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An Enduring Fondness: Michael Heyns On Why The World is Still in Love with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

By Michael Heyns for the Sunday Times

In a 2003 BBC survey of the best-loved novels of all time, based on about 750000 votes, Pride and Prejudice placed second (after The Lord of the Rings). It has sold some 20 million copies worldwide. Not bad for a novel without a single battle, vampire or dragon. But what accounts for the enduring popularity of this quiet novel, in which the most sensational event is the elopement of a silly young girl with a caddish officer?

I think Jane Austen’s novel hooks us because it flatters us, by appealing to our heads as much as our hearts. Ferociously intelligent herself, Austen makes us a party to her sharp wit and incisive judgments.

Consider the novel’s famous opening sentence: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The first-time reader needs to do a double take: a truth universally acknowledged? And then, the realisation: Austen is inviting us to share her joke at the expense of matchmaking mothers with marriageable daughters. She pays us the compliment of assuming that we share her sense of humour, her mode of judgment.

Austen establishes a conspiracy of irony with us, to which she admits only her most favoured characters – and even these, like Elizabeth Bennet herself, have to earn their place in the circle of irony by being disabused of their most cherished assumptions. By the end of the novel we share with Elizabeth, Mr Darcy and their author the pleasure of full understanding, while the comic monsters, unreformed and unredeemed, stomp about in the outer darkness.

But that sense that we are sharing the author’s wit behind her characters’ back, is not the only reason why Pride and Prejudice is such a satisfying novel. It is a love story, of course, with a happy ending, which, as Mills & Boon has proved, is a reliable recipe for sales; but the pleasure of reading Pride and Prejudice is only very partially a function of romantic wish-fulfilment. Here, too, Austen is as strong on head as on heart: Elizabeth and Darcy belong together partly because they are the two most intelligent characters in the novel.

I have said there are no battles in the novel but, of course, there is the battle of wits and wills, often between the hero and the heroine, which Elizabeth wins hands down. And there is a dragon, too, in the figure of Darcy’s aunt, the overbearing Lady Catherine de Bourgh. There can be few victories in fiction more satisfying than her routing by Elizabeth as she attempts with dire threats to intimidate the young woman into promising not to marry her nephew: “You will be censured, slighted and despised by every one connected with him. Your alliance will be a disgrace; your name will never even be mentioned by any of us.”

To which death sentence Elizabeth replies: “These are heavy misfortunes; but the wife of Mr Darcy must have such extraordinary sources of happiness necessarily attached to her situation, that she could, upon the whole, have no cause to repine.”

Satisfying as it is to have the hero and heroine find each other at last, it is even more gratifying when it is made possible by the heroine’s slaying of the dragon. Because another reason for Austen’s continuing topicality is her relevance to the feminist issues of our day. As a highly intelligent woman living in a society dominated by often dim-witted men (and presumptuous women), she experienced at first hand the inequalities visited upon her sex; but her protest took the form of satire rather than invective, producing such barbed comments as this, from her first novel, Northanger Abbey: “I will only add, in justice to men, that though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire anything more in woman than ignorance.”

Austen’s dream is a marriage of equals: not equal in the normal material sense, but in intellect. And in Pride and Prejudice she devises that perfect match, in Elizabeth and Darcy’s intellectual sparring that turns into love.

As for the happy ending: even here, Austen’s wit is just acerbic enough to temper what might have been too sentimental an occasion. The opening sentence of the last chapter returns to the ironic register of the opening of the novel: “Happy for all her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters.”

Amusing as is this satirical reflection on Mrs Bennet’s maternal feelings, it reminds us that under the comedy of the romance lurks a darker reality: that in Austen’s day a woman had to get married or face, like the novelist herself, a life of dependence. Austen’s distinction was to make of that grim imperative a comedy that has long outlived the conditions of its creation.

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