I have just had the great experience of teaching Jane Austen’s great romantic novel Pride & Prejudice. I am sure I gushed, which is not at all fitting for a professor of graduate students. I could not help it: it is a story so well told in its original context, and yet so universally enticing and relevant that I must convert whomever I dare to the sheer pleasure and delight of reading Jane Austen.
Granted, we live in a world apart. Except for some throwback to manners of another age, we have shed off many of the structures and expectations that existed in Jane Austen’s day. We have begun crashing down the class barriers that separated Darcy from Elizabeth–and both from the peasant classes–in the first place. Women can move in culture, think freely, choose partners—or choose to have no partners at all—and are less and less dependent upon the patriarchal economies behind Pride & Prejudice.
Yet the story endures. Keira Knightley in the 2005 film doesn’t hurt its revival these last ten years, including films like Becoming Jane, The Jane Austen Book Club, Austenland, and the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies phenomenon (which I actually read, though if you tell anyone I will call you a knave). I go to the local bookstore and there are dozens of spinoffs from Austen’s world. Most of them are bad, I assume, but the bulk of their sheer badness confirms the power of Austen’s invention.
I have been doing a lot of thinking and writing about gender, and so would like to focus in on a particular point. Though we still struggle with prejudicial systems in culture–the gay community is shattered in Orlando, a little girl was shot because of fame and faith, minority communities stills struggle, women are still a minority in some field–we have shifted in how we view our marriage partners. Indeed, we view them as partners, don’t we? My wife and have at the centre of our relationship a kind of equality that breeds mutual respect and love. And on our best days, this mutuality is effortless.
You will see that I have adjusted the word “equality,” not quite coming at it straight on. What kind of equality do I mean?
There are times my wife has made more money than me, and less often the reverse. My social status has often been higher than hers in certain ways, but her social graces are far greater than mine, except in academic settings. I wash dishes and chop wood; she cooks and tells me where stuff goes. I know money better and she knows kids better. I have more education, and work in a world of words and ideas. She is an educator, and works in a world of crayons, untied shoelaces, and lessons on pencil grip. She had a bouncy castle at her job yesterday; I read legislation.
When we talk about equality, then, my wife and I don’t mean sameness. We are each greater and lesser than the other in a hundred different ways. I have often said that I wouldn’t have fallen in love with someone who wasn’t greater than me. Most of our friends agree that has happened!
I am struck in reading Pride & Prejudice in this season about how Elizabeth, the protagonist, would view this idea of equality. She is an independent mind, a sharp wit who can think critically in any situation. Indeed, one suspects as one goes through the novel that she is almost beyond any man’s reach. She is smarter than most everyone, cleverer than most everyone, faithful to a fault, able to read most any face, and one of the more beautiful women around (but not the single most beautiful). She, alas, can only play the piano forte tolerably well, but she is a great reader.
So we are left with the question: Who is good enough for Elizabeth?
Her father thinks that no one is.
I would warn anyone who has not read the book to stop here and leave this blog unread. You can even hit the “unlike” button if you like. Or, better yet, read the book and come back to this climax chapter.
But for those who do know the story, here is the brilliant scene where Elizabeth admits to her father that she really is in love. His concern is, of course, that Mr. Darcy isn’t good enough for her.
In the evening, soon after Mr. Bennet withdrew to the library, she saw Mr. Darcy rise also and follow him, and her agitation on seeing it was extreme. She did not fear her father’s opposition, but he was going to be made unhappy; and that it should be through her means—that she, his favourite child, should be distressing him by her choice, should be filling him with fears and regrets in disposing of her—was a wretched reflection, and she sat in misery till Mr. Darcy appeared again, when, looking at him, she was a little relieved by his smile. In a few minutes he approached the table where she was sitting with Kitty; and, while pretending to admire her work said in a whisper, “Go to your father, he wants you in the library.” She was gone directly.
Her father was walking about the room, looking grave and anxious. “Lizzy,” said he, “what are you doing? Are you out of your senses, to be accepting this man? Have not you always hated him?”
How earnestly did she then wish that her former opinions had been more reasonable, her expressions more moderate! It would have spared her from explanations and professions which it was exceedingly awkward to give; but they were now necessary, and she assured him, with some confusion, of her attachment to Mr. Darcy.
“Or, in other words, you are determined to have him. He is rich, to be sure, and you may have more fine clothes and fine carriages than Jane. But will they make you happy?”
“Have you any other objection,” said Elizabeth, “than your belief of my indifference?”
“None at all. We all know him to be a proud, unpleasant sort of man; but this would be nothing if you really liked him.”
“I do, I do like him,” she replied, with tears in her eyes, “I love him. Indeed he has no improper pride. He is perfectly amiable. You do not know what he really is; then pray do not pain me by speaking of him in such terms.”
“Lizzy,” said her father, “I have given him my consent. He is the kind of man, indeed, to whom I should never dare refuse anything, which he condescended to ask. I now give it to you, if you are resolved on having him. But let me advise you to think better of it. I know your disposition, Lizzy. I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband; unless you looked up to him as a superior. Your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage. You could scarcely escape discredit and misery. My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life. You know not what you are about.”
Elizabeth, still more affected, was earnest and solemn in her reply; and at length, by repeated assurances that Mr. Darcy was really the object of her choice, by explaining the gradual change which her estimation of him had undergone, relating her absolute certainty that his affection was not the work of a day, but had stood the test of many months’ suspense, and enumerating with energy all his good qualities, she did conquer her father’s incredulity, and reconcile him to the match.
“Well, my dear,” said he, when she ceased speaking, “I have no more to say. If this be the case, he deserves you. I could not have parted with you, my Lizzy, to anyone less worthy.”
To complete the favourable impression, she then told him what Mr. Darcy had voluntarily done for Lydia. He heard her with astonishment.
“This is an evening of wonders, indeed! And so, Darcy did every thing; made up the match, gave the money, paid the fellow’s debts, and got him his commission! So much the better. It will save me a world of trouble and economy. Had it been your uncle’s doing, I must and would have paid him; but these violent young lovers carry every thing their own way. I shall offer to pay him to-morrow; he will rant and storm about his love for you, and there will be an end of the matter.”
He then recollected her embarrassment a few days before, on his reading Mr. Collins’s letter; and after laughing at her some time, allowed her at last to go—saying, as she quitted the room, “If any young men come for Mary or Kitty, send them in, for I am quite at leisure.”
Look at the intriguing connection, from her father’s perspective, between the respect and “looking up” to a potential partner, the inequality, and the danger on the other side of the unequal marriage. Though it is masked in the 2005 film, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet do not have an equal marriage. He is deeply fearful that the only person who is superior to him (Lizzie) will end up in the same situation: married to a silly partner and left only to books to satisfy the intellect and wit. Mr. Bennet is sardonic and bright; Mrs. Bennet is witless and flighty and given to nerves. Mr. Bennet deeply wants for his daughter a marriage of mutual respect.
And, yet, that mutual respect, that inherent equality, requires inequality. Lizzie would never be satisfied with a man who was not her better, who could not spar with her in the duels she loves the most. She cannot respect someone who will not win at least some of the duels. It is true, Darcy’s humour is not up to Lizzie’s. And he radically out-classes her. But he is greater than her in just such a way as to intrigue her, to draw her in.
The feeling is mutual, of course. For what is love without a bit of wonder, a hint of intrigue to fill in the decades to come.
I couldn’t find a youtube clip of the marvelous scene where Keira Knightley as Elizabeth confesses to her father, played by Donald Sutherland, that she is quite in love. But this clip gives you a sense of both characters: