Pride and Prejudice: Public & Private Relationships

On Thursday we talked a little bit about what is considered private and what is considered public within the society of Pride and Prejudice. I think Austen spends a lot of time portraying this in regards to what is appropriate to say in front of others, but we briefly talked about private vs. public life in regards to relationships. I was really interested in this idea and wanted to explore it a little further. In our last class, Professor Thakkar talked about how important the family is when thinking about marriage, relationships, and love, but I want to expand this out to include the general public, as well. Throughout the novel relationships and matchmaking are undertaken in the presence of others. For example, Jane makes significant developments in her relationship with Bingley while dancing, and talking at these large dances, which include most if not all of the town. Additionally, gossip and talking about Bingley with others played a large role in Jane and Bingley’s relationship, as well.

When I looked at LIzzie and Darcy’s relationship, I realized Lizzie’s affections for Mr. Darcy are often cultivated when they are apart or when Lizzie is stuck within her own thoughts. For example, Lizzie’s opinion of Mr. Darcy grows significantly while she wanders the grounds of Pemberley. While speaking to members of the Pemberly staff Lizzie thinks, “This was praise, of all others most extraordinary, most opposite to her ideas. That he was not a good-tempered man had been her firmest opinion. Her keenest attention was awakened; she longed to hear more…” (p 188). Additionally, her opinion of Darcy is further heightened after she learns that Mr. Darcy has paid Wickham to marry Lydia through her aunt’s letter.

At first I thought this made their relationship more private in some way, but now I’m not so sure. But I do think it’s interesting that Lizzie’s opinion of Mr. Darcy is most improved when she finds out information about him through other people. (I might even argue that in groups of people they often bring out the worst in each other and lose esteem for one another). But I don’t know if we can necessarily hold this up in complete opposition to a relationship like Jane’s. Although, LIzzie and Darcy’s interactions are cultivated less in a large public setting in front of people, their opinion of each other is actually formed through second hand knowledge from other people.

I think this gets even more interesting when you think about Lizzie’s reaction to Lydia’s marriage to Wickham. She’s upset at Lydia, yes, but she’s also upset that she didn’t make Wickham’s character public (at least to her sisters). “As that was the case, neither Jane, to whom I related the whole, nor I, thought it necessary to make our knowledge public; for of what use could it apparently be to anyone, that the good opinion which all the neighbourhood had of him should then be overthrown?” (pg 248).

I wondered what others thought about these things? Are relationships more private today? (Is a bar or party really that different from a ball?) Are people’s reputations today nearly as important as they were for Jane Austen? Do people take issue with the fact Lizzie’s opinion of Darcy is so informed by others? (But if it weren’t and she only used her own judgement then they probably would not have married).


5 thoughts on “Pride and Prejudice: Public & Private Relationships

  1. I do think there’s something interesting in what you’re saying about getting information from a second-hand source. I think until you’re at a certain level of closeness with a person, most of your information is hearsay. I remember employing some of my friends to talk to some of their friends to see if they knew anything about a boy that I liked, because I couldn’t very well approach that person and ask them intimate things. It’s really just a kind of impatience and an anxiety thing. You want to hurry up and be at a certain level with someone so you can know all their secrets so you can see if they’re still worth dating.
    With online dating, you’re kind of getting to know information about people before you really know them, but only the basic stuff. Whereas with talking to a friend you get to know the gritty details, and you have to learn the rest through small talk, with online dating you’re getting the small stuff right off the bat and you have to wait around for the details. In this way you’re kind of trying to escape this air of, “Oh, you like that guy? Well I heard he’s blah blah blah.” The reason why a lot of people are turned off by online dating and also are turned on by it is that they don’t get to know everything about the person they’re dating before they date them. It’s like taking a big risk, there’s a chance that the person could be weird and you wouldn’t know, whereas if you date someone your friends know you can find things out about them and figure out if they’re worth dating or not. So in some ways, this friendly gossip about potential mates takes out the serendipity out of the situation. You don’t want to meet so-and-so because your friend told you he dated so-and-so. But on the other hand, online dating takes the serendipity out of meeting someone through happy accident circumstances. Either way, I can’t particularly tell if receiving second-hand information is a good thing or not, but I think that pretty much everyone does it because nowadays no one wants to waste their time with someone who could potentially be a freak, and that I don’t think is a good thing.

  2. I do think that relationships are more private today- in class, we discussed the modern “custom” of bringing a significant other home to meet the parents and the way in which our self is cultivated outside the family’s domain. However, I think what Margeaux said about secondhand information is still true. It can feel like much of the novel centers around women gossiping, so yes, this gossip has an influence on Lizzie’s opinion of Darcy, but it also perpetuates pressure between women to marry as a kind of legacy. In other words, the way in which Lizzie’s opinion of Darcy is informed by others is indicative of the way women treated relationships in private (through gossip) and maintained this kind of romantic structure.

  3. I think that the entire issue of whether relationships are more private or public relative to the 19th century is complicated by the issue of technology. Margeaux mentioned online dating, and how it’s a potential frustration because you don’t get to know everything about someone before you meet them, but that obtaining second-hand information about potential romantic prospects generally expedites the process and is a common practice. What about hyper-informed social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and texting and how they affect the privacy of relationships? I think they create a weird tension between the private and the public; there are potential layers of privacy between every interaction, but not everyone knows how that information is being shared. The texts I send to my boyfriend could be classified under “intimate conversation” because of the level of familiarity between us, but that discourse could be broadcast to thousands in a second via Facebook with a simple screenshot.
    There’s also a weird level of performativity involved in modern, social-media’d relationships (at least that I’ve observed from my own personal actions with Facebook). It seems as if your relationship is only as real as the number of likes you get on your wedding pictures, relationship status update, or what have you. If I post a picture of my boyfriend on our anniversary and it doesn’t get any comments, did the past year still happen, in the eyes of those watching us from their computer screens? This line of thought leads to larger questions on the relationship between technology and our identities, not just technology and our relationships. I’d say that modern day relationships are not more private so much as the line between private and public is blurred.

  4. Pingback: Sisterhood in the Novels of Jane Austen | Dirty Laundry
  5. It’s very interesting how technology today serves to complicate what constitutes the private and the public sphere. However, because we live in a different time, I don’t think the public sphere matters that much. For example, Wickham and Lydia are now disgraced and their neighbors don’t hold a good opinion of them. That matters more than it would matter now, because most people live in cities and there is no “everyone knows each other”. So the projection of your relationship to the public is important but we only value the opinions of our friends and family and there is not that much pressure to satisfy everyone we know.

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