Today is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice! Yay!
Pride and Prejudice is one of my absolute favorite novels. It is scathingly witty, with great female characters, an addictive story, and one of the most lasting romances of all time.
It also has a bit of a built-in test for its readers in its first line. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” Austen begins, and anyone eager to dismiss a female writer and her work as frivolous and sentimental can believe she is being serious and stop reading there. Those who are a little less presumptuous can laugh at Austen’s irony (and, weirdly, at the fact that Austen’s ironic statement actually turns out to be true in the novel) and tuck into a treat.
Elizabeth Bennet is one of the most liked and most respected female characters in literary history. She is intelligent, quick-witted and passionate about what she believes in, with little concern for the opinions of others, especially rich men who are too proud for their own good. She is also, in a fashion unusual for a female character, rather flawed. She’s quick to judge, too ready to dismiss Charlotte when she does something of which she disapproves, and is too willing to laugh at and reject rather than try to understand or accept. Sometimes nowadays she just comes off as a “modern girl” who is rejecting the repressive standards of her time, but she is far from a perfect figure of goodness, and when put into a modern context, as The Lizzie Bennet Diaries show, a lot easier to condemn. And this depth, the fact that she’s not always the perfect sensible heroine and that she’s not always right, only makes her story more interesting and more powerful.
And then there’s the story itself. Pride and Prejudice has all the wrappings of a happily-ever-after romance. After all, Darcy and Lizzie fall in love, everyone gets married, and nobody worried about money again. But behind it is a very pointed commentary on the difficulties in women’s lives. Mrs Bennet is obsessed with marriage — because it is the only possible route for happiness for herself and her daughters. Without a good marriage, when Mr Bennet dies, she and her daughters will lose their home and be tossed out onto the charity of a distant relative (and, as Sense and Sensibility shows, such charity can hardly be counted on). They cannot make money for themselves, they cannot do anything to improve their lot, except find a husband who can provide further male protection. The reality of it is harsh, and the Bennets are in a highly precarious situation — one that Lizzie does not always seem to fully understand, judging from her repeated willingness to reject men (first Mr Collins, and then Mr Darcy) would could provide that security not only for herself, but also for her entire family.
Although Pride and Prejudice is arguably Austen’s happiest and fluffiest novel, it has a dark social spectre in the background, one she explores in other novels, one that she satires to some extent in this novel, and one that could very possibly have caused the Bennets’ downfall without the powers of happily-ever-after and Darcy’s intervention.
It is both a really enjoyable and really important novel, from a feminist perspective and from a literary perspective in general. Although it would be a little radical to say that Austen was a hardcore 19th century feminist, her work both presented engaging, realistic, varied and flawed female characters, and played a part in the development of literature that addressed the difficulties and prejudices that well-off women faced in their lives at this time.
Pride and Prejudice is a wonderful book, and I cannot wait to sink my teeth into it again in celebration of the anniversary this week.