Review: Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

I’ve been meaning to re-read Pride and Prejudice all year what with it having its bicentennial undsoweiter … there has been rather a lot of P & P related extravaganza going on in certain extremely cool circles.  I got very excited when I spotted the Pulp!TheClassics edition while I was in Edinburgh over the summer.  It’s interested me a lot over the past few years how you can see that publishers have made more of an effort with book covers over the past five years – the rise of the Kindle means that the reader has other options and can actually judge by cover.  It’s not just about the words within – the book itself has to seem like a desirable object.

The Pulp!TheClassics team have written a very affectionate cover and blurb – Lock Up Your Daughters … Darcy’s In Town! and then on the back, Mrs Bennet is on a mission to marry off her five daughters to rich men.  Enter, Mr Charles Bingley and his rather fit friend Darcy.  LOVE, LOATHING and BITTERSWEET ROMANCE follows.  You can see that the team have had a lot of fun – they’ve been very canny about which covers they should do up; The Great Gatsby got the treatment because of the film, The Hound of the Baskervilles because of the recent Sherlock adaptations.  It is very easy for classics to seem unapproachable, particularly for reluctant readers.  The thing to remember is what the word classic really means – a really good book that was so well done that it has actually stood the test of time.  They’re worth reading.

Pride and Prejudice is one of my very favourite books but when I first read it I was only nine.  Reading it again made me realise again that I totally missed the point of a lot of the plot the first time around.  I had suspected that earlier this year when I read North and South. As an adult, I have a far better understanding of the emotions involved compared to when I was a child with a ridiculously high reading age and zero interest in the mysteries of the human heart.  I had watched the TV adaptation with my Mum and recognised that there was something really amazing about this story but I didn’t see that it is a masterpiece.  I didn’t see that what we have here is a novel that is close to perfection as it is possible to get.

Disliked Austen 🙁

Charlotte Bronte wrote that she believed Jane Austen’s stories lifeless, ‘a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden with clear borders and delicate flowers  but … I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses’.  But Charlotte Bronte was writing during the Romantic era – Jane Austen had gone out of fashion – and to be honest, I think that she is just flat out wrong.  There are fewer madwomen in attics pottering about in the background, but as Austen points out in Northanger Abbey, that is because stuff like that doesn’t really happen.  Austen is showing us ourselves. Elizabeth is the everywoman – she is the girl who thinks she knows it all but discovers that she is utterly clueless about her own self.

Alison Steadman in the zone …

There are a number of different levels.  As a child, I was caught by the slapstick comedy of Mrs Bennet but as an older reader, I am struck more by the cruelty of Mr Bennet.  Elizabeth and Austen gloss gently over Mr Bennet’s failings – he sets his wife up as an object of ridicule to her elder children, he belittles her fears for the future and shows no grasp of (or perhaps more accurately no interest in) the family’s financial situation.  He married his wife because he was sexually attracted to her and then did not bear with her as a husband ought.  The 2005 film version dealt with the two of them slightly more kindly but the subtext of the novel is that Mrs Bennet is tearing about without any kind of support from her husband.  I think that one of the most successful parts of the 1995 BBC version was that part towards the end when Jane and Elizabeth’s marriage vows are read out and the camera pans to all of the different couples and allows the audience to reflect on all of the reasons why people enter the marital state.

There’s Catherine de Bourgh who was thinking of rank, Lydia and Wickham who elope for lust and marry for bribery, Charlotte and Collins who marry for pragmatism and poor Mrs Bennet who struggles on with a man who has no respect for her.  It makes me think of Ephesians 5 and its directions for husbands and wives, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of the water by the word“.  In this respect, we see that the only man in the novel who has made sacrifices for his wife is Darcy.  Elizabeth has been humbled in having both misjudged him and then had to admit her folly to her entire family and circle of acquaintance … in that respect she is possibly ready to enter into a marriage and compromise, which has always been my reading of the Ephesian chapter (I’m an egalitarian).

Swoon.

In many ways, this is a fairy tale.  Poor(ish) girl meets handsome prince and he saves her and marries her.  Still, I do still defend Lizzie Bennet from the charge of gold-digger – that opening phrase “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in the possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” exposes Jane Austen to the charge of money-grabber but she is actually lampooning the world she lives in.  Elizabeth is her mouthpiece – she creates a heroine with wit and humour who smiles sideways at the people in her social circle – she truly shames the lifeless and dreichid women of Samuel Richardson.  If Jane Austen had truly, truly cared about money, she would have married Mr Bigg-Wither and lived a life of moderate luxury, but she could not marry without affection.  Lizzie refuses Darcy when he proposes to her as a mere rich man, she will only marry him when she comes to recognise his worth.  Money is not enough for Elizabeth because it was not enough for Jane Austen.  Either that or of course she was pining after James McAvoy.  Understandably.

Wentworth is cool.

I’m not a crazy Darcy fan girl myself, I visited the Jane Austen Centre in Bath and faced with a dilemma over which Austen hero badge to buy, I picked Wentworth.  Mr Knightley has his strengths but the sixteen year age gap is peculiar.  Tilney … well … nobody ever picks Tilney, do they?  And Bingley is a drip who is coddled by his family.  Wentworth always seemed like the most solid of Austen’s men … he isn’t concerned with rank or etiquette, he just loves Anne – he is the most consistent.  Wentworth never needed to change, the other characters just had to realise his true worth.  Anne realises that even if she had married him as a poor man, it would have been a better option than the life that she had instead.  He is forgiving, he is open-minded and despite his lower social rank, he has a far better idea of manners and honour than Anne’s family.  He is not without fault, he wants to believe that he is over Anne and he is not kind to her when they are first reunited but the reader can see that he is lying to himself.

Despite all this, I felt rather indignant a  few years ago when Sebastian Faulks launched a fairly blistering attack on Darcy as a depressive who would ultimately make Elizabeth miserable.  To be fair, Darcy’s final speech explaining his behaviour to Elizabeth is a rather weaselly apology but even so, I do still think that dismissing the couple is terribly unjust.  We all make mistakes, many of us have said the wrong thing to someone who we care about – it takes strength of character to pick oneself up, take a deep breath and try again.  Although Elizabeth was dealing with a certain degree of faulty intel about Darcy, a lot of what she said clearly hit home.  Faulks should allow Darcy some credit for self-improvement.  He didn’t just stomp off and sulk as all too many men would – he actually looked at himself, saw that Lizzie was right (“What did you say of me that I did not deserve?”)  He is not a flawless  human being but he will love and honour his wife.

I think that the point of Darcy though, his attraction is that he adores Elizabeth.  He is overpowered by his love for her – in vain did he struggle, it would not do, he had to tell her how he admired and loved her.  It’s the passion, the passion that overturns the demands of social position and wealth and expectation.  Mr Darcy loves Miss Elizabeth.  I liked though that this passion could co-exist with his social awkwardness – he could still sit and not have a clue what to say to her when she was a few feet away.  Very frustrating for poor Miss Lizzie but sadly all too believable.  He protests later that ‘A man who felt less might have said more’ – it’s a strange thing though that despite the perfection of Austen’s prose, she rather muffles Darcy.  From that immortal first line of his proposal, we dive instead into Elizabeth’s head, who is sitting in disbelief.  We do not hear his precise words, although various TV and film adaptations have filled in the gap with varying degrees of success (Colin Firth for the win on that one).  So what we have instead is a passion that exists without clear words – which is perhaps part of its appeal.

He tried.

As I said at the beginning, this year has been Pride and Prejudice’s 200th birthday, two hundred years and after a brief slump during the Victorian era, this book is fresh as a daisy.  This is the classic story of two people who believe that they detest each other but discover that in fact they are passionately, madly, irretrievably in love.  Ironically, the most successful adaptation of the last ten years for me was not the 2005 film (which had its strengths, notably the family structure and the appropriate ages of the cast members) because I tended to feel that Matthew Macfadyen was a bit limp for Darcy.  Instead, I felt that the Youtube version this year, The Lizzie Bennet Diariesshowcased the story in a completely different medium.  I can’t help but think that it’s a version that will stick around.

Lizzie showing off a t-shirt her mother bought her …

Modernised, interactive and scripted with flair and wit, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries released the story in the form of a video blog over several months.  The clips were roughly five minutes long, they involved a fair amount of dressing up and a hefty amount of drama but they did put the story in perspective for a twenty-first century audience.  The frankly lack-lustre Bride and Prejudice from 2004 failed to bring any shock to Lydia riding the London Eye with Wickham, but The Lizzie Bennet Diaries packs a real emotional punch when Lydia is left heartbroken and distraught after Wickham attempts to publish a sex tape featuring the two of them.  That really hits it home about just how lost Lydia’s reputation would have been had Darcy not saved her.  Also, the sister bond here comes through far more clearly than in the book and it’s no bad thing.

Sisters reunited as they never were in print

Thinking about it as a twenty-first century woman, it seems very unfair that a mistake made as a sixteen year-old girl effectively condemns Lydia Bennet to a life with a feckless and thoughtless man.  She is packed off to a far off corner of the country and it is made fairly clear that her family will see little of her from that point onwards, Austen herself acknowledges that affection will not last long between the two spouses.  Darcy has arranged things as well as he possibly could, there is no other way … but it’s still unfair.  In the modern adaptation, Darcy buys the company who runs the site where the video is being hosted and shuts it down, and as a sobbing Lydia cries out, “Why didn’t [Wickham] love me?”, Lizzie clutches her in her arms and replies passionately, “I love you.  Do you hear me?  love you.  You are not alone”.  It brought tears to my eyes. But it also made me remember that Austen’s Elizabeth never reached out to her sister like that.

So, I could keep on sharing my thoughts on Pride and Prejudice.  It’s extremely tempting.  Please believe me when I say that I could go on.  I adore this book – because it’s so popular, it can seem clichéed to say so and because it’s been put on screen so many times, it’s easy to forget to actually read it but the writing is packed so tightly and is so superb – really, this is a timeless story and I wish Pride and Prejudice  a very happy birthday and have no doubt that it will still be being read at its next centenary.

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Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Published by RD Bentley on 1853
Pages: 340
Goodreads


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12 thoughts on “Review: Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

  1. What a wonderful post! I can see why you'd pick Wentworth as your Austen hero. But, you can't forget good old solid Colonel Brandon. I love the pulp cover, too. The LBD is wonderful, the Emmy they won for it was completely deserved. I loved how they managed to modernize the story and still give it the same impact it had originally.

  2. Thank you so much for your comment – and apologies for how long it's taken me to respond! Colonel Brandon was a lovely man too … although I'll be honest, I always thought he was better suited to Elinor. The LBD was a truly spectacular adaptation … on paper it really doesn't sound like much but the way they put it together was fantastic and the acting was very compelling. I think it is something that I'll find myself rewatching.
    🙂

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