The following day, Elizabeth takes a walk and runs into Darcy, who gives her a letter. He walks away, and Elizabeth begins to read it. In the letter, Darcy again admits to attempting to break Bingley’s romance with Jane, but he defends himself by arguing that Jane’s attachment to his friend was not yet strong enough to lead to heartbreak. He adds that he did not wish Bingley to involve himself with the social encumbrance of marrying into the Bennet family, with its lack of both wealth and propriety. In relation to Wickham, the letter states that Darcy did provide for him after his father’s death and that the root of their quarrel lay in an attempt by Wickham to elope with Darcy’s sister, Georgiana, in the hopes of obtaining her fortune.
Elizabeth is stunned by this revelation, and while she dismisses some of what Darcy says about Jane and Bingley, his account of Wickham’s doings causes her to reappraise the officer and decide that she was probably wrong to trust him. Her feelings toward Darcy suddenly enter into flux.
Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam leave Rosings. A week later, Elizabeth departs the parsonage, despite Lady Catherine’s insistence that she stay another two weeks. Before Elizabeth leaves, Mr. Collins informs her that he and Charlotte seem to be made for one another (which is clearly not true). He wishes Elizabeth the same happiness in marriage that he himself enjoys.
After a short stay at the Gardiners’s London house, Elizabeth, joined by Jane, returns home. The two are met by Catherine and Lydia, who talk of nothing but the soldiers as they ride home in their father’s coach. The regiment is to be sent to Brighton for the summer, and the two girls are hoping to convince their parents to summer there also. In the course of the conversation, Lydia mentions, with some satisfaction, that Wickham is no longer interested in Miss King, who has gone to Liverpool to stay with her uncle.
Mr. and Mrs. Bennet welcome their daughters home, and the Lucases come for dinner. Lydia prattles about the exciting coach ride and insists that the girls go to Meryton to see the officers. Not wanting to see Wickham, Elizabeth refuses.
Elizabeth tells Jane the truth about Wickham. They debate whether to expose him publicly, ultimately deciding against it. Meanwhile, Mrs. Bennet continues to bemoan the loss of Mr. Bingley as a husband for Jane and voices her displeasure at the happy marriage of Charlotte and Mr. Collins. Lydia is invited to spend the summer in Brighton by the wife of a Colonel Forster. Mr. Bennet allows her to go, assuming that the colonel will keep her out of trouble.
Elizabeth sees Wickham once more before his regiment departs, and they discuss Darcy in a guarded manner. Elizabeth avoids any mention of what she has discovered. The soldiers leave Meryton for Brighton; Kitty is distraught to see them go and even more distraught that her sister is allowed to follow them.
In July, Elizabeth accompanies the Gardiners on a tour of the Derbyshire countryside, and their travels take them close to Darcy’s manor, Pemberley. Hearing that Darcy is not in the neighborhood, she agrees to take a tour of the estate.
Darcy’s letter begins a humbling process for both Elizabeth and him, which results in a maturation of each of their attitudes toward the other. In Darcy’s case, the rejection of his proposal strikes a blow to his pride and compels him to respond to Elizabeth’s anger. The resulting letter reveals to Elizabeth how she misjudged both him and Wickham. With the extent of her mistaken prejudice suddenly apparent, she is humbled enough to begin to look at Darcy in a new light.
Some critics maintain that Darcy’s letter is unrealistic, contending that such a proud and reserved man would never reveal so many details of his private life. In this view, the letter functions primarily as an artificial device through which Austen is able to introduce a large quantity of information while vindicating Darcy. One can argue, however, that the “dreadful bitterness of spirit” in which Darcy claims to have written the letter explains its uncharacteristic nature. Regardless of its realism, the letter serves its purpose: it reveals the truth about Wickham’s relationship to Darcy and consequently shifts sympathy from Wickham to Darcy. It is interesting to note that the idea of a man eloping with a young woman was clichéd in the literature of Austen’s era; nevertheless, its appearance in Pride and Prejudice serves a vital function, as it later provides Darcy with a motive (besides his love of Elizabeth) for helping Lydia after she elopes with Wickham.
After the reception of the letter, the novel contrives to separate Darcy and Elizabeth, giving each of them space in which to adjust their feelings and behavior. In the meantime, Austen lays the groundwork for Lydia’s whirlwind romance with Wickham and establishes a contrast between Elizabeth’s maturity concerning Darcy and Lydia’s girlish imprudence. Whereas Elizabeth assumes a passive stance in matters of love, consenting to go to Pemberley only because she thinks Darcy will not be there, Lydia actively pursues her beloved officers and stakes her claim to Wickham now that he has lost interest in Miss King: “I will answer for it that he never cared three straws for her.”
That Mr. Bennet is unaware of Lydia’s infatuation with the officer and permits her to follow the militia to Brighton reminds us of his irresponsible detachment from family life. Because of their decision not to expose Wickham, Jane and Elizabeth are also partly responsible for Lydia’s imminent romance. Darcy maintains a similar silence about Wickham’s past, which brings him into the beginnings of an alignment with Elizabeth.