This is by far Jane Austen’s most popular book, and while as a kid I found it dull and slow, re-reading as an adult I had a great time with it. It’s easy to see where that popularity comes from. First, unlike some of Austen’s other books, which just have some romance in them, this one actually is a romance, in that it’s structured around the growth of and obstacles to Elizabeth’s and Jane’s relationships.
Second, to the extent that it moralizes (and Austen always moralizes to some extent), it’s mostly about issues that remain both relevant and palatable today: the dangers of assuming yourself better than everyone around you, of clinging to a negative first impression despite new information, of taking people at their word when they eagerly insist to virtual strangers that all their problems are other people’s fault.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, Elizabeth is a great heroine. She’s witty, energetic, and has a sense of humor, which makes her fun. She’s intelligent, caring, and has a backbone, which makes her admirable. And she’s judgmental, jumps to conclusions, and has some learning to do, which makes her human.
Warning: there will be SPOILERS below.
There isn’t much I can say about this book that hasn’t already been said: it’s well-written, engaging, and to an adult reader, it’s quite funny. It’s the perfect piece of intelligent escapism. It’s full of well-drawn and realistic characters, many of them a little bit ridiculous, and the author invites us to laugh at them with her. It isn’t “just” a romance, but explores the intersection of love and money in Austen’s society—though for all that, Austen’s heroines aren’t as mercenary as some make them out to be. At the end I think Darcy is genuinely in love with Elizabeth, while she’s still in the early stages of infatuation, overwhelmed by the fact that this rich and handsome man cares enough to put himself out on her behalf. But I don’t think it’s just about the money either.
I do wish Austen didn’t lapse into narrative summary at the most inconvenient moments, like proposal scenes (!). I actually didn’t remember that Georgiana appears in person in this book, probably because although she and Elizabeth meet several times, none of Georgiana’s lines are ever transcribed for the reader. But Austen was in many ways pioneering the modern English-language novel, so it’s inevitable that not everything was perfect, and impressive that despite that she was able to write characters who still manage to inspire emotional investment today.
I’ll use the rest of this space to comment on some characters I viewed differently this time around. First, the treatment of Mrs. Bennet is rather sad: it’s true that her perspective is limited, but she actually is trying to do right by her daughters, and she obviously loves her husband more than he loves her. Given that the Bennets are on good terms with what seems like a large circle of acquaintance (her claim that they dine with 20 other families is meant to be ridiculous, but is impressive by today’s isolated standards), I suspect her manners are quite good enough by her neighbors’ standards, and it’s the stuck-up Bingley sisters and Mr. Darcy who judge her. It’s a little sad that their happy ending requires Elizabeth and even the otherwise-angelic Jane to distance themselves from her.
Lydia, on the other hand, would be a strong candidate for the heroine if this were a modern novel. Modern audiences seem to love the young woman driven by sexual or romantic passion to flout societal convention just as much as Austen’s society hated her. Particularly sympathetic in Lydia’s case is that she actually loves Wickham but is deceived about his regard for her. Lydia’s exuberance also makes her fun to read about, though because she’s a teenager and not the heroine, she has all-too-human flaws as well: she’s self-absorbed and can’t be bothered to listen to anyone she disagrees with. The scene where she claims she’s “treating” Jane and Elizabeth to lunch, but makes them pay because she already spent her money, is particularly amusing.
Then there’s Mary. Before I thought of her as a typical teenager in her high regard for her own intellect, and starting out here I was sympathetic to her based on her position alone. She’s the only unattractive one out of five sisters (ouch), and also the only member of the family who doesn’t seem particularly beloved by anyone else: her older and younger sisters are each a close-knit pair who also have good friends outside the family, while the parents each have their favorites, all of it excluding Mary. On this reading, though, it seemed likely that Mary is on the autism spectrum, though to Austen’s and therefore Elizabeth’s eyes it just looked like cluelessness. Mary is sententious and blind to social norms, and unlike with Lydia, it isn’t because Mary doesn’t care (she’s visibly embarrassed when her father calls her out at a party). The scene that clinched it for me comes after Lydia’s disgrace, when Mary approaches Elizabeth to suggest that they should “pour into the wounded bosoms of each other the balm of sisterly consolation,” which Elizabeth considers so bizarre that she makes no response. This seems to indicate that either Mary actually does not realize that she and Elizabeth don’t have this kind of relationship, or she’s trying to bond with her but has no idea how to do so. Unfortunately, Mary seems unlikely to improve in understanding when no one can be bothered to explain anything to her.
Reading this right after Emma, I was surprised by how different it felt: shorter chapters, more dialogue, and rather less polished, but perhaps more fun. It didn’t touch me particularly deeply, but I did enjoy it a lot and it also gave me plenty to think about. That’s what makes it a true classic I suppose, that there’s always more to discover and new perspectives to see upon re-reading.