!!! WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!!!
Pride and Prejudice is one of my most re-read novels. I loooove this book. It's not very original of me to adore P&P — everyone loves it — but there is a good reason for that fact. It's spectacular! And more than that... it's happy without sacrificing sophistication.
It's also easy to read. In fact, compared to other books written in the early 1800's, it's astonishingly easy to read. Pride and Prejudice has aged remarkably well. However, to get the utmost out of the story, historical context is helpful.
In this post, I'm going to provide a summary of Pride and Prejudice, and then dive into a bit of discussion on this favorite classic and its author, paying special attention to historical context.
A Summary & Synopsis of Pride and Prejudice
It's become a tradition in my discussion posts for me to write a synopsis of the book at hand. I get really into it, and sometimes put a lot of hours into making the summaries as perfect as possible. However, they can take up a lot of space, so, starting now, I'll be putting the recaps on different pages and providing the link to that page in the discussion post. For the summary of Pride and Prejudice, you can click on the button below to navigate there.
Now for our discussion...
Who Was Jane Austen and Was She a Feminist?
So, you think you know Jane Austen? Her life? Her opinions? Her struggles? So did I, until I took a college class on her, taught by one of the world's foremost Austen scholars. Even though, as a high school sophomore, I had written a 20-page term paper on Austen, it turns out I had barely scraped the surface of this enigmatic writer's history and experience.
Austen was alive in southern England during an incredible time. She was born in 1775, at right about the moment of a certain revolution. She was fully grown during the whole of the Napoleonic Wars — Britain's series of intense conflicts with its neighbor, France. Two of Austen's brothers served in the Royal Navy during this time, and Austen was definitely more aware of war and conflict than her apolitical novels would lead us to believe.
As for Austen's family, it was pretty enormous — she had six brothers and one sister. Her father was a clergyman and her mother, being a gentlewoman, did not work.
Austen's family belonged to the the gentry (the emerging middle class). This particular social rung and its lifestyle, perhaps above EVERYTHING else, is what inspired
and informed Austen's novels. Austen was privileged in many ways to be a part of the gentry, but there were real issues and complications in that social class, particularly for women.
You can see those complications at play most clearly in Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. In P&P, for example, Austen made up this crazy character, Mrs. Bennet. Mrs. Bennet is disgusting to us in large part for her obsession, not only with her daughters getting married, but with them marrying rich men.
It wasn't until my college class with Margaret Doody (Austen scholar extraordinaire) that I looked upon Mrs. Bennet in a new light. Professor Doody explained to us that Mrs. Bennet, though ridiculous and easy to hate, actually gets the short end of the stick through our modern understanding of her.
You see, in Austen's (and Mrs. Bennet's) time, a gentlewoman wasn't really allowed to make money. The only exceptions were two or three "respectable" jobs — 'governess,' 'companion,' and 'seamstress'. However, if a gentlewoman did decide to pursue those jobs, she was basically waving a flag of social defeat. And if a gentlewoman decided to leave her social class entirely behind by doing harder, less genteel labor, she cast immense shame upon her family, and basically ruined them in the eyes of "polite society."
Because of this social pressure (and discriminatory laws), women were at the mercy of their male relatives (fathers, husbands, even sons) for everything. Obviously, this led to a lot of misery and exploitation, but despite these commonly known evils, it was still a radical act to object and call for social change.
Mary Wollstonecraft, a famous feminist author, didn't give a shit. As a slight forerunner to Austen, she wrote about how women on every social rung were being screwed over by Britain's supposed 'great civilization.'
A proper understanding of Austen must be informed by Wollstonecraft's grievances. The messages of these women go hand in hand, although Austen was nowhere near as outspoken.
Austen was, however, very interested in depicting how gentlewomen were cast adrift when their sole, male provider died. Most everything of his property (if entailed) and money would go to male inheritors. If that male inheritor was dismissive of his female relations (like John Dashwood in Austen's Sense and Sensibility), then those women were destined for a life of begging and scraping.
In P&P, all the Bennets know the facts of their situation. When Mr. Bennet dies, his property will go to an estranged cousin they've never met, who has no incentive to care for them. Sure, the women will receive an annual allowance from the estate, but it's nowhere near enough to provide for a worry-free lifestyle.
Mrs. Bennet has FIVE gently bred daughters. They're financial deadweights. And, of course, Mrs. Bennet must include herself in that equation, because the women will be in it together when Mr. Bennet dies.
Unless, of course, one or more of them finds a new male provider through marriage...
With this context, Professor Doody told us to cut Mrs. Bennet a huge break. She may be annoying, but she's working hard to ensure a better future for her daughters. It's basically the reason she gets up in the morning. Modern readers should cast more derision, Professor Doody insisted, on Mr. Bennet, for not trying harder to salvage the fate of his wife and daughters.
So was Jane Austen a feminist? It's impossible to know for sure, because she did not share any explicit opinions on the subject of women's rights. My personal opinion is that Austen was a kind of... 'photographer feminist' as opposed to an 'editorial feminist.'
What I mean by that is, a photographer has opinions about the world around her. Influenced by those opinions, she chooses a certain place to point her lens. She decides to take a specific picture and share it with others. She doesn't write an essay about her opinion. She just tells us to look at a picture.
Jane Austen never wrote, "the treatment of women in my society is dreadful." But she did choose, in her novels, to depict the stresses of women struggling with uncertain futures (Pride and Prejudice) and the realities of women figuring out how to stay fed, sheltered, and safe (Sense and Sensibility).
By guiding her readers to look at those pictures, Austen gives us insight into what was on her mind. Clearly, she had some preoccupations with women being financially cast adrift (something she would experience in her own life), and it's easy enough to guess her feelings on the subject.
Was Jane Austen a Romantic?
You can't read Pride and Prejudice, or Persuasion for that matter, and not understand that Austen was a total idealist when it came to romance. But, like every idealist, she was also quite capable of being cynical.
In fact, all of her books have examples of unfit marriages and/or near misses. In P&P, we have three chief examples — the Bennets, the Collinses, and the Wickhams.
The perfect marriage of compatible equals, however, is depicted by Elizabeth and Darcy. Elizabeth, our protagonist, holds out, through the book, for her ideal partner to propose to her. She does not compromise — not for money alone, not for sexual attraction alone, and not for convenience alone. As a cosmic reward, of course, she gets all three.
Elizabeth clearly has romantic ideals, and they might actually reflect Austen's own...
Austen never married.
It's one of the saddest things about Austen's life — how she wrote these timeless, peerless romances, but never got to experience the real thing for herself. There are many accounts that Jane loved to socialize and flirt with young men in her teens and early twenties. She even had a strong connection with a certain "Thomas Lefroy," but ultimately nothing came of it. (There are suspicions that Lefroy's family disapproved of Jane and removed Tom from her company.
Then there was her odd engagement — which lasted less than 24 hours. The man was Harris Bigg-Wither (I'm NOT making that up) and he was a childhood acquaintance of Jane's.
When the incident happened, Jane and her sister, Cassandra, were visiting the Bigg-Withers. Jane was 27, a real old maid for that era, and Harris was 21. Harris proposed marriage, and Jane accepted, to the delight of the entire household. At the crack of dawn the next day, however, Jane got in a carriage and sped off. She'd changed her mind, and not in a way to save her friendship with the Bigg-Withers.
People who have read enough Austen can presume what happened, and it's both inspirational and sad. In accepting Bigg-Wither, Jane probably made a 'Charlotte Lucas' decision. Charlotte, in P&P, shocks and devastates Elizabeth by agreeing to marry the repulsive Mr. Collins, simply because it's her only shot at being married, and thus, no longer burdensome to her family. She chooses practicality over the dream of romance.
Charlotte Lucas makes that decision because she is practical at heart, not romantic. Jane Austen, we can deduce, tried to be 'a Charlotte.' She didn't accept Harris Big-Wither because she loved him. She did it because it would have bandaged certain hurts. Because life as an unmarried woman, with a deceased father, was a struggle. Jane let her demons make the decision.
In the end, though, Austen couldn't be a Charlotte. Instead, she chose not to compromise her romantic ideals. She sacrificed the opportunity for material comforts and greater independence in favor of her personal principles — her dream.
That particular dream, of finding a true and compatible partner, depended on much more than her resolve. Fortunately for us, however, Jane Austen had another dream — one that was in her hands. And although she didn't receive the recognition she deserved for it in her lifetime, her passion for writing would change the world.
Why Has Jane Austen's Writing Aged So Well?
In college, I took another class that covered many of Austen's contemporaries as well as her close predecessors and successors. Those writers included Frances "Fanny" Burney (Evelina), Ann Radcliffe (The Romance of the Forest), Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto), and Sir Walter Scott (Waverley).
Unless you've studied the literature of this period, you probably aren't familiar with these authors. Jane Austen, however, is a name that everyone (worth knowing) knows. So why did Austen only climb in fame as decades and centuries passed, while these other writers, enormous in their own day, faded into obscurity?
I've had both the pleasure (and sometimes the boredom) of reading all the books listed above. So, I hope I can come up with a decent hypothesis about the extraordinary longevity of Austen, relative to her peers. I'll focus on Radcliffe and Scott...
Ann Radcliffe was like the Stephenie Meyer/Shonda Rhimes of her day. Her stories were addictive to fans of the Romantic style, but they were a bit stupid and easy to mock. (Austen, herself, would parody Radcliffe in her novel, Northanger Abbey.)
Radcliffe wrote blockbusters — The Romance of the Forest, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and The Italian are to name a few. Pretty much all of her stories featured an innocent young lady, her captivated paramour, and a wicked villain whose chief aim was to pry the lovers apart.
I have a theory about why Radcliffe's writing didn't age well. First, her characters don't seem like real people. They're archetypal — the blushing, young maiden... her dashing rescuer... their wise, old mentor... As such, these characters are familiar to the modern reader, but they're also two dimensional. They fail to captivate. This was a typical misstep in Romantic fiction.
On top of that, Radcliffe tended to be long-winded. She spent too many words on the description and imagery of her eerie, gothic settings. This measured up to suspense, even horror, for her contemporary readers, but it can't begin to impress modern people. As the Romantic style waned, so did appreciation of Radcliffe's work...
Jane Austen, however, did many things in direct opposition to Radcliffe. For one thing, the focus of Austen's novels are themes common to all humanity (love, marriage, friendship, follies), not titillating stories written in a trendy style. Austen's characters are different from Radcliffe's, too.
They are highly exclusive creations. You certainly couldn't find a Mrs. Bennet in The Epic of Gilgamesh. Because Austen contrived to be universal in theme, but original in characterization, her work has aged well.
Sir Walter Scott was also huge during Austen's lifetime. His claim to fame was a series of books (Waverley being the foremost) that portrayed the political conflicts between the English and the Scottish...
Good God, could Scott write a boring book.
I had to push myself through every word of Waverley in college, and I came out on the other side not knowing what the hell I just read. My lasting impressions of his book are of an uninspiring protagonist, one or two (deeply unimpressive) female characters, and assorted descriptions of Scottish waterfalls.
The chief reason why Waverley is excruciating to modern readers is its abundance of editorial footnotes that one simply must read to have any chance at comprehension. After all, the various skirmishes that divided the north and south of Britain in the late-18th to early-19th centuries don't exactly have a starring role in World History textbooks.
Austen, on the flip side, did not discuss politics or current events in her novels. At the most, they were merely alluded to. For example, in P&P, Wickham's military regiment is stationed in Meryton, but no explanation is given for their presence. Of course, they were there to protect England from Napoleon's forces in the event of an invasion! It adds a bit of depth to the story if you know this, but I enjoyed P&P for over a decade before I learned this.
So why did Austen limit her focus to daily life in middle class England? I'm not exactly sure. Austen was definitely aware of political fiction — in fact, she was a fan of Waverley. Perhaps she felt poorly equipped to share political opinions. Perhaps she wanted to stick to her strongest suit — her penetrative observations of her own social class. Whatever guided her decision, her spotlight on human behavior wound up appealing to many generations of readers, precisely because those behaviors are always relevant to us.
Why Is Pride and Prejudice Austen's Most Popular Novel?
Austen's completed novels are:
- Northanger Abbey
- Pride and Prejudice
- Sense and Sensibility
- Mansfield Park
Of course, all of Austen's novels have been adapted for film, and those movies and series are enduringly popular.
Now, ask a group of Austen fanatics what their favorite adaptation is, and you'll definitely get mixed bag of answers. Ask them which is their favorite of the books, however, and you'll get pretty much straight "Pride and Prejudice" answers across the board.
Anyone who doesn't say "Pride and Prejudice" is lying — either to you or to themselves.
Take me. For a while, I went through a phase of saying Persuasion was my fave. I was just trying to be edgy. I've read Persuasion, like, two times. I've read Pride and Prejudice countlessly.
Funnily enough, P&P was everyone's favorite, even when Austen was alive. She definitely knew this, and understood why, too. Pride and Prejudice, she wrote, was her happiest novel — it was "light, bright, and sparkling."
The idea we need to fight, however, is that P&P is somehow less worthy as a piece of literature because it's so satisfying and enjoyable. Suffering and hardship is highly compelling, to be sure, but it is not the entire human experience. There's more than enough room in our literary canon for stories showcasing the best parts of life.
For all it's levity, however, P&P is still an Austen novel. It penetrative and sharp as a skewer. Anyone who thinks the story isn't worthy, isn't worth our time. Nobody should ever be ashamed of loving Pride and Prejudice.
Pride and Prejudice and the Male Hormone
Is there anything — anything — more annoying than some guy asking you your favorite book, you telling him, "Pride and Prejudice," and him sneering at you?
And then he says, "Why? Because of Mister What's-his-Face?"
And you're like, "Sure. And it's really smart and funny." But it doesn't matter what you say to him because he's a deeply useless person.
I've been asked many times what my favorite books is and, since it always changes, I've given many answers...
OUT OF ALL MY FAVORITE BOOKS, NO OTHER HAS PROVOKED MORE MALE DERISION THAN PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.
Why is this? I have many theories.
- Some men are threatened by deeply romantic stories because they feel unimpressive compared to the male love interest.
- Love stories explore emotions, and many men, especially modern men, have been taught to suppress, even deride, feelings.
- Pride and Prejudice is written from the heart of the feminine experience and there are lots of men out there who hate women.
- Jane Austen didn't put any explosions, weapons, or physical action into Pride and Prejudice, and those things are particularly exciting to the male hormone.
Are there any other theories out there? If so, let me know in the comments.
Pride and Prejudice and Absurdity
What the detractors of P&P don't appreciate is the wicked sense of humor that lived inside Jane Austen. Her particular comic talent lay in her observations and depictions of human absurdity. In this, she was a master.
There's one piece of dialogue, said by Mr. Bennet, that seems to come straight from Austen' own mouth: "What do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?"
We know that Austen liked to observe people, much like her famous heroine, Elizabeth Bennet. In her surviving letters, she provides plenty of razor-sharp descriptions of the people around her. She wrote these to entertain her family and friends, and she was at her funniest when she skewered anything ridiculous. She had a knack for picking out the heart of an absurdity before her and serving it up with exquisite deadpan.
Austen was conscious that her comedy mixed in with her romance might turn off some readers. Nevertheless, she decided to stick to her own style. I think I speak for every Austen fan when I say... I'm so glad she didn't compromise her humor. Pride and Prejudice would simply not be the same without its absurd cast of characters.
What Makes Pride and Prejudice Truly Special?
What makes P&P truly special is everything I just discussed with you and so much more. It's author, Jane Austen, was a spectacularly talented writer who honed her craft through years of diligent practice. Pride and Prejudice was, and remains, the sparkling gemstone at the center of the crown she earned herself.
Pride and Prejudice is more than a story. It's a standard.