Persuasions #11, 1989 Page 66-69
Pride and Prejudice: A Classic Love Story
There is a long and beloved tradition
of scorning love stories and it predates Jane.
It is a tradition that regards love stories as low, not only in a
literary sense but in a moral sense as well.
In the eighteenth century, we saw Lydia Languish, the heroine of
Sheridan’s The Rivals, indulging herself in indolence, silliness, and
bon bons as she devoured one romance novel after another.
In 1989, the image has not changed, except that the scatterbrained ladies
who write these novels no longer wear shawls and bonnets.
They wear fur-trimmed negligees and lie on a divan, dictating their
embarrassing fantasies to a secretary and earning millions of dollars for it.
At least, that’s the way I write all my novels.
the point is, we have been laughing at love stories for so long that we hardly
know how to deal with an intelligent one when we find it, and we find it in Pride
tradition of laughing at love stories is to some degree well founded. Many of the love stories that readers devour are junk.
They were junk in Sheridan’s time, junk in Jane’s time, and they are
junk now. Worse than being junky in
form and language, many are junky in spirit, asking us to swallow false, ugly,
insipid values. I remember one contemporary romance that I could not put
down. It fascinated me from cover
to cover. Yet when I was done, I
felt the way I feel after I’ve consumed a whole bag of fritos. It is right and proper that we separate Jane’s work from
“fritos.” At the same time, we
need to be aware of the pride and prejudice lurking behind this tradition, for
it is a tradition that implies that what is written by, for, and about women and
women’s concerns, is somehow not worthy of respect. “Love story” means “woman’s story,” hence something
that is sentimental, not deserving of attention by intelligent readers, not to
be taken seriously.
materials Jane Austen uses – courtship, love and marriage – may have been
cheapened by lesser writers, but they are not cheap in themselves.
Therefore, what I want to do here is to acknowledge the importance of
Jane Austen’s love story in Pride and Prejudice, to give it the serious
attention accorded other aspects, even peripheral aspects, of the novel, and to
explain why I think that the story of Elizabeth and Darcy’s love is a classic.
Austen infuriates many readers by lapsing into narrative during romantic scenes.
She writes love stories that are the antithesis of what we have come to
think of as romantic. There are no
lush, evocative settings, no physical descriptions of the characters’
appearance and dress, let alone their anatomy, none of the sensual details that
we associate with a love story. Most
of all, there are no standard love scenes; that is to say, there are no scenes
that make it clear that the lovers kiss or embrace. There are love scenes, but they are far from standard and far
from romantic. Jane Austen’s love
scenes are extraordinary for what they imply rather than what they spell out.
of ending with a “clinch,” Jane writes that Mr. Darcy “expressed himself
as a man violently in love is supposed to do.”
What is meant by “expressed himself?”
For some of us, that means a confession of love, the exchange of intimate
vows. For others, it is a
passionate embrace. Jane left it up
to us to decide. She left it up to
us to fill in the scene. Authors,
even more than lovers, I have always believed, need to avoid making fools of
themselves. By giving us good-humoured
suggestion, Jane avoids making a fool of herself with a scene that is almost
doomed to banality. Our imagination
has to fill in the missing romantic details in a highly personal way.
Of course, for this technique to work, the reader must be blessed with
would have liked to see Jane tackle that scene.
I think she was up to it. At
the same time, I like her reticence. It
is in line with what she has done throughout the novel, which is to use
indirection and implication to build sexual tension.
In fact, I believe that Pride and Prejudice set the pattern for
creating sexual tension in the modern love story.
pattern goes something like this: Take
an extremely wealthy, attractive young man and give him several reasons for
being excessively reserved, even rude. Reason
one, he has inherited the same family trait as his cousin Anne and his sister
Georgiana, namely, painful shyness. He
does not know how to make himself agreeable to people.
And he has never had to learn because there are those, like Caroline
Bingley, who will toady to him no matter how badly he behaves.
Reason two, he is proud, having been raised to think himself better than
other people. In fact, he is so
proud that he thinks himself invulnerable to the charms of such a one as
Elizabeth Bennet. Without that
pride, he would never have been in the middle of love before he knew he had
begun. Reason three, he is in a foul mood, having recently rescued
his sister from a disastrous elopement with George Wickham.
The result is a man with a façade that is cold, haughty, intelligent,
critical, and not a little frightening.
give this same man a passion for a woman that requires all his iciest demeanour,
all his pride of family, to be held in check.
Reserved and controlled though he is, however, he cannot keep from
staring at her, which he does so often and so intensely that it becomes highly
noticeable. Elizabeth believes the staring reflects his condemnation of
her appearance and manners. You and
I, of course, know better.
brings me to the second reason why Elizabeth misreads Darcy’s intentions
toward her. Elizabeth’s attraction for Darcy makes her show a greater
hostility toward him than she would ordinarily. The hostility is understandable in some ways – she is
unwilling to be attracted to a man who she believes despises her.
The hostility also comes, I think, from an instinct to resist a pull
toward Darcy, a pull that is intellectual, emotional, and sexual.
me, the most telling moment, the moment that most clearly shows Elizabeth’s
unconscious sense of intimacy with Darcy, is their first conversation at
Hunsford. Darcy comes in to find
Elizabeth alone. Part of their
awkward conversation centres on the marriage of Mr. Collins and Charlotte.
When Darcy remarks that Lady Catherine did a great deal to improve the
cottage, Elizabeth replies, “I am sure she could not have bestowed her
kindness on a more grateful object.” This
allusion to Mr. Collins’s subservience assumes that Mr. Darcy will understand
her, that he shares her satirical view of flatterers.
Then, when Darcy observes that “Mr. Collins appears very fortunate in
his choice of a wife,” Elizabeth makes a remark that is wholly inappropriate
to general conversation, indeed, that is appropriate only to people who have
reached some level of intimacy and understanding.
Elizabeth says, “His friends may well rejoice in his having met with
one of the very few sensible women who would have accepted him, or have made him
happy if they had. My friend has an
excellent understanding, though I am not certain that I consider her marrying
Mr. Collins as the wisest thing she ever did.”
To speak so frankly about her closest friend, to confide her doubts so
openly, Elizabeth must have a sense that she and Darcy share the same view of
happiness, marriage, and wisdom. In
short, she is aware on some level that she and Darcy are soulmates.
as Elizabeth’s growing attachment to Darcy is implied, so Darcy’s merits are
shown rather than stated. I am
always interested when I meet someone who finds Mr. Darcy too rude and cold to
be a romantic hero – someone like my daughter’s British Literature teacher,
who invited me to speak on Jane Austen to her class, and who whispered that if
it weren’t for Laurence Olivier, she would not be able to stand Mr. Darcy.
makes Darcy appealing to me is that he is a contradiction – a man of immense
power and manifold attractions who is helplessly in love with a woman who
fancies herself indifferent. Mr.
Darcy loves Elizabeth enough to overcome all his objections to her family’s
connection with Wickham, to the lack of encouragement from her.
He loves her in spite of the censure he will receive from his family and
the world. He loves her in spite of
the sense that he should not love her. Incredibly,
he loves her enough to overcome his shyness, his reserve, his proud manners, his
seriousness, and his resentment of her refusal – and to overcome these
feelings to such an extent as to perform an anonymous act of self-sacrifice in
order to buy her some peace of mind.
love for Elizabeth makes him a better person, brings out the excellence of his
character. Her dawning love for him
gives depth to her character, gives her experience of more than just laughter at
absurdity, awakens heretofore untouched reserves of gratitude, admiration, and
is what love ideally is – in a love story and perhaps even in life – the
very thing needed to bring people beyond their middling ground to their highest
and Prejudice is a classic love
story because it set the pattern for a modern popular love story, the story in
which an independent-minded and fascinating woman is loved by a remote, powerful
man. The attraction between the two
of them is exhibited as hostility, at least for the first half of the book.
It is the pattern imitated by three-quarters of the romance novels on the
reason why Pride and Prejudice works, in contrast to most of its
imitators, is the fact that the hero and heroine of the love story are loveable.
I see many novels and movies in which I am asked to admire the hero and
heroine because they appear on the pages or the screen as the main character.
That is not enough. I need
to know that the hero, while far from perfect, is capable of putting someone
ahead of himself, of doing something fine when it is in his power, of becoming a
better man by being in love. I need
to know that the heroine, while far from perfect, does more than wear stylish
clothes – that she is a person of intelligence, integrity, and wit.
I need to know that both of them are going to be fun to spend 300 or so
second reason why Pride and Prejudice is a classic love story I have
already alluded to and that is the sexual tension.
This tension comes about, ironically, because the novel is decidedly
unromantic. That is to say, the
attraction between Elizabeth and Darcy is implicit.
Its development depends on our ability to read the double and triple
meanings in the dialogue and in Jane Austen’s narrative.
Pride and Prejudice is a classic love story in its assumption that love
is healthy, that love can actually improve a person’s character, that people
of integrity understand the importance of love in marriage, that their capacity
to love is a measure of their integrity, that love in marriage is not only a
romantic ideal but a moral one as well, and that sensible people can not only
marry both lovingly and prudently but that love can help them make their way in
an absurd world.
the novel is a love story, then Darcy and Elizabeth are obliged to live happily
ever after. Despite the
difficulties they will encounter from Lydia and Wickham’s applications for
money, from Lady Catherine’s resentment, and from Mrs. Bennet’s invariable
silliness, I think we can say they will live happily ever after.
After all, they have disproved Charlotte Lucas’s contention that “it
is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom
you are to pass your life.” Their
union will, I am convinced, “teach the admiring multitude what connubial
felicity really is,” for Elizabeth and Darcy have seen each other at their
very worst, and they love each other anyway.
“so much love and eloquence” (PP)