Fishing and Fever: Water in Pride and Prejudice

stories narrative poetics

Lyme Park, Cheshire served as the exterior of Pemberley, Darcy's estate in Derbyshire

Everyone knows the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice for Colin Firth spending a considerable amount of time either wet or in water—relaxing in a hot bath, covered in sweat fencing, jumping into a pond. No question, he is enjoying himself; he is in no danger of catching a life-threatening chill.

Now, going out in the rain means coming back to a lovely hot shower and perhaps a cup of hot chocolate. Storm Christopher brought a lot of rain last week. Even with the rain, we walked and exercised and went outdoors for at least an hour every day. As with Jane in Pride and Prejudice, we, too, were absolutely soaked; as with Peppa Pig, we, too, jumped in muddy puddles and had fun. Water has good connotations, especially when it is hot—a hot shower, a hot bath, a hot drink. In Jane Austen’s time, rain meant obstacles and illness.

If you look at word usage in Pride and Prejudice, the words ‘water’ and 'rain' are used five times, 'wet' and 'bathing' twice. That’s not a lot, considering Pride and Prejudice is 122,189 words.

A difficulty in analysing individual words arises because words contain other words. For example, rain pops up in a search for 'rain' in other words too: sprained, constrained, unrestrained, train, restrained, brain, refrain, grain. These words, however, also reveal a picture of Pride and Prejudice—one of restraint. Individual words out of context also don't give as much information as in a whole sentence. Placing the sentences side-by-side for analysis is difficult due to the length of Jane Austen’s sentences. Since Jane Austen wrote so well and each sentence is fun to read, the full quotes are below. And rather than word or sentence level analysis, the appearance of the words water, rain, bathing, and wet point to more macro-level plot points. For example, 'rain' is used four times about Jane’s visit to Netherfield.

Word Count
water 5
rain 5
bathing 2
wet 2

Rain

Chapter 7, Volume 1

“Can I have the carriage?” said Jane. “No, my dear, you had better go on horseback, because it seems likely to rain; and then you must stay all night.”

Jane was therefore obliged to go on horseback, and her mother attended her to the door with many cheerful prognostics of a bad day. Her hopes were answered; Jane had not been gone long before it rained hard. Her sisters were uneasy for her, but her mother was delighted. The rain continued the whole evening without intermission; Jane certainly could not come back.

“This was a lucky idea of mine, indeed!” said Mrs Bennet more than once, as if the credit of making it rain were all her own. Till the next morning, however, she was not aware of all the felicity of her contrivance. Breakfast was scarcely over when a servant from Netherfield brought the following note for Elizabeth:

My Dearest Lizzy,

I find myself very unwell this morning, which, I suppose, is to be imputed to my getting wet through yesterday.

Jane staying at Netherfield due to the rain and a fever is a key moment that shows Mrs Bennett’s character; more important is that this stay enables Darcy to fall in love with Elizabeth and sets up the rest of the novel.

Wet

In addition to Jane’s use of ‘wet’ in the last quotation, wet also appears here:

Chapter 16, Volume 1

Mr Wickham was the happy man towards whom almost every female eye was turned, and Elizabeth was the happy woman by whom he finally seated himself; and the agreeable manner in which he immediately fell into conversation, though it was only on its being a wet night, made her feel that the commonest, dullest, most threadbare topic might be rendered interesting by the skill of the speaker.”

Wet nights were not very special, even in Austen’s England. In this quotation, Wickham is so gifted at speaking he can make a damp night interesting—which also shows Austen’s skill at description. For people who have read the book many times, Wickham’s conversational skill is brought into even starker relief compared to Darcy’s inability to charm people or chit chat.

Chapter 17, Volume 1

If there had not been a Netherfield ball to prepare for and talk of, the younger Miss Bennets would have been in a very pitiable state at this time, for from the day of the invitation, to the day of the ball, there was such a succession of rain as prevented their walking to Meryton once.

Here, the use of rain to prevent Elizabeth and her family learning the latest news about the ball is a plot device to increase Elizabeth’s excitement about seeing Wickham at the ball. It also increases the disappointment Elizabeth feels at his absence and the anger she feels towards Darcy for his presumed crime in keeping Wickham away.

Bathing

Bathing is used twice, both negatively associated with Lydia’s foolishness.

Chapter 18, Volume 2

“Oh, yes!—if one could but go to Brighton! But papa is so disagreeable.” “A little sea-bathing would set me up forever.”

“In Lydia’s imagination, a visit to Brighton comprised every possibility of earthly happiness. She saw, with the creative eye of fancy, the streets of that gay bathing-place covered with officers. She saw herself the object of attention, to tens and to scores of them at present unknown”

Unlike Darcy’s bath in the BBC adaptation, bathing in the book is associated with the silliness of Mrs Bennet and Lydia.

Water

Chapter 19, Volume 2

Their parties abroad were less varied than before, and at home she had a mother and sister whose constant repinings at the dullness of everything around them threw a real gloom over their domestic circle; and, though Kitty might in time regain her natural degree of sense, since the disturbers of her brain were removed, her other sister, from whose disposition greater evil might be apprehended, was likely to be hardened in all her folly and assurance by a situation of such double danger as a watering-place and a camp.

Chapter 1, Volume 3

'They had now entered a beautiful walk by the side of the water, and every step was bringing forward a nobler fall of ground, or a finer reach of the woods to which they were approaching; but it was some time before Elizabeth was sensible of any of it; and, though she answered mechanically to the repeated appeals of her uncle and aunt, and seemed to direct her eyes to such objects as they pointed out, she distinguished no part of the scene.'

'It settled the matter; and they pursued the accustomed circuit; which brought them again, after some time, in a descent among hanging woods, to the edge of the water, and one of its narrowest parts.'

'Her niece was, therefore, obliged to submit, and they took their way towards the house on the opposite side of the river, in the nearest direction; but their progress was slow, for Mr. Gardiner, though seldom able to indulge the taste, was very fond of fishing, and was so much engaged in watching the occasional appearance of some trout in the water, and talking to the man about them, that he advanced but little.'

'After walking some time in this way, the two ladies in front, the two gentlemen behind, on resuming their places, after descending to the brink of the river for the better inspection of some curious water-plant, there chanced to be a little alteration.'

The little alteration described above being Elizabeth and Darcy starting to walk—and talk—together.

The 'water' in the first of the five examples is used negatively again with bathing, Mrs Bennet, and Lydia. In the other four, water is associated with Pemberley, fishing and Mr Gardiner. Fishing is a healthy, aristocratic pursuit, but this water also enables Elizabeth and Darcy to spend time together walking in the countryside, talking about something more sensible than a wet evening.

If you consider the current takes on costume dramas on streaming services, the original Pride and Prejudice might be a bit boring. However, the outrage and excess is more akin to Wickham; we all know what happened to people who listened seriously to Wickham.

While sitting by a river has never really appealed to me (unlike sea-fishing and eating fresh sushi, which does sound good), perhaps we shouldn't discount Austen's restraint, or the BBC adaptation and Andrew Davis's use of water.

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