What have I done?!
An entire book about Caroline Bingley? I know, but please hear me out. After reading Pride and Prejudice (watching the movie, listening to the audiobook, and devouring every variation with and without zombies, out there), there are certain truths that must to be universally acknowledged. Specifically that Caroline Bingley was, is, and always will be, the absolute worst.
How dare she get in between our Lizzie and Darcy? She has always been a complete and utter snob, completely soulless, fake, and just plain mean. I wanted nothing to do with her, or her horrible sister.
Flash forward several years and I found myself writing about Mary and Kitty, who are terribly neglected in so many ways and deserving of their own adventure. To my surprise, as I was transcribing what I imagined occurred after the events of 1812, I found Kitty updating Mary on the most salacious bit of gossip about Caroline and her upcoming nuptials. “This has to be good,” I thought. I was hoping to hear that Caroline had gotten her comeuppance – married some old boring geezer, or been shipped off somewhere terrible – like Virginia, or maybe Maryland.
To my surprise, that isn’t what I found at all.
As I delved further I realized that I had to forgive Caroline, or at least see her point of view, if only for the simple fact that, despite her horrible snobbery and machinations, her biggest flaw wasn’t really a flaw at all. Yes, she behaved horribly, stupidly, and even meanly, but I had always assumed she was, like Wickham, shallow, selfish and eager for the Darcy fortune.
Suddenly I found myself asking the question – what if she loved him? What if she loved Darcy because he was the most reasonable, sensible man she had ever met? What if she loved him because he was the only man that appreciated her sharp wit – the only one she could be herself around? What if she loved him with all the tumult and passion of first love, like only a young woman can?
Oh dear. Of course she did, after all hadn’t Jane written as much?
It has been over twenty years since I first read Pride and Prejudice. I am now twice as old as I was when I first fell in love with the book, and nearly twice as old as Caroline and Elizabeth were during the course of the novel. With age comes insight and wisdom, and I’ve come to realize that Caroline’s greatest fault is not her pride but her bad fortune, her attempts to stand in the way of the greatest love story of all time.
She had the misfortune of falling in love with the same man that millions have swooned over for centuries. As Charlotte would say, “We are all fools in love.” I say better to be a fool than to marry Mr. Collins.
And so this is Caroline’s story, I hope you may forgive her as I have and, in time, even hope for her own bit of happiness.
Yours most sincerely,
Chapter 1 – Where We Left Off
Winter between 1812 and 1813
It has long been the common view that there is no fury in hell quite like that of a woman scorned. Perhaps this is true in general, although Ms. Caroline Bingley, one of London’s most accomplished and eligible young women had too much sense and, indeed, dignity to expose herself in such a manner.
It would perhaps be prudent to recount, more completely, the events that took place in the English county of Hertfordshire in the autumn of 1811. Charles Bingley, a young man of twenty-one years and moderate wealth, bored with London society, had rented Netherfield Park, an absurdly large country house for hunting and relaxation.
Hertfordshire was a tolerable but unfashionable county which most considered too close to London for a proper holiday, but for Charles it had the advantage of being just far enough away to ensure his mother would never visit.
As an additional benefit, Charles would escape the matronly scrutiny that came with the distinction of recently coming into one’s fortune and remaining as yet unmarried1. His good friend Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberly, and his sister Caroline, joined his as they were no less eager to distance themselves from the atmosphere of matrimonial brokering that pervaded London that season. His sister and brother-in-law, Mr. & Mrs. John Hurst, also joined the party, since neither of them had a preference on locale, and card games were as easily enjoyed in the country as in town.
When Charles fell for Jane Bennet, a local beauty, it was no surprise to Caroline. She knew that her brother had less of an aversion to attachment than to the imposition of their mother’s preference.
However, it had been a shock to everyone when Darcy, who had long withstood matrimonial machinations, would likewise become similarly ensnared. It was Caroline who had first noticed his partiality toward Jane’s sister, Elizabeth Bennet, well before anyone else – even the two most interested parties.
Caroline had every reason to be secure in the imperviousness of Mr. Darcy’s heart. The gentleman in question had long withstood the attentions of some of England’s (and much of Europe’s) most beautiful young women for nearly a decade. While it might be allowed that Ms. Elizabeth Bennet was quite pretty, she was certainly nothing beyond the normal way. Elizabeth was intelligent, and witty to be sure, and Caroline might have even liked her under different circumstances. But there was something irksome about her easy manners, barely deferring to rank or custom. Regardless, it was agreed by all that the Bennet mother was an intolerable, embarrassing creature, constantly foisting her daughters into social settings without any regard for sentiment or propriety.
Of course the additions to their circle wouldn’t have been nearly as troubling if not for the cataclysmic realization that Caroline Bingley did not simply admire Mr. Darcy as a friend, as she had once supposed. The idea that he would leave their society in general and hers in particular had started to become increasingly unbearable. So much so that she was finally forced to realize the depth of her affections for him.
She had always been aware that he was rich, and marriage to him would have every advantage, including satisfying her mother. It was more than that, however.
Darcy had a superior wit and understanding that made all other young men, even those of more wealth and consequence, seem unbearably insipid.
And so Caroline had done what she felt she must to preserve their intimate group, that their party might continue as they always had. She had assumed she was justified; for it seemed every measure of propriety demanded that she hinder the connection with the Bennets, and for a time she was certain Darcy himself had wanted her intervention.
After much ado, including scandals and intrigues involving Darcy’s former steward’s son, none of that had mattered. With every obstacle, Darcy’s admiration for Elizabeth had only seemed to grow as Caroline’s chance for happiness slipped away. In the end, he wed Elizabeth in a small country parish with little pageantry, standing next to Charles and Jane as they exchanged vows.
Thus Caroline was left with only the memory and mortification of her role throughout the affair–her inconsistencies, outright duplicities, and failed maneuverings. No longer required to assist with the management of her brother’s household, she had returned to London where her mother, disappointed and resentful that her only son should commit himself in marriage without her approval, was determined that her last child be far more advantageously engaged.
While Caroline was determined to remain as poised and aloof as ever she failed to entirely conceal her unhappiness. And thus, soon after she arrived in town, her mother had bundled her off and sent her to stay with her Scottish relatives.
Chapter 2 – In the Carriage
The jerk of the carriage pitched Caroline violently forward, nearly causing her to plunge into the ample bosom of her maid. Lucy, a plump woman of twenty-four, just two years Caroline’s senior, slept through the rocky tumult entirely unaware of her mistress’s predicament.
Pushing herself back into her seat, Caroline considered this merely the latest in a string of humiliations. The last, of course, was this exile to her uncle’s Manor in Scotland, near a seaside town of absolutely no consequence.
Caroline’s head banged against the back of the carriage as its wheel pulled free from a particularly large rut, and continued its placid trundle onward. The road seemed to deteriorate precipitously the farther they ventured from London, and Caroline was certain she would be rattled apart before they arrived.
The journey was supposed to take nine days from Yorkshire, but had already taken ten due to the weather. Even staying at the best inns and houses along the way, the trip had been wretched. In truth, it wasn’t ill-kept roads that put the young lady into such low spirits. Nor could blame be laid on the weather; since, despite an excellent education that had taught her how to maintain an air of lady-like fragility, Caroline possessed remarkable fortitude that allowed her to easily withstand the cold.
Her robust constitution could be credited to her Celtic ancestors, who had thrived in even the most frigid Scottish winters. Unfortunately her fiery temper could likewise be attributed to that same heredity. And yet she felt none of the vivacity that had sustained her her entire life. Inside she was…
Caroline didn’t have the words for the emptiness, the sense of loss she felt since hearing the parson pronounce Darcy and Elizabeth man and wife. If she had read more novels she might have described the feeling as heartbreak, but she was not so sentimental. And thus the sensation remained a mystery to her.
Her close friend and confidante, Lady Rebecca Tanner, had foisted upon her a novel to “entertain her on the long journey.” Rebecca had promised that Frances Burney’s Camilla would be just the distraction her friend required, and it might have even given her some insight into her own situation. Unfortunately, reading while being jostled about like eggs brought to boil had only resulted in giving Caroline a blazing headache. After several attempts Caroline had to put the book aside, intending to mail the obnoxious thing back at the first opportunity.
Her gaze fell once more on Lucy, noting how the wretched woman continued to sleep peacefully. Irritably, she considered waking her with some trivial demand but thought better of it. Lucy had been her attendant for going on seven years and knew her mistress very well. She likely knew Caroline better than her mistress knew herself and bore any ill-temper with a solicitude that was quite vexing.
Since Charles and Darcy’s weddings, Lucy had been especially attentive, bearing her mistress’s irritability with equanimity and even an awful sort of condescension. No, it was better to leave her be and remain alone with her own thoughts.
Caroline turned her attention outside the carriage window as endless mountains and fields emerged and submerged in a blue-gray dream. She recalled something her father, a shrewd businessman with a penchant for military metaphors, used to say to his children: “Before going into battle still your nerves, breathe deep, quiet your heart, and remember you are more than enough for anything.”
Closing her eyes she breathed in the earthy scent of moss and horse. Inhaling, she let the thick, damp air fill her lungs before slowly exhaling.
Chapter 3 – Recollections of Town
Despite her exile, Caroline was certain that London was where she belonged. Now more than ever she ought to be attending parties, not being tossed about in a chaise and four halfway to a tiny Scottish coastal village of absolutely no importance.
Her mother was right about one thing: she had too long neglected her obligations in finding a suitable husband. She had remained fixed on what had ultimately amounted to little more than a fantasy. She knew that. Of course, she knew that.
She convinced herself that she was resigned to marry the most suitable suitor her mother could find. At least she tried to.
If she was being truthful she may have admitted she was not entirely confident in her conviction. She certainly hadn’t always been so sanguine about her mother’s opinion, but after failing so completely, she was exhausted and reluctant to engage in any such introspection.
Perhaps, she considered, it was for the best that such matters be taken from her hands. Caroline certainly had no idea what made one happy in marriage. The only thing that was certain was exactly little she knew of men.
Such matters gave her a headache so she instead turned her thoughts to more pleasant memories, like the first time she had met Mr. Darcy.
It had been at her dear friend Rebecca Tanner’s London family home where she was first introduced. It was the first season for both Caroline and her friend. Caroline had only just celebrated her seventeenth birthday and was already widely considered one of society’s most charming new additions.
Her mother, Moira Bingley, had arranged it so that Louisa and Caroline arrived just before midnight. For, as she had on several occasions explained, if one was not needed early, it was best to be seen arriving by as many as possible.
How Caroline had shone, a bright star under all those admiring eyes; arriving as they had at the peak of the festivities.
Louisa, Carolinelderdler by four years, had recently announced her engagement to Mr. John Hurst. As soon as the ladies arrived, she was immediately attended by her fiancé. After solicitously offering his arm, he led the elder Ms. Bingley away to the card tables.
Rebecca sought out her friend soon after, begging her pardon of Mrs. Bingley and pulling Caroline away into her confidence.
“Everyone is here,” Rebecca reported with evident delight, and it was true that the Tanner home, one of the largest homes on St. James Street, was full to capacity with the very best society.
“I dare say your mother will have multiple proposals for you before the end of the season, maybe even before the end of the night,” Rebecca laughed.
The Bingleys were not as elevated in station as the Tanners, who had several close relations among the peerage, and yet Moira Bingley, renowned for her taste and fashion, was often sought as the companion for many Ladies eager to make their mark. It was well known that their father had been extremely successful in commerce and had left his daughters ten thousand pounds each in addition to an interest in the family business, which was rumored to be far more valuable. Combined with her mother’s connections there was every reason to assume Caroline would make an excellent match.
“I hope not,” Caroline laughed shrewdly. At seventeen, she wasn’t entirely ready to accept any proposal – not before she knew her options. “I should hope to enjoy at least a few parties without feeling obligated to one man or another.”
“How terribly wicked. Don’t you want to be married?” Rebecca asked.
“I do or did – but then I look at Louisa and Hurst,” She lowered her voice. “Can you imagine being engaged to him?”
Rebecca tried to hide her smile. The match was indeed quite respectable. Hurst was a decent enough sort – very wealthy, not entirely unattractive, but hardly a young woman’s ideal.
Caroline continued, “If I let my mother choose for me I am sure that it is what I’ll be agreeing to.”
“I know exactly how you feel. My mother is always going on that I should marry Jerry.”
“If I were your mother I’d say the same thing,” Caroline laughed. “Jerry may be a bit awkward–”
“Ugh.” Rebecca rolled her eyes.
“– but he’s going to be an Earl.” Caroline continued, “and he is terribly in love with you.” It was an ongoing dispute between the two young women; and Caroline doubted she would ever make much headway. Despite Rebecca’s protest, Caroline was certain her friend would eventually accept Gerald Monroe.
“But I’ve known him forever. I should like to have some mystery. No we mustn’t give in, we must choose better ourselves. Someone handsome, and fine…” Rebecca said.
“…and intelligent and interesting,” Caroline added.
“…and still rich enough to satisfy our mothers,” Rebecca added, both laughing.
“Doesn’t your brother have any suitable friends?” Rebecca asked. “What’s the point of going to Cambridge if not to find eligible young men to introduce to one’s sister and her friends?”
“Charles is a dear brother but completely lacking in discernment,” Caroline said, adding seriously, “I worry sometimes that he is too kind. I honestly don’t know that he has enough sense to attend to his family obligations.”
“Careful my dear, you wouldn’t want anyone to infer any criticism,” Rebecca reprimanded in near perfect imitation of Moira Bingley.
Caroline gave her a wry smile.
How often had they both been schooled in the importance of good sense as well as the grace to avoid the appearance of it?
“Yes Ma’am,” she said with a sigh. “Tonight we shall comport ourselves like the charming and taciturn ladies we ought to be. So tell me who is here?” she asked looking around, finally taking the time to assess the party’s occupants.
The drawing room was crowded, but not unpleasantly so, and the two young women easily managed to glide between groups. Rebecca proceeded to give her a full accounting of the most eligible and notorious society in town.
“Did you really invite Marcus Kent?” Caroline exclaimed, both impressed and scandalized.
“I did, but only after I heard that it was Larissa who ended their engagement.” Clearly there was news that Caroline had missed.
The two young women continued to regard the room, appraising who was and was not there when Caroline felt Rebecca engage her arm, attempting to lead her away.
“It’s Odious Madeline and her equally horrid fiancé.” Rebecca said under her breath, intent on moving into another room, but it was too late. Odious Madeline had seen them and had already started to make her way through the party to attend them.
“Rebecca. Caroline,” Odious Madeline cooed. “Thank you so much for inviting me and my Georgie,” she said, referring to the slight gentleman that trailed her.
“Of course. I couldn’t avoid it,” Rebecca said so sweetly it was almost impossible to take her meaning.
“Yes, indeed –“ Madeline said momentarily confused.
Before she could reply, a loud baritone practically shouted, “There you are!” Caroline’s brother, Charles had found them.
Charles maneuvered through the throng to join his sister. It said something about the quality of the party that Charles’s exuberance only garnered three disapproving sniffs. In his wake a tall, somewhat stately young man followed.
“I’m so glad you are here.” He exclaimed. “This is such a capital affair, I arrived at the same time as an Earl and a Marquis. I even heard the Duke of Bedford is about. Extraordinary. I’m not even sure how I made it on the guest list without a Lord preceding my name.”
Caroline loved her brother dearly but his lack of pretension was irritating. From anyone else she might have assumed a false modesty, however, with Charles, she knew it to be his own particular idiocy. Even if Rebecca hadn’t been her particular friend, and the Tanners close acquaintances with their mother, Charles would be welcomed in any social circle as he was both wealthy and genuinely agreeable.
Explaining such matters to Charles, or rather repeating such lessons to her brother, was impossible in such a setting. So she sighed and held her tongue.
For just a moment she caught the eye of her brother’s mysterious new friend, and thought she detected a hint of amusement at the exchange. Before she could say anything her brother had good-naturedly plowed on, introducing himself to Odious Madeline and her “Georgie.” The problem with this, however, was that Charles had already met Madeline, several times in fact, during Caroline’s time at the ladies seminary.
“We’ve met,” Madeline told him, not bothering to hide that she was somewhat put out by his poor memory.
All the young ladies at the seminary had had hopeless crushes on Caroline’s older brother. There had been a good deal of speculation about which one of them he would marry.
This snub, followed by an apology for confusing all of Caroline’s school friends, did little to mollify Odious Madeline, especially when she had always been so certain that she had made “quite the impression.”
“Forgive me, I haven’t introduced my friend. Fitzwilliam Darcy, my little sister Caroline, her friend Rebecca whose father you just met, and Madeline and George whom I have just met.”
“Mr. Darcy of Pemberly?” Caroline asked.
“Indeed the same,” he confirmed with a slight bow.
“You must know our family has stayed many times at your estate,” Caroline said. She blushed, recalling her juvenile infatuation with this man’s portrait that had been so prominently on display at Pemberly’s great hall. To her pleasure and consternation, the young man before her was even more gentlemanly and handsome than his portrait.
“How–,” She stammered slightly, then regained her composure and began again. She was her mother’s daughter, and there was no way that she was going to be undone by a man, no matter how attractive. “You must tell me how our families are connected.”
“Darcy’s father and our father went in on a few ventures, Caroline,” Charles said, answering for his friend. “Darcy has kept a hand in the business and when I was at Cambridge he found me to help bring me along in my responsibilities, so to speak.”
“It’s a wonder our paths never crossed.” Caroline said.
“Indeed. I believe your family stayed at Pemberly while I was just finishing at Cambridge.”
“I think you must be right.” Caroline agreed.
What no one mentioned was that this was before each of their esteemed fathers’ passing. It was, after all, a party and there was no need for morbid recollections.
“Did you study together at Cambridge?” Odious Madeline asked. “I think you must have been there at the same time as my dear Georgie” she said, beaming at her escort who was standing slack-jawed, completely disinterested in the conversation.
“I doubt that. I finished my studies several years before Bingley, but I often have business in that town and as we said, we share some interest. I thought it best if I help steward him, as it were.”
“Making sure I don’t make a complete idiot of myself, more like,” Charles laughed. Caroline did her best not to roll her eyes, although she was certain that was all too true.
Just then, strands of a waltz could be heard from the salon.
“Come Darcy, what do you say?” Bingley asked, nodding his head towards the dance floor.
“I had better not,” Darcy said with a shake of his head.
“Come now, this is not the time to remain aloof.”
“You’re mistaken. I’m only hesitant to make you feel inferior with my dancing prowess,” he said dryly.
Bingley laughed, but before he could further entreat his friend an impatient Rebecca led him away. She had no designs on Caroline’s older brother, but he was an agreeable and capable dance partner and she intended to make use of him.
“I think my fiancé and I will join them. George is such a superior dancer,” Madeline said, evidently delighted to be able to leave Caroline stranded with such a taciturn and disagreeable companion.
Caroline watched her departure with some relief. “Odious Madeline often tries to give offense when nothing gives me more pleasure than to be excluded from her presence,” Caroline said absently, then blushed realizing she had said that aloud.
To her relief the gentleman burst out laughing. “Indeed I think we may share the sentiment.” A footman passed and Darcy deftly plucked two tumblers of punch from his tray and offered one to Caroline.
After only a few minutes of conversation she found that he was hardly taciturn. He did not enjoy pleasantries and banter as was custom, but he was willing to engage in innumerably more interesting topics.
While she would not have minded standing up with him for a dance or two, she found that she vastly enjoyed his conversation and observations fair above anything else. It was, she thought, then and even now, the beginning of a wonderful friendship.
Caroline clung to that memory. She needed to believe after everything that at least it had all begun sincerely.