My Year with Jane Austen: “Pride and Prejudice” Part I

1886._sy475_Book: “Pride and Prejudice”

Publication Year: 1813

Book Description: The romantic clash between the opinionated Elizabeth and her proud beau, Mr. Darcy, is a splendid performance of civilized sparring. And Jane Austen’s radiant wit sparkles as her characters dance a delicate quadrille of flirtation and intrigue, making this book the most superb comedy of manners of Regency England.

History – “I read it a little as duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me.”

 When “Pride and Prejudice” was first completed, Jane Austen’s father, believing it to be quality writing, submitted it for publication. It was rejected. Austen then moved on to writing “Sense and Sensibility” and self-publishing that title herself. After its success, she sold the copyright to “Pride and Prejudice” to a publisher who listed the title as by the author of “Sense and Sensibility.” Like that first novel, “Pride and Prejudice” was an immediate success, and the publisher ordered several reprints of the story after the first  run sold out. This, of course, resulted in the publisher profiting much more from this title than did Austen who only earned 110 pounds on the original copyright sale. Austen, however, was pleased with its success and especially with the critical praise that was garnered by her heroine, Elizabeth Bennet. (source)

“”I must confess that I think her [Elizabeth] as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, & how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.” 

 —Jane Austen, letter to Cassandra Austen,  January 29, 1813

Part I – Chapters 1 – 34

Story – “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

We are first introduced to the Bennet family as we hear Mrs. Bennet share the exciting news that a wealthy gentleman has moved into the neighborhood. To her, this provides much hope that one of her five daughters might marry well, a necessity in a family that is by no means wealthy, has no sons, and whose estate is entailed away to a distant cousin. After teasing his wife and the sillier of his daughters, Mr. Bennet does visit Mr. Bingley.

The rest of the family then meets him at a ball. There, the eldest Miss Bennet, Jane, does in fact gain the attention of Mr. Bingley. But Elizabeth, the second oldest, gets spurned by the more rich but more proud Mr. Darcy, a friend of Bingley’s. Elizabeth finds this mostly amusing and is happy enough to see her sister be happy. As the weeks progress, they see more of Mr. Bingley and his snobby sisters. Jane is invited over for a dinner by the sisters, but comes down with a bad cold after her mother insists she ride in the rain (hoping for an outcome where Jane is forced to stay the night, though illness was not part of the plan.) Elizabeth goes to care for Jane and spends a good deal of time with the entire party. She draws more and more of Mr. Darcy’s attention (who, we learn, has begun to admire her fine eyes), but neither are particularly pleased by this fact. Jane recovers and the two go home.

The Bennet family is then visited by their cousin, Mr. Collins, who is in line to inherit their home. Mr. Collins is a silly, pompous man, much inclined to give nonsensical speeches and praise his wealthy patroness, Catherine de Bourgh. He also sets his eyes on marrying one of the Bennet sisters and decides on Elizabeth once he learns that Jane is out of the question due to her informal attachment to Mr. Bingley. The family also meet a new officer (a regiment of the army is stationed in the town nearby, much to the delight of the two youngest, and silliest, of the sisters), Mr. Wickham. In the process of making their first introductions, Mr. Darcy and Mr Bingley stop by. Elizabeth notes the cold meeting of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham and privately wonders about it.

They are all charmed by Mr. Wickham’s easy nature and open temperament, but Elizabeth is the lucky woman who is singled out by him for more attention. In the course of an evening on their second meeting, he shares the shocking history between him and Mr. Darcy. The two grew up together, Wickham’s father being the late Mr. Darcy’s groundskeeper, and Mr. Darcy’s father was very attached to Wickham. So much so that he left a valuable estate to him on his death. But when the tragic event happened, the son refused to uphold his father’s will and Wickham was cast out into the world to fend for himself. Elizabeth is shocked that Darcy, whom before she had thought was only proud and rather rude, is as bad as this. She later retells the story to Jane who warns her about making quick judgments against either man.

Mr. Bingley hosts a grand ball at Netherfield, an event all of the Bennet sisters look forward to greatly. Once there, however, Elizabeth is disappointed to find that Wickham has decided not to come, not wanting to be near Mr. Darcy. Instead, she ends up having to dance first with Mr. Collins, and then, shockingly, with Mr. Darcy himself. The two have an awkward dance filled with alternating silences and conversation hidden with double meanings as Elizabeth tries to get to understand Darcy better. The evening is a disaster from there on out. Mary, the middle daughter, makes a poor display on the piano, followed by an even more awkward display by Mr. Bennet has he tries to get her off the piano. The two youngest flirt wildly with everyone in their path. Mr. Collins confronts Mr. Darcy without introduction having found out that Darcy is the nephew of Lady Catherine. And Mrs. Bennet loudly congratulates herself on what she suspects to be the likely marriage between Jane and Mr. Bingley.

The next morning Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth. She turns him down. And then has to keep turning him down for quite some time before being forced to just leave the room as he insists on not getting the point. But, to everyone’s amazement, his trip does not end with him returning home, still single, because he then proposes to Elizabeth’s dear friend, Charlotte, who, being in her late 20s and from a family without many prospects, agrees.

Around this same time, Jane receives the distressing news that Mr. Bingley and his entire party have removed themselves back to London. His sister, Caroline, even goes so far as to say that she and her sister are hoping for a quick engagement between Bingley and Mr. Darcy’s younger sister, Georgiana. Jane is distressed, but Elizabeth is quick to tell her that this is clearly a plot by the sisters and friend who never approved of Jane and Mr. Bingley’s attachment. But weeks go by with no news of their returning. Their Uncle and Aunt Gardner come to visit and Jane is asked to go back with them to London when they return home. All are hopeful that she will meet with Bingley again there.

Charlotte asks Elizabeth to come visit her in her new home with Mr. Collins. Elizabeth agrees, though not particularly looking forward to it. Once there, she gets to meet the famed Lady Catherine. She’s a overly proud woman who takes a great deal of interest making proclamations about even the smallest aspects of the Collins’ lives. While there, Mr. Darcy and his cousin Colonel Fiztwilliam come to visit their aunt. Charlotte notes that Mr. Darcy is making more of an effort to call on her family than usual and says it must be due to Elizabeth. Elizabeth scoffs at this idea, though she does wonder at the number of times she meets him while on walks around the park.

She finds Colonel Fitzwilliam to be a very charming man and gets along with him well. On one walk, Colonel Fitzwilliam share some details about how his cousin, Mr. Darcy, congratulates himself on recently saving his dear friend, Mr. Bingley, from a bad marriage. Elizabeth is furious and hurt that her sister’s happiness was ruined by his friend’s interference. Later, alone at the parsonage, Mr. Darcy arrives and unexpectedly proposes to Elizabeth. She refuses. The encounter ends with the two fighting. Elizabeth accuses Darcy of separating Jane and Bingley and also points to his dishonorable treatment of Mr. Wickham. Mr. Darcy makes more belittling comments about Elizabeth’s family and her situation saying that he was kinder to Bingley than to himself in preventing his friend from a connection so beneath himself. He is shocked by the accusations about Wickham but doesn’t directly refute them. He leaves and Elizabeth remains behind, stewing.

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

I think it can be reasonably assumed that Elizabeth is one of the most beloved heroines to ever be penned. Her character is one that could be appreciated in the time she was written but who also appeals to modern readers who can be put off a bit by the more reserved leading ladies of books written at a similar time. She handles a lot of uncomfortable situations in a way that I think most of wish we could, with a smirk, a witty reply, and the ability to say what she thinks without offending others. She’s romantic, wishing to marry for love, but also the most practical of her sisters, being much more cynical than Jane. She’s also flawed. But unlike Emma, the other famously flawed Austen heroine, Elizabeth’s flaws are of the sort that many of us can sympathize with, especially her own lack of awareness that she even possesses this flaw. For the most part, she’s clear-eyed and an excellent judge of character. So it’s easy for her to then slip into a judgement of someone and not question or challenge her own thoughts further. It’s not until the second half of the book that she has to confront this challenge, but I think this self-reflection and learned self-awareness is still very appealing to modern readers. That, and, as I’ll go into later, she has the best lines, especially when arguing.

Jane is our other heroine. She’s an interesting character, really. Elizabeth clearly respects Jane, and Jane is spoken about as being of good sense and rationality. But she pairs these traits with an almost aggressive level of optimism that leaves her almost paralyzed in the face of the evils of the world. And yet Elizabeth, and the reader by proxy, never judges her as foolish. Yes, she’s wrong about Caroline. Yes, when she tries to make both Darcy and Wickham into good guys somehow it’s fairly silly. But she’s written so well that it all feels truly earnest; readers are left, like Elizabeth, wishing they could think so well of others as Jane does.

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

Our two heroes benefit greatly from the increased time with their respective heroines as well as the added scenes we have of them on their own. This does away with most of the problems that the heroes suffered from in “Sense and Sensibility.” While we don’t see a lot of Mr. Bingley and Jane’s actual romance, we do see enough of the two individually interacting with friends and family to easily understand their relationship. Indeed, I’m inclined to agree with Mr. Bennet’s assessment at the end of the book that, if anything, Jane and Mr. Bingley are almost too alike. It is nice to see so much of Bingley and through the more clear eyes of Elizabeth even. Her time at Netherfield cements readers understanding that Bingley deserves all the credit he gets as a charming, good natured gentleman. Even in the face of his sisters’ poor manners and Mr. Darcy’s standoffishness, Bingley holds true as an excellent host and the only one among them to truly behave well under the circumstances.

And, of course, we see much of Darcy as well, both the good and the bad. In the beginning of the book there’s no denying that he could use some improvement. Even if he has always behaved properly (in his dealings with Georgiana and to gain the respect and friendship of a man like Bingley), he is still fairly lacking. His open rudeness to Elizabeth at their first meaning and general aloofness at his surroundings makes him deserving of the early poor reputation he has in the neighborhood (even if Wickham’s contributions to it aren’t true). And we see even further with his snobby comments after the fact when he willing plays along with Caroline’s game of mocking everyone around her, including Elizabeth.

Knowing what we do about his growing interest in Elizabeth, it’s easier to see his actions through a lens of expressing interest. His attentions at Rosings in particular stand out. But, without that inner knowledge, it’s also very easy to see Elizabeth’s side of things. Even without Wickham’s lies, she’s right about his actions with Jane and at best, he’s taken an interest in her to debate points and to sit in silence. Maybe a big concession from his standpoint, but not so for any reasonable woman.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

Since at this point in the story Wickham’s version of his history with Darcy is all we have, we’re left in the awkward position where we at best have no real villain and at worst…maybe the villain is Darcy himself? Obviously even the most oblivious reader sees the writing on the wall about Darcy and the inevitable revelation that he is the true hero of the story and the bogus tale Wickham put out there is just that, bogus. But that fact aside, we’re left with a lot of comedic characters who maybe dabble in wrong-doings but mostly get into trouble more due to buffoonery than any actual ill intent. Mr. Darcy, on the other hand, outright admits to separating Jane and Bingley. Which, again, at this point in the story, is the only real, known, and accepted by the perpetrator himself, wrongdoing we have! We get a better understanding of his reasoning in the letter to come in the second half, but by the end of the book Mr. Darcy still reflects back on his actions with regards to this pair as in the wrong.

Caroline, of course, is the other more true villain. She was complicit in convincing Bingley that Jane didn’t care for him. The text never states this, but one would suspect their her view of this matter might have held even more weigh than Darcy’s. She’s a woman (assumed to be more knowledgeable in matters of the heart, whether true or not) and is still considered to be a dear friend of Jane. Of course she should have knowledge of Jane’s inner heart, and if she  says Jane doesn’t care, it’s pretty understandable that Mr. Bingley would believe her. And, unlike Jane, we see Caroline’s behind-the-scenes cruel commentary about her friend and her friend’s family, especially Elizabeth.

This, truly, is a testament to the wrongness of Darcy’s pride in action, that he tolerates and even agrees with some of Caroline’s early snobbery. By the end of the book, Darcy tells Elizabeth that he had been left to follow the good morals he’d been raised with in pride and conceit and would have still been like that if not for her. More so than even Elizabeth saw, we, the readers see this to be true in the change of his private behavior from a man who criticized Jane for “smiling too much” to the one who welcomes the Gardners to his home and shuts down Caroline when she tries to start up the “Elizabeth isn’t all that much” speech again.

But for much of this half of the book, Caroline and Darcy are on the same side of many matters and work together to quell Jane and Mr. Bingley’s burgeoning love affair. Caroline’s treatment of Jane in London is also a good example of why she deserves to be solidly in this category. The reader, however, like Elizabeth, is almost gratified that at least Jane won’t be duped any more as Caroline has now so thoroughly shown her true colors.

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

The most interesting commentary on romance in this first half is the ongoing disagreement between Elizabeth and Charlotte on how to go about courtship and what to expect from matrimony. Charlotte, early in Jane and Bingley’s romance, comments to Elizabeth that Jane should show more affection than she feels to ensure a quick engagement.  Elizabeth laughs at this idea, but later Charlotte puts her own words in action, agreeing to marry Mr. Collins, who she knows to be foolish, after only a few days acquaintance. While Elizabeth is quick to come down harshly against this action, Jane herself weighs in on the argument that different temperments and circumstances will call to different actions. While it is clear that Austen is writing true romances where love is of course necessary for her main protagonists, Jane’s argument here, and even Elizabeth later acceptance of Charlotte’s situation, are nice balances to these lucky few women. Many women of the time would have made a similar choice to Charlotte and, in many ways, her was the more practical and realistic option. We can’t all wait around for handsome, kind, 10,000 pounds a year men to come around! Austen carries this point further in Mansfield Park where we see the other, more unfortunate, side of the “marry for love” choice in Fanny’s mother’s situation.

But, of course, the main romance is between Elizabeth and Darcy. One of the major differences that stood out to me in this re-read, especially reading this one directly after “Sense and Sensibility” is how important are the scenes we witness of Darcy that Elizabeth isn’t privy to. Not only are readers aware of his admiration the entire time, in general, we get a much better understanding of him as a character than we did the romantic leads in the previous book. And there are simply more scenes between Elizabeth and Darcy than we had there, too. We witness scenes of their verbal sparring which reinforce the idea that Darcy would naturally be attracted to her lively nature. There is also Caroline Bingley lingering about as a perfect contrast to Elizabeth.

The failed proposal scene has to be one of my favorite scenes in literature. It’s just so painfully perfect! Darcy’s terrible original attempt, his slow slip into shocked bewilderment at the realization that he’s being turned down, and the sharp anger when the accusations start flying. And Elizabeth’s righteousness and masterclass put-downs are priceless. But what makes it a perfect fight is that in between the honest anger and words, we clearly can identify the moments when each goes overboard in their anger and just gets mean. It’s a point in fighting that almost everyone is familiar with and everything about this scene reads so true to life.

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

There are so many great comedic characters in this book! I mean, other than the four characters from the two couples, almost everyone else in this first half play for laughs at one point or another. But there are two that always come up when talking about this book and for good reason: Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins.

There has been a more sympathetic eye turned towards Mrs. Bennet recently, given the very real uncertainties and struggles of the future should Mr. Bennet die and none of the daughters be married well. It would definitely be hard, and the girls’ future is largely left to Mrs. Bennet to worry about. This is the kind of thing that would almost always fall on the mother anyways, and Mr. Bennet is particularly unsuited to be of help, what with his general lack of concern regarding what he largely sees as frivolities.

But in many ways this is similar to the circumstances of Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters. But there, while Mrs. Dashwood could be sentimental and romantic to the extreme, she didn’t materially damage the very goal she had in mind. Mr. Darcy’s letter in the second half of the book will lay this out more clearly, but it doesn’t take an astute reader to pick up on the fact that Mrs. Bennet’s nonsense would have a impact on potential suitors wishing to pursue her daughters. Not only would they have to look forward to a future of her as a mother-in-law, but many would likely assume the daughters to be the same and not bother getting to no them further and discovering that the eldest two, at least, have seemed to escape this familial trait.

All of this to say, while I do have some sympathy for Mrs. Bennet, I think she is pretty firmly written as a ridiculous person, a detriment to her daughters, and a character that is not meant to be largely felt for by the reader. One can both be in a bad situation and also make that bad situation worse, and that’s Mrs. Bennet. But with all the seriousness of the situation aside, she’s great fun to read about. Her inconsistencies (particularly with her quick about-face with regards to Darcy’s handsomeness), her nerves, her crowing over her neighbors. Good stuff all.

And, of course, Mr. Collins. No attempt here to redeem him as he just gets worse in the second half of the book. His humor is tinged with a greater feeling of awkwardness and embarrassment. Reading over some of his interactions with others, I almost felt my own discomfort for what Elizabeth and Jane must have felt. Secondary embarrassment for a fictional character! But, again, it’s the proposals where Austen shines in this book. His “wooing” of Elizabeth is the best/worst. There is a very fine line here that is walked perfectly: his buffoonery and pompousness are at a peak, but it’s also still believable enough that a man like him could exist. And, of course, Elizabeth once again shines in her repeated refusals. This scene in particular is almost impossible for me to read now without picturing the 1995 movie version of it. Spoilers: I loved that movie (but doesn’t every Austen fan??).

Favorite quotes – “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.”

A decent number of the quotes I use in my section titles come from this book, so there’s that. And one cannot write a “Pride and Prejudice” review with a “favorite quotes” section and not highlight one of the most famous opening lines in all of literature:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

And, if he had left it at this, perhaps…

“You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

But I always like this meme with regards to Darcy’s first proposal:

453f066eb2029f85d54e9316be261504

In two weeks, I’ll review the last half of “Pride and Prejudice” and share my final thoughts on the book as a whole.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s