Is not general incivility the very essence of love?’

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

In a way, it’s a shame the opening sentence to Pride and Prejudice is so well known, because it really is one of the finest first lines in Literature. Right up there with “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”; “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”; and, of course, from my personal canon:  “The sky was the color of television tuned to a dead channel.”

It’s a curious thing reading a book like Pride and Prejudice. Long before starting it I knew the characters and the plot. I knew quotes from it. I’d seen the TV miniseries. It’s part of the cultural air in the UK. Reading it seems almost redundant.It isn’t though, because however familiar it may be the actual book itself is superb.

32-pride-prejudice-redux

That’s not the cover on my copy. I just loved it for its utter vulgarity. Darcy would of course hate it.

My overriding prior impression of Pride and Prejudice was that it was essentially a romantic comedy. Well, it does contain romance and it is often funny, but it’s a much harder-nosed novel than that genre description would suggest.

Marriage is at the heart of Pride and Prejudice, but a very pragmatic view of marriage. The first marriage shown in the text is that of Elizabeth Bennett’s parents, which unlike the portrayal I’d seen in adaptations comes across here as loveless and lacking in any real affection. Mr Bennett is sarcastic and capricious (that’s nearly a quote of the text), and makes no real effort to take any meaningful part in the raising of his children. Mrs Bennett is ill educated and stupid (neither of which are her fault) and frequently vulgar and somewhat cruel (which is).

[Mr Bennett], 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.

Elizabeth Bennett is pretty and has wit. Jane Bennett is beautiful and of a pleasant temperament. The younger sisters, however, are much what you’d expect from parents such as Mr and Mrs Bennett and are in their various ways inconsiderate and foolish. That’s not surprising. Education for women at this time is minimal, and with indifferent parents that leaves nobody with any interest in developing whatever talents they might otherwise have had.

SPOILERS AHOY

The other marriages in Pride and Prejudice are more interesting. On one reading Charlotte Lucas settles, despairing of even the the idea of marrying for love and instead marryies the odious and oleaginous Mr Collins for the security of his position with Lady Catherine. Lydia marries Wickham again not for love, but from love of being in love. Elizabeth and Jane do marry men that they love, and everything points to their marriages being happy ones.

Look closer though and what becomes evident is not the importance of sympathy, but of class and money. Charlotte Lucas is 27, to Elizabeth and Jane’s 20 and 22. Soon she’ll be too old to have a good chance of marriage, but without it she either relies on whatever income her parents leave her or worse yet the uncertain life of the governess.

Charlotte herself was tolerably composed. She had gained her point, and had time to consider of it. Her reflections were in general satisfactory. Mr Collins to be sure was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband. – 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.

Lydia’s elopement with Wickham is potentially ruinous for the entire Bennett family, making even a bad marriage to him better than no marriage at all. What makes it a bad marriage though isn’t that there is no lasting affection between them (there’s no particular hint that Lydia would have found that with someone else), but that he has no means of supporting her. Once that is provided Lydia exits stage left.

Jane marries the man she loves, but he comes with a considerable fortune. Elizabeth marries the man she loves, but he comes with a very great fortune indeed. Economics underpins everything. This isn’t a novel about romance. It’s a novel about survival.

Mr Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners. His sisters were fine women, with an air of decided fashion. His brother-in-law, Mr Hurst, merely looked the gentleman; but his friend Mr Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having “ten thousand a-year”.

Money then is central here. Just look at that paragraph above. Mr Bingley is the more approachable of the two men. He’s pleasant and easy to get on with. Mr Darcy is handsome, but he has nothing of Mr Bingley’s easy charm. What he does have though is ten thousand a-year.

What’s subversive about Pride and Prejudice is how it shows the overwhelming importance of money to contemporary English society. Mr Darcy is of course of a higher social class than Elizabeth Bennett – that’s much of what he initially holds against her (her base connections). That social position though cannot be separated from his economic one. That’s made particularly clear by the Bingleys. Mr Bingley’s sister Caroline has ambitions to marry Mr Darcy, and while she never has much prospect of success that’s not because he’s utterly beyond her social league (it can’t be, given he marries Elizabeth).

One of the first things we learn of Mr Bingley’s sisters (beyond their potential for rudeness and snobbery) is this:

They were rather handsome, had been educated in one of the first private seminaries in town, had a fortune of twenty thousand pounds, were in the habit of spending more than they ought, and of associating with people of rank, and were therefore in every respect entitled to think well of themselves, and meanly of others. They were of a respectable family in the north of England; a circumstance more deeply impressed on their memories than that their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade.

Money here has bought class. Not instantly. This is not a culture where wealth brings instant social respectability (any more than my own is), but watered with time the compost of the Bingley’s wealth has flowered into a much higher station than their family would once have had.

There is of course an implication of social climbing in that quote above (associating with people of rank, suggesting that they are not themselves as yet of rank), but that is more a failing of the sisters than a consequence of the origins of their money. There is no suggestion that Mr Bingley is a social climber.

The greater the money, and the further back its origins, the greater the class.

Money too is responsible for the sisters’ education, which the Bennett’s so conspicuously lack. Money has bought the Bingley sisters their many accomplishments, and therefore their ability to take part in society. Everywhere you turn the theme of the centrality of money is underlined.

A happy marriage here is a marriage which brings security, and it’s money that grants security. For men the calculations are different, they have after all their own incomes and the opportunity if need be to work for a living (shameful as that would be for men of Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley’s class). For women though the opportunities for work are minimal, and poorly paid. It’s marriage, inheritance, or poverty. Elizabeth may privately regret Charlotte Lucas’s decision to marry Mr Collins, but nothing in the text suggests that Charlotte was actually wrong to do so.

I’m at risk though of making it sound serious, which it is of course but it wears its seriousness lightly (unlike poor Mary Bennett). Austen’s writing sparkles, and the book is filled with wit and beautifully (but never showily) crafted sentences. See for example Austen’s skewering of Lady Catherine, of whom “it could be said that nothing was beneath this great lady’s attention, which could furnish her with an occasion of dictating to others.”

Here Elizabeth finds herself confused by what seems to her a most pernicious coincidence:

MORE THAN ONCE did Elizabeth in her ramble within the park, unexpectedly meet Mr Darcy. She felt all the perverseness of the mischance that should bring him where no one else was brought; and, to prevent its ever happening again, took care to inform him at first, that it was a favourite haunt of hers. – How it could occur a second time, therefore, was very odd! Yet it did, and even a third.

For many readers what matters above all is character and story, and Pride and Prejudice has both in spades. Even though the outcome is never in doubt it’s hard not to cheer for Elizabeth. It would take a tougher reader than me not to feel sympathy for Jane, to cringe at Mr Collins, to want to give Lydia a good talking to and to wish Mr Wickham a fate far more in line with what he deserves than what he receives.

Below the major characters is a rich cast of minor ones, each well drawn and memorable. The story has enough twists and turns to keep it interesting, and the pages almost turn themselves. It’s an astonishingly easy read, particularly so when you consider it dates back to 1813.

I’ll be reading more Austen. Partly because I thought the relentless focus on the criticality of money both refreshing and fascinating. Also though I absolutely admit because, while I do genuinely love modernist fiction and challenging narrative structures, I’m still a sucker for that old standby of a good tale well told. This is a great tale, brilliantly told.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from a poem by WH Auden, which I discovered care of Wikipedia:

You could not shock her more than she shocks me,
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

About these ads

25 Comments

Filed under 19th Century Literature, Austen, Jane, English Literature

25 responses to “Is not general incivility the very essence of love?’

  1. Though I’m 30 years old, I feel compelled to cushion many of my opinions about P&P because so many of my friends love this novel. I just can’t bring myself to enjoy it. I’ve read it multiple times, mostly for school, and every time it just falls flat for me. I’ve made many attempts to enjoy Austen (Sense & Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Emma… just didn’t work.) Some of my good friends absolutely adore Darcy and, without trying to be scandalous, I find him rather annoying and totally unsexy. (For some reason, I feel the need to apologize for such a statement!)

    This aside, I really enjoyed your analysis! You’re right: there’s something about the position of money and economics within this novel that is culturally fascinating.

    (On a completely unrelated note, my version of Darcy happens to be Gilbert, the hero of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.)

  2. Beautiful review and very spot on. P&P may be the DNA of romantic comedies, it’s also very subversive. That’s why I love Austen. She sounds prime and proper but she’s not. She has an abrasive vision of her society and of the fate of women in this society. (It’s even clearer in Emma)
    And she’s got a wonderful English sense of humour.
    I want to visit the Lake District just because of this book.

    About Charlotte. I think that more than financial security, she wanted a home of her own, her independence and probably children. When Lizzie visits her after she’s married, she says she’s happy to runs her house.

    PS: I’ve never understood the fuss around the pond scene in the BBC miniseries. (Colin Firth going out the the pond with a wet shirt. It’s even mentioned in Bridget Jones Diary)

    I think you’d love The Odd Women.

  3. I’ll second the recommendation.The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is fantastic. (Though, I think Gilbert lacks a bit of initiative for my taste)

  4. Don’t cushion them with me Lollipop, dish them out! Nothing to apologise for either, I don’t apologise for not liking Wuthering Heights after all.

    I don’t know Tenant (I’ve heard of it, but that’s it). I’ll check it out.

    Emma, fair point about Charlotte, though I’d argue that independence is also bought with money. As an ex of mine once said, money buys freedom. She was right.

    A lot of women were, um, quite impressed by that scene. Then again, I recall as a kid seeing the film 10 which was before my time but had been billed as incredibly sexy. All I can say is that tastes vary.

    The Odd Women is already on my list – I have a copy on kindle.

  5. This was the first Austen I read. Love that vintage cover which manages to make Darcy look like a low-rent matador.

  6. A low-rent matador played by Colin Firth I’d say.

  7. This made a really interesting read – the common perception of Pride and Prejudice, I think, does it a disservice; it has much more depth and a lot more levels than it’s often given credit for.

    I first read this when I was really young, about 12, and 14 years later it still amazes me – her constant attention to the power of money in people’s lives feels as relevant as ever.

  8. Thanks Kate. I agree with you, the common perception undersells it, which is quite something given that the common perception is still that it’s a great book.

    It does strike me as one that could be revisited at different ages and reward the return journey.

  9. Steve

    How can Austen be subversive, wasn’t she in at the start? And I imagine that everyone knew about the economic basis for marriage in certain classes, what we might call the squeezed middle these days, and the need for inheritors, an heir and a spare. If anything, it’s the idea of love that is subversive.

  10. Good challenge. She was in at the start, yes, but I’m not sure everyone openly accepted the economic basis for marriage quite as bluntly as she lays it out here.

    There’s also that suggestion that money plus time equals class, but more profoundly the reflection on the position of women. What’s clear here is that women’s dependence on men is economic, not a necessary function of gender. There isn’t here any sense that women need men because women are flighty things who would struggle without a kindly guiding male hand. Rather it’s much harder than that – women have so few options offered by society that they are dependent on men.

    In fact, I think there’s an argument to be made that merely presenting a female perspective which doesn’t buy into a wider male narrative was of itself inherently subversive.

  11. Like you, I came to Pride and Prejudice late in my reading life, with all the baggage of several video adaptations. And, also like you, I was seduced by both the novel’s breadth and depth. A very perceptive look at class, a notion of romance that requires balancing economics with sexual attraction, prices paid by those who made the wrong choices and, finally, a veritable gallery of funny fools.

    It may be 200 years old but it is as contemporary as one could ask for — as are most of Austen’s other works.

    I suspect those who are frustrated by her have been forced to read Austen at too early an age, with an interpretation that is more forced than experienced. She is one of those authors who rewards life experience (even though she wrote at a relatively young age) when it comes to reading. Like a fine, well-aged wine, the delight is in the way that all the many sub-themes are brought to life.

  12. leroyhunter

    I agree with Kevin’s age / school thesis. I studied Emma in secondary, and the best I could say is that I…respect it. Not love, or admire, or remember much, beyond the Austen-clichés that have suffused recent culture. I’ve never really bought the “nice” Austen that supposedly exists only at the level of match-making, country estates and somewhat elevated bedroom farce.

    The obvious reference point for me is Wharton, with the shared concerns about money, “society” and the constraints placed upon women’s lives. I have an inkling I may enjoy Austen if I were to try her again.

    There is something quite endearing about “Spoilers Ahoy” in a review of a book published in 1813. Sign o the times!

  13. Love the vintage cover. How they tart it up to lure readers unsuspecting that great literature lies between the covers. I was one to read “Pride and Prejudice” at a young age — studied it at university — and in fact just reached over and pulled that college text off the bookshelf. Having read this blog post and all the comments (great discussion), I’m inclined to carve out time to read the novel again from my now middle-aged vantage point — maybe even this version, with all my scribbled student notes in the margin.

  14. ABB

    Good evening, Max:
    An insightful discussion of Pride and Prejudice (hereafter P&P), for which many thanks. P&P is another of my all-time favourite books, which I have read dozens of times since I first encountered it as our English Literature set text in Third Form many decades ago. As another poster remarked, this book can be read on many levels, and repays reading at different life stages. The fact that it rewards reading multiple times is, perhaps, one mark of an enduring classic. As a 12-year-old, I read it as a rollicking good story and cheered for Elizabeth in her encounter with Lady de Burgh in the garden. Later, I read it more as you did, with money as the mainspring, and as a darkly cynical social commentary about manipulation and the marriage market.

    More recently, I’m seeing it as a deeply subversive book and one that celebrates the triumph of intelligence over social conventions. Darcy could have played the game the same way as his contemporaries did, and married a woman for her money and social connections. But he is attracted to Elizabeth largely because of her intelligence and wit – despite little (or no) formal education, she has a good mind that matches his. Notice also how he comes to know and respect the Gardiners, her aunt and uncle, even though Mr Gardiner is in trade, because of he is a man of good sense (which I read as shrewd intelligence).

    And Mr Bennet is not all bad. True, he is a neglectful parent and an uninvolved husband. Yet Elizabeth has a closer relationship with him than do her sisters (when she marries Darcy, Mr Bennet “missed his second daughter exceedingly”), and Austen also shows that although his refuge is his library and books, he does have learning and some education. [In this he is an interesting contrast to a slightly later library-bound character, Mr Chasubon of Middlemarch.] Elizabeth is not entirely untaught, and for that, I think, she has her father to thank. Notice also, in the scene where Elizabeth tells him she wants to marry Darcy, Mr Bennet is very concerned that she has a partner that she can respect (“My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life.”) and that she avoid perils of an “unequal marriage”. In this too, Mr Bennet is flouting the conventions; most fathers of his time and class would be thrilled that their daughter was marrying a man with “ten thousand a year”.

    All three of the leading female characters in the novel display acute intelligence, but of very different types. Jane Bennet displays empathy and what we would now call “emotional intelligence”. Charlotte Lucas shows cool common sense, perhaps characterized as “analytical intelligence”. And Elizabeth, as we have seen, exemplifies brio and sharp wit. Austen presents us with three different female characters who use their innate intelligence to solve one of life’s great problems, how to survive in an unforgiving world. Are they all subsequently happy? Perhaps. Of the three, Charlotte Lucas to modern eyes seems least likely, on the surface, to be destined for a happy life. But Elizabeth’s visit to Hunsford shows that Charlotte has found ways to manage her (very dimwitted) husband and make space for herself – if not happy, she is at least content.

    As for TV adaptations, I still like the BBC 1980 version, with a young David Rintoul as Darcy – he looks “darkly saturnine” and seems to fit my mental image of Mr Darcy rather better than Colin Firth – though novelist Fay Weldon’s adaptation has been roundly criticized. And Moray Watson is a great Mr Bennet (although it’s difficult to see him as anything other than George Frobisher).

    There is much to explore in the Jane Austen canon. I strongly recommend “Sense and Sensibility” next – the Dashwood sisters are an interesting study in contrasts and different responses to adversity. (And the 1995 Ang Lee movie is pretty good too). Then “Mansfield Park”, “Emma”, and “Persuasion”. I’m less fond of “Northanger Abbey”, which I feel lacks the depth and characterization of the other mature novels.

  15. Hi folks,

    Just to say I’m going to be only very intermittently online until Monday and without a proper keyboard. I’ll respond properly to comments as soon as I’m back and have access to an actual computer again).

    Barcelona, in case anyone’s wondering. A very welcome weekend break.

  16. love the retro cover ,I not read this it is my great loss I know but juist don’t get Austen and often think I should but one day may sit and read her ,all the best stu

  17. Kevin,

    Absolutely. Perceptive, balanced in terms of economics and attraction, a view on the prices paid and a gallery of funny fools as you put it. All that and profoundly contemporary too, since so far at least humans haven’t changed even if our circumstances may have.

    There are dangers in being forced to read classics, or indeed being forced to read anything. It’s no coincidence that those we are obliged to read in school we often dislike later. Austen in particular is a subtle writer, much of the nuance could easily be lost without a bit of life experience.

    That said, I can also see how for the right reader you could return to her at different stages in your own life, taking different things each time. Perhaps that’s not a bad test of what it means to be a classic.

    Leroy, studying in a classroom environment can be deathly in my experience. I do sympathise with teachers choosing between possibly killing a great text, or alternatively taking a rare opportunity to introduce kids to literature and not choosing a great text.

    Wharton is a good reference. I love Wharton’s icy prose, and her focus on society, money and women’s situation with respect to both. Nice point of comparison.

    Longest, lovely aren’t they? If you do reread it I hope you let us know how it goes. I hope too that your scribbled notes hold up (I’d read that version, too tempting not to). Interesting you still have your old college texts to hand.

  18. ABB, great books prompt good discussions, which is rewarding (and argues for Wuthering Heights actually, which I didn’t like but got great comments on). I see reading your comment afresh that you have done the reading at different stages thing I was just referring to. It is I agree the mark of an enduring classic.

    The thing is, while now I see the money and cynicism and all that, I did still cheer for Elizabeth when she faces down Lady de Burgh. It’s a wonderful moment.

    Nice points on intelligence versus social convention, and on Mr Bennet. I was perhaps a bit harsh on him, my interest was more in the lack of affection between him and his wife which I think adaptations often miss or play down. With Elizabeth he’s a good father, but then that reflects that he plays favourites among his children which may be human but it’s pretty strongly marked in this particular case.

    I’m not sure I’d describe Jane as intelligent, she’s generally pretty unperceptive. Rather I’d argue that she has a good heart and a very pretty face, and an agreeable disposition. I don’t think I’d say she uses her intelligence to solve the challenges that face her, rather she almost gets lucky.

    Elizabeth and Charlotte Lucas deal with the world as best they can, but save for good fortune I could see Jane ending up with a much less palatable fate.

    I’ve not seen the 1980 version. Thanks for the recommendations as to the order with which to proceed. I’ll follow them. My only query is whether it’s right to save Northanger Abbey to the end if it’s likely to be a disappointment. I’d rather finish her on a high.

  19. Stu, I doubt you could go wrong with Emma. Any book that inspires the wonder that is the movie Clueless can’t be all bad.

  20. Weird, I just posetd on Austen but didn’t see you did too. Guess because the title didn’t really give it away.
    If you think money is important in Pride and Prejudice then wait until you get to Mansfield Park. I don’t think PP is romance I think it’s about as far away from it as possible. It’s a love story, yes, but not a romance.
    I didn’t get the pond scene either, btw.
    I thought it was amazing when I read PP how much more there was thna waht the movies let us suspect. That’s the good thing abot Mansfield Park, it’s not one we come to completely prepared. I never thought I’d like it that much.

  21. I tend to choose titles that aren’t that helpful in guessing what I’m talking about, though I also choose ones that I think are apposite to the book.

    It’s partly why I have the subtitle. It was a suggestion of Kevin’s to open each post with the book and author, and it was a good suggestion.

    Agreed on P&P. I know absolutely nothing about Mansfield Park, so I take your point on that one.

  22. I didn’t mean to criticize but it has happened to me before that i had brief look at your titles and thought it was still the same. If you have a brief look at your last titles – they all start with the letter “I” (with the exception of one).
    Intentional or not?

  23. That’s a very helpful comment Caroline, if it’s criticism it’s constructive. It’s not intentional and I’ll consider that.

  24. A most interesting post. If there had been a Like button I would have pressed that.

  25. Pingback: Looking back on 2013 | Pechorin's Journal

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s