Finishing Pride and Prejudice

October 28, 2020

Pride and Prejudice has many great chapters, including of course Darcy’s first proposal to Lizzie, but for my money the best chapter is the next one, when Lizzie receives his explanatory letter and her mind is sent into full-on turbulence, as she struggles with new information.  How she goes back and forth, weighing new information, testing it against old, trying to argue some things out of existence, failing to do so – all of this is compelling, and Austen takes us through it with delicious precision and sympathy.  It feels authentic, more than anything else in the book. 

Illustration by CE Brock

Lizzie may have strong emotions that lead her into prejudice, but really you can’t paint her that way because what makes her outstanding, actually, is how much she cares about facts and weighs them as seriously as a judge, no matter how strong her feelings.  She may wish to disbelieve what Darcy reveals about Wickham and may try to argue it out of existence, but she’s unable, because the facts won’t allow it.  That’s really what separates her from the novel’s countless girls – of every age – who are ruled by their emotions. 

She’s not presented, thankfully, as someone whose rationality has mastered, or suppressed, emotion.  The latter is alive and well in Lizzie, but so is her penetrating mind, and this is the central conflict of the novel; it drives the story more than anything external.

And she marries someone who is very similar in that regard, though the story is not from his point of view, so we don’t get to see his process; only at the end does he let us know that his own changes of heart and mind have taken the shape of a gradual struggle.

All throughout the novel, people are making false determinations, and being proved wrong, though they don’t always see it.  A few do see that they’ve made serious errors.  There’s Lizzie, of course.  Jane is wrong about Miss Bingley’s affections toward her, and has to admit that Lizzie was more right than she about that matter; but while admitting this error, she preserves herself a little bit by arguing that, on the evidence available, her opinion of the matter had been no less justifiable than Lizzie’s; she says in effect that Lizzie may be right but we know it only in hindsight.  Darcy does the same, in his letter to Lizzie, when he says that he was wrong about Jane’s feelings toward Bingley but that, on the evidence, any rational person could have judged the matter just as he did.

Lizzie doesn’t defend herself like this, when it’s her turn to acknowledge error.  Late in the novel, she feels ashamed of her former opinions and behavior, and says so directly, without making excuses for her judgment.

I looked for whether Mr. Bennet would cleanly acknowledge that Lizzie had been right, and himself wrong, about what a bad idea it was to let Lydia go to Brighton.  He does acknowledge it cleanly.

Everyone else has varying degrees of self-awareness about their errors of judgment.  Jane has grown wiser to the world, but you feel she will always be at risk of judging people better than they deserve.  At the other extreme, you know Miss Bingley and Lady Catherine will never change their minds about Lizzie.  Countless people have changed their minds about Darcy, but Wickham doesn’t.  And Mrs. Bennet doesn’t change her mind about Wickham, and though she respects Darcy at the end, you can’t really see any change of mind, per se, about him; she just retreats into silence around him, which has to be Darcy’s singular achievement in the novel.

I am not, incidentally, saying that for Austen, one should never hedge when admitting error.  To the contrary, Jane and Darcy, when they hedge, both have some justification.  Yes, Jane’s error is partly due to her unwillingness to see flaws in Miss Bingley, while Darcy makes his error about Jane due to an arrogant judgment, in addition to an inability to connect easily with people; he merely observes Janes from a distance, unlike someone like Bingley who, if he wanted to know anything about someone’s feelings, could find it out directly or talk to Jane’s relations and friends.  Still, even if Miss Bennet and Mr. Darcy are partly responsible for their own errors, nothing in the novel gives us the sense that they’re alone in such errors; we have all incomplete perception, due partly to our imperfect personalities, and partly to the fact that people can’t be read “like a book.”  These social situations are complex, and Austen shows us how easy and common it is to lose your way in them, even when you have good information – and quite often you don’t have that.  Manners conceal as much as they reveal.

Part of the thrill in reading Austen or any similar author is how precisely she guides us through the thicket of the tiniest gestures, looks, movements, etc., showing us that there’s meaning, if not always clarity, in all of it.

I read the last half of this novel, more or less, about seven months ago, right after we went into quarantine.  I’d been watching the mini-series a few weeks earlier, and I hadn’t read a novel in years so I didn’t decide to read “Pride and Prejudice”; I just opened it up to know more about its characters, and got drawn in, starting with Mr. Collins’ proposal to Lizzie.  Reading the novel again this week, I didn’t skip anything; and I could clearly remember the passages I’d read before.

In most ways, Jane Austen’s writing is just as engrossing and rewarding as I’d expected or remembered, but I did find that she could be unclear.  Her sentences are too heavy-in-the-middle, so you have some trouble winding your way through them.  And her pronouns are surprisingly vague!  Honestly there were many times I just didn’t know who was speaking, or who was being referred to.

Also it’s a little disappointing when Austen merely relates part of a conversation rather than giving it to us.  She tells us, instead of showing us, that “Darcy spoke well,” when he started his marriage proposal to Lizzie.

In my Norton edition there’s an 1821 essay by Richard Whately, “Modern Novels,” that noted a new kind of novel, portraying common life so realistically that they could actually instruct readers in things like manners.  “For most of that instruction which used to be presented to the world in the shape of formal dissertations, or shorter or more desultory moral essays [such as Mary Bennet might read] . . . we may not resort to the pages of the acute and judicious, but not less amusing, novelists who have . .  . appeared” in the previous 15-20 years.  These novels, wrote Whately, provided good instruction “not in the language of general description, but in the form of well-constructed fictitious narrative.”  If that is the case, then Austen has occasionally reverted to the non-novelistic method of “general description” such as you might find in a formal dissertation or moral essay about manners, generally describing Darcy as speaking well, rather than putting it into dialogue.

She doesn’t do that often but Darcy’s proposal is not the only time she does it.  A few other times she introduces a conversation and then gets down to the business of depicting it.  It’s almost as if she were less interested in depicting how dialogue might begin, than in the more interesting matters that happen further into conversation.

I haven’t read any other Austen novels.  I’ve seen adaptations of “P&P,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “Emma”, and “Persuasion.”  That last one, it’s been maybe 25 years since I saw it.  It may be the next one I read. 

I wondered whether reading “P&P” would drive out the pictures in my mind that I took from that great mini-series of ‘95.  Question asked and answered:  it did not.

Some things in the novel that I found different from the mini-series:

  • Mr. Bennet is more flawed in the novel, not greatly so, but Austen does hit him rather hard for his desire to withdraw from the world when he is most needed.  In the series, he’s withdrawn, but with so much foolishness around him, his withdrawal merely seems droll and wise.  Austen is clear that he would be most useful in the external world, if he would only make the effort.
  • Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins are less ridiculous in the novel, though not greatly so.  And nothing in the series or the novel is so nasty as Mr. Collins’ full letter to Mr. Bennet offering his “sympathy” for the Lydia situation.
  • Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner are too briefly portrayed in the series to shine as much as they do in the novel.
  • It’s clearer in the novel that Miss Bingley is in love with Darcy.
  • The novel’s Darcy and Lizzie seem to be more or less justly portrayed in the series, but with these two it really is impossible for me not to think of the two actors; the imprint is forever.  They are probably more glamorous than in the novel, which is usually the case with all these adaptations.  Darcy is said to be less handsome than Bingley; and ditto, Lizzie as compared with Jane; not so in the series.

Lizzie reading Darcy’s letter, is hands-down better in the novel, which of course is ideally suited to depict the reading and impact of a letter.  Darcy’s proposal, I might have to pick the movie.

Elizabeth facing down Lady Catherine is equally great on the page and screen.  For me it’s probably the single best thing in the story that we too easily forget.

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