In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, we often think of the story as being a depiction of the Regency era. But does it truly speak to the time? If so, would not Elizabeth Bennet be more sensitive to her family’s situation? Our heroine turns down two proposals, both of which would “save” her family. Is that realistic? Most of us who love this story consider Elizabeth Bennet a responsible, reasonable, pragmatic and mature young lady. Yet, Elizabeth’s actions prove her to be more like her father: self-centered and casually indifferent.
Even if none of her other sisters found husbands, Elizabeth could have secured their futures with the acceptance of either Mr. Collins, who is set to inherit Longbourn, or Mr. Darcy, who owns one of the largest estates in England. Naturally, for us readers, we can never imagine our independent Miss Elizabeth with a buffoon of Mr. Collins’s nature, but should she not know a twinge of regret at having failed her family or displayed a bit of sympathy for her mother’s nerves at knowing disappointment. Obviously, Mrs. Bennet, and likely Mary and perhaps Kitty will be left without a home once Collins assumes control of Longbourn. If Elizabeth had married Collins, he would have been duty bound to provide for her mother and her unmarried sisters. Instead, Elizabeth has a jolly laugh, led on by her father, and at Mr. Collins’s expense and Mrs. Bennet’s chagrin.
“An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. — Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”
Elizabeth could not but smile at such a conclusion of such a beginning; but Mrs. Bennet, who had persuaded herself that her husband regarded the affair as she wished, was excessively disappointed.
After Mr. Darcy’s proposal, Elizabeth later attacks the man with a litany of his shortcomings: haughtiness, disdain for others, interference in Bingley and Jane’s courtship, open disapproval of her family, and his insults directed to others about her.
And I might as well inquire why, with so evident a design of insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your better judgment. If I was uncivil, then that is some excuse. But I have other reasons, you know I have.
Do you think anything might tempt me to accept the hand of the man who has ruined, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister? Do you deny that you separated a young couple who loved each other, exposing your friend to censure of the world for caprice and my sister to derision for disappointed hopes, involving them both in misery of the acutest kind?
Darcy’s has his many faults; there is no denying them. The thing we readers love about him is he is willing to change for the woman he loves. Yet, even with the multitude of his shortcomings, would not it be more realistic (although not as romantic) for Elizabeth, at least, to pause and consider his offer of marriage? In the wealth-obsessed culture depicted in Pride and Prejudice, should not a hesitation exist if this is true to the society of the time? Given at this point in the story, her family is out on their collective keisters if something happens to Mr. Bennet, should not Elizabeth think about her mother and sisters. After all, Collins has married Charlotte Lucas, eliminating all chances of a Bennet sister to become the next mistress of Longbourn, and Mr. Bingley has been persuaded to abandon Jane Bennet, dashing any hopes of a wealthy husband in the form to save them.
That being said, Elizabeth Bennet does not belong to reality. She is a “romantic” character. Therefore, she does ignore the peril in which her family exists, as do the readers. We would not wish to look upon our heroine as a Gold Digger. Otherwise, the readers might question the depth of their true love when Darcy and Elizabeth finally come together at the novel’s end. In a romance, there is always some form of “happily ever after (HEA).”
Romance-Literary Devices tells us, “Etymologically, romance comes from Anglo-Norman and Old French romanz, which means a story of chivalry and love. The word “romance” also refers to romantic love. As far as literature in concerned, the term has an entirely a different concept. It means romantic stories with chivalrous feats of heroes and knights. Romance describes chivalry and courtly love, comprising stories and legends of duty, courage, boldness, battles, and rescues of damsels in distress…. Romanticism is a specific movement and period in English literature during which poems, stories, and novels related to Romantic ideas were created. William Wordsworth, P. B. Shelly, Lord Byron, and John Keats are some of the most famous poets and writers of the Romantic period.”
In Pride and Prejudice, it is those crude characters who represent the farce—the comedic buffoonery—who speak of money and think money will solve all their woes. The novel parades the comedic characters across page after page. We have Mr. Collins, who definitely leads the way. He has good company in Mrs. Bennet, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Anne de Bourgh, Lydia Bennet, Mary Bennet, Sir William Lucas, Caroline Bingley, Louisa Hurst, Mr. Hurst, and Kitty Bennet. The villain, Mr. Wickham, is absolutely obsessed with the idea of money. He goes from Georgiana Darcy’s dowry to the one belonging to Miss King to an elopement with Lydia Bennet to force Darcy into paying him off to save the foolish girl’s reputation, as well as the reputations of all the Bennet sisters. These characters all worry about their financial prospects.
Jane Bennet and Charles Bingley are our Cinderella and Prince Charming types. Their personalities are too good to be true. Jane and Bingley forgive Caroline’s and Darcy’s attempts to keep her and Bingley apart. There is nothing of realism in their relationship. They are less comedic than the ones mentioned above, but certainly there is something of silliness about their relationship.
Only Darcy and Elizabeth come close to realism, and that is because they both possess their faults, prominent among them is “pride” and “prejudice.” Yet, even with the weakness in their character, readers identify with them. There are the romantic elements, separated from the satiric ones. Elizabeth earns the love of a superior man because she is the “superior” Bennet sister. All is well that ends well. Although Collins will one day inherit Longbourn, no one doubts that Darcy and Bingley will join forces to see to the comfort of Mrs. Bennet and any unmarried Bennet daughters. The estate may be lost to the conventions of the day, but the people will not suffer greatly. We have our happy ending, which is not realistic or true to form, but is desired by human kind, for we cannot exist without hope for a better tomorrow.
Note: nobody wore white when marrying until queen Victoria’s nuptials to Albert.
Agreed, but the use of the white or off white gowns in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice was the producer’s error, not Austen’s.
I have always wondered if the romantic poetry of the time influenced Elizabeth’s mantra of marrying for love. It was quite popular literature then. Also maybe Mr Bennet held out hope of one of his daughters marrying and giving birth to a son. I think that grandson would hold a more direct line for inheritance than mr collins . And i always felt mr bennet didnt feel he was going to die soon. Because he remarked about he might out live mrs bennet! Just some of my thoughts
I like all your ideas, Shirley. I am a bit of a romantic also. Although, in truth, most entailments did not work the way you describe. There were those which went through the female line, but the terms of the entailment were set when the first to hold the entail. It was possible for Anne De Bourgh to inherit if the baronetcy her father held was designed for females to inherit. A baronetcy was more likely to have this clause than say say an earldom. A grandson was only able to inherit if Mr. Bennet had a son and that son had a son. In fact, such a scenario was what was required for the entailment to keep it going. Here is a piece on female inheritance: https://reginajeffers.blog/2017/08/31/female-inheritance-laws-an-excerpt-giveaway-from-mr-darcys-brides/ Or this one on the 19th C entailment: https://reginajeffers.blog/2017/08/31/female-inheritance-laws-an-excerpt-giveaway-from-mr-darcys-brides/