It is a truth universally acknowledged that the life of an author is in her creations. And personal preferences of readers aside, if there is one book that one identifies Jane Austen with, from among the many wonderful ones she has written, it has to be Pride and Prejudice.
Published in 1813, the Elizabeth-Darcy romance celebrates 200 years of its life this year, and if the many articles that are being written to mark the occasion is any proof, their popularity today is no less than when the book was published.
What one is unsure of though, is whether Austen, an open critique of the stereotypes society expected men, and more importantly women, to confirm to, would approve of the book surviving as an epic romance.
Two hundred years after Austen’s signature piece was published, the one element or character that overshadows the rest of Pride and Prejudice, is Darcy and his relationship with the book’s female protagonist, Elizabeth Bennett. Reams have been written analysing taciturn Darcy’s charm for women. He is proud and perverse, brash and opinionated, critical even of the one he loves, difficult to please and reluctant to praise, and yet women over generations have loved and idolised him.
Poor Elizabeth has not been so lucky with the men. She is too independent and proud a heroine, with no frivolous failing, coy art, or weakness to soften her cool good sense, to fan undying passion in the men. Few indeed are the Darcies among the book’s male readers, who would go beyond her ‘just tolerable’ first appearance to appreciate the ‘intelligent’ eyes and their expressions. Or is it that there are just few men who would read Jane Austen’s magnum opus unless they are not forced to, because it is part of their syllabus. Most men are disdainful of the ‘chicklit romance-meets-feminist ideology’ as the book is referred to by many.
My introduction to Pride and Prejudice happened in school, at an age when my friends were still finishing their Nancy Drews and graduating to their first Mills and Boon. Having never read a Mills and Boon, but having heard enough descriptions of ‘tall, dark and handsome’ M&B heroes who held my friends’ imaginations captive, I did the predictable and promptly fell in love with Darcy. He was better than any M&B hero (he had brains, wrote well, and read books, to give an intellectual edge to his smouldering good looks). It would be years before I reached college and as part of my literature course would read analyses of Darcy as the archetypical romance hero. It was also here that I would read Austen’s letters and essays that would give me a peek into the writer’s mind, and start seeing glimpses of her creator in Elizabeth. It was also here that I would be introduced to Pride and Prejudice as a social commentary and not just a great romance (or mother of all chicklits).
For all Darcy’s faults, his relationship with Elizabeth is for Austen, the prototype of the perfect marriage, if there can be a perfect marriage. Proud and opinionated though they both are, Elizabeth and Darcy complement each other, correct each other and together form a unit that others look up to. Elizabeth’s sister Jane and Darcy’s friend Bingley come a close second, but they are both too easy going to be firm even when required, unlike Elizabeth and Darcy who blend a good heart and noble sentiments with cool good sense. Elizabeth’s youngest sister Lydia and Wickham’s marriage is, to put it lightly, rash, based on fleeting passion rather than real love or respect for their partner.
Marriage was important in Austen’s world, especially for the women. Unmarried women were perceived to be a burden for the family, and the brother, who were forced to take care of them. There were a few unfortunate women, forced to work as governesses, but of course they lost all claims to social hierarchy when they those to work. And so, apart from the few, like Darcy’s cousin Anne, who had an independent income fixed on them by their fathers, marriage for girls like Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte, was the only respectable option and explains why a girl of Charlotte’s good sense marries Mr Collins, who no girl with an iota of self respect can be in love with. Unfortunately, a girl with little fortune also had little chance of attracting a wealthy or noble match, unless so great was her beauty and charm that her personal attractions could make up for the deficiencies of her birth. With marriage the prime objective for women from the time she turns 16, the vast majority, with neither great good looks, nor fortune or family name, could ill afford to be choosy when it came to their matrimonial partners.
The term spinster, used for an unmarried woman, originated in the medieval era as spinning wool was one of the few means of livelihood available to a woman to live independently of male economic support. But for ever afterwards, the term has left a bitter aftertaste and is used to refer to a stereotype of an older woman who is unmarried, childless, prissy and repressed.
Two hundred years after Pride and Prejudice was published, not much has changed in society. Women have become increasingly financially independent, but much as a girl hates to admit it, marriage remains, for the majority a social security that not many will find the courage to renounce. So much so, that a modern-day Collins with comfortable means, but little else to recommend him as a husband, is still too proud to imagine a woman capable of refusing him. Worse, he can rape her for refusing him. For a man, having a wife still means returning to a comfortable house, while for a woman marriage is an insurance from unwanted attention, uncomfortable questions about her sexual preferences or her attraction quotient for the men (think Bridget Jones or any Brinda, Bishakha or Bani closer home).
Perhaps, herein lies Darcy’s enduring popularity. For if marriage is a necessary evil for women, Darcy holds out the promise of romance and respect that can make it a rewarding experience. Of course, things might have been different, if Austen had cared to pen a sequel focussing on Elizabeth and Darcy’s life as a married couple.