Reading for Fun: Pride and Prejudice

By Nancy Jane Moore Pride and Prejudice

The Kindle app on my tablet included a free copy of Pride and Prejudice, inspiring me to read it for the first time since high school.

I found myself horrified that young women of this day and age consider it a romantic story and are pining to live in such a world and to find their own Mr. Darcy.

Romantic? There’s no romance in this book at all, unless you count the nice fantasy that a snobbish man like Darcy will become so besotted by a smart and beautiful woman like Elizabeth that he will toss over his ideas of marrying well for love of her.

Sure, that’s a sweet love story that has spawned thousands of imitations and probably led millions, maybe billions, of women to dream that the perfect man will someday notice them, but the truth of marriage in Austen’s society is better represented by Charlotte Lucas’s union with the dreary Mr. Collins or, even worse, foolish Lydia Bennet’s elopement with the dreadful Wickham.

As I observe in my flash memoir “Spinster,” sometimes I think Jane Austen wrote horror novels.

None of this is meant as a slam at Jane Austen, whose work I admire. She was brilliant at both observing her society and presenting it accurately — not to mention wittily — on the page. But I cannot say that I truly enjoy reading her books, because even when I’m taking delight in the way she eviscerates the like of Lady Catherine, I’m cringing at the limited prospects for Jane and Elizabeth Bennet.

Their mother, Mrs. Bennet, is presented as an idiot obsessed with the marriage of her daughters, but despite her stupid attitudes, she’s right. What other options do her five daughters have but good marriages? The property is entailed and will pass to Collins on Mr. Bennet’s death, and the five young women will have barely enough money to feed themselves if they don’t marry.

Mr. Bennet, presented more sympathetically since he recognizes the value of Elizabeth, has done nothing to provide a future for his daughters — neither educated them nor done anything to bring in additional income. He is a gentleman and lives like one, and while he does not like his wife, he lets her foolishness control their situation.

And Mr. Darcy! He may be essentially honorable, but after all he tried to break up the relationship between his friend Bingley and Jane Bennet because he deplored the Bennets. I find myself imaging him and Elizabeth, some years later, bitterly estranged because he cannot abide the constant presence of her inferior relatives, whom they are obliged to assist.

While the idea of Elizabeth marrying the likes of Collins is so frightening that only knowing that she turned him down made it possible for me to keep reading, the truth of the matter is that, for the financial health of the family, his offer to her was both good and honorable, since he intended to make sure her family would not be destitute on the death of Mr. Bennet.

You don’t have to be a feminist to deplore a world in which sharp young women like Elizabeth are condemned to the likes of Collins as their best choices. Simply put yourself in the position of Charlotte Lucas and see whether you could stand to live as she does.

I’m all for reading — and re-reading — the work of Jane Austen, but let’s read it as social commentary, not as romance. Instead of pining over Mr. Darcy, young woman should be contemplating whether marriage to a drip like Collins would be preferable to becoming a governess or living as a supernumerary in the home of a brother-in-law.

As for me, the only woman in the book I’d like to be is Lady Catherine. She may be a tyrant, and she’s not too bright, but she does have her independence, a rare thing for a woman in her time.

Why would any woman give up the choices available to her today for a romantic illusion?
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Flashes of Illumination“Spinster” is included in Flashes of Illumination, a collection of my short-short fiction now available here from Book View Cafe. This 52-story ebook collects the flash fiction I published weekly during the first year of Book View Cafe, and adds in a few later stories as well.

My novella Changeling remains available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story.

Both books are $2.99 and available in four DRM-free formats: mobi, epub, prc, and pdf.

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Reading for Fun: Pride and Prejudice — 11 Comments

  1. i must disagree, at least in part, to what you’re saying.

    i agree with you when you say that austen does imply social commentary, but you’re implying that it’s a work of sociology, not of fiction, and that’s taking the argument a little too far.

    1. she’s presenting a range of marital options, from the perfect bliss of the elizabeth-darcy match to the ‘dreariness’ of being mrs. collins. and to my mind, that’s something that austen does intentionally. but to take that to mean that all marriages must therefore have some tinge of dreariness sounds as if you’re taking your views and imposing them upon the book.

    2. of course, your point could be in psycholoanalyzing elizabeth bennett andor austen to suggest that they were victims of circumstance, forced to think/act in a particular way. that’s truism at its worst, and would have put austen in a whole different genre (and in any case, p&p&zombies has already tread the path you’re suggesting).

    3. in the same vein, to suggest that darcy ought to have been broadminded enough to see things clearly is your view of the matter. but i’d like to suggest two things: (a) austen wouldn’t have been much of a commentator/humorist if she’d resolved her central conflict on page one by making her hero a saint. and (b) darcy behaves authentically given that your view of mrs bennett coincides so exactly with his, as presented in the book.. 🙂

    4. there are a variety of austen interpretations going around, which turn some of your assumptions on their heads–i think people should watch/read them because even when they’re awful (bride and preudice) they suggest that your preconceived notions are possibly upside down. compare greer garson/jennifer ehle/keira knightley/aiswarya rai/gemma arterton/jennifer rooper and there’s nothing that really matches about their various elizabeths. and the same is true of the corresponding darcyoid characters, and almost everyone else. and some of these interpretations (especially the difference between garson and knightley for eg) aren’t out of the bounds of the book, merely aspects you’d not considered.

  2. Vijay, I didn’t mean to imply we should read Jane Austen as sociology, but re-reading my post I can see why you took it that way. What I’m really trying to say is that I doubt Austen meant for us to take the book as a “happily ever after” love story. That’s my argument with a lot of readers.

    Great fiction shows us our world, and Austen wrote great fiction. I just don’t think she wrote love stories.

  3. This is, oddly enough, why I find Pride and Prejudice and Zombies entertaining. In that universe, Elizabeth Bennet has half a chance of surviving in a better fashion than she would in the original.

    (think about the implications of Charlotte Lucas surviving as a zombie. And there’s a wee bit of satisfaction watching Darcy and Elizabeth carving up zombies after declaring their love.)

    Hmm. Perhaps a reason why those horror mashups of old novels are popular?

  4. Austen herself said about the book that it might be “too light and bright and sparkling”–a remark that has inspired almost as much writing as the novels themselves.

    I don’t agree about Mr Bennet (it is clear that he thinks his wife is silly, but he liked her enough to beget five children with her) and I definitely do not agree that Darcy and Elizabeth would end up estranged because of his inlaws. That feels like the hammer of postmodern cultural mores smacked down over Austen’s, to distorting effect; internal data makes it clear that Darcy knew what he was getting into, and that he was capable of keeping the unwanted ones at bay, and encouraging the Gardiners and the ones he liked.

    There is so much on Austen out there (obviously) but for a more balanced view, I recommend the recent publication by Patricia Meyer Spacks, a superb academic whose readings tastes I think might intersect with yours, called On Rereading. The whole book is engaging and thought provoking but the essay on Austen is particularly germane.

  5. I’ve felt that way about Mr. Bennett also, and much of the rest.

    The passages that come after Elizabeth is felled by the news that her sister had eloped, sans marriage, with Wickham are devastating about both him and her mother, as she faces the facts that her sister’s behavior has condemned all the rest of them to spinsterhood. For they are now painted forever with the same brush of lost reputation because their sister was living in sin, outside of wedlock.

    These people have forgotten how different it was back then — and even, not so long ago — for a woman to lose her virginity sans marriage and / or to bear a child outside of marriage. Also the way the community condemned the child as a bastard, born with the sign of satan.

    Thus, Darcy’s subsequent actions in tracking down Wickham, paying him to marry — and then still loving Elizabeth and insisting upon his own guilt in not telling the truth of Wickham to their community because his own pride — all the more heroic — and loving.

    Love, C.

  6. P&P is a great example of the Deep Throat principle of writing: Follow The Money. It is not a romance novel at all — it’s a financial one. The entire situation is driven by the necessity of finding some way to keep the family afloat after Mr. Bennett dies.

  7. I based my thoughts about Mr. Bennet’s feelings about his wife on something he says. I’m too lazy to look it up right now, but it was something to the effect that he hadn’t realized what she was really like when he married her. I figure they had five children in an effort to have a boy.

    I’m exaggerating a bit about Darcy and Elizabeth becoming estranged over her family. I’d like to believe they’re above that, too. But family issues can strain even the best of marriages, and the Bennets are a handful.

    I stand by my opinion that this is not a love story, and that modern readers who go all gushy and romantic over it are reading it wrong.

  8. Nancy Jane: I would say that Pride and Prejudice is not just a love story, though romantic love forms two of the strongest threads pulling the story. But it touches on the dangers of misinterpreting romantic love, as well as demonstrating what Austen thought was healthy romantic love.

    Re Mr. Bennet, there is a narrative statement and he himself tells Lizzy to be careful how she marries, but the text suggests to me that he married very young and carelessly, choosing someone primarily for her prettiness. His attitude toward his wife (and his sillier daughters) I think is more complicated than ‘dislike.’ That he cares about his daughters is made plain in how guilty he feels about Lydia’s situation, and how he bestirs his lazy ass on her behalf–belatedly.

    That said, I don’t know that there is the possibility in discussion after the words “reading it wrong.” While I totally disagree with Brenda above (who says it’s all about following the money) her reading is her reading. I find that Lizzy talks about the dangers of making one’s search for a spouse all about the money, which is one of the reasons why she refuses Darcy’s first proposal .

    To me the critical passage of the book is in the middle, expressing the tensions between gentry women’s limited choices (something Austen was very aware of, as we see even in the few letters Cassandra left us) and moral and social integrity, when Elizabeth says to Jane, You shall not, for the sake of one individual, change the meaning of principle and integrity, nor endeavour to persuade yourself or me, that selfishness is prudence, and insensibility of danger, security for happiness.

    Danger being marrying a man one has no respect for in order to gain social and economic security. This is after finding out that Charlotte invited Collins’ proposal.

    But every reader comes away with a slightly different perspective–and indeed, one person can get a different perspective from the book over a lifetime. This is why it is great literature–it has something to say to a broad spectrum of people, and something new to be discovered each time we open it.

  9. Sherwood, I absolutely agree that it’s great literature, and I applaud Elizabeth’s refusal to marry Collins, even though it would certainly be an excellent solution to the Bennet household problems. Her principles are what makes her such an enticing character.

  10. Oh, P&P isn’t -only- about money. Otherwise Lizzie would fall into Mr. Collins’ arms and it would be over. But it underlies everything, and (as Nancy says) is what makes Lizzie’s rejection of Collins so dangerous and daring. It is also what makes Wickam so deadly — since he is looking out for a rich wife his interest in any of the Bennett girls can only be pernicious.
    I don’t know if there was any other possible hope for the girls, other than marriage. The chances of any female making a (respectable) living at that period are almost zero. Modern romance novels, in that sense, are very deceiving; they’re always about that very very rare gal who is being a detective (hi, Mad!) or selling rare books or painting portraits or whatever.

  11. Brenda: yeah. Reading Austen’s letters, you get this sense of a sea change as she got older. In the early days, she looked for romance (though the signs of it are pretty oblique, due to the paucity of letters about the subject) but Cassandra didn’t burn the later ones when it seems that Austen was just as happy to be a spinster, instead of constantly bearing children and being inundated with domestic crises (if they survived childbirth), as her sisters in law were. (Like that one letter that announces that one sister in law is pregnant yet again, and Austen comments, “Poor animal!”)

    There’s a romantic overlay to her stories, but they are definitely not romances in the modern sense, as Nancy Jane points out.