Saturday, June 28, 2014

Pride and Prejudice

I was 10 the first time I watched Pride and Prejudice 1995. My wise mother knew that it was best to start a life long love for Colin Firth, Jennifer Ehle, and Jane Austen at as early an age as possible.

I loved every second of it. I found it romantic, and funny, and the costumes absolutely amazing. I've turned into the person that re-watches it every year, and seeing I'm 17 now, it's safe to say I could turn down the volume and narrate the entire thing without a slip up.

But here's the embarrassing part: I'd never gotten around to actually reading Pride and Prejudice. 

I know. Go ahead a stone me, I'm ashamed. I've read Jane Austen, and many other classics, before, so it's not about it being 'difficult' or anything. That sort of thing doesn't bother me, and for the record, while Austen's books obviously have depth, they aren't particularly 'difficult'.

I really can't blame it on anything. Except, perhaps, the fact that I knew the story line so well. So little books, so little time; so why not read something I know nothing about?

No matter what the reason was, this spring I got serious and finally read it.

And it was amazing. Duh, you already knew that. This is Jane Austen we're talking about. But coming from the die-hard 1995 mini series fan, I can proudly say that the book still beat the movie, by, like, a million.

While I'm still heartily ashamed over my lack of Austen reading (I'm going to hide that fact from the world, it's so embarrassing. Right after I finish writing about it on the internet, obviously), in some ways I'm happy my first-time came when I'm a little older. Like I said, P&P isn't a difficult book. As far as classics go, there's not much 'deciphering' and the plot is easy to follow. But what is difficult is coming to understand the motivations of each character, their complexities, and the culture of Austen-era society as a whole. Even Mr. Bennet's jokes are often lost on readers who have no desire to understand the characters.

With each watching (and now reading) of P&P, I come away with something I hadn't before. This time, I was struck with Austsen's theme of being in full control of your life.

Most ignorant and unintelligent uninterested readers of Pride and Prejudice come away with the image of lots of women chasing men just because of money. They think the entire book is about 'helpless' women at a time when they could do nothing for themselves.

Seriously? Are we even discussing the same book?

P&P is about the exact opposite of that.

Pride and Prejudice is all about staying in control of your life, and making life decisions that are best for you. It's about caring and thinking about others, but not allowing them to make decisions for you, even if they supposedly have your best interests in mind.

Lizzy, as the heroine, is the prime example of this. Mrs. Bennet believed that marrying Mr. Collins was a wonderful plan. And, as unpopular as it may be, she was right. Mr. Collins would provide a home (through his inheriting Longbourne), as well as security, as no one would turn out his wife's family. The marriage would mean support for Mrs. Bennet and all her daughters, something Mr. Bennet, in all his good humor, 'forgot' to provide for with saving. Logically speaking, marrying Mr. Collins would be a good decision.

But Lizzy knows that she needs more than 'logic'. She knows that being taken care of in a financial sense would mean nothing to her if the man she married literally drove her crazy. Lizzy believes that "nothing but the deepest of love could induce me into matrimony", a thought probably re-inforced by her parents love-less, less-than-perfect marriage. I highly doubt Lizzy is unaware of the security she's depriving her family of when she refuses Mr. Collins--but she knows being married to Mr. Collins would make her too unhappy to justify.

While it's true women of that time couldn't exactly go out and get a job if things got tough, they were still themselves. I think we get trapped believing them totally helpless with no opportunities--and they weren't. They still had brains, and personalities, and had command over their attitudes and decisions. Women who wanted to had full control over their lives; they might have just had to stay more committed to that idea for it to happen. That's probably something women of today could work on, too.

While it's easy to see how Lizzy retains control of her life, we often forgot about another of the books characters that does the very same thing. Charlotte Lucas is just as much her own person as Lizzy, but because she 'settles' for the awful Mr. Collins, we ignore her. We forget that Charlotte's decisions have the same motivations as Lizzy--a keen sense of self, and a sense of what her version of happiness looks like--they just have different outcomes.

Charlotte's situation is very different than Lizzy's. Though there are slights by Mrs. Bennet about the Lucas' doing their own cooking, you're still left with the impression that they're better off than the Bennets. Also, the fact that there are Lucas sons puts the daughters in a better situation. But life as a spinster sister isn't something desirable, and Charlotte chooses to step away from that roll at the first opportunity. Yes, Mr. Collins is awful. But like Jane suggests, we must 'make allowances for differences in taste and temper'.

Mr. Collin's isn't intelligent, witty, or at all exciting. He tops it off with being inept in social situations.

But he is respectable, provides a comfortable home (which isn't too close to Lucas Lodge!), and is naive enough for Charlotte to quietly win her way on most fronts.

Mr. Collins would have been a terrible husband for Lizzy. Lizzy needs an equal match, an intelligent conversationalist, and someone with caring and empathy; but just because he would have suited Lizzy terribly, doesn't mean it was a bad decision for Charlotte to marry him. Charlotte has a different image of happiness, and even a different view on the purpose of marriage. She's content to garden, and have her sitting room, and tend to her poultry--basically, living a largely solitary life, with only minor interruptions from a less-than-perfect husband. Even with his faults, Mr. Collins provides the life Charlotte wants.

Pride and Prejudice, and Austen novels in general, are chock full of heroine's who make their own decisions and stand up for themselves. They aren't afraid to go against the grain, and often against 'logic', to follow a happiness of their own definition. As Austen readers we're used to that from most of her female characters. And when a female character doesn't have those traits--well, it's often written to point out how vital those traits are.

I'd question anyone who says, "P&P is just about a bunch of girls trying to get married", on whether or not they've actually read the book. Or if they bothered to turn on their brain while they read it. Or at the very least, take into account the society and culture that they're reading from. Hello? Anybody listening?

The general thought that P&P is about women desperate for marriage could not be farther from the truth. P&P is about how first impressions are vastly important, but can also sometimes be wrong. It's about how we must write our own definition of happiness, and how we have the duty (not just the right; the duty) to become at least a halfway decent, intelligent, compassionate person. P&P is about not loosing sight of yourself or your standards, and doing what's right, even when it's uncomfortable. Finally, Pride and Prejudice is about having control of your life, and even in the face of opposition, having the power to make your own choices.

Now, read it. I know you'll love it. 

This is a Classics Club post. Be sure to read the rest of them!

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