What more could I add to the thousands of words that have been expended on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice? I have just finished it again for the umpteenth time.
I remember not reading it for the first time when it was set for my A levels, and amiably discussing with a school chum whether it was any more than just women’s tittle tattle. That had been the essay we’d been set, though I had no idea how to answer it, never having got further than Mr Collins’ yawningly embarrassing proposal. I suppose that I didn’t have the wit to realise that that part of the novel was meant to be boring! In any case I went on to make up some stuff about it in an A level exam from which I profited little, but which did complete justice to the effort I’d made. It was only when I began to teach Austen that I really began to appreciate the wit and wonder of her writing.
Surely the plot must speak for itself. Pride in the guise of Darcy, wealthy nobleman, meets prejudice dressed as Elizabeth Bennett. Then Elizabeth’s friend, Charlotte Lucas, makes a sad marriage to a foolish man to safeguard her financial future: this is a feminist issue, and accounts in part for Austen’s enduring merit and fame. In a deliberate and artistic contrast, Lydia rushes into a foolish and romantic relationship with a ne’er do well soldier. The charming and handsome military hero is a literary trope, but Austen does not treat Wickham with quite the same satirical intent that she shows for the Gothic novel in Northanger Abbey: there is a moral danger that she does not diminish with humour.
There you have it: Austen manages to be at the same time of political, moral and literary significance. No wonder she still gives so much pleasure today, managing to remain completely relevant as a commentator on the status of women, and as a literary and moral touchstone.
As for the rest, well there are some brilliant sections and characters, laugh aloud funny. The sycophantic and shocking Mr Collins, a parson with amazingly unchristian attitudes to forgiveness and full of pompous self regard. Lady Catherine De Bourgh, bursting into Elizabeth’s home full of indignation, self importance and ignorance. Lydia, foolish and possibly irredeemable, Mr Bennett, as clever as Elizabeth but unfortunately allied to a pretty, but vacuous wife.
Of course every rereading of Pride and Prejudice reveals more of the complex ironies involved. This is a hallmark of great literature. I remember a recent romcom which the reviewer claimed was only funny in the opening twenty minutes, and after that so consumed with the complexity and denouement of the plot that humour disappeared. Reading Pride and Prejudice this time did remind me of that comment. Once Elizabeth returns from her visit to the Collins and sets off to Derbyshire the plot begins to dominate, and moves at quite a rapid pace. But in the last chapters we return to the heart of Austen – the brilliant entrance of Lady Catherine, more letters from Collins, and the appearance of Wickham and Lydia at Meryton, the former full of duplicity and hypocrisy, the latter of ignorance and bad manners.
Austen seems to embody so much that is English and good, and I say English because as a nation we are often overlooked, unlike the Celtic nations who prize their individuality and their own cultural voices. But Austen is not British. She shows the English in such a clear and intelligent way – parochial, snobbish, concerned with status and money, sexually repressed, ambitious and clever!
It seems that Austen is an unalloyed joy, but I could not help wonder about her treatment of Mrs Bennett in the final chapters. Here is a woman who loves her family, but finds her daughter marrying above her station. This daughter is desperate to move to Derbyshire away from the embarrassing manners of her mother and aunt, yet Austen seems to approve. Was this Austen’s honest final ironical appraisal of Elizabeth, for so much of the novel our rational and moral heroine, almost the voice of the author herself? In the end was Elizabeth just a cruel snob who would forsake a mother’s love for money, status and manners? I guess so; if not Austen herself would be morally repugnant, and to admit that would be iconoclasm.
(Oh and by the way, could it be the other way round, that Elizabeth is pride, and Darcy prejudice?)