DD5 – Pride and Prejudice
I know, it’s more than a little boring to keep rereading I’m a fan of Pride and Prejudice. In case you missed this, it’s a novel I love! More than once I have referred to it, commenting on the fact that some writers have the knack of opening a novel in such a way I can’t forget. How can I stop quoting the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. That sentence is firmly lodged in my brain, a reminder to read about Elizabeth Bennett and Mr (Fitzwilliam) Darcy once again, and luxuriate in the precise description of the fun, foibles and failures of relationships. Was there a time in the past when single men with money ‘were in want of a wife’? What a foolish question: yes! Was there a time in the past when mothers were keeping an eye out for young men with money, and therefore an ideal match (catch?) for their daughters? Another foolish question; of course there was. Equally, we might add there are mothers and fathers today with the same concerns. There lies the power of that simple sentence: it is about something universal, even if the mores, the class prejudices, the relationships between the sexes, and so many other things have changed. The setting for Pride and Prejudice is almost ancient history, but the underlying story is timeless.
It’s not just the setting is so far away from contemporary life, that is also true of many of the issues on which the plot of Pride and Prejudice depends. Jane Austen is writing about life in an essentially patriarchal society, where agreement for a woman to get married is dependent on parental, oops, on a father’s permission; where men work, and women stay at home; and where the class structure of society was clear and accepted. However, settings are no more that, and the core of the book is about moral judgements and what it means to be a ‘good’ person. For that reason, this novel is timeless. Now, what follows is a brief spoiler, as I am going to summarise the plot: most people know the story anyway, and, in a sense, the bare bones of the story are not important. It is a ‘classic’ romance based on misunderstandings.
Let’s get rid of the plot. Mr. Bennet, currently the owner of the Longbourn estate has the unenviable (?) task of dealing with five daughters. What’s more, his property is entailed, to be passed on to a male heir, a Mr Collins, when he dies. To add to the pressure, Mrs Bennet lacks an inheritance, so the family will be poor when Mr Bennet dies. The issue is clear to Mrs Bennet: at least one of those five daughters must marry someone rich enough to support the others. When Mr. Bingley, an ideally rich bachelor arrives to stay at nearby Netherfield, he gives Mrs Bennet hope, because, as we learnt at the start, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’.
If that’s the setting, then we need an event to set things moving. Attending the Netherfield Ball, the Bennets meet Mr. Bingley, his two sisters and Mr Darcy, his ‘dearest friend’. Mr. Bingley is universally admired; while Mr. Darcy, said to be twice as wealthy as Bingley, appears haughty and aloof, declining to dance with Elizabeth, the second oldest of the Bennet daughters, observing she is ‘not handsome enough’. We’re off! Elizabeth is deeply offended, while Darcy secretly begins to find himself drawn to Elizabeth as they continue to encounter each other at social events, coming to appreciate her wit and frankness.
Next, we meet Mr Collins, the heir to the Longbourn estate, who visits the Bennet family intending to find a wife among the five Bennet girls. He is encouraged by his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who is also Darcy’s aunt. He decides Elizabeth would be an ideal wife. If that were not enough complications (necessary in any good novel) the Bennet family meet George Wickham, an army officer, who tells Elizabeth about Darcy’s horrible past actions towards him. Elizabeth, given what she’s learnt from her meetings with Darcy, believes every word. Now it’s time for serious matchmaking. Mrs. Bennet hints loudly that she expects Jane and Bingley to become engaged. Elizabeth rejects Mr. Collins’ marriage proposal, to her mother’s fury (and her father’s relief). Having heard Mrs. Bennet’s views and disapproving of the marriage, Darcy joins Bingley in a trip to London and convinces him to stay away from Netherfield. Jane goes to London to raise her spirits, while Elizabeth’s dislike of Darcy grows as she suspects, correctly, he was responsible for Bingley’s departure.
Months pass and Elizabeth visits the now married Mr. Collins, and they are all invited to Rosings Park, Lady Catherine’s home. Darcy and his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, are also there. Fitzwilliam tells Elizabeth how Darcy recently saved a friend, presumably Bingley, from an undesirable match, obviously to Jane! Darcy proposes to Elizabeth, declaring his love for her, despite her low social connections! She is shocked, and rejects him angrily, saying that he is the last person she would ever marry and that she could never love a man who caused her sister such unhappiness; she further accuses him of treating Wickham unjustly. Somewhat carelessly, Darcy boasts about separating Bingley and Jane. He also dismisses the accusation regarding Wickham without addressing it. Are you following?
However, a little later a somewhat chagrined Darcy gives Elizabeth a letter, explaining that Wickham, the son of his late father’s steward, had refused the ‘living’ his father had arranged for him and was instead given money for it. Wickham squandered the money and tried to elope with Darcy’s 15-year-old sister, Georgiana, hoping to get hold of her considerable dowry. He adds that he separated Jane and Bingley because he believed her indifferent to Bingley and because of the lack of propriety displayed by her family. Elizabeth now feels ashamed, both by her family’s behaviour and her own prejudice against Darcy.
Months later, Elizabeth accompanies friends on a tour of Derbyshire, and one day they visit Pemberley, Darcy’s estate, in the belief he is away. Of course, he returns unexpectedly (!) and behaves very thoughtfully to Elizabeth and the Gardiners. Elizabeth is surprised by Darcy’s behaviour, beginning to regret her rejection of his proposal. Then she receives news that her sister Lydia has run off with Wickham. She tells Darcy, who races off. Some time later we learn Wickham agreed to marry Lydia and Lydia tells Elizabeth that Darcy was at her wedding. Although Darcy had sworn everyone involved to secrecy, Elizabeth discovers he was the person who had arranged the wedding, and ensured it took place at his expense.
Time to get things sorted out. Bingley and Darcy return to Netherfield. Jane accepts Bingley’s proposal. Lady Catherine, having heard rumours that Elizabeth intends to marry Darcy, visits her and demands she promise never to accept any such proposal, as she and Darcy’s late mother had already planned his marriage to her daughter Anne. Elizabeth refuses and asks the outraged Lady Catherine to leave. Darcy, heartened by his aunt’s indignant relaying of Elizabeth’s response, proposes to her once again and is accepted.
Got all that? In many ways, it’s a classic romance. Pride and Prejudice has been made into several films and television series, and, notably, also into a Bollywood version, Bride and Prejudice: The Bollywood musical is set in contemporary Amritsar, India. It’s a hoot!
So much for the story. It’s one of the classic story structures – number 3. You know them all, of course: standard plot 1, girl meets boy, they are shy, but manage to get it together, and live happily ever after; plot 2, boy and girl go out with another couple, each realise they love the other’s partner, and they sort it out, swop, and get married to each other; plot 3, girl meets boy and dislikes him, but they manage to get through prejudice and misunderstandings, discover true love, and all ends up happily ever after. If it is judged on the bare bones of the story, then Pride and Prejudice would scarcely stand out from dozens, possibly thousands of other novels like it. The structure of plot 3 keeps many stories alive.
Perhaps it is the characters. Elizabeth Bennet is intelligent, attractive, cautious and anxious to look after others: yes, makes for a great central character. Darcy comes across as another male prig (or pig?), conceited, dismissive, and proud. Stock male, I guess. There are some other delights. Mrs Bennet is wonderful, a shrewish, pushy, socially deaf woman, who is indefagtible in pushing her daughters, yet also flexible enough to keep changing targets: if one man falls out of favour, or is stolen by another, then she quickly picks an alternative. Most of the others are fairly stock characters, ranging from silly or shy sisters through to cads, fools and bounders. Oh, I nearly forgot Mr Bennet, who does an excellent job of hiding away most of the time. He was an easy choice , someone with whom I could readily identify!
No. Reading Pride and Prejudice is like watching a play. You can enjoy the sets and the actors, and most outcomes are unsurprising (the opposite of watching the everlasting stage version of Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap!). Rather, what makes a fiction memorable is the language, and so it is in Austen’s novel. In that ability, she is peerless.
George Sainstbury, and English critic in the late 19th and early 20th Century, put it well in his 1894 Preface to an edition published some 81 years after its first appearance. He tells us the book was first written when Jane Austen was 21 years old, but was revised and not published for several years. His Preface is long, but its core is clear: “I think, however, though the thought will doubtless seem heretical to more than one school of critics, that construction is not the highest merit, the choicest gift, of the novelist. It sets off his [sic] other gifts and graces most advantageously to the critical eye; and the want of it will sometimes mar those graces—appreciably, though not quite consciously—to eyes by no means ultra-critical. But a very badly-built novel which excelled in pathetic or humorous character, or which displayed consummate command of dialogue—perhaps the rarest of all faculties—would be an infinitely better thing than a faultless plot acted and told by puppets with pebbles in their mouths. And despite the ability which Miss Austen has shown in working out the story, I for one should put Pride and Prejudice far lower if it did not contain what seem to me the very masterpieces of Miss Austen’s humour and of her faculty of character-creation … she knew two things which only genius knows. The one was humanity, and the other was art.”
And now I face a dilemma. The only way to appreciate the genius of Jane Austen is to read her work. If I can’t persuade you to do that, the next best is to quote from Pride and Prejudice, and the best part to quote is the whole book. Succumbing to some kind of good sense, I have chosen to stay with Chapter 1, as Mrs Bennet discusses the newly arrived Mr Bingley with her husband:
“But, my dear, you must indeed go and see Mr. Bingley when he comes into the neighbourhood.”
“It is more than I engage for, I assure you.”
“But consider your daughters. Only think what an establishment it would be for one of them. Sir William and Lady Lucas are determined to go, merely on that account; for in general, you know, they visit no newcomers. Indeed you must go, for it will be impossible for us to visit him, if you do not.”
“You are over scrupulous, surely. I dare say Mr. Bingley will be very glad to see you; and I will send a few lines by you to assure him of my hearty consent to his marrying whichever he chooses of the girls—though I must throw in a good word for my little Lizzy.”
“I desire you will do no such thing. Lizzy is not a bit better than the others: and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good-humoured as Lydia. But you are always giving her the preference.”
“They have none of them much to recommend them,” replied he: “they are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters.”
“Mr. Bennet, how can you abuse your own children in such a way? You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion on my poor nerves.”
“You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least.”
“Ah, you do not know what I suffer.”
“But I hope you will get over it, and live to see many young men of four thousand a year come into the neighbourhood.”
“It will be no use to us, if twenty such should come, since you will not visit them.”
“Depend upon it, my dear, that when there are twenty, I will visit them all.”
Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develope. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married: its solace was visiting and news.”
Just a sample, but already it is clear that Mr Bennet is both mischievous and rather lazy, Mrs Bennet excitable and ambitious, and Jane Austen manages to convey so much in a mere thirty or so lines. We quickly understand their relationship, and we are already smiling at Mr Bennet’s gentle but sarcastic jabs. Mrs Bennet is hard to like, and yet a reader can’t help but feel some sympathy. As for Elizabeth, before she’s appeared we know she will be different. It is deft, elegant writing, and I’m with George Saintsbury, in this book it is genius. Her characters are timeless. She weaves her magic almost imperceptibly.
Did I say ‘magic’. If I find Jane Austen’s writing magic, it’s the magic of the conjuror, of sleight-of-hand, prestidigitation (quick writing fingers?), the magic of creating whole and real characters with a few words, conjuring emotions with a few carefully constructed phrases. All of which might suggest her task was easy, the reception enthusiastic. No so. As is true for magicians, what we see hides the hours of work required to achieve the end.
She began her first full-length novel before 1796, but Sense and Sensibility didn’t appear until 1911. She started a second, First Impressions, completing the initial draft by August 1797, aged 21. First Impressions became the family’s ‘established favourite’, but the revised version, Pride and Prejudice, did not appear until 1813. Publication should have been a cause for celebration, but this was when the novel was becoming devalued. Reviewers dismissed her work as part of a feminine genre, what George Eliot (using her nom de plume) would later call “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” The novel, as the go-to genre for female authors, was therefore both obvious choice and poisoned chalice for Jane Austen. Only her own perseverance ensured all her novels published, and then only when she was in her 30s (and even then, all listed as ‘By a Lady’). The text might be magic, but the task was unrelenting and unrewarding. Jane Austen died in 1817, with her name still unacknowledged in print.