My new novel about Anne de Bourgh is nearly live—it’s being processed by Amazon for both its website and Kindle store as I write. Today seems like a good day to write about this fairly minor character in Jane Austen’s popular novel Pride and Prejudice.
One thing became clear to me after publishing Rosings Park, my first book about Anne’s life: I do not see Anne the way most readers see her. Anne, as you may know, is the young lady to whom the handsome, illustrious heartthrob Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy has been engaged since they were infants. Yes, that Mr. Darcy. In truth, we can’t glean much about her character from Austen’s story, but each of us takes away an impression of it. Apparently, we don’t all see her the same way.
What Austen Says about Anne
As the story unfolds Austen allows Mr. Wickham to explain Anne’s situation to Elizabeth Bennet in the days leading up to Mr. Bingley’s Netherfield ball:
“Her daughter, Miss de Bourgh, will have a very large fortune, and it is believed that she and her cousin will unite the two estates.”1
From this passage we know that Anne inherits her father’s estate and that she and Darcy are expected to marry, thus combining the family’s holdings, which include Rosings Park, the de Bourgh’s estate in Kent, and Pemberley, the Darcy family estate in Derbyshire.
What Elizabeth Bennet Says about Anne
Elizabeth is invited to Hunsford to visit her newly married friend, Mrs. Collins. On the day after her arrival she is called down to the dining room to see an amazing sight: two ladies sitting in a carriage. She believes them to be Lady Catherine de Bourgh and her daughter. Mrs. Collins’s sister Maria corrects her misimpression: it is not Lady Catherine but Anne de Bourgh herself and her companion, Mrs. Jenkinson. Here are Elizabeth’s observations about Anne:2
“Only look at her,” says Maria. “She is quite a little creature. Who would have thought that she could be so thin and small?”
[To which Elizabeth replies] “She is abominably rude to keep Charlotte out of doors in all this wind. Why does she not come in?”
“Oh, Charlotte says she hardly ever does. It is the greatest of favors when Miss de Bourgh comes in.”
“I like her appearance,” said Elizabeth, struck with other ideas. “She looks sickly and cross. Yes, she will do for him very well. She will make him a very proper wife.”
The day after spying this scene through the dining room window, Mr. and Mrs. Collins and their guests, Elizabeth and Maria, are invited to Rosings for dinner. Elizabeth readily draws a sharp picture of Lady Catherine—she spoke in authoritative tones and was full of self-importance—and then turns her eyes on the daughter, Anne. Elizabeth’s thinking goes thus:
“…she could almost have joined in Maria’s astonishment, at her [Anne] being so thin, and so small. There was neither in figure nor face, any likeness between the ladies. Miss de Bourgh was pale and sickly; her features, though not plain, were insignificant; and she spoke very little, except in a low voice, to Mrs. Jenkinson…”3
During dinner Elizabeth found herself placed between Mrs. Collins, who was steadily engaged in conversation with her ladyship, and Anne, who said not a word all through the meal. Later, playing casino with Anne, Mrs. Jenkinson and Maria, she found their table “superlatively stupid” with scarcely any talk other than that required for the game.4
There you have it! Anne de Bourgh’s character is forever fixed as sickly and cross. She has a sickly constitution, is thin and small, and can’t be bothered to converse with her guests in company. What a miserable little creature.
I March to a Different Tune
I have written about discovering Jane Austen’s novels fairly late in life, being well past prime, perhaps forty-one or forty-two. Until then, I was a Jane girl—Jane Eyre, not Jane Austen. From my very first reading of Pride and Prejudice I was struck by Anne’s situation. Why is she sickly and cross? Is her “sickly constitution”5 a recent development or has she been sickly most of her life? What sort of illness might make her sickly? Why does she appear quite rude to her guests? Wouldn’t she be thrilled to have dinner guests, given the quiet country life she lives? And how does she endure Lady Catherine’s character? What was her father like?
And so began twenty years of speculation about Anne de Bourgh. It surprises me really, for I am always reading and carrying around books. I’ve probably read thousands of novels since I first discovered Jane Eyre. In fact, my log indicates that I’ve read nine since January 1st and will likely finish two more by Sunday. If I read at this pace every year—say, 100 novels/year—then, I’ve read 5,000+ novels since the age of fourteen. (Good grief. If I’ve read 5,000 novels I ought to be a better writer! I ought to be a bestselling author! When pigs fly…)
So, why this character? What is it about Anne de Bourgh that wouldn’t let go of me? I don’t know. All I can tell you is that she pestered me off and on for twenty years. She’d surface at odd times and for no obvious reason. She would set me to wondering about her life and asking questions about her future.
One question I grappled with for years: Was Anne like her mother in temper and character? Or did she take after her father? I could imagine it going either way.
Finally in 2009 I sat down to write her story. I developed a storyboard. I laid out timelines and events. I introduced characters and situations. I believed myself to be in control. What a fantasy. She was in charge from the beginning. She wouldn’t marry the man I had picked out for her, which forced me to write by the seat of my pants. (I had thought myself a plotter when I started, but became a pantser in the end.) For a while there I didn’t think she would marry any of the men I introduced her to. She surprised me nearly every day.
In short, if your view of Anne’s character differs from mine, don’t blame me. Blame her. Now that I think about it, she reminds me of Florence Nightingale. I was merely the instrument through whom she worked.
- Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London: Penguin Books, p. 82 (chapter 16).
- Ibid., p. 156 (chapter 28).
- Ibid., p. 159 (chapter 29).
- Ibid., pp. 160-163 (chapter 29).
- Ibid., p. 66 (chapter 14).