An Irishwoman's Diary
Love can be a messy business at even the best of times and business is the operative word in the context of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s masterfully satirical study of marriage as a social contract. First published 200 years ago today her second novel, initially rejected in an earlier form in 1797, remains deservedly hailed as one of the most beloved of novels and has never been out of print.
Austen (1775-1817), a formidable observer, famously created her daring narratives – and they are daring – from the corner of whatever room in which she happened to be sitting. She never married and died young, aged only 41. Significantly, her father and older brothers believed in her literary talent.
Austen was confident and outspoken. Her candour is certainly shared by her most famous heroine, the lively Elizabeth Bennet, Austen’s favourite creation.
The story is so well known. It all begins with one of the most quoted opening sentences in literature: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” However much a rich single man may want that wife, his need could never match that of a mother with one or more daughters to offload. The shrill, exasperated and exasperating Mrs Bennet is driven by potential financial ruin. In the event of Mr Bennet’s death, the family home will be lost and passed on to a male cousin.
Austen’s Mr Bennet, mild and guilty of poor planning, is a bookish man with a well developed sense of irony. He is also a brilliant foil to his shrieking spouse. Austen is extraordinarily witty and writes sharp, eloquent dialogue. Her characterisation is remarkable, an Austen protagonist, even a relatively minor player such as Mr Collins, emerges fully formed from the page. Her worldview is narrowly confined to the domestic trials and tribulations of the various characters, most specifically, unmarried girls.
Throughout Austen’s publishing career England was at war, yet soldiers merely add a colourful distraction. There is nothing quite like a uniform and Mrs Bennet admits to still having a lingering weakness for a red coat.
News that a local estate is about to be rented by a wealthy young bachelor causes excitement in the Bennet household and Mrs Bennet sees a chance for Jane, her eldest to make a good match. Jane Austen does not create heroines battling to preserve their virtue such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748). Elizabeth is neither as financially independent nor as snobbish as a later Austen heroine Emma, the eponymous central character of the 1816 novel; Elizabeth is educated, articulate as an Oxbridge Union debater, sufficiently confident not to feel compelled to practise her keyboard skills and no, she does not draw. But she is relatively poor and is her mother’s least favourite daughter – no doubt because of her sharp retorts.
Elizabeth is taken aback by Darcy’s initial slighting of her. She overhears him saying that she is not pretty enough to tempt him. It rankles yet she, being Elizabeth, can laugh at it. Film adaptations heighten the sexual tension between the challenging Elizabeth and the haughty, good-looking Darcy. But Austen’s text reveals a battle of wits, with Elizabeth consistently goading the taciturn Darcy.
Mr Collins arrives at the Bennet home, intent on marrying one of the daughters. His first choice is Jane, the eldest. Mrs Bennet has already decided that Bingley will solve that problem. So Elizabeth is presented as the obvious default candidate. She rejects his proposal to the horror of her mother and the delight of her father. Austen shows Elizabeth choosing for herself, not her family’s future. She is briefly enamoured of Wickham. Yet Darcy is the prize – rich, handsome, intriguingly aloof, a good friend to Bingley, a devoted brother, a kind master and ultimately a man not only of honour, but of action. When she first sights Pemberley she sighs “of all this I might have been mistress”. In Austen’s world women do not face the Gothic terrors of the Brontes nor the sacrificial victimhood and moral censure favoured by Thomas Hardy. In Elizabeth and her sisters (even the wayward Lydia whose elopement is quite a risqué plot development and one needed to test Darcy), Austen shows that women view marriage as a matter of social survival. Charlotte Lucas marries Collins not because she loves him, but because she is 27, plain, unmarried and facing social oblivion. She wants a home. The wit, colour, characters, caricatures and life of Austen’s work charms and beguiles, but the true genius lies in her intelligence and timeless grasp of the social and financial realities of a world that may have changed far less than we would like to think.