Monday, October 4, 2010

Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice

**It's 'Pride and Prejudice Week' here at Worthy of Note!  For no particular reason at all I've decided to review the novel, and several of its adaptations, over the course of the next week. Tomorrow I will be posting a review of the epic 1995 BBC miniseries starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, and after that I will be reviewing the much-maligned 2005 adaptation starring Matthew MacFayden and Kiera Knightley. My fondest hope is that these reviews may upset my fellow Janeites sufficiently to vehemently critique me in the comments.**

"Pride and Prejudice" is one of the most recognized titles in English literature. Released to almost universal acclaim, the novel has preserved its ascendancy in English literature for the past two centuries. It has been adapted for a BBC miniseries on six separate occasions (1938, 1952, 1958, 1967, 1980, and most famously in 1995). It has also been brought to the silver screen five times, including two direct adaptations in 1940 and 2005, and three reinterpretations which placed the story in such settings as modern England (2001), Utah (2003) and India (2004). In 2003 it was rated the second best-loved book in the United Kingdom, only behind Tolkien's fantasy epic "The Lord of the Rings," and was the top pick among Australian readers in 2008. The world has Jane Austen fever.

If you don't know the story of this novel, I am heartily ashamed for you. Here's the short version: boy meets girl, girl despises boy, boy proposes to girl, girl rejects boy, boy is kind to girl, girl begins to like boy, boy marries girl.

Now for a bit more involved summary. Elizabeth Bennet, the second daughter of a country gentleman, meets and immediately despises the aristocratic Fitzwilliam Darcy, who appears to her a proud gentleman who disdains her and her relatively poor family (when in fact he's merely shy). She also meets Mr. Wickham, who knew Darcy as a child and who accuses him of withholding Wickham's rightful inheritance. Alas, the hapless Mr. Darcy has by that time fallen in love with Lizzie, despite their differences in class and the mockery of his best friend's sister, Miss Bingley. He stuns Lizzie by proposing to her, but is quickly and almost viciously rebuffed. The next morning, he defends himself in a letter, specifically by informing her of Mr. Wickham's true character: he was a dissolute man who tried to elope with Mr. Darcy's younger sister for the sake of her fortune. Over the next few months, Darcy works to improve himself in social graces, and Lizzie begins to fall in love with him, especially after visiting his estate at Pemberley and meeting his sister Georgiana. Alas, Lizzie's younger sister, Lydia Bennet, is discovered to have eloped with Mr. Wickham, which tears the lovers apart and drives Lizzie to despair of ever having Darcy's heart. But Darcy visits Wickham, who had been living with Lydia in London, and forces him to marry the girl. This partially restores the family's honor, and allows him to once again propose to her. She accepts, and they begin a happy life together at Pemberley.

A comprehensive review of the novel would be foolishness. There is too much that deserves attention, and too much that inspires delight, to do the entire performance justice. The characters are realistically and deliciously portrayed, and the lines sparkle with social commentary and brilliant wit. The story works like clockwork: every subplot, every intrigue, every moment conveys something of importance that fits perfectly into the big picture. "Pride and Prejudice" is regarded as one of the best romantic comedies for good reason.

I want to focus in this review on two particular sections of the novel: the first meeting between Lizzie and Darcy at the Meryton Ball, and the ending. When we first read the novel, we view the events from Lizzie's perspective, and feel her resentment at Darcy's angry words to his more social friend Mr. Bingley. Bingley had proposed to introduce him to Elizabeth Bennet, and Darcy had described her as "tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me!" This is enough to confirm Lizzie's first impression ("First Impressions" was, incidentally, the original title of the novel) and establish her loathing. But Jane Austen has done a very clever thing with this bit of overheard dialogue: she makes us understand why Lizzie despises him, but gives us enough information to see how she is mistaken.

The conversation between Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy goes as follows:
'Come Darcy,' said [Bingley] I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance.'

[Darcy] 'I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this, it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room, whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.'
'I would not be so fastidious as you are', cried Bingley, 'for a kingdom! Upon my honor, I never met with so many pleasant girls as I have this evening; and here are several of them you see uncommonly pretty.'
'You are dancing with the only handsome woman in the room,' said Darcy looking at the eldest Miss Bennet [Lizzie's sister, Jane].
[Bingley] 'Oh! She is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you.'
'Which do you mean?' and turning, [Darcy] looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said, 'She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humor at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me.'
I am greatly indebted to this article in The Loiterer, that presents Mr. Darcy's perspective of the early events of the novel. That article pointed out that the conversation was oriented around Darcy and Bingley, and that the reference to Lizzie was largely incidental. Bingley is trying to drag his friend out to dance, and Darcy is declining -- notably citing his own shyness around strangers. Bingley insists and Darcy concedes a bit of ground by noting that Bingley's partner is the "handsomest woman in the room." Darcy is obliquely indicating that he would dance if Bingley would let him do so with Jane! Bingley soon realizes Darcy's meaning, and quickly recalculates. He realizes he could score points with Jane by finding a partner for her sister, and offers to introduce Lizzie instead. That is when Darcy responds so angrily to his friend.

The words that followed were not intended by Darcy to insult Lizzie, but to nettle Bingley. First, "she is... not handsome enough to tempt me" merely means that she is not as handsome as Jane, with whom Darcy had sought to dance. Second, the reference to Lizzie as a lady "slighted by other men" is a pointed reference to the fact that Bingley (who enjoys dancing) had already danced twice with Jane but not yet once with Lizzie!  Bingley certainly got the message. At the end of the chapter, as Mrs. Bennet is relating the events of the evenings in raptures, she notes that Bingley had danced a second time with Jane, and then danced twice with Lizzie immediately thereafter... which would also be immediately after his conversation with Darcy.

It is too easy for us to view things as Lizzie does, and feel her pain at Darcy's jilting of her beauty. But even when the conversation turned to her, the meaning of Darcy's words was never about Lizzie herself, but about Bingley's conduct and needling. Very soon thereafter, Darcy came to admire Lizzie's features, entranced by "the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow." The rapidity of this shift in judgment indicates that Darcy wasn't very serious in his initial appraisal, and was much more focused on responding to Bingley. In this brief episode, Austen provides just enough information to justify Lizzie's initial mistake, and to reveal that mistake in a second reading. It is a brilliant literary performance, just subtle enough to escape our initial notice.

I would also like to comment on the ending of this novel, because that is the other section of the book to which no adaptation has done justice.  Romantic comedies have an unfortunate tendency to end abruptly with a declaration of love, a proposal, or a wedding. Even Shakespeare is not immune: the awkward proposal of the Duke to Isabella in "Measure for Measure" fits this mold perfectly. Austen is not so liable, and usually spends a good deal of time portraying the characters after the leading lady married the man of her dreams.

Thus, the last chapter of "Pride and Prejudice" is dedicated to sketching each character's future even after the close of the novel. Mrs. Bennet, who had so longed to see her children married, is at last satisfied by their good fortune, and it is strongly implied that she settled down a bit later in life; "though perhaps it is lucky for her husband, who might not have relished domestic felicity in so unusual a form, that she still was occasionally nervous and invariably silly." (This is, incidentally, the clearest indication we see that Mr. Bennet is happily married, and has at least some real affection for his wife despite her faults). As for their two remaining daughters, Kitty is separated from the influence of Lydia and matures considerably under the guidance of Jane and Lizzie, while Mary is "obliged to mix more with the world" because she is finally noticed by her mother, and no longer suffers from the comparisons with her older or younger sisters.

Jane and Bingley move away from Netherfield, finally tiring of the proximity to the Bennet family and friends, and purchase an estate near Pemberley -- thus, Lizzie is able to visit her favorite sister with little inconvenience. Miss Bingley and Lady Catherine are respectively mortified and estranged after Darcy's marriage, but they ultimately are reconciled, and Miss Bingley "paid off every arrear of civility to Elizabeth." Most notably, however, Darcy brings his sister to live with them at Pemberley, "and the attachment of the sisters was exactly what Darcy had hoped to see." Under Lizzie's tutelage, Georgiana not only matures but is able to laugh more easily, and grows out of her shell. This is perhaps the happiest part of the ending, as Lizzie is brought into an almost maternal role, and shepherds the next generation to a similar perfection of wit and good nature.

There is a delightful quote from the film "Stranger Than Fiction" to the effect that tragedy is about the finality of death, and comedy is about the continuance of life. "In a tragedy, you die, in a comedy you get hitched." Unfortunately, so many romantic comedies seem to forget that, and simply end when the couple gets together. But the love story is not over, there is so much more, and such better things, still in the couple's future. It is quite frustrating to see how few authors and directors actually remember this lesson, even among those who adapt Austen's work for the silver screen. Austen herself never forgot that, and her novels serve as a useful antidote to those who fixate on the lovers while forgetting their friends, families and futures.


  1. I know that you don't care for the 2005 adaptation, but it seems unfair to describe it, simply, as "much-maligned". Much-maligned by whom, I might ask, and on what grounds? I'm sure that as a Jane Austen superfan you have a lot of nitpicking to do, as is your right. As someone who has read Pride and Prejudice precisely once and wasn't exactly as swept away as, say, Australia, I love the film. It's gorgeous to look at, funny, warm, well-scored, well-acted, etc., and many critics thought so, too. So can we at least be civil towards Mr. Wright and the gang?

    I very much look forward to reading your review(s). Who knows, maybe you'll convince me to slog through one of the BBC adaptations?

  2. By "much maligned," I was referring to the opinions of others in the "Jane Austen superfan" community who unfavorably contrast that film with the 1995 miniseries. On the contrary, I genuinely liked the 2005 film, as you did, and will be defending it in my review.

    I do hope you give the 1995 miniseries a chance; it's slow -- slower than the book, in some ways -- but it contains many of the subtler moments that define Austen's prose. If you're looking for something more fast-paced, might I recommend "Northanger Abbey"? The first chapter alone is worth the price of admission.

  3. My hat is off to you, sir. I apologize if I offended, and look forward to your review even more. I'll add the miniseries to my Netflix queue, and "Northanger" to my reading list.

  4. This is a great review! Your "boy meets girl" summary had me totally cracking up. I, too, happen to find the 1995 miniseries FAR, FAR superior to the 2005 film. (Now they just need to make Pride & Prejudice into a TV show so I can review it on my blog, haha.) Looking forward to the rest of your 'Pride & Prejudice' week.

  5. Tim: There's no need to apologize, as there was no offense. I'm glad you're going to try "Northanger Abbey." It is one of the inexplicably and enduringly under-appreciated novels in the Austen canon -- almost as though the TV show "Community" were transplanted to the Regency era. The analogy is apt in more ways than one: I think the novel has the same degree of humor, similar pace, and same quantity of "meta" references as the show. But I shouldn't praise it too highly, lest it disappoint your expectations.

    Beth: I'm glad you liked the review. Your other comment, though, leads me to ask whether you noted my response to Tim. I *like* the 2005 film, and I have difficulty ranking my preference between the two. I'll be defending the 2005 film in my review. I know I will find you (and others I know who are already revving their engines and sharpening their pens) a worthy interlocutor. Good luck!