As one of the most famous and beloved novels ever written, Pride and Prejudice needs little introduction. Instead, I’ll pose the question: what makes a book re-readable?
Many people return to Pride and Prejudice , myself included, for a reliably entertaining and heartwarming story. There is a special delight which comes with reading Jane Austen, from the witty dialogue and astutely constructed characters, to the country estates and ‘universal’ commentary on everything from society to affairs of the heart. Each of these elements combine in Pride and Prejudice to create an enchanting fictional world which feels equally real.
Indeed, as romantic as the story is, realism is just as important to the narrative. Austen is quite emphatic about money, marriage and social disgrace and the discussions around these, which vacillate between the comical and the serious, make the book all the more intriguing.
I know your disposition, Lizzy. I know that you could neither be happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband; unless you looked up to him as a superior.”415
Marriage is of course the name of the game here and I am always slightly shocked by Austen’s comments on Mr and Mrs Bennett’s marriage. Mrs Bennett’s silliness, we are told, “had very early put an end to all real affection for her.” (261) on the part of her husband- hardly a favourable portrait of married life.
As much as Pride and Prejudice celebrates the romantic match of minds between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy and Jane and Mr Bingley it also exposes the hard facts of matrimony: wealth, reputation and female virtue. This is impressed upon the reader from the first tongue-in-cheek sentence; women need to marry a sizeable fortune and the willingness of said husband is a minor detail.
Does Austen present women as schemers in this sense? Mrs Bennett and Miss Bingley do argue the case, however I think this is less a criticism on their parts given that the book focuses heavily on the sheer necessity of marriage for female security.
The driver for Mrs Bennett in getting her daughters married is the fact that their family home is entailed to Mr Collins upon the death of her husband, giving him the power to make the Bennett women homeless if he chose. Mrs Bennett’s visions of this are great comic episodes, but nevertheless the threat simmers beneath the surface. Marriage is the game in question and it is the men who get to decide the rules.
Charlotte’s marriage to Mr Collins is another example. While Elizabeth cannot fathom her friend marrying the ridiculous Mr Collins, the beauty of the free indirect discourse means we understand why Charlotte, pressured at being, “at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome.” (138), would want to marry such a man. Still whatever Charlotte’s true feelings may be, Mr Collins perceives that he and his wife were “designed for each other”.
Pride and Prejudice is a master in narrative suspense, from the gradual development of Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship to the revelation of Mr Wickham’s true character and Lydia’s shock marriage. Austen increases the sense of delay and surprise through chance meetings between characters, playful exchanges and lingering looks, which adds to the delight of reading as well as the scandal of events.
For instance when Lydia goes to Brighton without her sisters, the family suspect she would never be a target of any man owing to her poor fortune, which is a hint that the latter might occur. When the elopement does take place, the calamity of Lydia’s possible lost virtue, the public shame and loss of reputation are all described sympathetically from the point of view of Lizzy, Jane and the Gardiners. Wickham’s name is also blackened by ‘everybody’ in Meryton quicker than a dance at Netherfield ball.
Yet to save the episode from becoming too serious, Austen undercuts this with Mrs Bennett comically fretting over Lydia’s wedding clothes. Pride and Prejudice is wonderful at comedy meets near-tragedy.
Against these ill-suited courtships and marriages of necessity there is thankfully Elizabeth and Darcy. A strong consciousness of class and social propriety mark Elizabeth and Darcy’s courtship however the characters are able to overcome (to an extent) their differences, gradually, through understanding, compassion and love. The key to marital happiness according to Austen is emotional equality. Elizabeth’s candid, playful nature and integrity mean she is not afraid to challenge Darcy and he, able to appreciate her wit and vivacity, also improves his manners and way of thinking through her. Mr Bennett is quite mocking of the “violent young lovers” who come to pursue his daughters but I think Austen is a fan of characters who take their happiness into their own hands.
“I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any other person wholly unconnected with me.”Elizabeth to Lady Catherine, 393
There are times which simply require the sage words of Jane Austen to carry you through and Pride and Prejudice is certainly not short of such wisdom.