Two hundred years after its publication in 1813, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is still talked about, written about, filmed, and has its place on bookshelves from personal and hometown libraries to the biggest bookstores. Why? Because it is a study in human nature and behavior, which hasn’t changed in two centuries, and actually hasn’t changed since fallen man was kicked out of Eden. Jane Austen picks up on the humor and pathos of the human condition in the drawing rooms, and ballrooms, and the English countryside, in all its many-faceted strengths and weaknesses.
The craft of Jane Austen’s writing is another draw that has kept her novels current and inviting to readers. Her voice, mood, syntax, all have an interplay that engage the senses in a way that is comforting, as if the reader is wrapped in a warm womb of words. The only other writer I can think of at the moment that creates such an “environment” for the reader is the children’s writer, Beatrix Potter. My son could not get enough of Peter Rabbit, and I never tired of reading it aloud.
In Pride and Prejudice, misunderstandings and half-truths mingle with said “pride” and “prejudice” in this class-distinctive society of English landed gentry. It highlights the differences between the perceived poor and ignorant country gentry, and the impeccably mannered and intellectual but haughty (and wealthy) city gentry. (City Mouse and Country Mouse, if you will).
The characters step boldly from the pages so that we are allowed to mingle in their three-dimensional society, get to know them, and care about what happens to them. The dialogue is so human, yet does not bog down the way most real conversations do. — (Yet, in Jane Austen’s “Emma”, you find a character that, though kind and well-meaning, never lets anyone get a word in edgewise, as if she engages her mouth in a stream of consciousness flow of thoughts and news.)
Here are snippets of the main characters and some portions of dialogue that I had to read over again because they were so droll in some cases and so intriguing in others. But the whole book is awash with such treasures, so if you haven’t read it, treat yourself. And if you have read it once a long time ago, treat yourself to a second helping. It is a feast for the senses.
The Bennet sisters:
Jane Bennet: the eldest, who is as pretty on the outside as she is beautiful on the inside, can’t bear to think ill of anyone, and must always give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Though she and Elizabeth are the best of friends as well as sisters, she is not as quick to judge and condemn. She and Elizabeth are their father’s favorites.
Elizabeth “Lizzy” Bennet: is the out-spoken main character, and favorite of her father, Mr. Bennet. In this arena of romance, morality, and social values, her wit may sometimes be biting, but her heart is always true, and her head is down-to-earth. However, she is prone to go with first impressions and snap judgments, especially when honor is at stake — whether her own or her family’s.
Mary Bennet: — Unequipped to compete among the social butterflies and beauties, Mary tries too hard to be noticed for her accomplishments, which fall far too short of merely competent to be comfortable. Desiring also to be known as an intellectual, she often keeps her head in a book, spouting homilies to anyone who will listen.
Catherine (Kitty) Bennet: follows the lead of the youngest sister in teenage-girl trivialities and the brainless pursuit of young men, especially young men in uniform. She and Lydia are the favorites of their mother, Mrs. Bennet.
Lydia Bennet: is a fifteen-year-old shameless flirt with a hare-brained personality and focus. She cares for nothing that does not have her interests front and center.
Parents of the five sisters
Mr. Bennet: is a man of property, but not wealthy, and the estate is entailed to a male descendant. When Mr. Bennet dies the estate will go to his cousin, Mr. Collins, leaving any of his female survivors with only what he has managed to save. Mr. Bennet has not been happy in his choice of lifelong mate, and has spent the intervening years buried in his books in his study. Like his daughter Elizabeth, he has a dry and somewhat acerbic wit, which, nevertheless, has a keen edge. His greatest amusement is in using that wit to expose vain and foolish people without their even realizing it. Stuck between a silly wife who is a social catastrophe, and his two youngest daughters who study only fripperies and men, his only other consolations are his books and his two oldest daughters, especially his “Lizzy”.
Jane Austen describes Mr. Bennet — who is one of her strongest characters– this way:
Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humor, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character.
Mrs. Bennet: is much like her two youngest daughters, her life centering on getting all her girls married to men of wealth, if possible. Her heavy-handed match-making, and often contradictory and flighty emotions, keep the household in a stew and Mr. Bennet rolling his eyes. Jane Austen describes her thusly:
Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.
Extended family of the Bennets:
Mr. Collins: Now we come to the character of the cousin, Mr. Collins, a clergyman who has been given the “living” on the estate of the Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Because of her magnanimous provision of such a good position, which he had never thought to attain, he seems to worship Lady de Bourgh more than God, and certainly sings her praises more. (However, the reader finds Lady de Bourgh to be more a patronIZING patroness than simply a magnanimous one).
In Jane Austen’s description of the oddball character of Mr. Collins, she writes:
Mr. Collins was not a sensible man, and the deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society; the greatest part of his life having been spent under the guidance of an illiterate and miserly father; and though he belonged to one of the universities, he had merely kept the necessary terms, without forming at it any useful acquaintance.
[His upbringing] had given him originally great humility of manner, but it was now a good deal counteracted by the self-conceit of a weak head, living in retirement, and the consequential feelings of early and unexpected prosperity.
. . . [his veneration for his patroness, Lady de Bourgh], mingling with a very good opinion of himself . . . made him altogether a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility.
The Lucas Family
Charlotte Lucas: is best friend to Elizabeth Bennet, and, though very intelligent, is not as pretty and has less prospects of a good marriage. She tells Elizabeth that she is not a romantic and harbors only the hope of a marriage with a stable home. The matter of actual love, in her opinion, is least in the matrimonial equation. The Lucases live within walking distance of the Bennets.
Mr. Lucas: head of the big Lucas family, must always insert in the conversation his court appointment and knighthood, just to let everyone know that, though he may choose to live in the country, he is every bit the equal of the city class.
The Eligible Bachelors:
Mr. Bingley: A commendable and likeable young gentleman who rents an estate near the Bennet family. His sisters are Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, who come to live with him and manage his household. His best friend is another young gentleman, Mr. Darcy, who comes to stay with the Bingley’s for a while. There are many young and eligible ladies in the neighborhood, but from the beginning of their acquaintance, Mr. Bingley only has eyes for Jane Bennet.
Mr. Darcy: Is tall and handsome, but proud, haughty, cold, and unfriendly, and looks on everyone with suspicion. He is the opposite of his open and kind-hearted friend, Mr. Bingley. His unbending opinions set everyone in their social set against him from the beginning — except, of course, Mr. Bingley’s unmarried sister. But there is more to Mr. Darcy’s character than meets the eye, and more reason for his suspicions of others than is, at first, acknowledged.
Mr. Wickham: an officer in the locally billeted redcoat regiment, is a tall, handsome, and pleasing young man whose fun-loving temperament endear him to one and all. And his sights are set at first upon Elizabeth, who isn’t averse to his attentions. However, there is a history between Mr. Wickham and Mr. Darcy — and not a good one.
The dialogue paints a detailed, and often humorous, picture of the household’s varied personalities and philosophies. The society of the times demand certain protocols of introduction and visitation, with a visit from the father of eligible daughters of paramount importance when new young men take up residence in the neighborhood. Mr. Bennet is not as inspired as his wife in playing these social games, but loves to play cat and mouse with her, dragging his feet when it comes to visiting the new neighbor, the very handsome, eligible, and wealthy young gentleman, Mr. Bingley.
Mrs. Bennet – You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion on my poor nerves.
Mr. Bennet – You mistake me my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least.
Mrs. Bennet continually bemoans the fact that, because the property will go to Mr. Collins when Mr. Bennet dies, she and her daughters will be tossed out in the cold to fend for themselves.
Mr. Bennet — “My dear, do not give way to such gloomy thoughts. Let us hope for better things. Let us flatter ourselves that I may be the survivor.” — That was not very consoling to Mrs. Bennet.
As we read deeper into the book, we find Mr. Bennet continues his opinion of his two youngest daughters, whose entire discourse is ever about social gatherings, clothing, and young men. After listening to one such conversation, Mr. Bennet observes:
— From all that I can collect from your manner of talking, you must be two of the silliest girls in the country. I have suspected it some time, but I am now convinced. —
Mr. Collins is introduced through a letter he writes to Mr. Bennet, a letter Mr. Bennet shares with the family because of its unusual content and style
Elizabeth – He must be an oddity, I think . . . There is something very pompous in his style. And what can he mean by apologizing for being next in the entail? Can he be a sensible man, sir? —
Mr. Bennet – No, my dear, I think not. I have great hopes of finding him quite the reverse. There is a mixture of servility and self-importance in his letter, which promises well. I am impatient to see him. —
Mr. Darcy’s introduction at the ball sets the tone for his character, and the impression he makes upon the neighborhood. It is obvious he sees everyone there, except his immediate friends, as beneath his contempt, and tries his best not to rub shoulders with them. Because of the lack of male dancing partners, his friend, Mr. Bingley, tries to persuade him to ask some young lady to dance, to which Mr. Darcy replies:
— I certainly shall not. You know I detest it . . . At such an assembly as this, it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room, whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with. —
Mr. Bingley points out Elizabeth Bennet, whom he says is “very pretty”.
Mr. Darcy — She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me.
This conversation is overheard by Elizabeth, who proceeds to repeat it to her friends. As they later discuss the ball, her sisters and friends commiserate with her, some of them saying she should forgive the pride of a man of such lofty estate.
Elizabeth — That is very true. And I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine.
As I was reading this classic again I realized that the entirety of the dialogue and the distinctive characterization could never be fully captured in any two-hour movie. It would take at least a mini-series to pack in all the snide jealousies, the hypocrisy, and the wit and wisdom found within the covers of Jane Austen’s novel. I found such a series in the 1995 BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice” starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. An excellent portrayal of an enduring classic.
But these media belong together. I would recommend reading the book first and then watching the BBC TV version. That way you know the background and can fill in any gaps that the series doesn’t cover, though there are few. And you will also know the characters well and can fully appreciate what all of the actors put into their roles.