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pride and prejudice

19 july 2021

I am a great fan of Jane Austen, but as I've noted here when re-reading Persuasion and Emma, my high regard is not always unalloyed by tempering reflections. To put it Austenly. The one book of Austen's that I have never found flaw or hitch in is the most famous of all: Pride and Prejudice. This last time through, I am happy to report that P&P still comes off pretty well.

Pride and Prejudice is most readers' favorite because it's the most fairy-tale-romancy of Austen's novels. Throughout Austen's novels, women find themselves in mercenary need of marriage, often unsentimentally settling for "the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune," as Austen describes Charlotte Lucas' marriage to the idiotic Mr. Collins (location 1800). The Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility need that provision, and are lucky to find attractive providers. But the two eldest Bennet sisters in Pride and Prejudice really hit the jackpot, finding both true love and spousal incomes enormous beyond their hopes.

It's what you might think of as the typical Austen plot, though it doesn't really fit her other novels. Mansfield Park, Persuasion, and Emma find their heroines settling just about where they could initially have expected to land. (Northanger Abbey is more of a fairy tale, but it is also less realistic in tone and genre.)

Pride and Prejudice, as its title suggests, is about overcoming initial reactions. A single man in possession of ten thousand a year must be proud, the prejudice goes. And Mr. Darcy is; but he learns to overcome his faults just as Elizabeth Bennet learns to overcome her prejudices against rich men with titled relatives.

It seems at times that Pride and Prejudice is about breaking free of class attitudes. But it isn't at all. Elizabeth, as she tells Mr. Darcy's aunt Lady Catherine, is a gentleman's daughter, and Mr. Darcy is a gentleman. This category comprises men who don't work for a living but don't have aristocratic pedigrees. If Mr. Bennet weren't a gentleman, or if Darcy were a lord, the women would not be having that conversation.

But that hardly means that Pride and Prejudice imagines a world where we break free from class distinctions. If anything, we break free of them only at a very fractal level within the narrow class of "gentleman." There are, of course, gentlemen and gentlemen. Mr. Darcy, though a commoner, has noble ancestors and cousins. Elizabeth, though her father is a lifelong idler with a trust fund, has uncles in trade and the professions. This distinction, more than any difference in wealth, is the gulf that separates them.

There's less trouble, for instance, bringing Mr. Bingley together with Jane Bennet. Mr. Bingley is the archetypal single man in possession, and a gentleman for sure; but he possesses a fortune that was made in trade, and his lineage is so new to independent wealth that he doesn't own a landed estate and may not even bother to purchase one in his lifetime. It can't bother him that his wife's relatives work for their living.

Sir William Lucas, Charlotte's father, is a knight and a gentleman but had been in trade himself till his new title "had given him a disgust to his business" (location 252) and he'd retired, the narrator implies, too soon for either social or financial convenience. Sir William is both too poor and too gauche to do the gentleman thing well, and socially he's merely tolerated by his un-knighted and wealthier neighbors, even if they are his inferiors by protocol. And his daughter still has to look out for whatever expectations a husband can offer.

The Bennets, of course, aren't poor at all. The 2005 film thought it would be insightful to portray them as scruffy and out at elbows, with pigs running around; but this makes no sense at all in the terms the book sets out. Mr. Bingley has a good fortune at £5,000 a year. Mr. Darcy has a vast fortune at £10,000 a year. Mr. Bennet has £2,000 a year, and a large family – but that just means that he has one-fifth of a vast fortune. Meanwhile his taxes would have been low and his entailed home isn't his to mortgage. So his problem is not cashflow; his problem is too many daughters and no son, so that his heir is the odious Mr. Collins.

Mr. Darcy is stricken with desire for Elizabeth, who never seems to reciprocate very keenly. At first, of course, she doesn't like him at all; she only warms to him when he basically buys her attention by throwing money at some of the Bennet family problems (in the person of their irresponsible daughter Lydia). That Mr. Darcy should want to do this is the novel's biggest wish-fulfillment. By paying off Lydia's husband Wickham and marrying her sister, he allies himself with a leechy old enemy who will be a constant family embarrassment – never mind the class issues, Wickham is just a bad egg. But true love conquers all: Mr. Darcy's drably-expressed eroticism, but more importantly his rational esteem for Elizabeth as a brave, high-verbal character who can stand up to his own overbearingness.

Unrealistic as it may seem, Pride and Prejudice seems to look forward to a freer world where money and class don't count quite as much as they did in 1813. Such a world must have figured in many of its contemporary readers' aspirations. And of course it's still a world where everybody is white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, heterosexual, and all those other norms. Let's not make Jane Austen more progressive than she was.

And for all its pleasant balance of realism and romantic fantasy, Pride and Prejudice is really a treasure for its characters: the fatuous Mr. Collins, the arch Mr. Bennet, the foolish Bennet women (each foolish in her own sharply distinct way). And the narrating voice, usually hovering near Elizabeth, sometimes breaking a little freer in a more omniscient direction, often acidly dissecting the pretensions of all concerned. Pride and Prejudice is one of the greatest uses the English language has ever been put to.

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1813. Kindle Edition.