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.
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.
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.