Rating: 4 Stars
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Rarely has any other opening line to a book been as synecdochic as Jane Austen’s commencement of Pride and Prejudice. Those few words succinctly capture the essence of the work – elegance, wit, satire, matrimony, and mercenary concerns. Austen merely reiterates a general cliché – which is, that a fat bank balance is to female fantasy as a bountiful bosom is to male fantasy. Either scenario unleashes the human imagination and lets it run amok with possibilities for gratification.
The world of romance fiction diverges greatly from the real world where attraction has been known to spark between the unlikeliest couples. Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy are a very likely couple, at least to those who have read romances. Their chemistry is akin to the immoveable object coming face to face with the irresistible force. Though she tries to laugh it off, Elizabeth’s nose is set out of joint when Darcy snubs her at their initial meeting. He soon regrets the inauspicious start of their relationship, but being gifted with abundant self-confidence doesn’t let it deter him. This soon leads to the most famously insulting proposal in Literature, guaranteed to have the recipient’s heart boiling over with indignation.
There is nothing out of the ordinary about the plot – romantic complications, family entanglements, and social considerations. These are narrated without either melodrama or dour realism. Confining itself materially to the domestic life of young women of a marriageable age, yet it is written with such verve and incandescent humor that each reading is at least as enjoyable as the first. The society depicted is a hot-house – gentlemen of leisure who seem to have nothing better to do than attend balls, pay court to gaggles of young ladies, read, shoot, and give parties. Likewise, the women have a scandalous amount of free time to devote to clothes, gaiety, and thoughts of marriage. When all else fails to entertain, there is that perennial favorite of small-minded people living in in a small world –discussing the deficiencies of their acquaintances. On the plus side, this gives free rein to Austen’s skillful characterization and the ironic observations that make this book almost as much a comedy of manners as it is a romance.
There are many reasons why Pride and Prejudice will still be left standing, when so many other books have been consigned to the recycling bins, but it has its flaws. Keeping in mind that the book was published in 1813, the conversational language between the characters still strikes one as brittle and artificial. Surely, no one talked this way. While Mr. Darcy is perhaps the best example of a hero in Romantic fiction, Elizabeth is admirable for her lively intelligence and independent mind; but you could say that she loved wisely rather than too well. Though the pair is the epitome of civilized attraction, what is romance without passion? But no, that won’t do; in the universe of Austen, that might be…imprudent. Where then do we go for a literary classic that shows love in its more unruly aspects? That, my friends, will be another book, another post, another day.