Mr Bennet had a comfortable income of two thousand a year, and a pleasant house in Longbourn. But, unfortunately for his daughters, after his death all his property would pass to a distant male relation. Mrs Bennet’s father had been a lawyer, and had only left his daughter a small amount of money. She had a brother who owned shops in London, and she also had a sister, married to a Mr Philips. He had been her father’s clerk, and now carried on his late employer’s business. Mr and Mrs Philips lived in Meryton, which was only a kilometre or so from the village of Longbourn. It was a most convenient distance for the Bennet girls, who were usually tempted there three or four times a week, to visit their aunt or a dressmaker who lived opposite.
The youngest daughters, Kitty and Lydia, were particularly regular visitors. Their minds were more vacant than their sisters’, and if no better entertainment was available, a walk to Meryton always provided some amusement, as well as interesting local news from their aunt. The latest news, which delighted Kitty and Lydia, was that the regiment which had recently arrived in Meryton was to stay there for the whole winter. The two girls now visited their aunt every day, and as Mr Philips knew all the officers, Kitty and Lydia were soon introduced to them. At home they could talk of nothing but officers and their handsome uniforms: even Mr Bingley’s fortune now seemed hardly worth considering.
After listening to their praise of the officers one morning, Mr Bennet said coolly, ‘From what I can see, you must be two of the silliest girls in the country. I’ve suspected it for some time, but now I’m convinced.’
Kitty was embarrassed and did not reply, but Lydia, the youngest, continued to express her admiration for a certain Captain Carter, with perfect indifference.
‘I am very surprised, my dear,’ said Mrs Bennet, ‘that you should be so ready to think your own children silly. As it happens, they are all very clever.’
‘That is the only point, I think, on which we do not agree. I am afraid I must say that I consider our two youngest daughters unusually foolish.’
‘My dear Mr Bennet, you mustn’t expect such young girls to have the common sense of their father or mother. I remember when I used to like a red coat myself, and indeed I still do. If a good-looking officer with five or six thousand a year wanted to marry one of my girls, I wouldn’t turn him down. And I thought Colonel Forster looked very handsome last night at Sir William’s, in his regimental uniform.’
Just then a servant entered with a note for Jane, which had come from Netherfield. Mrs Bennet’s eyes shone with pleasure and she called out eagerly, while her daughter was reading it, ‘Well, Jane, who is it from? What does he say? Tell us, tell us quickly, my love!’
‘It’s from Miss Bingley,’ said Jane. ‘She invites me to dinner at Netherfield, as she and her sister are alone. It seems her brother and the gentlemen are having dinner with the officers, in Meryton.’
‘With the officers!’ cried Lydia. ‘I wonder why aunt Philips didn’t tell us that!’
‘Having dinner in Meryton,’ repeated Mrs Bennet, shaking her head. ‘That’s very unlucky.’
‘May I take the carriage?’ asked Jane.
‘No, my dear, you’d better ride over there, because it looks likely to rain, and then you’ll have to stay the night.’
‘That would be a good plan,’ said Elizabeth to her mother, ‘if you were sure they wouldn’t offer to send her home in their carriage.’
‘Oh, but they can’t! The gentlemen must have taken Mr Bingley’s carriage to go to Meryton.’
‘I’d much rather go in the carriage,’ Jane said.
‘But, my dear, your father can’t spare the horses, I’m sure. They’re needed on the farm, aren’t they, Mr Bennet?’
Mr Bennet finally agreed that they were in fact being used that day in the fields. So Jane set out on her horse, while her mother called cheerfully after her, ‘I do hope it’ll rain heavily, my love!’
And Jane had not been gone for long before it rained hard. Elizabeth was a little worried about her sister, but Mrs Bennet was delighted. ‘What a good idea of mine that was!’ she said more than once, extremely pleased with herself.
Not until the next morning, however, did she realize the full extent of her success. After breakfast a servant from Netherfield arrived with a note from Jane to Elizabeth, explaining that Jane had caught cold on her wet ride, and had been invited to stay at Netherfield until she recovered.
‘Well, my dear,’ said Mr Bennet, ‘if your daughter should become seriously ill and die, it would be a comfort to know that she died in a good cause, and in obedience to your orders.’
‘Oh, I’m not afraid of her dying. People don’t die of colds. She’ll be looked after well at Netherfield. As long as she stays there, everything will be all right.’
But Elizabeth felt really anxious, and was determined to go to her sister. As the carriage was not available, and she was not keen on riding, she decided to walk the five kilometres to Netherfield. Kitty and Lydia accompanied her as far as Meryton, where they went to visit one of the officers’ wives. Elizabeth continued alone, crossing field after field and jumping impatiently over streams, in her anxiety to see her sister.
When she arrived at Netherfield, with tired feet, muddy stockings and a face healthily pink with exercise, she was shown straight into the sitting-room. The two sisters, Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst, could hardly believe that she had come so far alone and on foot in such bad weather, but they received her politely. Their brother, however, was more than polite: he was kind and considerate towards her. Mr Darcy said very little, hesitating between admiration of her healthy good looks and doubt whether she should have come such a distance alone. Mr Hurst said nothing at all, as he was thinking only of his breakfast.
Elizabeth was glad to be taken almost immediately to her sister’s room, where she found Jane delighted to see her, but very feverish and unwell. The doctor came, and after examining his patient, advised that she should stay in bed and take some medicine. Elizabeth stayed with her all day, looking after her, and the Bingley sisters also spent some time in the patient’s room. However, in the afternoon, when it was time for Elizabeth to leave, Jane seemed so upset that Miss Bingley was obliged to invite Elizabeth to stay at Netherfield for the present, and a servant was sent to Longbourn to inform the Bennet family and bring back some clothes.
That evening Elizabeth went down to dinner, leaving Jane in bed in her room. She noticed the Bingley sisters’ apparent concern for Jane change to indifference in a few moments, and knew she had been right to dislike them at first sight. Mr Bingley, indeed, was the only one of the group whose behaviour she was satisfied with. His anxiety for Jane was evident, and his politeness towards herself most pleasing. But the others, she felt, treated her as an unwelcome guest. Miss Bingley was concentrating all her attention on Mr Darcy, and Mrs Hurst also joined in their conversation, while Mr Hurst was only interested in eating, drinking, and playing cards.
When Elizabeth left the room after dinner to see if Jane needed anything, Miss Bingley at once began to criticize her. ‘What bad manners she has! She’s both proud, and lacking in politeness to her superiors! She has no conversation, no elegance and no beauty!’
Mrs Hurst agreed, and added, ‘She has no good qualities, except that she’s an excellent walker. I’ll never forget her appearance this morning. She really looked almost wild.’
‘She did indeed, Louisa. How silly of her to come at all! Why must she run around the countryside, just because her sister has a cold? Her hair looked so untidy! And her dress! Simply covered in mud!’
‘I must say,’ said Bingley, ‘I didn’t notice any of that. I thought she looked remarkably attractive when she arrived this morning.’
‘You observed her wild appearance, I’m sure, Mr Darcy,’ said Miss Bingley, ‘and I imagine you wouldn’t wish your sister to make such a show of herself.’
‘Walking four or five kilometres, whatever it was, up to her ankles in mud, and alone, quite alone! It seems to me to show a dreadful sort of independence, a country girl’s indifference to what is acceptable.’
‘I think it shows a very pleasing affection for her sister,’ said Bingley.
‘I’m afraid, Mr Darcy,’ whispered Miss Bingley, ‘that this adventure has rather lessened your admiration of her fine eyes.’
‘Not at all,’ he replied. ‘They were brightened by the exercise.’
After a short pause, Mrs Hurst began again. ‘I have a great liking for Jane Bennet. She is really a very sweet girl, and I wish with all my heart she were well married. But with such a father and mother, and with such vulgar relations, I’m afraid there’s no chance of it.’
‘I think the Bennet girls have an uncle who’s a lawyer in Meryton.’
‘Yes, and they have another who owns shops in Cheapside! Such a nice part of London!’ Both the sisters laughed.
‘If they had enough uncles to fill Cheapside,’ cried Bingley, ‘it wouldn’t make them any less charming!’
‘But it must considerably lessen their chances of marrying men of any position in the world,’ replied Darcy.
Bingley did not answer, but his sisters agreed enthusiastically, and continued mocking their dear friend’s vulgar relations for some time.
Late in the evening, when Elizabeth was satisfied that Jane was asleep, she felt she ought to go downstairs again. She found the party in the sitting-room, playing cards, but although they invited her to join in their game, she refused politely, and picked up a book to read.
‘I can fetch you more books to read, if you wish,’ offered Bingley, ‘but I’m afraid I haven’t got a large library. Unlike you, I’m too lazy to spend much time reading.’
‘What a delightful library you have at Pemberley, Mr Darcy!’ said Miss Bingley. ‘And what a beautiful house it is! Charles, when you buy your house, I hope it will be even half as lovely as Pemberley.’
‘I hope so too,’ agreed Bingley.
‘And your dear sister, Mr Darcy? I expect she’s grown since the spring. I want so much to see her again! I’ve never met anyone who delighted me so much! Such an appearance, such manners! And so extremely accomplished for her age!’
‘I’m always surprised,’ said Bingley, ‘to find how very accomplished all young ladies are. How do they have the time and patience to learn all these skills?’
‘Certainly people use the word “accomplished” too loosely,’ said Darcy, ‘but I am far from agreeing with you about ladies in general. I cannot boast of knowing more than six who are really accomplished.’
‘Then,’ said Elizabeth, ‘your idea of an accomplished woman must include a great many qualities.’
‘Yes, a great many.’
‘Oh! Certainly,’ cried his faithful assistant, Miss Bingley, ‘an accomplished woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing and modern languages, and besides this, a certain something in her manner of walking, in her voice and in her behaviour.’
‘All this she must possess,’ added Darcy, ‘and something more solid, the improvement of her mind by wide reading.’
‘I’m no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women,’ said Elizabeth. ‘I rather wonder at your knowing any. I’ve never seen such elegance, and intelligence, and knowledge, as you describe, in one woman.’
Mrs Hurst and Miss Bingley were both protesting loudly that they knew many women like this, when Mr Hurst called their attention back to the card game. As this meant an end to the conversation, Elizabeth soon afterwards left the room.
‘Miss Elizabeth Bennet,’ said Miss Bingley to Darcy, ‘is one of those women who try to appear attractive to men by undervaluing other women. I think that’s a mean trick.’
‘It is true,’ said Darcy, ‘that there is meanness in all the tricks used by ladies to attract men.’
Miss Bingley was not satisfied enough with this answer to continue the conversation. The next morning Elizabeth was glad to be able to inform Mr Bingley and his sisters that Jane was very much better. In spite of this improvement, however, she asked for her mother to be sent for, as she wanted Mrs Bennet’s opinion of Jane’s state of health. Soon after breakfast, therefore, Mrs Bennet, accompanied by her two youngest daughters, reached Netherfield.
Elizabeth, although relieved to hear that her mother did not think Jane’s illness serious, began to regret asking her to come, when she saw the Bingley sisters smiling at Mrs Bennet’s remarks. Elizabeth blushed for her mother, who could not help showing her lack of intelligence and common sense in everything she said. Kitty and Lydia made an equally bad impression. They had been whispering together, when suddenly Lydia, who was an attractive, confident, well-grown girl of fifteen, pushed herself rudely forward. She begged Mr Bingley to hold a ball at Netherfield. With his usual politeness, Mr Bingley promised he would, but Elizabeth saw his sisters exchanging meaningful glances. She was quite glad when her mother and sisters left. She and Jane were to stay another night at Netherfield, to allow Jane to recover completely.
That evening Elizabeth appeared again in the sitting-room. She could not avoid noticing how frequently Mr Darcy’s eyes were fixed on her, but as she felt sure that so great a man could not possibly admire her, she assumed that when he looked at her, he was criticizing her in some way. This thought did not cause her any pain, as she liked him too little to care for his approval. In the conversations she had with him, she spoke in her usual slightly mocking manner, rather expecting to offend him, but was surprised by the quiet politeness of his replies. Darcy had never before been so charmed by any woman. He really believed that if she did not have such vulgar relations, he might be in danger of falling in love with her.
Miss Bingley saw or suspected enough to be jealous, and her great anxiety for the recovery of her dear friend Jane was increased by her wish to get rid of Elizabeth.
Fortunately perhaps, for almost everyone at Netherfield, Elizabeth and her sister, who was now quite recovered, were returning home the next day. Only Mr Bingley showed real sorrow at this, and was concerned that Jane might not be fit enough to travel. Mr Darcy was quite relieved, and determined that no sign of admiration for Elizabeth should escape him now. Miss Bingley’s politeness to Elizabeth, as well as her affection for Jane, increased rapidly as the moment of departure approached, and she was able to say goodbye to them with many warm expressions of friendliness and a promise to visit them very soon.
Mr Bennet was glad to welcome his eldest daughters home again, as he had felt their absence from the family circle, but Mrs Bennet, who had hoped they would stay much longer, was quite disappointed to see them come back in such a short time.