Tuesday, October 11, 2005

4 Popular Misconceptions About Pride and Prejudice

Last week, perhaps because of the new adaptation around the corner, saw the publication of not one but two different articles that completely fail to understand even the most basic truths about Jane Austen's little slice of posterity, Pride and Prejudice. First it was Bookslut's Jessa Crispin, who really ought to know better, wondering if "the point of Elizabeth Bennett [is] that she’s completely mediocre". Then it was Emma Garman, doing the semi-annual chick-lit tar and feather, who displayed not so much a lack of understanding as a lack of reading comprehension when she brought Pride and Prejudice up as an example of a novel in which the rich suitor is a villain and the poor suitor is Mr. Right. But these are only the most recent examples--it seems that every few months some journalist with more free time than sense dredges Pride and Prejudice up as a prop to a theory that has absolutely nothing to do with the book itself. The burden of enduring popularity, I suppose, but to a devoted Austen reader since the age of 12, it's getting a little tiring. So, as a public service, here are a few statements I'd like to see the end of.
  1. Jane Austen wrote chick-lit

    Look, I feel for the authors and readers of chick-lit. The amount of crap they put up with is completely out of proportion to the cheesiness of their genre. When books like The Da Vinci Code and the Left Behind series get treated seriously in major newspapers, and Michael Crichton testifies before Congress on environmental issues, it really does seem churlish to dump on this new evolution of the romance novel (actually, it seems a lot more than churlish, but I don't have enough evidence to talk about where I really think this backlash is coming from). And the fact is that in terms of plot, chick-lit, like romance before it, is the literary descendant of Austen's fiction. But to turn that correlation around and call Austen's fiction proto-chick-lit is so far beyond the pale that it would be laughable if there weren't people out there saying it seriously. I'm not talking about the issue of the quality of Austen's writing as opposed to your average chick-lit novel (that way lies 'but this is good/why, then, it's not SF')--I'm talking about the fundamental building blocks of the genre.

    The stereotypical chick-lit heroine is the representative of a lost generation--women who, although they have rejected the traditional subservient, domestic role of the female in their actions, have done so almost unconsciously, and are now searching for a new paradigm for their lives. Austen's heroines, in contrast, know their place in the world--as wives and mothers--and are eager to assume it. More importantly, chick-lit is almost universally concerned with the gratification of desires--I want a great job, I want a studly yet sensitive boyfriend, I want a child--whereas Austen's novels, Pride and Prejudice in particular, are morality plays. The reward for becoming a better person, Austen tells us, for shedding the petty selfishness of childhood and emerging into maturity, is a good, stable marriage, the right and privilege of becoming the bedrock of a new generation of Englishmen and -women. This is so far from chick-lit's themes of self-actualization and self-acceptance as to very nearly make the works polar opposites, which is hardly surprising--Austen wrote 200 years ago, when conformity and self-sacrifice were virtues, not vices as they are, for better and worse, today.

  2. Elizabeth Bennet is a 'modern' woman

    Why? Because she refuses to marry an odious man simply for the comfort of financial security? Because she won't degrade herself by accepting Darcy's parsimonious and grudging first marriage proposal? Because she's intelligent and strong-willed? All of these qualities make Elizabeth a remarkable woman, but no more in Austen's era than she would be today. As far as her desires and dreams are concerned, Elizabeth is firmly and steadfastly a woman of her own time. She wants to marry a good, honorable man, hopefully for love, but at the very least out of mutual respect. Her refusal of the obsequious Mr. Collins is anything but modern--it is the only correct action, Austen tells us, for an intelligent woman when faced with the prospect of being ruled, her entire life, by a fool. Elizabeth is dismayed by her friend Charlotte's decision to accept Mr. Collins not because she has romantic notions of marrying for love, but because she has a clear-eyed image of what their marriage would be like.

    Like many of Austen's novels, Pride and Prejudice is a blueprint for making a good marriage. Elizabeth and her sister Jane are surrounded by examples of how not to choose a mate--Charlotte and Mr. Collins, Mr. and Mrs. Hurst, their own parents--and one or two examples, chiefly from the Gardiners, of what a good marriage should look like. In this, Austen is anything but modern--she is an arch-conservative. The notion that they might not marry, that they might be forced to make their way in life as governesses or as spinster sisters, dependent on the goodwill of their relatives, occurs to her characters only as a frightening fantasy, and to her readers almost never.

  3. Mr. Darcy is a reformed rake

    I came across this one in an especially insipid article in the Guardian a few years ago, which trotted Darcy out as an example of how women like to fix men. Which is true, but not about Darcy. It's what makes Pride and Prejudice such a singular novel--for maybe the only time in the history of the romance, the guy fixes himself. Not that Darcy was ever a rake by an stretch of the imagination. Austen makes it clear that he's a pretty stand-up guy--honorable, generous, intelligent--even before Elizabeth gets to him. Like every single one of us, Darcy is flawed, but unlike most people, when that flaw is pointed out to him, he tries to make himself better. His actions in the book's second half are an attempt to show Elizabeth that he's taken her words to heart, even as she becomes aware of the many fine qualities she's missed in him. Her love is his reward for learning humility and overcoming his snobbishness, but apart from the first push, Darcy achieves that transformation all on his own.

  4. Elizabeth Bennet is a twit / Elizabeth Bennet is perfection incarnate

    Like Darcy, Elizabeth is flawed--she allows her hurt feelings at his prideful manner to dictate her behavior towards him, refusing to consider that he might have good qualities as well as bad. She allows herself to lose sight of morality when she tacitly approves of Mr. Wickham's fortune-hunting behavior simply because he's flattered her with his attentions. And, like Darcy, Elizabeth is made aware of her faults and is deeply ashamed--"I had not known myself", she tells her sister. Although her actions in response to this revelation aren't as pro-active as Darcy's (Elizabeth's role as a woman in Austen's fiction is, after all, a passive one), she does try to make amends for her mistakes. It's her intelligence and her keen moral sense that allow Elizabeth to recognize her faults and change into a better person, and while she's hardly a paragon, there's no question that she is an admirable character.
As deeply fond as I am of Jane Austen's novels, and of Pride and Prejudice in particular, I don't pretend that they're without their flaws. Austen's romances are cerebral and mostly passionless, and her characters' world is no wider than her own limited, proscribed existence. The wonder of Austen's fiction is the fact that she took these coldly moral tales, combined them with her warm wit and keen powers of observation, and came up with a miniature of humanity in all its glory and silliness. Some things, some aspects of human existence, are missing, but in much the same way that we don't turn to Tolkien for complicated and flawed characters, and we don't read George Eliot when we're after a barrel of laughs, it's wrong to try and impose those aspects on our reading of Austen. For better and worse (but mostly for better), she is what she is--one of the finest authors in the English language, and well worth a first, second, and third look.

UPDATE: Welcome, Bookslut readers! Feel free to poke around. Here are my thoughts on what we can expect from the new Keira Knightly P&P. If you're interested in my thoughts on other books, here are reviews of Angela Carter's Wise Children, Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle, two novels by M. John Harrison, George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, and, on a more humorous note, a condensation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. On publishing issues, here are my thoughts on last year's Booker decision, and the magic of short books.

12 comments:

Jesse Morgan said...

A flawless post. I agree completely - Austen should be read for the joy and beauty in her language and characters, not for points that illustrate the latest "theory of the sexes". Thanks!

Glo said...

Excellent post on P&P.

why is it that women's literature is viewed through such a narrow scope? That always bugs me.

Dee said...

Why is it a flaw to be cerebral and less passionate about both romance and one's life?

Rational choices are often very good ones. Elizabeth and Darcy both make rational decisions that take into account their passionate feelings. Darcy rejects conventional logic and proposes. Elizabeth rejects conventional logic and rejects him. Both are rational choices made by people who are more likely to think things through.

What I have always admired about Austen is her rationality. Not everyone behaves like characters in Bronte novels. Most sane, emotionally healthy people are closer to the secondary characters in Austen. (its heroes and heroines are somewhat idealized, if still flawed).

Most people meet, fall in love and marry without any of the torments and passionate speeches seen in so many classic novels. Those are fun too. But I find no problem with Austen's outlook. And it is certainly closer to my reality.

One is not likely to find insane first wives locked in the attics of very many engaged couples.

I suspect Austen lived in an environment where people were rational, intelligent and where such qualities were respected.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Why is it a flaw to be cerebral and less passionate about both romance and one's life?

It isn't necessarily, but one could make the argument that when describing something as primal and irrational as the act of falling in love, leaving passion out of the equation (and unlike the Brontes, there's no eroticism in the feelings of Austen's heroines towards their suitors even when they are in love) gives us an incomplete picture of human existence.

In other words, it's not a bad way to be, but it might be a bad way to write.

I agree that Austen's depictions of marriage-making are closer to the way real people behave than the Brontes', but for all that I adore her fiction (and am ambivalent towards theirs), I do feel that there's a component missing in it.

Kriechbaum said...

I have not read Pride and Prejudice in years, thanks for reminding me why I liked it. Whatever else one may say about Jane Austen, she was, as you wrote, a great writer.

Anonymous said...

You should read Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.

Judith said...

Passionless, Darcy writes Elizabeth that only the force of utmost "passion" could make him put aside his rational objections to marrying her. As for Elizabeth she becomes "jealous of his esteem." In other words, their "attachment" may be rational but unlike Mansfield Park, it is not passionless.

Anonymous said...

You have to remember that, although it may be more realistic than the Bronte sister's writing, P&P is not a romance novel. She would role over in her grave if she thought that people perceived it as such. P&P is a satire, criticizing the way that love and marriage where approached during her life time.

ronakmsoni said...

Hi. First time commenter, I think. Long-time reader, but.

Are you watching the web-show called the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, by any chance? It's doing rather fascinating things with the novel, generally making Lizzie a more unpleasant but more human character (latest one, just beginning to play out - Lydia's Wickham incident is a self-destructive reaction to Lizzie telling her that she's kinda too wild). Also, racial diversity.
You can follow the story here: http://www.lizziebennet.com/story/

Posting about it here because something should be written about it and I'm too lazy to do it myself, so I'm hoping you watching it results in something.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I've heard about The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, though I haven't watched the series. I suspect I'll wait until it's complete and then watch the whole thing. It certainly sounds like an interesting project and I'm looking forward to it.

CrazyCris said...

Darcy as a reformed rake?! I'd never heard that one! And yes, I think he is the only of Austen's heroes who actually reforms himself, which is part of what makes him so attractive to women even today: a woman points out his flaws, he takes this to heart and does something about it!

trixtah said...

Love this article, but I have to disagree somewhat with one point:

Elizabeth is dismayed by her friend Charlotte's decision to accept Mr. Collins not because she has romantic notions of marrying for love, but because she has a clear-eyed image of what their marriage would be like.

I agree with the first part, but not the last. I think Elizabeth has a clear image of what Mr. Collins would be like as a husband, but she has no idea of how his marriage with Charlotte would be.

Charlotte doesn't want the same things out of marriage as Elizabeth. All their disagreements throughout the book are about what marriage should be. Elizabeth seriously underestimates Charlotte's strength of character and just how she is able to "manage" Mr. Collins - all those long walks! - until she sees it with her own eyes.

Only after seeing how Charlotte deals with Mr Collins, hearing her professions of happiness in person, and (importantly) seeing her in action as Mr. Collins's "helpmeet" with Lady DeBourgh, does Elizabeth understand how content Charlotte truly is.

Post a Comment