Many readers, authors and literary critics across generations have failed to see in her writings Jane Austen’s piercing insight into human nature. Her novels have frequently been reduced to pastimes that indulge in cute domesticity. This is a typical, patricentric view of things where one tries to change the world and feel important about it, without first having changed oneself. The microcosmic world Austen’s heroine is embroidering on a piece of cloth is actually a reflection of the cosmos we inhabit.
Pride and Prejudice is one of her works that creatives keep trying to own and adapt through different renditions on the stage and the screen. A genre classifier with a brassy disregard for nuances would box and label it as a “romance”. But the story itself shows that romance is incidental and not instrumental to living. The book finely captures the constrictions of eighteenth century England, which left women few choices if they wanted to lead a life of dignity. The profession of a governess or that of a nurse was among the limited options an independent woman of middle or upper class could choose from if she did not marry. In either case, her job was an extension of the role society had assigned to women: to care and to serve.
The heroine Elizabeth Bennet’s mother, Mrs Bennet, is caricatured for her desperation to get her daughters married into wealthy families. But probably her anxiety had some basis if we consider the above mentioned situation of women, especially when Mrs Bennet had a spouse who was witty and sarcastic, but did little to assuage his partner’s worries.
Elizabeth is judgmental towards her friend Charlotte who is going to marry the show-off Mr Collins. She believes Charlotte has “sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage”. But Charlotte sticks to her decision: “I am not romantic, you know . . . I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.”
Charlotte’s statement offers readers a sobering thought, that not every character in the book is as fortunate as Elizabeth, who gets to have both romance and financial security in her alliance with Darcy.
In fact, even Elizabeth’s determination to marry Darcy is surrounded by a literary controversy. Some readers are of the opinion that it is after being blown away by the grandeur of Darcy’s expansive estate of Pemberley that Elizabeth’s decision sways more in favour of the man.
This pressure on women to marry required them to constantly perform. There was no respite for them at balls and dinners, in order to woo potential suitors. Therefore an ostensibly romantic dance could often be laborious effort, riddled with apprehensions in women and their families about whether they had left enough of an impression.
In fact, whenever someone in the novel yields completely to romance, there are consequences. Darcy restrains his own feelings towards Elizabeth because he has reservations towards their unequal social status. Elizabeth regrets her attraction to George Wickham when she finds out about his manipulative and parasitic nature. (Something similar happens to Darcy’s sister Georgiana, who has also in the past fallen prey to the idea of romance offered by Wickham.) And Lydia, Elizabeth’s sister, puts herself and her whole family in trouble when she elopes with the same opprobrious Wickham.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s criticism of Austen, accusing her of not having “knowledge of the world”, clearly shows his own lack of knowledge of the world that women were forced to inhabit. What Jane Austen did was to provide an accurate description of that very world, neither glorifying it nor putting her characters in a position where they had to plead for the readers’ pity. Her heroines understand and get by in that harsh world as wittily and respectfully, even as shrewdly, as they can manage. While placing high regard on the human values of love, kindness and compassion, Jane Austen’s novels are as much, if not more, about realism as romance. Pride and Prejudice is a case in point.