Portrait of Marie-Denise Smits, née Gandolphe by Antoine Ansiaux. While we don’t know if Caroline plays the harp, this portrait reminds me of her.
Caroline Bingley is a stand-in for the fawning London women who pursue Mr. Darcy for his wealth and social standing. While Mr. Darcy is clearly not interested, that doesn’t mean that Caroline will not find a rich husband eventually. Looking at Jane Austen’s other works and other women’s marriage prospects, how well could Miss Bingley expect to marry?
Firstly, we are told that Caroline has a fortune of £20,000 and that she associates with people of rank. We know from Persuasion that it was the choice of high ranking people if they wished to accept association with people of lower status than themselves, which means that the Bingley family has been accepted by these gatekeepers into higher circles. Whether they did this themselves or rode in on Darcy’s coattails isn’t clear, but the education had they received would have helped them make those all important “connections.” However, while their position in society is likely tenuous, it does seem that they have established themselves. The sisters want Charles to purchase an estate to solidify their family’s status permanently.
Even as just a wealthy trade heiress, Caroline can expect to do pretty well for herself. In Sense & Sensibility, Mrs. Jennings is a woman whose husband engaged in trade. Her two daughters, Lady Middleton and Mrs. Palmer, have married a baronet and a wealthy landowner respectively. While we do not know the exact amount of each Miss Jennings’s fortune prior to marriage, these two women greatly resemble Caroline. They have been sent to school to acquire better manners than their vulgar mother and then married very advantageously. Caroline has the advantage of having no embarrassing mother!
This is not the only time in Jane Austen’s works that a member of the gentry marries a woman in trade for wealth. In Persuasion, Mr. Elliot is unwilling to wait to inherit Kellynch estate and he marries the daughter of “a grazier, her grandfather had been a butcher” (Ch 21). He is the heir presumptive to a baronetcy as well. It is implied that the wealthy heiress Sophia Grey who marries Willoughby in Sense & Sensibility gained her fortune from trade as well.
We are told in Mansfield Park that at least £10,000 gives a woman an “equitable claim” on marrying a baronet. When Mary Crawford arrives at Mansfield with her beauty, accomplishments, and fortune of £20,000, she is fully confident that she could marry the future heir to Sir Thomas’s baronetcy if she wished. Her half-sister Mrs. Grant is sure her sister is worthy, “the eldest son of a baronet was not too good for a girl of twenty thousand pounds, with all the elegance and accomplishments which Mrs. Grant foresaw in her” (Ch 4).
Mary Crawford is the daughter of a gentleman, which makes her slightly different than Caroline, but mere rank can only do so much. Lady Catherine is not wrong that Elizabeth Bennet, with no connections to speak of, no fortune, and no family, is not in the same sphere as Mr. Darcy despite being the daughter of a gentleman. The Bingleys go to London and put in the hours for what we would now call networking. The Bennets on the other hand never go to London; even when Jane and Elizabeth visit, they stay with their relations in trade. Mrs. Gardiner admits that her family doesn’t move in the same circles as the Bingleys.
I took this all into consideration when I wrote my first novel, Prideful & Persuaded. Caroline Bingley, the heroine of my tale, goes to Bath to find a husband. There she meets Sir Walter from Persuasion, an impoverished baronet, Tom Bertram from Mansfield Park, the next heir to a baronetcy and a good estate, and Frederick Tilney from Northanger Abbey, the eldest son of wealthy member of the gentry. All of them have motives wanting to marry quickly and well. Why not choose a rather handsome heiress, with good manners, accomplishments, and £20,000? Especially that £20,000…
To see who Caroline chooses, check out my novel