Pride and Prejudice: The Romance Novel as Literature…

Amid current discussions of how genre fiction and literature are merging in the 21st century, Pride and Prejudice is a reminder that the genre of romance merged with literature a long, long time ago…

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (image courtesy Goodreads)

As I have noted before, my custom of re-reading Austen’s works systematically has shifted from reading all six of the completed novels each year (as I did for more than two decades) to a rotation through the oeuvre of that allows me to read two novels each year. My own background as an Austen scholar has given me cause to give each of the novels “close reading” (the scholarly term for close analytic reading of a text to ferret out meaning) numbers of times. Still, each time I return to any of Jane Austen’s novels, I find myself surprised by what I learn.

Such was the case during this reading of what the general public consider Austen’s masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice. It is certainly her most widely read work, partly because there seems to have long been a belief among educators that it is her most accessible novel (I’d argue for Emma) and partly, I suppose, because it has enjoyed the most attention over the last century or so as the basis for classic Hollywood bowdlerizations, faithful and thoughtful BBC renderings, and hipster revisionist treatments. It says something for the greatness of the book that it has borne all these cinematic renditions without losing any of its charm as entertainment or any of its impressiveness as a literary performance.

Austen herself, as has been famously noted, had her doubts about her most beloved novel:

The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story: an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparté, or anything that would form a contrast and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and general epigrammatism of the general style. (Jane Austen in a letter to her sister Cassandra shortly after P&P’s publication)

V.S. Pritchett describes Pride and Prejudice, and Austen’s work overall, as high comedy concerning the eternal war between men and women – a war that women can only win by gaining the security of marriage. He further sees the novel as Austen’s most eloquent argument for rationality and proper behavior. As he notes, Austen saw the achievement of these two ends – using one’s reason to make rational decisions and following the social protocols – as the marks of good breeding. Austen, Pritchett argues, believed firmly that “to be well-bred was an end in itself.” The figures most likely to be satirized in an Austen novel, like the inane and falsely humble Reverend Collins or the pompous and bullying Lady Catherine de Bourgh, lack (or misuse) one or both of the faculties of well-bred persons despite their social positions.

Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet possess the faculties of good breeding in abundance, but the conflict that drives Pride and Prejudice comes from their misinterpretation – and it is up to the reader to decide if their behavior is evidence of an immaturity in matters of the heart – of what is due and proper each to the other. Darcy’s pride creates difficulties in two ways: it causes him to propose marriage to Elizabeth in a way that insults her and her family and thus delays their eventual union and happiness together; it also causes him to hide the truth about Wickham’s despicable character, an action which nearly brings social (the worst kind in Austen’s world) catastrophe onto the Bennet family. Elizabeth’s prejudice against Darcy causes her to make choices, both due to the unfortunate influence of Wickham and because of her anger at Darcy over his interference in the romance of her sister Jane with Darcy’s friend Bingley, that precipitate events that imperil the happiness of all the novel’s lovers – and their love.

For love is the subject matter of Pride and Prejudice – well, love and marriage. As noted above, romance, to paraphrase Saki, is Ms. Austen’s specialty. Austen is critical of those who would follow their hearts without the assurance of marriage, as her sister Lydia does in running off with Wickham, and equally critical of those like Charlotte Lucas who would marry someone as stupid and obsequiously egotistical as Mr. Collins for purely socio-economic reasons:

She [Elizabeth] had always felt that Charlotte’s opinion of matrimony was not exactly like her own, but she could not have supposed it possible that when called into action, she would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage….And to the pang of a friend disgracing herself and sunk in her esteem, was added the distressing conviction that it was impossible for that friend to be tolerably happy in the lot she had chosen.

We also see a model of unhappy marriage where infatuation mistaken as love has devolved to avoidance and self-absorbed diversion in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet – and a model of happy marriage between persons of good sense and mutual affection and esteem in the case of Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle, the Gardiners. These cases of success and failure in romance serve as models for Elizabeth, and she learns much from them.

But her most important teacher is Darcy himself. Reciprocally, Darcy’s best teacher is Elizabeth Bennet. From him, beginning with his explanatory letter, written in his misery after being harshly rejected by the woman he has fallen deeply in love with despite his reservations, she learns one of life’s most basic  – and sadly, still not grasped as widely as it should be – lessons: there are two sides to every story – and that she has been guilty of accepting only one because of her prejudices. From Elizabeth’s brutal but well reasoned rejection, Darcy learns to examine his behavior and assess how it may be perceived by others – that what he thinks of as principled and discreet behavior may be perceived as arrogant and insensitive if his discretion errs into secrecy.

By the time they meet again at Darcy’s estate at Pemberley, both have been chastened – and have made genuine attempts to improve their characters. Darcy has given himself to acting with”amiability” – he ingratiates himself to Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, with whom Elizabeth has been traveling, and discovers that not all of her relations are boorish, that in fact some are admirably well-bred in their behavior. Elizabeth has learned to view Darcy fairly – and discovers that he is a kind, loving brother, a good master to his servants – and a sincere and honorable man. Her heart is won at this point.

But of course then comes the complication of Lydia’s elopement with Wickham and the potential life wrecker that their action is for the entire Bennet family. And when miraculously (it seems) the matter is settled in a socially acceptable way and Wickham and Lydia are married, Elizabeth realizes that though the immediate danger has been escaped that her chances of Darcy asking for her hand again are probably gone – until Lydia lets it slip and her Aunt Gardiner confirms that the person who made all right for the Bennet family has been that same Darcy that she had once thought of as disdainful and unfeeling.

It ends as it must end in high romantic comedy. Elizabeth’s sister Jane, the epitome of calm goodness, is brought back together with the genial Bingley (with Darcy’s approval, we discover). Lady Catherine attempts to bully Elizabeth into promising she will not accept Darcy – and finds out that a sensible woman puts a foolish, bullying snob in her place with ease. And Darcy returns for the only reason he could return for – to ask humbly (his pride overcome) for Elizabeth’s hand which she gratefully gives (her prejudice corrected).

We could end with a splendid double wedding (some of the films do this). But Austen is no screenwriter looking to please paying customers. She takes us forward in time and we learn that Wickham and Lydia are more unhappy than Mr. and Mrs. Bennet ever thought of being, that Mrs. Bennet is, and ever shall be, a boor, that those who could learn from good examples (Darcy’s sister Georgiana, Elizabeth’s sister Kitty) have benefited.

A happy ending – but a rational happy ending. The more closely one reads Pride and Prejudice, the more one realizes that for Austen romance isn’t simply romance – it is a woman of her time describing how obstacles may be overcome and life successfully lived -even though we ourselves may prove to be our own greatest obstacles.

One final observation: occasionally one finds works of fiction that seem to be perfect pieces of writing – or as near perfection as might be rationally expected. I would offer as my examples (you probably have your own), Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need,” Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers. Pride and Prejudice is such a work. There are Austen novels that I prefer more. There are Austen novels that are arguably more important. But on this list of “perfect” pieces of writing of mine, Pride and Prejudice tops the list.

Writing something perfect is hard; writing something great is harder. Writing something that is great and perfect? That would require writing Pride and Prejudice.

That, I believe, is a truth that should be universally acknowledged.







9 replies »

  1. Bravo. I think the distinction between genre and literary has always been a bit of a false one, fostered at least in part by authors who’s work doesn’t sell well. There’s always been great genre and great commercial fiction, and there’s always been pompous crap masquerading as art. If the distinction has any utility at all, it’s because marketing channels have self-sorted themselves into “big” and “little” and “genre” and “literary” and knowing this helps an author approach them.

    As Hemingway allegedly said, “Suicide doesn’t need a note.” Great fiction doesn’t need to explain itself beforehand to the reader–“Oh I’m just genre,” or “Put your serious face on, I’m literature.”

  2. And by the way, I think the greatest proof of P&P’s greatness is that it works despite a trivial plot about what-today-seem-to-be trivial issues. Like many of Shakespeare’s plays (and about half of English literature as best I can tell,) novels like P&P based around a relatively simple premise: Many of the crises in people’s lives are self-created by miscommunication and people’s reluctance to be straightforward. This isn’t the amped up nonsensical stakes of much of current literature, fate of the world, blah blah, it’s an English family trying to manuever through the minefield of daily life, and the only countdown clock (Crichton, et al) is a biological one.

    • It might interest you, Otherwise, to know that my master’s thesis was called “What We Have Here is Failure to Communicate: A Rogerian Analysis of Jane Austen’s Six Complete Novels.” And yes, it is such a delightful read that two scholarly journals with a combined readership approaching double figures published parts of it. 🙂

      I think V.S. Pritchett gets it right, although I think his war analogy is a little amped for my taste. What makes Austen’s work so enduring is that it is about the struggle to survive in the culture as it is – there’s no conflagration/catastrophe that has thrown everything into chaos and allowed a struggle for a “new world order” – there’s only getting along in society, fitting in, living life as one is expected to live it. For women of Austen’s time (and what made her daring personally) that meant “get a hubby.” That she herself chose not to marry – and that her novels are about the education of her heroines in the realities of the system and how to survive them. That’s something we all have to learn – and that makes them timeless – they’re about the unarguable fact that we are NOT timeless – and if we miss our chance, we do not get another. That getting another chance is the stuff of – well, romance….

    • Many thanks, Laurel Ann. High praise indeed – for which I am “slightly colouring,” as Miss Austen might say, even as I type this…. 🙂

  3. I have to laugh about Jim Booth’s critical scholarship receiving so little readership! I know the feeling! In any case, I want to give a shout out for the Episcopal Church, the American cousin of Anglicanism, because it values reason as one of the gifts to enhance both life and faith. I think Austen reflects a bit of the best of what Anglicanism brought to British culture — moving away from mysticism and dogmatism to the ways our reason can enhance all aspects of our lives. She also lived at the time when scientific reasoning was being developed, and rhetoricians like Hugh Blair (1728-1800) and George Campbell (1719-96) were using a more analytical approach to studying scripture. I’d be interested to know if she read any of their works.

    • Interesting observations, Melinda – here’s a little about Austen and Hugh Blair:

      And of course there’s this book that looks at Austen’s relationship with Blair, Campbell, Adam Smith and others:

      Two of Austen’s brothers became clergymen (as was her father). Her father and eldest brother James were both Latitudinarian leaning types. Brother Henry, who became a clergyman after his bank failed, had something of a mid-life crisis and his church leanings were more Calvinist – though this is likely more attributable to his personal psychological crises than to intellectual considerations.

      I think one can learn a lot from Austen’s depictions of clergymen (and would be clergymen) in the novels – she has her doubts about their seriousness of purpose to be sure. The preening Elton from “Emma” and the wannabe Wickham and the ridiculous Collins from “P&P” are not flattering portraits, to be sure….

  4. Jim – a belated thank you for your response to my questions. The weakness of the Anglican Church was in part founded on the lack of true calling by many of its clergy for generations, who saw the positions as a sinecure. I like Mary Crawford’s understanding of how Edmund should handle his parish duties as a good example of how the upper classes saw the role of an upper class clergyman. Edward Ferrars seeks a quiet life, but we know that he will be a thoughtful and understanding vicar or rector. I do not know much about the Presbyterian/Methodist influence in GB, but I assume they came about as people wished a more simple and Bible-grounded worship service – the more “personal” relationship with God through piety and service. Thank you again for your response.