My rating: ***** 5/5
Pride and Prejudice is Austen’s second novel and it centers around the Bennet family, more specifically, the five Bennet daughters, who are ready and rearing to be married off.
Pride and Prejudice is all manners and marriage. The highlights of the plot are engagements, balls and dinner invitations, brimming with social correctness and keeping up appearances. Being a bit socially awkward myself, all that propriety made me feel a little nauseous. Putting historical context aside, a society built on polite restraint, congenial small talk, and above all, gossip, is 100% maddening to me.
However, I think the words of W. Somerset Maugham closely mirror my own thoughts about Austen’s second novel:
“Nothing very much happens in her books, and yet, when you come to the bottom of a page, you eagerly turn it to learn what will happen next. Nothing very much does and again you eagerly turn the page. The novelist who has the power to achieve this has the most precious gift a novelist can possess.”
For me, Austen’s uneventful plot is saved by her beautiful words. Her writing is so eloquent, it feels effortless. My experience reading it was just like Somerset described. I was acutely aware that nothing had actually transpired for pages, but yet, I could not stop reading.
I can’t help but think that Austen was trying to point out some of the flaws of the societal structure of the time (late 18th/early 19th century), which valued society over the individual. Austen may not have been as blatant as say, Anne Bronte in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and for the most part I think her writing reflects societal norms rather than contradicts them, yet, there are still some elements and characters who defy convention.
For instance, in Austen’s day I gather that social aptitude was supposed to be an indicator of one’s true personality and temperament. In the novel, Mr. Wickham is a character who has all the social graces that one could desire, to the point where Mr. Bennet remarks after a social engagement that it was like he was making love to each and every one of them (referring to the entire Bennet family). When Mr. Wickham’s true nature is revealed, however, he is one of the least sincere and least desirable characters in the book. Mr. Darcy on the other hand does not conform to the highest social standard and is thought less of as a result. Yet, he proves himself to be a character of the most generous and perhaps most sincere nature. Even when the true nature of each of these characters is revealed, Mr. Bennet still declares that Mr. Wickham is his favorite son-in-law! It’s as though in the end he would still rather be charmed even if it means that he is also fooled. While Mr. Bennet may not have learned the lesson, it seems that, in her own subtle way, Austen may have been implying that people shouldn’t rely so heavily on appearances, because people could be quite different than they appear.
Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are two characters who, at times, blatantly step outside of the social construct. From the very beginning both characters show disregard for their reputation and display a value of sincerity over status. Elizabeth ignores appearances when she shows up at Netherfield disheveled and in muddy skirts to care for her ailing sister, Jane. This is much to the chagrin of the Bingley sisters, who don’t consider for a second that Jane’s well-being might be more important than looking like a flower. Both Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy also disregard social and economic status in choosing to marry for love rather than obligation. There again, this seems to be a subtle plug in favor of the individual over society.
Pride and Prejudice provides some food for thought in respect to character analysis and internal vs. external motivations. I was going to discuss individual characters more in depth, but I think this review is too long already. But let me just say that I loved Mr. Bennet; he was my favorite character. I adored his wit and subtle sarcasm, not to mention his gentle, humorous handling of his obnoxious, if not trifling, wife!
As a side note: I love these Penguin Classics hardcover editions. I have this edition of Pride and Prejudice but I believe that it’s now out of print. I’d like to build an Austen collection with these editions, so hopefully I can manage it before they too go out of print. They feel so nostalgic without all the dust and musty smell of actual vintage books. Click the image above to see Amazon’s selection of titles in this limited edition.