Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen (1775 – 1817) is often considered England’s first truly important female novelist. Her most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, was written in 1813. Although her writing coincides with the literary period known as Romanticism, Austen defies classification and does not neatly fit into the definition of a Romanticist. With her candid, no nonsense observations of human behaviour, her writing is closer to classical traditions than to the Romantic tendencies of the time in which she lived.
Under what conditions did Jane Austen write her novels one might wonder? In her essay on women and fiction entitled “A Room of Her Own” (1929) Virginia Woolf affirmed that “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is going to write fiction.” In referring to female authors of the early nineteenth century, Woolf puzzled over why women wrote novels rather than poetry. The middle class family of the 19th century she concluded, had only a single sitting room. If a woman wrote, she would have to write in the common sitting room and would be constantly interrupted. She would have to be careful so that servants and visitors would not discover what she was doing. Whatever literary training she received would be from her daily training in the observation of character and analysis of emotion that presented itself to her within the confines of the sitting room. These then are the circumstances in which Jane Austen wrote her immortal novels.
Fortunately, recent filmed versions of Austen’s novels have sparked a renewed interest in her writing. In the following texts you will have the opportunity to acquaint yourselves with the characters and the main plot of Pride and Prejudice.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
To begin with, it seems as though Mrs Bennet will get her wish, as the new neighbour, Mr Bingley, seems to be quite in love with Jane, the eldest of the five Bennet daughters. He and Jane seem to have the same easygoing temperament and Jane too, has fallen in love with him. Elizabeth, however, is snubbed by Mr Bingley’s friend, Mr Darcy, whom she finds intolerably proud and arrogant. Not even his considerable fortune is enough to win over her prejudice of him.
While staying with a friend, Elizabeth finds herself once again unwillingly in the company of Mr Darcy. When he begins to show an interest in her, she is polite but reserved. This reserve turns to aversion when she discovers that he is the reason why Mr Bingley left the neighbourhood suddenly and has made no effort to contact Jane who is silently pining for him. It is in this frame of mind that Elizabeth is surprised one morning by a visit from Mr Darcy.
When a man seeks the company of a woman alone in 19th century England, there can be only one motive for his visit – a proposal of marriage! Elizabeth is astonished to receive his visit but her astonishment grows even greater at the unconventional marriage proposal she receives. Mr Darcy starts out well enough.
‘In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be suppressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you’.
Although Elizabeth is aware of the compliment he is paying her by asking her to become his wife, her feelings of dislike grow as Mr Darcy emphasizes the fact that he has fallen in love with her despite her inferior family and his good sense. Elizabeth refuses his proposal, which comes as a complete surprise to Mr Darcy. When he asks for a reason for her refusal, Elizabeth replies.
‘I might as well enquire,’ replied she, ‘why with so evident a design of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character?’
Pride and prejudice must indeed be won over if this love affair is ever to have a chance of succeeding. The quarrel escalates, however, and Elizabeth explains that she could not ever marry a man who has caused so much pain to those she cares for. Mr Darcy replies that he was compelled by honesty to admit that he loved her in spite of her family.
What happens next?
Can such a relationship have any chance of success?
Immediately after this disastrous meeting, Mr Darcy writes a letter to Elizabeth explaining many things that she was unaware of. Elizabeth realizes that she has completely misjudged Mr Darcy. By chance she again meets Mr Darcy several months later and he is now charming and amiable. Subsequently, it is Mr Darcy who saves her sister Lydia’s reputation when she elopes with Mr Wickham whom Elisabeth has discovered is a scoundrel, and he also encourages his friend Bingley to ask for Jane’s hand in marriage. Mr Darcy has overcome his pride and Elizabeth realizes her prejudice was ill founded. Elizabeth and Mr Darcy are now free to nurture their love.
a) Love and marriage are things we are all concerned with. Individually, write down a list of the five most important qualities you look for in a partner. Then write a new list of the five qualities you detest in a partner. Form groups of three and compare your lists.
Now, based on your impressions of Elizabeth and Mr Darcy from the excerpts, apply your lists to these two characters. What positive qualities and what negative ones can you use to describe them?
b) Does Elizabeth strike you as a conventional character of the time or as a modern character? Explain your answer.
c) Jane Austin was a keen observer of the social conventions of her day. If we forget for a while the unaccustomed manner of speaking of the 19th century how relevant is this love conflict today? In other words, could the story take place today?
d) When Helen Fielding wrote her blockbuster novel Bridget Jones’s Diary, she intentionally gave one of the male characters the name Darcy. Why do you think she did this and what type of character do you think he is?
e) If you have read the novel or seen the filmed version of the story, what is Bridget Jones’s first impression of Darcy? Does this change in the course of the story? Who does Bridget Jones fall in love with at the end?
A closer look at language
It is quite obvious that some of the basic themes of Pride and Prejudice have been incorporated into Helen Fielding’s novel and modernized. Let us attempt to modernize language as well! Rewrite the following statements in modern everyday language.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Modern version: “Everyone knows it’s true that a rich bachelor needs a wife.”
a) “My dear Mr Bennet, have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
b) “You and the girls may go, or you may send them by themselves, which perhaps will be still better, for as you are as handsome as any of them, Mr Bingley might like you the best of the party.”
c) “You are mistaken, Mr Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.”
d) “I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”
e) “From the first moment I may almost say, of my acquaintance with you, your manners impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form that ground-work of disapprobation, on which succeeding events have built so immoveable a dislike”. (Quite a mouthful but the message is clear!)
Imagine Elizabeth’s state of mind after she has received Mr Darcy’s marriage proposal. We are told she cried for half an hour! She decides to write to her sister Jane and confide in her about the day’s events. You must pick a style for your letter. Decide whether you would like to write in a semi-elevated style, 19th century style like Jane Austen or in a modern day tone like Helen Fielding. Write the letter and be consistent in tone. Begin with either, My dearest Jane or Dear Jane.