It is a daunting prospect to review Pride and Prejudice: where do you begin? This is the fourth time I’ve read it, and I know I love it, but why? The story is well-known, and despite being written over two hundred years ago, it has an enduring quality about it.
Pride and Prejudice is a classic comedy. Not a laugh a minute, but there is a subtle flow of humour that ebbs throughout it. Jane Austen, her own narrator, constantly picks fun at the social customs of the time. I think Mr and Mrs Bennet are one of the best double-acts that have graced the pages of a novel. Jane Austen writes incredible dialogue (accepting that the manner of speaking is dated), with some hysterical one liners. When Elizabeth Bennet turns down Mr Collins’ marriage proposal, Mrs Bennet appeals to her husband to make her daughter see sense, and threatens not to engage with her again if she refuses him. Her father 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 to you again if you do not marry Mr Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”
In the protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Austen delivers a strong and likeable character. Elizabeth is feisty and quite mischievous. She is painted as head-strong, but we also learn that Elizabeth has great powers of reasoning and self-reflection. Elizabeth develops and learns. If Mr Darcy’s Achilles heel is his pride, then Elizabeth’s is her prejudice. At the outset they seem an unlikely couple, but Jane Austen creates a spark of passion between them, one that you do not see between others in the book. Miss Bennet and Mr Bingley are more obviously the ‘beautiful couple,’ who have obstacles of their own to overcome, but it is in the potential relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth that you see the most promise, and fun. The reader wants them to be united.
In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen depicts plenty of relationships that are stale, at best. Mr and Mrs Bennet’s marriage has no affection, no love and no pleasure in it. Mr Bennet, we are told, fell for Mrs Bennet’s beauty, but found little else of substance once his infatuation had subsided. You cannot help but think that Lydia, their silly daughter, takes after her mother. It is no wonder that Elizabeth is Mr Bennet’s favoured daughter.
After Elizabeth’s rebuttal of Mr Collins, he settles on Miss Lucas, Elizabeth’s best friend. This match is heralded as a good one, by all except Elizabeth, who cannot appreciate it. After Miss Lucas and Mr Collins marry, Elizabeth goes to stay with them for an extended period, and sees for herself what a lucky escape she has had. The stagnant marriage is a by-product of ‘duty,’ a theme that runs throughout the novel. The sense of duty is set out by the book’s infamous opening line.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
From the outset the fascinating, if in today’s world slightly vulgar, subject of fortune is introduced. It is here that we see how times have changed. In Jane Austen’s day it wasn’t vulgar talk. Everyone calculated fortune, and what the annual allowance might be – therefore the carriages, the size of household and everything else that might come with it. These are referenced throughout the book. Fortunes are tied in with the expectations and duties of society. Along with fortune, the hierarchies of society are explored, often to comic effect. There is no finer example than the esteemed Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who has a clear idea of what she expects, and will go to any length to let it be known. Another great scene in Pride and Prejudice is the confrontation between Lady Catherine and Elizabeth Bennet over Mr Darcy. Elizabeth will not give in to her, despite her inferior standing, much to Lady Catherine’s disgust.
Pride and Prejudice was written in 1813. Times were different, social pressures were also different, but what Jane Austen illustrates is that the human condition endures. In this respect, Pride and Prejudice is timeless. Jane Austen is a master observer of people, like Elizabeth Jane Howard since, and through this we learn that the heart and soul of man and woman doesn’t change over time. We all still want to fall in love, be loved, and be happy in love. For this reason alone, I hold Pride and Prejudice (and Jane Austen) in the highest regard.
Pride and Prejudice is part of my Reading Challenge for 2016, and is ‘the book you have read at least once.’ Another possibility was Josten Gaardner’s Through A Glass Darkly.