Miss Bingley sends another letter, this one praising the beauty and charm of Darcy’s sister. The letter further states that Bingley will remain in London all winter, putting an end to the Bennets’s hopes that he might return to Netherfield. Elizabeth is very upset by this news and complains to Jane that people lack “merit or sense,” referring to Bingley for apparently abandoning Jane, and to Charlotte Lucas for agreeing to marry Mr. Collins. Meanwhile, Mrs. Bennet’s hopes of seeing her daughters wed fade rapidly. Mr. Bennet seems amused: he encourages Elizabeth’s interest in Wickham, so that she, like her sister, can be “crossed in love.”
Mrs. Bennet’s brother, Mr. Gardiner, comes to stay with the family. Immediately recognizing Jane’s sadness, the Gardiners invite Jane to accompany them back to London when they finish their visit, hoping that a change in scenery might raise Jane’s spirits. Jane accepts, excited also that in London she might get an opportunity to see Mr. Bingley. In the course of evenings spent with various friends and the military officers, Mrs. Gardiner notices that Elizabeth and Wickham, though not in any serious sort of love, show a definite preference for each other. Because of his lack of money, Mrs. Gardiner does not think of Wickham as a good match for Elizabeth, though she is fond of Wickham’s stories of his life around Darcy’s estate at Pemberley, which is near where Mrs. Gardiner grew up.
At the first opportunity, Mrs. Gardiner warns Elizabeth that Wickham’s lack of money makes him an unsuitable match. She further says that Elizabeth should be careful not to embarrass her father by becoming attached to Wickham. Elizabeth responds carefully, stating that she will try to keep Wickham from falling in love with her and that she devoutly wishes not to upset her father, but concluding that all she can do is her best.
After Jane and the Gardiners depart for London, Mr. Collins returns from a visit to his parish for his wedding. Elizabeth reluctantly promises to visit Charlotte after her marriage. Meanwhile, Jane’s letters from London recount how she called on Miss Bingley and how Miss Bingley was cold to her and visited her only briefly in return. Jane believes that Bingley’s sister views her as an obstacle to her brother’s marrying Georgiana Darcy.
Mrs. Gardiner writes to Elizabeth to ask about Wickham, and Elizabeth replies that his attentions have shifted to another girl, a Miss King, who has just inherited a large fortune. This turn of events touches Elizabeth’s heart “but slightly . . . and her vanity was satisfied with believing that she would have been his only choice, had fortune permitted it.” The narrator then goes on to point out that Elizabeth’s equanimity about Wickham trying to marry for money is somewhat out of joint with her disgust that Charlotte would do the same thing. As for Elizabeth, the very limited pain that Wickham’s transfer of affections causes her makes her believe she was never in love with him.
The first three chapters of Book Two introduce the Gardiners, who prove to be Elizabeth’s most sensible relatives. They often seem to act as surrogate parents to Jane and Elizabeth. The nurturing and supportive Gardiners take Jane to London to distract her from her unhappiness over Bingley. However amusing the reader finds him, Mr. Bennet, in contrast, seems to have no real understanding of when his children even need help. He prefers withdrawing into the peace of his library to coping with the problems facing his family. In particular, Mr. Bennet’s amusement at his wife’s distress and his suggestion that Elizabeth develop a crush on Wickham emphasize the extent to which he has abandoned the paternal role in the family. His wit and intelligence make him a sympathetic character in many ways, but he seems to absent himself from important matters. Later in the novel, his negligence allows Lydia to go to Brighton for the summer and then to elope with Wickham. At this point in the novel, Austen compels her reader to contrast Mr. Bennet’s unhelpful suggestion about Wickham with Mrs. Gardiner’s recognition that the officer is not a suitable match for her niece.
Mrs. Gardiner’s observation about Wickham raises an interesting irony. Wickham is not suitable for Elizabeth for the same reason Elizabeth is not suitable for Darcy. Elizabeth’s response to Mrs. Gardiner’s warning is equivocal, suggesting first that she recognizes this irony but also that she is aware that, though social strictures on marriage might be illogical and unromantic, were she to break them she would be negatively affecting her family. Elizabeth and Austen are both saved from having to worry about this moral conundrum when Wickham shifts his affections to the suddenly wealthy Miss King. The narrator’s comment that Elizabeth’s feelings about Wickham’s decision to marry for money do not match her feelings about Charlotte’s similar decision imply that there is a double standard at work in Elizabeth’s logic: though she seems to consider it acceptable for men to marry for money, she believes so strongly in love that she believes her female friends should ignore such considerations.
While Elizabeth may forgive Wickham for chasing Ms. King’s money, the reader is more likely to see him as a simple fortune hunter. By establishing this aspect of his character, Austen prepares the reader for the revelation that Wickham attempted to elope with Darcy’s sister in order to obtain her fortune. In this seemingly minor fact, which Elizabeth herself seems to brush aside, resides a clue to Wickham’s generally poor character.