What is the reaction after Elizabeth goes to Netherfield?
Elizabeth Bennett sets off to Netherfield Park in chapter 7 of Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice, after receiving a letter from her older sister and closest companion, Jane. Jane tells Elizabeth that she has caught a cold and is laid up there. She went to Netherfield the day before to visit Mr. Bingley (her suitor and the house's owner), his sister Caroline, his brother-in-law and sister, Mr. and Mrs. Hurst, and his friend Mr. Darcy. Her matchmaking mother insisted that she ride horseback through the rain to get there so that she'd have an excuse to stay the night. It was being exposed to the rain that made Jane unwell and incited Lizzie's trip to Netherfield. She makes this trip by foot through the mud left from the prior day's rain.
Because of this, she arrives at Netherfield "with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise." She is already of a lower class than any of the inhabitants of the house, none of whom would ever have dreamed of walking through the mud, so her appearance is shocking to all of them.
"That she should have walked three miles so early in the day, in such dirty weather, and by herself, was almost incredible to Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley; and Elizabeth was convinced that they held her in contempt for it. She was received, however, very politely by them; and in their brother's manners there was something better than politeness; there was good humour and kindness. Mr. Darcy said very little, and Mr. Hurst nothing at all. The former was divided between admiration of the brilliancy which exercise had given to her complexion, and doubt as to the occasion's justifying her coming so far alone. The latter was thinking only of his breakfast."
In this passage, the reader sees each member of the household's initial reaction to Elizabeth's arrival at Netherfield. The women hold her in contempt for her decision to walk and her disheveled appearance; Mr. Bingley is his usual good-tempered self; Mr. Hurst has no opinion on the matter whatsoever; and Mr. Darcy is taken in by how flushed and bright she looks after her long walk.
In chapter 8, these reactions are expanded upon further as the reader is given a glimpse into what Elizabeth's hosts say about her behind her back: "When dinner was over, she [Elizabeth] returned directly to Jane, and Miss Bingley began abusing her as soon as she was out of the room." Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst indulge in catty gossip, insulting everything from Elizabeth's manners to her appearance, both expressing horror at her muddy skirts that morning and proving true Elizabeth's suspicion that they "held her in contempt." Mrs. Hurst appears to be indulging in this kind of mean behavior simply for the fun of it, but Miss Bingley is motivated by her feelings for Mr. Darcy and her jealousy at having heard him express admiration for Elizabeth in the past. Caroline tries to bring Darcy into the conversation, encouraging him to also mock Elizabeth's appearance, but he doubles down on his thoughts from before about Elizabeth looking all the more beautiful from having exerted herself:
“I am afraid, Mr. Darcy,” observed Miss Bingley in a half whisper, “that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of her fine eyes.”
“Not at all,” he replied; “they were brightened by the exercise.”
For Mr. Bingley's part, his opinion on hosting Elizabeth at his home never wavers from being happy to have her. He actively combats his sisters' cruelty, saying of Lizzie's act, "'It shows an affection for her sister that is very pleasing.'"
Thus, the reaction to Elizabeth's arrival at Netherfield is mixed and varies from person to person.
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