It’s a universally-acknowledged truth around my house that a bit of Austen is a refreshing palate-cleanser. It’s been a few years since I read Pride and Prejudice, so I thought it high time for another visit with an old friend. Plus, I have cooked up this scheme for the next month: read Death Comes to Pemberley (especially since the adaptation is coming to Masterpiece!), Longbourn, and the Bridget Jones’s Diary set (I’ve read the first two and have finally overcome my reluctance to read the Darcyless third–but there had better be some Daniel Cleaver in there, that’s all I’m saying…). We’ll see how those go.
But Pride and Prejudice: otherwise known to most people as that time Colin Firth jumped in a lake and became a sex icon. Or, if you’re that sad sack heroine Jane Whatsherface from Austenland (see? I’m already forgetting, THAT’s how bad it was), Pride and Prejudice is your porn. I’ve even heard people sneeringly refer to Pride and Prejudice as chick lit, or they take Mark Twain’s desire to hit Austen over the shinbone to heart. When you read a barebones Wikipedia summary, it certainly seems girl-focused: Elizabeth Bennet is a feisty young woman in Regency England, one of five sisters whose only way out of a certainly destitute future is to marry well. When a rich man and his friends rent a large house in the neighborhood, Elizabeth comes face-to-face with the snobbish but handsome and wealthy Mr. Darcy and takes an instant dislike to him. Her sister Jane falls in love with Mr. Bingley, but a series of misfortunes separate them. How these stories merge ties neatly together at the end.
Naysayers begin the eyerolling here. Maybe it’s time to talk honestly about what Pride and Prejudice is really all about.
Yes, there is a lot of marriage happening. Because marriage happened in England. It happened quite a bit because women, deprived of education and often a respectable occupation to keep themselves, mothers, and siblings afloat, had two jobs: get married and produce heirs. That’s extremely grim, especially when you consider that most marriages looked like this:
But seriously, when your choice is to marry–even a pedantic, self-important little toad like Mr. Collins–or starve, you marry. Whether or not it makes you happy, you marry and suffer the consequences that follow. You bear a man’s children, whether you like him or not. That’s so dark. Austen really brings up the problems of a faulty match and the worries about money and status when money and status were *everything* to having a comfortable life. And if you were a woman, your worries doubled. Especially if you had neither the dowry nor the beauty to capture an “eligible” (never mind good or worthy) husband.
Of course, Austen mines it all with a gorgeously sly sense of humor. She pokes fun at snobbery, at foolishness, at materialism, you name it. The way she crafts the conversations between Miss Bingley and Mr. Darcy are particularly delicious. One of my favorite lines from the novel comes after Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and Caroline Bingley have all discussed what it means to be an accomplished woman (Chapter 8):
“Eliza Bennet,” said Miss Bingley, when the door was closed on her, “is one of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex by undervaluing their own; and with many men, I dare say, it succeeds. But, in my opinion, it is a paltry device, a very mean art.”
“Undoubtedly,” replied Darcy, to whom this remark was chiefly addressed, “there is meanness in all the arts which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation. Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable.”
Miss Bingley was not so entirely satisfied with this reply as to continue the subject.
If you’ve never read Pride and Prejudice, you must. Forget about the Darcy fangirling and read it for what it is: a funny, darkly insightful novel on human nature and a society that placed importance on class and patriarchy.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Darcy fangirling.
At this moment, I think he’s saying, “Hey Girl, I really like that you improve your mind from extensive reading.”
Naturally, like Elizabeth Bennet, I take this injunction quite seriously:
After all, men of sense do not want silly wives.