Persuasions #11, 1989                                                                                                                                                                 Page 66-69

Pride and Prejudice: A Classic Love Story 

Fort Collins, CO

 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.

But 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 and Prejudice.

The 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.

The 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.

Jane 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.

       Instead 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 imagination.

I 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.

       The 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.

Now 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.

This 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.

For 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.

       Just 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.

       What 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.

       His 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 tenderness.

       That 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 capacities.

Pride 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 shelves.

One 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 pages with.

A 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.

Finally, 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.

       If 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)

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