Pride and Prejudice is not a romance…

Righto.  Since I managed to get people talking and thinking with my last post on sex in novels, I think it’s time to stir things up a bit more.  But with a different contigent. 

So all you sigh-ers over Mr.  Darcy, get those missiles ready.

Pride and Prejudice is not a romance.  Nor is it Romantic, either in the literary sense nor in our modern sense.  It’s a novel about a microcosm of society and about money. 

Yes, there is a sexual tension, a potential love affair that drives the action forward.  But this is only a device. 

Yes, it is a device that works.  But that does not make it the be all and end all of the novel. 

And those who insist on seeing the novel only in that light do grave disservice to Miss Austen’s work.

Let’s start with the characters.  Mr. Bennet is an idle, self-absorbed and feckless father, with a false sense of being a victim of his wife’s folly; he uses the entail as an excuse for his apathy and failure to provide.  These less than admirable traits are made palatable by his sense of humour. 

Mrs. Bennet is a wholly unpleasant scheming social-climber, a gregarious and spiteful gossip, a hypochondriac and attention seeker who is engaged in a perpetual spat with her husband and uses their daughters in this marital tug-of-war. 

Jane is lovely.

Elizabeth is witty, yes.  But she is also the one who brings the nefarious Wickham into the household, lavishing her attention on him in such a way that does cause talk.  So much so, that even her closest friend urges greater propriety and circumspection.  And would the youngest sister, engaged in one-upmanship with her elder, wiser sisters, have so latched onto him if she hadn’t first been persuaded of his desirability by her sister, Lizzie, and also by the desire to score one over on that sister? 

Elizabeth’s change of heart toward Darcy is dated precisely from the moment she apprehends just how much money he has and how the possession of such a fortune would lift her out of the straits she has endured at home.  Which is as mercenary as one can get. 

We know too that financially the Bennets are strapped–they can only afford to keep a pair of job horses which are used for the farmwork, pulling the carriage and only rarely for riding.  That tells us a lot.  It says their holdings don’t run to even enough acreage to grow their own fodder for more than a pair of horses, nor for their pasturage. 

One thing is certain, Pride and Prejudice is a moral tale, urging a consideration of the ramifications of reckless behaviour upon all those giddy heads of the early 19th century.  Lydia’s flirting and folly has the consequence of bringing ruination upon the whole Bennet family. 

We laugh at it now.  

But 200 years ago, Lydia’s fall from grace, as it were, would entail the social exclusion of the entire family from all polite/moral society.  That means no one would have spoken to them.  At all.  They would have been cut dead by all their previous friends and acquaintances and henceforth lived very isolated.

Equally, the remaining daughters would all have been unmarriageable after Lydia’s co-habitation with Wickham.  The only offers they would have received would have been those of ‘wives in watercolour’.  That is to say, mistresses.  

This is a novel about the true consequences of folly.  The themes of money, family and respectability within society are a constant through the novel. 

We read, perhaps, because of Darcy’s infatuation with Elizabeth, but all the time, Austen is delivering a strong sermon on the need for wisdom–financially, emotionally, behaviourally–and the taking of responsibility for one’s actions.  So much so, that one wonders, occasionally, if she wasn’t speaking from personal experience, such is her rigour on these subjects.

A final word.  The romanticision of the novel on screen has only furthered this miscontruing.  And the recent offering with Keira Knightley is the most egregious to date. 

For example, she wore dark-coloured clothes.  To an 19th century audience this would have openly identified her as a servant.  Would the social-climbing Mrs. Bennet ever have allowed that misconception to be a possibility?

Wearing white or pale muslin was a statement about their status and financial security (vital to those who were in danger of losing both).  If one could afford white or pale muslin, one could afford the servants to wash it frequently because it was so easily soiled; and because muslin does not wash well, it was a statement that the wearer could afford to replace her clothes at a regular interval. 

Then there was her running about barefoot.  To that, I can only say, “Yuh, right.” 

Again, shoes were a statement of wealth and status.  Only field and factory workers, sailors, gypsies, beggars and such went barefoot.  As with the muslin, cleanliness was an indication of financial stability – cleanliness indicated servants who could heat and carry the water for your bath. 

Emma Hamilton by Romney

The Elizabeth Bennet of that version would have received one thing and one thing only from one of family such as Mr. Darcy.  And it would not have included a wedding ring. Unless she were able to attain it later in the manner of Emma Hamilton.  (Don’t get me wrong here, I’m a big fan of Nelson’s Emma…) 

It is hard not to conclude that Pride and Prejudice isn’t in many ways a novel of wish-fulfilment for Miss Austen.  Her own father’s fecklessness is well-documented.  Her mother’s constant harping on his financial insecurity is equally well-known. 

A most poignant thing is the bill of auction on the wall at Austen’s home in Chawton.  Her parents listed her beloved fortepiano for sale without telling her or asking her about it.  That’s how straitened were their finances, that’s how much she was considered no more than chattel to them. 

A rich man, a Mr. Darcy, who would lift her out of the penury and wretchedness of life with such people, must have looked more than attractive…

So let’s give Miss Austen her due.  She wasn’t writing a romance.  She left that to the likes of Maria Edgeworth whose saccharine novels, curiously, we don’t read any longer.  She was inventing the domestic novel and putting into it all the components of fine literature – life themes which extend beyond the mere will they/won’t they, plus sub-themes, moral quandaries and corruption, character development and stagnation.  Tolstoy addresses many similar themes in War and Peace.

Is it a love story though?  To tell the truth, I don’t know.  You fight it out.

Read my other posts about Jane Austen, Austen – the Cash Cow and Mean Girls 1812-style

26 comments on “Pride and Prejudice is not a romance…

  1. Diane Nelson says:

    As one who has spent countless hours in soul-wrenching debate – the better Mr Darcy: Colin Firth or Matthew MacFadyen – I cringed when I read “… not a romance.” Surely that is wrong.

    I blushingly admit to not having read this particular novel, so I come to this revelation, and surely it is that, unarmed, devoid of relevant facts and details with which to fight such an alarming discourse. I had been strangely content with my notions of romanticism, smug in my assertion that the Keira Knightly version was far more authentic than the BBC production, more lyrical, moving, satisfying on every level.

    All for naught apparently. Though I should feel cheated – having my girlish, slavish devotion to all things romantic stripped so rudely away – I find myself oddly intrigued by the allusion to literary layering, the thematic elements of modernity laid out in a time and place foreign, yet comfortably familiar.

    I know what I must do now. I am, if nothing else, a modern woman. Off to

  2. Hmm – my first impressions of the novel were right then!

    I had to read P & P for A Level English and while my friends were all sighing over Mr Darcy, I was laughing at them, mostly because I was certain that he wasn’t the main point of the novel.

    Of course, I haven’t seen any of the movies that have been made from the book, so I can’t comment on that, but I was sure at the time that the romantic storyline was only a way of making people read the book – the hook.

    I even put my theory forward as part of my essay at the end of that module. Did I get an A? No. My English Teacher was one of those sighing over Mr Darcy. I got a C and “Interesting, but incorrect summary of the story.” as a comment.

    Thank you for vindicating me!

    Do you (like I) also believe that “Emma” is the personification of an interfering busybody?

  3. Noelle Pierce says:

    As usual, you write an intriguing post. For all I write romance, I won’t disagree with you on the P&P front. Not because I agree, necessarily, but because (like Diane), I have never managed to get through the damn thing. I have only the movie (Knightly version) to go on, and while I enjoyed it, I can certainly see your argument in there. Knowing what I do about the time, I see your argument even more clearly.

    Austen may be lauded as *the* seminal work in my genre, but I can’t get through more than a few chapters without a LOT of work. I love the language of the time, but the prose in P*P, specifically, takes me far too long to comprehend. The length of the sentences alone cause me to lose track of what she’s talking about by the full stop. I’ve tried, honestly. In fact, I’m attempting other books of her to see if they’re any better.

    But now I’m going to step back and wait to see what the Austenites say about all this…

    *getting popcorn*

  4. Mockingbird says:

    My problem with the Ps is Mr Darcy. He’s just so stiff and stuffy I find it hard to imagine why anyone would want to marry him (even with a great deal of money).

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Look at Donald Trump and/or Aristotle Onassis. Money and power are said to be the greatest aphrodisiacs there are.

      There’s also the Beatrice and Benedict thing going on there–it can be very sexy to be loved. And he does unwind a bit in the second half of the book, even more so once she’s paying attention.

  5. cavalrytales says:

    Never read it, or had the slightest urge to. Maybe now I will.

    After ‘The Lines of Torres Vedras’, of course.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Have you read Charlie Esdaile’s Peninsular Wars yet? Don’t write the next stuff without it.

      • cavalrytales says:

        Fell asleep beside a lorry at Three Counties Showground with it open on my lap! Good section on the guerilleros but an awful lot of politicking which I struggled with at the time – the subject is so broad and complex that to get it in context you need to understand the whole general picture first. Which I didn’t really, then.
        I dip into it from time to time check facts.
        My main complaint is they’ve used such a diminutive font in the paperback I need my +3.5 specs!

      • M M Bennetts says:

        Ah. I read it sometime after I’d read Weller, Paget and Glover on the subject (and Longford, of course)…

  6. Orlando Maltravers says:

    The problem is not with ‘Pride and Prejudice’ as such. It’s with subsequent generations’ reinterpretation of it. The Darcy of the book is nothing, nothing at all, to swoon over. Austen’s Eliza is no romantic heroine, no Jane Eyre, either – she is a young woman with just enough wit, enough ‘quickness’ as Austen puts it, to be dissatisfied with her lot in life. (Which is why – sorry, @Diane – the Knightley is utterly implausible for me – leaving aside the glaring historical inaccuracies, she’s a petulant teenage hoyden rather than a witty, intelligent young woman.)

    The book is actually about… well, pride (his) and prejudice (hers). And about the consequence of folly (Lydia and, of course, Mr and Mrs Bennet).

    The thing is, for these girls, the goal wasn’t the love affair – it was financial security. So Jane and Eliza score, and Lydia doesn’t – she is condemned to repeat her parents’ cycle of fecklessness and folly. Jane, of course, is totally in love with Bingley, and not even her father’s mild spite (“You are each of you … so easy, that every servant will cheat you; and so generous, that you will always exceed your income”) can burst her bubble.

    But Elizabeth’s relationship with Darcy isn’t the great love affair. He’s absolutely smitten with her, yes. She learns above all to respect him; she discovers that they are compatible; she comes to LIKE him; she sees the advantages of their union; and all this will settle down into something which for want of a better term we may call love. But it isn’t a romance.

  7. This was a book I came to late in my life. Perhaps my eye was too jaundiced to see it as anything other than a social commentary of a time long gone. I was fascinated by the period, captured by the lack of innocence…for I found it to be a non-innocent perception of life. Life was segregated very clearly then. Their were the haves…and nothing else mattered.

    Anything beneath that highly valued level of the stratosphere was not thought about in depth, merely an item of gossip and derision.

    I found it fascinating and long winded, yet I sensed in the pages a woman writing of her own experiences and observations…Romance, no not in my opinion. A clever description of what it took to survive..oh yes.
    I was impressed with the fact that nothing has really changed all that much.

  8. Toby Neal says:

    Hm. *scratches head.*

  9. Buzzy says:

    We know too that financially the Bennets are strapped–they can only afford to keep a pair of job horses which are used for the farmwork, pulling the carriage and only rarely for riding. That tells us a lot. It says their holdings don’t run to even enough acreage to grow their own fodder for more than a pair of horses, nor for their pasturage.

    I agree with most of what you say, especially about the movie, but this part is wrong. The horses are needed “on the farm” not “on the estate”. That means the home farm, where food for the family and servants is grown. You can’t make 2,000 pounds per annum from a two-horse farm and Mr. Bennet is identified as a “principal landowner”. In other words, there is a moderately extensive estate worked by tenants who pay those 2,000 pounds in rent above and beyond the home farm. If 5,000 pounds a years is rich, 2,000 is definitely not financially strapped.

    I also wouldn’t be so sure about the other daughters’ lack of marriageability. Girls who misbehaved in that era were generally ‘sent away’, their family would be gossiped about for a bit, but then it would blow over. That sort of thing happened literally all the time – there were scandals in every recorded family I’ve come across – so without eventual forgiveness, society would have broken down entirely.

    Nice blog, I’m enjoying wandering through it.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      The Bennet family’s financial situation is actually harder to assess than first appears. The carriage horses are used on the farm, hence Jane has to ride to Netherfield rather than taking the carriage. So the carriage horses are job horses. However, there is little clarity in the novel between whether there is a home farm as part of a larger estate or if “the farm” is all they possess. Certainly there is no mention of Mr. Bennet having tenants. All it says is an estate of £2000 a year–but an estate of £2000 a year is not a large estate and in mentioning the size of the estate, Austen specifically draws attention to “the deficiency of [Mr. Bennet’s] situation in life”. I confess, I’ve always assumed Austen didn’t define such things as the difference between an estate large enough to delineate between the home farm and the larger estate because she either wasn’t interested, perhaps didn’t know herself, or like a wise self-editing novelist knew that it wasn’t pertinent to the novel and so excluded it.

      Given that everyone was feeling the pinch during the late 1790s and early part of the 19th century, due to the cost of the war with France, reflected in rising taxes, the financial effects of the Continental Blockade, and several years of terrible harvests (1811 was particularly bad), the Bennets’ money wouldn’t have been going as far as it had done when Mr. Bennet was a young man.

      (There’s also a book about a brother and sister who lived in London during–I’ve been wracking my brains to remember who they were or what the book was called–in which the sister concluded that to live fashionably in London, at a good address, required an income of no less than £10,000 a year. Hence I’ve always assumed that the £5000 a year ascribed to Bingley and the £10,000 a year ascribed to Darcy were, as in the years given in the Bible, examples of ‘big numbers’ meant to signify ‘rich’ and ‘very rich’ rather than specific sums–though of course, they may be derived from her knowledge or guestimation of her brother’s income.)

      Another anomaly–much discussed at the time the BBC ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was first aired–was where Austen got her ideas about entail. There was a lively discussion in the pages of the Daily Telegraph between several solicitors who specialised in inheritance law and P.D. James, herself another specialist in the field (among other things), that the entail on Longbourne such as described in the novel was an impossibility. None of them could fathom by what means the property could be entailed upon Mr. Collins; it is a legal impossibility.

      But this is the novelist’s preregotive. It’s that way because she says it’s that way. And we the readers can either accept it or bung the novel against the wall and say that’s impossible. But either way, it’s her work and what she says goes.

      I’m delighted you’ve enjoyed the blog. Thank you for visiting.

  10. Veraila says:

    I must say I found your post most interesting. I first brushed shoulders with Pride and Prejudice on TV when I was only 15. Naturally , being a person who gets carried away quite easily by panoramic views of Regency architecture and frilly costumes, I fell in love. But later on when I analyzed what I liked so much about the movie, I was apalled; I watched it purely for aesthetic reasons; the clothes, the buildings, the language, almost everything which encompassed that period (which I know isn’t very accurately portrayed in the movie but it is human in me to ignore all the unpleasentries which must have existed back then). Also, while browsing the internet, I stumbled across many fan pages devoted to Pride and Prejudice saying it was the blue print for all love stories to follow. I found thist a bit odd because I never thought it was that much of a love story; at the time, I thought the relationship which sprang between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy was simply a sub-plot. Then I said to myself it was because I hadn’t read the book; so off I went to purchase a copy from my local bookstore. And I sat, And I read. But I didn’t devour it in one go. It became my ‘tea-time’ book and was much attacked from my marie biscuit crumbles. Anyway, getting to the point, I eventually finished it and put it down. What did I feel? Well, I thought it was a pleasant book. It was amusing at times. Nothing more. It might have to do with the fact that I was young and unfamiliar with the social norms at the time to be able to fully ‘get’ the satire about society back then. And the love story? I didn’t really feel any romance; I rather felt that Mr. Darcy fell in love with Elizabeth far too quickly and after very little discourse, that it sort of ‘killed’ the whole excitement of romance; in short, there was hardly anything written about their courtship. But it was considered one of history’s greatest love stories. I asked my mom about it and she said it was a nice love story and I was really perplexed; I started to think maybe this wasn’t my genre. After a few years, I read it again. And I can say, I enjoyed it much more this time; I liked the light-heartedness of it and understood the subtle jokes better. But again, I could gather no romance. When I read you blog, I felt a bit relieved to know that it was normal to feel that way about Pride and Prejudice. But what do you think about Persuasion? I found that it had more elements of romance to it.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Veraila, I am wholly of the opinion that Persuasion is a much better book and an infinitely more passionate love story–though I am very fond of Sense and Sensibility too. But whereas I always find Mr. Darcy lacking in intelligent conversation, ideas or sentiment, Captain Wentworth lacks none of these. Moreover, he is a man of action who has built a great career in the Royal Navy during a time of war. And then he writes that most exquisite love letter in the English language at the end of the book. So he’s got it all, doesn’t he?

      That’s my thought on the subject for what it’s worth. I’m delighted you found the website though and hope you continue to frequent it.


  11. I enjoyed this article so much. Well-written, and a real insight into the era.

  12. Jan says:

    “Again, shoes were a statement of wealth and status. Only field and factory workers, sailors, gypsies, beggars and such went barefoot. ”

    Agreed! I am struck with a remembrance of the principal character in Patrick O’Brian’s “The Golden Ocean” (I think it is) who, as a young man of an impoverished (but not poor) Irish family, carries his shoes with him when he walks to church and puts them on only when he gets to the village where the church stands. He doesn’t want to to wear out, any faster than he needs to, an expensive item that it will be hard for his family to replace. But he also wouldn’t be caught dead in bare feet, or any sort of shabby substitute, where anyone can see him, because it would be an embarrassing admission of the family’s financial straits.

    POB is not, of course, a primary source, but he was an impeccable researchers, and I tend to trust him on details unless there is good reason not to.

  13. Tessy says:

    Yes! For a moment, I disagreed with you about Elizabeth reconsidering after seeing his house. But I have to admit, you have a point. Darcy’s kindness to her favorite aunt and uncle combined with Wickham turning out to be a snake in the grass were necessary elements to achieve her change of heart, but the perfectly situated mansion didn’t hurt. And who would object to such nice digs?

    On the subject of the Keira Knightley “Pride and Prejudice,” how can they even pretend the second proposal at 5 a.m., with Darcy half-dressed, is appropriate for the time period? Matthew Macfadyen is cute, but I can only assume from his Darcy interpretation that he hasn’t actually read the book. And why is Elizabeth not wearing gloves at the Netherfield Ball? I mean, she’s witty and rather independent, not a bra burner.

  14. Jihan Abdullah says:

    Growing up I’d always heard of Jane Austen, but was scarcely acquainted with her work. It wasn’t until college, as an English Literature major, that I entered Austen’s world. Unfortunately, when you study literature it’s more about dissection than enjoyment. As a result, I’ve spent the last year since graduating rereading the books I once slaved over. What brought me to your post was that I finished rereading Pride and Prejudice a couple of days ago and didn’t find it romantic. Now, I freely admit that I love a good love story. However, I agree with you that this “seminal romance” is not a romance. I’d rather fall in love with Captain Wentworth than Mr. Darcy any day. I believe the misconception stems from its cinematic recreations, where the attractiveness of the leading men perpetuate the misconception of Pride and Prejudice as a romance. I’ve watched the 1995 (Colin Firth) and 2005 (Matthew Macfadyen) versions numerous times and, unfortunately, period dramas often have the arduous task of staying true to the work and giving the viewers a nice, wrapped-up-in-a-bow happy ending. I don’t know when this started, but it’s rare to have a film with two lead characters, one a man and the other a woman, and have the plot not allude to romance. I think this ties into concept of a fairy tale ending. As a side note: while the 2005 version is rank with inaccuracies, I prefer it to the 1995 version. There is something about the way Firth kisses (in every film) that bothers me. For goodness sake, open your mouth Colin!

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