I’m reading Pride and Prejudice for the upteenth time. I found my copy from college, which means there are plenty of comments from my 21-year-old self, and damn are they stupid comments! I keep my books from college because I want to observe how my understanding changes over the years. When I was 21, I didn’t understand much about satire or humor or the stubborn short-sightedness of people. I didn’t understand the brilliance of Jane Austen. I hope this means I have developed a sense of humor.
I was inspired to write this post because #feminism. Mr. Collins refuses to understand Elizabeth when she declines his marriage proposal.
“You must give me leave to flatter myself, my dear cousin, that your refusal of my addresses is merely words of course. My reasons for believing it are briefly these:– It does not appear to me that my hand is unworthy of your acceptance, or that the establishment I can offer would be any other than highly desirable. My situation in life, my connections with the family of De Bourgh, and my relationship to your own, are circumstances highly in my favour; and you should take it into farther consideration that in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. Your portion is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications. As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall chuse to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.”
Volume I, Chapter 19.
I identify with Elizabeth’s typically feminine frustration of not being heard by a man when she is expressing herself very clearly!
Collins assumes that Elizabeth will accept him because he is a good match according to external standards: he will inherit her father’s property, already has a good home, and was born into the proper social class. Because the Bennets aren’t wealthy, Elizabeth must marry a man who can support her (or end up like Fanny Price’s mother in Mansfield Park). Elizabeth, having witnessed her parents’ unhappy marriage, is determined to marry a man she can love and respect.
Of course, Darcy made the same mistake as Collins during his first proposal to Elizabeth. He assumes that she will accept him because he is an excellent match according to external standards. Elizabeth refuses him because, at that point, he hadn’t shown her that he honored her as a person. I wonder if this novel is part of a shift in thought about whether marriage should be for property or for love.
Elizabeth replies to Collins, “I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed sincere.” And then, she references Mary Wollestonecraft, “Do not consider me now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart.” Elizabeth wants her future husband to see her as an individual/capable/lovable woman, not a cog in the machine of a gentleman’s life. (Collins easily switches his affections to Charlotte after minimal encouragement– he was merely looking for a puzzle piece to complete the image of his life. Of course, his constant listing of the price of items belonging to Catherine De Bourgh show that he has no concept of true value.)
I was flipping through my copy of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and most of my notes reference Pride and Prejudice. I must have been older and smarter when I read that book. Vindication was published in 1792, when Austen was 17-years-old. Her first draft of First Impressions, which would become Pride and Prejudice, was written in 1796.
Wollestonecraft argues that educating women and allowing them to take an equal place in society will make families healthier:
Make women rational creatures and free citizens, and they will quickly become good wives and mothers – that is, if men do not neglect the duties of husbands and fathers.
— from the chapter “On Natural Education”
Wollestonecraft’s argument is that free women will make better wives and mothers because they will act from internal motivation instead of external requirements.
When Elizabeth realizes that she loves Darcy, she recognizes that his character complements her own and that their differences would encourage growth in each other. A marriage based on love instead of property, requires two fully-formed individuals.
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.
Volume III, Chapter 8
And then, my favorite line:
But no such happy marriage could now teach the admiring multitude what connubial felicity really was.
I love that line because it shows that Elizabeth is still prideful and egotistical and it’s just delicious. I’m noticing this time how often the characters misrepresent themselves. It’s obvious with Mrs. Bennet, saying she’s ill when she’s really frustrated. But, for example, after Wickham and Lydia elope, the whole town of Meryton claims they never trusted Wickham, when a few months before they loved him and believed all the lies he told about Darcy. As a younger reader, I looked for the moral of the story, and the moral of this story is to be like Elizabeth, don’t be like Mrs. Bennet. But it’s not that simple. Even in carefully-crafted fiction, it’s not so easy to understand what traits lead to a happy ending.