I must admit, I have never really loved Pride and Prejudice. I have a typically British love of the underdog, and a desire to promote what I believe to be underappreciated. Pride and Prejudice is most often quoted as being Austen’s ‘best’ novel, and the vast majority of people who read Austen seem to claim it as their favourite. I suspect this is largely thanks to the 1990s adaptation starring Colin Firth, whose rise from the lake in see through shirt and skin tight breeches, dripping with irresistible, repressed English male sexuality (and water, of course), earned Pride and Prejudice legions of new fans. As such, Pride and Prejudice doesn’t need my promotion, and so I have reserved my praise and raptures for Austen’s less read masterpieces; namely, the exquisite Persuasion, and the marvellous Emma. I have always found Pride and Prejudice somewhat lacking in comparison to these two younger sisters; it is witty and sparkling and has engaging characters a-plenty, but it never really inspired my affection. I read it several times during my teenage years, and studied it for my A levels, and each time I failed to see the magic others did. It has been a good seven years since I last picked it up, and now, older, wiser and more open minded, I am seeing it with fresher and less critical eyes. Especially as I am reading it so soon after Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility, both of which I think are rather flawed, at last I can see what others do; this really is a close to perfect novel, and one in which you can see the development of Austen’s style and confidence as a novelist. At present (100 pages in), I can’t fault it.
The first thing that has struck me is how hypocritical, proud and a poor judge of character Elizabeth is. After Mr Darcy’s brilliantly catty put-down ‘not handsome enough to tempt me’ – Elizabeth, though she laughs it off and pretends not to care, obviously takes the comment deeply to heart. Her resentment is so keenly felt that regardless of Darcy’s behaviour after his initial criticism of her, she is determined to hate him and find fault in all he does. This is rather ironic, as she is very quick to criticise Darcy for his inability to give people second chances. Darcy – which I had totally forgotten – actually realises his mistake within seconds of his ill advised comment and is not shy about making his admiration of her known. He defends Elizabeth when the Bingley sisters mock her and attempt to put her down, and makes a genuine effort to build up a repartee and earn his way back into her good graces. He is never unkind or short with her – except when he begins to worry that he may have taken things too far, on her last day at Netherfield during Jane’s illness – and in an environment where Elizabeth is out of place and uncomfortable, and the Bingley sisters do their utmost to make her feel small – Darcy makes it clear to the Bingleys that he approves of her, both in appearance and intelligence, and does his best to lessen the impact of their incivility. His former brusqueness is obviously down to shyness; his close friendship with the amiable and rather simple Mr Bingley suggests to the more astute reader that Darcy is an entirely different man to those he trusts and loves, and his reputation as being proud and aloof is only really evidenced when he is in the company of a large group of strangers. This all points to a social awkwardness, a hatred of small talk and a hatred of being looked at (he hates dancing, I am sure, because he dislikes being paid attention to) that Elizabeth, as a gregarious and confident girl, cannot understand or relate to. Therefore, she misreads Darcy’s shyness for pride and snobbery, and makes no attempt to try and understand him further; which, as we all know, will turn out to be a big mistake.
Enter Mr Wickham, who I always want to call Mr Willoughby; they are so similar! The awkward encounter between Mr Wickham and Mr Darcy on the street in Meryton piques Elizabeth’s interest, and she revels in Wickham’s dirt-dishing on Darcy. She doesn’t stop to wonder why a perfect stranger is so keen to tell her his dirty laundry, or blacken the name of Mr Darcy so thoroughly in their very first conversation; to someone a little more mature, this would ring alarm bells. Why is Mr Wickham so anxious to get Elizabeth on his side? Why is he so vocal about Mr Darcy’s apparently dastardly behaviour, despite the fact that he has only just met Elizabeth and they haven’t established anywhere near a level of intimacy that would merit him telling her such personal confidences? Obviously he is up to something, but Elizabeth doesn’t even think to doubt him. So bitter is she towards Darcy for his comment at the ball that she delights in a further excuse to think ill of him, and happily trusts a perfect stranger who clearly has several chips on his shoulder. Jane, who I had previously thought of as a bit of a drip, shows some sense and does raise doubts as to Wickham’s trustworthiness, but Elizabeth will have none of it. She is determined to hate Darcy, and though she is normally possessed of plenty of good sense and intelligence, her vanity over the slight she has received overrides all other considerations. When she mentions Wickham to Darcy, and Darcy refuses to say much on the issue, this should have shown her that Wickham was the one to distrust; Darcy is the true gentleman in declining to trample on someone else’s reputation. However, she takes this as a further sign of his guilt, and, silly thing that she is, falls even more in love with the handsome and supposedly hard done by Wickham in the process. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, after all; and no woman can resist a man in a uniform.
So here we are, at page 100, with a lively, fun loving, passionate and intelligent heroine who, through her own pride, is getting herself into a very tricky situation indeed. Normally I would find such lack of insight infuriating, but I actually love Elizabeth for it. Love is blind, and haven’t we all been in a position of failing to see what is right under our noses because of our misguided affection for a man (or woman!) who is very handsome and says all the right things? Of course we have! Elizabeth is marvellously human, and a magnificent creation. So is Mrs Bennett; I had forgotten how awful she is – the epitome of the embarrassing mother – and don’t even get me started on Mr Collins! He deserves a post of his own. Mr Darcy has especially warmed my heart, however; his awkward attempts at showing Elizabeth that he actually admires her rather a lot and is sorry for what he said are very endearing, and it’s obvious that he finds Elizabeth’s curtness hurtful. He is not very good at communicating with people, and this social shyness is debilitating, giving him a reputation he doesn’t deserve. I just want to give him a hug; what woman can resist a vulnerable man?! I am delighted to be so thoroughly enjoying myself and am looking forward to reading further and getting into some interesting discussions with you all. There are so many characters I want to explore and so many issues bubbling under the surface; what a magnificent novel this is! More to come over the next week!