In deviation from the usual poetry/mini-stories, today I am posting an essay on Pride and Prejudice, a book a recently finished reading and thorougly enjoyed.
An Exceptional Exception
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman in want of literary success must, as a rule, endure a terribly tragic life. Charlotte Brontë’s mother died of cancer when she was five years old (Watt 526). Two of Mary Shelley’s three children died and her husband drowned (Merritt 314). Virginia Woolf’s mother and half-sister both died before she was sixteen (Espey 337). However, as with all rules in the English language, there is always an exception to the rule. Her name is Jane Austen. Austen lived a comfortable life associating with the well-to-do of the English countryside. She had a large, happy family that loved literature, and she possessed a witty mind buzzing with opinions and observations. Just as Jane Austen’s life sharply contrasts with other British authors’ lives, her writing contrasts with the literary and social expectations of Regency England. Pride and Prejudice, a novel by Jane Austen, breaks away from Romantic literary tradition and explores and seeks to remedy the snoberey of the high-class English.
Jane Austen decided to reject contemporary Romantic literary tradition and write according to her own style. An essay by Gary Kelly states that, “the [Austens] were readers, though more in literature of the day than abstruse learning” (Kelly). This means that Jane Austen was well-versed in Romantic literature which “focused on ‘the common people’” and featured a “deep attachment to nature” (Literature: The British Tradition 570-71). In response to Romanticism, Austen chose to focus on interpersonal relationships instead of human-nature relationships. Pride and Prejudice is surprisingly under-stocked with the flowery soliloquies on nature which tend to permeate Romantic British literature. Instead, Austen relies on dialogue for descriptive purposes, a radical decision for her time. Her gift for dialogue is partially the result of her family’s enthusiasm for putting on small amateur plays (Kelly). In fact, she chooses not to divulge details about the appearance of the characters in the story. Rather, the reader must create a mental picture of the characters based on the characters’ conversations and personalities. The reader must populate the story with people from his or her life which are reminiscent of the characters in the story. Thus, the novel’s effect on the reader is expanded exponentially. Recognizing that she was writing for an audience that would understand and expect references to nature, Austen did not ignore the natural world completely. When Elizabeth visits Pemberley, Austen takes care to subtly highlight the beauty of the grounds. Elizabeth’s is impressed by the grounds at Pemberley because “she had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by awkward taste” (Austen 115). Such references to nature, peppered throughout Elizabeth’s time at Pemberley, are symbolic of the slowly blooming true love between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth. It is important to note, however, that Austen references nature which has been tamed and cared for by humans rather than wild nature. Even in her brief mentions of the natural world, Austen focuses on the human rather than the natural. Jane Austen’s conscious decision to reject the Romantic tradition of her contemporaries sets her in a class all her own.
Sticking to her literary instincts, Jane Austen chose to draw on her surroundings for inspiration. In an 1853 essay, J. F. Kirk explains that, “[Jane Austen] gives us only such characters and scenes as faithfully represent the manners of the society in which she lived” (Kirk 32). Pride and Prejudice is set in Longbourn, a rural English town; Austen grew up in Steventon, a small village in the southern English county of Hampshire (Kelly). The Austen family regularly “mingled easily with other gentrified professionals and with local gentry families” (Kelly). This gave Jane Austen a thorough understanding of the wealthy people of the English countryside. She used her knowledge of the English upper classes to create characters such as the pompous Lady Catherine de Bourgh and the prideful Mr. Darcy. Lady Catherine treats anyone who is of a lower social status than herself as inferior. When she visits the Bennet’s, whom she considers inferior, she “enter[s] the room with an air more than usually ungracious, ma[kes] no attempt to reply to [a] salutation than a slight inclination of the head, and [sits] down without saying a word” (Austen 166). Lady Catherine’s blatant contempt for the Bennet family shows she has no qualms about treating those of a lower social standing than herself disrespectfully. She expects everyone to acknowledge her status and acquiesce to her every wish. The fabulously wealthy Mr. Darcy treats Elizabeth Bennet, Austen’s independent female heroine, with similar contempt when he refuses to dance with her upon his friend’s suggestion because she is, “tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me [Darcy]” (Austen 7). When Mr. Darcy uses the word handsome, he is referring to both Elizabeth’s beauty and her social status. Although his assessment of Elizabeth is said behind her back, Darcy’s statement illustrates his prejudice against her social standing. Like Lady Catherine, Mr. Darcy avoids fraternizing with anyone below his social class, though he is less forward and blunt in making it known.
While Austen did her best to portray the snobbery of the English high class realistically in Pride and Prejudice, she was not content to let prejudice blind her characters against the injustice of unfair treatment. Austen utilizes Elizabeth Bennet’s character to call out the wrongness of the status quo. Elizabeth Bennet stands up to Lady Catherine by refusing to comply with Lady Catherine’s demands regarding Mr. Darcy, and she stands up to Mr. Darcy by declining his first marriage proposal. Through Elizabeth, Austen exposes the obtuseness of treating people a specific way because of their class. Austen’s message is very egalitarian—that all people are fundamentally equal. This notion contrasted with the strict hierarchal social structure of England in Austen’s time, and might have invited aggressive criticism from the upper classes, had she not also included other, more compassionate high-class characters in Pride and Prejudice.
Mr. Bingley, a wealthy friend of Mr. Darcy’s, stands as a stalwart example of how a gentleman should act in Austen’s view. Mr. Bingley is “just what a young man ought to be… sensible, good-mannered, and lively” (Austen 8). The other characters in Pride and Prejudice, especially the women, immediately take a liking to Mr. Bingley. He seems to understand that wealth does not determine the worth of a person, and, by accepting everyone, everyone comes to accept and respect him. Although Mr. Darcy treats those of the lower class with disdain at the beginning of the novel, Mr. Darcy begins to act more and more like Mr. Bingley once he has a change of heart and overcomes his pride. Reflecting on his past conduct, Mr. Darcy explains, “The recollection of what I then said—of my conduct, my manners, and my expressions…—is now … inexpressibly painful to me” (Austen 174). Mr. Darcy’s repentance is Jane Austen’s way of showing that there is a hope for snobbish, high-class people to overcome personal prejudice and treat everyone with respect. Indeed, this lesson is the reason that Austen entitled the novel Pride and Prejudice. Of course, it is better and simpler to act as Mr. Bingley did, with kindness from the start, than to struggle to become a more compassionate person. Jane Austen’s portrayal of the high-class not only presents the problems with the Regency English social hierarchy, but also, through Mr. Darcy, a way to remedy such problems.
There is a simple reason that Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has endured the test of time as a classic. Though it was written over two-hundred years ago, the lessons it teaches are timeless and Austen’s wit is just as sharp today as it was in rural Regency England. By breaking away from Romantic literary constraints, Austen proves that it is better to be the exception in society than one of the mindless drivel of the masses. Austen’s writing stands as a poignant commentary on the human condition, teaching people to treat each other as equals regardless of wealth or social status. To this day, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice stands, not as a dusty reminder of a bygone time, but as a shining example of fearless individuality—an exceptional exception.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. [S.I.]: State Street, 2000. Print.
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Kelly, Gary. “Jane Austen.” British Romantic Novelists, 1789-1832. Ed. Bradford Keyes Mudge. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 116. Literature Resource Center. Web. 22 Oct. 2012.
Kirk, J. F. Nineteeth-Century Literature Criticism. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 1981. 32-33. Print.
Merritt, James D. “Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft.” The World Book Encyclopedia. Vol. 17. Chicago: World Book- Childcraft International, 1981. 314. Print.
“The Romantic Age.” Literature: The British Tradition. Fourth ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ.: Prentice Hall, 1996. 565-75. Print.
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