Sometimes the characters who impress themselves on the memory are the ones we never see. Achilles in Ajax, Lord Byron in Arcadia, and Mrs. Long in Pride and Prejudice linger in the memory far longer than many characters who actually appear and play a part in the story, perhaps because they stimulate the imagination—because they become not people, but figures. They are not characters with particular qualities, but epitomes of characteristics.
No-one who has read Pride and Prejudice can forget the name of Mrs. Long, and yet we never see her. She is mentioned six times in the text, on each occasion described very differently by Mrs. Bennet—
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”
“I do not believe Mrs. Long will do any such thing. She has two nieces of her own. She is a selfish, hypocritical woman, and I have no opinion of her.”
“Mrs. Long told me last night that he sat close to her for half-an-hour without once opening his lips…. I do not believe a word of it, my dear. If he had been so very agreeable, he would have talked to Mrs. Long. But I can guess how it was; every body says that he is eat up with pride, and I dare say he had heard somehow that Mrs. Long does not keep a carriage, and had come to the ball in a hack chaise.”
“I will go to Meryton,” said she, “as soon as I am dressed, and tell the good, good news to my sister Philips. And as I come back, I can call on Lady Lucas and Mrs. Long….”
“…We must have Mrs. Long and the Gouldings soon. That will make thirteen with ourselves, so there will be just room at table for him….”
“…Mrs. Long said so too, for I asked her whether you did not. And what do you think she said besides? ‘Ah! Mrs. Bennet, we shall have her at Netherfield at last.’ She did indeed. I do think Mrs. Long is as good a creature as ever lived—and her nieces are very pretty behaved girls, and not at all handsome: I like them prodigiously.”
We see that Mrs. Long is an indispensable part of Mrs. Bennet’s social life—a source of invaluable information; a recipient of raptures, gossip and complaints; someone at a slight disadvantage, to be alternately sympathised with and dazzled with another’s splendour; a soothing source of congratulations when necessary; a social necessity and a social obligation.
We envision a typical figure of the English country society of the time: an ambivalent spectator, quick to sympathy and indignation; a voice in universal agreement, that expresses exactly what everyone else is thinking. But most of all, Mrs. Long epitomises the inexorable pressure of society, bringing the ridiculous affair from its sudden and riotous beginning to its inevitable denouement. She brings Mrs. Bennet the first news of Mr. Bingley’s arrival, and is the first to openly acknowledge the approach of the end.
She is also a mirror of Mrs. Bennet’s mood: when Mrs. Bennet is furious with her husband, she is a ‘selfish, hypocritical woman’; when Mrs. Bennet is delighted by Mr. Bingley’s open admiration of her daughter, she is ‘as good a creature as ever lived—and her nieces are … not at all handsome’ (with Mrs. Bennet, the force of commendation can no further go); when her pride is hurt, Mrs. Long, as someone in worse circumstances, corroborates her opinion and gives her someone to sympathise with; when she wants to invite Mr. Bingley to dinner, inviting Mrs. Long is a convenient necessity; when she has good news to relate, she must go and call on Mrs. Long. Mrs. Long fulfills Mrs. Bennet’s need for a confidante who cannot retaliate with her own triumphs—she has no carriage of her own, and her nieces are not at all handsome; but in return, Mrs. Bennet sympathises indignantly with her when she considers herself slighted. They are alternately in competition for the glories of a small town and solidarity against supercilious outsiders.
Who is Mrs. Long? Probably another Mrs. Bennet or Lady Lucas—another well-meaning, rather foolish woman, vocal, parochial and suspicious. She obviously has a penchant for gossip, but she also seems—despite Mrs. Bennet’s assertions to the contrary—a willing enough sympathiser in other people’s joys. But in the absence of a physical Mrs. Long, our imagination multiplies her into a hundred Mrs. Longs. We see a hundred women peering suspiciously through the windows of the Bennets’ house, jostling each other and whispering in excitement and sympathy. We see an invisible crowd of spectres sitting at table with the Bennets, listening critically to every word that is said. The name that creeps into every conversation, the eye under whose gaze every step is taken: the name and the eye of invisible, ubiquitous society. Mrs. Long may be an insignificant woman, but every action is taken under her gaze.
“…For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”
(All quotations are from the edition of Pride and Prejudice on Project Gutenberg—ebook no. 1342. A big thank you to the volunteers who produced this ebook!)