Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Why Pride and Prejudice is More Than Chick Lit

Read me!
So recently I overheard a conversation between a mother and daughter at the bookstore, and I had to butt in. Because, you know, I’ve got an opinion on damn near everything. Here’s the scenario: daughter, who was probably a junior in high school, had to read a bit of classic literature for school. The mom suggested “Pride and Prejudice” because the daughter had seen the movie. Cue scene.

Daughter: I don’t want to read that. It’s a chick book. It’s girly.
Mom: But you saw the movie.
Daughter: But it was a chick flick. I don’t think I want to read the book. All they do is worry about getting married.
Me: You know, “Pride and Prejudice” is one of the first real feminist novels. All of Jane Austen’s work was, even though there was no such thing as “feminism” at the time.
Mom: No, I thought it was a romance novel. You know, chick lit.
Me: Actually, it’s scathing social commentary at its finest. Austen’s portrayal of women is spot-on, and even though it ENDS in a marriage, Lizzie totally defies convention because she marries a man of her own choosing.
Daughter: So she’s kind of rebelling?
Me: Lizzie tells her sister Jane that she doesn’t plan on marrying at all unless she can marry for love*.
Daughter: I’ll take it.

So why are so many people disillusioned into thinking that P&P is a “romance novel” when in fact there’s so much more to it than that? Perhaps it’s the movie versions that are to blame. The Keira Knightley/MatthewMcFadyen version totally downplayed just about every other aspect of the story so that Lizzie could look pretty and Darcy could look sad and damp, and all the other really important stuff (the possibility of a forced marriage to Mr. Collins, the deception and ruin of Lydia by Wickham, etc) got overlooked. TheA&E version is significantly better – a running time of six hours allows for that – although it’s easy to get distracted by the deliciousness of Colin Firth (who also looks really good when damp) and the lovely Jennifer Ehle.

P&P truly IS a feminist novel, even though there weren't really feminists (or at least, none that identified as feminists in the context of today's meaning) when Jane Austen wrote the book; indeed, the very notion of women being equal to men was ludicrous. Women owned nothing, their properties became their husband’s when they married, and poor Mrs. Bennett and her daughters would have been evicted when Mr. Bennett died, simply because she hadn’t been courteous enough to provide him with a male heir.

However – and this is a gigantic however – Lizzie does, as I mentioned to the young lady in the bookstore, defy convention. She is expected to marry, and to marry well, in order to not only secure a place for herself but for her mother and sisters after the eventual death of her father. But Lizzie makes it very clear that she will take nothing less than a man who loves her – what a mad concept, indeed! Elder sister Jane understands that it is her duty to marry a man of some fortune, hence the famous opening line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife.” When Bingley takes up residence at Netherfield, Mrs. Bennett immediately begins making plans for a match between him and Jane.

Lizzie, on the other hand, tells Jane that she has no desire for a marriage in which respect and love are unequal; in other words, she will not enter into a marriage in which she is held in low regard by her husband. Lizzie and any potential suitor must be equal. Now, here’s where we get to the hilarity that is Mr. Collins.

Collins is a distant cousin of Mr. Bennett, and the estate is entailed to him since Mrs. Bennett never gave her husband any sons, which she accepts as clearly her own fault. In the more recent film adaptation, TomHollander’s Mr. Collins is creepy and a little malevolent, but I think the A&E Mr. Collins, played by David Bamber, is much more true to the way Austen wrote the character. Frankly, he’s ridiculous. Collins simpers and smirks and brown-noses his way through society, and honestly doesn’t care which Bennett girl he marries. He just knows he is expected to pick one. When he is told Jane has an understanding with someone else, and Lizzie rejects him most adamantly, he does the next best thing. He selects Charlotte Lucas to be the new Mrs. Collins.

Charlotte is a fantastic example of everything Lizzie does not want to be. She is past marrying age, at twenty-seven, and she knows her prospects are not good. Charlotte is as much a victim of society as any other woman, but unlike Lizzie, she doesn’t have the option of remaining single. She marries the odious Collins not because she loves him, or even respects him, but because he will have her. Later, the dynamic between the two of them is an interesting one – he remains the same obnoxious Mr. Collins but Charlotte learns that by accepting his behaviors, she is given pretty much free reign in the parsonage house at Rosings Park. I rather suspect that when they go to bed at night, Charlotte lies there thinking of England and plotting how to add poison to her husband's morning crumpets.

The downfall of Lydia is another sharp commentary on the plight of women in the early nineteenth century. When Lydia elopes with Wickham, she does so on a lark, but when all is said and done, she’s destroyed herself. Lydia and Wickham must be married, because if they are not, not only is Lydia’s reputation shot all to hell, so is the reputation of every one of her sisters. Women at that time did not recover from such a scandal – if Wickham hadn’t married Lydia, she would never have been received in society again, could never have married a decent man, and probably would have been passed around from one officer to another as damaged goods.

The Lizzie/Wickham story makes for an interesting contrast as to how men and women were viewed at the time. Wickham is a scandalous rake whose bad behavior is overlooked and excused. Lydia, had Wickham abandoned her, would have been branded a whore. This is why it’s so important to Lizzie that Darcy forces the marriage between Lydia and Wickham – and he makes a note that he does not do it for them, but for Lizzie. In addition, we can instantly see the difference between Wickham and Georgiana Darcy – Lizzie refuses to reveal Wickham’s past indiscretions because it could ruin Georgiana completely.

When Lizzie finally begins to recognize her love for Darcy (and really, who doesn’t love Darcy?), she does so on her own terms. She knows that he is high above her in station, and when his aunt, Lady Catherine DeBourgh challenges her, Lizzie holds her own. She rejects Darcy’s proposal initially following his insults about her family, but it is his false pride, and her own false prejudices, that are keeping them apart more than anything.

It’s important to look at “Pride and Prejudice” from a reader’s point of view as well. At no point do the male characters interact with one another without the presence of a female character to offer perspective. It’s woman-centered and woman-focused. The female characters all have names and identities separate from those of their men, and they talk to one another about things other than their men. Sure, there’s romance in there – obviously, the end result is a Happy Ever After for the two oldest Bennett sisters – but for Lizzie at least, the romance is with a man who is willing to show her the respect and honor that she demands.

* Addendum: It's been pointed out to me, and rightfully so, that Lizzie never actually says she'll only marry for love. However, she makes it apparent, when looking at her parents' marriage, that she disdains a marriage in which "real affection... respect, esteem and confidence" do not exist. For some reason, I remembered this wrongly as a conversation with Jane, so I stand corrected :)


  1. "At no point do the male characters interact with one another without the presence of a female character to offer perspective." -- as it should be in all great stories! ;)

    I definitely believe the "Mask of Hollywood" has veiled the underlying poetic defiance in this novel and replaced it with slim Pretties in fine dresses. It's no surprise that a young teenage girl would be so quick to dismiss what she assumed to be a tired romance.

    Bravo to you for lifting that veil!! Maybe you will inspire her to move on to Sense and Sensibility and its shifted notions of gender.

  2. I think a lot of contemporary readers just miss the humor in Austen's work. I mean, her wit is incredible, and some of the descriptions of characters are absolutely hilarious.

    One of the reasons I love the BBC so much is that their versions of classic lit usually don't feature "slim pretties" at all, but average women who look like an average woman would have appeared in Austen's time. Case in point, the movie "Persuasion," which is probably my favorite adaptation of an Austen story, stars Amanda Root as Anne Elliot. Anne is supposed to be washed out and "past her bloom," and Amanda Root fits the bill - she's not unattractive, but she's average.

    The great part about it is that as she realizes Wentworth still loves her, she regains her "bloom," and by the time the movie ends, we see her very differently - in fact, other characters remark that she's quite pretty and they've just never noticed before.

    Whoops. Tangent alert!

  3. Patti, you are always engaging [no matter the blog or alternative social medium]. It was my honor to nominate you as winner of THE VERSATILE BLOGGER AWARD: http://paganpresence.blogspot.com/2011/05/versatile-blogger-award.html

  4. How awesome of you! Thank you so much - seriously, I'm flattered. I'll be paying this forward soon!


  5. love love love your summary on p&p. i love that book so much and i am so glad you talked that girl into reading it, it took me up until a couple of years ago to read it and now i wish i had read it sooner! love reading your blog and about.com!