Read and reviewed as part of my Classics Club Challenge
Disclaimer: I discuss the plot of Pride and Prejudice up to its ending. I figured giving a general book review with plot blurb and my thoughts would be redundant for a novel as well-loved as Pride and Prejudice. I mean, everyone and their mothers know that Pride and Prejudice is the love story between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. But if you haven’t read the novel and don’t want to spoil the experience, you may not want to continue reading this blog post.
I reread Pride and Prejudice last year, during a really rough time. I needed relief and thought Pride and Prejudice would give it to me. It is one of my favorite books after all. And I could always count on Elizabeth Bennet’s charming wit to make me laugh and bring happy escapism.
You really do notice new details (or rather, you are faced with forgotten details) whenever you reread Pride and Prejudice. It is a classic novel that, I think, has suffered from what is perceived about it. Because Pride and Prejudice is so often referenced as the ultimate romantic comedy, or even as the genre’s progenitor, the novel can easily be dismissed as fantasy. But the story it tells is rooted in reality. It may be a hopeful reality, but it is one we can strive for. It isn’t based on luck or destiny. Turns out, it was the realism of Pride and Prejudice that made me feel better, not the fantasy. I got what I needed, not what I wanted.
Hilary Mantel once said that she loved Jane Austen “because she’s so shrewdly practical: you can hear the chink of cash in every paragraph.” Ha! It’s funny because it’s true.
I was astounded by the endless, detailed conversations about money. Not just how much a man makes annually or the sum of his assets. The price of a chimneypiece was dissected with as much gusto as the birthday cake at an eight-year old’s party.
Don’t worry guys! Society has not become greedier with each generation. Rest assured that we have always been this materialistic.
Pride and Prejudice is completely open about its obsession with money. Its first pages (and the catalyst of the novel’s plot) revealed that an eligible wealthy bachelor has rented the manor near our protagonists, the Bennets. The Bennets’ financial situation was always shaky, and with five unmarried daughters, Mrs. Bennet saw potential in the young man. Never mind that she had yet to see him. Being available and rich sufficed.
This is a novel preoccupied with the struggle between idealism and prudence when it comes to marital bonds: an issue people grapple with to this day. We know that a comfortable household is a strong factor for happiness. How are you going to feed your family, let alone your future children, without financial security? It may sound mercenary, but it’s the truth: a lifetime of money struggles makes for a bleak existence.
Yet Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, was firm – she would only marry for love and for happiness.
(One constant whenever I reread Pride and Prejudice? I fall in love with Elizabeth Bennet all over again. Without fail. Is there a more charming heroine in fiction? The correct answer is NO.)
In the words of a lady I deeply admire, the late great Eleanor Roosevelt: “The only people who matter are the people who you value for themselves.” Not for the contents of their pocketbook, but for their character, their values, and their very being. Living in a fine house is nice. But having to listen to someone you detest blather on and on about the same repetitive anecdotes for 50 years also makes for a bleak existence. You’d also start having homicidal thoughts by year 5.
So, comfortable household or “superlatively stupid” company? Which poison to choose?
(“Superlatively stupid” is a phrase lifted from Pride and Prejudice. True story. I totally want to insert it into casual conversations now. I’ll let you know if I succeed.)
What makes a happy marriage? To Austen, the answer is compatibility between participants. Elizabeth was sure her elder sister Jane would be happy together with Mr. Bingley not only because he is handsome and rich, but because he and Jane had compatible tastes, temperaments, and personalities. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy were vastly different people compared to Jane and Mr. Bingley, but they worked because they were compatible with each other.
More broadly, Pride and Prejudice is a novel about happiness and our pursuit of it. The chase for happiness is always shadowed by anxiety (Will we actually be happy one day?) Two centuries ago, a woman’s best shot at happiness and ridding herself of financial, social, and mental anxiety was by marrying well. Folks, this is why the chase for eligible bachelors in Pride and Prejudice is nigh histrionic.
What makes a person happy? Austen was wise enough to show how it depends on an individual’s values. Elizabeth Bennet had her own standards on what would make her happy. What’s more, happiness was her end game. She is an idealist, as articulated below:
“I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me.”
Despite her idealism, no one in Pride and Prejudice was more aware of the conflict between idealism and money in marriage than Elizabeth. Certain traits of Elizabeth really stood out on this reread, including (a) idealistic yet realistic about her prospects. More importantly, (b) she was active in her romantic journey.
Forget the image of a passive heroine waiting for fate to bring her and her true love together! Elizabeth was, at one point, open to Colonel Fitzwilliam (Mr. Darcy’s cousin) as a potential love interest. It wasn’t blatant, but they were flirty and Elizabeth was open should they be compatible. In yet another reminder of how money matters dominate Pride and Prejudice, Colonel Fitzwilliam told Elizabeth that nothing could come out of their relationship but platonic friendship; he needed to marry for money.
Elizabeth’s decisions showed me that she wasn’t idle. She was active: insistent on love yet open to her options of love. I find that wonderful.
Someone else who was one of Elizabeth’s romantic options?
Haha, because the plot of Pride and Prejudice is a truth universally acknowledged (see what I did there?) and because it is taken for granted that this is a novel about Elizabeth and Darcy, I always forget that Elizabeth had a SERIOUS crush on Mr. Wickham. I only remember on each reread.
Yes, that Mr. Wickham. The bad guy.
Jane Austen wrote about Elizabeth’s crush explicitly. At a ball in Meryton, she keenly anticipated Wickham’s arrival and was disappointed that he did not show – a blatant hint.
When it was clear that Mr. Wickham was pursuing wealthy heiress Mary King, Elizabeth reassured her aunt Mrs. Gardiner that she was not in love with Wickham, because she realized that she would have been far less reasonable and rational about the courtship if she was. Instead, she was understanding. She knew Wickham needed financial security. That the discussion happened at all showed that there were at least some romantic feelings involved on Elizabeth’s part, even if it wasn’t true love.
Contrast the above with Elizabeth SOBBING for half an hour after she rejected Mr. Darcy’s first marriage proposal. It was the first hint that indifference and contempt were not the only reactions she had for the filthy rich and socially incompetent Darcy. There was an unexpected violence of emotion, even if its exact nature was not yet certain. Elizabeth’s sobbing was yet another detail I missed or forgot from Pride and Prejudice.
This time around, I got the vibe that Austen had the time of her life writing Pride and Prejudice. Every page (especially the dialogue) drips with pure joy. Ask any writer and they will tell you that certain pieces are a pain to perfect, but the end result will be something particularly accomplished within their oeuvre. On the flip side, some content flows so easily and effortlessly that writers feel like the writing wrote itself. You are just the happy fortunate vessel chosen to bring a great story to life. This second category is exactly what Pride and Prejudice feels like.
Time to get to my observations about the couple we care about, aka Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. HAHAHA. Forget the preconceived image of Elizabeth and Darcy as a grand romantic couple! They are such dorks. I couldn’t help sniggering at points when reading scenes of their interactions. They were so cute and awkward. In fact, adorkable is a good blanket descriptor for their relationship.
Some time after Darcy’s epic fail of a first marriage proposal, Elizabeth vacationed with her uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, to Derbyshire. The area is where Darcy’s estate is located, and there they crossed paths (so okay, some writerly plot coincidences did take place). Elizabeth angsted and puzzled over whether Darcy still had feelings for her.
Dude, he clearly did! It was why Darcy tried so hard to get along with Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, and later introduced Elizabeth to his sister. It was obvious to anyone with common sense that Darcy was attempting to court Elizabeth, only properly and courteously this time.
It was hilarious. Love truly does make your observations and objectivity go haywire. In fact, were Elizabeth to observe such behavior from another couple, she would laugh and make playful, biting remarks. Proof that those in love are indeed “superlatively stupid”.
Elizabeth’s trip to Derbyshire was the point when her dynamics with Darcy changed. For one, Elizabeth became appreciative of Darcy’s better qualities. It was also when readers would realize that Mr. Darcy had the character to give Elizabeth the happy marriage that was her goal.
The witty banter the couple is famous for would only take them so far in a marriage. We know of Elizabeth’s excellent qualities because Pride and Prejudice’s narration closely follows the Bennet family to the exclusion of other characters. In this instance, we could see that Darcy is steadfast and enduring – two covetable qualities in a husband.
Elizabeth may be well-known to the general reading public as a quick wit, but she had good reflective skills and she used them to evaluate her changing feelings for Darcy. She knew that she had grown to respect and esteem him. She was grateful he had the heart to forgive when she was harsh, and she felt genuine concern for his welfare.
The introspection showed that Elizabeth had the capability and grace to admit wrongdoings: another essential ingredient in a marriage. And the addition of respect boded well. Other than compatibility, Austen depicted mutual respect as a crucial ingredient in a happy marriage.
(How amusing was it to see how quickly Mrs. Gardiner became suspicious of the exact nature of Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship? Oh Lizzie, whatever happened to your sharp instincts?)
Let’s skip ahead. Far ahead. Ahead to the novel’s ending. Lydia, the youngest Bennet sister, has eloped with Mr. Wickham. They had a patched-up wedding, one where Mr. Darcy secretly gave monetary motivations for Wickham to do so. Lydia has blabbed about Mr. Darcy’s involvement to Elizabeth, and now Mr. Darcy himself has arrived in the Bennet household.
It was comical to watch the socially dexterous and sensible Elizabeth veer from awkward to overdramatic and back again when they were walking together in a group:
“If he doesn’t talk to me, I will give him up forever.”
“She was in no humour for conversation with anyone but himself; and to him she had hardly courage to speak.”
LOL. Luckily, Elizabeth proceeded by castigating herself for being so silly.
Pride and Prejudice may be fluffy romantic fantasy to some, but I think it really got the awkwardness of being in love. In particular, the “too nervous to hope but delighting and second-guessing when your love interest is looking your way” feeling.
Here’s the thing: Elizabeth has fantastic observation and judgment. Not flawless (see: Wickham). But now that she was in love with Darcy, she was in the uncharted territory where she was accurate as always, that Darcy did so much for the Lydia affair for her sake, but she was overthinking it and was worried that she was too biased/emotionally invested to see clearly, and so she discounted the truth. The paranoia and fear that she “fancied too much” were thick.
All that overthinking led to another overdramatic and uncharacteristic thought from Elizabeth, that “it was necessary to laugh, when she would rather have cried”.
When it came down to it though, Elizabeth was brave. It was she, who determined upon a resolution, spoke first and expressed her gratitude regarding the Lydia affair to Mr. Darcy. It was a small, everyday decision – yet a striking decision.
In matters of communication, even the most sensible characters are just doing their best. There is so much we want to say, to express. Yet decorum, fear, and the wish not to hurt someone dear, or worse, ourselves, make us censor our words. And guess what? That’s real life. No one goes up to a love interest and says without preamble, “I love you. Do you love me?” There’s too much at stake. Especially if this is someone truly dear to us. As Mr. Knightley from another one of Jane Austen’s novels Emma said, “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”
We also censor ourselves because we only know what we see and what we observe. There is an entire universe with its wealth of thoughts and feelings that we don’t know. Even if we are clear-eyed and are privy to factual information, the motivations and feelings of others cannot be completely unmasked without their consent – unless you can read minds, of course.
Despite fear, uncertainty, and the possibility that everything might go wrong, both Elizabeth and Darcy were brave enough to take the plunge. They had the conversation that cleared the air and mended their relationship to its complete transformation. The romance genre is fond of destined lovers and fated encounters, but watching Elizabeth and Darcy actively forging their romance forward is more satisfying to read. This is a quiet, domestic sort of bravery – but it is bravery, nonetheless. It is the type of bravery I relate to.
I love the 2005 film version with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen as much as any girl born in the 90s, and the scene of Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy walking across a lush open field in early-morning fog accompanied by Dario Marianelli’s exquisite score before talking to Elizabeth is a great cinematic moment. So great that I forgot the book version, which certainly lacks visual pizazz: just a group of people walking and talking. But the film version erased the mountain of fear that Elizabeth had to scale in order to start talking to Darcy, along with the emotional tension of having feelings so enormous she wanted to burst, while fearing that speaking up would ruin things. It was an active decision: take the plunge and risk heartbreak, or keep silent and risk regrets.
Beautiful as the film version is, it leaned into the romantic trope of fate and beautiful backgrounds – and in doing so diluted the best part of Pride and Prejudice (in my opinion): the actions people have to actively take to make a love story happen.
On this reread, I found the scene of Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth discussing Mr. Darcy’s second marriage proposal to be especially heartwarming. Mr. Bennet may be deeply flawed as a father, but I truly believed him when, after pointing out his misgivings, he said, “[…] this would be nothing if you really liked him”. Then he begged Elizabeth to choose wisely as it would grieve him to see Elizabeth unable to respect her “partner in life”.
“Partner in life” – three words that concisely and perfectly encapsulate how your entire lifetime will play out in a marriage. If your bride or groom isn’t a “partner in life”, you are doomed. Doomed to a life of tedium, of resentment, of passive aggressiveness, of holding in all your frustration when all you want to do is shriek. Honestly? All the anxiety and frenzy involved when choosing the right husband or wife is completely justified.
Mr. Bennet was, of course, advising from experience. The scene confirmed what was heavily implied throughout. He is one of the people unable to respect his partner in life. His flaws have been amplified because his chosen wife was never a partner in their life journey. Sure, the undoing was mainly his responsibility. He never argued what really needed to be argued with his wife and instead, chose to feel better about himself by continually making sharp, backhanded comments to her – knowing full well that she was too dull-witted to understand let alone counter his sarcasm. In fact, it was plain that Mr. Bennet has checked out of his family, preferring to be left alone in the home library.
We readers know such a situation would not repeat itself with Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. We understand from their conversations that they are two strong personalities who can hold their own with each other. Despite their socioeconomic disparity, they are intellectual equals. Elizabeth and Darcy don’t have to hold back with each other; they are frank about the other’s flaws. More than that, they respect each other. It is likely that their marriage would be a catalyst for learning, improvement, quality conversations, and most of all, joy.
I saw the final chapter of Pride and Prejudice differently this time around. On previous reads, it was all a bit too much. Sometimes even mildly distasteful. One too many egg in the pudding, to borrow a British idiom. This time, I saw that the chapter had an important purpose.
The final chapter details what came after the happy ending between Jane and Mr. Bingley, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. What was life after happily ever after? Jane and Elizabeth, always close, got to live within thirty miles of each other when Mr. Bingley bought an estate that neighbored Derbyshire. Even more happiness! Are you puking rainbows yet?
What motivated the real-estate purchase? Answer: Mrs. Bennet and her younger daughters were too annoying for Bingley and Jane to stay long-term in Netherfield. The move close to Derbyshire was to solve the problem. Yes, there are still problems even in a happy marriage.
The futures of the younger Bennet sisters were revealed in the last chapter. The blank-canvas sisters, Mary and Kitty, got positive improvement, while flippant and ridiculous Lydia got what she deserved. Their ultimate fates were not serendipitous; they were the results of processes. For Kitty to be better-behaved and better-minded, Jane and Elizabeth had to allocate time for her. They had to model an example for her. Mr. Bennet too, no longer stood idly by. He rejected Lydia’s invitations to Kitty in order to discourage further bad influence.
It took much effort and delicacy on Elizabeth’s (and Jane’s) part to deal with Lydia over the long-term. They frequently sent money in small doses, they tended to Lydia and Wickham’s bills, etc. Mr. Darcy took steps for familial duty too: assisting Mr. Wickham with his career and occasionally inviting Lydia over to Derbyshire when her husband was absent. Lydia’s effect on Jane and Bingley was described in half a sentence – more than enough space to show the deep irritation she sowed on Bingley, the most even-tempered man in fiction.
Then there was the disapproving in-law Elizabeth and Darcy had to deal with…
What I once saw as an overly saccharine epilogue was appreciated anew. Austen did not erase life’s annoyances and problems simply because you found your romantic happy ending. That’s life. Life may be happier, more hopeful, and more pleasant to navigate with your “partner in life”, someone whom you respect and respects you in turn. But life is life, always full of ups and downs. Having a partner to share the burdens and the joys of life eases the journey, but it doesn’t eliminate the journey each individual must walk through.
Jane Austen may have written about a gentrified milieu, and always with romance at the heart of her plots. Yet her work remains utterly relevant. To me, the big issue tackled in Pride and Prejudice is: I want to be happy. Will I be? You will. Keep learning and improving. You will be wrong at times. Have a sense of humor about things. Most of all, be active in the journey. Take a few risks.
I’d say that’s the most universal story of all. One that would especially resonate now, when we live in a world obsessed with the aspirational.