Sunday, December 29, 2013

Pride and Prejudice

Central Lake, Michigan

December 29, 2013

Recently I noticed on Facebook one of those pseudo-Hallmark postings, put there by a very nice and thoughtful woman who is fond of sharing her observations on all aspects of life (children, work, favorite movies, songs, holiday customs--you name it).  If you go on Facebook you know the particular shared sayings I'm talking about--usually they're done as pen and ink drawings of Victorian-era women over pastel backgrounds, with sometimes nostalgic and sometimes mildly to moderately irreverent observations about the lives of women, intended to be evocative, funny, cynical, or critical--particularly of men.

The one that caught my eye in this instance had this to say:  "All women desire a Mr. Darcy.  Unfortunately, all men have no idea who that is."  I found this interesting because I was about to reread Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice for the first time since graduate school, and also because of the astounding degree of both pride and prejudice contained in the posting.  Many people are aware that several television and movie versions of the book have been made, starring the usual suspects in British film, known and revered by movie-goers everywhere.  In all likelihood the "all women" to whom the card referred have seen one or more of these cinematic versions, but fewer of them have read the book.

I was struck by the obvious anti-male sentiment this e-card conveyed, coming from a person I believe to be enlightened and circumspect.  I don't think "anti-male" is too strong a characterization of the message, since it doesn't require women to have read Pride and Prejudice, only to want a man like its male protagonist, Mr. Darcy.  The women are let off the hook when it comes to reading, or even movie watching.  But it also says, in effect, that men don't read 19th century English literature or watch movies based on such books, and implies further that men are clueless about romance and matters of the heart and that they have no such needs of their own.  Moreover, it suggests a certain overall boorishness on the part of our gender, and a concomitant desire on the part of the other gender to have us be more literate and sensitive and, given the man to whom we are unfavorably compared, more wealthy and generous.  All this I chalk up in part to the e-card genre I described above, which seems to specialize in self-pitying word bites.

It was in this light, then, that I undertook my previously-planned re-reading of the most famous and best of Jane Austen's novels.  Now here I should perhaps qualify the term "re-reading."  In fact, although I have read the novel twice in printed form, this time I listened to a recorded book version of it, read by an Englishwoman with a suitably Sloaney upper-class English accent, perfect for the astoundingly articulate text written by an essentially self-educated woman barely out of her twenties.  So far, so good.

Jane Austen, it turns out, is considerably more generous to the male sex than my Facebook friend is.  The story, for those who aren't familiar with it (and I don't think less of anyone for that, male or female--tastes in literature and the cinema are vastly variable) may be distilled to this description:

The time is the beginning of the 19th century and the social milieu is the English gentry.  Everybody who figures in the book, even the most relatively poor of them, has servants and leisure and, by 21st century standards, is damned well off.  A wealthy single man named Mr. Bingley has just moved into a mansion in a country neighborhood, and people in or near his social circle are thinking that he might marry a local woman and make her rich, or perhaps unite two existing fortunes.  The folks to whom I refer don't have much else to do but to contemplate the preservation of wealth.

A certain Mr. Bennett is an even-tempered man with five semi-adult daughters and no sons and a silly wife to whose beauty he was once attracted.  He has plenty of money to live on, but because of an "entail" of his estate in favor of male heirs only, when he dies all his property will devolve to his nearest male relative, a first cousin once removed.  Rather than being distressed about this state of affairs, however, Mr. Bennett is philosophical, and is, because of his learned and gently cynical and resigned disposition, quite amused and bemused by this young cousin of his.  The cousin, Mr. Collins, is a completely idiotic, socially sycophantic clergyman who is thinking maybe he would be doing the Bennett family a favor by marrying one of the five daughters.  This was in the days when being in the clergy was regarded as a necessary but rather frivolous occupation, to be opted for if you weren't already rich and if you didn't have the stomach to become a military officer or an adventurer. Rather than being a calling by God, the Anglican priesthood was (and probably still is) an elevated form of civil service.  But enough about Mr. Collins and his profession; suffice it to say he does not succeed in marrying one of the Bennett girls.

Meanwhile Mr. Bennett's eldest daughter, Jane, who is beautiful and intelligent and sensible (having taken after her father in the brains department and her mother in the beauty department), becomes romantically involved with Mr. Bingley, who subsequently goes to London and appears to drop her.  But during Jane's visits to Mr. Bingley's country place her next-in-line sister, twenty-year-old Elizabeth (the heroine of the story, also very intelligent and down-to-earth) meets a close friend of Mr. Bingley's, the immensely rich Mr. Darcy, also single and in his twenties.  There's chemistry between him and Elizabeth, but she thinks he's too proud and supercilious, and he looks down on Elizabeth's family, especially her silly mother and her three equally silly younger sisters, as well as her uncle who (God forbid) has made his money in business, rather than the old-fashioned way, by inheritance.  Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, though decently well-off with no need to work for a living, have chump change compared to Mr. Darcy, whose income is over 10,000 pounds a year, which in today's money is well over a million dollars, but at a time when a million dollars could buy a hell of a lot more than it does now.  And that's his income, mind you, which consists mostly of interest on a considerably larger fortune, along with whatever he makes as the feudal overlord of a huge country estate.

Here is where most of the pride and the prejudice come in.  Elizabeth becomes prejudiced against Mr. Darcy, perceiving him to be too proud, based in part on her own observations and in part on misinformation fed to her by others.  Mr. Darcy is prejudiced against Elizabeth's immediate family and collateral relatives, a fact that she discovers, causing her own pride in her family to kick in.  So it goes, back and forth, through the inevitable misunderstandings and chance meetings between the two as well as meetings arranged by Mr. Darcy, who, in spite of himself, is falling madly in love with Elizabeth and is becoming willing to do damned near anything to win her heart, including putting up with her zany family.  I'll spare you the rest of the details and sub-plots and jump to the end.  Mr. Bingley and Jane do get married, and of course Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy get married too.  Elizabeth has become ashamed of herself for having judged Mr. Darcy so severely at first, discovering that what she perceived as his pride consists in part of a natural shyness and in part of such a complete lack of pretense that he can't bring himself to make small talk at dinner parties and balls and all that.  But he does possess social pride as well, which he gradually dampens down in favor of a more relatively egalitarian viewpoint (meaning, in this context, that he's willing to reach down into the middle level of the landed gentry for a wife).

When all is said and done Mr. Darcy is just a fabulously wealthy guy with a good heart, if you can get to know him.  And Elizabeth is a kind and sensible and bright woman of the correct social class who seems to be able to bring out the best in Darcy without sacrificing anything of herself.  The promise at the end of the book is that she's going to get him to gradually lighten up, and he's going to let her into his world of untold wealth, and they'll both be happy doing what well-off people in England do, which is, well, basically nothing.

As much as I can I've avoided reading any literary criticism of Pride and Prejudice, or for that matter any literary criticism at all.  For me it tends to ruin the story, and I like to figure out things like "what does it mean" for myself.  Which is not to say that I don't enjoy engaging in amateur literary criticism of my own.  It seems to me that Pride and Prejudice is at one level just a modern (for its time) retelling of an oft-told story, a fairy tale really, in which a deserving woman of lesser means is discovered and rescued by a wealthy prince type.  It's Cinderella, or the movie "Pretty Woman."  It's different in that the heroine isn't an abused stepsister or a whore-with-a-heart, but the same in that it's a story of a girl who is surrounded by people a little beneath her, though none of them know it, and who gets saved by a rich and noble guy.

Now let's revisit the offensive quotation from that e-card and explore what it might mean:  "All women desire a Mr. Darcy.  Unfortunately, all men have no idea who that is."  Does this mean that all women desire a guy who is richer than God?  If so, it takes 99.99% of us out of the running right away and leaves those women desiring something virtually unattainable.  Does it mean that all women desire a guy who starts out being an aloof snob and gradually becomes a little more liberal in his attitudes?  That describes Mr. Darcy pretty well, too.  If that's the case, it also excludes most of us because we weren't that way to begin with, not having possessed the wherewithal or inclination to indulge in such peering down our noses at the rest of the world.  Does it mean that all women desire a guy who is both wealthy and tolerably decent?  Again, that keeps the field extremely narrow.  And no matter what anyone says, Mr. Darcy's most important and endearing trait, the one that keeps everyone interested in him, is his fabulous wealth.  Of course it might also mean that all women desire a man who is so madly in love with them that he is willing to change dramatically and risk incurring the wrath, or at least the scorn, of some of his family members and social set, which did happen to Mr. Darcy.  Or, at its most simplistic level, it means that all women desire a man who desires them even more than they desire him.  (Here we might be getting somewhere.)

And what of the second part of this sentiment, that "unfortunately, all men have no idea who that is"?  That's where the screw really turns, isn't it?  It's insulting and inaccurate no matter how you read it.  Read literally, it means that men don't read old novels or watch movies based on them, which isn't true.  Alternatively, it pretty much has to mean that even if a few men do know who Mr. Darcy is, there's not a damn thing they can do about being more like him than other regular Joes are, because (a) they're not wealthy and so in love they'd stoop to a slightly lower social level for the woman they love, (b) they're complete egomaniacs and/or knuckle-draggers who wouldn't change unless Bill O'Reilly told them to, or (c) they're hopelessly unromantic.  Of course it's the last of these three possibilities that makes the most sense in the context of the card.

Having read Pride and Prejudice again it's obvious to me that Elizabeth Bennett, the female protagonist, is the one to be sought after, and far far more valuable than Mr. Darcy could ever be.  She's the keeper, not him, and so unlike all the other women in Jane Austen's novel that she leaves them in the dust.  She's attractive in a variety of ways, and not just physically.  She has wit, a fine sense of humor, an understanding of irony, knowledge of human nature (including her own shortcomings), levelheadedness, and education.  And she possesses a variety of other good traits, not the least of which are the ability to change and a complete lack of the type of unrealistic sentimentalism and underlying resentment of the opposite sex that characterize those who would create or post such a twisted e-card sentiment as the one that is the subject at hand.  She captivates without guile, she perseveres without suffering, she adjusts and prevails without sacrificing anything of her self, she possesses humility without being humbled.    

Indeed, after reading Pride and Prejudice, I think it would be more accurate to say, "All men desire an Elizabeth Bennett.  Unfortunately, few women have any idea who that really is."