Who hasn’t read this book? You, me, your mom, my mom, their moms, and their moms’ moms have all read it many times – and admired Mr. Darcy in the BBC miniseries as he jumps into the lake and climbs out in his white, very wet shirt. Everybody knows about Pride and Prejudice.
But I think it still does good to write reviews and opinions on older books, even if they’ve been written about and studied and over-analyzed a hundred thousand times (which probably isn’t an exaggeration for P&P), especially because our understanding of books changes as we age. The pleasure I get out of reading about Elizabeth’s acquisition of the more eligible bachelor in literary history has only been seasoned by the years of dating and marriage I’ve endured since I first read this book at 14. So here’s my review of P&P, based on my current perspective and understanding of literature, writing, and the great truths of life.
First, I can’t overstate how much I appreciate Jane Austen’s contempt for the wealthy gentry, which she makes no attempt to conceal. Although fairly revolutionary for its time, especially coming from a woman, P&P has remained incredibly popular because it unabashedly points its finger at the upper class and calls bullshit. Although Mr. Darcy, Mrs. Hurst, and Miss Bingley love to stand around the ballroom and relish in their affected shock at the bad behavior of the – if you will pardon my invocation of this phrase – basket of deplorables surrounding them, their own behavior and the behavior of the other elite in the story is equal to or surpasses that of Mrs. Bennett and her daughters in scope and shamefulness. The point Austen makes so well is that human nature doesn’t change by the mere acquisition of money; there is nothing inherently virtuous in having it, and indeed, the high-fallutin’ notions that often come along with wealth seem to encourage bad behavior rather than quell it.
Austen also points out, so well, how very stupid people look when they scramble over themselves to be acquainted with wealth and power. The most obnoxious adults in the book – Mr. Collins, Mrs. Bennet, and, arguably, Sir William Lucas – are at their worst when they are competing obsequiously for who has the most estimable connections and/or who will come into the most money via a propitious marriage. And although Austen generally treats this behavior with the silliness it deserves, she also has a certain empathy for how easy it is to fall prey. Elizabeth begins to sincerely regret her treatment of Mr. Darcy when she visits Pemberley and understands what a thing it would be to be its mistress. That even our incorruptible heroine can be swayed by the influence of wealth indicates, to me, that Austen understands the allure of power even as she derides its effects on people. Interestingly, Austen received a marriage proposal of her own that she initially accepted, from a man who seems to have been objectionable on every count. After considering overnight, Austen rejected the proposal the next day. But Austen knew well that the pressures of marrying wisely in order to secure a comfortable living for yourself and your family were significant for women of the time (and boy howdy, aren’t they still sometimes?).
Speaking of marrying well, with a failed marriage of my own below the belt at the ripe old age of 28, I’d like to testify how much more I now appreciate Elizabeth’s resolve to enter into marriage only when a sincere and mutual respect and affection exist. Having married for all the wrong reasons myself, and having pursued other relationships for all the wrong reasons, I think one of the reasons Pride and Prejudice has remained such a classic is because the relationships it portrays are all too reflective of the decisions we have to make in real life. Like Charlotte Lucas, I too have dated men because they were tolerably nice and remarkably successful, despite the fact that they were fundamentally idiots. The question of whether one should sacrifice being deeply in love in order not to be alone and/or to have financial security and/or to have children is a legitimate problem.
So, too, is the allure of the Mr. Wickhams of the world. Although Mr. Wickham is perhaps an extreme example of the suave and sexy bad boy, my dating experience and the world at large is resplendent with guys like him. They suck you in with their charm and their regimentals and their capital manners, and it isn’t until much later than you find yourself wondering why in the world you were flattered rather than alarmed that they professed to like you so much and made you their closest confidant when you hardly knew each other. They’re fun, but as Elizabeth learns soon enough, they are bad news bears.
The idea that it takes a long time before you truly understand someone’s character is a lesson I wish I had learned when I was younger; apparently reading P&P earlier in my youth failed to impart this message adequately. I guess that’s a lesson we all learn later rather than sooner, and in that regard Charlotte Lucas is right when she says that happiness in marriage is a matter of luck: I know a few couples who married an obscenely short time after meeting, and who are still very much happy and in love. This is luck. Most people who do that – myself included – end up either divorced or with someone whose character does not suit them. The truth is that there are many people who are happy to deceive others about their character while they get what they want. Less frequently does someone appear to be a self-righteous asshole vis-a-vis Mr. Darcy and then turn out to be ultimately generous and kind – but it does happen. People are complicated and it can take years to be certain of who they are at their core.
It also takes practice and wisdom to be wary of the real-life relationship pitfalls into which various characters stumble, but a look around the adult relationships in the novel provide an ample warning of what happens when these mistakes are made and the relationships are forged. Mr. Bennett married his wife when she was young, beautiful, and extremely foolish – and now he lives his life in his library, avoiding her and most of his children, unable to take anything seriously because if he did, he’d want to kill himself. Mr. Hurst is a wealthy degenerate, and his wife, despite her high manners and disdain of the Bennetts, seems to be unable to stand him. Mr. and Mrs. Forster encourage the bad behavior of Kitty and Lydia because it’s fun and funny, and they’re relatively juvenile themselves (else why would Lydia be Mrs. Forster’s particular friend?). Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner are the only two adults in the novel who seem to display an admirable level of reason, restraint, and mutual enjoyment in each other’s companionship. It’s no mistake that they’re the only emotionally healthy couple of the novel, and the ones whom Elizabeth (and eventually Darcy) most prefers to spend time with.
Ultimately, under the layers of humor and condescension and spectacular romancing, Pride and Prejudice is a well-delivered lecture on how our actions, not our wealth or social status, determine the kind of people we are – and how easy it is to deceive ourselves about our own actions when we are working hard to prop up the beliefs we hold about ourselves and the world around us. Everybody in the book, including the flawed Elizabeth, is actively deluding themselves in order to preserve their self-identity.
And, interestingly, it is only through dialogue that these prejudicial beliefs begin to crumble. Elizabeth and Darcy would never have reconciled if Darcy had thrown his hands up in resignation at Elizabeth’s rejection. Likewise, Elizabeth’s conversations with Jane and her Aunt Gardiner opened up her mind to the possibility that there were facts and circumstances she wasn’t taking into consideration. I think this is intentional; I think Austen wants us to know that, in addition to taking our time before we form opinions about others, the way in which to access correct relationship information is by having honest conversations and being forthcoming. Indeed, one of the most endearing things about Darcy is that he abhors “disguise “of any kind and is forthright even when it may be painful. I’m not sure that it’s necessary to always be quite as forthright as Darcy was when he admitted that he loved Elizabeth despite her inferior connections, but it’s no mistake that we are meant to admire a man whose discourse is honest to a fault.
Beyond the moralizing that occurs in Pride and Prejudice, the simple fact of the matter is that it’s just absolutely great writing. The dialogue is realistic and easy to follow, the characters are likewise realistic and develop nicely, and the book throughout prompts genuine laughs. Austen shares John Steinbeck and George Saunders’ penchant for delighting in the absurdity in human behavior, and I imagine if she had lived today, her material would reflect a much more explicit tone.
It’s both a pleasure and pain to reflect on how Jane Austen would have written had she been writing now. Unfortunately, she remained relatively poor and unknown throughout her lifetime, despite her novels’ success. At the time, most women published their novels anonymously, and the style of publishing meant the author incurred most of the risk and cost up-front. Austen never gained fame or fortune and died quite young, presumably from Addison’s disease. I would pay a lot of money to get her opinion on the bodice-ripping fan fiction that Pride and Prejudice spawned. Also her opinion on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
Anyway, if you haven’t read Pride and Prejudice, you should, and if you have, read it again. It’s a book that continues to delight and inspire in different ways throughout a lifetime, and I expect that when I’m 58 and have several more failed marriages behind me, I’ll appreciate it all the more.