Pride and Prejudice
Pride and PrejudiceJanie Austen
For Further Study
Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice had a long and varied life before it finally saw publication on January 28, 1813. Austen began the book, originally titled First Impressions, in 1796. Her father submitted it to a London publisher the following year, but the manuscript was rejected. Austen continued to work on the book, and scholars report that the story remained a favorite with the close circle of friends, relations, and acquaintances she took into her confidence. She probably continued working on First Impressions after her family relocated to Bath in 1801 and did not stop revising and rewriting until after the deaths of both her father and a close friend in 1805. After this point Austen seems to have given up writing for almost five years. She had resumed work on the book by 1811, scholars report, and the final product appeared anonymously in London bookstalls early in 1813.
The critical history of Pride and Prejudice was just as varied as the evolution of the novel itself. At the time the novel was published in the early nineteenth century, most respected critical opinion was strongly biased against novels and novelists. Although only three contemporary reviews of Pride and Prejudice are known to exist, they are all remarkably complimentary. Anonymous articles in the British Critic and the Critical Review praised the author's characterization and her portrayal of domestic life. Additional early commentary exists in the diaries and letters of such prominent contemporary readers as Mary Russell Mitford and Henry Crabb Robinson, both of whom admired the work's characters, realism, and freedom from the trappings of Gothic fiction. After this period, however, criticism of Pride and Prejudice, and of Austen's works as a whole, largely disappeared. With the exception of two posthumous appreciations of Austen's work as a whole by Sir Walter Scott and Archbishop Richard Whateley, very little Austen criticism appeared until 1870.
In 1870, James Edward Austen-Leigh, son of Jane Austen's brother James, published A Memoir of Jane Austen, by Her Nephew. This biography was the first major study of Austen as a person and as an artist, and it marked the beginning of a new era in Austen criticism. Although most critics no longer accept its conclusion that Austen was an "amateur genius" whose works were largely unconscious productions of her fertile imagination, it nonetheless performed a valuable service by bringing Austen and her works back into critical attention. Modern critical opinion of Austen began with the publication in 1939 of Mary Lascelles's Jane Austen and Her Art, which escaped from the Victorian portrait of Austen put forth by Austen-Leigh.
Born in England on December 16, 1775, Jane Austen is widely admired for her novels about manners in eighteenth-century England. Austen's life is imbedded in the same social world as her characters—that of the "landed gentry" in England's countryside. Her father, George Austen, was a country clergyman in Steventon, Hampshire, who had advanced himself through ambition and intelligence. Her mother, Cassandra Leigh, was of much higher birth; one of her ancestors had been Lord Mayor of London under Queen Elizabeth I. "The Austen children," writes Laura Dabundo in the Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, "grew up in a close-knit family, low on financial resources but strong on education and religious principles." Two of her brothers, James and Henry, found careers in the Church of England, while two others, Francis and Charles, entered the Royal Navy and both eventually achieved the rank of admiral. Her brother Edward was adopted by a distant relative, the wealthy but childless Thomas Knight.
Because money was in such short supply, Austen and her older sister Cassandra "had little formal schooling," Dabundo continues. "The significant scholastic experiences that nurtured one of England's leading writers took place in the rectory at Steventon." Jane improved her own mind and prepared herself for a career as an author by reading widely the works of William Shakespeare, John Milton, Henry Fielding, Samuel Johnson, Samuel Richardson, and many others. By 1787, she had already begun to compose her own stories, dramas, and short novels, and in 1795 she began the first drafts of "Elinor and Marianne," which would later become Sense and Sensibility. However, Austen would be thirty-five years old before she ever saw her first book in print. "Pride and Prejudice," writes Dabundo, "had its origins in an epistolary novel, 'First Impressions,' written between October 1796 and August 1797 and offered to a publisher by Mr. Austen in November." Eventually, Pride and Prejudice would be published anonymously in London on January 28, 1813.
Reverend George Austen retired from his rectory in December of 1800, and in May of 1801 he moved his family to the Regency resort town of Bath in the west of England. They remained there until Reverend Austen's sudden death in January of 1805. His death left his wife and daughters without a means of support, and they were forced to rely on the charity of the Austen sons. From 1806 to 1809 the two Cassandras and Jane lived with Frank Austen in Southampton. In the summer of 1809 they settled into Chawton, a country house in Hampshire on the estate of Edward Austen—the brother adopted by wealthy Thomas Knight. There Jane resumed writing and began to revise her earlier manuscripts in hopes of publishing them. On January 28, 1813, Pride and Prejudice was published anonymously in London.
The relative success of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice led Austen to continue to write. Mansfield Park and Emma were published during her lifetime, but Northanger Abbey and Persuasion only appeared after her death. Sometime around the end of 1815 or the beginning of 1816, she began suffering from back pain, fatigue, and nausea. "It has been speculated," declares Dabundo, "that Jane Austen had Addison's disease, destruction of the adrenal glands by tuberculosis or by tumor … but it is also possible that she had cancer or tuberculosis unrelated to Addison's disease." She had been working up to the time of her death on a final novel, Sanditon, but it remained unfinished on the day she died, July 18, 1817. "She was buried in Winchester Cathedral," Dabundo concludes. "Obituaries identified her for the first time as 'Authoress of Emma, Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility.'"
Perhaps the most famous opening lines from any nineteenth-century novel are the opening lines to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."
These words are spoken by Mrs. Bennet to Mr. Bennet on the news that a gentleman of fortune has just moved to Netherfield Park, a nearby estate. The Bennets begin this story with a peculiar problem: they have five unmarried daughters and no sons. Their estate is entailed, or restricted in inheritance, to Mr. Collins, a family cousin. Upon Mr. Bennet's death Mr. Collins will inherit the family lands, which will leave the Bennet daughters without a home or money. It becomes vital, therefore, that at least one of the daughters marries well in order to support and house their sisters (and mother if she is still alive) should they not be able to marry.
Shortly after arriving alone, Bingley brings to Netherfield his two sisters, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst; his brother-in-law, Mr. Hurst; and his friend, Mr. Darcy, who also happens to be wealthy and unmarried. Not wanting to miss a favorable introduction to their new neighbors, Mrs. Bennet pleads with Mr. Bennet to call on Bingley so that she can begin introducing her daughters to him. Initially Mr. Bennet refuses to play any part in matching any one of his daughters with Bingley. He tells his wife that if is she is so intent on meeting the newcomers at Netherfield, she must visit Bingley herself. However, prudent manners forbade to woman call on a strange man, making Mrs. Bennet powerless to begin the process which she hopes will lead to a marriage between one of her daughters and Bingley. Following the pronouncement that Mr. Bennet refuses to call on Bingley, Mrs. Bennet despairs that her daughters will never be able to meet with the eligible bachelor. Yet Mr. Bennet does call on Bingley, beginning the family's acquaintance with him. He takes ironic pleasure in surprising Mrs. Bennet with the news after letting her believe that he would not call on him.
The Bennet girls meet the Netherfield party for the first time at a small ball. Bingley proves to be personable and polite to the local folk, making him instantly well-liked. Darcy, while handsome and noble looking, appears proud and indifferent to participating in the activities of the evening or even socializing with the other guests.
The eldest daughter, Jane, is instantly drawn to Bingley, and he seems equally attracted to her. Jane is portrayed as gentle, unselfish, and very mannerly. Elizabeth is also well mannered, but possess a very sharp wit and refuses to be intimidated by anyone. Inclined to be protective of Jane and her family, she nonetheless recognizes the faults of her parents and other sisters. At the assembly, because of a shortage of men who dance, Elizabeth is left sitting. She overhears Bingley encouraging to Darcy to dance, suggesting that he ask Elizabeth. Darcy curtly replies that "she is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men." Elizabeth, though insulted, refuses to give Darcy's comment any weight, instead telling the story to all her friends and ridiculing his pretentious behavior.
Jane and Bingley's relationship continues to deepen during family visits, balls, and dinners. His sisters pretend to like Jane, but are appalled by her mother's vulgarities, her younger sisters' wild, loose manners, and their lower economic position among the landed gentry. They find great amusement in making fun of the Bennets behind Jane's back. A particular point of hilarity stems from the way Kitty and Lydia chase after the young military officers stationed locally.
Jane rides on horseback through a rainstorm in acceptance of an invitation from the Bingley sisters. She consequently catches cold and must stay at Netherfield until she is well, much to Mrs. Bennet's delight. Thinking her sister might need attending, Elizabeth goes to stay with Jane until she is well. Darcy soon begins to demonstrate an interest in Elizabeth, making Miss Bingley jealous, as she has hopes of marrying him herself. In fact, Miss Bingley has a right to worry, as Darcy notes to himself that "were it not for the inferiority of [Elizabeth's] connections, he should be in some danger."
Soon Jane is well and returns home. Another visitor arrives in the person of Mr. Collins. He is a clergyman and will be the inheritor of the Bennet estate upon Mr. Bennet's death. Thinking himself generous, he decides to try to marry one of the Bennet daughters, so that any unmarried daughter will still be able to live at the family estate. His patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who is also Darcy's aunt, has urged him to marry. He obeys her, as usual, with servile haste. He becomes interested at first in Jane, but when Mrs. Bennet indicates that Jane is taken, he fastens on to Elizabeth. She refuses him, believing that a marriage without love is not a worthwhile endeavor. Mrs. Bennet breaks down in hysterics, though Elizabeth's father approves her decision. Within a day, Mr. Collins proposes to Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth's best friend, who accepts him.
During Mr. Collins' visit, Lydia and Kitty meet an officer newly stationed in Meryton. Wickham becomes a favorite among the ladies, including Elizabeth. He claims to have grown up with Darcy, saying he is the son of the late Mr. Darcy's steward. He says that the younger Darcy has cheated him of his inheritance, forcing him into military service. Already inclined to believe the worst of Darcy, Elizabeth now believes she has proof of his poor character, never once questioning the truthfulness of Wickham's story.
The Bingleys hold a ball where all of the Bennet family's manners, with the exception of those of Jane and Elizabeth, are exposed as lacking, much to Elizabeth's mortification. Soon the Bingley party packs up and leaves Netherfield to live in London during the winter. A letter comes from Miss Bingley to Jane implying that Bingley might become engaged to Darcy's sister. Jane, while refusing to express her loss to anyone but Elizabeth, is devastated. When Elizabeth learns of Bingley's near engagement, she quickly realizes that Bingley's sister does not think Jane is a good marriage partner and has persuaded her brother that Jane is not really interested in him. Unlike Jane, who faults no one but herself for Bingley's departure, Elizabeth is furious with Miss Bingley, and perhaps Darcy, for interfering with her sister's happiness.
Thinking that a change in scenery would improve Jane's condition, Mrs. Bennet's sister-in-law, Mrs. Gardiner, suggests that she spend part of the winter in London. While there, Jane is snubbed by Bingley's sisters and never even sees Bingley. Meanwhile, Elizabeth visits Charlotte and Mr. Collins in Kent, accompanied by Charlotte's sister and father. She sees Jane on the way and is sure that Darcy is keeping Bingley from visiting Jane.
In Kent, Lady Catherine honors the visitors, as Mr. Collins repeatedly informs them, with regular invitations. Elizabeth finds the woman to be haughty and ill-mannered, constantly thrusting her opinions on the others and fully expecting that they be followed without question. Elizabeth responds coolly to the other woman's prying. Darcy soon arrives in Kent, visiting regularly at the parsonage, sparring verbally with Elizabeth. Unexpectedly, he proposes marriage to her, explaining that he loves her in spite of her low family connections. Rather than being impressed and honored that such a highborn man should be interested in her, Elizabeth is insulted and refuses. She accuses him of being ungentlemanly, of destroying her sister's happiness, and finally of treating Mr. Wickham in an miserable manner. He storms away, but the next day presents her a letter answering her charges.
In the letter he states that he did keep Bingley from Jane, referring to the improprieties of her family and his sincere belief that Jane had no feelings for Bingley. He goes on to explain how Wickham squandered all the money the late Mr. Darcy left him and how he even attempted to elope with Georgiana, Darcy's sister, for a chance at her fortune. Elizabeth acknowledges the truth of his explanation, reproaching herself for believing Wickham without once questioning the truth of his story. Slowly, her prejudice against Darcy begins to weaken. Without seeing him again, she returns home.
In spite of Elizabeth's protests, Lydia goes with one of the officer's wives to Brighton, where the regiment is now stationed. Jane returns home from London, and Elizabeth leaves to travel with the Gardiners on a tour through the country which will take them to Derbyshire, the region where Mrs. Gardiner was born and where Darcy lives. They go to Pemberly, Darcy's home, believing that he is away and Elizabeth need not fear running into him. But he comes home earlier than expected. In spite of their mutual embarrassment, he treats Elizabeth and the Gardiners with courtesy, asking if he may introduce his sister to her. Surprised, Elizabeth agrees.
While in Derbyshire, Elizabeth enjoys her time with Darcy, Georgiana, Bingley, and Bingley's sisters. She becomes very fond of Darcy and almost believes that he may ask for her hand once more. A letter from Jane quickly dashes Elizabeth's hopes. Lydia has eloped with Wickham. Wracked with guilt that she might have prevented this disaster if she had made known what Wickham had done to Darcy's sister, Elizabeth rushes home. It is soon discovered that the runaways are not married, but hiding in London. Wickham lets it be known that he can be bribed to marry Lydia, so Mr. Gardiner arranges a quick wedding. With no other option, Mr. Bennet must consent, though he worries how he will repay Mr. Gardiner, who is surely providing the considerable bribe to Wickham. Once they are wed, Lydia and Wickham return to the welcoming arms of Mrs. Bennet, who refuses to be embarrassed by Lydia's lack of propriety.
All Is Well
Lydia, heedlessly breaking her promise to Darcy, tells Elizabeth that Darcy attended their wedding. Elizabeth then convinces Mrs. Gardiner to give her the details. It turns out that Mr. Darcy arranged the wedding, paid off Wickham, purchased Wickham a commission in the army, and supplemented Lydia's small dowry.
Soon after, Bingley and Darcy return to Netherfield. They call on the Bennets and soon Bingley proposes to Jane, who happily accepts. Elizabeth, having developed feelings for Darcy, scrutinizes him, hoping that he still has feelings for her. But he soon leaves Netherfield.
An unexpected visit from Lady Catherine soon occurs. She has heard a wild rumor that Darcy and Elizabeth are soon to be engaged, and she wishes for Elizabeth to refute the rumor and promise never to become engaged to Darcy. It seems that she has hopes her sickly daughter will marry him. Unintimidated, Elizabeth refuses. Lady Catherine leaves in a rage, later repeating the conversation to Darcy, unwittingly giving him hope that Elizabeth is in love with him. He knows Elizabeth well enough to understand that had she "been absolutely, irrevocably decided against [him], [she] would have acknowledged it … frankly and openly." He returns to Longbourne and proposes once again. Without hesitation, she accepts.
Catherine "Kitty" Bennet is virtually a nonentity in the Bennet family. Although she is the fourth sister, younger than Mary but older than Lydia, Austen reveals that she is "weak-spirited, irritable, and completely under Lydia's guidance … ignorant, idle, and vain." However, the end of the novel is a bit encouraging for Kitty. Jane and Elizabeth make sure that she visits both of them frequently, and they introduce her to more intelligent and entreating society. Austen notes that this change in environment has an excellent effect on Kitty.
See Elizabeth Bennet
"Elizabeth Bennet," writes Elizabeth Jenkins in her critical biography Jane Austen: A Biography, "has perhaps received more admiration than any other heroine in English literature." Elizabeth is the soul of Pride and Prejudice, who reveals in her own person the very title qualities that she spots so easily in her sisters and their suitors. Elizabeth has her father, Mr. Bennet's, quick wit and ironic sense of humor. Unlike her older sister Jane, she resists accepting all people uncritically. She is quick to recognize most people's principal characteristics—for instance, she recognizes the stupidities of many members of her family and quickly characterizes Lady Catherine de Bourgh as a control addict and her sister's suitor Charles Bingley as a simple and good-hearted young man. But she is also, concludes Jenkins, "completely human. Glorious as she is, and beloved of her creator, she is kept thoroughly in her place. She was captivated by [George] Wickham, in which she showed herself no whit superior to the rest of female Meryton." When Elizabeth begins to accept her own impressions uncritically, she makes her worst mistakes.
Because Elizabeth is so keen an observer of other people, she recognizes her mother's silliness and vows not to be caught in the same trap as her father. This refusal, however, is itself a trap. By trusting entirely to her own observations (pride) and her own initial assessments of people (prejudice), Elizabeth threatens her future happiness with Fitzwilliam Darcy. "Above all," concludes Jenkins, "there is her prejudice against Darcy, and though their first encounter was markedly unfortunate, she built on it every dislike it could be made to bear; her eager condemnation of him and her no less eager remorse when she found that she had been mistaken, are equally lovable."
Jane Bennet is Elizabeth's older sister, the most beautiful and amiable of the Bennet sisters. Her father considers her too willing to please and believes that she lacks the character to deal with life's difficulties. He tells Jane, "You are … so complying, that nothing will ever be resolved on; so easy, that every servant will cheat you; and so generous, that you will always exceed your income." Jane eventually marries the equally amiable Charles Bingley.
See Catherine Bennet
See Elizabeth Bennet
Lydia is the youngest of the Bennet daughters and perhaps the silliest. Austen describes her as "a stout, well-grown girl of fifteen, with a fine complexion and good-humoured countenance; a favorite with her mother, whose affection had brought her into public at an early age." Rather than spend any of her day receiving any sort of education, Lydia instead devotes all of her energies to collecting gossip about their neighbors, freely spending money about the town, and flirting with young men. Although all the Bennet girls are initially attracted to George Wickham, it is the headstrong Lydia who elopes with him and who is eventually married to him. Lydia's impudent actions put her sisters' marriage prospects in jeopardy, but she shows no signs of remorse; unlike Elizabeth and Darcy, she does not learn from her mistakes.
Mary Bennet is the third Bennet daughter, younger than Elizabeth and Jane and older than Catherine and Lydia. Rather than prancing around town flirting with young men, Mary considers herself an intellectual and would rather enjoy the company of a book. But Austen reveals that she overestimates her own talents and intelligence, saying that Mary "had neither genius nor taste; and though vanity had given her application, it had given her likewise a pedantic air and conceited manner, which would have injured a higher degree of excellence than she had reached."
- The most famous film version of Pride and Prejudice is the black and white Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer production released in 1940. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard, the film featured Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet and Laurence Olivier as Fitzwilliam Darcy and won the Academy Award for best art direction because of its lavish sets. It is currently available as a videocassette from MGM/UA Home Entertainment.
- In 1985, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) and director Cyril Coke adapted Pride and Prejudice for television as a mini-series. It starred Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul as Elizabeth and Darcy and was later released on video by CBS/Fox Video.
- In 1995, another BBC television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was released, starring Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet and Colin Firth as Fitzwilliam Darcy. In the United States it aired on Arts & Entertainment Television (A&E) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and is available from A & E Home Video and PBS Home Video.
- Other adaptations of Pride and Prejudice include the sound recordings Pride and Prejudice, narrated by Flo Gibson, Recorded Books, 1980 (an unabridged version of the novel); Pride and Prejudice, abridged by Frances Welch, read by Celia Johnson, ALS Audio Language Studies, 1981 (a "read-along" transcript); Pride and Prejudice, read by Jane Lapotaire, Durkin Hayes, 1992; Pride and Prejudice: Selections, narrated by Sheila Allen, Francia DiMase, and Roger Rees, Time Warner Audiobooks, 1994; and Pride and Prejudice, abridged by Elizabeth Bradbury, BDD Audio, 1994 (a BBC Radio production).
Austen describes Mr. Bennet, the father of the five Bennet girls (Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Catherine, and Lydia), as "so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic, humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character." He is mildly well-off. Austen reports that he has an income of two thousand pounds sterling a year, enough for his family to live comfortably—but socially he ranks toward the bottom of the scale of the landed gentry. This is one of the reasons that people like Fitzwilliam Darcy and Lady Catherine de Bourgh regard the family with some disdain.
Mr. Bennet is one of the primary means by which the author expresses her ironic wit. He shares this quality with Elizabeth, his favorite daughter. However, unlike Elizabeth's, Mr. Bennet's wit is usually expressed in sarcastic asides directed at his wife. Unlike his daughter, Mr. Bennet does not question or examine his own life, and his situation never improves. In addition, he allows his younger daughters to behave as carelessly and improperly as his wife. His inattention to his own family results in his daughter Lydia eloping with the despicable George Wickham.
Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are not well matched. Her silliness does not mix well with his sarcastic wit. Mr. Bennet recognizes this, and it is one of the reasons he instills in his daughter Elizabeth the importance of matching temperaments with her husband.
Mrs. Bennet, Austen reports, is "a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news." Mrs. Bennet is primarily concerned with the outer aspects of her society: the importance of marrying well in society without regard to the suitability of the personalities in the match. Neither does Mrs. Bennet have any regard for respecting proper manners and behavior. She is continually embarrassing Elizabeth and Jane with her inappropriate comments and schemes to marry off her daughters. Additionally, Elizabeth finds her mother's influence on the younger Bennet daughters particularly disturbing. Mrs. Bennet allows the younger girls to devote all their time searching for eligible young bachelors, neglecting any form of education. It is perhaps because of Mrs. Bennet's attitudes that her youngest daughter, Lydia, elopes with the despicable George Wickham.
Caroline Bingley is the sister of Charles Bingley. She and her sister are very proud of her family's wealth—conveniently forgetting, Austen notes, "that their brother's fortune and their own had been acquired by trade." They are willing to go to great lengths to prevent his marriage into the poorer Bennet family. It is Caroline who reveals to Jane Bennet her plans to have Charles marry Fitzwilliam Darcy's sister Georgiana.
Charles Bingley is a friend of Fitzwilliam Darcy and the new occupant of the Netherfield estate, which neighbors the Bennet's home, Longbourn. It is through Bingley that Elizabeth first meets Darcy and is unimpressed by Darcy's manners. Bingley, whom Austen describes as "goodlooking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance and easy, unaffected manners," is very attracted to Jane Bennet. This affection distresses his sisters, including Caroline Bingley, and Darcy himself. They all believe that the Bennet family is too far down the social ladder to deserve such attention from him. Ironically, Charles himself has received his fortune by his family's interest in trade, considerably less respectable than Darcy's wealth inherited by birthright. Charles' sisters and Darcy deliberately give Elizabeth Bennet the impression that Bingley is to marry Darcy's sister, Georgiana, after he leaves for London. Eventually, however, Bingley returns to Netherfield and marries Jane.
See Charlotte Lucas
Mr. William Collins
Mr. William Collins is Mr. Bennet's nephew and a clergyman. Because Mr. Bennet has no sons, Collins is in line to inherit Mr. Bennet's estate. Austen describes him as "not a sensible man, and the deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society." Mr. Bennet enjoys Collins's visit to his home because he appreciates Collins's naive stupidity, but Elizabeth resents his attentions and rejects his marriage proposal. She is very distressed when her friend Charlotte Lucas decides to marry Mr. Collins out of interest in his estate rather than his personality.
Fitzwilliam Darcy, like Elizabeth Bennet, combines in his character the prime characteristics of Pride and Prejudice: his aristocratic demeanor (pride) and his belief in the natural superiority of the wealthy landed gentry (prejudice). Darcy sometimes unconsciously assumes that a lack of money or social status are characteristics that disqualify people from marrying or loving each other. Elizabeth quickly discovers this aspect of his character, and it is her flat rejection of his first proposal of marriage that sparks his eventual change of heart. He recognizes the essential arrogance of his upbringing and repents of it; he tells Elizabeth, "By you I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased." In return for the privilege of become Elizabeth's husband, he is willing to put up with her three silly sisters, her equally silly mother, and even the scoundrel George Wickham as a brother-in-law.
Some critics maintain that this change of heart was nothing more than the uncovering of Darcy's innate characteristics. "Darcy's essential character is independent of circumstances," states Elizabeth Jenkins in her critical biography Jane Austen: A Biography. "He had the awkwardness and stiffness of a man who mixes little with society and only on his own terms, but it was also the awkwardness and stiffness that is found with Darcy's physical type, immediately recognizable among the reserved and inarticulate English of to-day." This analysis suggests that Darcy's character is more like that of his sister, Georgiana Darcy, a painfully shy girl. Georgiana Darcy's shyness and awkwardness and Fitzwilliam Darcy's arrogance and harshness come from the same roots. It is, however, Darcy's ability to examine his own life and recognize his flaws and his courage in approaching Elizabeth Bennet again, after she had already rejected him once, that leads to their eventual marriage and life together.
Georgiana Darcy is Fitzwilliam Darcy's younger sister. She is extremely shy and uncomfortable in company. Austen describes her as "tall … and, though little more than sixteen, her figure was formed, and her appearance womanly and graceful. She was less handsome than her brother, but there was sense and good humour in her face, and her manners were perfectly unassuming and gentle." Elizabeth Bennet expects that she will dislike Georgiana just as much as she initially dislikes her brother, but she turns out to be favorably impressed. Her impressions of Georgiana are among the first intimations Elizabeth has that her conclusions about Darcy may be wrong.
Miss Anne de Bourgh
Anne de Bourgh is the only daughter of Lady Catherine de Bourgh and the late Sir Lewis de Bourgh. Her mother plans to marry the sickly Anne to her cousin, Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Lady Catherine de Bourgh
Lady Catherine de Bourgh is Fitzwilliam Darcy's aunt. A proud, unforgiving woman, she is a control addict who likes to tell everyone what to do. She is scheming to have her nephew marry her own daughter, Anne de Bourgh, whom Austen describes as "sickly and cross." Elizabeth quickly realizes that Lady Catherine is a petty tyrant, but she seizes upon this revelation as an excuse to conclude that Fitzwilliam Darcy is himself equally flawed. Lady Catherine makes a final attempt to create a breach between Darcy and Elizabeth in the final chapters of the book, but her attempt backfires and only serves to help bring them together.
Colonel Fitzwilliam is Darcy's cousin. He is the younger son of an earl and, although "not handsome," explains Austen, "in person and address [he was] most truly the gentleman." He develops a fondness for Elizabeth Bennet, but realistically admits that as a younger son he must marry for wealth, not love.
Mr. Edward Gardiner
Mr. Gardiner is Mrs. Bennet's brother, whom Austen describes as "a sensible, gentlemanlike man, greatly superior to his sister as well by nature as education." He and his wife take Elizabeth Bennet on a tour of Derbyshire, including a side trip to Darcy's estate at Pemberley. He also tries to help Mr. Bennet locate Wickham and Lydia after they elope. Mr. Gardner and his wife are among the few relatives Elizabeth can be assured will not embarrass her.
Mrs. M. Gardiner
Mrs. Gardiner, Edward Gardiner's wife and Elizabeth Bennet's aunt, is according to Austen "an amiable, intelligent, elegant woman, and a great favourite with all her Longbourn nieces." She accompanies Elizabeth on a tour of Fitzwilliam Darcy's estate at Pemberley.
Mr. Hurst is the husband of Mr. Charles Bingley's sister Louisa. He is lazy, says Austen, an "indolent man who lived only to eat, drink, and play at cards, who when he found [Elizabeth to] prefer a plain dish to a ragout, had nothing to say to her."
Mrs. Louisa Hurst
Louisa Hurst is the wife of Mr. Hurst and the sister of Mr. Charles Bingley and Caroline Bingley. She plots with her sister to remove their brother's affection from Jane Bennet and transfer it to someone more suitable.
Charlotte Lucas is Elizabeth Bennet's best friend. She distresses Elizabeth by deciding to marry William Collins, Mr. Bennet's nephew, out of interest in his estate. Up until this point Elizabeth had respected Charlotte's sensibility, but her decision to marry Mr. Collins lost her much of Elizabeth's respect.
Lady Lucas is the wife of Sir William Lucas and mother of Elizabeth Bennet's friend Charlotte Lucas. Austen describes her as "a very good kind of woman, not too clever to be a valuable neighbor to Mrs. Bennet."
Sir William Lucas
A close neighbor of the Bennets, he earned most of his income through trade. His daughter, Charlotte, marries Mr. Collins, Mr. Bennet's heir.
Mrs. Bennet's brother-in-law, Mr. Philips is an attorney. He hosts the party at which Wickham tells Elizabeth about Darcy's withholding a promised legacy. Already having a negative first impression of Darqy, Elizabeth unquestioningly accepts Wickham's story as evidence that Darcy is a miserable person. When she discovers that it is actually Wickham who wronged Darcy, Elizabeth feels terrible for allowing her pride to interfere with an objective judgement of Darcy.
Mrs. Bennet's sister, Mrs. Philips, is described by Austen as a silly, vulgar woman.
Lieutenant George Wickham is an unscrupulous man who schemes to win money by marrying a wealthy heiress. He is physically quite attractive; Austen says of him that "he had all the best part of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and a very pleasing address." His father was once the steward of Darcy's estates, and Wickham plays on the relationship by trying to elope with Georgiana Darcy, Fitzwilliam Darcy's sister. Darcy gave Wickham a cash payment after Wickham turned down a comfortable church position the late Mr. Darcy provided for him. After Wickham elopes with Lydia Bennet, Darcy tracks him down, bribes him into marrying Lydia, and buys him an officer's rank in the army. Wickham is presented in the novel as a man totally without principle.
The two major themes of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice are summed up in the title. The first aspect can be traced in the actions and statements of all of the work's major and many of its minor characters. Pride is the character flaw that causes Elizabeth Bennet to dislike Fitzwilliam Darcy upon their first meeting. She perceives in him a cold aloofness that she attributes to his own inflated opinion of himself. Yet Elizabeth herself also suffers from the same flaw; her pride in her own ability to analyze character is such that she refuses to reevaluate Darcy in the face of evidence in his favor.
In some characters, Austen depicts pride overtly. Lady Charlotte de Bourgh is motivated by pride in her family's status to try to break up a potential match between Elizabeth and Darcy. Mrs. Louisa Hurst and Caroline Bingley try to achieve the same effect with the relationship between their brother Charles Bingley and Jane Bennet. In each case, however, Austen depicts the pride of these minor characters as ridiculous: "Austen treats pride," writes Robert B. Heilman in "E pluribus unum: Parts and Whole in Pride and Prejudice," "as if it were wholly unproblematic, a failing no less clear-cut than prejudice."
In the case of Elizabeth and Darcy, however, Austen treats pride less directly. On his first appearance in the novel, Darcy appears "above his company and above being pleased," reports Heilman, the "proudest, most disagreeable man in the world." The people who record these observations, the critic continues, "believe that they are seeing sense of superiority, snobbishness, excessive self-approval." However, they do not take into consideration that some of the other behavior that Darcy exhibits, such as "reserve, an apparent unresponsiveness to overtures, a holding back from conventional intercourse, pleasantries, and small talk," may actually stem from a quiet personality. So what appears to be pride may be simple shyness or awkwardness. When Elizabeth and others consider Darcy full of pride, they are also condemning him, says Heilman, for not obeying the rules of the "neighborhood social ways." For Darcy and Elizabeth, at least, pride can be more than a simple negative quality.
In fact, pride serves several different functions in the novel. In addition to the misplaced pride of the minor characters, there are characters who neglect to honor their pride when they should protect it. Elizabeth's friend Charlotte Lucas decides to marry William Collins, the heir to Mr. Bennet's estate, out of a simple desire to make his estate her own. Elizabeth strongly objects to such a union; it offends her sense of pride for someone to enter into a loveless marriage for purely material purposes. The George Wickham-Lydia Bennet elopement is another example of an arrangement where pride should have been taken into consideration and was not. In this way, Heilman states, Austen defines pride as "the acceptance of responsibility. This indispensably fills out a story that has devoted a good deal of time to the view of pride as an easy and blind self-esteem." Gradually, even Darcy and Elizabeth herself come to a realization of the necessity not to reject pride, but to control it.
Prejudice and Tolerance
The subject of prejudice is linked to pride in the title of Pride and Prejudice. It is also more directly linked to Elizabeth Bennet's character. From the beginning, states Marvin Mudrick in "Irony as Discrimination: Pride and Prejudice," "Elizabeth sets herself up as an ironic spectator, able and prepared to judge and classify, already making the first large division of the world into two sorts of people: the simple ones, those who give themselves away out of shallowness (as Bingley fears) or perhaps openness (as Elizabeth implies) or an excess of affection (as Mr. Collins will demonstrate); and the intricate ones, those who cannot be judged and classified so easily, who are 'the most amusing' to the ironic spectator because they offer the most formidable challenge to his powers of detection and analysis." Elizabeth is prepared to divide the entire world into one of these two categories—an extreme example of prejudice in the "pre-judging" sense of the term. It is most evident in her judgment of Darcy; so sure is she of her powers of observation that she refuses to reevaluate Darcy even when the weight of evidence begins to turn in favor of him.
It is not until Darcy overcomes his own prejudice against those of lower social station—by treating Elizabeth and the Gardiners graciously and considerately at Netherfield—that Elizabeth's opinion of him begins to change. "Not only do Elizabeth and Darcy … have the most serious problem of surmounting barriers of misconception and adverse feeling," Heilman declares, "but they are the most sensitive—both in susceptibility to injured feelings and in capacity for getting to the center of things—to matters of prejudice and pride." The ending "is a remarkable tracing of Elizabeth's coming around to a completely changed point of view," the critic concludes. "To Jane she acknowledges that she has cultivated her 'prejudices' and has been 'weak and vain and nonsensical."' With this realization Elizabeth begins the process of change that will eventually bring herself and Darcy together.
Topics for Further Study
- Research the changes in the English social structure during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Show how attitudes in Pride and Prejudice toward the newly wealthy middle classes, who earned their money through trade and manufacturing, differed from those toward the landed gentry who inherited their generations-old wealth.
- Much of Pride and Prejudice centers on the question of marriage or other unions. Examine the attitudes of the different characters in the novel towards the institution of marriage and compare them to modern attitudes.
- In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft published her book A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which offered the then revolutionary idea that women were the intellectual equal of men and should be educated as such. What subjects did women study during the late eighteenth and early eighteenth century? Although Austen never credited Wollstonecraft as inspiration, many of Austen's characters have qualities encouraged by Wollstonecraft. Examine Wollstonecraft's ideas and find examples of how Elizabeth fulfills many of Wollstonecraft's demands for women.
Change and Transformation
The major characters of the novel suffer from a combination of the two title characteristics of Pride and Prejudice. What separates Elizabeth and Darcy from the silly minor characters, such as Wickham, Lydia, Mr. Collins, and Lady Catherine, and even from the good minor characters such as Mr. Bennet, Jane, and Charles Bingley, is their ability and willingness to learn and grow, to overcome their initial shortcomings. They mature and come to a better understanding of each other by the novel's end through a slow and painful growth process.
Darcy begins his process of transformation with Elizabeth's rejection of his suit. He makes his proposal to her clumsily, stressing his own wealth and position (and minimizing hers) and stating that he has tried to suppress his feelings because of the low position of her family. When Elizabeth indignantly rejects his hand, accusing him of arrogance and selfishness, Darcy begins a process of reevaluation of his behavior. When he next appears in the story—at the beginning of Volume 3—he is much friendlier and more attentive to Elizabeth. She begins to feel an attraction to him that is not fully realized until the Wickham-Lydia elopement is fully resolved. Darcy completes his transformation by swallowing his pride and proposing to Elizabeth again, in spite of the fact that her acceptance will make the silly Bennet girls his sisters-in-law and the detestable Wickham his brother-in-law.
Elizabeth's process of transformation begins later and takes longer. She realizes her own prejudices toward Darcy in Chapter 12 of Volume 2, when he gives her the letter in which he reveals the truth about Wickham and his role in the breakup of the Bingley-Jane relationship. She does not complete the change, however, until the end of Volume 3, when Lady Catherine de Bourgh demands assurances from her that she will not accept a proposal from him. Elizabeth refuses, and by doing so gives Darcy his first hint that his feelings for her are at last reciprocated. "By a slow revision of preconceptions," concludes Heilman, "… Elizabeth and Darcy 'earn' the better insight and rapport that insight makes possible."
The novel Pride and Prejudice was written during the middle of the Romantic period in western literature, but it is itself rather uncharacteristic of other fictional works of the period. Unlike the great Romantic novels and poems of the period, which usually praised youthful passions, Austen's work minimizes them. Compared to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's classic sturm und drang novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), in which the young hero is unsuccessful at love and, unable to make his inner visions conform to the reality of the outer world, finally commits suicide, Austen's works are models of restraint. Instead of the wild forces of nature, Austen concentrates on family life in small English towns. Instead of rampant emotionalism, Austen emphasizes a balance between reason and emotion. Instead of suicide and unrequited love, Austen offers elopement and marriage. Although the author does consider some of the same themes as her Romantic contemporaries—the importance of the individual, for instance—Austen's society is altogether more controlled and settled than the world presented in Romantic fiction.
Irony, or the contrast between the expected and the actual, is the chief literary device Austen uses to comment on the small, enclosed world of the English gentry in Pride and Prejudice. Her irony takes different forms for different characters. Perhaps the most ironic character in the entire book is Mr. Bennet, father of the five Bennet sisters. Mr. Bennet is married to a silly woman he cannot respect, who centers her life on marrying her daughters off to wealthy, well-bred men. He expresses his discontent in the marriage by criticizing his wife's stream of comments. Many of these are sarcastic and hurtful, and contribute to the misunderstandings between the couple that leave them incapable of dealing with the disastrous elopement of their youngest daughter Lydia with the detestable George Wickham. Mr. Bennet's conscious use of irony is for him a game—it serves no useful purpose.
For the author, in the persona of Mr. Bennet's daughter Elizabeth, however, irony is both a toy and a defensive weapon in the war against stupidity. The author uses Elizabeth to skewer selfimportant characters such as Mr. Collins and Mrs. Bennet. Yet Elizabeth is also blind to her own character faults, and her very blindness is another example of Austen's use of irony. In her misunderstandings with Darcy, she (who is blind to her own pride in her ability to read character) accuses him of excessive pride, while he (who is prejudiced against people with less money than he has) accuses her of prejudice. The on-again, off-again love between Jane Bennet and Charles Bingley is also an example of Austen's use of irony to underline messages about love and marriage. "Jane and Bingley provide us, then, with one of the book's primary ironies," writes Marvin Mudrick in "Irony as Discrimination: Pride and Prejudice": "that love is simple, straightforward, and immediate only for very simple people." "In Pride and Prejudice," concludes Mudrick, "Jane Austen's irony has developed into an instrument of discrimination between the people who are simple reproductions of the social type and the people with individuality and will, between the unaware and the aware."
Other examples of Austen's use of irony abound in the novel. "Many pages of Pride and Prejudice can be read as sheer poetry of wit, as [Alexander] Pope without couplets," writes Reuben A. Brower in "Light and Bright and Sparkling: Irony and Fiction in Pride and Prejudice." "The triumph of the novel—whatever its limitations may be—lies in combining such poetry of wit," the critic concludes, "with the dramatic structure of fiction."
Jane Austen's England
Jane Austin's major novels, including Pride and Prejudice, were all composed within a short period of about twenty years. Those twenty years (1795-1815) also mark a period in history when England was at the height of its power. England stood as the bulwark against French revolutionary extremism and against Napoleonic imperialism. The dates Austen was writing almost exactly coincide with the great English military victories over Napoleon and the French: the Battle of the Nile, in which Admiral Nelson crippled the French Mediterranean fleet, and the battle of Waterloo, in which Lord Wellington and his German allies defeated Napoleon decisively and sent him into exile. However, so secure in their righteousness were the English middle and upper classes—the "landed gentry" featured in Austen's works—that these historical events impact Pride and Prejudice very little.
The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars
The period from 1789 to 1799 marks the time of the French Revolution, while the period from 1799 to 1815 marks the ascendancy of Napoleon— periods of almost constant social change and upheaval. In England, the same periods were times of conservative reaction, in which society changed very little. The British government, led by Prime Minister William Pitt, maintained a strict control over any ideas or opinions that seemed to support the revolution in France. Pitt's government suspended the right of habeas corpus, giving themselves the power to imprison people for an indefinite time without trial. It also passed laws against public criticism of government policies, and suppressed working-class trade unions. At the same time, the Industrial Revolution permanently changed the British economy. It provided the money Pitt's government needed to oppose Napoleon. At the same time, it also created a large wealthy class and an even larger middle class. These are the people that Jane Austen depicts in Pride and Prejudice, the "landed gentry" who have eamed their property, not by inheriting it from their aristocratic ancestors, but by purchasing it with their new wealth. They have few of the manners and graces of the aristocracy and, like the Collinses in Pride and Prejudice, are primarily concemed with their own futures in their own little worlds.
Unlike other Romantic-era writers, such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Austen's works are very little impacted by the French Revolution and revolutionary rhetoric. Members of Austen's own family served in the war against Bonaparte and the French; two of her brothers became admirals in the Royal Navy. The only hint of war and military behavior in Pride and Prejudice, however, lies in the continued presence of the British soldiers in Meryton, near the Bennet estate at Longbourn. The soldiers include George Wickham, who later elopes with Lydia Bennet, disgracing the family. In the world of Pride and Prejudice, the soldiers are present only to give the younger Bennet daughters men in uniforms to chase after. Their world is limited to their own home, those of their friends and neighbors, a few major resort towns, and, far off, the city of London. There is no hint of the revolutionary affairs going on just across the English Channel in France.
Compare & Contrast
1810s: Europe is submerged in warfare throughout most of the decade by the struggle against the ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte to unite the continent under French rule. Two of Austen's brothers, Frank and Charles, entered the British Navy and fought in the Napoleonic Wars.
Today: For the first time since the Napoleonic Wars, Europe considers a single multinational government in the European Union.
1810s: In the early nineteenth century, a woman's education differed greatly from that of a man. While boys attended boarding schools and studied Latin, mathematics, and science, girls were schooled at home by governesses, focusing on the fine arts, writing, reading, and sewing.
Today: Over one hundred twenty-five million women graduated from high school in 1994 alone, while around eight hundred thousand females were enrolled in colleges and universities. Not limited to a specific gender, most American high schools and universities are open to both sexes, and course offerings are not exclusive to men or women.
1810s: Because of a lack of professions for women to enter and become self-supporting, few women could afford to remain single in early 1800s. Most women elected to marry rather than depend on other family members for financial support.
Today: Many women in America have increasingly decided to remain single. By 1994, only fifty-nine percent of women in America were married. In addition, almost sixty percent of American women over the age of sixteen were employed in the labor force, either part-time or full-time.
English Regency Society
On the other hand, contemporary English society is a preoccupation of Pride and Prejudice. At the time the novel was published, King George III had been struck down by the periodic madness (now suspected to be caused by the metabolic disease porphyria) that plagued his final years. The powers he was no longer capable of using were placed in the hands of his son the Prince Regent, later George IV. The Prince Regent was widely known as a man of dissolute morals, and his example was followed by many of society's leading figures. Young men regularly went to universities not to learn, but to see and be seen, to drink, gamble, race horses, and spend money. Perhaps the greatest example of this type in Pride and Prejudice is the unprincipled George Wickham, who seduces sixteen-year-old Lydia Bennet. Lydia for her part also participates willingly in Regency culture; her thoughts are not for her family's disgrace, but about the handsomeness of her husband and the jealousy of her sisters.
Most "respectable" middle- and upper-class figures, such as Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, strongly disapproved of the immorality of Regency culture. But they did participate in the fashions of the time, influenced by French styles (even though France was at war with England). During the period of the Directory and the Consulate in France (from 1794-1804), styles were influenced by the costumes of the Roman Republic. The elaborate hairstyles and dresses that had characterized the French aristocracy before the Revolution were discarded for simpler costumes. Women, including Elizabeth Bennet, would have worn a simple dress that resembled a modern nightgown. Loose and flowing, it was secured by a ribbon tied just below the breasts. Darcy for his part would have worn a civilian costume of tight breeches, a ruffled shirt with a carefully folded neckcloth, and a high-collared jacket. Even though these costumes were in part a reaction to the excesses of early eighteenth-century dress, they became themselves quite elaborate as the century progressed, sparked by the Prince Regent himself and his friend, the impeccable dresser Beau Brummel. Brummel's mystique, known as "dandyism," expressed in clothing the same idleness and effortless command of a situation that characterizes many of Austen's heroes and heroines.
In the early nineteenth century, when Jane Austen published her first two novels Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, writes B. C. Southam in his introduction to Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, "fiction reviewing had no … dignity, and in the light of prevailing standards the two novels were remarkably well-received. The reviewers were in no doubt about the superiority of these works. Although their notices are extremely limited in scope they remark on points which any modern critic would want to make." These points, in the case of Pride and Prejudice, include the spirited characterizations of Elizabeth Bennet and her family, Fitzwilliam Darcy, and the other major personalities of the novel. Those people that criticized the novel, however, complained that the author of the book (who was unknown at the time—Austen published her works anonymously and her authorship did not become widely known until after her death) depicted socially and morally unrefined people, that the book was simply entertaining without being uplifting, and that the realism of her book threatened their concept of literature as an idealized higher reality.
Most of the known contemporary opinions of Pride and Prejudice come from private journals and diaries, where important figures of the time recorded their opinions of the book as they were reading it. In January of 1813, the month of the publication of Austen's novel, however, two reviews were published anonymously in the British Critic and the Critical Review. Both reviewers praised the novel's readability, but most of the reviews are dedicated to appreciations of Austen's characterization. Pride and Prejudice "is very far superior to almost all the publications of the kind which have lately come before us," wrote the British Critic reviewer. "It has a very unexceptionable tendency, the story is well told, the characters remarkably well drawn and supported, and written with great spirit as well as vigour." "It is unnecessary to add," the reviewer concluded, "that we have perused these volumes with much satisfaction and amusement, and entertain very little doubt that their successful circulation will induce the author to similar exertions." The Critical Review contributor began his appreciation with the words, "Instead of the whole interest of the tale hanging upon one or two characters, as is generally the case in novels, the fair author of the present introduces us, at once, to a whole family, every individual of which excites the interest, and very agreeably divides the attention of the reader." "Nor is there one character which appears flat," the contributor concluded, "or obtrudes itself upon the notice of the reader with troublesome impertinence. There is not one person in the drama with whom we could readily dispense;— they have all their proper places; and fill their several stations, with great credit to themselves, and much satisfaction to the reader."
Those contemporaries of Austen who criticized Pride and Prejudice did so, says Southam, out of a feeling that the novel offended their sense of the rightness of the world. "While few readers could deny that they enjoyed reading the novels— for the vitality of the characters, the wit, the accuracy and realism of her picture of society—praise comes grudgingly, fenced round with qualifications," he states. Commentators, including Lady Darcy and Miss Mitford, complained that the characters, particularly the Bennets, are unrefined and socially mannerless. "These notions of decorum persisted throughout the nineteenth century, and created a particular unease in the reader," Southam concludes, "the sense on one hand that he was undoubtedly enjoying Jane Austen, but equally a sense that he must temper his admiration, recalling that novels so very worldly and realistic could never be great art."
Because of this common reaction to her fiction, criticism of Austen's works, including Pride and Prejudice, as a whole was delayed until after her death. "In 1819," writes Laura Dabundo in the Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, "Henry Crabb Robinson wrote the first of several diary entries in praise of her novels." Another contemporary reviewer, the novelist Sir Walter Scott, "recognized Austen's greatness, but his remarks also help to perpetuate the notion that her range was limited." It was the publication of James Edward Austen-Leigh's A Memoir of Jane Austen, by Her Nephew in 1870 that sparked a revival of Austen criticism. However, its depiction of Austen as a "spinster aunt" whose works were written primarily for her own amusement created a distorted picture of the author. "Later in the century," Dabundo explains, "George Henry Lewes argued for the unqualified excellence of her writing, comparing her accomplishment to that of Shakespeare, but nonetheless he saw her fiction as cool and unfevered." It was not until after the publication of Mary Lascelles's Jane Austen and Her Art in 1939 that twentieth century critics began to overturn the Victorian concept of Austen as an amateur artist uncommitted to creating great literature.
Austen criticism has exploded since 1939. Scholars turn to Pride and Prejudice for its portraits of late eighteenth-century society, for the technical expertise of its composition, and for its capacity to find and maintain interest in the everyday lives of small-town English society. "Increasingly, in studies like those of Dorothy Van Ghent, Reuben Brower, Marvin Mudrick, and Howard Babb," declares Donald J. Gray in his preface to Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice, An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Reviews and Essays in Criticism, "[twentieth-century critics] study the development of characters and themes, the structure of episodes and sentences, even her very choice of words, in order to explain how novels about three or four families in a country village are also novels about the important business of making a fruitful life in a society and of a character which do not always encourage the best of even the few possibilities they permit." Austen's novels, Dabundo concludes, "deal with passionate but realistic people whose world was changing and being challenged, people who conducted their lives in the context of their immediate friends and family and a national culture that nourished and sustained them."
In the following essay, Francis, a doctoral candidate at Ball State University, relates the historical background surrounding both Jane Austen and her novel Pride and Prejudice. She includes a critique of Austen's treatment of both male and female characters.
Pride and Prejudice published in 1813, is Jane Austen's second, and probably best known novel, though it was originally published anonymously. Austen began Pride and Prejudice in 1796 under the title First Impressions. Her family found the novel entertaining and continued to reread it for at least two years. By 1799, she'd begun working on Eleanor and Marianne, which was later published as Sense and Sensibility in 1811. She again began revision work on First Impressions, though she was forced to retitle it as the name had already been used by another novelist. Pride and Prejudice finds its popular appeal in its control of language, wit, clever dialogue, and charming representations of human foible portrayed in characters such as Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and Mrs. Bennet. It is a far more mature and better written novel than Sense and Sensibility.
Known as a novel of manners, it, like Emma (1816), another popular Austen novel often used in the classroom, portrays the life of gentility in a small, rural society. Austen dramatizes the delicate and precarious nature of a society based on an ecology of manners. In such a society, the well-being of everyone hinges on people maintaining their proper places and behaving according to a strict code of manners. For the Bennet girls, their chances of marriage fall precipitously with every show of impropriety.
From the beginning, it is important to understand the very real danger that faces the Bennet girls if they do not marry. Upon Mr. Bennet's death, the girls' cousin, Mr. Collins, will inherit Longbourn. That means that the family will have no source of support and no place to live. A marriage of one of the girls to a wealthy man would provide a solution, but there is another problem, even for Jane and Elizabeth who do not suffer from ill-bred, vulgar behavior as their sisters do. Each girl possesses a negligible dowry to entice a prospective husband. Any man who chooses to marry a poor girl must do so for love or to acquire a good wife. Clearly Kitty, Mary, and Lydia will not make good wives. They have not been brought up to behave properly. Indeed, with the example of the loud, tactless Mrs. Bennet, it is a wonder that Elizabeth and Jane have managed to grow up so well.
Mrs. Bennet cannot be the only one blamed for the poor behavior of her daughters. Mr. Bennet keeps himself aloof from his wife's quirks, using them only as fodder for his dry wit. When Mrs. Bennet sends Jane on horseback to Netherfield, plotting that Jane should catch cold, Mr. Bennet, though making disparaging comments, does not attempt to stop her. He is as ineffective a parent as she is, taking no responsibility for the improprieties of the girls, until Lydia's elopement. At this point he realizes he has been derelict as a parent and attempts to change. This is part of Austen's goal: to teach the necessity of proper behavior, of taking responsibility for one's actions. Thus is it important that both Darcy and Elizabeth admit to their pride and prejudice and the mistakes that they have made. In doing so, they seek to learn from their mistakes, but also they recognize the danger of such rash opinionated behavior, such as that of Darcy's childhood friend, Wickham. Mr. Wickham was nearly the ruin of both of them and their families.
What Do I Read Next?
- Sense and Sensibility (1811), Jane Austen's first published novel, looks at the contrast between reason and emotion in the persons of two of the three Dashwood sisters: Elinor and Marianne.
- Austen's Mansfield Park (1814), in which meek, poor Fanny Price wins through simple virtue both the love and hand of country heir Edmund Bertram.
- Emma (1816), in which Austen's well-to-do heroine plays matchmaker for a lower-class friend—until she realizes that she is herself in love with the man her friend has chosen.
- Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1818), Austen's posthumously-published novels, that are respectively a sly parody of the overlyromantic Gothic novel and her examination of the transformation of the world by means of the Royal Navy.
- Sir Walter Scott's Waverley novels (1814). Scott was a contemporary and an admirer of Austen's work, and the Waverley novels—like Austen's, published anonymously—make an interesting contrast with her fiction. Waverley is set during the 1745 Jacobite rebellion in Scotland and is very Romantic in theme.
- The English: A Social History, 1066-1945 (1987), by popular historian Christopher Hibbert, makes plain the evolution of the society that Austen portrays in her novels.
However, in spite of Wickham's and Lydia's complete break with propriety, and the danger that she places the rest of her family in, she neither learns from her mistakes, nor suffers particularly from them. In a world where so much depends on people fulfilling their positions, behaving properly, punishment is a luxury that society cannot afford. For if Lydia were punished, perhaps ostracized, the rest of the family, and through them friends and the rest of the community, would suffer. The taint of scandal and gossip serve to make women ineligible to marry. In this small community, no one could afford to associate with the Bennets. At the same time, maintaining that sort of ostracism would cause schism and the ecology of the community would be forever crippled, if not destroyed completely. Therefore, Lydia must be forgiven and her improprieties overlooked. This is only possible because she has returned to the fold, once again conforming within the bounds of acceptable behavior. Once she and Wickham have married, they have sufficiently rectified their situation and no longer pose a danger to the society.
Austen does remain cautious about marriage without some sort of attachment, or marriage between people of comparable characters. Charlotte marries Mr. Collins, suffering for the rest of her life with an obsequious fool and under the thumb of Lady de Bourgh. In exchange for security, she has given up her individuality and freedom. And while Austen does suggest that individuality must be contained within the codes and mores of society, it should not be repressed all together. Individualism has the power to add zest and charm to life, as long as it does not subvert the community. This sort of conforming individualism is best exemplified in Elizabeth. She is a unique character, abiding by the social demands of the community, yet at the same time her sharp wit and humor make her the only woman that engages Darcy's mind and heart.
Feminists have criticized Austen's portrayal of women in Pride and Prejudice as being too passive. None of the women ever take active control of their lives. They instead must wait until men act. Jane must wait for Bingley, and when he leaves Netherfield, she cannot contact him or ask for any explanation. Similarly, when Lydia disappears with Wickham, none of the Bennet women—who incidentally will be more fundamentally affected by the events than anyone else—are allowed to do anything to retrieve Lydia. Instead they must wait at home for news. This enforced passivity reinforces the traditional view of women as helpless and delicate. Men must take care of women since they are incapable of managing for themselves. However, it should be noted that Austen gives most of the dialogue to the women throughout the novel.
Another thing that many readers notice about Austen's novels, is that in spite of the fact that she writes during the political turmoil of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, the growing Industrial Revolution, and the escalating political and social upheaval in England, except for the officers stationed in Meryton, there is no evidence of any of this strife in her novels. Austen herself notes that she knows little of the world at large and instead chooses to write about what she does know. However, it is clear that she does not know how to write male characters well. As mentioned above, much of the dialog in the novel is given to women. Some critics have suggested that Austen herself was not familiar enough with men to write believable male characters. When Elizabeth accepts Darcy's proposal, Austen only vaguely suggests his reaction: "he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do."
Austen's writings had great influence on a number of writers throughout the century. Glimpses of Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins can be found in Dickens. Elizabeth's sharp wit can be found in Thackeray, Eden, and Trollope. Her exploration of manners and the constrictions of women were taken up by later women writers such as George Eliot, Sarah Grand and Elizabeth Gaskell. She helped to legitimize the novel as an art form. At the same time, she set an example for other women writers, showing them that even without the expansive education given to men, women could still make valuable contributions.
Source: Diana Francis, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997.
In the following excerpt, Kneedler explains how Pride and Prejudice breaks conventions in its portrayals of relationships between the sexes.
Students, like many critics, question the point of the last volume (the final 19 chapters) of Pride and Prejudice because they already know who will "get" whom. Many feminist scholars portray Austen's happy unions as either sexist, sellouts, or parodies. But critics' declared dissatisfaction with marriage as a narrative resolution is never reconciled with unexamined prejudices against single women.… A number of critics themselves reiterate the tired news that Austen was a "spinster," a term that Austen's books never once invoke and that hardly defends singleness as a liberating option. The twin assumptions that neither single nor married women can be powerful, useful, or happy leads to a deadlier myth: the curiously perverse axiom that suicide is woman's only "life-affirming" choice. In fact, the art—particularly Kate Chopin's The Awakening —and the authors—Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath—in vogue during the last few decades have often been seen as glorifying death as the only way out for women in an inexorably unjust culture. By implication, simply surviving, let alone coping, becomes synonymous with compromising. The last third of Pride and Prejudice, however, ima, ies an alternative: far from smothering under a shroud of "the marriage plot," Elizabeth Bennet works out a new institution of love based on a new conception of self.
After the crisis of Elizabeth's initial embarrassment at Mr. Darcy's unexpected arrival at Pemberley, including her "amaze[ment] at the alteration in his manner," Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle the Gardiners "were again surprised, and Elizabeth's astonishment was quite equal to what it had been at first, by the sight of Mr. Darcy approaching them." Elizabeth's second surprise is that "he really intended to meet them." The encounter here between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy encapsulates the recuring action of this final volume; Elizabeth continually assumes that Mr. Darcy will "strike into some other path," but whenever the "turning" that obscures him fades away, he always turns up, "and at no great distance"—in fact, "immediately before" her. Every time that "her thoughts were all fixed on that one spot … whichever it might be, where Mr. Darcy then was," she finds that he is on an errand expressly to see or to help her.
In the woods of Pemberley, Elizabeth is far from imagining that Mr. Darcy is on such a quest. In fact, she begins an alternating pattern of distancing herself from him—fancying that her friendly praise "might be mischievously construed"—yet nevertheless bewildering herself with his mystery: "Why is he so altered? … It cannot be for me, it cannot be for my sake." Always the stunning answer is that her "reproofs at Hunsford [did] work such a change as this," because "it is [not] impossible that he should still love" her. Mr. Darcy himself later explains why he does not "avoid her as his greatest enemy," by distinguishing between hatred and anger: he could never hate her, and even his anger "soon began to take a proper direction"—at himself. Through an affecting contrast, Austen honors this man's exceptionally receptive resilience. Elizabeth's response to the events at Hunsford had been an inability to "feel the slightest inclination ever to see him again"; Mr. Darcy, however, not only wishes to continue as Elizabeth's friend but hopes that his sister, Georgiana, may come to know her as well.
The trope of Elizabeth's shock will be picked up when she is home at Longbourn, looking out the window to see Mr. Darcy riding up to the house with Mr. Bingley. The narrator explains, "Her astonishment at his coming … was almost equal to what she had known on first witnessing his altered behaviour in Derbyshire." Elizabeth's surprise is great because she has felt that the disgrace of Lydia's elopement would destroy Mr. Darcy's affection. But we also learn that although Mr. Darcy continues to astound, the shock is lessening and is now only "almost equal" to what she had felt before. The stupefaction Elizabeth experiences here, like that created by Mr. Darcy's behavior at Pemberley, reflects the conventional belief that men cannot be loyal and deeply attached lovers. Mr. Darcy's arrival at Longbourn enlarges Elizabeth's expectations of men's capacity to love. One measure is that when he returns yet again, after Lady Catherine de Bourgh has stormed through Longbourn vowing to separate her from Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth now only "half expect[s]" him not to come.
Back in Lambton, Elizabeth had begun to rely on Mr. Darcy's affection, or on her own "power, which her fancy told her she still possessed, of bringing on the renewal of his addresses." But that confidence is shattered by the news of Lydia Bennet's elopement. For readers swept by a growing excitement at Elizabeth's discovery of Fitzwilliam Darcy's "impossible" power "still [to] love me," the turning point at the lodgings is a careful frustration of our hopes, a transformation of exhilaration to anguish. Elizabeth mistakenly, and conventionally, reads Mr. Darcy's "earnest meditation" about how to find Mr. Wickham as a sign that "her power was sinking." The inadequacy of Elizabeth's equation of love with "power" is suggested by a sudden shift in tone. From the pathos of "she could neither wonder nor condemn," the narrator unexpectedly swells into sentimental cliches: "but the belief of his self-conquest brought nothing consolatory to her bosom, afforded no palliation of her distress." "Of course not," respond students, who readily see that women's self-sacrifice is silly. Elizabeth realizes only "now, when all love must be vain," that she "could have loved him"; yet she, at least as much as Mr. Darcy, must let go of such traditional, and false, visions of sexual relations.
At issue are assumptions about the selfishness and instability of men's love. When Elizabeth discovers that Mr. Darcy had been at Lydia's wedding, "conjectures as to the meaning of it, rapid and wild, hurried into her brain," but they "seemed most improbable." However, what she considers her most farfetched fancies will be "proved beyond their greatest extent to be true." Elizabeth's inability to conceive that Mr. Darcy could cherish a concern for her as "ardent" as hers for Jane culminates when we learn that while her new respect for Mr. Darcy is fervent, it still does not do him justice. "Elizabeth was now most heartily sorry" that she had not concealed the elopement from "all those who were not immediately on the spot." By designating Mr. Darcy as just another bystander, Elizabeth would, in her yearning for secrecy, negate her unreflecting confidence—her disclosure of how fully she has accepted his revelations about Mr. Wickham—and deprive herself of Mr. Darcy's delicately underspoken comfort. But Elizabeth's regrets are hilariously inappropriate because the joyful truth is that Lydia's problems never would have been solved had Elizabeth not confided in Mr. Darcy. Only he knew how to find Mr. Wickham.
Elizabeth's doubts about the possibility of allegiance from Fitzwilliam Darcy are hardly a private matter. Neither Austen's culture nor our own has traditionally demanded much of men as lovers. William Collins's spleen when Elizabeth refuses him reflects the customary churlishness of the disappointed suitor. Mr. Darcy's own first movement toward Elizabeth embodies the sexist view that he is a good catch who has only to choose and be accepted, that no matter how he has insulted any woman, she will be happy either to dance with or marry him whenever he can force himself to ask. The novel does not support such conventional views. Most students have been raised on the interwoven notions of women's craving for men and men's indifference to women, a trope misnamed "the battle of the sexes" and a heritage that Pride and Prejudice explicitly invokes in its opening torture scenes in which Mr. Bennet baits Mrs. Bennet. Readers continue to adore Mr. Bennet's bitter humor on a first reading and only later learn to reevaluate that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which … was so highly reprehensible." Pride and Prejudice offers a vision of love in which women and men may care about each other with a passionate tenderness at least equal to that felt by strongly united sisters: the other person's well-being is simply and immediately crucial. Mr. Darcy's concem for Elizabeth is so great, so sublimely disinterested, that, whether or not she loves him, he wants to make her happy and never claim the credit.
At stake is how we recognize romance. What are the signs in others that we respond to as allure, and what are the alterations in ourselves that we identify as passion? What Pride and Prejudice offers to Elizabeth Bennet through Fitzwilliam Darcy is a sexuality that casts away usual power relations with their traditional alternatives of confrontation and capitulation, when men sweep women off their feet but both sides nurse an underlying narcissism as their truly dominant passion. The traditional proposal Mr. Darcy made at Hunsford betrays a masturbatory fixation with his own desires and sacrifices; however, his avowal of love in the lanes near Longbourn portrays a generous focus on Elizabeth Bennet, foretelling a relation of listening reciprocity. Mr. Darcy's reform is convincing because it is based on a goodness and generosity that Elizabeth had never credited him with, and it is moving because it is unimaginable according to cultural ideas of men's capacity and feelings. The sexual politics of the relation between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy locates erotic pleasure in kindnesses that any person can show another. To women Austen offers a vision in which nothing about men's honest devotion is too good to be true—a prophecy that women need not settle for less. In a final volume made up almost exclusively of characters' astonishment at how others' actions surpass or betray their expectations, the delicately crocheted chain of Elizabeth's surprises carefully builds excitement over reunions that we are asked to celebrate because they change our ideas about what love, even marriage, can mean.
Yet as Elizabeth discovers Mr. Darcy's affection, she must explore her own—in a process that protects the integrity and disinterestedness of her attachment: "She respected, she esteemed, she was grateful to him, she felt a real interest in his welfare." Her effort to "make [her feelings] out," as she "lay awake two whole hours" is a comic reversal of an earlier moment when, with "something like regret," she had toyed with envy about the position as "mistress of Pemberley," Now, as Elizabeth investigates her new tenderness for Mr. Darcy, we can delight in how she stretches out the process of committing herself. Respect, esteem, gratitude, and an interest in his welfare all add up to love. Such feelings are the origin of love based on knowledge, and, Pride and Prejudice shows, nothing else is love.
But Elizabeth's discerning standards for heterosexual affection display a revolution of self as well as of eros. Even at the height of her suspense about Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth asserts the worth of her own life, gloriously declaring to herself, "[I]f he is satisfied with only regretting me, when he might have obtained my affections and hand, I shall soon cease to regret him at all." Such faith that if need be she can outlive her affection for Fitzwilliam Darcy is based on the new idea that he will be unworthy if he cannot continue to love. The value for her own future, separate from her connection to a man, and her resolve to judge his rather than her own worth by his performance intensify our suspense over the test: Can Mr. Darcy justify her affection? The fulfillment of that quest comes in a love scene that readers have long depreciated as an anticlimax.…
Pride and Prejudice is a pivotal moment in our feminist heritage, an achievement whose power has in many senses been lost, as we have so often lost women's history and work. This novel offers an iconoclastic representation of women and men. Austen is a creative political thinker in her own right, but her politics must be located through attention to the relationships among her characters, between those characters and their narrator, and between narrator and reader, before we try to place her in extratextual heritages or contexts. Rather than look for politics by turning away from the text to events outside the novel, we need at last to accept that the book's explicit concerns are themselves political. Pride and Prejudice does more than teach us about the debates of Austen's day; it can guide us among the many urgent issues of identity and gender with which we continue to struggle. In an age when we have learned to see the battle of the sexes as one aspect of the abuse that women have been taught to label as "love," the answer is not to throw out romance altogether. Pride and Prejudice's moving prophecy is that we may also make Elizabeth Bennet's demand that Fitzwilliam Darcy become worthy of her love.
Source: Susan Kneedler, "The New Romance in Pride and Prejudice," in Approaches to Teaching Austen's Pride and Prejudice, edited by Marcia McClintock Folsom, Modern Language Association of America, 1993, pp. 152-66.
Julia Prewitt Brown
In the following excerpt, Brown discusses how Austen offers a powerful commentary on the changes in society, gender attitudes, and class structure in early nineteenth century England.
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Source: Julia Prewitt Brown, "The 'Social History' of Pride and Prejudice," in Approaches to Teaching Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice', edited by Marcia McClintock Folsom, Modern Language Association of America, 1993, pp. 57-66.
Reuben A. Brower, "Light and Bright and Sparkling: Irony and Fiction in Pride and Prejudice," in his The Fields of Light, Oxford University Press, 1958.
Laura Dabundo, "Jane Austen," in Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Volume 3: Writers of the Romantic Period, 1789-1832, Gale, 1992.
Donald J. Gray, "Preface," in Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice, An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Reviews and Essays in Criticism, edited by Donald J. Gray, Norton, 1966.
Robert B. Heilman, "E pluribus unum: Parts and Whole in Pride and Prejudice," in Jane Austen: Bicentenary Essays, edited by John Halperin, Cambridge University Press, 1975.
Elizabeth Jenkins, Jane Austen: A Biography, Gollancz, 1948.
Marvin Mudrick, "Irony as Discrimination: Pride and Prejudice," in his Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery, Princeton University Press, 1952.
Review of Pride and Prejudice, in British Critic, February, 1813, pp. 189-90, reprinted in Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, edited and compiled by B. C. Southam, Routledge, 1968.
Review of Pride and Prejudice, in Critical Review, March, 1813, pp. 318-24, reprinted in Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, edited and compiled by B. C. Southam, Routledge, 1968.
B. C. Southam, editor, Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, Routledge, 1968.
Julia Prewitt Brown, Jane Austen's Novels: Social Change and Literary Form, Harvard University Press, 1979.
Brown discusses how Austen uses contrasts between characters, themes, and narrative devices to give structure to her novel.
Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, Oxford University Press, 1975, reprinted with new introduction, 1987.
Butler argues that despite the tendency of many readers and critics, Austen's novels are not "progressive" novels, but rather novels that reinforce a conservative, orthodox thinking in tune with her era.
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, Yale University Press, 1979.
Gilbert and Gubar explore the struggles nineteenth-century women writers endured while publishing their works and how society reacted to the ideas and perspectives of women authors.
J. David Grey, managing editor, A. Walton Litz and Brian Southam, consulting editors, The Jane Austen Companion, Macmillan, 1986.
The Jane Austen Companion was published under the auspices of the Jane Austen Society and includes much scholarly information, including a chronology of Austen's life and works, her family tree, critical appraisals of her novel, and a Dictionary of Jane Austen's Life and Works, a concordance of important people and events in her fiction and her world.
Karl Kroeber, "Pride and Prejudice: Fiction's Lasting Novelty," in Jane Austen: Bicentenary Essays, edited by John Halperin, Cambridge University Press, 1975.
In this essay Kroeber looks at the phenomenon of Austen's continuing popularity despite the ways in which she goes against prevailing modern literary tastes.
Robert Liddell, "Pride and Prejudice," in his The Novels of Jane Austen, Longmans, 1963, pp. 34-55.
In his collection, Liddell studies various aspects of Pride and Prejudice, including its history, social background, and irony.
Poovey writes about the role of women writers in society during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Warren Roberts, Jane Austen and the French Revolution, St. Martin's, 1979.
In this study, Roberts traces the impact that the French Revolution had on Austen's own life (her brothers served in the Royal Navy in the struggle against Napoleon Bonaparte) and on the type of fiction she wrote.
LeRoy W. Smith, "Pride and Prejudice: No Improper Pride," in his Jane Austen and the Drama of Woman, Macmillan, 1983, pp. 87-110.
This essay concentrates on the social, moral, economic, and sexual dilemmas Elizabeth must face as a middle-class woman in nineteenth-century society.
Michael Williams, Jane Austen: Six Novels and their Methods, St. Martin's, 1986.
Williams discusses six Austen novels, including Pride and Prejudice, and concentrates on the methods Austen uses to construct her stories.