Charlotte Lucas and Elizabeth Bennet are best mates, singletons leading uneventful lives in the village of Longbourn. Their families are friends, as people are in small communities, and Lizzie’s mother is a bit sniffy about Charlotte’s mother, as is the way of women everywhere.
Charlotte is the plain, intelligent one; Lizzie is the good-looking, sparky, lively one. They relish each other’s company and value their friendship. Lizzie confides in Charlotte, and misses her company if they don’t see each other for a week or so. Then a man comes between them, and it’s never the same again.
Theirs is not a story of passion and betrayal. They don’t shed buckets of tears and down buckets of Chardonnay as they tell anyone who will listen about how their best friend let them down. There is a muted, understated shift in the tenor of their friendship which develops as differences in their worldview and in the nature of their choices become apparent.
Charlotte, who is perhaps destined to be more an observer than a participant in romantic activity, makes shrewd observations about the nature of courtship and marriage. She points out that men need encouragement, and that women would be advised to show more than they actually feel in order to secure their affections.
She suggests that Lizzie’s sister Jane should take every opportunity of showing her interest in the eligible Bingley. Happiness in marriage, says Charlotte, is a matter of chance. You are as likely to be happy with someone you don’t know well as with someone you know inside out.
Nonsense, exclaims Elizabeth, as she watches Bingley, convinced that her sister Jane is not interested in him, disappear from their lives.
Strategy v Romance
Charlotte is the strategist, Elizabeth is the romantic. Charlotte tells her not to let her liking for Wickham cause her to be unpleasant to Darcy, who is ‘ten times his consequence’.
No way, says Elizabeth. I’m determined to hate Darcy, who has been so vile to the lovely Wickham. Well, we all know what happened there.
But these are just friendly differences, until Mr Collins enters the scene. Charlotte leaps into action, spurred on by the spectre of being an impoverished old maid. When Elizabeth rejects his proposal, Charlotte moves in like greased lightning. She spots her chance to meet Mr Collins ‘accidentally in the lane’, and in no time the wedding date is set.
What Charlotte gets from the deal is a husband and a comfortable home, which is all she wants. The price she pays is marriage to a man who is a universal laughing stock. And she loses her close friendship with Elizabeth.
Charlotte dreads Lizzie’s disapproval. And she gets it. Although Elizabeth wishes her friend well, she finds the notion of her married to Mr Collins is a ‘humiliating picture’. Her friend has disgraced herself. She, Lizzie, would never have sacrificed feeling to worldly advantage.
The distance between them
From this moment, there is a distance between Lizzie and Charlotte, and her sister Jane takes Charlotte’s place as Elizabeth’s confidante. When Elizabeth visits Charlotte in her new establishment, she notices how Charlotte manages the household in a way which minimises her exposure to her new husband. She encourages him to garden as much as possible. She arranges for him to have the nicer room for his personal use, to discourage him from being too often in hers. She does not mock him or criticise him, with only a faint blush revealing that she is embarrassed by his crassness.
When the visit is over, Elizabeth is sad to leave Charlotte, but observes that her friend chose her lot ‘with her eyes open’. Because Charlotte does ‘not seem to ask for compassion’, Elizabeth doesn’t show any.
We all love Elizabeth, of course we do, but isn’t she lacking in a bit of generosity here? She and Charlotte were in the same boat, ‘well-educated young women of small fortune’. Charlotte would never capture a Darcy, or a Bingley, even if such men were thicker on the ground. She made a choice which hurt no one (other than herself).
Elizabeth learns a lot through the course of the novel, but she doesn’t learn how to be a better, more forgiving friend. She needs to get over herself and build bridges with Charlotte. A few girly weekends in Bath would be great for them both. Elizabeth’s treat, of course. Heaven knows she can afford it now.