Last Reviewed on June 3, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1118
After waiting for days for a letter from Jane, Elizabeth is excited to receive two at once. However, the latter part of the first letter has been written hastily with “evident agitation” and contains grave news: Lydia has left the Forsters in Brighton and has run off with Wickham. The couple has apparently fled to Scotland, where it is supposed they will marry. Jane is concerned about the imprudence of both the elopement and the match itself, as she and Elizabeth are both aware of Wickham’s true character. Finishing this first letter, Elizabeth quickly opens the second, which contains even worse news: the family has since learned that Wickham has no intention of marrying Lydia at all, despite what Lydia may have believed. As “imprudent” as a marriage between Lydia and Wickham would be, her reputation—and the reputation of her family—will be ruined if she runs off with a man without marrying him. Colonel Forster has told Jane that Wickham is not a man to be trusted, and he and Mr. Bennet have since departed for London—where they now suppose the couple to be—in an effort to find Lydia and salvage her reputation.
Mr. Darcy enters the room as Elizabeth finishes reading the letter, and Elizabeth cries that she must find her uncle at once. Elizabeth describes Lydia and Wickham’s scandalous decision to Darcy, who appears deeply concerned. Elizabeth is certain her family’s disgrace will diminish Darcy’s opinion of her, and she finally realizes that she could have truly loved him. Pushing this out of her mind, she asks Darcy to convey her apologies to Georgiana for her inability to visit Pemberley that evening and begs him to keep the truth about her quick departure a secret. Darcy promises to do so, and he leaves so that Elizabeth and the Gardiners can quickly pack. Within an hour, all arrangements are made and the group is on the road toward Longbourn.
En route to Longbourn, Elizabeth’s uncle tries to encourage her regarding Wickham’s intentions with Lydia. After all, he points out, if Wickham has any hopes of returning to his position in the militia, he must marry Lydia to preserve his reputation with Colonel Forster. This briefly comforts Elizabeth until she recalls that Wickham’s own close friend insisted that Wickham never planned to marry Lydia, and she is again thrown into despair over Lydia’s foolishness. Reflecting on her sister’s immature and frivolous behavior over the last year, Elizabeth doubts that Lydia has any idea of the consequences of her actions.
Mrs. Gardiner asks whether Elizabeth noted any fondness between Lydia and Wickham before she left, but Elizabeth can’t recall any particular attention that Wickham ever gave to Lydia. The travellers finally arrive at Longbourn, and Jane runs to meet them. Jane is pale and worn out from taking care of their mother, who hysterically refuses to leave her room. There has been no further news from Mr. Bennet beyond word of his safe arrival in London. Mrs. Bennet is convinced that the Forsters are to blame for not carefully watching Lydia, claiming Lydia would never do such a thing under proper guidance. She implores her brother to hurry to London, and if Lydia has not yet married Wickham, to make sure that she does.
Elizabeth and Jane find a moment alone, and Jane encourages her sister to read the letter Lydia left behind when she fled the Forsters. In the letter, Lydia says that everyone is in for a great surprise when they find her gone and that the next time she signs her name, it will be as Mrs. Wickham. Lydia seems to find the whole thing greatly amusing, referring to her sneaking away “a good joke.” Though Elizabeth is vexed by Lydia’s ignorance and foolishness, she is slightly relieved to see that Lydia’s intention was marriage.
Mr. Gardiner heads for London to join Mr. Bennet in his search; Mrs. Gardiner remains behind at Longbourn with the Bennet ladies. Details begin to emerge from Meryton about Wickham, and several people report that he owes them money. Mr. Gardiner writes from London that he is asking Colonel Forster to inquire among Wickham’s friends in the regiment to find out where in London he and Lydia might be concealing themselves. Meanwhile, Mr. Collins sends an inelegant letter to express his sympathy for the Bennets. Lydia’s actions, he writes, are no doubt injurious to all of the other Bennet daughters, and he mentions that Lady Catherine—to whom he has revealed the entire affair—wonders what man would now attach himself to such a family.
Mr. Gardiner updates the family that although many people in the militia know Wickham, he doesn’t seem to have formed many meaningful friendships, and no one knows where he might be. Gaming debts are discovered, and it seems that at least a thousand pounds are needed to clear Wickham’s name in Brighton. Mrs. Gardiner eventually departs Longbourn with her children, and Mr. Bennet returns home without Lydia. He tells Elizabeth that she was justified in her advice regarding Lydia the previous May, and he jokingly forbids Kitty to leave the house or attend balls indefinitely. Kitty doesn’t catch his sarcasm and begins to cry.
While walking together, Jane and Elizabeth are told that a letter has arrived via express mail from Mr. Gardiner. The girls rush home to their father, who allows them to read it for themselves. The letter indicates that their uncle has found Lydia and Wickham. They are not married and have no current plans to initiate a wedding, but Mr. Gardiner has developed a plan: if Mr. Bennet is willing to allow Lydia her share of the five thousand pounds that will be inherited by the Bennet daughters and promises to provide an allowance of one hundred pounds per year during his lifetime, Wickham will marry her. Mr. Gardiner is prepared to perform the wedding in his own house without delay and to act on Mr. Bennet’s behalf. Mr. Bennet agrees to this plan, as this seems to be the best outcome possible for Lydia, and Jane hopes that Lydia and Wickham can still find true happiness, despite his poor conduct. The surprising modesty of Wickham’s demands leaves them all convinced that Mr. Gardiner must have paid Wickham a great sum of money—at least ten thousand pounds—to persuade him to marry Lydia. The girls rush to inform their mother, who is overjoyed and begins making wedding plans immediately. Her favor toward Lydia returns, and Wickham is now “dear” to her.
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