Parlor Tricks

The game of marriage in Pride and Prejudice.

Parlor Tricks

The pleasure of reading Jane Austen’s 1813 classic, Pride and Prejudice, comes in part from being so wholly immersed in Georgian-era England. As we follow the travails of one Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters after the turn of the 19th century, we learn about that period from the inside out.

We learn, for instance, about entails — a type of trust where property is passed down through a line of successive male heirs. In the case of the Bennets, who boast five daughters and no sons, their estate house is to fall into the hands of a contemptible distant cousin named Mr. Collins.

Whatever are the girls to do? Why, get married, of course. From the charged socioeconomics of the story’s opening lines, matrimony-as-survival is paraded before the reader in all its mercenary hues. The Bennet daughters are educated but untitled, accomplished yet unconnected. Theirs is a family headed by a gentleman and a lady whose modest wealth extends not beyond the Longbourn estate, which will be lost upon Mr. Bennet’s death. Thus comes the necessity of attending balls and being seen in public — a feminized society of entertaining and witty retorts that rises to the level of competitive games.

As the story unfolds from its dubious aphorism about rich men being in want of wives, we see that, as with the achieving of all life goals, strategies may differ. Elizabeth is not quite as attractive as her elder sister, Jane, but is more talented than middle sister Mary and more sensible than the two youngest girls, Kitty and Lydia. She knows her fate lies in marrying, but a febrile streak of self-respect keeps her from succumbing to desperation — goodbye, Mr. Collins — while keeping her eyes open to the possibilities. (Hello, Mr. Wickham.) Elizabeth’s approach to finding a suitable mate lies in being committed to her own character, flaws and all, while assuming the rest will fall into place.

Jane deploys an indirect method to spouse-hunting that showcases her looks and talents, while Mary’s situation is so hopeless (she can neither sing nor play the piano) that she seems bound to care for her aging parents. Kitty and Lydia, meanwhile, get by on instinct and charm. Alas, their overly romantic sensibilities and sloppy manners invite the ruin which hangs over the story, bringing about its most tense subplot.

Austen has clear preferences for which approaches she likes best. Mary’s solitude, for instance, registers as pitiful. Lydia, who runs off and lives in sin for a time with an officer — at least he is an officer — becomes the object of scorn, even though she eventually marries him. This makes her the first and youngest of the Bennet girls to cross the finish line.

Nevertheless, Lydia’s ways and means are much abused in the book, as is the girl’s mother, Mrs. Bennet, for having a one-track mind about the marriageability of her daughters. If it’s true that the world of Pride and Prejudice is in a state of emergency, Austen expects her best characters to meet their catastrophes with equanimity and the ability to read the room.

Elizabeth’s and Jane’s subtle approaches clock in as more acceptable, with Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s surprising match claiming first place. The moral of the story in this regard is clear: One should have uncompromising principles while remaining flexible to the outcomes. Austen’s masterpiece emphasizes methods over ends, promoting a type of abstinence from wanting something (or someone) too much. And though the story sometimes gets mired in the minutiae of social intelligence, it rewards readers with amusing quips, such as when Mrs. Bennet accuses her husband of not respecting her “poor nerves,” and he replies:

“I have high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least.”

Some of what we learn from Pride and Prejudice is startling and contrary to our times — for instance, that a lawyer living in the city should be held in ill-repute, and that only a man who lives off generational wealth could be truly respectable. Much of it, however, is not a surprise but rather an acknowledged part of Western heritage, like the emphasis once placed on a woman’s sexual purity and guilelessness.

In the end, Elizabeth’s unplanned marriage to Mr. Darcy, whom she despises for most of the novel, has resonance with fables like “Beauty and the Beast” and even with the Christian concept of the Virgin Mother. A good woman, the right woman, owing to her disinterested heart, is chosen. Elizabeth’s falling in love “accidentally” with the enormously wealthy Mr. Darcy brings about the required happy ending, while also solving her family’s more practical problems, all without a whiff of fortune-hunting.

It’s a lot to pull off. And in that sense, the novel’s pre-feminist credentials may be thrown into doubt for placing womanly virtue at such an unlikely meeting point between cunning and naivete. Yet in other quarters, the story is read almost cultishly for its heady exaltation of the tortoise who wins the race.

While the historical voyage that is Pride and Prejudice keeps the pages turning, it’s the book’s interpersonal curations that keep it relevant. We learn that then, like now, conflicting temperaments within families remain a major source of acrimony; and that then, like now, some children are more mature than their parents, while others refuse to grow up altogether. We further discover that whether in the past or present, one of the greatest sources of human discontent is our boundless capacity to misunderstand each other.

In name alone, Pride and Prejudice gets to the heart of the perennial self-protecting mechanisms that so often (and so sadly) prevent genuine connection. A book like this one reminds us that there are, indeed, second chances.

Please share your experience reading Pride and Prejudice in the comments below. You can join Dorothy in next reading Bless Me, Ultima, which will be the subject of her column on May 13th, 2024.

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