“It is a truth universally acknowleged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
There is something about a really beautiful beginning to a book which just makes me smile. Same goes for The Odessey. And the wonderful thing about the beginning of Pride and Prejudice is that it is one of those quotes that everyone knows, or at least recognises. Type it into Google, incidentally, and it links to the Wikipedia post on Irony.
It’s going to be hard for me to write about Pride and Prejudice and say anything bad about it, because it’s been almost an ever-present novel for me ever since I was eleven years old and watched the BBC miniseries.
Soon after that I read the book for the first time, watched the miniseries a lot more times, was bombarded by references in popular culture (a Lot in Bridget Jones’s Diary, which is based on Pride and Prejudice), and was baffled at the speed with which Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen got through their lines in the 2005 film adaptation.
Needless to say, I like it. A lot.
The basic plots of Jane Austen novels are more or less identical. I say this lovingly – she took one basic formula and added on characters and situations which make a massive difference so that you can’t easily confuse her novels. The formula goes like this: a middle-class, Regency-era young woman meets, or is already friends with, a man. She gets a crush on another man, who turns out to be horrible in some way, or lying to her. The first man saves the day, she realises she has loved him all the time, and they marry. Then the dramas of additional characters are added on.
In Pride and Prejudice, our young woman is Elizabeth Bennett, who is one of five daughters. Her father is not wealthy enough to give them all dowries (money to recompense their husbands for the expense, basically), and because of what is basically the Will of an ancestor, they are not going to inherit their father’s estate after his death, because they are all female. Her First Man is Fitzwilliam Darcy, who has a large estate in Derbyshire and is very rich, but is also a bit rude. Darcy has a wonderful character – he is rude, but in part it seems it is because he is shy, or things come out the wrong way sometimes. Elizabeth casts her eye instead on Mr Wickham, who claims to have been wronged by Mr Darcy. Mr Wickham turns out to be a nasty piece of work, who seduces 15 and 16 year old girls to get their dowries.
Mr Wickham proceeds to seduce Elizabeth’s youngest sister, Lydia. In those days, and for the middle class, this meant that a woman was shamed for ever – and her chances of marriage would be gone. Luckily Mr Darcy saves the day by paying a dowry for Lydia and forcing Mr Wickham to do the right thing and marry her. He proposes to Elizabeth, who accepts (he also did this earlier, but was a bit of an arse and she turned him down).
Jane Austen was a very witty and cynical woman, and this is really shown to its best in Pride and Prejudice. From the very beginning we are shown her sarcasm in the form of Mr Bennett, Elizabeth’s father, her ability to create ridiculous yet realistic characters in Mrs Bennett, and one of her strongest heroines in Elizabeth.
To continue Jane Austen month, next week’s review will be on Emma.