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.
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.