I recently re-read Pride and Prejudice, a book I last read some time in the mid-1970s. In the intervening years, I have watched a couple of film adaptations but haven’t been struck giddy by the story. And I have no particular fascination for the Regency period.
When I think of that period I don’t think of elegant clothing, balls, dance cards, riding out in a curricle, or the ‘ton’. It is more likely to bring to mind transportation to Australia, the Napoleonic wars, the great disparity between the wealthy few and the struggling masses, the continuation of British involvement in the slave trade, the Peterloo Massacre, grim factories, poor harvests, unemployment, poverty, slums, and for women no rights over their own bodies, their children, education, property or money. And don’t get me started on ‘rakes’. I could go on and on. I suppose something similar could be said of any period but with this one my attitude has probably arisen because I studied the history of the period before I encountered Regency based historical fiction. This isn’t helped by the fact that I missed the memo that said teenaged girls are meant to read romance. The books I remember most clearly from my teenaged years are Sun on the Stubble, The Flight of the Heron, Christ Recrucified, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and, last but by no means least, The Female Eunuch. These Old Shades and A Spy of Napoleon came in my twenties and while entertaining, they were not enough to make me want to read more.
I read Pride and Prejudice at university (and must have been asleep during the lectures) and, perhaps, at secondary school but I have no memory of that. I remembered the story line but little else. It underlines that fact that that not every book is for every reader. Pride and Prejudice has most certainly stood the test of time and I thought deserved a second conscious look on my part. I won’t review the novel but I will talk about some of the elements that surprised and interested me on my re-reading. I will assume, too, that everyone reading this knows the storyline so there will be no explanation of plot, and possibly a spoiler or too.
Pride and Prejudice is not historical fiction, it is a novel about the contemporary society of the author. As such it is an artefact that gives the reader a clear view of how some sections of that society operated. It is not set in London during the ‘season’ but in the countryside and centres on a gentry family that is moderately wealthy, especially when compared to the bulk of the population at the time. It is a romance that follows the path from initial dislike and misunderstanding to love once the parties see the other’s characters more clearly.
Jane Austen’s prose is formal but fresh. Interestingly, although noted, there are no lengthy detailed descriptions of clothing, domestic interiors or the countryside that we now expect. On Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley, it is left to the reader to use her imagination to fill in the detail.
The rooms were lofty and handsome, and their furniture suitable to the fortune of their proprietor; but Elizabeth saw, with admiration of his taste, that it was neither gaudy nor uselessly fine; with less of splendour, and more real elegance, than the furniture of Rosings. (Ch.43)
Austen’s main focus is on the interactions between the characters, their conversations, and their internal thoughts.
The conversations between characters are sharp and dynamic. What surprised me was the wit and the sly asides, though perhaps I should have expected it as, early on, Elizabeth Bennet is described as having ‘a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous.’ (Ch 3)
Some of the humour is seen in exchanges between Mr and Mrs Bennet.
‘Mr. Bennet, … you take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion on my poor nerves.’
‘You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least.’ (Ch 1)
Austen’s descriptions of characters, seen often through Elizabeth’s eyes, get straight to the essence of the person, in this case Lady Catherine de Bourgh and her almost feudal attitude to the tenants on her estate, and everyone else besides.
Elizabeth soon perceived that, though this great lady was not in the commission of the peace for the county, she was a most active magistrate in her own parish, the minutest concerns of which were carried to her by Mr. Collins; and whenever any of the cottagers were disposed to be quarrelsome, discontented, or too poor, she sallied forth into the village to settle their differences, silence their complaints, and scold them into harmony and plenty. (Ch 30)
The humour is done with a light hand, such as when, at the end of Mr Collins’ visit, Mrs Bennet issues an invitation to visit again. Mr Collins is delighted but Mr Bennet is understandably horrified. He politely suggests that Mr Collins make sure that any visit meets his patron Lady Catherine’s approval. Although, on the surface Mr Bennet is polite, we know exactly what he is thinking.
‘You cannot be too much on your guard. Risk anything rather than her displeasure; and if you find it likely to be raised by your coming to us again, which I should think exceedingly probable, stay quietly at home, and be satisfied that we shall take no offence.’ (Ch 22)
We see something of Elizabeth’s dry wit when Mrs Bennet is speaking of a man in love with Jane when she was only fifteen who she hoped would offer marriage.
‘But, however, he did not. Perhaps he thought her too young. However, he wrote some verses on her, and very pretty they were.’
‘And so ended his affection,’ said Elizabeth impatiently. ‘There has been many a one, I fancy, overcome in the same way. I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love!’ (Ch 9)
And then there are the exchanges between Elizabeth and Darcy.
They stood for some time without speaking a word; and she began to imagine that their silence was to last through the two dances, and at first was resolved not to break it; till suddenly, fancying that it would be the greater punishment to her partner to oblige him to talk, she made some slight observation on the dance. He replied, and was again silent. After a pause of some minutes she addressed him a second time with — ‘It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy – I talked about the dance, and you ought to make some kind of remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples.’
‘Do you talk by rule, then, while you are dancing?’
‘Sometimes. One must speak a little, you know. It would look odd to be entirely silent for half an hour together; and yet for the advantage of some, conversation ought to be so arranged, as that they may have the trouble of saying as little as possible.’
‘Are you consulting your own feelings in the present case, or do you imagine that you are gratifying mine?’
‘Both,’ replied Elizabeth archly; ‘for I have always seen a great similarity in the turn of our minds. We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the éclat of a proverb.’
‘This is no very striking resemblance of your own character, I am sure,’ said he. ‘How near it may be to mine, I cannot pretend to say. You think it a faithful portrait undoubtedly.’ (Ch 18)
In the exchanges between characters, their feelings are captured perfectly in what they say rather than described. Here Darcy is attempting to write a letter while Miss Bingley is displaying her interest in him.
‘You write uncommonly fast.’
‘You are mistaken. I write rather slowly.’
‘How many letters you must have occasion to write in the course of the year! Letters of business, too! How odious I should think them!’
‘It is fortunate, then, that they fall to my lot instead of to yours.’
‘Pray tell your sister that I long to see her.’
‘I have already told her so once, by your desire.’
‘I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well.’
‘Thank you – but I always mend my own.’
‘How can you contrive to write so even?’
He was silent. (Ch 10)
In introducing the male characters, Austen mentions their wealth, allowing contemporary readers to quickly locate their place in the rigid social hierarchy of Regency England. I had somehow gained the impression that the Bennets were not wealthy. They are not compared to Mr Darcy but they certainly are in comparison to the bulk of the population. Mr Bennett has an estate, Longbourne, of £2,000 a year and Mrs Bennet was left £4,000 by her father. Their problem is that the property is entailed and, as they have no son to inherit, on Mr Bennet’s death the property will pass to a distant male relative, Mr Collins. Were Mr Bennet to die sooner rather than later, this would leave his daughters with limited marriage prospects. The Bennets employ within the house alone a housekeeper, a butler, two housemaids and a cook and Mr Bennet does nothing that looks like work to me.
Mr Bingley has inherited property of nearly £100,000, but has no estate although he intends to buy one. Mr. Darcy has an income of £10,000 a year and has the advantage of his mother was the daughter of an earl. This makes him a very eligible young man in the eyes of the mothers of the district until they judge him to be aloof and discourteous at the ball at Netherfield.
The aspect of the novel that I found most interesting is Austen’s clear-eyed presentation of marriage. In an 1817 letter to her friend Fanny Knight, Jane Austen said, ‘Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony.’ An accurate assessment of the situation that explains why so many women of the past agreed to marry less than enchanting men.
Both Elizabeth and Jane Bennet are looking for companionate marriages based on respect and romantic attachment but, by comparison, Charlotte Lucas is quite hard-nosed in her decision to marry Mr Collins. She deliberately puts herself in his way despite finding little to recommend him as a companion and actually considering his company ‘irksome’.
Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. This preservative she had now obtained; and at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it. (Ch 22)
As she later explains to Elizabeth, she has never been a romantic and believes that marriage to Mr Collins will give her as much chance of happiness as most other marriages. And if most are similar to the marriage of Mr and Mrs Bennet, Charlotte is probably right. The Bennets’ marriage was clearly not made with business in mind.
Her [Elizabeth’s] father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good-humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown. But Mr. Bennet was not of a disposition to seek comfort for the disappointment which his own imprudence had brought on, in any of those pleasures which too often console the unfortunate for their folly or their vice. He was fond of the country and of books; and from these tastes had arisen his principal enjoyments. To his wife he was very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement. (Ch 42)
It is fortunate that Mrs Bennet is so superficial that she does not realize the contempt her husband holds for her. It may partly explain why, despite the financial advantages of marriage to Mr Collins, Elizabeth is adamant she will not marry him. She also has the example of her uncle and aunt Gardiner as a type of marriage worth aspiring to. Theirs is the more conventional ideal of a companionate marriage – two people of pleasant character who are well matched.
My re-reading of Pride and Prejudice has altered my attitude to some of the characters. As my strongest memories of the story are from film adaptations, I had assumed the character of Lady Catherine de Bourgh had been worked up as some sort of comic caricature. But, no, she is every bit as obnoxious and overbearing in the book as the film. Mrs Bennet is also presented in film as silly and vapid, ‘the business of her life was to get her daughters married’ (Ch 1) even to clearly unsuitable men.
Yet while I found her annoying, I actually had some sympathy for her. When her brother, Mr. Gardiner, is described as ‘greatly superior to his sister, as well by nature as education’ I wondered had Mrs Bennet been given a similar education might she have developed greater depth of character. Her desire to have her daughters married well is understandable given the position of women at the time. And had she been married to a man who took his responsibilities to his daughters seriously, Lydia might not have been as self-willed and lacking in judgement.
Which brings me to Mr Bennet. I had thought him to be an affable, kindly father with Elizabeth’s best interests at heart. His response to Mrs Bennet’s request that he press Elizabeth to marry Mr Collins, is exactly what the reader wants to hear.
‘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 you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.’ (Ch 20)
And while he might be affectionate, Mrs. Bennet’s charge that her husband was indifferent towards the family’s interests has some basis. He has happily spent his time in his study reading or in enjoying his country estate, yet was utterly negligent in ensuring his daughters’ futures. He has realized for some time that he should have put aside money, annually, to provide properly for his daughters. His indolence has meant that he never acted on it, and in the end has to rely on others to settle the situation with his daughter Lydia and George Wickham. He appears content that the situation was resolved ‘with so little inconvenience to himself’ and that he ‘would scarcely be ten pounds a year the loser’. At the same time, he is concerned that his brother-in-law is carrying the cost of Lydia’s marriage to Wickham and wishes to pay him back. But Mr Gardiner assures him that he was eager ‘to promote the welfare of any of his family; and concluded with entreaties that the subject might never be mentioned to him again’. (Ch 50) So that was that, no further bother to Mr Bennet.
Mr Bennet is angry with Lydia for the trouble her elopement caused, to the point of initially refusing to permit her and Wickham to visit Longbourne after their marriage. Lydia’s elopement would have brought shame on the family, further placing difficulties in the way of suitable marriages of her sisters. As aware as he is of his wife’s faults, and with no doubt an understanding of how his society worked, I would have thought Mr Bennet would have shown greater concern for his daughters’ reputations and would have done something early on to moderate or, at least, place barriers in the way of Lydia’s empty-headed wilfulness – a decent chaperone at least. While Lydia is clearly her mother’s daughter, she might also be seen as her father’s with her lack of foresight.
Elizabeth is fully aware of her father’s failings.
Elizabeth, however, had never been blind to the impropriety of her father’s behaviour as a husband. She had always seen it with pain; but respecting his abilities, and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook, and to banish from her thoughts that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible. But she had never felt so strongly as now the disadvantages which must attend the children of so unsuitable a marriage, nor ever been so fully aware of the evils arising from so ill-judged a direction of talents; talents which, rightly used, might at least have preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife. (Ch 42)
With her parent’s example in mind, Elizabeth is justified in her desire for a better sort of marriage. And Jane Austen is most certainly a master of observation of human nature, of her society.
Having now read Pride and Prejudice, I would say my original reading of it was a case of youth being wasted on the young. And I think I should look at some more Jane Austen. I have Emma and Mansfield Park on my bookshelves and must have read them at some stage but my mind is totally blank when it comes to plot and characters. I think, though, that I might try Persuasion next as some of the discussions comparing the book and the latest film adaptation are interesting. In the meantime, I will revisit one of the film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice.