Friday, February 6, 2009

Janespotting: Pride and Prejudice (Austen's original)

Of course I have to start my Janespotting feature with Austen's Pride and Prejudice, first published in 1813. Although it wasn't her first novel written or published, it is first in the hearts of most Austen fans I've met. Austen sets the stage with her opening sentence: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." After this wry observation, we are introduced to the Bennet family, who have five daughters and no sons; with the estate legally obligated to pass to a male heir, this means marriage is the only means for the Bennet girls to maintain, let alone improve, their lot in life. So when the aforementioned rich, single Mr. Bingley comes to their neighborhood, Mrs. Bennet is determined one of her daughters should snag him. It is likely to be Jane, the eldest, who is so beautiful and virtuous we should hate her, but her kind heart and sensible nature make it impossible to inspire anything but fondness. (And when she finally does snag Mr. Bingley, we rejoice for her.)

Jane is the favorite sister of the second Bennet daughter, Elizabeth, aka Lizzy. Lizzy Bennet is one of Austen's most beloved heroines, and for good reason: she has all the good qualities we ourselves would like to have. She is pretty but modest about her talents, similar to Jane. She is witty and can take a joke, unlike middle sister Mary. She is also sensible when it comes to romance: she is determined she will only marry for love, but she is not obsessed with men, unlike youngest sisters Kitty and Lydia. Although she is introduced to our romantic hero, Mr. Darcy, in the third chapter of the book, she is unmoved by his wealth and status or even his avowed love for her until the last third of the book. Lizzy does make mistakes—it is her prejudice that leads her to overlook Mr. Darcy's good qualities—but she triumphs over them at the end. Who wouldn't want to be Lizzy: intelligent, independent, humorous, pretty, and lucky in love?

Some people will admit to preferring other Austen heroines, especially Emma, but I've rarely heard someone choose anyone other than Mr. Darcy as their favorite Austen hero. Now, that might have something to do with Colin Firth's swoonworthy portrayal in the 1995 BBC miniseries, but somehow I don't think so. It isn't just that Mr. Darcy is handsome, rich, and has excellent taste in women—how could we not love him when he is so head-over-heels with our beloved Lizzy? No, I think Darcy's appeal boils down to the journey his character takes during the course of the novel.

Think about it. We see Darcy through Lizzy's eyes, and he begins the novel by overlooking her and demonstrating his arrogance. When he first proposes to her, he expects to be accepted and is surprised at Lizzy's refusal. She tells him, "From the first moment ... of my acquaintance with you, your manners impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form that groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable dislike."

Wow. That's pretty harsh. But does Darcy turn ugly, become a stalker, or refuse to think of her again? No: he listens to what Elizabeth has to say, and then he changes his behavior in order to win her. (And she didn't even have to ask, let alone nag!! You didn't know Austen wrote fantasy, did you?*) After Lizzy gratefully accepts his second proposal, he tells her, "What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased." So in Mr. Darcy we have a man of mostly good qualities who is inspired by love to reform his few bad ones. No wonder we find him so appealing, and why Pride and Prejudice has been a favorite with generations of readers.

Oh, and also popular with generations of filmmakers; I'm going to check out film adaptations of P&P next. First up: the 1940 MGM production with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier.

*I'm kidding, of course. I generally have a good opinion of the male gender. And who knows, after they got married Darcy might have annoyed Lizzy by constantly ruining his clothes taking dips in Pemberley's pond.


  1. More men ought to be like Mr Darcy -- prepared -- even eager -- to change themselves and win the love of a good woman. The more I think about it, the more I see that Austen's books are a little dangerous. And probably the reason I got married so late myself.

    (I saw your comment on Jacqui's blog and had to visit. I love Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, and the Bronte sisters. And no one around here ever wants to talk about them.)

  2. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Mary! I anticipate posting a "Janespotting" topic every week, so please come and talk about Austen all you like.

    I agree that Mr. Darcy is a dangerous character; how many women think, "Oh, I can just change X and my man will be perfect?"--not realizing that they can't change anything. And although a man who's willing to improve himself out of love is very romantic, you wouldn't want them to go too far, into the realm of pathetic. Mr. Darcy is perfectly balanced that way; he doesn't really change his inner nature so much as improve his behavior.