Despite apparently being Australia’s most popular book, I put off reading Pride and Prejudice for a long time. I imagined it to be about dreary, terribly proper English people gossiping about how some lady exposed her ankle at a ball, and engaging in chaste, bloodless courtships while having their boots polished by peasants. Since I’d seen The Bridget Jones Diary, I also thought I pretty much knew the whole plot.
Now that I finally picked it off the shelf, I know that I wasn’t really wrong on either of these counts. The only thing is that it’s all so well written that I couldn’t help enjoying Pride and Prejudice from beginning to end.
For those that don’t know, the plot focuses on the Bennett family, particularly their second eldest daughter, Elizabeth. She is intelligent, witty and independent-minded, and along with her sister Jane, the only Bennett capable of navigating the cloying social system of the British upper class. The rest of the clan are a bunch of nonces: her mother is a hysterical, marriage obsessed-busy body; her father has retreated from his household full of clucking women into vague indifference and passive-aggressive sarcasm; her sisters, Kitty and Lydia, spend all their time chasing boys; her other sister Mary is a pretentious wanker; and even Jane is so infuriatingly nice that she lacks reasonable discernment.
Into their genteel country society step the fantastically rich Mr Bingley and the ludicrously rich Mr Darcy. Bingley is amiable and lively, Darcy is proud and aloof. The ladies are all a flutter. Romance ensues.
The book overcomes its lack of violence, explosions, and graphic sex with strong writing, excellent characterisation and rightly celebrated wit. The plot is fast moving, the prose spare but elegant. Each character is distinct and familiar, with their dialogue perfectly illustrating their personality. The focus on personal relationships and social interactions highlights Austin’s keen observations on human nature, achieved, like the best commentary, in a very comic way. Many a time, I found myself tittering behind my white silken glove.
The thing that made the greatest impression on me, though, wasn’t the writing, or the famous wit, but the oppression and injustice of nineteenth century England.
On the one hand, Mrs Bennett’s desperation to marry off her daughters is grotesquely comical. However, it is worth considering that it is born of a need to secure their future in a world where women have no inheritance rights, and where marriage is the only means of social advancement available. At the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if the girls were unable to marry well. Would they have to – heaven forbid – actually work for a living? Because I couldn’t help but notice that the characters are almost oppressed by the abundance of time that they have on their hands.
This is not to say that Austin was entirely accepting of the class system. Her richer characters are not necessarily nobler than her slightly less rich characters. However, her depiction of the servant class as content bootlickers shows that her questioning of the established hierarchy was limited.
Still, credit where credit is due, she has a strong, three dimensional female lead, and her model relationship is one between intellectual equals. In fact, it struck me that, for better or worse, Elizabeth and Darcy’s teasing, playful relationship may have shaped much of our modern conception of romance.
The influence of Pride and Prejudice can’t be overrated. That alone is a good enough reason to read it, but hey! It’s a classic that lives up to the hype. Recommend.