“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” ~ Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?” ~ Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
“He is a gentleman, and I am a gentleman’s daughter. So far we are equal.” ~ Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
The mini-series, Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle produced in 1995, was my introduction to Jane Austen. Since I was not an English major in college, I was not required to read any of her work, nor had I read any in high school. In fact, I was only vaguely aware of how famous and even controversial her work was. From the first episode, I was hooked on Jane Austen and vowed to read all her work. From the first moments of the series, the story was full of interesting characters, and situations.
The plot is, like most Jane Austen’s stories, about the hazards her main characters face in trying to find suitable husbands when they have little or no dowry to attract wealthy gentlemen. Since gentlewomen had very few options for finding work to support themselves, marriage was the best way to secure a comfortable future. But in each of Austen’s books, and certainly in Pride and Prejudice, the question becomes, “Do I want to marry for love, or for comfort”? Modern audiences and readers might not understand how making a good match was such an important thing for people in Jane’s era. The mini-series helps the audience understand this and other important themes of the story.
One of the first obstacles to Elizabeth, the heroine, and her sisters finding suitable husbands is their relatively lower social status. Even though Mr. Bennet is a gentleman, he’s not a very wealthy one and to Bingley’s sisters, that and the fact that the girl’s mother is the daughter of a trade’s man, makes them ineligible for their brother. Even so, Bingley falls deeply in love with Jane, the eldest of the sisters. Of course, he is advised by his sisters and Darcy, his best friend, to make another, more suitable, (profitable) choice. The ironic thing is that Darcy has fallen for Elizabeth, which he considers to be a flaw in his character.
We know at the beginning when Darcy and Elizabeth clash, that we’re in for an interesting romantic ride. He’s wealthy and proud, though we see as the story goes along, first impressions are not always accurate. Elizabeth is intelligent and witty, while at the same time, she seems to care deeply about her family and friends. She exudes independence, something rather unusual for a woman of her era. She’s a bit prejudiced against Darcy for his pride, and maybe even his wealth. We discover later, it is these qualities that attracts Darcy to her. Elizabeth is not like any other woman he knows. She is not inclined to following the behavior that is strictly enforced by class conventions.
Even though Pride and Prejudice is a romance, there are other elements that I find attractive about the book. Elizabeth has a particularly close relationship with her father. Darcy’s aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, finds this unusual. They meet when Elizabeth is visiting with her best friend Charlotte Lucas who has married her cousin, Mr. Collins, a clergyman Lady Catherine has taken under her controlling wing. Elizabeth says her father needs her at home. Lady Catherine says, “Daughters are nothing to fathers.” But she is wrong about Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet. It seems to me that Elizabeth, of all the family, is the only person Mr. Bennet can be his true self with. I could relate to Elizabeth’s relationship with her father because I had a close relationship with my own father. Mr. Bennet, unlike my father, teases his girls calling them rather silly, “Well, Jane and Elizabeth have some sense,” he says. But, he is, in the end, benevolent to his family. They want for nothing. I also loved him because like my father, he seems to be interested in what goes on with the people of the town, and he’s a great reader. Mr. Bennet is one of my favorite characters in both versions of the story.
Elizabeth also has a close relationship with her sister Jane. And though she loves her other sisters and mother, they can be quite annoying at times. So, in the end, Mr. Bennet, Elizabeth and Jane are a comfort to each other when, Mrs. Bennet, Lydia and Kitty get too silly. Poor Mary, the middle sister, is mostly left to her own devices which, fortunately, she doesn’t seem to mind.
The story takes an interesting turn when the militia comes to town. Not long ago, I read a fascinating book titled: Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly. In the chapter on Pride and Prejudice, she points out that the arrival of the militia is not necessarily a good thing, though Lydia and Kitty don’t seem to understand the dangers to the young women of the town. The representative character in this case is George Wickham, who we discover, grew up with Darcy. Wickham was the son of Darcy’s father’s steward, or may perhaps be Darcy’s half brother, that is unclear. Wickham takes advantage of Darcy’s reluctance to reveal their history and tell’s Elizabeth that Darcy went against his father’s will and denied him the living he was to have. This sets Elizabeth’s mind even more against Darcy. But when Darcy surprises Elizabeth with a proposal of marriage, she tells him she wouldn’t marry him if he were the last man on earth. When he asks her why, one of the charges she brings against him is his treatment of Wickham.
I love that Jane, as the movie, The Jane Austen Book Club points out, allows the gentleman their say. Darcy writes Elizabeth a long letter. It’s a great literary device. We find out more about Darcy and Wickham’s history, but we also begin to see Darcy in a new light. He prevented Wickham from ruining his most beloved sister, Georgiana’s, reputation. He further explains that he did not reveal what Wickham had done not only to protect Georgiana, but in hopes that Wickham might learn from the incident and change. His hopes, of course, are not realized.
It’s through Wickham that we see that many of the militia officers are social climbers, or take the opportunity to “sew their oats” in more ways than one. They are supposed to be defending the country from possible French invasion – the story takes place during the French Revolution – instead, merchant daughters are meddled with, debts go unpaid, gambling and drinking are common past-times. Every community that houses the militia must pick up the pieces once they leave.
Of course, Elizabeth and Darcy, and Jane and Bingley marry in the end. But getting to that point is not an easy journey for either couple, nor does the future promise that sisters will be fully accepted into the highest echelons of society. We get the feeling that social status matters little to the happy couples. It seems to me that in all her books, Jane is more concerned with her characters having loving, stable relationships rather than what society in her time period would consider advantageous matches. Since she never married herself, that might be something she was only able to enjoy through her characters.
Thanks for reading, liking and commenting. Have a fantastic end to your week.
Lucinda Sage-Midgorden © 2018
Lucinda is the author of The Space Between Time, an award finalist in the “Fiction: Fantasy” category of the 2017 Best Book Awards. It’s a historical, time-travel, magical realism, women’s novel, and is available in all ebook formats at Smashwords, or you can find the ebook at iBooks or Barnes and Noble. I you prefer a physical copy, you can find a print-on-demand version at Amazon. To join her email list, click here. She will never sell the names on her list.