To continue my rereading Austen series (find my blog on Sense and Sensibility here), here are my thoughts on Austen’s second novel, and my favourite, Pride and Prejudice. I’ve been rereading it in conjunction with writing a lecture on it, which has meant that more so than ever, I’ve been thinking about the novel in its historical context and reading it closely, trying to decode what I think Austen was doing and trying to tell us throughout the story.
It has made it probably my most enjoyable experience of reading the novel, second only to reading it the very first time – I bought my own copy of it when I was on a family holiday near Bath from the Jane Austen Centre when I was nine years old, and I spent the rest of the week reading it. That week’s holiday cemented my love of Jane Austen (which, to be honest, had already started by spending many afternoons watching the VHS of the 1995 adaptation on repeat), which has only ever grown. So, here we go! (And I’m sorry… because this is probably going to be one of my longest blog posts ever! Maybe I need a section dedicated to long posts as much as I have one for mini-posts?)
I began the novel and I got my usual fizz of excitement when I read the opening lines – and I feel like I’ve been very restrained not doing some kind of play on “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” to open this post. I forgot how utterly enjoyable the first chapter is: we get to meet the Bennets and I laughed out loud at the dynamic between Mr and Mrs Bennet, him constantly teasing and her threatening him with her poor nerves. Also, I love how Austen plunges us straight into dialogue. Much of the novel occurs through dialogue, and straight from the off here, we learn what the key theme of the novel is: marriage. Mrs Bennet wants to marry off her daughters, which we later learn is due to the fact the Longbourn estate is entailed upon the male line, thus to a distant cousin Mr Collins. The girls have an unstable future, and Mrs Bennet is worried what will happen to them after Mr Bennet passes away.
Reading & learning
I’ve always very passionately argued that Pride and Prejudice isn’t solely about romance and marriage, citing other things I think we can learn from not only this but Austen’s other novels, and this reread allowed me to really think about the crux of these things. For one thing, I think the novel actually tells us a lot about women learning. One of my main research interests is the education of elite women, primarily as linked to reading and collecting, and I started my thesis with a quotation from Mansfield Park: “Give a girl an education, and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody.” (MP Chapter 1).
As I read Pride and Prejudice, I realise that actually, there is so much packed into this novel that I think alludes to Austen’s own ideas about education. Reading, and the importance of it, is referenced in quite a lot of her work, and in Pride and Prejudice, we are treated to a whole section of Caroline Bingley, her brother and sister, and Mr Darcy discussing what exactly makes an ‘accomplished woman’. Mr Darcy’s addition to Caroline Bingley’s outline of skills is that a truly accomplished woman must add to all that “the improvement of her mind by extensive reading” (P&P Chapter 8). We also get Lady Catherine de Bourgh telling Elizabeth Bennet point blank she thinks they suffered because they never had a governess, and Elizabeth informs her they were always encouraged to read – we know that Mr Bennet retreats often into his library.
Austen herself grew up in the rectory at Steventon, where her father’s library numbered over five hundred books, and to which she and her siblings had full self-directed access. This meant they could read what they liked. They could be curious and expand their own knowledge upon topics that interested them, and it was believed that this would serve them well. Austen did of course attend school too, and her father took in young male students as boarders to make extra income, so there was a mix of both institutional and self-guided learning. This freedom tapped into ideas by contemporary thinkers such as Mary Wollstonecraft, who argued in her book Thoughts on the Education of Daughters:
“It may be observed, that I recommend the mind’s being put into a proper train, and then left to itself. Fixed rules cannot be given, it must depend on the nature and strength of the understanding; and those who observe best tell what kind of cultivation will improve it. The mind is not, cannot be created by the teacher, though it may be cultivated, and its real powers found out.”
M. Wollstonecraft Godwin, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters with Reflections on Female Conduct in The more important Duties of Life (London: Printed for J. Johnson, No.72, St. Paul’s Church-Yard, 1787), 48.
Here is not the space for me to extol all the wonderful clues I think Austen had laid out for us about the education of women (I hope to some day write something more formal on that), but I feel that through Darcy’s encouragement of reading and Elizabeth informing Lady Catherine about the Bennet girls being able to pursue their own interests through the library at Longbourn, Austen is telling us quite a lot about women learning in the early nineteenth century. It is something that really stuck out to me – I guess this is the first time I have reread the novel in its entirety in three or four years, and now, alongside the wonderful story, these things stick out to me more than ever as evidence of Austen’s wit, social and cultural commentary permeating her fiction. Going back to read the novel as a historian who has spent the last few years researching these themes in depth has been an interesting experience.
Heading to Pemberley
I also got majorly into reading about the country houses in Pride and Prejudice. I’ve always found country houses fascinating, a huge chunk of my research is on country houses, and I’ve often referred to the presentation of such places in Austen’s novels. But this time – reading for enjoyment and to gain a fresh perspective on the novel – I found myself comparing Elizabeth’s experiences at Rosings and Pemberley more so than ever before. I think that the chapter when Elizabeth goes with her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner to Pemberley (Chapter 43) is possibly my favourite in the whole novel. From a historian’s point of view, we get an excellent insight into country house visiting during this period – applying to the housekeeper and being shown around the principal rooms of the mansion, alongside exploring parts of the grounds – but also, this is such a pivotal point for Elizabeth and Darcy in the novel.
Before, I’d always marked Darcy’s first proposal as the huge turn in the story, but here, I realised that this is just as important too. With the proposal and the ensuing letter from Darcy, Elizabeth realises that she was wrong to believe Wickham in his story over what happened between him and Darcy; but with their accidental meeting at Pemberley, we can see Darcy demonstrate his change in behaviour, so transformed because of Elizabeth’s accusations that he has not behaved in a gentlemanlike manner. Darcy is on his home turf, but before he even arrives, we witness what I think is one of the most intimate moments in the novel: Elizabeth examining his portrait in the Pemberley picture-gallery. She can’t tear her eyes away, and its here that she physically has to confront her changing feelings towards him.
Then, when he does appear, her mortification soon gives way in the courteous way he not only receives her, but also the Aunt and Uncle he once disparaged for having made their money through trade. I must confess that I forced myself to read this chapter slowly to savour it – and again, I hope to write something on this soon. Pemberley isn’t just where we can imagine the Andrew Davies-added scene of Colin Firth emerging from the lake in his wet shirt at Lyme Park, but also where we can think of the two main characters coming back together, and demonstrating how their respective pride and prejudices have begun to melt away to create them equals.
A happy ending
Reading the final few chapters brought me great joy too. I almost got more joy out of Elizabeth holding her own as Lady Catherine de Bourgh repeatedly insults her in her own home than I did as the final two chapters when we get to see Elizabeth and Darcy finally together. The most happiness probably came from the lines Elizabeth writes to her aunt and uncle to announce their engagement:
“I am the happiest creature in the world. Perhaps other people have said so before, but not one with such justice. I am happier even than Jane; she only smiles, I laugh. Mr. Darcy sends you all the love in the world that he can spare from me.”P&P, Chapter 60
So, it was no surprise that rereading Pride and Prejudice was a wonderful experience. It is, without question, my favourite book that I have ever read. It is the book that gave me a love of Austen and the Georgian period and brought me to my research specialisms. But what did surprise me was how many new things I picked up on, things that I had noticed before but passed over, but suddenly seemed more important and relevant. With this in mind, I cannot wait to reread Mansfield Park during March, and share with you my thoughts on that – and hear what you think too!
But for now, I leave you with Mr Darcy’s answer to the question of when he realised he was in love with Elizabeth Bennet, which perfectly describes when I first realised I was in love with Pride and Prejudice:
“I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”P&P, Chapter 60