See title. ‘Nuff said.
…Okay, I’ll write a post anyway.
Like what is probably most women, I feel a special connection to Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, and not just because we share a name, though that’s probably part of it. But also because she’s an amazing character in an amazing novel that remains amazing after 200 years of being read by everyone and their great-grandmothers.
Everyone knows that P& P is one of the most significant works in the Western literary canon. Film versions and countless fan fictions have spawned an Austenian cult that continues to grow every day, and its female fan contingent is matched at this point probably only by Twilight’s. (God help us.) As mentioned in an earlier blog post (following my very first Austen reading, Sense & Sensibility), I grew up in the shadow of Austen without ever really engaging her directly. I knew the stories, appreciated the romance, lived the period, but didn’t understand how her narratives were much more than proto-rom-coms, entertaining and fluffy and supplying us the Mr. Darcy archetype that’s fed the fantasies of five generations.
But, long story short, turns out she’s an awesome frigin writer. It’s much more than a rom-com. Her sentences are beautiful, complex. Her characters live and breathe, even underneath the veneer of befuddling nineteenth-century etiquette.
(The thing that always gets me: the scene where Darcy and Bingley return to visit the Bennet sisters after months of absence, and the awkward, unresolved histories between Bingley and Jane, Darcy and Elizabeth just hang in the air, and the way everyone just freakin stands there and doesn’t bring up a goddam thing. I mean, I know miscommunication remains a major element in modern romance, but how frustrating, how infuriating is the women’s complete lack of agency in maneuvering these relationships—and even, sometimes, the men’s likewise powerlessness! Everyone was sitting around with their hands tied. Instead of a love rival or a bad breakup or a job in another city or a departing airplane, society was the dreaded third party that was preventing these perfect couples from getting together. To think that something like your dumbass sister eloping would prevent all of you from ever making a good match! Fuck, dude.)
And one of my favorite things about P & P in particular is its wicked sense of humor. I’m always slightly dumbfounded when I actually find something written over a hundred years ago to be funny. A somewhat tangential anecdote from my college music history class:
Our professor was reading letters that a young, li’l genius Mozart (who, btw, was born only 19 years before Ms. Austen) wrote to his sister while he and his father were traveling Europe. He was describing their day (and here I must paraphrase): “You’ll never believe what happened today, dear sister. Father and I left this morning to go to so-and-so’s house. We were wandering all through the alleys of Vienna. We stopped and got a bite to eat. We met such-and-such in the street. We turned a corner. Finally, we arrived at the large door of the house. And do you know what happened next? We went in!… Anyway, I hope this finds you well…” Total smartass, right? He also made some fart jokes, if I remember correctly.
Back to P&P. Elizabeth is sharp, intelligent, and not afraid to call people on their shit, at least as much as that was possible under that stifling 19th-century etiquette I was talking about. And on top of that she’s funny. So is her father, who blatantly singles her out as his favorite (which makes up for the fact that she’s her idiot mother’s least favorite). One of their preferred joke-butts is Mr. Collins, a cousin who proposes marriage to Elizabeth and who is also a complete and total bore, who can’t shut up about how awesome his old-lady patron is. But Mrs. Bennet was hoping they’d be a match; and when she finds out Elizabeth refused Mr. Coll proposal, she’s furious and threatens to disown her. She brings the case before her husband.
Mr. Bennet, droll as ever, replies, “An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents.—Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”
Later, after Jane accepts Mr. Bingley’s proposal, she wishes that Elizabeth would find a man who could make her just as happy.
Elizabeth replies, “If you were to give me forty such men, I never could be so happy as you. Till I have your disposition, your goodness, I never can have your happiness. No, no let me shift for myself; and, perhaps, if I have very good luck, I may meet with another Mr. Collins in time.” Zing!
Which brings me back to everyone’s favorite taciturn thousandaire bachelor, Mr. Darcy. What a stud. What a dreamboat. Basically, from the start, he seems like a jerk, he’s awkward, he’s entitled, he falls in love with Elizabeth, he makes a really bad first move (which, back then, was proposing marriage), then he makes up for looking like a jerk by being an all-around awesome guy for the rest of the book—including taking care of the whole sister-eloping mess and not taking credit for it. Everyone’s all like, “What? You’re into Mr. Darcy? We thought you hated him!” And Elizabeth is like, “I misjudged him. It was PREJUDICE.”* And this whole thing sets the stage for every other butting-heads-turned-perfect-match story that followed for the next two centuries.
*not actual quotes.
But in all seriousness, it’s a delightful, completely accessible romance between two well-written and complex characters, following a believable trajectory in a staidly exotic (or exotically staid) setting. The prejudgements, the misunderstandings, the social and familial constraints, the clipped and curt speeches masking profound emotions and desires– all make for an incredibly compelling narrative, one in which we are deeply sympathetic to Elizabeth’s situation. Just like Elizabeth, we find Mr. Collins ridiculous, we’re pissed at Lady Catherine, we’re taken in by Wickham, we can’t believe how nice Jane is to everyone. And most importantly we fall in love with Mr. Darcy.
Also, after reading (plain) Jane Eyre, I found it slightly reassuring to discover that both Darcy and Elizabeth are moderately attractive people. Does that make me shallow?