I had, until recently, never read Pride and Prejudice. I didn’t really know, therefore, what to expect: the witty, piercing Austen acclaimed by critics, or the comfortable fantasyland of bonnets and bridal attire trumpeted by many of its general readers.
It’s neither, really.
In the first place, I think we should address the problem of the second interpretation: this isn’t cosy, this isn’t pleasant; this isn’t frivolous. It’s easy to see how so many people have been lulled into thinking that: in our age, marriage, after all, is a frivolity. It’s a luxury – it means little in real terms, but it’s an excuse for some conspicuous consumption (more conspicuous than ever in the era of social media). It’s like a penchant for elaborate hats. But really: it is like a bonnet, in a way. In that, when this novel was written, there were no hairdryers, and gettting pneumonia could easily be fatal. A good hat was a medical essential. And likewise, a marriage in the early 19th century was not a frippary: it was, as Austen pithily describes it, the only respectable profession for a woman of a certain class.
This isn’t a romance: this is a novel about a gaggle of young women who will, if they do not marry, eventually starve to death, or at least be reduced to prostitution. Or at any rate be forced to get a job, which in the society under discussion here is probably more unthinkable than prostitution. After all, in George IV’s England, a good prostitute could still be introduced at court, but a good seamstress never… in any case, while it’s tempting to see the exaggerated spirits of the novel as reflecting the same kind of frivolity as a modern hyperventilating romcom, the stakes here are entirely different: these girls care about marriage because at the very least their lifestyles, and quite possibly their lives themselves, are in the balance. It is therefore difficult to find it ever comfortable, let alone escapist.
To step back: Pride and Prejudice is the story of Elizabeth Bennet, second daughter of a minor country gentleman. Due to an entailment (their house and estates – almost their sole source of income – are bound to their father’s patrilineage, and will be diverted to the closest living male of that line on his death), she and her four sisters, and her mother, will be made homeless and virtually penniless the moment their father dies. As a result, they are desparate (her mother to the point virtually of insanity) to find husbands. So they are very glad when a number of interesting men show up in the neighbourhood: the dashing young militia officer Mr. Wickham; the genial and wealthy Mr. Bingley; the well-meaning heir to their own estate, a clergyman named Mr. Collins; and Mr. Bingley’s odious friend, the callous but fantastically rich Mr. Darcy. The girls pursue (or avoid) the path to love and more importantly a “respectable profession” as a wife, while a number of obstacles appear along the way.
It’s an odd novel, in many ways. It was first written by Austen when she was a teenager herself, younger than most of her characters, and although it is believed to have been extensively re-written before its publication a few years later (it’s not known how exactly, but it’s possible the original version may have been wholly epistolary), the hallmarks of adolescent creativity are all over it: it’s sparkling, yet structurally naive. It feels as though the young Jane (who has named the eldest sister after herself) was not quite sure what she was writing, or why – the novel is, as it were, a superposition of parts of stories that it could have been, but could not bring itself to commit to.
So, there is the brutal, satirical comedy of manners. To be honest, it’s not what she’s best at. She does possess considerable wit – an observational acuity married (no pun intended) to a pithy turn of phrase – that brings many smiles throughout the novel; but it’s hamstrung by her adolescent misanthropy. Particularly in the first half of the novel, the author’s bitterness and mercilessness toward her species leave a rather unpleasant, and a rather overpowering, savour – almost everyone we meet is skewered, not so much with sharp wit as with blunt, ungraceful savagery. They are all morons; they are all wretched; they are all worthless; they are all boring. They are all, as Austen’s successor in teenage scorn, Holden Caulfield, puts it, “phoney”. The reader’s first intuition that a romance between Elizabeth and Darcy is possible – indeed, that it would be natural and fitting – is largely created simply by the expedient of making them, unpleasant as they both are, the only tolerable human beings to populate a world of insufferable nincompoops. Of Mr Collins, for example, we are told in one blunt paragraph:
Mr Collins was not a sensible man, and the deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society; the greatest part of his life having been spent under the guidance of an illiterate and miserly father[…] [his early humility] was now a great deal counteracted by self-conceit of a weak head […] [he was now] altogether a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility.
A page later, his conversation is all summarily dismissed as “pompous nothings”. Not all the characters, to be sure, receive this sort of immediate, full-bore character assassination – but in an insult there, a mockery here, a chorus of disparaging sniffs and sideways sneers all throughout, we’re left in no doubt that almost everybody in this story is to be despised – and those who aren’t to be despised are mostly to be ignored. Taken in isolation, Austen’s remarks are often amusing, but the constant air of misanthropic superiority and conceit is terribly wearying – at least, as I say, in the first half. Whether the relative humanity of some characters later in the novel reflects a change in the author’s mood or simply the requirements of the accelerating plot, is not clear.
Alongside the satire, there is of course some sense of social criticism. This is clearly a social system Austen has little sympathy for – ironically, given the pains that many of her “fans” take to create and realise fantasies of her world. Indeed, reading Pride and Prejudice and comparing Austen’s attitudes to those of her fans, it feels rather like wandering into a Shawshank Redemption convention and finding that everyone is dressed like a prison guard and laughing about how fun and romantic it must have been to have lived in a prison back in the days of heavy manual labour and regular beatings. Austen’s world is a prison, not a fairy castle, and she’s quite aware of it.
And yet, the mistake is understandable. Austen relies on irony, satire, and the occasional peevish remark, to convey her feelings, rather than criticising her society head-on in any sustained way. There’s an uncomfortable feeling throughout that the ills of society are only really important to the extent that they have an impact on Austen herself, or her favourite characters. Particularly notable is the – honestly hilarious – treatment of the working class. In the entire novel, I think there’s two pages in which a working class person gets to speak (about how wonderful the elite are, naturally). The rest of the time, there’s that weird, unsettling feeling I get with novels where most of the people in the room are treated like ghosts: the attentive reader knows that these people exist – that plates, for instance, do not float in and out of the room of their own accord – and yet the author refuses until absolutely necessary to acknowledge their existence (and when it is necessary, they just pop out of nothingness for so long as they are useful to an important person, and then vanish from reality once more). It’s the kind of novel where two people can be “alone”, having an intimate moment, in a room with a dozen servants in it – they just don’t count. Indeed, they’re treated with less interest than plants or animals are. There’s an unintentionally ridiculous moment, for example, near the beginning of the book: after a Real Human has, incredibly, sauntered across the countryside in slightly bad weather (it takes days to recuperate, naturally), a servant is anonymously dispatched along the same route, running, in worse weather, never to be mentioned again, because who cares.
Of course, I don’t expect every author to be a champion of social justice. Quite the contrary. But Austen makes her book enough about class and prejudice and criticism of the social structure to make the total disinterest in the lives of anyone other than the absolute upper echelons of society seem strikingly and unpleasantly blinkered. The laments about the pain and injustice of only being a very minor millionaire fall a little flat when coupled with distate for, and disinterest in, everybody lower on the ladder. (Prejudice is bad, you see, when it’s specifically directed at Jane Austen, or at people very like her. Everyone else can fend for themselves, the dirty peasants).
[if Austen had been American, and the menial class had been black – or indeed if she had lived in India, and they had been Indian – it’s hard to imagine her being held in much esteem in today’s literary environment, as she would be loudly denounced as “problematic” for her racism. But since the race in question here are simply the poor, and we are dealing not with a colour-based racism but merely an almost equally deep-set and rigid caste system, there is evidently nothing objectionable to be found here…]
Alongside, meanwhile, the comedy and the social criticism, there’s also an overblown melodrama – or set of melodramas, indeed – which serve to provide most of the actual plot of the novel, and all its urgency, centred on the tumultuous romantic lives of two of Elizabeth’s sisters. This side of the novel is fairly solid: we get two gradually unfolding crises, of contrasting sorts, with genuine (if unrelatable) stakes, coherent and realistic plots, and some moments of genuine psychological insight. Structurally, both stories are odd – and again, suggestive of an epistolary origin – in how much of the plot occurs off-page, either in the unrevealed mind of a character (one of the few characters, indeed, to whose thoughts we do not have easy access), or simply incommunicado in a far-off location; yet Austen turns this to her advantage, stringing out simplistic tales and heightening their impact on the reader by leaning hard on the anxiety of ignorance, showing a horror fan’s taste for keeping the objects of fear out of the camera as much as possible.
That said, however, the melodrama has its limitations. Although there is one twist regarding a character in these stories – one signposted a mile off – for the most part things are rather static, psychologically: with two exceptions, people are exactly who they immediately seem to be, and stay that way (only one character shows any development, and it’s instantaneous, while one other hints at considering some development in the future). Very few characters have any depth, and even where there are opportunities to explore contrasting sides of a character, Austen declines, and several characters get progressively less interesting and more simplistic as events go on. In particular, the female characters outside of Elizabeth and two of her immediate relatives, are terribly served, with Austen largely only interesting in categorising them into rivals, irrelevencies or objects of mockery. Fascinating re-writings of this novel could be made from the points of view of Miss Bingley, Lady and Miss de Burgh, Miss Darcy, Charlotte, and indeed Lydia and Mary, all of whom are given just enough agency and identity for it to be clear how little interested Austen is in their side of things (it would also be interesting to see it written from the point of view of Mrs Bennett, if only to see whether it was even possible to write her as a human being). Although the melodrama provides the pulse of the novel, therefore, its thin characters and stereotyped events do little to raise it above the crowd of overwrought pulp romances.
That leaves the true heart of the novel, and the part that everybody quite rightly remembers: Elizabeth (and Mr Darcy). Here too, indeed, there are two projects in conflict: the romance-for-the-ages between the pair, and Elizabeth herself.
By herself, Elizabeth is by far the most engaging character in the book. She is sharp, she is impertinent, she is clever and witty, she’s probably a direct authorial insert of the author and, like the author, she’s clearly in love with her own brilliance, while anxious about how she may be seen by the halfwitted phoneys around her. As I suggested above, there’s a lot of Holden Caulfield about her – the teenage intellectual who’s right to recognise their own specialness, right to be a little worried and a little bitter about how others will perceive her, but not quite smart enough to recognise that she’s not really as special and as wonderful as she thinks she is. [She’s also, in modern parlance, a geek – but not so much of a geek that she, or her author, can pass up the chance to be condescending to her sister Mary, an outright nerd and continually mocked for it by Austen.] Elizabeth, however, is much more likeable than Holden – she’s nicer, and she’s funnier. She is, moreover, startlingly modern – it feels at times as though, in the middle of a respectable, long-winded BBC costume drama, a character from a 21st century sitcom has just wandered onto the stage. She punctures the pomposity and rigidity of her era with an independence and directness that would have been surprising in a woman on TV only a few decades ago, let alone in a story two centuries old. It’s a property she shares with her father – indeed, early in the novel I kept thinking of T.H. White’s Merlin, the wizard from the 20th century forced to live backward through time, confused and out of place in the time of King Arthur. If a modern retelling of this story revealed that the study Mr Bennet spent so much time alone in actually contained a time machine that was bigger on the inside than the outside, it would barely count as a twist, at least in terms of his characterisation. The man is clearly either a time traveller or a wizard. In any case, one of the delights of the novel is the bond between father and daughter, expressed less in overtly warming moments (though there are a few) than in the clear echo of the parent in the child. On the other hand, it does lend a slightly uncomfortable edge to the depiction of other women and their silliness throughout the novel, particularly in light of what it might say about the acceptance of Austen’s work by the male literary establishment as great literature, when many of her female contemporaries were gradually relegated to the sphere of mere entertainment: it seems a little odd that English literature’s great heroine should be an independently-minded daddy’s girl who spends her novel being scornful of her mother and sisters and their dreadfully silly feminine ways.
And yet, that said, Elizabeth is what makes the novel live: she’s likeable, she’s fun to be around, we want her to be happy, even though objectively she’s a pretty unattractive person (other than her elder sister and her father, and to a lesser extent her sensible aunt, she’s generally pretty dismissive of everyone, including her friends and family; the best one could say about her is that in real life her company would be an acquired taste). She pulls on those eternal heartstrings, of concern for the one special teenager – the one who really seems like a person – stranded in a weird, adolescent world.
Which makes it a shame that we get so little of her. Oh, to be sure, we’re with her all the time – it may be a novel with multiple points of view, but we spend by far the most time with Elizabeth, and she’s always unambiguously both the protagonist and the primary observer of the plot. But the bits when she’s the most herself – talking back at a social function, for example – are few and far between. Instead, she spends most of her time worrying about the much less interesting events happening around, to less interesting people than herself – and, unfortunately, subjugated to her own inevitable romance.
That romance, as I mentioned above, is certainly inherently compelling: we immediately recognise, even if the characters do not, how fitted they are for one another. It is indeed a credit to the author that she was able to create and convey two characters so superficially dissimilar, yet well-suited, despite the self-inflicted limitations of her story, which allows us only a small handful of encounters between the two, almost no action, and little deep, explicit psychology of either. They stand out, as I say, as almost the only two real human beings in a crowded room of imbeciles.
More difficult is the fact that the only real obstacle on either hand to the romance is that both characters wilfully decide to be idiots – and unpleasant idiots at that. This is far from unrealistic, it goes without saying – but it means that the great climax of the plot is essentially that both people decide to stop being idiots, which is something that is difficult to really effectively dramatise, particularly since there is no traumatic or dramatic incident that forces them to this realisation.
[admittedly, this may be an inherent problem with the romance genre, and a reason why it doesn’t appeal to me: while love is an attractive feature of a story, a story all about love struggles not to be too internal, too arbitrary, in its conflicts. But at least modern writers try to introduce some theoretical external obstacle too…]
The difficulty is particularly great for the character of Darcy. Darcy is perhaps the novel’s most interesting character – part sociological ideal made flesh, part self-contradiction. Perhaps the most striking thing about this prototype of the romantic hero is that he’s a total geek: obsessed with reading, completely lacking in any understanding of social niceties, prone to over-analysing, over-enthusiastic about his ideals, somewhat bitter about more popular people… he’s instantly recognisable to anyone who has spent too many hours arguing with strange people online. He’s a billionaire neckbeard. I even laughed out loud when it turns out a pivotal moment in the novel is when Darcy feels driven to write a very long, late-night self-pitying, self-justifying ‘well actually’ e-mail forum post letter to someone who said something mean to him… and then admits that while it had seemed at the time to completely and totally impartially justify his position, in hindsight the morning after he recognises that it may have sounded a little bitter and he wishes he’d been able to press delete before she read it. Not that I’ve ever done that, obviously. Nooo.
[Warning: in reality, these long epistles do not actually have the effect depicted in this novel. Never. I’m told. In particular, I think these days we’re not meant to be quite so enthusiastic about the unpleasant rejected man sending long ‘explanations’ of his feelings to the woman who told him to piss off, because why won’t she just listen and understand him damnit. It’s frowned upon.]
Anyway, I may be being mean to poor Mr Darcy myself, but it’s affectionate – he’s likeable, in a strange way, and painfully recognisable. And he certainly undergoes the most substantial and important character development of any character in the novel – he may be the only character who genuinely matures through the course of the story. Which is great, except… it’s all off-page! We see Darcy being one person for half or more of the novel, and then when we next meet him he’s an entirely different character.
Now sure, on an intellectual sense, his character development does make sense. It’s implausible, but coherent – in essence, Darcy’s single-minded pursuit of a moral ideal, being a gentleman, has led him to disregard others to such an extent that he has necessarily failed to live up to that ideal, so once Darcy realises that he’s acted in an ungentlemanly fashion in pursuit of gentlemanliness, he naturally corrects his mistake. But on an emotional level, and hence a narrative level, it’s a complete failure, because all of that struggle to reform his character and alter his behaviour is invisible to us, and we only get the result.
Of course, its effective as a narrative incident, because the reformation comes as almost as much of a surprise to the reader as it does to Elizabeth, which is in a sense a more exciting plot twist than if we’d gone off to a gentleman’s training montage with Darcy for half the book. But it takes away the most promising arc, and the one most central to the emotional success of the plot. Without it, we’re left with the plot resolution, “Elizabeth stops disliking Darcy so much because he stops being a colossal arsehole”, which isn’t exactly hard-won development on her part so much as good luck.
[incidentally, returning to the ‘modern attitudes’ angle: I think now we’d generally find it a bit problematic to teach your audience the message “it doesn’t matter if he’s horrible to you now, just wait and he may change one day”. Admittedly, it’s not a pure battered-wife story, because Elizabeth confronting Darcy is important to the plot, but even so…]
My feeling, therefore, regarding the content of the novel, was that the most engaging character, Elizabeth, struggles to emerge independently out of the shadow of her own romance plot [while Mr Darcy manages to be both the most interesting character and the one with the most interesting development, yet frustratingly gets almost entirely sidelined*], while that plot, itself the most interesting plot, in turn gets swallowed up by the less interesting and more formulaic side-plots around it, while all the plots struggle to get going as the author gets distracted into other things. There’s a lot of promise here, but it could do with some editing.
[*I was going to say: this might be a more interesting novel from Darcy’s point of view. But then I thought: actually, maybe that’s what’s weird and appealing about the novel. Darcy’s story is an ancient tale of courtly love, the intelligent and honourable but unconfident suitor trying to improve his own character to win the affection of the disdainful Perfect Woman. What’s odd about this novel is that Austen decides to tell that story from the point of view of the Perfect Ideal Woman, rather than the point of view of the knight. This has a certain inherent appeal, both narratively and politically – but it also has the inherent downside of putting us in the head of Mary Sue, who doesn’t even get to watch the quests that her conflicted, complicated knight embarks upon, leaving us with rather little story to work with. It’s like telling the story of The Lord of the Rings from the perspective of Rosy, back in the Shire – sure, it’s a fresh take on the subject, but it does rather mean missing out on much of the plot…]
And yet, a novel is not just its content – it’s also its style. I feel confident in saying, if Pride and Prejudice had to stand purely on the basis of its scenes, its plot, its opinions and its characters, it would be remembered only as a pleasant, somewhat interesting period piece appealing only to specialists.
Fortunately, it does not.
What is Austen’s style like? Honestly, it’s like… a pleasant, relaxing bath. It’s not, by modern standards, spectacular; it doesn’t try to be. It almost tries not to be. It’s languid, gracious, delicately weighted. It’s like a cross between David Hume and P.G. Wodehouse, although admittedly more the former than the latter. It’s… natural.
Maybe that’s an odd word. I know some people will probably find it stilted, or artificial. I don’t (except where it’s intended to be). I grew up reading Tolkien, and then Wilde; I grew up watching old tapes of Jeeves and Wooster and Yes, Minister. A lot of what is widely touted as ‘natural’ prose these days, as ‘simple’, as ‘unvarnished’, feels like nothing of the sort to me: an ungainly shuffling around of isolated clauses, connected by leaps, and dipping into strange, half-known-to-me colloquialisms. So reading Pride and Prejudice, I looked forward to each time I’d open the book, not out of excitement, but because each time I felt… relief. It’s just so nice to be with a narrator, and largely with characters, who speak normally, give or take a century or two. Who speak plainly, and to the point.
A quick test may be useful. Do you think the following highly-charged romantic encounter is a) sexy, or b) as dull as ditchwater?
[Elizabeth:] “You appear to me, Mr Darcy, to allow nothing of the influence of friendship and affection. A regard for the requester would often make one readily yield to a request, without waiting for arguments to reason one into it. I am not particularly speaking of such a case as you have supposed about Mr Bingley. We may as well wait, perhaps, till the circumstance occurs, before we discuss the discretion of his behaviour thereupon. But in general and ordinary cases between friend and friend, where one of them is desired by the other to change a resolution of no very great moment, should you think ill of that person for complying with the desire, without waiting to be argued into it?”
[Darcy:] “Will it not be advisable, before we proceed on this subject, to arrange with rather more precision the degree of importance which is to appertain to this request, as well as the degree of intimacy subsisting between the parties?”
As a philosophy geek myself, I naturally consider the answer to be a). It’s direct, it’s smart, it’s polite, it’s elegant – it allows Austen’s writing to stand out just as it allows the two characters to stand out from the simpletons around them. Others, however, may disagree.
[of course, it isn’t all like that; there’s some witty badinage too, and a narrative voice that in general is somewhat between the two modes.]
In general, the English has aged well, with the sad exception – and entertaining puzzle – of some of the Latinate vocabulary. Austen has the slightly immature habit of reaching for the longest and most elevated word she can find, which generally means something from Latin – which is fair enough, almost all of these words should be within the ambit of most reader’s cognizance, except that precisely because these were words that people stretched for, they were words that people often didn’t quite understand the intended meaning of, and as a result a bunch of them have changed their meanings far more drastically over the intervening centuries than the surrounding plain Saxon vocabulary. The reader is continually pricked, therefore, by little perplexities, as she notes and unknots each slight moment of semantic slippage. It’s not enough to ever stop a reader in her tracks, I don’t think – it’s never confusing as such, but it makes the eyebrows dance in little patterns of frowns and archings, like unexpected and sporadic waves beneath a boat on an otherwise calm sea.
This not disregarding, it is Austen’s style that chiefly won her critical admirers, rather than her rather formulaic plotting or her rather uncomplicated characters. And it’s a style that won me over too – particularly when combined with the brief but effective moments of human clarity. It made Pride and Prejudice a true pleasure to read, and I certainly intend to go on to read more of her works, and doubtless at some point reread them. And yet it must also be admitted, that I at no stage in reading the novel felt any encounter with something new, something unexpected, or something peculiar to this novel, nor did I, as I sometimes have having concluded a ‘great’ novel, feel any particular lingering feelings. It did not, beyond illustrating the era of its genesis more clearly, teach me anything, or cause me to think in any new way. Its details, as I’ve meandered through, over several weeks, the writing of this review, have for me somewhat faded, and I don’t expect that many of its moments will live long in the memory. It’s a novel that’s, for those tolerant of ornate sentences and bygone cultural contexts, easily digestible – and that’s both its vice and its virtue.
Adrenaline: 2/5. In the second half, one plot line does possess a certain urgency, even panic – and it’s particularly instructive to see how the incompleteness of knowledge can, like a half light, cast more intimidating and unstable shadows. But let’s be honest, my excitement never rose above mild concern, and much of the novel is very stately in pace indeed.
Emotion: 2/5. It’s not precisely a cold novel; Austen’s voice has a certain natural human warmth which only departs in her forced attempts at misanthopic cynicism. But the lack of attention paid to most of the characters, combined with the alienness of the culture, leave little scope for emotional engagement.
Thought: 3/5. Austen is clearly an intelligent woman, and willing, like her protagonist, to show it; but she doesn’t really have much subject matter here for any sustained intellectual investigations. The plot, however, is just red-herringed enough and wreathed in enough uncertainty – the fog of romance, I suppose you could say – to keep the reader’s mind sharp.
Beauty: 5/5. This is where the novel comes into its own. There’s hardly an ugly sentence in the entire novel, and many a striking one; and the prose is assisted by understated but effective imagery, powerful moments and a pleasantly neat unfurling of the plot.
Craft: 4/5. Unsurprisingly, this is also a strength: she writes well and largely has constructed her novel very cleverly. However, I do feel there’s still an element of youthful naivity in that construction, which sometimes isn’t quite clear in what its focus is, or what tone it’s attempting to achieve. This keeps things interesting, but a more experienced writer may have polished the resulting work a few more times, to cover over more artfully the seams.
Endearingness: 4/5. As I say, I really liked it. It was fun to read; pleasant; enjoyable. I’d read it again.
Originality: 3/5. Here, of course, Austen is let down by two centuries of inferior imitators. Remember, ‘originality’ as I define it is not a measure of strict historical innovation, but rather of how novel the work appears to the modern reader, how much it sticks out from the crowd and surprises. In that light, given the oceans of romances (and comedies) that have followed on from her, a par score is surprisingly accomplished – although the elements are all extremely familiar, Austen does manage to inject enough human specificity into both her voice and her plot that it never feels exactly like the other things I’ve read. Although, of course, were I a dedicated fan of regency romances, that may seem rather less the case. I suspect, though, that it would not: Austen has the advantage common to the founders of genres, that she didn’t know what genre she was, in modern terms, writing in, and so is free to focus at times on aspects that a modern imitator perhaps would overlook. Pride and Prejudice is a romantic comedy; but is a novel that is both romantic and comedic, rather than an attempt to write a novel that abides by generic modern romcom rules. It’s a novel first, and genre second.
Overall: 5/7. GOOD. It’s toward the high end of good, but I wouldn’t put it in the must-recommend category of ‘Very Good’. It doesn’t set the world on fire; but it is very accomplished and very enjoyable, particularly given its antiquity.
That said, I am aware that time and imitation have dulled its edge; and I’m also aware that unlike the SF&F novels I generally read, I’m not the most charitable audience for this kind of thing; I don’t doubt there are many people who would quite reasonably find it Very Good at least, due to a greater affinity for its genre. But personally, I’ll call it Good.