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April 19, 2005

What is it about Lizzy? - Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Pride and Prejudice
by Jane Austen
first published 1813

Lincoln Allison - recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick - will be continuing his education by reading those classics he has previously neglected. He will be sharing his thoughts on these books in a series of Retrospective Reviews.

I have heard it described, simply, as the best novel ever written, also as the most philosophically profound and as the most elegant statement of a conservative outlook. There have been numerous film and television interpretations, a Bollywood version and a sequel published 180 years after the original as well as a contemporary bestseller clearly descended from it. But I have never read it until now and I finally approached it as part of a determination to try new things in old age: skiing and Ms Austen so far. I am talking, of course, about Pride and Prejudice.

I bring to the subject, as Mr Bennet might have said, the virtue of an almost entirely complete ignorance combined with a determination to avoid all sources of instruction, whether commentaries, "Introductions", websites or whatever. Another virtue would be my own prejudice: I assume that it is essentially what my sons (as difficult to marry off as Mr Bennet's daughters) would call a "chick book" concerned with "relationships" (yuk). And, finally, I can offer considerable curiosity: if even half of what I have heard about this book is true then it is a very significant thing indeed.

In the age of the visual media one cannot seriously aspire to complete ignorance and I have seen several versions and been with secretaries as they swooned about Colin Firth's interpretation of Mr Darcy. Also, it would be only fair to say that I do have some knowledge of a later generation of novelists, especially Trollope, Mrs Gaskell and the Brontes, with whom to compare Jane Austen.

So we start, in the visual age, with an image of pretty girls and handsome men flitting about a beautiful landscape. It is hard to get beyond this in film or television and the danger must always be that Jane Austen's world is offered as an escape from our own, not merely more elegant but also more "timeless" and cosy. The book, by contrast, is terrifying. Because the Bennets have no sons their house at Longbourn is entailed to a pompous idiot of a cousin. Depending on their actions the daughters face "ruin", destitution or complete domination by a man who might be at best unattractive and at worst bad. The alternative is happiness (or "felicity") which is equated entirely with marriage and mutual love. Thus the girls play a game for high stakes, a game of attractions, of crucial yeses and noes in which you get to play your trump card only once.

On screen, the marriage of the Bennet parents can seem an amusing thing, classic English sitcom placed in time halfway between the Fords of The Merry Wives of Windsor and the Buckets of Keeping Up Appearances. On paper it is a sad prison of an institution. As a part Mr Bennet must rank as the most desirable for an English actor of a certain age to play with his cynically dry wit and his apparently contemptuous affection for the womenfolk around him. On paper he has [Ch. 42]:

married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her.
He nevertheless has five children by her, but in advising those children he must steer a very careful path in guarding them from both his own fate but also in avoiding the shelf.

The conservatism of the novel is the easiest aspect on which to draw conclusions. Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South or Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now, to take two of my favourites, seethe with a spirit of social criticism and the desire for reform. Margaret Hale, in North and South, cares intensely about the plight of the poor in the industrial towns. Lizzy Bennet cares fiercely too, but only about those for whom she has a personal affection or to whom she has a duty. War and industrialisation are (famously) far off in the background for her. Nobody could be more immune to Voltaire's stigmatisation of those who love humanity but forget to love human beings. She takes complete responsibility for playing the one card she has: on visiting Pemberley, home of Mr Darcy, she specifically treats as "evidence" the good testimonial of his housekeeper as to his character, to be put alongside his income and his pleasing appearance. If you think the world would be a better place if filled with Lizzy Bennets then surely you are a conservative, at least with a small "c".

You could argue, I suppose, that a feminist critique of the society in which the Bennet girls find themselves is implied by its description. But you could equally well argue that a defence of the social system is implied by the narrative. In discussing the institution of marriage, particularly with Asian students, I often polemically stigmatised modern western partnerships as "disco marriages" entered into without proper regard for their consequences and financial constraints and with disastrous effects on happiness, particularly that of the children. Unlike some of her sisters or many of our contemporaries - Lizzie is a model for those who would take serious matters seriously.

As for the claim that this is a philosophical novel, I find it rather obscure and paradoxical, in a way which might please Mr Bennet or Oscar Wilde (who often sound quite alike). It is not religious and raises no overtly philosophical questions. It is philosophical, though, in that it is ethical and does not subject imperatives to relativism or contextualisation. "Ruin" is ruin, to be avoided, not analysed.

I am scarcely qualified to give an opinion on how good it is as a novel, but I will anyway. It is an absolute cracker. It makes you laugh and it makes you want to cry. Its prose is complex, ironic, elegant stuff, but you care enough to read it more than once if that is what is required to get the full flavour of nuance. I note that though the opening line is the most famous ("It is a truth . . ." etc.) the opening lines of some of the other chapters have a delightful, confident banality about them. For instance [Ch. 10]:

The day passed much as the day before had done.
Or [Ch. 41]:
The first week of their return was soon gone. The second began.
The story is good and there is a substantial minor pleasure in observing the conventions of the time. For example, when the party of Lizzie's uncle and aunt arrive at Pemberley in the known absence of its owner they simply go round it as if it were a National Trust property commenting on its furniture. I also found it interesting how little concern the characters have with title when compared to income.

But what makes it great is the character of Elizabeth, the second of the Bennet's daughters. The writing of fiction remains a kind of magic for me and I cannot begin to understand how a spinster in the Regency period using only pen and ink succeeds in creating a character whom I would unequivocally elect as the woman in fiction I would most likely to have chatted up. (Eat your heart out slaggy Emma Bovary and Becky Sharpe, boring Margaret Hale and the rest.) Lizzy is fierce and feisty, loyal and determined. She also has a "physicality" as the sociologists put it, which leaps off the page. She walks and walks: walks to think, walks off her frustrations, walks to get places. In chapter 8, carriageless but determined, she walks the three miles from Longbourn to the much grander Netherfield, arriving flushed and muddy. Perhaps she is even a little niffy. Our author makes it clear that the women who receive her are contemptuous, but the men are rather excited. In chapter 44 the hostile Miss Bingley derides her appearance as "brown and coarse". Frankly, whatever else she is, it seems likely that Lizzy is a bit of an animal, rather threatening to the other females of her species.

(I have an interest in this, having had to deal with feminist accounts of sport and leisure which overemphasise the Marx-derived idea that men contrive to make women weak and submissive so as to more easily render them into controllable properties. I have enormous intuitive difficulty with the idea of weakness being attractive and there is scholarly counter-argument in, for example, Allen Guttmann's Women's Sport: a History, but it is good to be able to cite Jane Austen.)

Postscript Seeking Instruction
Having come to my own conclusions about the book I could not resist reading the Introductions to the two editions in the house. My father's old school certificate copy, a CUP edition purchased in 1929, has an introduction by Mrs Frederick Boas written in 1909. (It is abridged, incidentally: couldn't they manage whole books in those days?) My own Wordsworth Classic has an introduction by Ian Littlewood published in 1993; I note that such essays no longer include a date of actual completion.

They are naturally quite different. Mrs Boas confines herself largely to the facts about the book and the author combined with an aesthetic analysis which is based on Jane Austen's own comment that she was a painter of ivory miniatures who eschewed the epic scale. She sees a continuity to her own times so that Austen's female characters:

may stand equally well for maidens in our own day.
Dr Littlewood, on the other hand, is bound to see Austenland as a distant place much in need of decoding, the whole maidenly predicament having evaporated in western societies by 1993. I take his point that Lizzy has an ironic detachment from the social conventions of her day, but would stress that it makes her conservatism all the more interesting. I very much like his idea that insofar as this is a version of Cinderella, what her prince must do is to love her for her intelligence and autonomy.

I am less impressed with his notion typical of contemporary academia - that this represents a unique particular of social history in which Darcy is able to cross a frontier and marry a social inferior. It is true that Lizzy's enemies like Miss Bingham and the appalling Lady Catherine de Bourgh stress her social inferiority and the "impossibility" of the liaison, but they would, wouldn't they? Upward social mobility is the true universal and (from the side of Pride) a man of considerable wealth and autonomy whose eye was caught by a fit, feisty, bright-eyed young woman (with just a hint of coarseness and brownness) would have found it within his power to transcend social divisions in most periods of history.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick.

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Alisdair MacIntyre, in his seminal book "After Virtue," discusses Aristotle, Nietszche, Kant, Keirkegaard, along with a laundry list of other luminaries, in fleshing out the historical roots of what has been considered, and is considered, "virtue." Interestingly, he also discusses Jane Austen at some length.

I like your review, particularly your take on Elizabeth, and how her character confounds many of the platitudes of academic feminism. Men like Darcy don't like weak women (does anyone?); it would seem that this would be obvious to anyone living in the real world and that is why thousands of readers have found the novel wholly believable.

Posted by: MD at April 20, 2005 01:27 AM

Mr. Allison, A very enjoyable read. One more important thing happened with the housekeeper during the visit to Pemberley, Elizabeth came across a minature of Wickham. The housekeeper tells her that Wickham was a favorite with the late Mr. D'arcy and that Wickham had turned out bad. It was Wickham's distorting the truth of D'arcy that had helped set Elizabeth's mind against him. Yet eventhough all that had transpired between D'arcy, Wickham and Miss D'arcy, D'arcy had not removed a favorite picture of his father's from the home. It is a detail such as that that makes the male characters in Austen's books so gosh darn attractive to us womenfolk. Her men are men to be admired even if they goof up enormously like Sir Thomas Bertram. Yes, Sir Thomas Bertram.

I hope you will read Mansfield Park. Fanny is not Elizabeth. But then, Elizabeth is not Fanny. I believe it is her best book. One last thing, during WWI and after, doctors prescribed Jane Austen books to shell-shocked soldiers. They believed the books gently brought the men back around to life. Maybe the soldiers, like you, found women they would have liked to chat up and that helped them to remember they were men.

Posted by: jjackson at April 21, 2005 02:03 AM
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