When Elizabeth returns to her inn, she finds two letters from Jane: the first relates that Lydia has eloped with Wickham, the second that there is no word from the couple and that they may not be married yet. Elizabeth panics, realizing that if Wickham does not marry Lydia, the reputations of both Lydia and the entire family will be ruined.
As Elizabeth rushes out to find the Gardiners, Darcy appears and she tells him the story. Darcy immediately blames himself for not exposing Wickham, and Elizabeth blames herself for the same reason. She decides to return home immediately. After an apology to Darcy and his sister for breaking their dinner engagement, Elizabeth and the Gardiners hasten back to the Bennet home in Longbourn.
On the way home, Mr. Gardiner attempts to reassure his niece that Wickham will certainly marry Lydia because he will not want his own career and reputation ruined. Elizabeth replies by telling them generally about Wickham’s past behavior, without revealing the details of his romance with Darcy’s sister. When she gets home, Elizabeth learns that her father has gone to London in search of Lydia and Wickham. Mrs. Bennet, of course, is hysterical, blaming Colonel Forster for not taking care of her daughter. In private, Jane assures Elizabeth that there was no way anyone could have known about their sister’s attachment to Wickham. Fretfully, they examine the letter that Lydia left for Colonel Forster’s wife, in which she looks forward to signing her name “Lydia Wickham.”
Mr. Gardiner follows Mr. Bennet to London and writes to Longbourn a few days later with the news that the search has been unsuccessful so far. He reports that Mr. Bennet is now going to every hotel in turn looking for the couple. Meanwhile, a letter arrives from Mr. Collins that, in his usual manner, accuses the Bennets of poor parenting and notes that Lydia’s behavior reflects poorly on the family as a whole. More time passes before Mr. Gardiner writes to say that attempts to trace Wickham through friends and family have failed. The letter further says, to Mrs. Bennet’s consternation, that Mr. Bennet is returning home.
Two days after Mr. Bennet returns to Longbourn, Mr. Gardiner writes to tell him that Wickham and Lydia have been found and that Wickham will marry her if the Bennets will guarantee him a small income. Mr. Bennet gladly acquiesces, deciding that marriage to a scoundrel is better than a ruined reputation.
The Bennets assume that the Gardiners have paid Wickham a sizable amount to get him to agree to the wedding. Not “a farthing less than ten thousand pounds,” Mr. Bennet guesses. The Bennets assume that they owe a deep debt to their relatives. Mrs. Bennet is deliriously happy at having Lydia married, even when her husband and daughters point out how much it has probably cost. Her happiness is tempered when her husband refuses to allow Wickham and Lydia to visit or to provide his newly married daughter with money to purchase clothes.
The plot, which had slowed since Darcy’s proposal, now picks up speed as it rushes toward its conclusion. Amid the turmoil of Lydia’s folly, Elizabeth turns immediately to Darcy, illustrating the closeness developing between them. Their shared sense of guilt about failing to expose Wickham’s true nature (which they believe would have prevented the elopement) aligns them emotionally and gives them a common purpose.
Though she and her husband are obviously at fault, Mrs. Bennet reacts to the news of Lydia’s elopement by blaming Colonel Forster. The Bennet parents come across as highly inadequate at this point in the text—Mrs. Bennet because of her stupidity and Mr. Bennet because of his refusal to take responsibility for his children. The issue for Jane and Elizabeth about family connections has receded somewhat into the background, but here it reappears and reminds the reader that the Bennet parents’ lack of refinement still threatens the prospective romances of the two eldest Bennet daughters.
During the crisis, the Gardiners again step forward to act responsibly. It is Mr. Gardiner, rather than Mr. Bennet, who takes charge of the search in the city—Mr. Bennet even returns home after a time. (Mrs. Bennet’s fear that her husband will die in London and leave her destitute typifies her general tendency to ignore real problems and magnify trivial ones.) It is not terribly surprising that Mr. Gardiner apparently finds Lydia, or even that he apparently pays Wickham to convince him to marry her. He is simply filling the adult role that the Bennet parents have vacated.
Pride and Prejudice is critical of the difficulties faced by women in English society of the period. Whereas Austen passes judgment on both the practice of entailment and the necessity of marriage for women to avoid public scorn (which leads to Charlotte’s union with Mr. Collins for practicality’s sake), she does not question the idea that living with a man out of wedlock ruins a girl. Elizabeth, the voice of reason and common sense at this point in the novel, condemns Lydia’s behavior as “infamy” and declares that if Lydia does not marry Wickham, “she is lost forever.” The only voice of moral relativism belongs to Mrs. Bennet, who is so happy to have Lydia married that she does not care about the manner of the marriage’s accomplishment. While Lydia may have escaped social stigma, Mr. Bennet still condemns her and Wickham, saying, “I will not encourage the impudence of either, by receiving them at Longbourn.” Though she criticizes sexism, Austen lets bourgeois morality alone.