Pride and Prejudice – Varying Observations

I have now finished Pride and Prejudice, and when I tell you that I sat up until the wee small hours for a good few nights because I couldn’t bear to put it down, I think that shows how much I loved it. What a brilliant book this is; so witty, well observed, lively, emotive and deeply, deeply, satisfying.  It contains none of the weaknesses I consider Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park to have; in Pride and Prejudice we have a three dimensional, wonderfully flawed heroine and an equally three dimensional and wonderfully flawed hero, and Austen is excellent at allowing us to get inside both of their heads and so come to understand and sympathise with them on an emotional and rational level. There were several points where I was filled with so much joy that I couldn’t read on; I had to have a little wistful moment with my hand pressed to my chest and my eyes gazing off into the middle distance, digesting the wonderful piece of dialogue, tete a tete, or scene I had just been thoroughly delighted with, before I could come back to my senses and process the prose again. How anyone can say that they don’t love Jane Austen, I really cannot understand. She is a miracle. The world would be a less joyful, less romantic, less hopeful place without her.

Pride and Prejudice has so many interesting characters and subplots and themes to tease out, and I can’t possibly hope to get to them all in just a couple of posts, but I am going to try and look at a few. Firstly, the novel hinges on miscommunications and misunderstandings. There is the obvious one, on which the whole plot pivots, which is Elizabeth’s misunderstanding of Darcy’s character due to her ill advised trust in Mr Wickham’s deliberate miscommunication of his life story, but there are also plenty of other ways in the novel in which characters, by saying too much or too little, or by failing to understand a situation, influence the plot. Elizabeth makes a fatal error by choosing not to communicate Mr Wickham’s true colours once Mr Darcy has made them clear to her; her decision to keep quiet paves the way for Lydia’s elopement. Jane’s failure to make her feelings known to Mr Bingley causes Mr Darcy to misunderstand her modesty for disinterest, and convince Mr Bingley that Jane doesn’t love him. This then moves the Bingleys and Mr Darcy away from Netherfield to London, prolonging the action and introducing a good deal of tension to the plot.

Miscommunication doesn’t always cause problems, though; in some cases, it is a major benefit. A seemingly minor miscommunication is Jane’s inability to address the letter about Lydia’s elopement to Elizabeth in Derbyshire correctly; this delays the letter’s arrival by three days. However, in this three days, Elizabeth has had the opportunity to see Darcy in a totally different light, through going to his home, meeting his housekeeper, and witnessing him behaving as a kind, courteous and amiable gentleman, highly respected by all who know him. It is from this point that she begins to fall in love with him; yet if she had received Jane’s letter on time, Elizabeth and the Gardiners would have been obliged to cut their trip short without ever going to Pemberley. Moreover, Darcy’s arrival a day before he had said he would be at home ensures that he crosses Elizabeth’s path and sets in motion their renewed relationship; if he had made his plans known, Elizabeth would never have dared go to Pemberley at all. So, miscommunication and misunderstandings cause just as much joy as they do trouble, and without them, Pride and Prejudice would have been a much shorter and less interesting novel.

Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I am particularly struck by Austen’s portrayal of the Gardiners. Seemingly minor characters, they are actually incredibly important as surrogate parents for Jane and Elizabeth, demonstrating to them what a good marriage looks like. In a novel full of ill matched marriages, they are a beacon of hope. Without them, Jane and Elizabeth would have no model for what happy matrimony should be; Mr and Mrs Bennett are an unfortunate pair of role models indeed. Married too young, Mr Bennett soon realised  to his cost that prettiness is no substitute for brains. He quickly lost all respect and patience for his wife, and Mrs Bennett was always too dim and too selfish to have developed an understanding and respect for her husband’s character. After 25 years of marriage, they barely tolerate one another, and clearly have little pleasure in each other’s company. Lydia and Wickham’s marriage is an exact copy of this relationship, and Austen makes it clear by the end of the novel that they will have the same fate; Wickham has lost all respect for Lydia, and Lydia’s ardour for Wickham has rapidly cooled. Mr Collins and Charlotte Lucas’ marriage is another ill advised pairing; Charlotte is far too sensible and rational for Mr Collins, and will never be able to esteem or love her husband. However, she knows what she is doing, and has placed her desire for a home and children above her desire to give and receive love in marriage. This cool rationality with no romance in sight horrifies Elizabeth. For her, only a love match will do. But how does she know a love match is possible? Certainly not from her parents; rather, it is through witnessing the marriage of her beloved aunt and uncle. The Gardiners represent a perfect union; attractive, intelligent and sensible, they are equals on every level. Their mutual devotion is an example Jane and Elizabeth look to in modelling their future marriages, unlike their silly sister, who is her mother’s favourite and so naturally follows in her footsteps by making the most imprudent and hasty marriage possible.

Finally, I love how Austen creates such comedic characters, passing no authorial judgement, but simply allowing them to show their own stupidity through their dialogue and actions. Mr Collins’ ridiculous obsequiousness, pomposity and total lack of tact or social awareness is hilarious, and no one needs to tell us this apart from Mr Collins himself. His letters are especially priceless; he genuinely thinks he is being of consolation by telling the Bennetts that it is all their fault that Lydia has run off with Wickham, and that, oh, by the way, so does Lady Catherine, and everyone else he has told of their misfortune. Yes, just what they want to hear at this moment in time! Mrs Bennett is no better; even in her moment of most distress over Lydia’s elopement, she still manages to think about the dilemma of wedding clothes, and when the wedding is confirmed, the excitement of ordering the trousseau is what gets her out of bed. This focus on trivial, shallow details is Mrs Bennett’s speciality; she always fails to see the bigger picture and is like a child in her wildly swinging emotions. Her favour of her children dependent on what they do to please her is also a symptom of her childish and shallow personality; as soon as Elizabeth announces her engagement, Jane and Lydia are cast off immediately, and Elizabeth, who she had previously declared disowned and never bothered to show much affection to, has suddenly become her favourite child. Mr Collins and Mrs Bennett (and Lady Catherine, as well, of course – ‘I insist on being satisfied!’ has to be the best line in the whole book!) provide comic relief at times of heightened stress in the novel, and Austen’s structuring is rather Shakespearean in this way. Having such characters as this keeps the novel ‘light, bright, and sparkling’ – without them, Pride and Prejudice would lack the humour and frivolity that makes it such a fun as well as such a satisfying read.

I could go on for hours but I shall stop here…more thoughts in a couple of days. Meanwhile don’t forget to check out Muriel Spark Reading Week at Simon and Harriet’s – I will be participating with the rather predictable The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (I don’t have any other Sparks – and this new edition is gorgeous!) and please do read this wonderful interview with Anne Tyler, who I have never really mentioned, but is one of my favourite authors. I’ll definitely be reading some of her books this summer.

39 comments

  1. All right, I have read Pride and Prejudice easily a thousand times, and have written sequels and given lectures based on it. It is not too much to say that Jane Austen has been my life, or at least a very large part of it. Yet you have uncovered a point I never noticed before – the delay in Jane’s letter. This of course is testimony to your own cleverness, but also to Jane Austen’s genius, because never in all my readings have I failed to find something new and wonderful in the text – every time. In addition to being a miracle, she is the author who is most infinitely rewarding to read…again, and again.

    1. I can’t believe I found something you didn’t notice before, Diana! Isn’t it wonderful and truly astounding how Austen’s novels are so multi layered that you truly do have a different experience on each reading? I remember the first time I read Emma, I was completely surprised by everything that happened and genuinely didn’t see Mr Elton’s shock announcement, as I had been totally taken in by Emma’s version of events. The second time around, I couldn’t believe all the hints of her unreliability that I had missed – it was like reading a completely different book!

      1. Yes – that’s why some people say Emma is one of the earliest mystery novels! The first time I read it (decades ago!) I was disappointed that she didn’t marry Frank Churchill, and I simply didn’t understand why anyone thought Mrs. Elton was RUDE. I’ve come a long way…when I say Jane Austen was my writing teacher (and she was), well, she also taught me manners…

  2. This post really made me not want to go to work today but sit & read.
    Ps Hurrah for Anne Tyler there should be more about her on our blogs.

  3. P&P is definitely meant to be savoured…we can and should luxuriate in the beauty and emotion of Austen’s prose to our heart’s content😉

    I bought a parasol here in Korea (they’re very common here) and now I can prance (or rather walk in a ladylike fashion) around with it pretending I’m Elizabeth Bennet…or Lady Catherine, then I can insist on being satisfied when I want some ice cream😉

    1. Yes we should!

      Hahahaha! How fun! I’d love to do that. I would also love to shout ‘I insist on being satisfied!’ every time someone says no to me!!

  4. I’ve always liked Jane Austen’s books and I love Pride and Prejudice. Great books deserve great reviews and that’s what you’ve written – a great review. I really enjoyed reading this so thank you.

    1. I’m glad to hear you are a fan, Col, and thank you for your kind words – I’m so pleased you enjoyed my review. It’s difficult to do such great literature justice!

  5. Thanks for posting that link – what a great article from the Guardian.

    Glad you enjoyed Pride and Prejudice more – hope it has not displaced Emma in your mind. I still think Emma is the best of her novels.

    Just picked up a book on Austen’s letters which am looking forward to getting in to soon, once finished “A very great profession”.

    Have you been to the house in Chawton – def worth a visit on a quiet day away from the tourists…..

    Looking forward to seeing what you read next…thanks for introducing me to some new books.

    Jane

    1. Glad you enjoyed the Anne Tyler interview, Jane – she gives them so rarely.

      Emma is going to be my next re-read – it has always been a great favourite but it’s been a long time since I revisited it, so I need to be reminded of just how good it is!

      Yes I have – I actually went just before I moved to New York, so if you look in my archives in around July/August 2010, you’ll see my description and photos of it!

      Thank you Jane – it’s always a pleasure to get people reading something a bit different!

  6. Fantastic, Rachel! You make me want to re-read all of Austen right now… and you pick up on so many wonderful, clever things about P&P.

    And thanks for the MSRW shout-out – I look forward to your thoughts on Jean B!

    1. Thanks Simon! Well…what’s stopping you?!

      You are welcome! I am half way through and loving it all over again…I had forgotten how clever and how dark Spark is…

  7. A lovely review – I especially liked your comments about the Gardiners. My own favourite among the minor characters has always been Charlotte Lucas. She may not make a love match, but she is very shrewd and practical,and knows how to handle Mr Collins to her own advantage. She makes the best of things, and she seizes an opportunity when she sees it – don ‘t forget that although the Bennett girls laugh at Mr Collins, he is quite a catch. The entail means he will inherit Longbourn on Mr Bennett’s death, so Charlotte will eventually be the lady of the house, manage the estate etc. And she manages to retain Lizzy’s friendship even though she will eventually take over the Bennett home (which could have led to disagreement between them). I think Charlotte is a very clever woman, especially when you consider the lack of opportunities for women of her class.

    1. Thanks Chris! You are quite right about Charlotte – she has a wise head on her shoulders and frankly for a 27 year old without a wealthy father, she had little choice and made the most sensible decision she could have done.

  8. ooh you are making me want to re-read Austen – and I have too many books TBR to be adding any more. Funnily enough the only one I have read more than once is Pride and Prejudice – which I think I have read 3 times. I adore the characters – even the rather unlikeable ones. I have always loved the way Austen mirrored The Bennett’s marriage in Lydia and Wickham.

  9. I love your description of having “a little wistful moment with my hand pressed to my chest and my eyes gazing off into the middle distance.” I love books that make me feel that way and P&P always does. I adore Emma and Persuasion and they will always been my favourites but P&P makes me giddy in a way they never could. I sometimes forget that in between rereadings but as soon as I pick it up again, there that feeling is and during the best parts I once again find myself glassy eyed, clutching the book to my chest, a massive grin plastered on my face. What could be better than that?

      1. Would help if I read all your posts – sorry – just working my way through them!!!
        Had awful disappointment at work today, so going to read my first Ann Bridge to cheer me up – peking picnic. Hope it lives up to your review!!!!
        My husband has not read Austen either which just seems incredible, as he is very well read and educated! Am on his case, as considering this a major blip in his education……!

  10. Wonderful review, Rachel. I’m about to re-read Pride and Prejudice, too. I’m glad you wrote about Charlotte Lucas because she intrigues me. Such a close friend to Elizabeth and yet so different. By the way I’ve sent you an email re the Robinson book.

  11. I stayed up into the wee hours finishing P&P too when I first read it Jane Austen has the ability to affect readers in that way. I think your review is beautifully written, you can tell how much you loved the book!

  12. I’ve notice that with every re-read and as I grow older, I start focusing on different things. Last time it was Charlotte. I’ve had endless discussions with other Austen fans who were shocked when I told them I would probably marry Mr. Collins if I was in her situation.

    1. Alex I am in total agreement – in Charlotte’s situation, she was never going to get another offer. Marrying Mr Collins gives her a home of her own, the chance to have children, and one day she will be mistress of Longbourne estate – not a bad deal. For someone in her position, she has done extraordinarily well, and she has the good sense, patience and tact to manage Mr Collins and forge a mutually beneficial and pleasant marriage to boot. I always hope that in after-the-ending land that eventually she would have taught him a few lessons and made him a little more socially aware!

  13. Two things: first, you said you can’t imagine why people don’t like Austen. My husband (who I think has only read one or two of her novels) doesn’t, and he says it’s because she doesn’t write about universal concerns — she only writes about the life of relatively wealthy people who are concerned with marriage. I think when he re-reads her after more experience he will change his mind! But that’s one reasonable reason; you could see her world as narrow (though her psychology is anything but.)

    Second, I once went on a backpacking pilgrimage for three weeks. I could only take one book, for reasons of weight. I chose P&P, and read it over and over again. I discovered new riches each time. One of the most wonderful books in the world, and my second-favorite of her novels, after Persuasion.

    1. Doesn’t write about universal concerns!! My goodness me. Are love, marriage, friendship, money and morals not universal concerns?! Your husband needs a talking to, Jenny!!

      I love that – how wonderful that you had that opportunity. If I didn’t have a TBR pile that emanated rays of guilt, I would quite happily be re-reading P&P right now – there really is always something new to come away with on each read.

      1. Believe me, I’ve given him a talking-to.🙂 I think when he gets back around to reading them again, he’ll change his mind. They are such wonderful books, how could he help it?

  14. I have a different favorite line, Rachel, but it’s from the same scene. When Lizzy says to Lady Catherine, “…the wife of Mr. Darcy must have such extraordinary sources of happiness necessarily attached to her situation, that she could, upon the whole, have no cause to repine.” Have no cause to repine! What a remark! What wit! Lizzy was always amusing herself under the surface, even in this situation.
    But really, that entire scene is priceless!! Brilliant!

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