryton with his friend Bingley. He turns up his nose at the locals and their country manners. Meanwhile his friend Bingley has been very pleasantly engaged dancing with Elizabeth's elder sister Jane, reputed to be the most attractive woman in the region.
Seeing Darcy standing alone, Bingley in his good natured way suggests that he dance with Elizabeth. Darcy feels nothing but contempt for the people around. Looking at Elizabeth, he does not perceive her good-natured intelligence, attractive face and figure. He sees, instead, a country girl of lower social status, unfashionable dress, and unsophisticated demeanor. He glances at her and dismisses her as 'tolerable'. If he did not want to accept Bingley's offer, he could simply have turned it down politely, ignored his friend, or even chased him away. But he took the trouble to pass a mean comment on a girl with whom he has not yet exchanged a single word. His casual thoughtless response is spoken loudly enough for her to overhear. Elizabeth is minding her own work, when this wealthy and important man takes the trouble to insult her. Though cheerful by nature, his rudeness raises questions in her mind: 'If he feels offended by the ways of the country folk, why does he come to Meryton. If he doesn't want to dance with anyone, why does he attend the party? Who asked for his opinion of me, anyway?' These questions leave her with ruffled feelings for this proud and arrogant man.
The first meeting sows in Elizabeth a dislike not just for Darcy but for all those connected with him as well. Thus, she is all too ready to believe the worst of Darcy, when a handsome charming soldier named Wickham arrives and spreads false tales of Darcy's wickedness. Darcy develops more complex feelings toward her. The more he sees of Elizabeth, the more attractive she becomes. Her intelligence, wit, sweetness and goodness draw him to her. But he sees more of her family as well. Her mother's boorishness and her sisters' vulgarity repel him and convince him he cannot afford to have any relationship with any member of the Bennet family. Not satisfied with that, he also takes Bingley away from Meryton to prevent an unfortunate alliance between his best friend of Elizabeth's sister Jane.
Oblivious of the turmoil in his mind, Elizabeth is surprised when he asks her to dance at another party. Compelled by politeness to accept, she takes joy in teasing him and provoking him with insinuating questions. She is unaware that this handsome, wealthy young man feels such a deep attraction for her that it is shaking the very foundations of his social values. Instead, she sees a an proud, arrogant man who insulted her before they first met, and who looks down on her and her connections. When he stares at her in admiration, she mistakes that he is mocking her. When he asks her to dance with him, she assumes it is to find grounds to fault and despise her. When he describes the characteristics of an ideal woman keeping her in mind, she completely misses the intended complement and laughs at him. She even takes up the false cause of Wickham and picks a fight with Darcy. In spite of his attraction to Elizabeth, Darcy is anxious to leave Meryton to escape any danger of falling in love.
Months pass. Life brings them together again unexpectedly at Hunsford, where Elizabeth is visiting her cousin Collins and Darcy is aunt, Lady Catherine. Elizabeth was under the impression that Bingley's sisters were responsible for taking Bingley away from Jane, until she learns from Darcy's cousin that separating Jane and Bingley was Darcy's initiative. Just at the time she is smoldering from anger and a sense of injustice, Darcy decides he can no longer resist the intense passion he feels for Elizabeth, so he calls on her to propose marriage. Because of his wealth and status, it never occurred to him that she might not be eagerly willing to accept him. His feelings indifference and repulsion have turned into admiration and then love, but it they are still tinged with selfishness and pride. At the same time, Elizabeth's feelings for Darcy only become more negative, now that she has discovered of the harm he has caused to Jane. At this very moment, he arrives at her doorstep to declare haughtily that he loves her and has overcome his strong objections to marrying her.
Elizabeth experiences myriad feelings when she hears his Darcy. To receive love from a man she believed hated her is shocking. To learn of his role in separating Jane and Bingley pains her. Hearing him criticize her family offends and humiliates her. The thought of having elicited love from a man of Darcy's stature gratifies her. But she cannot marry a man who has acted meanly to both Jane and Wickham. She openly confronts him with her accusations, abuses him for rude and unmannerly behavior and emphatically rejects him. Darcy's withdraws, stunned speechless. He suddenly realizes that he has been wrong about many things. She has called his behavior ungentlemanly. He had all along thought he was a gentleman of the highest class. He thought she was waiting for him to ask. She accuses him of causing great pain to Jane by taking Bingley away. He had seen it as an act of kindness to his friend. She spurns his wealth without a second's hesitation, because she values character more than money. To him, his estate and wealth were the greatest thing a man could offer his wife in marriage to. She believes he has wronged Wickham. He knows he has done far more to help Wickham than the man deserves, but he now knows the lies that Wickham has told her. Darcy writes to Elizabeth, clarifying his position with regard to Jane and exposing Wickham's bad character. He leaves Hunsford wishing her well, and believing that they will never meet again.
No one who has knowledge of what transpired between these two could ever imagine a possibility that they may one day become man and wife. Apart from their initial negative impressions of one another have been added substantial offenses that cannot be easily remedied. He has knowingly spoiled the happiness of her most beloved sister. She has believed the lies of Darcy's most bitter enemy who has betrayed Darcy's trust and generosity and nearly ruined his sister's reputation. He has openly insulting her entire family in a manner no gentleman's daughter can ever forget. She has openly insulted him in the most humiliating terms imaginable. As far as both of them are concerned their can be no further relationship between them.
The following day Elizabeth examines Darcy's letter of explanation. Overcoming her anger and sore feelings, she strives to comprehend the truth and significance in his words. In doing so she comes to realize the validity of his accusations about her family and the extent of her own foolishness in falling for the charms of Wickham. He believed a penniless scoundrel's lies about an established respectable man. She realizes that her own family's bad behavior was responsible for spoiling Jane's chances with Bingley, not Darcy. She feels humiliated to realize that the keen intelligence she so prided herself for has been the source of great error and folly. Darcy is not the villain she had believed him to be. In fact, he is one of the best persons she has ever met.
Darcy departs. Over the coming months, he has ample time to reflect on his own behavior and her words to him. He comes to realize the aptness of her descriptions and accusations against him and the offensiveness of his own conduct. But the intensity and sharpness of her refusal still pierces him with pain, so he can never conceive of renewing his proposal.
On a holiday with her uncle and aunt, the Gardiners, some six months later, by a singular coincidence Elizabeth and Darcy meet once again at his estate, Pemberley. Seeing the grandeur of Pemberley, Elizabeth understands the greatness of the marriage offer she so harshly refused . Darcy's courteous behavior surprises her pleasantly. Darcy too is taken by surprise meeting her cultured, finely-mannered relatives, the Gardiners. For the first time in their acquaintance, they are able to relate to each other politely and pleasantly. Darcy is no longer tormented by reservations about her family. Elizabeth can appreciate Darcy's emotions better now that she is rid of her prejudice. The exchange of glances between them signifies a growing warmth and budding affection, which Mrs. Gardiner cannot fail to observe.
Just as the two are coming closer, distressing news arrives from home that takes Elizabeth away abruptly. She has just received a letter informing her that her youngest sister Lydia has eloped with the scoundrel Wickham. Darcy happens to call on her just as she is reading the letter. In a moment of despair, Elizabeth confesses the truth to Darcy, realizing full well that her sister's conduct has ruined the reputation of the whole family and destroyed forever any prospect of a favorable marriage for her or Jane. Knowing the importance Darcy gives to family, reputation and status, she is sure he will have nothing to do with her anymore. She could not have been more wrong. Darcy loves her deeply now. A sister's elopement or a parent's irresponsibility can no longer make him withdraw his affection from Elizabeth. The same man who dismissed Elizabeth and her family as no good half a year ago takes great pains to help them now. Darcy sets out in search of his enemy Wickham, goes to parts of London where he normally would not set foot, strikes a deal with the rogue who has come close to ruining Darcy's family, repays Wickham's debts for him, buys him a commission in the army and gets him married to Lydia. After taking all the trouble, Darcy keeps his role a secret from the Bennets. He does not leverage his vantage position to impress Elizabeth. He saves the family out of genuine sincerity and goodness.
His deeds do not remain a secret very long. When Elizabeth learns of Darcy's role from Lydia and Mrs.Gardiner, she is overwhelmed and filled with gratitude and regard for him. She is not able to believe that after all her abuses and violently rejection, he still loves her enough to do so much for her sake. When he returns to Meryton, her earlier dislike is replaced by eager interest. She is impatient for him to approach and relate to her. When they are finally by themselves, she cannot wait for him to begin. She thanks him for his help to her family and expresses her deepest gratitude. He replies that his love for her is unchanged and renews his proposal. She accepts it happily, making him more happy than he has ever been.
During the course of the one year since they first met, both Darcy and Elizabeth and their relationship with one another have undergone dramatic change. Directly as a result of his awakened love for Elizabeth, Darcy has learned to shed his false pride, offending arrogance, and stiff, aloof behavior. He has vowed to become good, kind and generous and expressed his resolution in concrete action to save her family. Elizabeth too has shed her offending prejudice, acquired the humility to admit the common vulgarity in her family, and realized the blind willful folly in her own behavior. Both evolved to become better, happier human beings as the result of the interactions. In the process they evolved from indifferent acquaintances or resentful enemies to develop a deep and lasting respect, love and admiration for one another.
The problems endemic in their relationship are the same as those that irritate, alienate and separate countless men and women during the initial stages of their acquaintance or after the initial infatuation gives way to new perceptions and prejudices against one another. The steps that Elizabeth and Darcy took to overcome their animosity to one another by acquiring greater and truer knowledge of themselves is a path that anyone can follow to elevate their lives and their relationship to higher levels on the scale of romance. In the final analysis, romance is not something that we discover in the world around us or in another person. It is an attitude that we discover in ourselves.
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