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“If Art Could Tell”: A Miltonic Reading of Pride and Prejudice

IN HER RECENT BOOK, JANE AUSTEN THE READER: The Artist as Critic, Olivia Murphy discusses Austen’s “system of covert quotations” (93), and offers a subtle reading of Austen’s reworking of Paradise Lost in the context of the Romantic era’s reappraisal of Milton’s work (110-15, 117, 119-20, 202-03).  In Mansfield Park in particular, Murphy argues, “The decisions Austen makes in her reworking of Paradise Lost redress the most misogynist aspects of Milton’s epic” (113).  Murphy is not alone in arguing for a connection between Paradise Lost and Jane Austen’s novels.1  Before her, Jocelyn Harris had also made an extensive case, including a passing hint that Pride and Prejudice is among the Milton-influenced works (213 and passim).  What is missing, up to this point, is a longer discussion on how Pride and Prejudice could be included as well among the works of Austen that have interacted with Paradise Lost in some way (cf. Rogers xxxix-xlv). 

John Milton

Portrait of John Milton, from
the second edition of Paradise Lost (1674).

Even a casual reader of Pride and Prejudice can see that its author is concerned, in fact almost obsessed, with questions of rank and status.  The affectation, artificiality, and falseness of aristocratic posturing eat away at Elizabeth Bennet unrelentingly.  Snobbery, alienation, lies, and immorality underscore the malaise caused by this social system of privilege.  By contrast, Elizabeth finds a balm in the natural world—a world almost set apart.  Almost.  The exception is Pemberley.  On the quasi-pilgrimage to Derbyshire, Elizabeth is skeptical:  “She must own that she was tired of great houses; after going over so many, she really had no pleasure in fine carpets or satin curtains” (267).  But Mrs. Gardiner coaxes her:  “‘If it were merely a fine house richly furnished,’ said she, ‘I should not care about it myself; but the grounds are delightful.  They have some of the finest woods in the country’” (267).  Pemberley.  A place so beautiful, so natural, but also so rich.  How is Pemberley to be reconciled with all that is bad about elitism? 

Jane Austen finds a way.  She reaches back to an early art, a much younger time, a perfect place.  Back to Paradise, where human beings are endowed with true nobility and an elevated status, making them vice-regents of the world as man and woman.  In Austen’s description of Pemberley we find echoes of the greatest of all writers on the topic of Paradise, John Milton.  Furthermore, in several descriptions of Elizabeth and Darcy, the Miltonic art of grandeur is also evident. 

But why Milton?  Because Milton is the master artist of subversion, the very idea that grips Jane Austen.  In the late 1700s a re-evaluation of Milton’s Paradise Lost was emerging which would produce a corrective to the perceived sexism in the poem.  As Joseph Wittreich argues in The Feminist Milton

From the very beginning, women seemed to have understood that the Edenic books of Paradise Lost held the poem’s political content, that in them the poem’s sexual politics were to be sought and could be found only by resisting the easy temptation, as Fredric Jameson describes it, “to show that class attitudes condition Milton’s sexual politics,” and more, “that patriarchal attitudes end up programming [Milton’s] public positions in the political field.”  It is just such attitudes and values—this official ideology—that, inscribed within its boundaries, Paradise Lost exposes, deliberately, in a poetry of planned subversion.  (74) 

Breaking away from the superficial interpretation of Paradise Lost, Milton’s female readers discovered the underlying elevation of women in the poem. 

Women were not quaking and trembling in the face of Milton’s authority, but rather engaging Milton as an authority and making of him their sponsor.  They had in their classrooms the same text the men did, but found in it a strikingly different poem because of their decidedly different surmises, at least initially, about how to read it and with what emphasis.  (77) 

It is obvious that the same poem that produced moralistic patriarchal dogmatism also planted the seeds of a feminist revolution.  Thanks to Milton’s art, this revolution began from the inside, from accepted tradition, based on the equality of Adam and Eve at Creation.  The power of such an idea was so great simply because it could not be refuted. 

Milton, therefore, became an important part of women’s education, a topic heatedly discussed in Pride and Prejudice (42-43, 186) as well as critiqued, particularly in the characters of Mary (7, 27, 67) and Mr. Collins (76-77).  Undoubtedly, Jane Austen was versed in Milton’s works and very likely in the new interpretation of him evolving in her day.  A possible parallel to her view of Milton might be found in Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, a work well known to Austen.2  The heroine, Harriet Byron, champions the study of two texts as superior to any university education in classical languages and literature—the Bible and Milton.  These two books equal any classical writer in literary genius and actually trump them all in moral genius.  In fact, Milton actually offers women, who are de facto excluded from a university education, an exposure to the classical writers by using the epic form developed by the ancients (Richardson 63-64).  All of this is to say that Paradise Lost could have profoundly affected Jane Austen, herself an artist-subverter, who said of the novel writer: 

Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried.  From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers.  And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens,—there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.  (NA 30-31) 

We certainly hear an echo of Richardson’s Grandison in Austen’s critique here.  When coupled with Austen’s known familiarity with Richardson’s work, it is quite possible that Milton was also important to her. 

The purpose of the present study, then, is to explore what a profound influence of Paradise Lost on Austen’s most prominent novel, Pride and Prejudice, might look like.  In its descriptions of a perfect place and characterizations of an almost perfect person, we find that Pride and Prejudice is saturated with connections to Milton’s epic poem. 

The influence of Paradise Lost on Austen’s description of Pemberley 

Although scholars often regard Pemberley as a kind of “paradise” (e.g., Elfenbein 119) or even an allusion to Paradise itself (e.g., Searle 22), the direct influence of Paradise Lost on Austen’s extensive ekphrasis deserves special attention. 

First of all, there is considerable suspense leading up to the actual description of Pemberley.  Early on in the novel, we are told that Pemberley is “‘delightful’” and inimitable, and, as his sister urges, Mr. Bingley says that he will take “‘Pemberley for a kind of model’” for the home that he eventually hopes to purchase (41).  Closer to the time of the crucial visit to Pemberley, Mrs. Gardiner gushes about how great the place is:  “‘the grounds are delightful.  They have some of the finest woods in the country’” (267).  And the anticipation builds as Elizabeth and company slowly approach the place:  “Elizabeth, as they drove along, watched for the first appearance of Pemberley Woods with some perturbation; and when at length they turned in at the lodge, her spirits were in a high flutter” (271).  The spiritual appeal of the place is undeniable.  In a similar way, Paradise Lost gives us an idea of increasing expectancy as Satan slowly makes his way toward the Garden of Eden.  Directly after his fall, the elaborate presentation of Satan’s journey to Eden unfolds in slow motion (4.131-73), anticipation mounting as he reaches the blocked entrance and leaps over (4.181-93).  In both cases, the description serves to focus the readers’ attention on the all-important destination of the journey, heightening our expectation of its significance and of the transformative events that will happen there (cf. Lewis 49-50). 

Upon entering this extraordinary place, Austen gives wide scope to Pemberley’s woods and water, and once inside the house itself, Elizabeth looks out successive windows onto the gorgeous grounds of the estate.  Later that same day, she and her aunt and uncle take a walking tour of the grounds, which permits further detailing of their excellent natural qualities.  Usually a minimalist with respect to description (cf. Elfenbein), Austen’s account here is a strong exception to the rule.  The effect is to throw even more rhetorical weight on Pemberley as an object of utmost importance. 

Employing an unusual form, Austen mostly stresses what Pemberley lacks.  It is “without any artificial appearance,” it is “neither formal nor falsely adorned,” and natural beauty there is not “counteracted by an awkward taste.”  Elizabeth “had never seen a place for which nature had done more” (271).  Milton uses the same technique to describe Paradise.  Because of the perfections of the place, he is forced to use dissimilitude, much as Ben Jonson did in “To Penshurst” (“Thou art not, Penshurst, built to envious show . . .”).  For Milton, anything known in the postlapsarian world seems inferior in comparison with Paradise.  Milton realizes that even his own prodigious poetic skill cannot adequately convey the splendors of that perfectly wild primordial place: 

Southward through Eden went a River large,
Nor chang’d his course, but through the shaggy hill
Pass’d underneath ingulft, for God had thrown
That Mountain as his Garden mould high rais’d
Upon the rapid current, which through veins
Of porous Earth with kindly thirst up-drawn,
Rose a fresh Fountain, and with many a rill
Water’d the Garden; thence united fell
Down the steep glade, and met the nether Flood,
Which from his darksome passage now appears,
And now divided into four main Streams,
Runs diverse, wand’ring many a famous Realm
And Country whereof here needs no account,
But rather to tell how, if Art could tell,
How from that Sapphire Fount the crisped Brooks,
Rolling on Orient Pearl and sands of Gold,
With mazy error under pendant shades
Ran Nectar, visiting each plant, and fed
Flow’rs worthy of Paradise which not nice Art
In Beds and curious Knots, but Nature boon
Pour’d forth profuse on Hill and Dale and Plain . . .  (4.223-43, emphasis mine) 

As Milton emphasizes, the Garden of Eden has natural flower displays, “which not nice Art . . . / but Nature boon Pour’d forth profuse.”  Milton takes a jab here at the artificial, man-made, sculpted English gardens that are vastly inferior to the one that God himself planted in Eden, with its natural profusion, dramatic anfractuosity, and riot of colors.3  Moreover, the streams that flow through Paradise, running “[w]ith mazy error under pendant shades,” are similar to what Elizabeth sees from the house:  “the river, the trees scattered on its banks, and the winding of the valley” (272).  Later on, she comes upon “a narrow walk” along a stream at Pemberley and “long[s] to explore its windings” (280). 

Besides exemplifying the negative-as-positive descriptive form, the passage from Paradise Lost cited above also illustrates several other points about Austen’s description of Pemberley.  First, Milton’s reference to the river of Paradise that divided into four main streams is like the watercourse in front of the house at Pemberley, where “a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance” (271).  Moreover, Milton’s elaborate description of the river of Paradise’s “mazy error under pendant shades” could be an apt source for Austen’s description of the stream of Pemberley:  “Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned.”  The “pendant shades” anticipate Elizabeth’s later walk on the grounds of Pemberley, which includes “a descent among hanging woods, to the edge of the water” (280).  The “‘shades of Pemberley’” will figure prominently later in the story, and Lady Catherine’s fear of those shades being polluted through Elizabeth and her family (396, 430) seems to echo the story of the Fall (cf. Gen 3:17:  “Because you [Adam] have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you”).4  The term shades in the sense of “woods” occurs frequently in Paradise Lost (e.g., 3.734, 7.331, 9.408, 11.270). 

Perhaps the strongest similarity between Pemberley and Milton’s Paradise comes through one repeated description—delight.  Early in the novel, a discussion ensues about Pemberley, in which Miss Bingley expresses the hope to her brother, “‘Charles, when you build your house, I wish it may be half as delightful as Pemberley’” (41).  In addition, Elizabeth’s aunt independently refers to the grounds of Pemberley as “‘delightful’” (267); therefore, the fact that “Elizabeth [is] delighted” at the first sight of Pemberley Woods (271) puts special emphasis on the term.  Later, from within the house, Elizabeth has an opportunity to look out the windows on the grounds and has another experience of “delight”: 

Elizabeth . . . went to a window to enjoy its prospect.  The hill, crowned with wood, from which they had descended, receiving increased abruptness from the distance, was a beautiful object.  Every disposition of the ground was good; and she looked on the whole scene, the river, the trees scattered on its banks, and the winding of the valley, as far as she could trace it, with delight.  (272) 

Why all this attention to Elizabeth’s reaction of delight?  I would like to suggest that Austen implicitly compares Pemberley to Eden, which in Hebrew means “delight.”5  This meaning is underscored already in Genesis itself, insofar as the Garden contains every tree that was “delightful to look at and good for food” (Gen 2:9). 

Milton plays upon this meaning of Eden as “delight” as his Satan responds in much the same way when he first sees Paradise.  Its air “to the heart inspires / Vernal delight and joy, able to drive / All sadness but despair” (4.154-56).  Satan further experiences the place as a veritable heaven on earth: 

Beneath him with new wonder now he views
To all delight of human sense expos’d,
In narrow room Nature’s whole wealth, yea more,
A Heaven on Earth:  for blissful Paradise
Of God the Garden was, by him in the East
Of Eden planted.  (4.205-10) 

Soon, however, Satan, who “Saw undelighted all delight” (4.286), threatens mischief: 

Ah gentle pair, yee little think how nigh
Your change approaches, when all these delights
Will vanish and deliver ye to woe,
More woe, the more your taste is now of joy.  (4.366-69) 

Hence, the use of the term “delighted” or “delightful” in the context of a rural idyll such as Pemberley evokes the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2 and 3 in Miltonic terms. 

In one last example, the description of Pemberley as paradisiacal is dependent even more specifically on Paradise Lost.  When Elizabeth eats at Pemberley, she and the other guests are served “a variety of all the finest fruits in season,” which include “grapes, nectarines, and peaches” (296).  As Pat Rogers points out, although nectarines had been introduced from China into England by the early seventeenth century, the fruit was still not widely cultivated (523).  Most likely, this rather rare fruit was grown at Pemberley itself.  Therefore, it seems more than coincidental that in Paradise Lost, the only fruit—besides the forbidden apple—that Adam and Eve are explicitly said to have eaten in Paradise is “Nectarine Fruits” (4.331-33), a category that probably includes peaches.6 

The influence of Paradise Lost on Austen’s characters 

In the previous section, I have argued that the description of Pemberley has a significant affinity with Paradise Lost.  This resemblance raises the question of whether the influence of Milton’s epic poem can be felt in other parts of Pride and Prejudice—for example, in the description of Austen’s characters. 

At the very outset of the novel we have the curious axiom about marriage:  “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (3).  According to John Mullan, “Austen’s stories rely on an acknowledgment of men’s sexual appetites, which explain why that ‘truth universally acknowledged,’ an affluent bachelor’s desire for a wife, is in fact true” (167).  But such a view does not seem to do justice to the bachelors of Pride and Prejudice.  Can there be more to the opening line of Pride and Prejudice than simply money and sex?  In view of this discussion of Pemberley and its dependence on Paradise Lost, the interpretive framework shifts to a more Miltonic perspective.  It is possible, then, that the opening line reflects Genesis—“It is not good that the man should be alone” (2:18)—as mediated through Paradise Lost:  “Man by number is to manifest / His single imperfection” (8.422-23).  Adam argues that man needs “conversation with his like to help, / Or solace his defects” (8.418-19).  If so, Adam’s argument explains why that “truth” is “universally acknowledged” and corresponds to the extreme happiness and the perfect companions Bingley and Darcy find in matrimony.  Even in the case of the maladroit Mr. Collins, marriage to Charlotte is definitely a great personal gain. 

Elizabeth, arguably Austen’s favorite and “as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print” (29 January 1813), can be seen in light of Milton’s Eve.  This viewpoint is especially plausible since, as I have argued, Pemberley is portrayed as Paradise, and Elizabeth, upon seeing Pemberley for the first time, “felt, that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” (271).  Furthermore, Elizabeth dates her love for Darcy “‘from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley’” (414).  Elizabeth, like Eve, comes to find true love in the context of an earthly paradise, realizing at Pemberley that, as Eve says to Adam in postlapsarian Paradise, “with thee to go, / Is to stay here; without thee here to stay, / Is to go hence unwillingly; thou to mee / Art all things under Heav’n, all places thou” (12.615-18). 

Milton’s Eve is one of the most original and enchanting characters ever created, the perfect combination of simplicity and complexity, gentleness and sharpness, grateful dependence and fierce independence.  In short, she is a character who embodies all the intricacies of human nature.  It is no wonder, then, that Austen’s Elizabeth draws so many traits from her.  Eve has a lively free spirit, which is most clearly seen in her conversation with Adam just before the Fall (9.204-403).  As a co-regent, Eve proposes her own plan for managing the great wild Garden of Paradise, a plan that involves working independently so as not to be distracted by each other’s company (204-25).  The plan is sensible, and Adam takes it seriously even though he prefers to work near her (226-50).  His big concern is that Eve will encounter some evil and that he will not be there to protect her (251-69).  But Eve does not back down, so assured is she of her own strength (273-89).  For a second time, Adam explains his fear of leaving her alone and unprotected, thinking they have a better chance of resisting any foe together rather than separately (291-316).  Eve is now vexed, insisting that God has made both of them strong enough to withstand any temptation alone, otherwise they would not be truly free.  Freedom is something Eve equates with happiness, the very essence of Eden (322-40).  But even after her husband’s third retort, expounding the principles of free will and the need for mutual regulation (342-75), Eve remains adamant and takes her fateful leave of Adam, an exit that Milton links to several outdoorsy Greek goddesses (386-95).  Eve’s feelings, personal energy, and sense of purpose make her a formidable partner.

In addition to her dynamic personality, Eve also has a unique and powerful attractiveness.  Milton especially underscores the impact of her eyes and hair.  Her impressive eyes are variously described as expressing conjugal attraction and containing heaven and fire (4.492; 8.489; 9.1036).  Adam is smitten at their first encounter: 

here passion first I felt,
Commotion strange, in all enjoyments else
Superior and unmov’d, here only weak
Against the charm of Beauty’s powerful glance.  (8.529-33) 

Milton characterizes Eve’s unruly hair as disheveled, wanton, loose, discomposed, and disordered (4.306, 497; 5.10; 10.911). 

To her phenomenal personality and appearance, Milton adds an extremely active nature.  Eve seems ever propelled to walk around and explore, either by an internal voice or unquenchable desire (5.36; 9.1135-36, 1145-46).  The walks seem to be what she will miss most about Paradise. 

Must I thus leave thee Paradise? thus leave
Thee Native Soil, these happy Walks and Shades,
Fit haunt of Gods?  (11.269-71) 

And since she does all this walking naked, her skin is surely tanned (4.290, 495-96; 5.379-80, 444). 

Sparkle, beauty, and fitness would be incomplete, however, without intelligence.  Here, as before, Milton uses superlatives when it comes to Eve.  She is über intelligent: 

so absolute she seems
And in herself complete, so well to know
Her own, that what she wills to do or say,
Seems wisest, virtuousest, discreetest, best;
All higher knowledge in her presence falls
Degraded. . . .
Authority and Reason on her wait,
As one intended first, not after made
Occasionally; and to consummate all,
Greatness of mind.  (8.547-57) 

With such a completely idealized model as Eve, it is no surprise that she becomes embedded in our memories as a transcendent figure, living on in our imaginations well after the Fall. 

Like Eve in Paradise Lost, Elizabeth is portrayed as a lively free spirit, by turns described as playful, wild, good-humored, and sportive (12, 26, 39, 46, 101, 206, 430).  Like Eve, she is not afraid of voicing her opinions or even of contradicting others (42-43, 186-87).  Darcy is in fact “bewitched” by her straightforwardness (57).  In her verbal duels with Darcy and Lady Catherine, Elizabeth will simply not back down in her resolve to defend her family and maintain her suitability as a marriage partner (211-13, 391-97).  Mrs. Bennet hits the nail on the head when she declares Lizzy to be “‘headstrong’” but also “‘good natured’” (123-24). 

Natural beauty is also Elizabeth’s trademark, with both eyes and hair given special attention.  At first, Darcy does not find anything attractive about her; then, almost against his will, she begins to grow on him. 

[N]o sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes.  To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying.  Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing. . . . (25-26) 

As for eyes, Elizabeth’s are repeatedly called “fine” and “bright.”  They, in fact, become a running theme in conversations between Miss Bingley and Darcy: 

“I can guess the subject of your reverie.”

“I should imagine not.”

“You are considering how insupportable it would be to pass many evenings in this manner—in such society; and indeed I am quite of your opinion. . . .”

“Your conjecture is totally wrong, I assure you.  My mind was more agreeably engaged.  I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow.”  (30)7 

 Elizabeth’s hair is also in the spotlight after her walk to Netherfield:  “‘so untidy, so blowsy!’” (39).  But even Lady Catherine however grudgingly, must concede Elizabeth’s astonishing appeal: “‘your arts and allurements may . . . have made [Darcy] forget what he owes to himself and to all his family.  You may have drawn him in’” (392-93).

Elizabeth also shares Eve’s love of walking, which makes her the object of ridicule between Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst. 

“She has nothing, in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent walker.  I shall never forget her appearance this morning.  She really looked almost wild.”

“She did indeed, Louisa.  I could hardly keep my countenance.  Very nonsensical to come at all!  Why must she be scampering about the country, because her sister had a cold?”. . .

“To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ancles in dirt, and alone, quite alone!  what could she mean by it?  It seems to me to shew an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum.”  (39)8 

Not surprisingly, Elizabeth’s face, like Eve’s, shows the tanning effects of the sun (299). 

Even Elizabeth’s intelligence is analogous to Eve’s.  Elizabeth, too, is recognized for her quality of mind.  Her father remarks that she has “‘something more of quickness than her sisters’” (5) and a “greatness of mind” (330); Darcy sees her as “uncommonly intelligent” (26) and admires the “‘liveliness of [her] mind” (421). 

Just as Eve’s manner, looks, vigor, and intellect correspond to the roughness and wild exuberance of Paradise (see Dobranski), so also Elizabeth’s personality, countenance, heartiness, and aptitude correspond to paradisiacal Pemberley.  These natural beauties, like their ideal surroundings, are the very opposite of pretentious sophistication.  They are the real thing. 

A final connection between Eve and Elizabeth might be found in Elizabeth’s self-description.  After becoming engaged to Darcy, Elizabeth writes to her aunt, “‘I am the happiest creature in the world.  Perhaps other people have said so before, but not one with such justice’” (424).  This reference to Elizabeth’s creatureliness, the use of the superlative, and the reference to the past help us to triangulate an allusion to Paradise Lost.  Ironically, of course, Eve is the archetypal woman who first voiced just such a sentiment to her husband and with obviously far greater warrant: 

O thou for whom
And from whom I was form’d flesh of thy flesh,
And without whom am to no end, my Guide
And Head, what thou hast said is just and right.
For wee to him indeed all praises owe,
And daily thanks, I chiefly who enjoy
So far the happier Lot, enjoying thee
Preëminent by so much odds, while thou
Like consort to thyself canst nowhere find.” (4.440-48)

Seen in this light, Elizabeth’s sentiments are very similar to Eve’s. 

She began now to comprehend that he was exactly the man, who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her.  His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes.  It was an union that must have been to the advantage of both; by her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved, and from his judgment, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance.  (344) 

We clearly see many connections between Eve and Elizabeth—in character description and in the central story line.  What could explain these correspondences better than seeing in Paradise Lost a foundation for Jane Austen’s creative genius to build on?

There are several other characters with Paradise Lost connections of less significance and of a sadder tenor—connections to the lurking evil that finds its way into the happy realm.  When Satan finally finds the entrance to Paradise, instead of going through it, he leaps over the wall:  “So clomb this first grand Thief into God’s Fold: / So since into his Church lewd Hirelings climb” (4.192-93).  In other words, Milton compares Satan’s leap into Eden with the entrance of “lewd hirelings” (self-serving clergymen) into the Church.  Does this description not cause us to think of Mr. Collins, whose sole interest in the Church seems to be his own pecuniary advantage (e.g., 113)?  Another possible example could be the marriage of Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins.  Although she has no romantic interest in Mr. Collins, Charlotte marries him anyway in order to secure her own financial future (138, 140-41, 153).  The division of labor that she arranges with her husband—she to her parlor, he to his garden (177, 189)—may recall the division of labor that Eve recommends to Adam, an arrangement that leads to the Fall (9.205-25). 

The villain of Pride and Prejudice clearly has many connections to Satan in Paradise Lost.  Underneath a cherubic façade, both characters hide a vicious core.  Milton’s Satan is able to deceive “the third part of Heav’n’s Host” with his alluring countenance and captivating lies (5.708-10).  Under his influence man and woman are deceived, “flatter’d out of all, believing lies” (10.42).  It is easy to see Austen’s sweet-talking lady’s man, whose name at least in hindsight evokes the term “wicked,” as a devil.  Wickham is unmistakably modeled on Satan, the most infamous seducer bar none.  As Satan is presented as a “counterfeit” with “outward calm, / Artificer of fraud; and was the first / That practis’d falsehood under saintly show, / Deep malice to conceal, couch’t with revenge” (4.117, 120-23), Wickham’s vindictive actions similarly target Darcy. 

So completely is Eve duped by the inveterate deceiver that nothing but hindsight can reveal him as he truly is.  The same is true in Pride and Prejudice.  Only after Darcy’s revelations about Wickham’s attempted seduction of Darcy’s sister, Georgiana (foreshadowing Wickham’s successful seduction of her own sister Lydia), is Elizabeth able to recognize Wickham as a scoundrel.  But at first, “His countenance, voice, and manner, had established him at once in the possession of every virtue” (228), and even she is at that time quite susceptible to his seductive powers.  In response to her Aunt Gardiner’s warning about becoming romantically involved with Wickham, Elizabeth asks, “‘[H]ow can I promise to be wiser than so many of my fellow-creatures if I am tempted, or am I even to know that it would be wisdom to resist?’” (164, emphasis mine).  Could Eve have said it better?  After the revelation of Wickham’s true character, even Jane has difficulty “believing that so much wickedness existed in the whole race of mankind, as was here collected in one individual” (249).  For Jane, “‘there is such an expression of goodness in his countenance! such an openness and gentleness in his manner’” (250).  Elizabeth is quick to reply, “‘One has got all the goodness [Darcy], and the other all the appearance of it [Wickham]’” (250).  In the end, of course, everyone is able to see Wickham with different eyes: 

All Meryton seemed striving to blacken the man, who, but three months before, had been almost an angel of light.  He was declared to be in debt to every tradesman in the place, and his intrigues, all honoured with the title of seduction, had been extended into every tradesman’s family.  Every body declared that he was the wickedest young man in the world; and every body began to find out, that they had always distrusted the appearance of his goodness.  (325) 

This recognition is obviously described ironically, as seen not only by the “honoured” “title of seduction” but also by the reference to Wickham as “almost an angel of light.”  We are meant to think of Lucifer, another name for Satan, an angel of light, whose name means “light-bringing, morning star” (from Latin lux, luc- “light” + -fer “bearing”).  Milton gives wide scope to this identity in Paradise Lost, where Satan is an “Angel bright” with a “radiant visage” (3.645-46) and the “Fairest of Stars” (5.166). 

Concluding thoughts on pride 

Do Austen’s allusions to Paradise Lost extend even deeper, into the area of theme?  I am curious whether—and, if so, to what extent—Austen’s theme of pride in Pride and Prejudice reflects that in Paradise Lost.  Although space does not permit a point-for-point comparison on the subject of pride, two examples of a possible connection can be given. 

As the title of the novel makes clear, pride is paramount in Elizabeth’s story.  Her acquaintance with Mr. Darcy gets off on the wrong foot at their first meeting.  Darcy’s offhand remark about her merely “‘tolerable’” handsomeness stings Elizabeth to the core.  It is brought up several times afterwards as Elizabeth tries to make a joke about it, but her vanity is clearly offended.  Even during Darcy’s proposal, Elizabeth is made to feel inferior when he reminds her that his affection for her goes against his will, his reason, and even his character.9  Eve, likewise, gives room to thoughts of being slighted.  Satan, in a dream, induces in Eve “discontented thoughts, / Vain hopes, vain aims, inordinate desires / Blown up with high conceits ingend’ring pride” (4.807-09).  After the serpent tells her that she is very beautiful, and that all living things are gazing at her and adoring her (9.532-41), he makes her feel snubbed (9.542-48), just as he himself had felt “impair’d” in view of the greater glory given the Son of God (cf. 5.665).  Eve, he says, ought to be “ador’d and serv’d / By Angels numberless” but instead must be content with the admiration of only one man (9.545-48).  Satan strongly appeals to Eve’s pride in order to succeed with the temptation (9.703-32). 

For both Eve and Elizabeth, however, the pride that causes them to stumble is, strangely, the means to self-knowledge, the acceptance of limitations, and the realization of interdependence.  This understanding signifies, for Eve, letting go of Paradise and embracing her attachment to Adam, something that has always been difficult for her. 

Lament not Eve, but patiently resign
What justly thou hast lost; nor set thy heart,
Thus over-fond, on that which is not thine;
Thy going is not lonely, with thee goes
Thy Husband, him to follow thou art bound;
Where he abides, think there thy native soil.  (9.287-92) 

The outcome of Eve’s saga is that she is happy to join Adam, even in exile:  “with words not sad she him receiv’d” (12.609). 

Elizabeth must also let go of something dear to her—the desire to laugh at others’ follies.  This bantering is innocent enough, unless one makes a mistake because of wounded pride and ends up ridiculing “‘what is wise or good’” (62).  So ardent is Elizabeth’s censure of Darcy that no one in her family can believe that love is possible between the two. 

Her father was walking about the room, looking grave and anxious.  “Lizzy,” said he, “what are you doing?  Are you out of your senses, to be accepting this man?  Have not you always hated him?”

How earnestly did she then wish that her former opinions had been more reasonable, her expressions more moderate!  It would have spared her from explanations and professions which it was exceedingly awkward to give . . .

“. . . I love him.  Indeed he has no improper pride.  He is perfectly amiable.  You do not know what he really is; then pray do not pain me by speaking of him in such terms.”  (417-18) 

In the end, Elizabeth is made acutely aware of her own pride and prejudice. 

One more example of the link between Paradise Lost and the novel’s treatment of pride can be discerned in Elizabeth’s behavior towards Mr. Collins.  When he fails in his bid for her hand in marriage, the clergyman, in a bizarre misunderstanding of Elizabeth’s actions, speaks of her “‘modesty’” as adding “‘to your other perfections’” (118).  By modesty, he means her refusal to marry him, which he takes as a typical female ploy to increase her own desirability in her suitor’s eyes.  But his words could also be seen as a weirdly ironic sort of perspicacity, perhaps a prophecy.  For perfection is of course Eve’s trademark, and she displays a similar reluctance to yield to Adam, at first fleeing from him (4.477-91).  But when Eve finally submits to Adam’s advances, Milton describes the moment with the oxymoronic expression of “modest pride”:  “And by her yielded, by him best receiv’d, / Yielded with coy submission, modest pride, /And sweet reluctant amorous delay” (4.309-11).  In view of Elizabeth’s role as Paradise Lost’s Eve, Mr. Collins’s words, though characteristically gauche in context, might help to explain the movement Elizabeth must make during the course of the novel.  She must move beyond the overweening pride and independence that made her reject Darcy at first to the kind of “modest pride” that would both enable and sustain a healthy, reciprocal relationship with him. 

The foregoing study has only scratched the surface of the possible connections with and reflections on Paradise Lost in Pride and Prejudice.  We can never fully understand Jane Austen’s intentions in appropriating Milton’s poem in such a fundamental way.  Harris’s comment about Sense and Sensibility, however, seems to apply equally to Pride and Prejudice:  “Just as . . . Cowper looked on marriage as a kind of earthly Paradise and second Eden, so Jane Austen seems to accept Milton’s idea that marriage recovers some of the happiness and freshness of the primitive world.  Marriage, it seems, corrects the Fall” (Harris 78-79).  Adam and Eve leave Eden heavy-hearted, but “The World was all before them, where to choose/ Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide: / They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow, / Through Eden took thir solitary way” (12.646-49).  Similarly, Elizabeth and Darcy walk on after the second proposal “without knowing in what direction.  There was too much to be thought, and felt, and said” (407).  Both pairs are humbled by events that have laid bare their humanness, but they still have each other, and that bond is hopeful.  The angel Michael’s instructions to Adam and Eve in the aftermath of the Fall will allow them together to find redemption and possess a new Eden within themselves:  “only add / Deeds to thy knowledge answerable, add Faith, / Add Virtue, Patience, Temperance, add Love, / By name to come call’d Charity, the soul / Of all the rest:  then wilt thou not be loath / To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess / A paradise within thee, happier far” (12.582-87). 

In view of this dictum we might construct a possible moral to Elizabeth’s story in Pride and Prejudice as well. It would read:  It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of good sense, must be in want of a husband.  Ultimately, it is not good that any person be alone.


I would like to thank the editor, Susan Allen Ford, and the anonymous reviewer for their invaluable feedback.



1This argument seems all the more plausible in view of Stabler’s statement:  “Records of book ownership, her writing and family testimony tell us that Austen knew the poetic tradition of . . . John Milton,” among many others (43).  Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar have dealt extensively with Milton’s (negative) influence on women writers, but Jane Austen’s name is not included in the list of those “who directly or indirectly recorded anxieties about his paradigmatic patriarchal poetry” (188-89). 

2So familiar was this work to Austen that she began writing a parody of it.  According to Brian Southam, “The most obvious stumbling-block for the modern reader is that the comedy of ‘Grandison’ is largely the comedy of allusion.  The amusement lies in seeing the way in which the characters, situations, and even the language of the novel are imitated, echoed, and rearranged.  Clearly, Jane Austen enjoyed herself in devising a style of allusive counterpoint that calls for nothing less than a verbatim knowledge of Grandison—and in her audience at Steventon she could confidently assume this” (17). 

3The Garden of Eden provided a model for European landscape gardens (Delumeau 131-35).  On the relationship between English gardens and Milton’s portrayal of Eden in Paradise Lost, see Otten, Koehler, Hunt, and Knott. 

4For the corresponding passage in Paradise Lost, see 10.197-208.  For the negative effects of the Fall on nature, see 9.780-84, 1000-04. 

5The Septuagint translates the Hebrew gan-ʿēden by ho paradeisos tēs truphēs, “the garden of delights/luxuries,” in Gen 3:23, 24 and elsewhere.  This translation is clearly based on the connection of the name of the garden with the biblical Hebrew, ʿēden, “luxury, delight.”  On the use of Greek paradeisos, Bremmer says, “The latter possibility [i.e., the picture of a park with water, pavilions, and walking amenities] must have been a feature of at least some paradeisoi in the Hellenistic era, since the learned Byzantine bishop Photius defines paradeisos as: ‘a place for walking (peripatos) with trees and water’ (Lexicon 383.2), which comes very close to the description of Genesis” (13). 

6Nectarine is a variety of the peach tree (Prunus persica var. nucipersica).  The other fruit eaten by Elizabeth at Pemberley is the grape, which is also mentioned in Paradise Lost (4.258-60). 

7For more on Elizabeth’s eyes, see also PP 50, 57-58, 299-300; see further Hennelly. 

8See also PP 35, 58, 103, 204, 235 as well as Murphy’s “Jane Austen’s ‘Excellent Walker.’” 

9Adam’s decision-making is also swayed by Eve’s charms:  “Against his better knowledge, not deceiv’d, / But fondly overcome with Female charm” (9.998-99).

Works Cited
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  • Delumeau, Jean.  History of Paradise: The Garden of Eden in Myth and Tradition.  Trans. Matthew O’Connell.  New York: Continuum, 1995.
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  • _____.  “Jane Austen’s ‘Excellent’ Walker: Pride, Prejudice, and Pedestrianism.”  Eighteenth-Century Fiction 26 (2013): 121-42.
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  • Wittreich, Joseph.  Feminist Milton.  Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987.
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