I have decided to have an October full of re-reading Jane Austen, and it may well spill over into November, because why not? Jane’s books were my entry into the comedy of manners, and I think of her as a friend, who introduced me to that lovely world of ballroom dances, English picnics and good manners.
Pride and Prejudice is perhaps her most famous book, with multiple adaptations in film and television. It remains popular and beloved to this day, after more than 200 years of its being published. The main characters are two strong and different personalities: Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. Darcy has immense pride in his upper class breeding and Elizabeth is prejudiced against him from the beginning of their acquaintance; after he makes a slight comment about her at a dance. Hence, the name of the book, we think; one is proud, one is prejudiced. Now on my fifth or sixth re-read of this book after many years, I realised that, both pride and prejudice are present in both Darcy & Lizzie.
Lizzie is proud (in the best sense, bless her) of her own superior understanding of human nature, which strenghthens her prejudice. She has not expected people to turn out so vastly different from her initial perceptions of them. Darcy is prejudiced against the lower classes in Regency England; he never expects them to be sensible or worthy in any way. The point where the novel achieves its true genius, in my opinion, is in the slight shocks it gives both the main characters and its readers. We see with Lizzie’s eyes; we judge and sympathise where she does, and the reckoning that our dear, brilliant heroine is erring, comes as a shock to us too. Elizabeth slowly learns to look beyond appearances and understands that “fair is foul, and foul is fair”, to quote Shakespeare. Wickham gives all the appearance of fairness, but is a real villain with mercenary motives. Darcy appears haughty and grave, but is truly an honest, good-hearted gentleman. Darcy has his own shocks to experience too. He learns that the upper classes may be ill-bred as well, as his aunt Lady Catherine shows him, with her mannerless behaviour; and that lower classes may be pleasant and sensible, such as the Gardiners. These experiences allow for such character growth in both individuals, and the slow, melting of Lizzie’s prejudice against Darcy is tender and beautiful.
As a contrast to these two, other couples are also shown in the book; Jane & Mr. Bingley, who are both extremely similar; and Lydia & Wickham, who have been binded together by nothing but extreme thoughtlessness and lust. As always, Jane Austen introduces a bevy of side characters, who make us laugh and make us wonder. We see such ridiculous people today too. The haughty Lady Catherine, who always speaks rudely and superciliously to everyone. The pompous Mr. Collins who uses big, flowery words and pays constant obeisance to Lady Catherine. Mr. Collins annoyed me beyond comparison, since I know a family who behave exactly like him, and whom I find impossible to deal with. Just as everyone sensible in the book find it impossible to deal with Mr. Collins! Mr. and Mrs. Bennett too, are characters worth studying. Both are supremely indifferent to the education or feelings of their daughters. Mr. Bennet, because of his extreme indolence and Mrs. Bennett, because she cares only about their marriage.
“There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”Elizabeth Bennett, Pride & Prejudice
Manners and behaviours form an important part of any Austen book. Pride and Prejudice, along with all Austen novels, is ultimately a deep satire of the narrow-minded, hypocritical society she lived in. There are many occasions in the book which made me think how much Jane Austen was ahead of her times. Any woman who sticks to her convictions and doesn’t allow society to shake her opinions is my ideal heroine, and Elizabeth Bennett is exactly such a woman. I can’t imagine it must have been easy for her in those days to refuse to “settle” with Mr. Collins or to stand her ground with Lady Catherine. She does so, on both occasions, without losing her temper. Her initial walk to Netherfield Park too: unaccompanied, enjoying the good weather and the rain; appears unconventional and unnecessary to her fellow women. Most unladylike behaviour, I suppose, in their viewpoint. But I like her for it. In such an era, when women were criticised for taking walks alone, or for refusing a ridiculous man, or for speaking up to their social superiors; Austen certainly created a rebel!
What I also enjoy a lot in these books, are the joyous endings and the beautifully-worded confessions of love. These are declarations from another age, which make them all the more magical. I will close with this beautiful statement of Mr. Darcy’s, which is how love feels like, as it creeps up on you; unknowing, innocent and transformational.
“I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”Mr. Darcy, Pride & Prejudice
I hope you find the same joy and enjoyment in Pride & Prejudice as I do. Happy Reading!