Pride and Prejudice is my third Austen having read Emma as a teenager (and loving its modern adaptation Clueless) and having studied Mansfield Park at A-Level. Desiring the interest of rebellion as a teenager, or at least authenticity in an industrial town, I grew to admire how Austen presents characters of tremendous integrity in delightfully playful yet often socially intense situations.
As with all classic fiction, you need to understand the context of the book on its terms, not just yours. The characters will seem dully mindless if seen through the prism of bitter freedom of Generation XYZ. In its own context, Pride and Prejudice is a remarkably self-contained demonstration of life in the regency period for the higher classes. It is a realm where people do not need to work; it is a realm of classes within these classes. It reminds me of living in Hull, in 2003, whereby I remember meeting a Southerner who genuinely considered anyone who had to work – Doctors and Lawyers alike – to be working class. Such class consciousness, it seems, seems to replace any real need to prove or even promote human ideals or self-worth. Austen, operating presumably within the lower reaches of the higher-class herself, makes this engaging and relevant even in 2018.
Driving life for these privileged few is the desire to find position for others, and to make position for themselves, and the very real stress that such a life entails. Imagine if your job was to socialise. That is a stressful and shifting purpose. In this high-stakes game, Austen grants her female characters surprising agency, distinguishing the five sisters remarkably well. I particularly admired how the youngest child was charismatically irresponsible. Her subplot, occurring in the last third of the novel, preempts threads of conspicuous consumption, and demonstrates Austen’s invariable disdain for such activity, too.
All of Austen’s characters are flawed, and delightfully so. As I said before, the prime choice for this privilege few is to choose philosophical integrity over class, or rather ideology over pragmatism. Not every character seeks to promote such idealism, as the least attractive of the sisters promotes hard rationality above all:
“I admire the activity of your benevolence,” observed Mary, “but every impulse of feeling should be guided by reason; and, in my opinion, exertion should always be in proportion to what is required.”
It is telling that Mary is not evil or even socially wrong in any way. She is simply functional and therefore unattractive. In contrast, Elizabeth demonstrates a real push back against social expectations, and yet does so within the boundaries demanded of her. For some reason, I find this immensely attractive and infinitely admirable – to rebel against society through contrariness is no rebellion at all. The rebel against unjust expectations of others whilst operating within mutual etiquette seems both legitimate and authentic. Elizabeth’s sufferance and ultimate defiance of Lady Catherine is very well done and the highlight of the text.
To understand Austen’s achievement, we need to appreciate how she is prodding fun at the machinations of this demographic. Political machinations are at the heart of contemporary and popular shared entertainment, from Game of Thrones to Love Island. In all these realms, those who operate outside these expectations are ostracised. That is spiritual suicide for those whose skills and reliances are entirely social.
Where Austen is therefore especially skilled is in how she encourages the reader to engage in the same kind of judgement as the characters whom we are guided to dismiss. Mrs Bennet, the conniving yet ineffectual mother, is playfully done. Her forgetfulness of her youngest daughter’s indiscretions calls into question just how she loves if the way she perceives her daughters is as a means to an end? She is quick to embrace pointless pomposity when she suspects that real danger has passed: “Haye Park might do,” said she, “if the Gouldings could quit it—or the great house at Stoke, if the drawing-room were larger; but Ashworth is too far off! I could not bear to have her ten miles from me; and as for Pulvis Lodge, the attics are dreadful.”
More ambitiously, Austen sends up relationships that were made to cement alliances. In this society, marriages operate to maintain and gain power. However, that Austen, with an modern eye, demeans Lady Catherine’s appeal to the supposedly independent authority of (her) reason to sanctify such alliances. Lady Catherine’s likening of ‘proper ‘manners and decorum speaks of how arbitrary such institutions are rather than revealing anything inwardly or actually moral. It is against this naïve aggression that Elizabeth appears far more reasonable and self-aware, and in doing so appeals to the reader to think of themselves in similar terms:
‘Elizabeth was shocked to think that, however incapable of such coarseness of expression herself, the coarseness of the sentiment was little other than her own breast had harboured and fancied liberal!’
That Love Island, in comparison, invites caustic social back-biting with no effective remit of authenticity or morality creates this the context that makes Austen’s magic.
So through understand its rules and expectations, we can see this text is more transgressive and emotionally satisfying than contemporary comedies of manners. It is still tricky in places, especially with pure exposition that requires careful reading for those used to tighter plotting and wording. However, the moments of conflict, inferred in dialogue, are tremendously expressed and signpost a wonderful story for anyone in 2018.