Re-reading A Classic: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
The story of the Bennet sisters remains to this day one of the most read and adored books, having sold millions of copies across the world.
SURANGAMA GUHA ROY
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Cliched as this opening sentence from one of the most beloved classics of all time has become, it would be a disservice to this article to not begin it with this evergreen line.
The story of the Bennet sisters remains to this day one of the most read and adored books, having sold millions of copies across the world. Written between 1796 and 1799, and published in 1813, Pride and Prejudice revolves around Elizabeth Bennet, a spirited young woman from a middle-class family living in Longbourn in Hertfordshire, England. The novel traces her journey to find love, in the process becoming a scintillating social commentary on the times and the society.
The first few lines introduce us to the Bennet family – the elderly Bennet couple and their five unmarried daughters. With unsurpassed ease and signature wit, Austen makes it clear that the young Bennet women are of marriageable age, and their mother, the inimitable Mrs. Bennet, has in fact little else to do but to focus wholeheartedly on getting her daughters married off, and indeed, married well.
Marriage is, of course, one of the central themes of this novel set in late 18th century England. There is a general understanding, which Austen laces with an understated humor, that the culmination of a woman’s life lies in marriage.
Moreover, marriage is more a social and economic arrangement than a union of souls, and while women could be poised, and well-informed, social expectation would, most likely, not go beyond finding a good match for them. It is a far-cry from contemporary perceptions, especially in the West, wherein marriage has almost become peripheral to a woman’s identity, her independence and choices in life becoming primary to her existence.
Austen herself, had remained unattached throughout her short life, but interestingly, most of her major publications during her lifetime had been anonymously published – some of them cryptically, in fact, as ‘A Lady’-- thus shielding her from any social animosity that could have arisen from revealing her true identity. One must remember the celebrated Bronte sisters in the early 19th century whose works were published under neutral noms de guerre to avoid social prejudices.
Social order too is a recurring theme in most of Austen’s novels, and Pride and Prejudice is no exception. In fact, First Impressions, as the novel was initially named, adroitly encapsulated within it the very core of the story itself. That is, first impressions are not necessarily the last impressions.
Thus, Eliza Bennet’s initial, and thoroughly justified detestation of Fitzwilliam Darcy, undergoes a gradual transformation, just as Darcy’s impression of the Bennets, although not drastically transformed, at least gets tempered by the end of the novel. And weaved into their respective first impressions is Austen’s astute observation of human nature, and her apt use of irony with respect to the social order of the time, marriage and the status of women.
Women, at the time the novel is written, are not entitled to property rights. Thus, Mr. Bennet’s estate is entailed away from the female line, and is expected to pass on, upon his demise, to his distant cousin, Mr. William Collins. Collins is a ludicrous mockery of a clergyman whose complete lack of common sense, coupled with his ridiculously inflated opinion of himself makes him one of the most farcical characters in the novel. Elizabeth’s sharp rebuttal of his proposal, the clergyman’s response to being rejected and the Bennet couple’s diverse reactions to the entire episode makes for some thoroughly hilarious moments. Collins, however, represents a particular social class –the so-called respectable, pompous clergy, financially stable but with little breeding. His nuptials with the sensible Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth’s close friend, clearly indicates the society’s perceptions towards a socially acceptable marriage. Theirs is a marriage without passion, that offers stability and security, but perhaps little else to either party involved.
Collins is in some way an anti-thesis to Darcy, who is the epitome of propriety and respectability. Like Collins, Darcy too is a victim of false pride but unlike him, Darcy’s pride is shown, albeit through biting irony, as somewhat justified because of the noble lineage and the fact that he belongs to the landed aristocracy.
Darcy’s aunt, the wealthy and haughty Lady Catherine de Bourgh, is another satirical figure. Once again, the author seems to subtly make fun of the society’s highly misplaced regard for the genteel classes. Irony and social critique blend together seamlessly through amusing characterizations and delicious writing.
Lydia Bennet, the presumed anti-thesis to Elizabeth and her sister Jane, can perhaps be seen as representing the darker imagery of the society – the foolish, ignorant young woman who falls into the clutches of the charismatic George Wickham, a degenerate womanizer, and one can assume, dives into what can only be a life of dissipation and misery. Wickham and Lydia’s complete lack of principles suggest a social and moral decay that runs parallel to the elitism signified by the Bingleys and the Darcys.
In contrast to the Wickhams’ marriage for passion lies that of Elizabeth and Darcy – the ideal marriage filled with love, respect, beauty, material wealth, and most importantly, social propriety. Elizabeth marries for love, as does Darcy. And for that, they stand forgiven in spite of their flawed characters. At the other end of the continuum is Charlotte and Collins’ marriage for convenience.
Despite her highly entertaining style of writing and profound insight into social life, Jane Austen had failed to taste success in her lifetime. Today, though, she is for all intents and purposes, a global celebrity. Her magnum opus, Pride and Prejudice has given readers some timeless characters in the realm of classic English literature. The head-strong Lizzy and the proud, extraordinarily handsome Mr. Darcy, the soft-spoken Jane and the charming Mr. Bingley, the comical Mr. Collins, the long-suffering Mr. Bennet who has no compassion for his wife’s poor nerves, and the unscrupulous Lydia and Wickham have become so deeply etched into the minds of any Austen lover, that it would be hard to convince us that these are, after all, the mere figment of an individual’s imagination. Over 200 years on, Lizzy and Darcy’s love story continues to be every woman’s fantasy. True to Austen, let us conclude by saying that – if such happy prospects were to befall us, we shall be very well pleased, indeed!