Elizabeth Bennet looks pretty good for a 200-year-old heroine. The protagonist of Jane Austen’s famous novel Pride and Prejudice first found her way into print on January 28, 1813, and she’s been entertaining and inspiring readers across the ages.
Even though many worship the book as a love story that serves up the traditional happy ending–heterosexual marriage–feminists can applaud Elizabeth’s feisty disposition and sharp wit. Elizabeth speaks up and speaks out, inviting readers to criticize the limitations placed upon her and to take women’s concerns seriously. The novel is a classic comedy, and it’s aged well in part because power, privilege and, yes, pride and prejudice, remain constant features of human life.
For anyone in an oppositional relation to power, whether in the 21st century or the early 19th, humor and satire can be survival skills, ways of telling truths and breaking down barriers. In spite of the perennial claim that women have no sense of humor (RIP, Christopher Hitchens), there have always been funny females on the planet, and Jane Austen has numerous successors. Look at Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Wanda Sykes, Mindy Kaling, Margaret Cho and Ellen DeGeneres, to name just a handful of our favorite comic entertainers who get laughs by reflecting on women’s everyday realities. They draw on many of the same techniques that Austen uses–rejecting sexist ideas about women, calling out “mansplainers” and anti-feminists and getting readers/viewers/listeners to pay attention to the things women have to put up with in a male-dominated society–to produce brilliant comedy and satire.
At first glance, Elizabeth’s environment may seem quite distant from contemporary life, more like Downton Abbey than Parks and Recreation, but the feminist satire implicit in Pride and Prejudice is resonant even today. What seems particularly remote for many American readers–the English class system at its upper ranges–turns out to be a moving target in the novel, and Elizabeth’s fate, like that of so many humans, hinges upon actions taken by others outside her control. Her parents have been financially imprudent, and when her family goes out in public, they do and say embarrassing things. On the one hand, these are what we might call today First World problems. On the other hand, given that Elizabeth’s future will be fixed by her ability to find a home once her family is evicted from theirs–which they will be if her father dies, thanks to a system that privileges men as inheritors over women (this part is exactly like Downton Abbey)–her social position is precarious.
Even though the stakes are high and marriage could ensure her financial stability, Elizabeth rejects not one but two proposals of marriage from men who think she should swoon in gratitude and view them as superior. Like a child of the revolutionary era who has benefitted from treatises on the rights of men and the rights of woman (thank you, Mary Wollstonecraft), Elizabeth strives for personal fulfillment rather than upholding the status quo. She laughs at ideas about innate male superiority, and her rejection of the extremely pompous Mr. Collins calls into question the artificiality of courtship rituals that make even a ridiculous man think he can have whichever woman he chooses. Jennifer Ehle and David Bamber do an outstanding job of bringing Mr. Collins’ ridiculous proposal to life in the 1995 BBC mini-series:
Notice how at first Elizabeth has trouble suppressing a laugh at Mr. Collins’ nonsense, but then she gets seriously angered by his inability to comprehend that no means no. In the novel, during this scene, her parting words are even stronger than those spoken in the adaptation, and they’re decidedly feminist. “Do not consider me now, as an elegant female intending to plague you,” she tells him, in response to his assertion that he knows for a fact that “elegant females” always mean “yes” when they turn down proposals in order to “increase [men's] love by suspense.” Instead, she insists she wants to be treated as “a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart.”
Elizabeth wins Darcy’s heart precisely because she says what she means. Early in the novel, we learn that he finds her “bewitching” and that (here we go inside his head to understand his ingrained snobbery) “he really believed, that were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.” If he feels safe from the danger of falling in love with her because he devalues her status, he gets thrown off balance when she rejects his first (arrogant and insulting) proposal. And though Elizabeth, too, has lessons to learn about not prejudging people and about seeing past the masks they wear in public, Darcy’s evolving love for her will teach him to see beyond his position of privilege (“I was spoilt by my parents,” he says, who “allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing, to care for none beyond my family circle, to think meanly of the rest of the world”) and to divest himself of arrogance. “By you, I was properly humbled,” he tells Elizabeth once they’re engaged to be married. “You shewed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.”
English society in the early 1900s would have viewed their marriage as potentially problematic, as does Darcy’s snooty aristocratic aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who tells the heroine, “ If you were sensible of your own good, you would not wish to quit the sphere in which you have been brought up.” Elizabeth stands up for herself and for her right to marry whomever she pleases :
Neither duty, nor honour, nor gratitude [...] have any possible claim on me, in the present instance. No principle of either would be violated by my marriage with Mr. Darcy. And with regard to the resentment of his family, or the indignation of the world, if the former were excited by his marrying me, it would not give me one moment’s concern–and the world in general would have too much sense to join in the scorn.
Over the past 200 years, many feminist readers have fallen in love with Elizabeth and Darcy and the novel they inhabit because the happy ending is one that involves respect and equality. In all of Austen’s novels, women take center stage, and both class snobbery and inflated male egos get taken down more than one notch. Our love for her stories, in that sense, is much less about nostalgia for an elitist past and much more about a world with ideals still waiting to be achieved.
Here’s to a classic that continues to inspire and a heroine who makes us laugh–and dream. Happy birthday, Elizabeth! And many more.
First illustrated edition of Pride and Prejudice (1833); Elizabeth Bennet on the left, Lady Catherine on the right. From Wikimedia Commons.