What’s it all about?
Nearly everyone’s heard of the headstrong but charming Elizabeth Bennet and her aloof admirer Mr. Darcy. Bridget Jones, along with most every straight woman of a certain age, remembers the miniseries in which Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy jumps into a pond at his beautiful country estate Pemberly and, still dripping wet, encounters a mortified Elizabeth. Though a fun scene that well illustrates their relationship at that point in the novel, it does not occur in the original. Written at the end of the 18th Century, the novel is about an England that no longer exists, where rank was more important than character and, much like today, money was everything. Caricatures abound as we’re introduced to a family of five daughters, all of marrying age, their silly mother and sarcastic father and the neighbors that populate their day-to-day lives. The two oldest and only reasonable sisters are admired by a pair of rich friends, but misunderstandings and social rules that regulate what you can and cannot say abound, keeping them apart until the end of the novel. Along the way the reader is introduced to a plain woman who settles for a stupid and embarrassing husband for fear of being single forever, a fortune-hunting young man with good manners but awful vices and several people that, because of family titles, lands and money, view themselves as very important indeed and are able to more greatly influence society than their education, manners or abilities suggest they ought.
Why should I read this?
Jane Austen was praised for being able to illustrate her society as a whole on just two inches of ivory. This means that, by focusing on the day-to-day lives of women, she was able to open up to analysis and criticism a much broader spectrum of her society. Many people then and now think that our world is defined by the wars that we fight, but Austen manages to show that you can portray your society through its regular citizens living their daily lives.
However, some critics suggest that, in writing only about the upper reaches, Austen ignores vast swathes of society. I would first point out that Austen’s characters are much less homogeneous than they might first appear—while belonging primarily to the gentry, there are big differences in their circumstances, not unlike those between a member of the middle class that, while college-educated, lives paycheck to paycheck and the CEO of a large company. Vast indeed. As for the lives and voices of the lower classes in society, unfortunately in Austen’s time workers and servants had little or no voice and their stories, unless told by others, have mostly died with them. Novels written by working class men over one hundred years ago are being republished and studied by those that wish to read about this class in the words of those who actually belonged to it. Yet the few working class novels that exist were written by men in the late 19th Century and beyond: a novel written by and about women in the late 18th Century is capturing a segment of society that was also largely without a voice.
Jeffrey Eugenides’ aptly-named new novel is all about the kind of story Jane Austen popularized, The Marriage Plot. Romantic comedies today are crafted along similar lines: series of misunderstandings and often even initial dislike between the protagonists inevitably lead to their coming together happily-ever-after. The broad use of a formula that Austen perfected reminds us of her relevance today.
And while we don’t live in the rigidly rule-based, class-bound societies that Pride and Prejudice delineates, we in the western world, especially in America, though we labor under illusions of a class-free society, still live lives largely dictated by the classes into which we are born. While there is a level of class mobility that would have been unheard of in Austen’s time, the intellectual and financial elite tend to hail from privileged backgrounds. How many children of janitors or even, say, low-level managers go to Yale compared to the children of university professors or bankers? I like to imagine that if Lizzy Bennet were written today, she’d be a girl that grew up in the suburbs and went to her local state college and who, while out on the town one night, met a third-generation Harvard boy, Mr. Darcy.
A novel written by a woman when both the form and the sex of its author were largely denigrated, Pride and Prejudice has always been the most popular of Austen’s novels. Austen herself, though she had almost no contact with the literary greats of her time, was greatly admired by many of them for the incisive wit that so well captured and at times skewered the values of her society. Austen is one of those responsible for elevating the novel to the privileged realm it occupies today. She’s also very, very funny: much more biting than you’d imagine from a 200-year-old.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
One of the most popular first sentences ever written, this sets up the novel perfectly. While appearing authoritative, it is also arch and it takes a closer look to realize that what the narrator acknowledges as a platitude is in fact no such thing. Why would a rich single man in particular be in need of a wife? Rather, this is the wish of local society given voice. This distinction is the misunderstanding under which Mrs. Bennet labors throughout the novel and which her husband finds so much enjoyment in disappointing. It also sets up the conflict with Elizabeth’s sister, Jane and Mr. Darcy’s friend, Mr. Bingley, as well as the tensions between Elizabeth and Darcy themselves. While this novel initially subverts the expectations that such an opening sentence gives, by the end the novel has actually managed to prove the statement to be true, at least so far as it applies to the richest bachelor in the novel, Mr. Darcy. He tells Elizabeth when asking for her hand in marriage that it is only through her that he has learned to be a better man.
“‘I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,’ said Darcy, ‘of conversing easily with those I have never seen before.’
“‘My fingers,’ said Elizabeth, ‘do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do. […] But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I would not take the trouble of practicising.’
“Darcy smiled and said, ‘[…] You have employed your time much better. No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you, can think anything wanting. We neither of us perform to strangers.’”
This exchange between the two lovers does several things. It uses the analogy of piano-playing to illustrate the differing philosophies of the two characters. Elizabeth believes that even politeness must be practiced and that it is the least anyone in society can show to another, whether the individual, like Mr. Darcy, is rich enough to forgo politeness while still getting what he wants or not. Darcy sees this politeness as a performance and thinks that there are many better things to do with his time than to learn this skill that his nemesis, George Wickham, well-liked in society until he leaves town with a trail of debts and broken hearts behind, so excels at. Darcy also believes that he and Elizabeth are more alike than she wishes to acknowledge. When Darcy’s rich and titled but vulgar aunt Lady Catherine reminds Elizabeth that she needs to practice the piano, the reader again realizes that Lady Catherine’s nephew is discerning of Elizabeth’s other abilities in a way that his aunt has not the power to recognize. Finally, this passage teaches by example. Such a practice runs counter to popular texts of Austen’s time, like Fordyce’s Sermons, read to the girls by their officious cousin Mr. Collins earlier in the story, which attempt to educate young women by telling them how to behave. Austen here acknowledges another purpose for the novel—moral education through example. She believes in showing rather than telling. A very modern idea indeed.