I’d read Pride and Prejudice twice before—once in high school and once in college. It’s a bit heretical to say this, but I disliked it both times. It offended my burgeoning sense of what it meant to be a woman. In my college class—I’m now appalled by my arrogance—I’d declared that the story was an insult. The main topics are marriage, money, and high society, which really are all sides of the same coin. “All these characters talk about is finding a husband! How is this relevant?”
There is some truth to this. Pride and Prejudice is indeed about finding a suitable husband to secure a good future, and woe be the woman who chooses wrongly. Jane Austen pulls no punches. In the famous first sentence, she tells you what her story is about. Me from the past (as John Green would say) cringes at this sentence.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
I’d harbored these resentments until last September at the Brooklyn Book Festival when I stumbled on the Jane Austen Society booth. If you want to see how passionate these people are about Austen’s novels, mention that you think her works are insulting to women. (Tip: Don’t do this.)
Those “Janeites” got to me. I began to soften. I received an annotated edition of Pride and Prejudice as a Christmas gift, and I devoured the 700 pages (including annotations) in days.
The annotations certainly went a long way in shedding light on social customs and taboos of early-19th century England, things Austen’s contemporaries would have understood. The significance of various carriages, the nuances between addressing Miss Elizabeth Bennet and Miss Elizabeth, the fact that propriety dictated a man should not write to a single woman directly—all were made richer by reading this edition. The major plot point I’d thought unrealistic and manipulative—Elizabeth visiting Pemberley and “accidentally” running into Darcy—was commonplace. People often visited grand estates for tours, even when the owner was in residence.
With few exceptions, women in Austen’s day had little opportunity to improve their station in life. They couldn’t own property, couldn’t earn their own income, couldn’t change social class. They used the only agency they had available to them—saying yes or no to marriage. Austen makes sure we understand this by having Elizabeth refuse first Mr. Collins and then wealthy Mr. Darcy. This is her right. It makes her declaration all the more delicious: “I had not known you [Darcy] a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world I could be prevailed upon to marry.”
In Natalia Sylvester’s post about rereading Little Women, she writes, “Who we are inevitably changes how we read the books we love: suddenly I was catching bits of Louisa May Alcott’s feminism I hadn’t noticed as a young reader…”
In rereading Pride and Prejudice all these years later, I can see beyond my original indignation to a deeper understanding of the characters’ motivations. I am open to the idea that this novel is about much more than marriage and social class. Elizabeth Bennet is, in fact, enterprising. She is using the only means of influence available to her, and maybe in that sense she is a role model.
Do you reread stories? Have you ever had a change of heart?
Other posts in the Why We Read series.