Summary and Analysis
Chapters 47-50 (Volume III, 5-8)
As Elizabeth and the Gardiners rush back to Longbourn, they discuss Lydia's situation. Although the Gardiners are hopeful that Wickham and Lydia have married, Elizabeth doubts that is the case. She knows Wickham's mercenary nature too well to believe that he would marry someone like Lydia who has no money.
When they reach Longbourn, they find that Jane is running the household. Mr. Bennet has gone to London, Mrs. Bennet is indisposed in her room with hysterics, and Kitty and Mary are absorbed by their own thoughts. The family's distress continues to increase, especially because Mr. Bennet has not written with news of his progress in locating Lydia and Wickham in London. Mr. Gardiner leaves to join Mr. Bennet in London, and soon Mr. Bennet returns home, leaving Mr. Gardiner to manage the situation. Upon his return, Mr. Bennet admits to Elizabeth that she was right in warning him not to let Lydia go to Brighton and seems resolved to be stricter with Kitty.
Meanwhile, the whole town gossips about Wickham's disreputable nature and speculates on Lydia's future. A letter arrives from Mr. Collins condemning Lydia's behavior and advising the Bennets to disown her in order to save the rest of the family's reputation.
Relief comes at last with a letter from Mr. Gardiner informing the family that Lydia and Wickham have been found. Although they are not married, they have been convinced to do so, provided that Wickham's debts are paid and Lydia receives a small yearly stipend. Mr. Bennet agrees to the conditions, but he fears that a much greater sum must have been paid out to persuade Wickham to marry Lydia. He assumes that Mr. Gardiner must have spent a great deal of his own money, and he dislikes the idea of being indebted to his brother-in-law.
Upon hearing that Lydia is going to be married, Mrs. Bennet's mood immediately shifts from hysterical depression to hysterical giddiness. Forgetting the shameful circumstances under which the marriage will take place, she begins calculating how much Lydia will need for new wedding clothes and planning to personally spread the good news to her neighbors. When Mr. Gardiner writes that Wickham has an officer's commission in the north of England, Mrs. Bennet alone regrets that the couple will be living so far away.
Contemplating her sister's marriage, Elizabeth reflects that her wishes for a future with Darcy are completely hopeless now. Even if he would marry into a family as embarrassing as the Bennets, he would never willingly marry into a family of which Wickham is a part. This thought saddens her, for she realizes at last how perfectly matched she and Darcy would have been.
The degree to which Mr. Bennet's apathy and ineffectualness harm his family is most clear in his response to Lydia's elopement. That he recognizes the significance of Lydia's action is obvious from his initial anger and trip to London. From what Austen has shown us of him, we know that Mr. Bennet must be extremely affected by something to be persuaded to leave his library, much less his home, for an extended period of time. However, despite his burst of activity, he is unable to resolve the situation and, turning the problem over to his brother-in-law, Mr. Bennet returns home to settle back into his former attitude of indifference. His indifference is such that, even when Mr. Gardiner writes to communicate the good news of Lydia and Wickham being discovered, Mr. Bennet goes for a walk rather than immediately sharing the news with the family. Even after Jane and Elizabeth wring the news out of him, it takes all of their coaxing and persuasion to get him to respond to Mr. Gardiner. Instead of being happy that Lydia is safe and the family's reputation is saved, Mr. Bennet frets over the financial obligation he now feels toward Mr. Gardiner.
Lydia's marriage to Wickham provides Austen with another opportunity to explore the marriage theme that runs through the novel. Remember that the last wedding to occur was Charlotte's marriage to Mr. Collins. Elizabeth disapproved of such a marriage of convenience, but her visit to Hunsford showed her that although Charlotte lacks love and respect for her husband, she is relatively happy with her home and situation. The implication there, then, is that while a marriage of convenience may not be ideal, it can be made to work.
However, Lydia and Wickham do not run off together out of love; they elope out of infatuation, lust, and necessity. Lydia believes herself to be in love with Wickham, although Austen has emphasized that these feelings did not exist before Lydia went to Brighton. Wickham, meanwhile, seems to be attempting to escape some gambling debts and capitalized on Lydia's infatuation to give himself some company. When Elizabeth contemplates Lydia and Wickham's future, she wonders "how little of permanent happiness could belong to a couple who were only brought together because their passions were stronger than their virtue"? Austen's perspective on Lydia's type of marriage, then, seems to be that a relationship based upon sexual gratification will soon lose its luster.
To understand the significance of Lydia and Wickham's rash action, it is important to realize how severely nineteenth-century British society condemned a woman who lost her virginity before marriage. Even the appearance of a loss of virtue was enough to damage a woman's reputation, thereby ruining her marriageability and shaming her family. Because Lydia and Wickham lived together for two weeks before they were found, society's assumption is that they have had sex and Lydia is therefore "ruined" unless Wickham marries her. Such a viewpoint explains why the news is such exciting gossip for Meryton and why Mr. Collins writes his letter recommending that Lydia be disowned. Although his view is harsh, it was not uncommon for families to do just that in order to save the reputations of other family members. Consequently, even though the Bennets (with the exception of Mrs. Bennet) disapproves of Lydia and Wickham's behavior, they are relieved when they are found and Wickham agrees to marry Lydia. Not only is Lydia's reputation saved, but the whole family's social-acceptability is saved as well.
expeditiously done with or characterized by expedition, or efficiency; prompt.
profligate immoral and shameless; dissolute.
paddock a small field or enclosure near a stable, in which horses are exercised.
capers playful jumps or leaps.
frisks lively, playful movements; frolics; gambols.
sanguine cheerful and confident; optimistic; hopeful.
invectives a violent verbal attack; strong criticism.
terrific causing great fear or dismay; terrifying; dreadful; appalling.
Warehouses [Chiefly British] wholesale stores, or, especially, formerly, large retail stores.
prudence the ability to exercise sound judgment in practical matters.
faculties [Obsolete] powers to do; abilities to perform an action.
postilions persons who ride the left-hand horse of the leaders of a four-horse carriage.
post [Chiefly British] mail.
dilatory inclined to delay; slow or late in doing things.
dispirited having lowered spirits; saddened or discouraged.
procured got or brought about by some effort; obtained; secured.
licentiousness the disregarding of accepted rules and standards.
apprehending taking hold of mentally; perceiving; understanding.
augmented made greater, as in size, quantity, or strength.
heinous outrageously evil or wicked; abominable.
review an examination or inspection as of troops on parade.
copse a thicket of small trees or shrubs; coppice.
transports strong emotion, especially of delight or joy; rapture.
come upon the town become a prostitute.
secluded from the world gone into hiding because of a pregnancy out of wedlock.
situation a house, a place to live.
connubial of marriage or the state of being married; conjugal.
regulars the members of the standing army of a country.
subjoin to add (something) at the end of what has been stated.