Feb 22 2011 12:00pm

With Friends Like These: Jane Austen’s Sly Girls

Don't we all know people like this? People who make friendly overtures and want to be your buddy, but who you know have an ulterior motive. Jane Austen must have, and she has given us three (at least) in splendid and vivid detail.

Anna Chancellor Caroline Bingley and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in Pride and Predjudice

Let's start with a woman everyone loves to hate:  Caroline Bingley. What would Pride and Prejudice be without Miss Bingley's arrival at Netherfield with her brother and Mr. Darcy, at whom, as they say in Regency novels, she has set her cap. Elegant, supercilious, condescending, exactly the last person you would invite to a slumber party, Miss Bingley singles out Jane Bennet to be her “Hertfordshire Friend.” It's obvious to us all that she merely wishes to keep an eye on Jane with a view to preventing her from forming an attachment to Mr. Bingley. Miss Bingley (for that matter, Mr. Darcy) has picked Bingley out for Darcy's sister, Georgiana. And this is very much to Miss Bingley's taste, as that would throw her into Mr. Darcy's path with great regularity, an arrangement to be devoutly desired.

Of course, Miss Bingley is put to the test when Mr. Darcy's eye is caught by Jane's sister, Elizabeth. Can Caroline manage to play the “friendly neighbor” role with someone so obviously a threat? Well, as we have read and seen, not very well. And yet she persists. “Excuse my interference; it was kindly meant.” Sure it was.

And let us not bypass Miss Lucy Steele. In Sense and Sensibility, after Edward Ferrars has met and fallen in love with Elinor Dashwood, we learn of his prior engagement to Lucy.  And she learns of his interest in Elinor. When Lucy appears on the scene, she immediately befriends Elinor and almost as quickly takes her into her confidence. In the pivotal scene, she draws Elinor aside and confesses (to this woman who is practically a total stranger) her long-standing, secret engagement to Edward.

“And I do not think Mr. Ferrars can be displeased when he knows I have trusted you, because I know he has the highest opinion in the world of all your family, and looks upon yourself and the other Miss Dashwoods quite as his own sisters.”—She paused.

Surely, Miss Elinor Dashwood will take pity on her new bosom beau, who is suffering from the heartache of a thwarted love. The hussy! She just can't wait to rub Elinor's face in the prior claim of her engagement and to stake her claim to Edward.

Joseph Beattie as Henry Crawford and Hayley Atwell as Mary Crawford from Mansfield Park

Perhaps the best (or the worst) of the lot is Mary Crawford from Mansfield Park. You probably remember that Fanny Price, the impecunious niece, has gone to live with the Bertrams and has fallen in love with her cousin Edmund, who, as we discussed in an earlier blog, needs a slap upside the head—but that's another matter. Enter Mary Crawford and her brother Henry, half-sister and brother to Mansfield Park's vicar's wife. They quickly insinuate themselves into Mansfield Park society, and Mary Crawford, after dismissing the elder Bertram brother and heir to Mansfield Park as a potential suitor, sets her sights on Edmund, the younger brother and future clergyman (and, unfortunately, beloved of poor Fanny). 

Mary, however, is quite sure she doesn't want to be a vicar's wife. Surely, Edmund can find a profession that has greater status. And, if he loves Mary, he will surely want to do that, won't he? Mary is determined and works her wiles to some effect. Edmund is infatuated (hence the need for the slap upside the head), but not quite infatuated enough to change his mind about entering the clergy—yet. 

Moreover, while Mary is pursuing Edmund, she is abetting her brother, Henry, in pursuit of Fanny. Henry's pursuit is not nearly as high-minded as Mary's.  Oh, no. Mary is interested in marriage, if she can get Edmund to do something more fashionable than preach. Henry, on the other hand, is not initially interested in marrying Fanny. He says to Mary, “. . . I cannot be satisfied without . . . making a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart.” Nice guy. And the lovely Mary Crawford conspires with him do that. Nice girl. And all this goes on while Mary professes to be Fanny's friend.

This short appreciation of the sly girls of Jane Austen does not begin to do justice to the robust characters on the page. Did Jane Austen know women like this? I have no doubt. Read her letters. Did she bring them to life in her novels?  Absolutely. Did they get their comeuppance? Oh, yes. I am satisfied with their rewards and I imagine Jane Austen was, as well.

Myretta Robens, The Republic of Pemberley

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Janice Young
1. janicu
I laughed when I read the bit about Edmund needing a slap upside the head. Yes, yes he did.

I'm glad I don't know TOO many people like these "sly girls". I think you learn to just ignore or avoid them completely.
Charli Mac
2. CharliMac
I think Tina Fey is a modern day Jane Austen. I mean, the movie Mean Girls has the frenemy trope down pat. She is my idol, 30 Rock, I want to go to there.
Miranda Neville
3. Miranda Neville
I'm going to defend Mary Crawford. She's thoughtless, not malicious. She likes Fanny and thinks her dull life would be improved by a flirtation, even having her heart broken, by hot Henry. When Henry decides to marry Fanny, Mary is supportive. What she cannot understand is that her values are poles apart from Fanny's - and ultimately from Edmund's too.

BTW, I tried to post yesterday and my comment never showed up. If it's lost in moderation somewhere this may be a near duplicate.
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