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.