Random Musings About Pride & Prejudice On Its 200th Birthday

English: Image at the beginning of Chapter 32....
English: Image at the beginning of Chapter 32. Darcy and Elizabeth at Charlotte (nee Lucas) Collins’ house. Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London: George Allen, 1894. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1. Mrs. Bennet isn’t as big a dope as most people suppose. Yes, she’s a silly woman, as many women of that time were, because that’s how they were brought up. Yet she understands one basic, stark fact: if she couldn’t get her daughters married, they would be in a terrible economic position, which would only worsen as they got older. Her methods are crass, but her motive is good: she wants to save her children from the indignity of poverty. On that score, I’d say she’s pretty smart.

2. How I wish people would stop treating Pride & Prejudice–all of Austen‘s novels, really–as the original Harlequin Romance novels. She did not write romances. This is so much the case that up until the early 20th century she was often designated a man’s writer because she wasn’t considered sentimental enough for women. Charlotte Bronte loathed her books, because she found them wanting when it came to emotion and passion.

She had a point. That’s because they are actually survival stories. This was a time when marriage was the only respectable way for a woman to ensure her economic future. These stories are not about grand passion, but about women looking for a way to reconcile their need for financial security through marriage with wanting to avoid living out their lives with a partner unworthy of them.

When you look at some of the married couples in P&P – Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, who are so incompatible Mr. Bennet spends most of his day hiding from his wife in his library, Charles Bingley’s sister Louisa and her horrid husband Mr. Hurst who does nothing but eat and play cards, Mr. Collins and his wife Charlotte, who encourages him to work in his garden so she doesn’t have to spend much time with him – it’s clear that they are a warning of what happens when people marry for the wrong reasons. (On the other hand, Lizzie’s Aunt and Uncle Gardiner are a happily married couple, because they are well-matched and perfectly suited to each other.)

One of my favorite moments in an Austen movie adaptation was in Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s version of Sense & Sensibility: as Colonel Brandon and Marianne leave the church after they are married, Brandon throws coins in the air for the village children to catch. The camera lingers on the coins as they hang in mid-air.

Lee got it. Austen’s stories are not so much about romantic love, but about the impact of money, or the lack of it, on the futures of the women of her time.

3. I wish the people who turn their nose up at Austen would give her books a try so they could discover her deliciously caustic wit. Some people assume her books are sappy. Again, a by-product of Austen’s erroneous place in current pop culture as a romance novelist. In reality her work is full of devastating and hilarious observations about human nature, many that still translate to the present day. Most of us have come across at least one relentless brown-nose like Mr. Collins. Or a charming player like Mr. Wickham.

4. Hey, casting directors–next time they do another TV or movie adaptation of the book, remember that JANE is the beautiful one.  O.K., I get it: Elizabeth is the heroine, so the thinking is, she has to be more beautiful. This is not a knock on any of the lovely actresses who’ve portrayed Jane over the years, but when everyone gushes over how beautiful Jane is supposed to be while (insert the knock-out actress portraying Elizabeth) is standing next to her, it makes you wonder if more people needed spectacles back then.

5 Elizabeth Bennet is one of the great female characters–oh, scratch that, one of the great CHARACTERS of all time–because she’s wrong for much of the story but honest enough to acknowledge this fact when she realizes it. That’s pretty rare, when you think about it.

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2 thoughts on “Random Musings About Pride & Prejudice On Its 200th Birthday

  1. I totally agree with you on the underrated Mrs. Bennett and your take on the economic constraints the affected both men and (even more) women during the Regency period. If you haven’t checked out Patrick O’Brien’s incredible epic series set in the same time period as Jane Austin’s novels, I would encourage you to give them a try. They are not just for men, and most 21st century women should be able to understand (or Google) the details needed to understand a few battle scenes and some technical sailing language. O’Brien’s epic 22 book series cover the lives, loves, and financial and career challenges of two very different Regency era men who become dear and unexpected friends, with Jane Austen-like shore-side intervals that rival her for sensitivity.

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