By Tim Ballingall
It’s hard to disassociate the original novel with close-ups of brown-eyed Keira Knightley or the swelling, musical lump in your throat as a coated silhouette slowly emerges from Longbourn mist into the shape of a redemptive Matthew Macfadyen—it’s just so gosh darn romantic.
Today marks the 198th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austin’s enduring classic, Pride and Prejudice. In case that little pink book you purchased from Barnes and Noble for $4.95—because you felt like you should—has served no purpose but to collect dust on your shelf at home, or you did in fact read that now-dust-laden book but forget most of the story, or you think I’m talking about a book about zombies, allow me to (re)enlighten you.
A family of the emerging middle class, following the French and American Revolutions, the Bennets live in Longbourn in an estate entailed—because single women could not legally hold property—to Mr. Collins, a dreary cousin to the Bennet sisters. The second oldest, Elizabeth Bennet is a witty walker to the beat of a different drummer, a proxy Jane Austen, who immediately dislikes haughty Mr. Darcy. Darcy’s friend, Mr. Bingly, immediately becomes enamored with Jane, Elizabeth’s older, more beautiful, and far less outspoken sister. But suddenly and inexplicably Bingly leaves, leaving Jane in back-of-her-hand-on-her-forehead distress.
Elizabeth meets Mr. Wickham, falls for his sob story—that he was cheated out of an inheritance by none other than the nefarious Mr. Darcy—and gets mad when he stands her up at a Netherfield ball. Mr. Collins arrives at Longbourn, fails to woo Elizabeth, settles for Elizabeth’s friend, Charlotte, and leaves.
The next year Elizabeth joins the newlyweds at their new home, over which imposes Rosings Park, the manor of Mr. Collins’ patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who also, by chance, is the aunt of Nefarious Mr. Darcy. And wouldn’t you know it, the two meet up again. Nefarious Mr. Darcy informs Elizabeth that he, Nefarious Mr. Darcy, purposefully separated Jane and Bingly because he thought she didn’t like him like him. Nefarious Bad Timing Mr. Darcy then confesses his love to Elizabeth.
Afterward, however, Not So Nefarious Mr. Darcy writes Elizabeth a letter that corrects her understanding of the goings-on years earlier between him and Mr. Wickham. As it turns out, Wicked Mr. Wickham gambled away his inheritance, broke Darcy’s sister’s heart, and deceived Elizabeth. Wickham is basically the anti-Darcy.
While visiting Pemberley, the estate of Tough On The Outside But With A Heart Of Gold Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth and him meet up again. This time, an outside force forces them apart: Lydia has absconded with Mr. Wickham! The entire family spirals into back-of-one’s-hand-on-one’s-forehead distress.
Good Guy Mr. Darcy saves the day by finding Wickham and Lydia and arranging and paying for their marriage. Bingly finally gets his act together and proposes to Jane. Lady Catherine de Bourgh accuses Elizabeth of starting rumors that Darcy plans to marry her. Elizabeth says the rumors are false but she won’t promise to not marry Darcy if he should ask her … again.
Darcy proposes to Elizabeth and she accepts.
The social stratification in Pride and Prejudice would not have been possible if the book had been written before the French Revolution. Old, rigid attitudes about class distinction can be seen in Lady Catherine’s outrage over even the possibility of her aristocratic nephew marrying a commoner, while mere disapproval from Mr. Bingly’s sister over the marriage of her brother and a commoner is a sign that the times they are a-changin’.
At the novel’s conclusion, Elizabeth concedes that both she and Darcy are at fault for the previous animosity between them—Darcy’s pride and Elizabeth’s prejudice. (Fan of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: I totally get it now!) This realization is a testimony to feminism. It’s a testimony to the possibility that, in the Picasso-esque portrait of contemporary marriage, or any era’s for that matter, amid the smog of Lydia-Wickham matches made in hell, for those complex human beings that don’t quite fuse like two droplets of water without adjustment or compromise—unlike the Janes and the Binglys—there is still hope that you may find your Elizabeth or your Mr. Darcy.
Now run to the Rohrbach Library and check out Pride and Prejudice from the main collection. Or peruse the ebook version. Or search for critical articles on JSTOR or the Gale Virtual Reference Library.