I think that Pride & Prejudice is the best English novel, ever. Is that too much? Perhaps it is, but I’m a fan, and in the world of non-fantasy prose storytelling it is about as good as it gets for me.
One of the things that make Pride & Prejudice so rich—besides its irresistible story and ever-present wit—is that it is a story that has been written in a tradition. As much as it is vibrant and original and the emerging of something new, it is also in conversation with many great stories of the past.
Let’s look at a few of them.
Often titles have hints of what’s in the background. Brave New World is Aldous Huxley’s way of tugging back to Shakespeare, the glossy Vanity Fair goes back to Thackeray who goes back to Bunyan, and C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength is taken from a David Lindsay poem about the Tower Of Babel story—a subtle key to reading the book.
Because of this trend, I am tempted to think about the perfectly chosen title. While drawn from the subject matter and Eliza’s own speeches and letters, it may also go back to Fanny Burney’s novel Cecilia (1772). Reading that book might give us a hint, but the title quotation might be enough to entice us further:
“The whole of this unfortunate business,” said Dr. Lyster, “has been the result of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Your uncle, the Dean, began it, by his arbitrary will, as if an ordinance of his own could arrest the course of nature! and as if he had power to keep alive, by the loan of a name, a family in the male branch already extinct (Cecilia).
Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1776) is one of the key triggers of the Romantic movement, and we can see how the epistolary style of Werther is echoed in the letters and diaries of Pride & Prejudice. The story strikes me as quite different, but I can see aspects of Elizabeth’s (Eliza) character in Werther’s romanticized view of Charlotte (Lotte).
I have been reading more and more of the 18th century epistolary writers like Goethe and Burney. When I was reading Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1733) last summer I came to realize that behind the character of Eliza was the figure of Pamela.
Pamela is the story of a young housemaid whose middle class family had lost their living. As a teenager she goes to a Lady’s house to serve her and she is favoured the Lady. Her own good upbringing and excellent education were augment by the lessons in estate management and personal service she learned there.
When the Lady died, Pamela was devastated and assumed her living was lost. Instead, the Lady’s son took a liking to her, and asked her to stay—even giving her some gold from the estate. As time goes on, the new young master falls in love with Pamela and attempts to make her his mistress. As a true, virtuous (Methodist) young woman, she rejects his advances and maintains her integrity.
The Master is not put off, however. He pursues her again and again, using enticements and punishments to either attract or coerce her into an affair. She resists, even to the point of holding herself against his various attempts to rape her. Her rigorous piety only increases her attractiveness to him, and solidifies her reputation as a strength among the servants.
Eventually the Master kidnaps her, hoping to create a context for to fall in love with him. But she holds to her integrity, arguing that if he truly loved her he would make her an honourable offer of marriage. Even as that temptation to marrying the peasant occurs to him, social pressures increase against the idea. The Master’s remaining family see such a match as a betrayal of his name and rank—really as an impious and dishonourable choice.
As the Master flounders and Pamela’s heart softens, the Master does eventually propose marriage. Pamela discovers, quite to her own surprise, that she is in love with the gentleman. After a comedy of miscommunications and small problems that would prevent a match, eventually Pamela is able to marry the young Master and make her home in love, forgiveness, and honour.
I think the parallels are pretty clear between Pamela and Pride & Prejudice, even if the plotline is quite different. I think, however, that the connection is deeper.
Pamela was a runaway bestseller in its time. When Pamela says “yes” to the master, it is reputed that people listening to the story ran into the street and rang the church bells in celebration. It was a viral movement of story and piety combined in the character of Pamela—a girl who went on to inspire art, fan fiction, poetry, and parodies.
I think Pride & Prejudice is one of those parodies.
Really, I think that Jane Austen hated the Pamela character.
I could be wrong. I don’t have any evidence. But Eliza, the real hero of P&P, is a character full of life, independent thought, social acumen, and an incontrovertible sense of humour. “Wit” is the key word among Austen’s best characters. Like Pamela, Elizabeth is quite beautiful and well read. They both suffer from station and struggle against social explanations. And they both find themselves accidentally in love.
But Eliza is everything that Pamela is not. Pamela has virtue, but it is pancake flat, a solid wall of embarrassment and shame. It is good shame—shame that Austen would appreciate. But the idea of falling in love with a rapist would have been grit in Eliza’s teeth. Pamela lacks any sense of humour at all. All she really is is a pretty face and a Bible pinned against her chest by crossed arms.
While a third party reader (like me) would recognize that Eliza could have used some of Pamela’s ability to forgive, almost none of us prefer Pamela to Eliza. All of the adventure and winsomeness of Eliza makes us root for her when her pride clouds her reason.
With Pamela, I really wanted her story to end.
So I think that Pride & Prejudice is a response to Richardson’s Pamela.
But I don’t think it is the only one. We cannot think of Lizzie and Darcy without seeing the unlikely-in-love narrative. They are “star-cross’d lovers,” and when we think of forbidden love, it is hard not to think of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Beyond love that goes against fate’s grain, I don’t know that there is much more there. But the P&P-forbidden love connection is intriguing enough to peak backwards.
Behind Romeo and Juliet is the Arthurian Tristan and Isolde, or in the love triangle version, Launcelot and Guinevere. There is the faint aroma of the Arthurian left in Austen’s world. There is the court and the status of the gentry—now no longer a fellowship but still important to the economy of everyday life in Britain. There is also the danger that Eliza’s aging father will duel with the philandering Wickham, as well as the evolved social system that was once chivalry and courtesy. I had a fuller experience reading Pride and Prejudice this time after spending a couple of years reading the Arthuriad in the background.
I would like to draw out one more story—perhaps an unlikely one for most readers. I think that P&P is in its own way a complex and beautiful retelling of the Prodigal Son story in Luke.
If you think about it for a moment, you can perhaps see the connection. Darcy and Wickham grow up together in the same house, almost as brothers. The younger brother, Wickham, takes his fortune and goes into town, blowing it on gambling and women, leaving a string of bad debts behind him. We see in Darcy—now the “Father” of the house—the difficulties of dealing with the prodigal son in a way we don’t see in the Jewish story. The prodigal takes not just the inheritance, but also takes Darcy’s sister, and then Eliza’s sister. It adds a layer of complexity.
And, there are not just two brothers, but two sisters (or several sisters!). Austen retells the folkloric parable in the rich context of early 19th century England.
The lessons are different than St. Luke’s. But there are lessons. The last chapter—which I sort of wish wasn’t included—shows us that love that overcomes pride can grow and deepen, but that impetuous romance fades to distaste. We see that brotherly-sisterly love has great value, but not every broken bond can be mended. Jane Austen has her own parable-like lessons for us.
Stories are like cathedrals, C.S. Lewis once said. They grow over the centuries through the work of architects and builders, but they are still made up of the cathedrals of past ages. From this angle, we can see the rich book that Pride & Prejudice really is.