This week at Feministing, I celebrated the 235th anniversary of the birth of Jane Austen by mounting a defense of Pride and Prejudice‘s nastiest foil, Caroline Bingley. I argue that, yes, Caroline Bingley is a piece of work. But it’s not her fault: as Austen shows us, over and over again, being a piece of work is what was expected of upper class women in Edwardian England:
Caroline Bingley is the closest thing Pride and Prejudice has to a villain (she shares the title with Lady Catherine DeBurgh and with Mr. Wickham). She’s snobbish, rude and manipulative. She talks about people behind their backs. She’s classist, and sexist, and I’ll admit that sometimes when I’m reading Pride and Prejudice, I’ll find myself saying aloud, “Man, Caroline Bingley is such a bitch!”
But here’s the thing. If Caroline Bingley is a bitch, it’s not her fault. Society made her that way.
Pride and Prejudice is a critique of gender roles and, in particular, of the strictures placed on upper class women in Edwardian England. It’s about the role that money played in women’s lives, and the things that women had to do to survive (Lizzie’s best friend Charlotte Lucas, in order to survive, marries the contemptible Mr. Collins). Austen critiques the customs that keep women largely powerless, sometimes in her narration, sometimes in the dialogue that she writes for her characters. Lizzie Bennet, the beloved heroine, is a symbol of Austen’s more modern values. Lizzie’s ultimate triumph is a victory of the new ways over the old ones. And Caroline Bingley is the perfect symbol of those old ways.
You can read the rest here.