The first challenge you face when writing about Pride and Prejudice is to get through your first sentence without saying, "It is a truth universally acknowledged . . ." With that accomplished (with that out of the way), you can move on to more testing questions. For example: Why does the reader yearn with such helpless fervor for the marriage of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy? Why does the reader gloat and flinch with almost equal concern over the ups and downs of Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley? Jane and Elizabeth's mother, Mrs. Bennet (stupid, prattling, vulgar, greedy), is one of the greatest comic nightmares in all literature, yet we are scarcely less restrained than she in our fretful ambition for her daughters.
Jane Austen makes Mrs. Bennets of us all. How? And, even more mysteriously, this tizzy of zealous suspense actually survives repeated readings. Finishing the book for perhaps the fifth or sixth time, the present writer felt all the old gratitude and relief: an undiminished catharsis. These days, true, I wouldn't have minded a rather more detailed conclusion--say, a twenty-page sex scene featuring the two principals, with Mr. Darcy, furthermore, aquitting himself uncommonly well. (Such a scene would take place, of course, not in a country inn or a louche lodging house in town but amid all the comfort and elegance of Pemberley, with its parklands and its vistas and its ten grand a year.) Jane Austen, with her divine comedies of love, has always effortlessly renewed herself for each generation of readers (and critics, too: moralists, Marxists, myth-panners, deconstructors--all are kept happy). One may wonder what she has to say to the current crop of twenty-year-olds, for whom "love" is not quite what it was. Today love faces new struggles: against literalism, futurelessness, practicality, wised-updom, and nationwide condom campaigns. But maybe the old opposition, of passion and prudence, never really changes; it just sways on its axis.
Let us begin by pinpointing the moment at which love blooms--for Mr. Darcy, and for every male reader on earth. It blooms on page 33 of my edition (the Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen, 1923). We have had the Meryton assembly, the straitlaced dansant, at which the local community thrills to the entrance of the eligible gents and their entourage; and we have protectively endured Mr. Darcy's audible humiliation of our heroine: "She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me. . . ." Soon afterward Jane Bennet--meek, sweet, uncomplicated--is invited to dine with the fashionable newcomers. "Can I have the carriage?" she asks her mother. "No, my dear, you had better go on horseback, because it seems likely to rain; and then you must stay all night." Jane rides, it rains, she falls ill--and cannot be moved. Elizabeth's anxiety is one we can easily share: experienced in the ways of nineteenth-century fiction, we know that these frail beauties can fall apart more or less overnight. So, the next morning, impelled by sibling love, Elizabeth strides off through the November mud to Netherfield, that fortress of fashion, privilege, and disdain. She arrives unannounced, and scandalously unaccompanied, "with weary ancles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise."
By now the male reader's heart is secure (indeed, he is down on one knee). But Darcy's palpitations are just beginning. As for female susceptibilities--as for falling in love with him--Mr. Darcy, I think, ravishes the entire gender on his very first appearance: "Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine tall person, handsome features, noble mein; and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year." That, plus this-- "'You have a house in town, I conclude?' Mr. Darcy bowed."--will about do it.
Auden, among many others, was shocked by Jane Austen's celebration of "the amorous effects of brass": that is, of money, and old money, too (for in Jane Austen's world you cannot make money). Money is vital substance in her world; the moment you enter it, you feel the candid horror of moneylessness, as intense as the tacit horror of spinsterhood. Funnily enough, our hopes for Elizabeth and Darcy are egalitarian, and not avaricious, in tendency. We want love to bring about the redistribution of wealth. To inspire such a man to disinterested desire, non-profit making desire--this is the romantic hinge. Elizabeth Bennet is Jane Austen with added spirit, with subversive passion, and, above all, with looks. Although writers' lives are no more than optional extras in the consideraton of their work, the dull fact of Jane Austen's spinsterhood--her plainness, her childlessness, her virgin death--invests her comedies with disappointment, and with a sense of thwarted homing. It also confirms one's sense of the diminishing physicality of her later heroines: inconspicuous, undetectable Fanny Price; the regal Emma (with her avuncular Mr. Knightley); the poignant staidness of Anne Elliot.
Incredibly, Jane Austen was about the same age as Elizabeth when she began Pride and Prejudice ("I am not one and twenty"), and Elizabeth remains her only convincingly sexual heroine. Even her father, indolent Mr. Bennet, is sufficiently aware of her passionate nature to deliver an exceptional warning: "discredit and misery" would await her, she "could be neither happy nor respectable," in a loveless marriage. His marriage is loveless, and so is everybody else's; and they have all settled for it. But he knows that Elizabeth would never settle for anything less than love. How do we get a sense of this society, this universe, with its inhibition, its formality, its echelonized emotions? It comes to us most clearly, perhaps, in its language. Mr. Darcy's first name is Fitzwilliam, which is a nice name--but Elizabeth will never use it. She will call him "Mr. Darcy" or, occasionally, "My dear Mr. Darcy." You call your mother "Madam" and your dad "Sir." When the dance floor is "crouded," young ladies may get a "headach." You may "teaze" a gentleman, should you "chuse," and should he consent to be "laught" at. If it be the sixth of October, then "Michaelmas" will have been celebrated "yesterday se'nnight." "La," what "extacies" we were in! Everyone is much "incumbered" by "secresy" and the need to watch their "expences." A rich man must marry a rich girl, to avoid "degradation" or even "pollution." But a poor man much marry a rich girl too, in order to achieve a "tolerable independence."
So who is to marry all the poor girls--the poor girls, how will they find "an husband"? How will they swerve between passion and prudence, between sensibility and sense, between love and money? Two extreme cases are explored in Pride and Prejudice. Or, rather, they are unexplored, unexamined; they define the limitations of Jane Austen's candor and, perhaps, the limitations of her art. First is the marriage that is all sense, all money (and not very much money either): the marriage of Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth's neighbor and her closest friend. Mr. Collins is, of course, a world-class grotesque; he has a slimy vigilance that Mr. Podsnap migh have envied. "Can he be a sensible man, sir?" Elizabeth asks her father, having acquainted herself with Mr. Collins's introductory letter. Mr. Bennet responds with typically droll and fateful laxity: "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. Collins comes to stay. Because of the famous entail in Mr. Bennet's estate, the girls will be bypassed, and cousin Collins is next in line to inherit. He therefore feels obliged to marry one of the many Bennet daughters. His gaze first alights on Jane, then (one day later) on Elizabeth, to whom (eight days later) he unsuccessfully proposes before fixing on Charlotte Lucas (one day later). He proposes to her one day later. And she accepts him. Jane Austen expends little energy on physical description. Her characters are "handsome" or "pleasing" or "not at all handsome." The feature-by-feature inventory she leaves to the hags and harpies (this is Miss Bingley on Elizabeth: "Her face is too thin. . . . Her nose wants character. . . . Her teeth are tolerable, but not out of the common way"). She deals in auras, in presences; her creations fill a certain space with a certain personal style, and they are shaped by their idiolects. Of the Reverend William Collins we are told only this: "He was a tall, heavy looking young man of five and twenty." But his immense physical dreariness is nonetheless fully summoned. (The twenty-page sex scene is in this case not sorely missed. "I crave your indulgence, my dear Mrs. Collins, if, at this early juncture . . .") Anyway, Charlotte repairs to what Collins calls his humble abode. And that's her life gone. Jane Austen interprets the matter with a kind of worldly savagery: Charlotte accepts Collins "from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment"; marriage is "the only honourable provision" for women so placed, and "must be their pleasantest preservative from want." Elizabeth is not so hard-barked about it, but her "astonishment" at her closest friend's expediency soon modulates into the quiet conviction "that no real confidence could ever subsist between them again." And by the time she pays a visit to the newlyweds, she has decided that "all the comfort of intimacy was over."
Isolation, then, is part of the price Charlotte pays, and expects to pay. Elizabeth feels she can discuss her best friend's situation with Mr. Darcy, whom at this stage she thoroughly dislikes ("[Mr. Collins's] friends may well rejoice in his having met with one of the very few sensible women who would have accepted him"); but she doesn't feel she can discuss her best friend's situation with her best friend. Why not? Well, people didn't, then. There is no reason why it should occur to Elizabeth to question this miserable silence. But perhaps it ought to have occurred to Jane Austen. Elizabeth is quick to find rueful humor in the business, and Jane Austen is even quicker to find non-rueful humor in it (we hear Charlotte's mother inquiring "after the welfare and poultry of her esdest daughter"). The marriage is pitiful and creepy; but it is routinely pitiful and creepy. It is everyday.
The other escape from the love-money, passion-prudence axis is the escape undertaken by Elizabeth's sister Lydia: all love, or at least all passion, or at any rate no prudence (and certainly no money). Little Lydia elopes with the feckless Lieutenant Wickham. Now, in Jane Austen's universe, elopement is a tractable delinquency, provided the absconders marry very soon, preferably before nightfall. Should she neglect the wedlock end of it, however, the woman will face an isolation far more thoroughgoing than Charlotte Lucas's: "irremediable infamy," ostracism, demi-mondainedom. Lydia languishes for two whole weeks with Wickham before the affair if patched and pelfed together (largely by Mr. Darcy, it transpires); thus Lydia's virtue is precariously and, as it were, retroactively preserved. Wickham consents to make an honest woman of her, after heavy bribes.
So what are we meant to feel about Lydia? Slimeball Mr. Collins writes to Mr. Bennet, at an early stage in the scandal, "The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this." In a later letter, having "rejoiced" that the "sad business has been no well husted up," Collins adds, "I must not . . . refrain from declaring my amazement, at hearing that you received the young couple into your house as soon as they were married. . . . You ought certainly to forgive them as a Christian, but never to admit them in your sight or allow their names to be mentioned in your hearing." "That," says Mr. Bennet, "is his notion of Christian forgiveness!"
But what is Jane Austen's notion of it? We may well believe that as a Christian she forgives Lydia. But we will want to know whether as an artist she forgives Lydia. Installed in "all the comfort and elegance" of Pemberley, Elizabeth sends the Wickhams odd bits of spare cash, and "occasionally" receives her sister there. Lydia, so to speak, is wheeled off onto a siding, lost to serious consideration, and lost to her sister. And this despite the following mitigations (which gallantry, as well as conscience, obliges one to list): that Lydia's fall was precisely and vividly foretold by Elizabeth; that its likelihood was blamed on parental and familial laxity; that Elizabeth was at one point entirely gulled by Wickham's charms and lies; and that Lydia, during the course of the novel, only just turns sixteen. Calling on her privilege as the local omniscient, Jane Austen consigns Lydia's marriage to the communal grave ("His affection for her soon sunk into indifference; her's lasted a little longer"), underlining her exclusion from the circumambient happy ending. Lydia, so beautifully evoked (brawny, selfish, clumsy, wholly transparent: after the ball at Netherfield "even Lydia was too much fatigued to utter more than the occasional exclamation of 'Lord, how tired I am!' accompanied by a violent yawn"), is now summarily written out.And here, I think, the reader begins to feel that artists should know better than that; we expect them to know better than that. We expect artists to stand as critics not just of their particular milieu but of their society, and of their age. They shouldn't lose sight of their creations at exactly the same point that "respectability"--or stock response--loses sight of them.
For all its little smugnesses and blind spots, despite something airless and narrow, Pride and Prejudice is Jane Austen's most sociable book--and, strangely, her most socially idealistic. The impulse is in fact strongly present. And because this is a romantic comedy, the impulse expresses itself through the unlikely personage of Fitzwilliam Darcy. Darcy doesn't account for the novel's eternal humor and elan, but he does account for its recurrent and remorseless power to move. Elizabeth's prejudice is easily dealt with: all she needs is the facts before her. Yet the melting of Darcy's pride demands radical change, the difference between his first declaration ("In vain have I struggled") and his second ("You are too generous to trifle with me"). The patching-up of the Lydia business involves Darcy in some expense, but it also forces him to descend into the chaos of unrestrained dreads and desires--an area where Jane Austen fears to linger, even in her imagination. The final paragraph gives us the extraordinary spectacle of Darcy opening his arms, and his house, to Elizabeth's aunt and uncle, who make what money they have through trade. Darcy, Jane Austen writes, "really loved them." This is the wildest romantic extravagance in the entire corpus: a man like Mr. Darcy, chastened, deepened, and finally democratized by the force of love.