The Gardiners and Their Marriage: Radical Role Models for the Community
In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen writes about the social interactions within her time period. She reflects the contrasting ideas of the conservative and the radical, the latter being brought on by the French Revolution and the age of Enlightenment, that took place prior to her writing the novel in 1813. In her novel, Austen shows us these social changes through characters and their behaviors regarding their social statuses. The changing views between conservative and radical not only change how one views themselves individually but how their actions and behavior are reflected within the community. A prime example of showcasing behaviors and qualities above their social class would be the Gardiners, Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle. The Gardiners reflect gentlemanly and gentlewomanly behaviors and qualities that make them perfect for the new, more radical community that is assembled at the end of the novel by Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet.
In the novel Pride and Prejudice, we are introduced to the Gardiners, who are related to the Bennet family. Austen ends her novel with the Gardiners to contrast the behaviors and qualities introduced at the beginning with Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, and to impose their duties as role models for the community especially Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. The Gardiners are first introduced in chapter twenty five when they come to visit for the holidays. Mr Gardiner is described as, “…a sensible, gentlemanlike man, greatly superior to his sister, as well by nature as education”(Austen 98) and Mrs. Gardiner is depicted as, “…an amiable, intelligent, elegant woman…”(Austen 98). These qualities are positive and are typically seen as gentry level behavior and or qualities. This is ironic because they are in the business of trade which in their socioeconomic hierarchy, those who trade were seen as lesser because they worked more while those in the gentry did not work but had others do the work for them. Also by comparing Mr. Gardiner to his sister Mrs. Bennet who Austen has depicted as having terrible qualities such as being self-centered and rude to others, implements this idea of the gentlemanly or gentlewomanly qualities as not being confined to the higher social classes but can be demonstrated among those who are not seen as gentry according to their socioeconomic status.
Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Bennet belong to the pseudo gentry status, due to Mr. Bennet being a clergyman, which is below the higher gentry status but above the trading classes to which the Gardiners belong to. Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Bennet throughout the novel display behaviors that are not suitable for their class such as Mrs. Bennet being a self-centered busybody whose “…business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news”(Austen 3), this leads her to be too forward about her daughters being available for suitors in social settings like the dances or balls the girls attend and to talk ill about characters to their faces such as Mr. Darcy. Her loud and brash behavior causes embarrassment for Elizabeth whenever they are in social gatherings because by the community her behavior is unfavorable. Mr. Bennet is described by Austen as, “…odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice…”(3). His aloofness and detachment from social gatherings and gossip at first is not a problem in the novel, but as Pride and Prejudice continues his reserve costs him a big problem that could have been avoided if he had listened to Elizabeth’s concerns about Wickham. Instead he chooses not to act right away which costs him financially and socially when Mr. Wickham must be bribed to marry Lydia after he ruins Lydia’s image within the community. The Bennets’ behavior when compared to the Gardiners is quite poor within their community and their actions and behavior indirectly reflects upon their daughters causing embarrassment for some like Elizabeth when they are among the community and the gentry.
While exhibiting more favorable qualities, the Gardiners also display a good model for a more compatible marriage than the Bennets for Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy to follow or at least learn from. By having Pride and Prejudice end with the Gardiners being included in the community, it reflects the positive relationship they exhibit and more radical idea of not being defined by your social class but rather your behavior. In contrast Austen starts the novel with the incompatible marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet who represent this notion of being trapped by a more conservative society and becoming stuck in an unhappy marriage due to social and economic restraints. Mr. Bennet had been “captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humor, which youth and beauty generally give…”(Austen 164) and as time continued Mr. Bennet having moved on from artificial love realizes he “…had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind, had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her”(Austen 164). This results in Mr. Bennet seeking refuge and solace with his library and his favoring of Elizabeth who has her wits unlike her mother and her other sisters. This marriage proves to be a bad example for Elizabeth to follow when pursuing her relationship with Mr. Darcy.
However the marriage between Lizzy’s aunt and uncle provides an example for her to follow and how to act with charity and kindness. Mrs. Gardiner aids Elizabeth by warning her about George Wickham’s character saying ,“‘Do not involve yourself or endeavour to involve him in an affection…’”(Austen 101) and confirming for Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy’s true intentions and admirable qualities in assisting Mr. Gardiner to help salvage Lydia’s reputation within the community which shows gentlemanly qualities like charity and humility that Mr. Gardiner displays. Mr. Gardiner put his reputation at risk and offered financial assistance to aid his family’s entire reputation within the society. If it were not for the Gardiners, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy may never have married and this is reiterated by Austen with the closing paragraph, “Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them; and they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them”(273). By framing Pride and Prejudice with a bad and good marriage, Austen can easily reflect the growth and altered interpretation of each other’s character among the main characters of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. Their relationship at first is similar to the Bennets in which it is artificial and their moral flaws are misinterpreted, which comes to a head within the first proposal. However, by using the Gardiners’ marriage as an example, Elizabeth and Darcy learn to recognize their moral faults and this allows them to transform together into a more healthy and loving couple.
By having the Gardiners as an example of a healthy and happy marriage within the new community this serves as a guide for Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy to follow as they start the new generation. Jane Austen includes the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner to implement the radical ideas that were affecting the society during the time period. The Gardiners were able to demonstrate true gentlemanly or gentlewomanly qualities and behaviors that would have been not as common within their socioeconomic class as they were in the trading class. By contrasting the Gardiners with the Bennets, Austen showcases the idea that the notion of the conservative or the past did not always work within these changing times. We, as a reader, can learn that the behaviors and qualities that were considered gentlemanly were not confined to a specific socioeconomic class but could instead be demonstrated by those lower the social class hierarchy.
The Gardiners serve as role models for a healthy and loving marriage as well as what it truly means to be a gentleman or gentlewoman in their new community and in doing so they create a more positive and radical thinking community.
- Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London, 1813.