My next Jane Austen sequel focuses on another minor character: Caroline Bingley. When I announced that on Twitter, the general response was curiosity about how I would handle her character because, to quote my friend Mark, “she is a cow.” In fact, he designed a book cover in honor of dear, sweet Caroline. I kinda like it.
I agree; Caroline definitely behaved like a total cow in Pride and Prejudice. She was rude to Elizabeth, Jane, and their whole family, and she was all that was insincere and unkind. She conspired with Mr. Darcy to separate Mr. Bingley from Jane, and she had the audacity to be in love with–or at the very least to have marital hopes for herself and–Mr. Darcy.
Who in the world would want to write a sequel about her?
Well, me. Minor character development was part of the genius of Jane Austen. Her fictional world was filled with so many interesting people, and I wanted to know what became of them too. And much as I love the stories about Lizzie and Darcy, I was yearning for something different. I wrote Charlotte Collins because I wondered if she remained as content in her marriage to Mr. Collins as she had hoped to be, and I am writing about Caroline Bingley because I wondered what became of the woman who found her Mr. Darcy and then lost him.
Ok Jennifer, if you insist on writing about her, aren’t you going to improve her a bit?
Nope. I’ve never been particularly interested in sequels that radically alter a character. In Charlotte Collins, I tried to follow what I believed to be Jane Austen’s intentions for the character. I imagined how she might grow and change as a result of her marriage to Mr. Collins and attempted to write her as she might have been 7 years after Pride and Prejudice. I don’t know if I succeeded, but that was what I tried to do.
In Caroline Bingley, I plan to do the same thing. Yes, she will grow a bit as result of what happened in Pride and Prejudice, but will she totally change? Will she suddenly become sweet and reserved? No way. Here’s the way I see it: she will make a great anti-heroine.
Here are some of my thoughts on Caroline:
- Although Jane Austen does not give us the exact birth order of the Bingley family, we know that Charles is 22 during most of Pride and Prejudice. He had at least two sisters: Louisa and Caroline. Louisa was already married and is only described as older than Caroline. In P&P 1995, Caroline was portrayed by an older actress, and in the 2005 version, she was more youthful. Even though I did not care much for the 2005 version, I did agree with their casting choice. I have always imagined Caroline as the youngest of the family. Even though Charles is often portrayed as wishy-washy, Austen’s text indicates he was clearly in a position of authority over Caroline and could correct her when needed. Indeed, her actions, her style of flirtation, her reliance on insulting others to raise herself in Darcy’s esteem, and her frequent effusions on Darcy’s penmanship indicate, to me at least, that she was quite immature–adolescent in fact. She reminds me of a girl of middle school age who is overcome by hormones and grown-up emotions and has not yet learned how to behave in adult society.
- Caroline endeavored to hide her background. When Austen introduces the Bingley family, she reveals that their fortune was earned “in trade.” Despite the fact that Caroline acted as though she were a member of the landed gentry, her family did not possess an estate. They were not titled. In my view, Caroline likely spent a great deal of energy concealing the truth of her family’s history. In short, her family situation was really no more lofty than Elizabeth Bennet’s, whose fortune may have been small indeed, but it was, at least, not earned in trade.
- Caroline was motivated by many of the same things that influenced other women–the desire for love, status, and a home–but the way she went about accomplishing her goals went beyond what was socially accepted.
- She wanted to protect her brother from an unequal marriage, and Darcy wanted to protect his friend from the same thing. They conspired together, and although Lizzie believed Caroline to be the sole perpetrator, Darcy confesses to the crime as well. In fact, Bingley’s belief in their supposition that Jane does not love him seems to emanate from his faith in Darcy, not from the machinations of his sister. Still, readers are happy to forgive him, but not Caroline.
- Caroline was very much like Darcy at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice. Neither of them were very charitable to their new acquaintances in Hertfordshire. Darcy was quite cutting in his remarks, no less so than Caroline. However, he changed his opinion–at least regarding Jane and Elizabeth–whereas Caroline did not.
- Was there a shred of humanity in her? I’ve often wondered at her motivation for warning Elizabeth Bennet away from Mr. Wickham. Why would she tell Elizabeth that there had been some conflict between Wickham and Darcy and that Wickham was in fact a very bad man? Sure, I can see that she might have been attempting to wound Elizabeth, but wouldn’t it have been more effective to conceal the truth of Wickham and let Elizabeth make a mistake that would forever remove her and thoughts of her fine eyes from Mr. Darcy’s mind? I’m still mulling this over. Any thoughts would be appreciated.
- Upon Darcy and Elizabeth’s marriage, Caroline “was very deeply mortified.” I feel a bit sorry for her. Hasn’t every young woman, during those tender and vulnerable teen years, fallen in love with some boy, behaved foolishly or even meanly, and then lost him to someone else? Was that not the most horrible feeling in your young life? It was for me. Sure, Austen went on to say that her primary concern was to ensure that she would not lose her invitation to Pemberley, but that little snippet at the end of Pride and Prejudice really got my attention. It made me ask…
…what would become of the woman who found her Mr. Darcy and then lost him?