It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
This is one of the most famous opening lines in all literature, and probably the only one I know by heart. (Well, aside from “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”) In one sentence, it captures Jane Austen’s wit and perfect use of irony. Everyone has probably read the book or at least knows about it, but here’s a short version of it anyway: Our main characters are Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. He is too proud and she is too prejudiced, and how will they ever overcome this so they can get together as they were destined to?
I first read P&P the summer before college. I was bored, and because I’m a nerd, when I’m bored I look for a book to read. Good thing this book was just lying around the house, so I picked it up and started reading. It took me a couple of tries just to get past the first page, because the Regency language was such a shock to my system. Once I got past that, I couldn’t put the book down. By the time of my first Lit class in college, when the professor asked us who our favorite literary character was, I said “Elizabeth Bennet”. And quite smugly too. I felt very self-righteous that I was able to mention a classic character. I remember saying that I loved Elizabeth because she’s intelligent, not afraid to defy social expectations, and with quite a sharp sense of humor to boot.
I hated Mrs. Bennet, Elizabeth’s mother, from the start, not least because I know someone like her and there are times when I cannot stand this person and her limited view of things. To be fair, Mrs. Bennet’s obsession with marrying off her daughters is understandable given the time they lived in, where literally the only “career” available to a gentlewoman is marriage. More than this fixation, what’s laughable in Mrs. Bennet is her complete lack of social graces and just plain courtesy and that thing of, you know, not embarrassing everyone you meet.
In the beginning I thought Mr. Bennet was a great father, because he’s painted as a learned man who just laughs at his wife’s stupidity, and whose favorite is “Lizzy”. It was only in recent re-readings that I realized that he wasn’t a great parent at all either. He is overly indulgent with his three younger daughters and does not do a thing to discipline them. This reaches its height when he just allows the youngest Bennet daughter, Lydia, to go with friends and chase men in Brighton. With the book’s description of Brighton’s dangerous reputation as a “bathing place”, I’ve always imagined it to be the Regency equivalent of Las Vegas. Even when the sensible Elizabeth urges her father not to let Lydia go, Mr. Bennet justifies his decision by saying that Lydia will not settle down unless she makes a complete fool of herself and gets it out of her system. How twisted is that logic?
Mr. Bennet is not a good husband, either. And no wonder, because he never truly loved Mrs. Bennet to begin with. So now after twenty years of marriage he just hides in his library and makes fun of his wife in front of his children. Donald Sutherland portrayed him in the 1995 movie, and if that were to be your only basis for the character, you would not really see all his flaws. He came across as pretty bland, and because Sutherland has this sort of quiet dignity, he makes you think any character he plays is better than they actually are.
But all these shortcomings make Mr. and Mrs. Bennet believable. Surprisingly, the character I found to be the most unrealistic was Jane. We’re supposed to love her too, because she’s sweet and kind and amiable (probably the favorite adjective and highest compliment one can pay in P&P), and most of all because she’s Elizabeth’s confidante. But I find it hard to believe that such a good person can exist in real life. When it becomes obvious to everyone that the rich and amiable (there it goes again) Mr. Bingley is falling in love with Jane, his sister Caroline becomes catty to Jane and makes sure she knows that Bingley’s family and friends are not rooting for her. Still, Jane chooses to think that Caroline is just being kind to her and letting her down easy, and that it’s understandable for Bingley’s family to want the best for him. What kind of person acts like that? Is it just me, but wouldn’t the normal reaction be, “Bitch please, why you all up in my business?”
I guess Austen idealized Jane Bennet so much because of her close relationship with her own sister, Cassandra. And Jane does have her strong points, especially in the matter of seeing eye to eye with Elizabeth regarding their mother and the impulsive Lydia.
It seems like I’m complaining about the characters, but really these strong feelings just show how invested I am (and continue to be) in this story. All the characters are fully realized and engaging, and every single one has you interested in what’s going to happen to them (yes, even the perfect Jane). I think Pride and Prejudice has to be read at least once in their life by every woman (along with Little Women). I’m not saying that it’s a novel for females only, because it’s not. It just makes us members of a nice little club, because we all get it.
Although you can’t force someone to read it, either. They have to read it when they’re ready. It’s hard to understand the language, and I still have a difficult time with the sentence format “Did not you…” versus “Did you not…“. To this day there are still some passages that I have to reread several times because I just don’t get what they mean. But once you get past that, you will appreciate the beauty of Austen’s writing. To me, she’s one of only two authors (the other being Arthur Conan Doyle) who write so precisely and economically. No word is superfluous, and every sentence is necessary. No more, no less.
Nora Ephron once said that everyone who reads Pride and Prejudice, even if it’s not the first time, will agonize at one point because they’re not sure if Darcy and Elizabeth will ever get together. And it’s true! You get to the last few pages of the book, and nothing is resolved yet, and you wonder, how will they ever get to the happy ending? How will Jane Austen wrap everything up? But don’t worry, because she does it every single time, and without making it seem rushed too. She even has time to put in a bit of an epilogue about how our heroine’s life turned out.
There are also quite a few companion books that would help you appreciate Pride and Prejudice. The first one is the trilogy “Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman” written by Pamela Aiden. The books tell the story from Darcy’s point of view, and if you didn’t get enough of the feels from P&P, this trilogy is sure to make up for that. I’m always wary of these “reimaginings” of classic novels, especially if they have a chick lit feel (which I detest) to them. But these books are actually good. They stayed as true as possible to Jane Austen’s work, and they’re compelling because you get to see what it’s like from Darcy’s point of view. If you felt that there wasn’t much to explain Darcy’s change of heart in P&P (which I thought at first myself), then this trilogy will provide the answers.
Another interesting read is Charles Jennings’ “A Brief Guide to Jane Austen: The Life and Times of the World’s Favorite Author“. It’s not a complete biography, but it gives great insights into the Regency period and how Austen might have lived – the customs, expectations and traditions. It’s a big help in understanding the references in Pride and Prejudice, and is a great book on its own.
I am positive I would not have made it in Jane Austen’s England. I would have been an epic fail. You had to be “accomplished”, and sing and dance and paint. I would probably just do needlework all day, and produce a tapestry big enough to fill a castle’s walls because that is literally all I could do. And the bathroom situation! No thank you. Still, Pemberley and its spacious grounds wouldn’t be a bad place to visit, especially if Colin Firth were there to welcome me…