Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, after Elizabeth Bennet has accepted his proposal, says, “I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit.”—Chapter 58 (italics added here and throughout)
What are these “principles” that Darcy was taught? And how could he follow them “in pride and conceit”?
“Principle” in Austen’s work usually refers to religious, moral principles. A dictionary of 1704 says that “a Person is a Man of Principles, when he always acts according to the Eternal Rules of Morality, Virtue and Religion.” Principles are a foundation for right actions.
What good principles did Darcy follow? As Elizabeth considers Darcy’s letter, she realizes that she has never “seen anything that betrayed him to be unprincipled or unjust—anything that spoke him of irreligious or immoral habits.” He loves his sister and Mr. Bingley thinks highly of him. Darcy was principled: just, religious, moral, loving, worthy of respect.
We further see his principles in action. The housekeeper at Pemberley tells Elizabeth that Darcy is unselfish, kind, and generous to his servants, his tenants, and to the poor. Of course the main way we see Darcy’s good, unselfish principles is when he finds that Wickham, who he despises, has eloped with Lydia Bennet. Darcy goes after them, takes extensive pains to find them, and has to pay off the man he hates to get him to marry Lydia. And, in humility, he attempts to keep his actions secret from the Bennet family. In this action, he also shows principles of self-denial, of compassion for Elizabeth and the Bennets, of honor in carrying out his responsibilities towards even the undeserving Wickham, and in forcing Wickham to behave honorably towards Lydia.
It appears that Darcy knows what is right; he has been taught all these “right principles.” But, like the Bertram girls, his moral education was incomplete. His good principles were mixed with bad principles: selfishness and pride. Elizabeth Bennet taught him to know himself and confront and change what was lacking in his principles; he also taught her to know herself and confront and change her own pride. Both began with mostly right principles, but had more to learn from each other.
Good and Bad Principles in Other Austen Novels
Austen tells us that other characters in her novels also practiced good or bad principles.
What are “good principles” in her novels?
- Duty, honor, and gratitude: According to Elizabeth Bennet, when Lady Catherine was trying to dissuade her from marrying Darcy, none of these “principles” would be violated by her marriage.
- “Honour and honesty”: Based on these principles, Elinor Dashwood tries to overcome her love for Edward, who is engaged, and Fanny Price tries to overcome her love for Edmund, who plans to marry someone else. Frank Churchill does not have these principles of honour and honesty, as he hides his engagement and misleads everyone.
- Treating the other sex honorably: Wickham, Willoughby, and Isabella Thorpe are all unprincipled in this area.
- Living within one’s income and paying one’s debts: Sir Walter Elliot failed in this; he did not have ““principle or sense enough to maintain himself in the situation in which Providence had placed him.”
- Self-denial, humility, and self-control: These principles were not taught to the Bertram girls, much to their father’s later regret.
- Compassion and considering the feelings of others: The lack of these principles makes Julia miserable in acting politely towards Mr. Rushworth, and causes Maria to triumph over Julia when Henry Crawford prefers her. The opposite is selfishness, which was Willoughby’s “ruling principle” in his dishonorable dealings with Marianne and Mr. Elliot’s principle in deceiving his family.
- Considering the eternal good of others: Fanny’s “pure principles” make her feel for her cousin Tom in his illness, because his life has not been useful or self-denying.
Religious Beliefs, Applied to Life
- The doctrines of the church, according to Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park; the clergy was to teach these principles, which would affect the manners of society. Darcy considered Wickham unsuited for the clergy because of his “vicious propensities” and lack of principle.
- Applying one’s religion: The Bertram sisters in Mansfield Park had not learned “active principle”: “They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice.”
- The Lectures on the Catechism which Austen was familiar with mention principles of Conscience towards God, Faith in Christ, Duty, and Love, so she may have had these in mind as well. Pride and Resentment are among the bad principles listed. Darcy’s good principles were mixed with pride and resentment, but he learned humility and unselfishness.
What principles are most important in your life? How can you better apply them humbly and unselfishly to the situations and people around you?
Dictionary quote is from 1704, J. Harris Lexicon Technicum I. Quoted in Oxford English Dictionary.
Secker, Thomas. Lectures on the Catechism. Third Edition. London: Rivington, 1771.
Some Words of Jane Austen by Stuart M. Tave, pages 129-131.
Austen, Jane. The Complete Works of Jane Austen. Palmera Publishing. Kindle Edition.