This is my seventeen-year-old, high-school-senior daughter’s favorite book. Followed closely by Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park and Emma, and anything else Jane Austen has written. Yes indeed, my daughter absolutely loves Jane Austen. She’s read, by her own admission, Pride and Prejudice at least a half dozen times.
My daughter is not an intellectual geek—not a library nerd with coke-bottle glasses and frumpy cardigans. She’s very stylish and a beautiful young woman (and a talented shopper, having bought enough clothes with her meager summer earnings to be able to sport a new outfit every day for the first three weeks of school). I’m only modestly biased. I’d know it, and admit it, if she were homely or bookish or nerdy. She’s not. So why this obsession over Jane Austen?
She told me to read Pride so that I might understand. I did. I am as mystified as ever. But then, I am also mystified as to the apparent obsession the literary community in general has over Pride. It seems to me that it is something like a Harlequin Romance, but set in late eighteenth century post-, or quasi-feudal manorial England, and written by someone with a good vocabulary and some decent insight into the human heart. Big Whoop.
Apparently among the landed gentry in England in those days, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Or so goes the opening line to the book. I stumbled over that one, right out of the gate. Because it isn’t altogether clear to me that all single men possessed of a good fortune in any age, not just those possessed of a good fortune during Austen’s particular age, must be in want of a wife, or that even most of them are. And why must the single man have a good fortune to be in want of a wife? Does that mean that the first purchase a man wishes to make when achieves a fortune is a wife? And how does the apparent fact that he needs a good fortune to be in want of a wife reflect on the essence of the transaction? Is it then really true that all women are whores, their only distinguishing feature being their purchase price? And later on in the book appeared a man (Wickham) who had not made a fortune, but was seeking one through marriage. Austen’s truth might have been “universally acknowledged”, but that by no means made it true. It was once a universally acknowledged truth that the sun revolved around the earth.
It’s hard to tell who believes and conveys this universal truth, as it isn’t clear who the narrator of the story is, except that she has a third-person omniscience about the hearts, minds and affairs of the landed gentry in turn of the century (18th to 19th) England, but mainly sees the world from Elizabeth’s point of view.
I think the initial universal truth (that was anything but) might have been rendered by Elizabeth’s version of the story narrator’s perspective, but can’t be sure, a condition (of uncertain perspective) that prevailed for me throughout the book. Is the narrator also more or less the heroine, Elizabeth? Or is she simply a wise observer who knows that our perceptions should be Elizabeth’s perceptions? I really couldn’t tell, but I do know that if questions about the narrator’s perspective loom larger in my mind than the story itself, then I’m not getting what the author intended from the telling. Austen reputedly first titled the story “First Impressions”. My first impression of the story was much like Elizabeth’s first impression of Mr. Darcy, the difference being that I never came around to seeing the true value of its character, as Elizabeth eventually does with Mr. Darcy.
Having referenced without a proper introduction three of the story’s main characters, allow me to sketch out the plot so that I can better explain my observations (spoiler alert, don’t read further if you are one of the few people who have never read the book or seen the movie and don’t yet want to know the ending–though it is readily predictable a few pages in). Elizabeth is one of five Bennett daughters, among no sons (poor fortune that, in primogeniturical* England). Daughters are a liability in that day and age, as wealth (which is almost wholly comprised of land) is held by men. Thus arises the compulsion to find them all suitable husbands, which is the central tension undergirding the story.
Every time a new eligible male arrives in close geographic proximity (either with the Army regiment in Meryton, or in Elizabeth and Jane’s case, with Mr. Bingley, who is friends with Mr. Darcy, in Netherfield—a manor local to the Bennett’s) to Derbyshire, the Bennett girls, and all the other girls around town, get all aflutter with expectation. Mrs. Bennett sets the tone with her silliness. Mr. Bennett, on the other hand, is the only sensible creature to be found, aside from Elizabeth, whose insights as to the various intrigues make her lively. Mr. Bennett long ago distanced himself from Mrs. Bennett’s shenanigans through cynical witticisms and a private library, where he routinely retreats. For me, he is the only likable, interesting character in all the book, but is one that is only sparely sketched.
The two youngest girls, Lydia and Kate, are also the biggest flirts (for want of a better word), hanging around the Army regiment as often as possible when it is quartered nearby, chatting up the officers there (it is only officers or gentry who interest them—the vast bulk of male humanity, and the core of the regiment’s strength in this case, being invisible to their upper-crust eyes). Lydia eventually elopes with one of the officers, after the regiment has moved on to different quarters and she has been visiting as the guest of its commanding officer and his wife. This is a very big, very bad deal. It’s like the rape of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, in the Bible. Or something. The object of her affections, Wickham, previously mentioned, had been run out of the regiment for failing to pay his debts, and sought the elopement as a covering excuse, even though the Bennett’s could nary afford to provide much of a dowry with the marriage even had Lydia and Wickham not so foolishly eloped.
The “pride” of the title refers to Mr. Darcy (or at least I think it does), who initially comes off as very pompous, when he first meets Elizabeth, at a ball or some other similar social affair these sorts of people continually attend—I really couldn’t deign to keep up. Wickham is initially thought to be the model of good manners and breeding by the girls, until Elizabeth finds out that Wickham, whose father was Mr. Darcy’s father’s manservant (or something like it) cheated Mr. Darcy, and tried to seduce his sister. Most of Mr. Darcy’s reputedly poor character and bad reputation among the girls could be ascribed to Wickham’s character assassinations, but imagine, it was Wickham who turned out to be the scoundrel. Darcy turned out to be not so prideful as Wickham turned out to be a fraud.
I’m not sure to what quarter the “prejudice” of the title should attach. I think it might be to Elizabeth, for she certainly was prejudiced against Mr. Darcy on the basis, mainly, of his reputation, but also of her first impressions of him. And she was also prejudiced to believe Wickham by his superficially suave and debonair style. But really, I can’t be sure. Truthfully, Elizabeth, who hasn’t much sense at all, still has more sense than the whole rest of the female characters in the book, combined (I’m trying to use commas as liberally as Ms. Austen, who, apparently, got a whole batch of them on sale down at the punctuation store, before she wrote the novel, which is drenched, with commas. The Brits, of that era, must have paused, quite frequently, for effect, or perhaps, to gather their thoughts.).
In the end, Elizabeth, after having first turned down Mr. Darcy’s proposal, which caught her by surprise, as did her subsequent feelings for him, ends up accepting his proposal. Elizabeth’s estimation of Mr. Darcy suspiciously changed just about the time she traveled out to his estate with her aunt and uncle and saw what great wealth he commanded and what great taste he possessed. Surely she felt that a man of such wealth and taste would be well served to purchase a bride like her, who though of lower station according to the very complicated class structure in post-feudal England that really only the English would understand, was quite his equal in every other regard. Surely! By the denouement, Jane, the sister closest to Elizabeth in age, is also married, to Mr. Darcy’s friend, Mr. Bingley. So Mrs. Bennett has got three of the five married off in the span of about a year, if my reading of the time line is reasonably close. Not bad work for one as silly as she. Mr. Bennett, for his part, must be particularly relieved. Ms. Austen did yeoman’s work in finding three-fifths of the Bennett clan suitable (except perhaps in Lydia’s case) mates in the span of three short “books” as she calls the sections of the novel, in what might appear to be acts in a play.
The Penguin Classics edition of the book came with not one, but two, forwards, or introductions. The first introduction, and by first I mean positioned at the front of the book before the text of the book begins— was the one written latest, by Vivien Jones. At 39 pages (if I am doing my Roman numeral interpretation correctly), with complementary notes and further references, including websites like The Jane Austen Society of North America, http.//www.jana.org/, it took two sittings to plow through. My daughter wisely never bothered to read it. I wonder though, if there is a Jane Austen Society of North America, does that mean there is one for South America and Europe, perhaps even Africa and Asia? And if there is, what in the world do these societies do?
The only memorable insight of Ms. Jones introduction was that Elizabeth exhibited the first inklings of feminism by her dash through the fields to visit her sister Jane when she fell ill at the Bingley’s. That’s not at all what I got from the episode, even after having had the idea implanted in my brain before reading it. What I got was that Elizabeth was a young, somewhat impetuous and carefree woman, as many young woman of any era certainly are, behaving just as one might expect of a young woman whose life had not yet resolved to full acquiescence to social mores and customs, ever mindful of the risk of impropriety. If that is the sort of spark that started women on the liberation movement that it appears is intended to give them the freedom to behave just as caddishly as men, then so much the better I suppose. But really, it seems more likely that Ms. Jones simply read feminism into the episode because that’s what she hoped to see. It seems Jane Austen’s writing serves as something of an ink-blot test for the literati, who reveal themselves by what they see in her writing.
The latter introduction (in the chronology of pagination, not in time—it was written in 1972, well before Ms. Jones’ introduction), penned by the now deceased Tony Tanner (you know a book has been around awhile when the intellectuals writing expositions on it are as dead as the author), also carried on for 39 pages. I wonder if that’s just coincidental. Mr. Tanner brought in all manner of meanings to the book, delving into its juxtaposition with the philosophy of Locke and Hume, for instance.
For my part, I drew very few philosophical insights from Ms. Austen. I was never aware that Locke or Hume much concerned themselves with romantic love or the social intricacies of manorial marriages, and of Hume, I’ve read most everything he published. I mainly know Locke for his political philosophy, the one that put property above all else on the rung of rights that accrue naturally to man. “Life, health, liberty and possessions” is how Locke formulated man’s natural rights, a listing that perhaps implies a hierarchy with property at the bottom, but one that was later clarified with Locke’s assertion that man has the right to extinguish the life of another to protect his property. It was Jefferson who changed Locke’s “possessions” to the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence. But apparently, for Elizabeth and all the rest of the girls, the pursuit of happiness effectively equates to the pursuit of a suitable marriage partner, and suitability in marriage is in large measure determined by the amount of property he commands, so either Locke or Jefferson would do. All of the female characters in Pride are resolutely materialistic. Only the reprobate males singularly are (Wickham is only concerned with money; Darcy, hardly at all). What, I wonder does that say about Ms. Austen’s view of late 18th/early 19th century females in England? Or, am I succumbing to the Austen ink-blot test with the query?
Tanner points to Elizabeth’s opinions and impressions of Mr. Darcy, initial and otherwise, as an expression of Locke’s epistemology (the manner through which knowledge and information are obtained). Locke was an empiricist. He believed the mind of a human is a blank slate at inception, with no a priori knowledge; that all knowledge is gained through experience. But Elizabeth’s mind was hardly in a virginal, blank-slate-state by the time she met Mr. Darcy. She had the experience of some sixteen or so years in the highly ritualized and structured English society of the time. She had surely, by then, met a great number of men eligible to take her as a wife. But every of her initial conclusions about Mr. Darcy were wrong. Her sensible experiences led her to believe him a haughty and prideful. That he turned out to be quite the opposite, and that her heart was so desperately changed through her visit to his English manor, points to something Locke’s empiricism never quite properly accounts for– though the mind may be a blank slate upon which the sensory perceptions of experience write all knowledge, the impulses of the heart guide the hand of the senses that scribbles the thoughts of consciousness onto the mind. The mind sees what the heart wishes it to see.
Elizabeth wanted to dislike Mr. Darcy at first, probably because he seemed unattainable and anyways representative of all that she deplored about the society in which she lived. She was utterly surprised by his initial proposal. Not capable of imagining that he might have been fond of her, and totally unaware of the source and nature of her own feelings, she immediately dismissed his proposal as absurd. But once the veil of what she saw as arrogance had been lifted to reveal a similar disregard in him for the strictures of the society (a commonality they shared that would surely be factored into the compatibility algorithms on eHarmony.com, were this a 21st romance), his haughty pride no longer stood in the way of her feelings. It was only a short journey from there to outright enchantment, particularly on seeing the immensity of his wealth and the refinement of his taste.
Through it all, Elizabeth saw only what her heart wished her to see. At first, her heart protected her from potential emotional injury and pain by warning her away from him, deploying the mind to conjure excuses to deny him the consideration it might otherwise have granted such an attractive person. After the first proposal, her heart let down its guard, opening the door for her mind to accumulate facts contrary to those formed of her first impression. By the time she witnessed the grandeur of Mr. Darcy’s English manor first-hand, her heart was searching for ways to love him and certainly, as Elizabeth openly admitted, the reality that Pemberley (his estate) sketched on her mind cleared the path for just that. The foremost concern of the heart is the survival and propagation of the body. If nothing else, Elizabeth is a perfect example of what both introducers called a “mercenary” ethic, i.e., of conflating her own welfare with the highest of moral values (though neither applied the attribute to her). In other words, Elizabeth is a perfect example of every living creature on the earth. There was nothing at all remarkable about her thoughts, or much of anything philosophically insightful in their portrayal.
Tanner brings in Hume to amplify the point he first proposed through Locke that experience is the source of knowledge. But Hume was no empiricist. He stood alone in philosophy as its greatest skeptic, pointing out quite forcefully that we can’t really know anything; that experience is, if we are to be consistent, no guide to truth. Just because our experience is that A always follows B does not mean that B causes A, or even that A will continue to follow B in the future. In Elizabeth’s experience, she initially misunderstood Mr. Darcy’s nature, i.e., she wasn’t clear on whether it was A following B or C following B so far as Mr. Darcy was concerned. But even when she discovered (compelled by the urgings of her heart) that A did indeed follow B for Mr. Darcy as she hoped, Hume would say that she had no right to expect it would always be thus. Ironically, the application of Hume’s metaphysical skepticism gets us closer to the true nature of human character than Tanner (or Elizabeth) would likely find comfortable. A does not always follow B in the behavior of human beings. People change. No effect A or cause B is ever quite the same as any other. If nothing else, they are separated by space and time. Hume is applicable, not to bolster the argument for experience as the basis for Elizabeth’s change of heart, but rather to demolish it.
Taking the book as a whole, I have to agree with Charlotte Bronte’s assessment, which was offered at the beginning of Tanner’s introduction:
What did I find [in Pride and Prejudice]? An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.
My thoughts were that the book was mostly silly, as it was about unserious stuff, and the characters weren’t all that interesting, except perhaps Mr. Bennett.
Austen did provide some witty repartee in the high-minded style of English gentry of the time. But the dialogue was so witty and the characters possessed of such a refined vocabulary that it strained the imagination to think that people really talked like that. The words were so delicately chosen and for such proper effect that it didn’t feel as if real people conversing in real time could possibly have spoken them. No one is so linguistically witty as Ms. Austen portrayed her favorite characters. It’s true that such linguistic cleverness was one of many strategies employed to enhance or maintain status among the landed gentry during the era covered in the novel, but to my way of thinking, it was an utterly banal use of one’s wits, and anyway it felt as if Ms. Austen’s characters must have had quite a spell longer for thinking prior to speaking than real life would have afforded them. Maybe it had something to do with all those commas.
The society of landed gentry in Pride were portrayed as unconcerned with the vicissitudes of economic and social developments sweeping the world (the French Revolution upending social, political and economic structure on the continent, the Industrial Revolution cranking to life, Napoleon’s imperial ambitions soon to be squashed by a consortium of forces, including England’s), or at least Austen didn’t factor them into her narrative. In actuality, the concerns of the world had to have weighed quite heavily on the minds of the gentry, particularly those of marginal rank, as were most of Austen’s characters. There was a great world beyond the balls and petite affairs of the idle landowning classes, and one that was rapidly encroaching on the transient serenity of the English manor. Austen completely ignored it, preferring instead to concentrate the intellect on the great problem that proper marriage presented to the idle classes of the day. From Austen’s portrayal of the utterly banal lives of the landed gentry, I rather think I would have preferred servitude and tenancy to lordship and ladies. I doubt that Austen intended people come away from the book feeling as I did. But then, I doubt I am the sort of person who would have been considered a member of her target audience.
Pride and Prejudice was perhaps aimed at just the sort of person back then who enjoys it now—young and female, probably enamored with British royalty as something of a fairy tale brought to life, and possessed of the belief that liveliness of character might make up for a deficit in station. In short, I think the book is of the same genre as the movies Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, where life for a young woman is a progression from destitution and drudgery to a fairy tale romance that makes it all worthwhile. Every girl wants to be a princess, even those with lively minds like Austen’s Elizabeth, and apparently even my own Elizabeth, the daughter who prompted my reading of the book. Few of them understand how oppressively dull and suffocating being someone’s property in such a manner is apt to be. But then fairy tales and fantasies are not really meant to come true.
*primogeniturical is not, properly speaking, a word. It is simply applying the rules of English through which adjectives are made into nouns to a word which has so far escaped their clutches. Primogeniture is the system of inheritance where the first-born male inherits all of the family property. It was a strategy intended to keep large estates intact, and lasted in England from the Middle Ages until the 20th century.