On “Pride and Prejudice” (and its surprising attitude toward love)
When I was thirteen, a friend of my parents’ came to visit and brought me a gift: a copy of “Pride and Prejudice” printed on elegant pale green paper. I’d never heard of the book until then, but he assured me that it was famous. He then gave me the best advice I ever received regarding a novel.
“When you start this book,” he told me, “read the first page carefully. If that first page doesn’t seem amusing, don’t go any further! Just put the book away and try it again next year. Although it’s old-fashioned, I can guarantee that it’s a very amusing story. It’s not funny in a ‘ha-ha’ way, but it’s extremely clever and entertaining. Be patient and don’t read it until you’re ready. Just keep trying, and when the time is right, you’ll see that first page in a whole new way and you’ll really enjoy what happens.”
Sure enough, at the age of thirteen I could not see what was so particularly clever or interesting about a man and a woman discussing the arrival of a new neighbor across the way, and I put the book on the shelf and waited. I tried it again, twice, before going off to college, without luck. But in my freshman year I finally was able to comprehend that first page in a new way, observing how the patient and passive Mr. Bennet was half-listening, half-ignoring his silly wife, who was all a-flutter at the prospect of a wealthy bachelor moving into the neighborhood since he might theoretically marry one of her four daughters. I read the novel and enjoyed it; I read it again four years later and enjoyed it even more. And over the years since then, each time I have reread the book after an interval of five or eight years, its cleverness and wit have perceptibly grown. This is the mark of a masterly novel: the ability to refresh repeatedly without the well going dry.
But I have a bone to pick with the many people who assume that this is nothing but a love story. Jane Austen was not so much a romance writer but rather a satirist who didn’t particularly think much of the behavior of young humans in love. (Sample quotes: “…lovers were of all people the most disagreeable” and “Is not general incivility the very essence of love?”) In “Pride and Prejudice” and in several of her other novels, the main story is NOT about helpless fluttering love at all. There is invariably a subplot involving a secondary female character who does indeed experience the agonies or the allure of mad love, which leads her to the brink of some great indiscretion or danger. But at the end of Austen’s major novels, the female protagonist finally accepts a man’s hand in marriage not because she is palpitating with emotion but because she has made a cool-headed and rational decision based on the qualities and character of the gentleman.
In “Pride and Prejudice,” Elizabeth Bennet specifically revises her previous unfavorable opinion of Mr. Darcy only after he has helped her family after her youngest sister’s scandalous elopement. The word “gratitude” is emphasized in the text, along with Elizabeth’s sense of respect for the vast estate that Darcy owns. Gratitude and the lure of real estate are not generally regarded as romantic in any way, and yet Jane Austen is invariably viewed as a romance novelist simply because her novels are about young people getting paired off. But if you read her texts closely, her heroines always escape romantic love by the skin of their teeth and marry wisely instead. That was sensible and sober advice from an old-maid writer who frowned on elopements. She might have been surprised if she had known how posterity would view her stories.
[Postscript: V.S. Naipaul has the temerity to dismiss Jane Austen, and is in turn criticized by academics who provide new analyses of Austen’s work. See http://lareviewofbooks.org/post/9827382304/just-like-a-woman%5D