I know, I know. What a cliché, right? A fan of Jane Austen who favors Pride and Prejudice over all her other novels. One would almost think that is it a truth universally acknowledged that Pride and Prejudice is a favorite of all Janeites. Not only that, but we all wish to be Miss Elizabeth Bennet and marry Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Well, in my case at least, that’s not quite right. It is true that Pride and Prejudice is my favorite Austen novel. I have re-read it many times. And unlike my slightly manic and obsessive re-readings of Emma in January, I’m not trying to pick up clues about a story untold: I’m simply enjoying the narrative and the writing. I have also re-watched my favorite adaptations – the 1995 BBC one starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, and the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, starring Ashley Clements and Daniel Vincent Gordh – many times.
But I’m not Elizabeth Bennet, quick-witted and arrogant. I do not wish to marry Mr Darcy, proud and reserved. If anything, I am more like Mr Darcy, and would need an Elizabeth Bennet equivalent. (Or I could be an Elinor Dashwood waiting for my Edward Ferrars, or a Jane Fairfax waiting for my Frank Churchill. The great thing about reading all of Austen is that it’s easier to find an analogy that fits you.)
Speaking of adaptations, I’ve yet to see one that depicts the first meeting of Elizabeth and Mr Darcy in a way that truly reflect the book. To give a bit of context, they are at a dance, Elizabeth is sitting down due to a lack of partner, and Mr. Bingley walks up to his good friend Mr. Darcy, standing nearby, and proposes to introduce them, so that Mr. Darcy can invite her to dance.
“Which do you mean?” and turning round he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said: “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me.”
Emphasis mine. Now, I could be wrong, but this is how I’m interpreting that scene.
Darcy isn’t an idiot, he knows that Elizabeth is close enough to hear what he says. And he stares at her until she stares back, before he tells Bingley she’s not good enough for him. This isn’t Lizzie hiding somewhere and overhearing his private conversation like in the 2005 movie version. (And oh, don’t even get me started on that version!) This is Darcy going out of his way to insult her; no wonder she won’t believe he’s in love with her!
And it’s part of what I really like about Pride and Prejudice. Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet both begin the story believing that they are better then everybody else, and they both have to change to get their happy ending. That’s pretty rare. Usually, in romantic literature, you have one character who needs to change and evolve and learn, and the other is already perfect, or at least perfect for the character they are matched with. Pride and Prejudice doesn’t follow that pattern, and maybe that is why it has been such a success in the time of Austen, and why it remains such a success to this day.