I don’t much care for Elizabeth Bennet either, to be honest, but I just don’t think their story is the one we should all be swooning over. Across the world theirs is the romance to end all romances, the one that lonely bookish teenage girls clutch to. Somewhere out there they hope to find a rich arrogant man who looks good in a wet shirt and who will insult and judge them and their family before finally growing to love them, inexplicably, out of nowhere, and after being really mean – ah, the stuff that dreams are made of!
Poor Mr Darcy is on a pedestal so high that Elizabeth Bennet is just a speck, far below him. No wonder he’s so bloody cold and distant all the time.
And anyway, Elizabeth only realises she “loves” him when she sees how flipping HUGE his house is. If there was some sort of Regency Cribs on tv Darcy could have shown off his various carriages and horses, and what he keeps in his fridge (enough to feed the entire Bennet tribe for a year) and Elizabeth would have found out she “loved” him a lot quicker and saved everyone a lot of bother, A-level English Lit students in particular.
She’s also won over by the fact that he treats his servants well. Isn’t that nice, eh? Surely all the times he’s been awful to Elizabeth and her family must have been a fluke, because look, he’s nice to his servants! You know what? Adolf Hitler was nice to his dog. That little dog loved him, even though Hitler sometimes had to get Goebbels or Goering or someone else to take him out for walkies because genocide really eats up a lot of time.
Not that I’m comparing Hitler to Darcy (I am), or being a bit mean to someone at a country dance to the slaughter of millions of people (I am) but horrible people can be lovely to some and generally rubbish to the rest of mankind. Darcy was rude, proud, careless and ridiculous. And yes, people can make mistakes and people can learn and people can be forgiven – but Darcy didn’t grow to love Elizabeth after getting to know her – they didn’t know each other at all. To me the fact that the sweet, polite Bingley is such good friends with Darcy is the only reason to give him a second chance. He sorts out the whole Wickham/Lydia mess because he wants to marry Elizabeth. Do you think he would actually care for Lydia, or the fortunes of the Bennets if it weren’t for that? There’s no kindness for or generosity towards others here.
Do you know why there’s no sequel to Pride and Prejudice? This is what I think happened next:
At a pre-wedding soiree Darcy ends up talking to Ugly Sister Mary, who, being Ugly, had no option but to be “bookish”, and as such is quite knowledgable about foreign policy and troop movements and the geology of Kent, and all the things that interest Regency gentlemen. And after a while it becomes clear that they’re both nihilists and don’t like dances and have quite a few things in common, such as a general disdain for the rest of mankind. And Ugly Sister Mary is not really ugly at all, just a bit ordinary, and wears glasses and never gets the nice dresses since the Bennets have decided to put all of their eggs in the lovely blonde angelic basket that is Pretty Sister Jane.
So Darcy realises he’s become engaged to the wrong Bennet sister, and runs off to marry Mary in a no-nonsense ceremony at Gretna Green, before returning to Pemberley to live a quite happy life (for nihilists, anyway). They spend their lives together talking about foreign policy and troop movements and the geology of Kent, and ignoring their children who, inconveniently, keep arriving, like guests at a party they didn’t want to throw who refuse to leave, so are simply tolerated until they grow old enough to contribute to the talk of foreign policy and troop movements and the geology of Kent.
Because in Regency times, the time of “great romance”, love meant something very different indeed. Love, for a woman, meant this:
* He’s older than me but younger than my grandfather.
* He’s rich so I won’t have to go into the poorhouse, whore-house or nunnery (which all amount to same thing in the end, for a woman, which is losing possession of your body and/or soul).
* He’s not covered in hideous boils.
* I don’t think he will be abusive or violent towards me, or oppress me any more than society dictates.
* (And very importantly) He wants to marry me.
Hardly fodder for a rom-com, but the ingredients for a long and companionable marriage, which was what most woman would hope for. They would get married at seventeen, live entirely comfortably with their husbands, pop out a few children as birth control was obviously out of the question, and by the age of thirty give up on themselves and concentrate entirely to the not inconsiderable challenge of raising children and attempting to marry off the girl ones. Any boy ones were a bonus and not really your responsibility. Then, as their husbands were generally quite a bit older, would probably be widowed by forty and, if they were left enough money by their husbands, live out the rest of their lives in the background. Here they’d actually get to do all those things they wanted to do, like write books, or do charitable works, or just get on with making pretty little designs for a table, because widows were largely ignored and left to get on with stuff as long as they didn’t draw too much attention to themselves.
This is why I feel so sorry for Mrs Bennet, as comedic a character as she is. She is trapped in a marriage to a man who mocks her ruthlessly, and whether she is aware of it or not is hardly the point since everyone else is, including her children. Mr Bennet squats in his library like a fort made of books where he can snidely cast insults down at his wife for Elizabeth’s benefit, while poor Mrs Bennet is left to obsess over what will become of her daughters. After all, someone’s got to, and her husband seems to have done nothing to provide for them. She may be a gibbering ridiculous puddle of a woman, but her entire life has become about ensuring the survival of herself and her daughters when the older Mr Bennet passes away. And there’re loads of them. And some of them (*cough*Lydia*cough*) are really annoying – so annoying that it eventually becomes clear that no one would agree to take them without a hefty bribe.
Still, annoying as Lydia is, when you stop to think about it don’t you feel sorry for her, too? Her marriage to Wickham will eventually be as grim and heartless as that of Mr Collins to Charlotte Lucas – perhaps even more so, since Wickham would hardly care enough to start acting anything other than a bastard just because he’s now a husband. Lydia’s barely more than a child – and annoying and silly as she is (what fifteen year old isn’t?) she hardly deserves the slow grinding misery of a life with a husband who will never love her and has probably never even liked her. Hands up who’s been in a relationship with someone you knew loved you less than you loved them? It makes you feel about two inches tall and is generally pretty damn shitty.
I don’t want to ruffle any feathers here – I really do love Austen and Pride & Prejudice too – I’m just more interested in the other characters, rather than Darcy and Elizabeth. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not like I’ve never dreamt of a lovely Regency gentleman sweeping me off my feet, but the man in question normally bears more resemblance to Mr Knightley from Emma (don’t even get me started on their unlikely “love” either).
You see it was always going to work out for Elizabeth and Darcy and Jane and Bingley – they’re life’s natural main characters. But what about those that weren’t blessed with that sort of life – with beauty, or the kind or presence that means they were always going to be the heroes and heroines? What about Mary, and Charlotte Lucas, and Kitty, or Lady Catherine’s daughter Anne, the kind of girls who were destined to be bit-part characters in their own lives? What’s their story – and why couldn’t they be the ones to find true love and happiness?
Today is Pride and Prejudice’s 200th birthday, and there can be no denying its well-deserved place in the pantheon of great literature, nor Austen’s skill. But for me – who was an awkward bookish teenager and who will probably never be one of life’s natural heroines, Pride and Prejudice is ultimately a very sad book. There are two happy endings in a story littered with unfortunate marriages of desperation or necessity. I think Jane and Elizabeth were always destined for, if not a fairytale ending, at least comfortable, companionable marriages of some sort, with or without Darcy and Bingley: they had intelligence, wit, beauty, manners and charm on their side. But the other female characters in the story were always going to be in the shade, and it’s perhaps they that could have benefited more from a happy ending.
Now, if you don’t mind I’ll just brace myself for inevitable pelting of rotten fruit.
(Edit – This is interesting: different takes on the characters of P&P 200 years on – http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jan/26/pride-prejudice-200th-anniversary)