“We All Love to Instruct”: Lessons in “Amiability” in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

Is it not odd that Austen chose originally to name her novel First Impressions, when it is not “first impressions,” which bring Elizabeth Bennet “enlightenment”?

Initially, Elizabeth finds everyone, but Mr. Darcy, as “amiable.” To prove my point about the slow process that brings about Elizabeth’s change of heart, mayhap we should think about how often the word “amiable” is used in Pride and Prejudice and by whom. For example, Mr. Collins throws the word about as the ultimate superlative (as in describing Miss De Bourgh as “perfectly amiable”), and we all likely possess the same opinion of Mr. Collins’ sensibility. I would venture the majority of us think of the word “amiable” in regards to displaying a friendly manner. If so, how is Anne De Bourgh “perfectly amiable”?

Mr. Collins refers to Elizabeth as “amiable” in his proposal, but later transfers the word to refer to Charlotte Lucas. Elizabeth says Charlotte is “very amiable” in accepting Mr. Collins’ plight. Elizabeth also speaks of Wickham as “amiable.” Do you notice a pattern that those who act insensibly are the ones named as “amiable”? Mayhap, then: If Mr. Darcy is not “amiable,” he is the most sensible of Elizabeth’s acquaintances. 

Elizabeth calls Mr. Bingley “truly amiable,” but that is long before she comes to the realization that his weak character has permitted him to be swayed by his sisters and Mr. Darcy to leave Netherfield and Jane Bennet behind. Is amiability then a weakness?

Dictionary.com defines the adjective as…
1. having or showing pleasant, good-natured personal qualities; affable:
an amiable disposition.
2. friendly; sociable:
an amiable greeting; an amiable gathering.
3. agreeable; willing to accept the wishes, decisions, or suggestions of another or others.
4. Obsolete. lovable or lovely.

Let us take a look at the word “amiable” as it is used in Pride and Prejudice

pride-prejudice-541-copy-1Chapter 3: Such amiable qualities must speak for themselves. What a contrast between him and his friend! Mr. Darcy danced only once with Mrs. Hurst and once with Mrs. Hurst and conch with Miss Bingley, declined being introduced to any other lady, and spent the rest of the evening walking about the room, speaking occasionally to one of his own part. His character was decided. He was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world, and everyone hoped that he would never come there again!  Needless to say, the reader is well aware that Elizabeth’s first impression of Mr. Darcy is marked by the opinion of others, as well as her encounter with the gentleman when he terms her merely “tolerable.”

Chapter 13: I cannot be otherwise than concerned at being the means of injuring your amiable daughters, and beg leave to apologise for it, as well as to assure you of my readiness to make them every possible amends, but of this hereafter. Mr. Collins terms Mr. Bennet’s daughters as “amiable,” although he has never met them. Is “amiable” a word to toss about in any Regency conversation?

Chapter 14: She is unfortunately of a sickly constitution, which has prevented her making that profess in many accomplishments which she could not otherwise have failed of, as I am informed by the lady who superintended her education, and who still resides with them. But she is perfectly amiable, and often condescends to drive by my humble abode in her little phaeton and ponies.  Would any of us who know the story of Anne De Bourgh term the woman “amiable.” The woman barely utters a word through the story and then only to her companion Mrs. Jenkinson. 

Chapter 15: Having now a good house and a very sufficient income, he intended to marry; and in seeking a reconciliation with the Longbourn family he had a wife in view, as he meant to choose one of the daughters, if found them as handsome and amiable as they were represented by common report. This was his plan of amends — of atonement — for inheriting their father’s estate; and he thought it an excellent one… Mr. Collins means to marry one of the Bennet daughters for he believes as the heir presumptive of Longbourn that any of the Bennets would be happy to save their family home. He is looking for a “sure deal.” He knows nothing of the girls accept common rumors of their being pleasant. 

Chapter 16: She could have added, “A young man too, like you, whose very countenance may vouch for your being amiable.” But she contented herself with, “And one, too, who had probably been his own companion from childhood, connected together, as I think you said, in the closest manner.” Elizabeth judges the reliability of Mr. Wickham’s allegations against Mr. Darcy on his pleasant countenance and her embarrassment of being only “tolerable” in the Darcy’s opinions. She is saying “because you are very handsome, I will believe every lie you utter.” 

Chapter 17: Elizabeth related to Jane, the next day, what had passed between Mr. Wickham and herself. Jane listened with astonishment and concern; she knew not how to believe that Mr. Darcy could be so unworthy of Mr. Bingley’s regard, and yet it was not in her nature to question the veracity of a young man of such amiable appearance as Wickham. The possibility of his having really endured such unkindness, was enough to interest all her tender feelings, and nothing, therefore, remained to be done but to think well of them both, to defend the conduct of each, and throw into the account of accident or mistake whatever could not be otherwise explained. Jane cannot believe that Mr. Darcy could act without benevolence for she believes Mr. Bingley could not admire Darcy if the man were so vile. Again, Wickham’s handsome countenance blinds the women to his true nature.

pride_prejudice06Chapter 19: You would have been less amiable in my eyes had there not been this little unwillingness; but allow me to assure you, that I have your respected mother’s permission for this address. Mr. Collins does not view Elizabeth’s refusal as a deficit, rather as if he expects ALL women to use their wiles to illicit confessions of “love” from their gentlemen callers. 

“Were it certain that Lady Catherine would think so,” said Mr. Collins, very gravely, “but I cannot imagine that her ladyship would at all disapprove of you. And you may be certain when I have the honor of seeing her again I shall speak in the highest terms of your modesty, economy, and other amiable qualifications.” Although has presented Mr. Collins several refusals, the man still speaks of her “amiability.” In this scene, Elizabeth is everything but amiable. 

… in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. Your portion is unhappily so small that it will, in all likelihood, undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications. As I must, therefore, conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall choose to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females. Mr. Collins bases his opinion of “elegant” females on what Lady Catherine dictates. Elizabeth does not wish to be viewed as “amiable” in her interactions with Mr. Collins.

Chapter 20: My conduct may, I fear, be objectionable in having accepted my dismiss ion from your daughter’s lips instead of your own; but we are all liable to error. I have certainly meant well through the whole affair. My object has been to secure an amiable companion for myself, with due consideration for the advantage of all your family, and if my manner has been at all reprehensible, I here beg leave to apologize. Mr. Collins’ pride requires him to accept Elizabeth’s refusal. He has determined earlier that if Elizabeth is “a very headstrong and foolish,” she would not make him a desirable wife. Elizabeth would not suit for him, nor would she receive Lady Catherine’s approval. 

Chapter 25: After a week spent in professions of love and schemes of felicity, Mr. Collins was called from his amiable Charlotte by the arrival of Saturday. The pain of of separation, however, might be alleviated on his side by preparations fro the reception of his bride, as he reason to hope that shortly after his return into Hertfordshire the day would be fixed that would make him the happiest of men. Personally, I do not believe that Charlotte was acting from amiability by accepting Mr. Collins, but rather through practical reality. Marriage was a woman’s only choice during the Regency.

Chapter 35:  If it be so, if I have been misled by such error to inflict pain on her, your resentment has not been unreasonable. But I shall not scruple to assert that the serenity of your sister’s countenance and air was such as might have given the most acute observer a conviction that, however amiable her temper, her heart was not likely to be easily touched. That I was desirous of believing her indifferent is certain; but I will venture to says that my investigations and decisions are not usually influenced by my hopes or fears. If Jane Bennet used the cloak of amiability to hide her feelings for Mr. Bingley, is amiability something to covet?

Chapter 36: … that as proud and repulsive as were his manners; she and never, in the whole course of their acquaintance – an acquaintance which had latterly brought them much together, and given her a sort of intimacy with his way – seen anything that betrayed him to be unprincipled or unjust – anything that spoke him of irreligious or immoral habits; that among his own connections he was esteemed and valued; that even Wickham had allowed him merit as a brother and that she had often heard him speak so affectionately of his sister as to prove him capable of some amiable feeling; that had his actions been what Wickham represented them, so gross a violation of everything right could hardly have been concealed from the world; and that friendship between a person capable of it and such an amiable man as Mr. Bingley was incomprehensible. From the letter Elizabeth begins to measure the true exemplary qualities of Mr. Darcy and how Wickham’s “amiable” tales could not be reality.

Chapter 40: The general prejudice against Mr. Darcy is so violent, that it would be the death of half the good people in Meryton to attempt to place him in an amiable light. I am not equal to it. Wickham will soon be gone; and, therefore, it will not signify to anyone here what he really is. Some time hence it will be all found out, and then we may laugh at their stupidity in not knowing it before. At present I will say nothing about it. Despite Elizabeth’s recognizing the injustices she placed on Mr. Darcy’s shoulders, she does nothing to correct the perceptions of the man or of Mr. Wickham. She cannot admit that Mr. Wickham’s easy manner persuaded her and the others to see only what they wished to see. 

Chapter 43: “In what an amiable light does this place him!” thought Elizabeth. “This fine account of him,” whispered her aunt as they walked, “is not quite consistent with his behavior to our poor friend.” Elizabeth acknowledged to Jane that she misjudged Mr. Darcy, but she has not done so with others until this moment. Moreover, what she suspects is the real nature of the man is flushed out by the reports from Mrs. Reynolds of Darcy’s benevolence (“He is the best landlord and the best master”) and of Mr. Wickham (“but I am afraid he turned out very wild”). “This was praise of all others, most extraordinary, most opposite to her ideas. That he was not a good-tempted man had been her firmest opinion. Her keenest attention was awakened; she longed to hear more, and was grateful…”

Chapter 44:  She certainly did not hate him. No; hatred had vanished long ago, and she had almost as long been ashamed of ever feeling a dislike against him that could so be called. The respect created by the conviction of his valuable qualities, though at first unwillingly admitted, had for some time ceased to be repugnant to her feelings, and it was not heightened into somewhat of a friendlier nature by the testimony so highly in his favor,  and bringing forward his disposition in so amiable a light, which yesterday had produced. But above all, above respect and esteem, there was a motive within her of good-will which could not be overlooked. Elizabeth’s opinion of Darcy has changed dramatically with her appearance at Pemberley. It is not him that she calls “amiable,” but the manner of her transformation. Her first impressions have proved faulty, and only her careful examination of a variety of facts brings her to this “amiable light.”

Chapter 47: He must know that she was as amiable and unpretending as we have found her.” “But does Lydia know nothing of this? Can she be ignorant of what you and Jane seem so well to understand?” Like others in the story, Lydia is termed as “amiable,” but she does not show good judgement with Mr. Wickaham. 

Chapter 54: “He could be still amiable, still pleasing to my uncle and aunt, when he was in town; and why not to me? If he fears me, why come hither? If he no longer cares for me, why silent? Teasing, teasing man! I will think no more about him.” Elizabeth knows something of Darcy’s pleasing personality and is jealous of his ignoring her when Darcy and Bingley call upon the Longbourn household. The last lines of the chapter speak to the idea of amiability and “first impressions”: “That is a question which I hardly know how to answer. We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing.”

Chapter 58:  I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father particularly , all that  was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing; to care for none beyond my own family circle; to think meanly of all the rest of the world; to wish, at least to think, meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Mr. Darcy has yet to acknowledge that “amiability” is not a sign of good breeding. How could a father who was “benevolent” and “amiable” teach his child such prideful lessons? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that amiability is not a sign of strength. 

Pride and PrejudiceChapter 61: I wish I could say for the sake of her family, that the accomplishment of her earnest desire in the establishment of so many of her children produced so happy an effect as to make her a sensible, amiable, well-informed woman for the rest of her life; though, perhaps, it was lucky for her husband, who might not have relished domestic felicity in so unusual a form, that she still was occasionally nervous and invariably silly. In this case, Mr. Bennet prefers his wife’s silliness rather than her sensibility, but even if Mrs. Bennet knew “amiability,” the reader would not see her in a positive light. The words before this quote tells us of her going about the neighborhood and bragging on the advantageous marriages of her two eldest daughters.

x600Darcy and Elizabeth achieve their “HEA” because they each go through a change. When Elizabeth first refused Mr. Darcy, he permitted no one to know his more “perfectly amiable” qualities. He must overcome his “improper pride.” Meanwhile, Elizabeth slowly learns what it means to “marry for love.” Starting with the receipt of Mr. Darcy’s letter, Elizabeth does a great deal of soul searching. She acknowledges the flaws which led her to accept Mr. Wickham’s shallowness over Mr. Darcy’s sense of responsibility. Because Darcy and Elizabeth grow together, they achieve a Happily Ever After. 

She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think without feeling she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.

“How despicably I have acted!” she cried; “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.” (36.18-19)


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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7 Responses to “We All Love to Instruct”: Lessons in “Amiability” in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

  1. kfield2 says:

    What an insightful article! I began to substitute the synonym “attractiveness” for amiable as I was reading along and that seemed to help me get past the general idea of friendliness or like-able-ness and more toward questioning amiability as a compliment to ne’s character.

    • Great idea!
      In truth, I’ve been playing with the word “amiable” in a new WIP, and it struct me how often the word is used in P&P and in the context. Therefore, this post came to life.

  2. kfield2 says:

    One’s character.

  3. “Is it not odd that Austen chose originally to name her novel First Impressions, when it is not “first impressions,” which bring Elizabeth Bennet “enlightenment”?”

    It is, and my explanation is that P&P is a double story, and in the shadow story, Elizabeth’s first impression of Darcy is spot-on!

  4. Glynis says:

    Goodness, I never realised just how often the word was used in P&P. And by so many different people. I must say I did wonder at Mr Collins describing the Bennet girls thus before he even met them!
    Definitely something to think about.

  5. jeanstillman says:

    Oh, the power of a word! Thanks for sharing this very interesting look at the use of this word in our favorite book!

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