About Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen half-jokingly commented that it “is rather too light and bright and sparkling; it wants shade.” And about protagonist Elizabeth Bennet, she said, “I must confess that I think her as delightful a character as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.”
Certainly it is the character of Elizabeth Bennet that accounts for this book’s being one of the best-loved novels of all time. Elizabeth is smart, lively, playful, outspoken, honest, an independent thinker, a quick-witted conversationalist, sensible, and realistic. She is the second of five daughters who will be turned out of their home at their father’s demise because the property is entailed upon a male. Their only hope is to marry well. That looks promising for eldest daughter Jane when Charles Bingley, a new wealthy tenant in the neighborhood, is falling for her. But his friend Fitzwilliam Darcy whisks Bingley away to London to save him from an inferior connection—even as the wealthier Darcy is falling for Elizabeth. Elizabeth, who already dislikes Darcy on account of his pride and alleged mistreatment of George Wickham, the son of his father’s stewart, adds to Darcy’s offenses the ruining of her sister’s happiness. Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth is met with a litany of these complaints. What a scoundrel Wickham is, however, becomes known to Elizabeth when he runs away with her 15-year-old sister, Lydia. Darcy comes to the rescue, paying Wickham to marry Lydia and save the Bennet family from disgrace. Elizabeth better-informed opinion is that Darcy “has no improper pride” and is just the mate for her.
Jane Austen’s novels all end in marriages, but they should not be trivialized as romance stories. As silly as Mrs. Bennet seems in trying to marry off her daughters, marriage was a serious issue, the difference between security and poverty for a woman of two centuries ago. Yet Elizabeth has the integrity to refuse marriage as a mercenary bargain; she must esteem and love her partner. Austen’s concern is not with the inevitable happy ending but with how the heroine gets there—her self-discovery and maturation. Accompanying Elizabeth Bennet on that journey, readers could ask for no more enjoyable a companion.
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