In celebration of two hundredth anniversary of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I’m taking part in the Austenprose Bicentenary Challenge for 2013. Here is the original blog post if you are interested.
The idea is to pick a challenge level (Ie: how many Pride and Prejudice inspired books, be they prequels, sequels, non-fiction, fan-fiction, etc., or movies or miniseries) then post our review on your blog. I am going gung-ho with 11 books and a review of the 2005 movie starring Keira Kniightly.
But that is for next month. This month, I am reviewing the original. The darling child of Miss Austen herself. In case you’ve been living under a rock and have just stumbled out from under it, here is the blurb from Goodreads. Also, a warning. This “review” will contain spoilers.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
So begins Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s witty comedy of manners–one of the most popular novels of all time–that features splendidly civilized sparring between the proud Mr. Darcy and the prejudiced Elizabeth Bennet as they play out their spirited courtship in a series of eighteenth-century drawing-room intrigues. Renowned literary critic and historian George Saintsbury in 1894 declared it the “most perfect, the most characteristic, the most eminently quintessential of its author’s works,” and Eudora Welty in the twntieth century described it as “irresistible and as nearly flawless as any fiction could be.”
My intersection with Jane Austen and all her books is not that old. Only a few years. But I have already read Pride and Prejudice five or six times. I adore it. It has what I love about old books. A bit of rambly plot, where you go to lots of dinners and hang out at other people’s houses for months and months. Letters. Doings in the town. And that thorn in the side of most young ladies at the time: maiwadge. That is the end-all be-all for Mrs. Bennet, who has five daughters she needs to see tie the knot before she dies. And it has one thing that I adore above all in a book.
A broody Englishman.
I don’t know what it is about this archetype that pushes my randy buttons. It always has. As a very young girl, watching Masterpiece Theatre at my grandmother’s house, I was far too young to know that what I was feeling were the first stirrings of attraction toward a certain type of man, but I was always held captivated by the men on the screen, in their severe black coats and cravats. Maybe it wasn’t the men. Maybe it was the cravats. Because I love me a man in a cravat, especially if he is sporting a healthy set of sideburns. Man whiskers. Mmmhmm. It’s something that has stayed with me. Forever.
Of course, in the book, we get Mr. Darcy’s brood via description. Here is how we meet him.
...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. The gentleman pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening…
Well, of course, then we learn that he’s proud and stand-offish, and despite having the good manners to be both handsome and rich, he cheats everybody by acting like it. Then he really sticks his foot in it when he insults our heroine. Despite the limited number of gentlemen at the ball, he doesn’t dance with her, claiming she isn’t handsome enough.
However, in true Elizabeth fashion, she can’t be bothered. She makes it a joke among her friends, and the next day, she famously says “I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine.”
But Mr. Darcy speaks in haste. Shortly after this, a few dinners, perhaps there is another ball, I don’t exactly remember, his opinion changes. And we get the joy of knowing what Elizabeth doesn’t.
Occupied in observing Mr. Bingley’s attentions to her sister, Elizabeth was far from suspecting that she was herself becoming an object of some interest in the eyes of his friend. Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticize. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she hardly had a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes…. he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their playfulness.
If that doesn’t make you quiver, I’m going to need you to hand over your woman card.
The trouble is, Darcy doesn’t know how to let her know how he feels. They’ve verbally sparred, well, clashed might be a better word, and she clearly enjoys discomfiting him. He does what awkward men do. He stares at her. She imagines he is only looking at her to find fault. Too shy to talk to her himself, he listens in on her conversations. Lizzy catches him at it and calls him out. However, Elizabeth is having a great time. She doesn’t like him, but she doesn’t shrink from him. She likes pushing and pulling at him, knowing he is too reserved and well-bred to really quarrel or even lose his temper.
Just when you are starting to feel real pity for Darcy, they part. Darcy and Mr. Bingley go to London. But Lizzy soon goes to visit her best friend who has had the (mis)fortune to marry Lizzie’s lump of a cousin. And who should show up but Mr. Darcy and HIS cousin. The two households pay polite respect to one another by visits. And as Lizzy wanders the grounds, who should also suddenly have need of exercise? Mr. Darcy. He joins her, but he does not speak. After a few such encounters, she makes sure to tell him “This is where I walk. I like this walk. I walk here all the time,” thinking “he doesn’t like me, he doesn’t mean to meet me, he will surely not come this way tomorrow.”
I guess Mr. Darcy can’t take a hint, because sure as a vicar squats in the privy behind the vicarage, he’s there again the next day. Elizabeth doesn’t know what to think.
Finally, when he can bare it no longer, the poor fool throws himself on his sword, shows up out of nowhere and pops the question…while insulting her family and telling her how hard he tried not to like her because of what he considers “low connections.” After some spluttering, Elizabeth tells him she doesn’t give a hoot about his feelings, oh, and there is also the matter of his removing Mr. Bingley. Elizabeth has discovered their trip to London was all about splitting up Mr. Bingley and her sister, who were well on the way to K*I*S*S*I*N*G before Darcy dragged him off.
Well, they verbally spar some more, and part in high dudgeon. At this point it’s harder to decide whose stick is farther up which butt. Mr. Darcy writes her a beautiful letter, trying to explain his side of the situation. He also makes her aware of some falsehoods put forward by a young man who has been representing to everyone that Darcy is a heartless bastard who robbed him of his rightful inheritance. That’s gotta sting. He writes well and at length. She is softened. She reads his letter again and again. Even thought it stirs up anger and feelings of betrayal, she tries to look at it through his eyes. He doesn’t know that he is almost forgiven. He has to leave.
I have brought you my impression of the upright, broody Englishman of Pride and Prejudice through 50% of the book. There is a lot more broody English-stuff that goes on. Makeups. Breakups. Absconsion. It’s a word. “To abscond.” Or it should be. All to the trembling end, Mr. Darcy keeps his stiff upper lip, he does what he believes to be right. He did it in the case of Mr. Bingley and Jane, and he does it again when another of Elizabeth’s sister’s gets into a scrape. But this time, he does it for Elizabeth. The first half of the book, he is closed to us, and we do not know why he behaves as he does. In the second half, and after the beautiful letter, we see more into his soul. We see his house and hear of his character and behavior from others who have no stake in the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy. Only then does Elizabeth decide that perhaps she was too hasty in painting him with the brush of her opinion. That her own pride made her prejudiced against him.
See what I did there?
But seriously. You must read this book if you haven’t, and read it again if you have. It’s one of the great English novels. That’s reason enough for me. That it should also have a great English hero (and Heroine!) is just the icing on the Austen cake of deliciousness.