Pride & Prejudice
As a kid I had three Jane Austen books on my shelf: clothbound editions with gold-embossed titles, thick, rough-edged pages, tiny, upright print, and spelling quirks like “ancle” and “chuse.” I thought Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility were a set, and I didn’t know what “sensibility” meant, so I started with Emma, which had a comprehensible beginning—a pretty heroine who finds herself in a fix—and a supporting cast of entertaining monsters.
I can’t remember exactly when I finally made it over the hurdle of P&P’s famous first line. Few things are more scary to a serious-minded child than a stentorian pronouncement about “a truth universally acknowledged,” especially when that truth has to do with men and marriage. How was I, sitting cross-legged and puzzled on my twin bed, in any position to know what single men want?
A few years later in English class, Mrs MacRae—impatient, red-faced, incredulous—tried to pull from us the obvious answer to the obvious question: what’s the first thing you notice about that first line? Nobody said anything, for minutes, until I ventured it’s a bit—presumptuous? I was, as usual, too cautious. It’s not TRUE! she exploded, and something broke open in me—you were allowed to lie in a book, really lie, even when you hid that lie in words that sounded like they were true, like they came from a voice on the news, or from the Prime Minister. Irony, wrote Mrs. MacRae in big letters on the blackboard. Meaning the opposite of what you say.
But when you dig into that line it becomes almost as obvious that, in the story of Darcy and Elizabeth, and Bingley and Jane, it’s perfectly true. Mrs Bennet is right. Single men, with good fortunes, do want wives. There are no Willoughbys or Frank Churchills in this novel, no cads who want to toy with a pretty girl for the fun of it—except Wickham, for whom the toying isn’t really fun, but is the closest thing he does to a job. Austen worried that this novel as “light, & bright, & sparkling”—but what it really sparkles with is money.
In the first line, “fortune” and “want” are basically puns, terms that pack emotion and economics together. A single man in possession of a good fortune is a lucky man, as well as a rich one. A man in want of a wife may be a Bingley, primed to fall in love, but he may also be a Wickham, poor until he can marry rich, and put an end to want. Elizabeth tells Darcy she fell in love with him when she first saw his impossibly perfect house: it’s a joke that is also perfectly serious.
A professor taught me to pay attention to Mrs. Jenkins. She does and says little, arranges a footstool here and there, and listens as her piano is offered up to Elizabeth by Lady Catherine, for practice: “You’d be in nobody’s way, in that part of the house.” Lady Catherine owns Mrs. Jenkins, who like her is a widow and a gentlewoman, but ageless and powerless. Mrs. Jenkins—like Charlotte Lucas, Lydia Bennet, Caroline Bingley, even Mrs. Gardiner, with too many mouths to feed—is a reminder of what happens when romance tangles with capitalism, when love and life face off.
I don’t think this novel is endlessly popular purely because Darcy is dishy or Lizzy is feisty, or its lines make good slogans for tote bags. It’s because Austen keeps pushing her characters to the brink of financial disaster—grinding, dull, demoralizing, ordinary, deeply unromantic disaster—and pulling them back just in time. We recognize a time when any accident could put a person out on the street, and there’s a war going on in the margins that makes people anxious, although they don’t like to talk about it. In our stories we like to be scared, then rescued, and that’s the pulse of Pride and Prejudice. Heaven help you if you take it seriously. Heaven help you if you don’t.