The birds chirp in the country atmosphere of Derbyshire. Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy (Colin Firth), comes tired on his horse in the scorching sun and enters the Pemberley estate. As he nears the lake, Mr Darcy strips off, jumps into the muddy, weed-filled lake and emerges dripping wet in his white shirt and pants. Unexpectedly of course, he encounters Miss Elizabeth Bennet (Jennifer Ehle) much to the shock of the characters and the audience equally! This scene from the 1995 BBC adaption of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is one of the greatest moments in British television and perhaps is one of the most quoted. Even today, more than twenty years later, this scene gives goosebumps to many.
Pride and Prejudice is a milestone in literature, which heralded a whole generation of romance novels with the idea of happily ever after, leaving poor romantics like us with utopian and unrealistic notions of love. Victorian balls, obsession with laces and ribbons, English meadows and what not! Where did you think the idea of ‘the perfect man’ came from? Perhaps the most crucial belief that Austen imparts through her novels is what Shakespeare said centuries ago: journeys end in lovers meeting. My own obsession with Austen has reached the phase where most of my diary entries begin with ‘Dear Jane..’. Also that ‘Au’ is not the symbol for gold, but ‘Austen’!
The case of Pride and Prejudice is particularly important because it is among the first novels which had a strong heroine. Written at a time when women who took writing as a career was subjected to social rejection, Pride and Prejudice went on to become the defining work of Austen. Her heroine, Elizabeth Bennet represents the proto-feminist character, “obstinate and headstrong”, an idea of a heroine so far unseen in literature.
Working in a society where lace-making and knitting were the ideal occupations of women, Austen’s heroines went beyond the established standards of the Regency society to have an independent judgement and wilful thinking. Think of the witty Emma Woodhouse, bugging Mr Knightley and the others with her stubbornness! Or Marianne, the girl who can feel intense love! And Catherine who goes exploring the Gothic abbey! Austen’s heroines aren’t hardworking women trying to carve a niche for them in the eyes of the society; instead they are genteel women craving for security and happiness in their own little ways.
Romance literature prior to Austen and more particularly, Pride and Prejudice, portrayed a notion of love that ignored the pragmatics and the accepted social norms. It was the time when Romeo and Juliet was the ideal example of love, where one leaves everything including their family, for true love, even if it means that tragic consequences await the lovers. Why Romeo and Juliet, when even the tragic hero Hamlet’s love for Ophelia was at an abstract plane!
Doubt thou the stars are fire….. and it goes..
Pragmatism, that’s what Austen establishes. In one of her articles, Deirdre Donahue, says
“You can divide the world into two groups: mad romantics who adore those passionate Brontë tales about women yearning for tormented psychos like Heathcliff, and more pragmatic souls who admire Elizabeth Bennet’s decision to marry for love and money.”
Pride and Prejudice shows the practical side of romance. Here characters are concerned about making agreeable matrimonial alliances. By agreeable it means that the potential better-halves are rich, moral and has a high standing in the society. But it would be gross simplification to say that Austen’s heroines were in the pursuit of rich guys. Elizabeth herself admits to Jane that only true love will persuade her to marry. And this is probably why Austen disapproves of Charlotte Lucas’ marriage with Collins, Elizabeth’s dreaded cousin.
Initially titled as First Impressions, a title that lacked the attractiveness as opposed to the alliterative Pride and Prejudice, here the titular qualities are represented by Darcy and Elizabeth respectively. Darcy’s pride and conceit owes to his ‘higher’ standing in the English gentility. Elizabeth on the other hand, is prejudiced on her opinion of Darcy, which she wrong-headedly makes from Mr Wickham’s account of the former.
Now comes the important question as to why we adore Elizabeth. Why do generations of women idealize Elizabeth? Perhaps she is free-spirited and lively. She is unafraid and independent. When her elder sister, Jane was sick at the Netherfield Park (a situation that was tactfully conceived by Mrs Bennet), Elizabeth walks across the country bog to arrive, half drenched in mud, a sight that left Miss Bingley shocked and Darcy mesmerized. Elizabeth portrays the idea of a woman who is independent and outspoken in a society of clearly defined conduct of women. She speaks her mind. And this is one another reason why Pride and Prejudice was and continues to be received overwhelmingly over these years, since first printed in 1813; Elizabeth was among the first woman in literature who embodied the qualities of independent judgment and individuality. Elizabeth’s love for her family, to that extent that she rejected Darcy for having ruined Jane’s prospects of marrying Mr Bingley, is also a remarkable quality that has won the hearts of many a woman. Through the character of Elizabeth, Austen initiates rebellious individualism in women characters. Remember that it is early 19th century we are talking about; an era when saying “I won’t” was regarded as impropriety from the women’s side.
One of the things that come to my mind when I think about Fitzwilliam Darcy is the word ‘dark’. Darcy is dark, metaphorically speaking. Darcy is impossible to read and hence is hidden and ‘inaccessible’. He talks very little and his manners often confuse with rudeness. These traits have also been drawn into literature and popular culture. Mr Thornton from Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South could be Fitzwilliam Darcy’s twin! Many are the commonalities between the personalities of both these men. Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight is also a loose adaptation of this novel. The mysterious character of Edward Cullen and the inquisitive Bella Swan is undoubtedly the modern Darcy and Elizabeth, although in a much fantasy-like world with vampires, werewolves and all creatures you wanted to meet when you seven years old.
The novel’s influence and outreach can be gauged by the existence of numerous adaptations, both in print and visual media. Today we have Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, where zombies terrorize the Bennet family. There is even a Bollywood movie called Bride and Prejudice, an Indian version of this 19th century novel! And it is a universally acknowledged fact that Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen did make an adorable pair in the 2005 movie of the same name. Don’t forget The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Even Bridget Jones’ Diary is loosely based on this book (Sadly, Hugh Grant had to be the evil Wickham!).
Pride and Prejudice is remarkable for having initiated a brand new women-centric literature. It gave to the canon, the archetype of opinionated, individualistic, pragmatic and independent woman who keeps her sense of self above all. This woman values the importance of love and mutual understanding but she is not willing to die for it. She is practical and considers the wider consequences of her actions. It has been 203 years after Pride and Prejudice has been published. Despite being a novel set in a strict society and entirely different socio-economic circumstances, this novel continues to attract and inspire women from all parts of the world, be it in rural England or mega cities far in time and space from the 19th century Regency era.
Pride and Prejudice is not a book that you should read before you die, it is a book without reading which, you shouldn’t die!