Pride and Prejudice

Or, Rich People Have It So Tough
(Pride and Prejudice)

Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen, 1813) is a romance novel set in 19th century England. Ultimately, it aims to ask and answer the question of whether pride and prejudice can be overcome to give way to love and affection. Also, it spawned a TV mini-series starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle in the lead roles with scenes that weren’t in the book. Most people remember the bits that weren’t in the book, namely Colin Firth’s wet shirt scene. Yeah. Anyway, on with the novel.

Elizabeth Bennet, second daughter of a five daughter family, gains an almost immediate dislike for Fitzwilliam Darcy, a well-bred but prideful gentleman of £10,000 a year, after he slights her in a most rude fashion at a ball. After this, Mr. Darcy (as he is known to novel fans and noblefolk alike) can do no right in Elizabeth’s eyes. Every action he performs is re-framed in a negative light.

For instance, Mr. Darcy asks Elizabeth to dance at another ball. This is an ‘obvious‘ attempt to make her uncomfortable, so while they dance Elizabeth acts as rude as she perceives Mr. Darcy to be. Of course, what the reader knows and Elizabeth doesn’t is that Mr. Darcy has taken a fancy to Elizabeth. But can Mr. Darcy overcome his prideful nature and win Elizabeth’s heart? Can Elizabeth see past her prejudice and discover the real Mr. Darcy?

It’s not a monster of a novel when it comes to length, but it can often feel vast because of the attention it demands. It never feels dragged out or wordy-for-the-sake-of-wordy, but the words are big and the sentences long. In spite of this, the novel still fills a good 350 pages, broken into 61 chapters with a clear goal behind each one. The pacing is near perfect, with the tying of all loose ends starting in the last 20% of the novel, and the goals and theme of the novel laid out from close to the offset, leaving the reader to observe their evolution.

Let’s start off with the writing style. This is where people – including myself – tend to have hang-ups. But you mustn’t be afraid, even if you keep having to ask yourself if people really spoke so verbosely. I personally find the manner of speaking to be wonderful, and I would give anything to be able to rattle off page-long soliloquies without stepping on my own point or coming across as overly loquacious. The characters speak with such eloquence and wit that it makes you weep for modern discourse. This can be taken too far, but the novel is aware of this and hangs a lampshade on the possibility: In the character of Mr. Collins we have someone who takes civility to a whole new (and excessive) level, and he is considered by the rest of the cast to be simply too much.

The book is dialogue heavy, as you might expect from a novel about the interpersonal relationships of the upper classes – and these are the upper classes, having servants, and homes with incredible names like Netherfield, or Rosings. Wit is exchanged constantly, at length. It must have been exhausting to even consider beginning a conversation back in the day, but very entertaining when you got going.

Given the forever-present requirement of maintaining face, much of the dialogue needs to be read at two levels, especially when members of two different families are speaking. This isn’t an unwelcome addition: It’s quite nice to be challenged so often when it comes to deciphering dialogue intent. You have this on different levels: Characters like Lady de Bough and Mr. Collins pay obvious backhanded compliments, while a more devious characters such as Elizabeth and Miss Bingley aim to word their insults in a way that might not be picked up by people who aren’t the intended target of their ire.

While exhausting, Austen’s writing is wonderful and entertaining to read. Not overly heavy on description, the novel paints a compelling picture of the day-to-day, week-to-week lives of those privileged few who spend most of their time worrying about who to marry. There’s a blend of humourous and serious sequences. Even the severe Mr. Darcy has his share of embarrassing, cringe-worthy moments. This is welcome, because without characters like Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, or Mr. Collins, we’d have a very, very heavy novel full of bitter characters being very bitter.

There is a large and varied cast of characters. From the harsh Elizabeth and Darcy, to the humble-brag master Mr. Collins, to the humorous Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, it’s very difficult to accuse Austen of writing one-dimensional characters. Characters fall in love, suffer for their flaws, and work to become better people in the name of love… or property. For the majority of the main characters, Austen provides an insight into why they are the way they are.

While everyone still speaks impenetrably deep and rich English, they are well differentiated in their personalities. The book makes you pay attention to what people are saying (or not saying, looking at you Mr. Darcy), and not the words they use, which might as well be interchangeable.

The plot has been copied and alluded to so many times since it was first released, but it’s worth going over the general theme: Elizabeth doesn’t like Mr. Darcy because of a poor first impression (in fact, First Impressions was the working title of the novel). An inability to reconcile this poor initial meeting with Mr. Darcy’s subsequent good behaviour and deeds leads to an internal battle for Elizabeth. She lets her prejudice become justified by believing all the negative things that she hears about Darcy, while disregarding the good. In a way, she lets her own pride come between her and her true feelings for Darcy, while Darcy’s pride prevents him from expressing his emotions fully.

I suppose this means naming the novel ‘Pride and Prejudice‘ is about as subtle as naming TransformersRobots and Explosions‘. But it does mean that the reader won’t miss the main points that the novel makes. What are those points? Well, I think the main takeaway of the novel for me was the obvious one: We shouldn’t let our initial impression of someone interfere with how we perceive their actions or character. At least, not as far as Elizabeth takes it, as she effectively throws out all idea of Darcy being a good person after a few misplaced words. Incredibly, Elizabeth later berates Darcy for his claim that once his ire is earned, it is immovable. Apparently a character fault, she doesn’t realise that this is also her tendency, and her ire is easily earned. Maybe the novel is also preaching better self-awareness of our own glass houses?

Throw into the mix another character on the exact opposite end of the spectrum, Lydia, wild and ignorant of decorum and discretion, and we see that Austen wants us to also be wary of judging people at face value even if that first impression is a good one. Basically, Austen wants you to stop judging books by their cover. At least read the contents page, or ask a friend what they think. Or, you know, read the book?

We might be a bit bored of this message by now, it pops up all the time in modern media. But Austen’s spin on the theme, abound with surprising twists and turns that become obvious and meaningful to the theme in retrospect, keeps things fresh two hundred years after publication. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Pride and Prejudice, and can happily recommend it to anyone who can get past their own prejudice (pow!) towards the writing style.

– Matthew

Couple of notes: If you somehow enter this novel with absolutely no background on the work, the author, or the period it was set, you wouldn’t be able to guess that it was about rich people being rich and idle without a grounding in other similarly set works (or English history, I suppose). You might want to at least read the blurb. It won’t hold your hand with some of the conventions used back then either. For example, “Miss X” seems to refer to the oldest unmarried daughter in that family when it would otherwise be ambiguous which daughter is being referred to. So Miss Bennet refers to Jane (the eldest) whenever she is present in the scene or subject of conversation. If you didn’t know this, you’d have to work it out.

Also, I hope you’re familiar with ancient trick-taking card games. It seems like the only game anyone ever played was whist or some variation thereof. If it’s not a trick-taking card game, they didn’t play it. Oh, one more thing! The ‘instrument’ that is commonly alluded to is the pianoforte. You’re welcome.

Liked the post? Why not share it?
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrShare on StumbleUponShare on RedditEmail this to someoneBuffer this page
  • Anders Thorbeck

    Very well written review. I have not read this novel, but it gave me a
    good overview of the general plot, the characters, the writing style and
    the themes. I don’t think I would have picked up on all this in the
    novel, let alone worded it so neatly.