Pride & Prejudice & FEMINISM

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This is the 20th anniversary of the beloved 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries, so we’re looking back at that version and Jane Austen’s world. This is the first of many posts about this classic adaptation!

I’m always surprised when I run into people who look at me like I have three heads when I mentioned how awesomely feminist Elizabeth Bennet is.

“How can she be feminist?” The always ask. “She flat-out admits that she falls in love with Darcy because of his house.”

And that’s exactly my point. She decides that maybe Darcy isn’t so bad once she has a chance to lay eyes on his sizable grounds at Pemberley, and doesn’t feel any guilt about it.

Pride & Prejudice 1995 Jennifer Ehle & Colin Firth

You know what they say about men with big houses…

Pride & Prejudice is not without its modern feminist naysayers, but nor is it without its feminist defenders. A quick look at Google reveals over 26,000 scholarly texts on the feminist aspects of Jane Austen’s work, so clearly we are not out on left field with the argument that there’s some serious feminist theory invested in the characters, plot, and the author of one of the most beloved novels of all time.

Of course, the difficulty with applying feminism to Jane Austen’s body of work is that she lived in a proto-feminist world, where our modern concept of what it means to be a feminist did not exist. That said, as we can tell from her letters and her novels, Austen was familiar with, and to some degree identified with, the “rational woman” put forth by her contemporary, Mary Wollstonecraft. Forgive me for being massively reductive here, but the radical departure between the feminism espoused by Wollstonecraft, and the application of said feminism in Austen’s writing is that the former went so far as to reject marriage, while the latter chose to embrace it (at least as far as her characters were concerned).

Lyme Park Pemberley Pride & Prejudice 1995

Come on, admit it. You’d marry him too.

What I find so fascinating about Jane Austen’s female characters is exactly rooted in their enthusiasm, skepticism, and even reluctance regarding marriage; these fictional women all realize the necessity of it in order to secure not just their fortunes, but their independence. Like, why is that a bad thing? Why do we modern feminists get so distraught about the implications of Elizabeth’s incredibly practical decision that Darcy is her ticket to an actualized life? In my opinion, Elizabeth Bennet confessing to her sister that she did not love Darcy until she saw his fabulous property is less a confession that betrays her feminist nature, than a statement of rational thought. As the most intellectually gifted of the Bennet sisters, she is under no illusions that a bad match is worse than no match, but that true freedom lies in the right match. In Fitzwilliam Darcy, she has the ideal rational man, someone who respects her intellectually, and by the same token, her independence.

Jane Austen knew that in her time women rejecting marriage outright a’la A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was not a realistic choice for all but the most elite women of her age, and even then it was not without serious social ramifications. She understood that in order to flourish within the patriarchal system of early 19th-century England, a woman was best off if she married, and even better off if she happened to luck into finding one of those new-fangled husband models who came equipped with the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” unit installed. Darcy, though he is perhaps not the most feminist of Austen’s male characters (I’d argue that it’s a draw between Elizabeth’s father and Darcy’s counterpoint in Persuasion, Captain Wentworth), he is definitely drawn from the sketch Wollstonecraft laid down of the Rational Man in relationship to the Rational Woman. He sees Elizabeth for who she is and, unlike Mr. Collins who rejects her rationality out of hand, or Wickham who merely sees her as a conquest, Darcy doesn’t just fall in love with her, he falls in like with her.

Colin-Firth-Mr-Darcy-Pride-and-Prejudice

This is a picture of Colin Firth as Mr Darcy. It has little to do with the point I’m making here, but he does have a pretty nice horse.

Think about Darcy’s first botched attempt to confess his love to Elizabeth. He approaches it from a fairly typical masculine standpoint; he has a problem (he’s fallen in love with her) and he has to do something about it (propose). He even claims to be “a rational man” but only up to the point where his feelings run into his family’s expectations. This is Darcy misunderstanding what “rational” truly means, that it isn’t simply living by a series of social equations where emotion and feeling are subverted. It is seeing your partner as an ally and equal and in that, finding true happiness. Darcy has realized only that he loves her, but he has yet to like her. Liking her comes gradually, until by the time she is traipsing across the lawn at Pemberley on holiday with her aunt and uncle, it has dawned on him that Elizabeth is not just worthy of his love, but worthy of his friendship and respect (or as Austen calls it, “esteem”). And friendship can only happen when two people respect one another.

Darcy_Pemberley

That, right there, is the face of a man who is ok with being in love.

That’s not to say there aren’t other examples of female agency in Pride & Prejudice (stay tuned for Trystan’s essay on why Lydia Bennet is actually a feminist icon), only that as the story’s central characters, Elizabeth and Darcy are the ideal Rational Couple. Though the cynical argument is that she hitched her wagon to Darcy’s ten thousand a year and rode it out of Spinsterville, I think that within the construct of the story and the era it was written/based in, with an author who knew that her heroine was a little edgy when compared to other contemporary heroines, Elizabeth comes through the pages as a relatable, and dare I say it, realistic feminist heroine. She is not rebuking suitors left and right because she needed a man like a fish needed a coach-and-four. She is also not holding out for the impossible, flawless man who, let’s be clear here, Darcy really isn’t. She weighs her reactions before acting, and her opinions, though seemingly carelessly given, are calculated to provoke thought. Most of the characters that surround her only react with bewilderment or annoyance, but Darcy doesn’t. If nothing else, he knows she is her own person, and though he may not understand why initially, he comes around to it eventually.

In closing, this article inadvertently owes a lot to the essay “Feminist Implications of the Silver Screen Jane Austen” by Devoney Looser, which was published in the excellent book Jane Austen in HollywoodIf you’ve, say, stumbled across this article in an attempt to find actual scholarly sources to cite for a school paper (it could happen!), or you are in the mood for some juicy academic explorations of feminism and gender politics at Pemberley, I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy.

Thoughts about Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice? Tell us in the comments!

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

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Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. Her undergraduate degree is in Clothing & Textile Design, and she has a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, Sarah enjoys reading true crime books, writing fiction, and sewing historical clothing from the Middle Ages through the 20th-century. One of these days, she might even start updating her old costuming blog again.

13 Responses

  1. olsonmikiMichele

    Enjoyable piece. I do want to suggest that it’s not only Darcy’s house that Elizabeth falls for, but the responsibility that goes along with maintaining that house and the estate (although it’s a freaking gorgeous house.) Viewing the property, and resulting conversation with the staff, would surely reassure her that Darcy would take his responsibilities – and those under his care – seriously. Again, a rational decision.

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      Thanks! I know I didn’t dig too deeply into the whole “Darcy as benevolent master” realization that helped Lizzie realize he wasn’t simply an egotistical jackass. The Darcy character is so fascinating because he’s given so much more depth and development than any of Austen’s other male characters, and the reader (through Lizzie) watches as those layers slowly unfold.

      I think it’s time I read P&P again. ;)

      Reply
  2. Christine Redding

    While visiting Darcy’s House, she also gets a much better picture of the man through the people who know him, and I’ve always thought this is what makes the difference for her. Clearly, his money was not enough, when she thought he was a heel.

    The Jennifer Ehle P’n’P has always been my favorite.

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      Yep, exactly. Like I mentioned above, I didn’t go that deeply into the revelation she has about him as a person based on his house, mostly because it would have drawn this post out way longer than most people want to read on a Thursday morning! ;)

      And there are no other Lizzie & Darcy. Ehle + Firth 4 EVER.

      Reply
  3. Al

    He’s still a big douche. Oh, you are lowering yourself to proposing to me, and making sure I know exactly how badly you think of my family? Why sure, of course I totally want to hop right in your carriage, good sir. Sheesh.

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      And that’s exactly what she says to him (using much better language because Austen could write a take-down like nobody’s business) after his first proposal. She flat out rejects him and lists, categorically, why she did so so he’s under no illusion as to what a massive jackass he is.

      The thing about the title “Pride and Prejudice” is that everyone assumes it’s all about Darcy, but really, it applies to Lizzie as well. She’s incredibly prideful and very prejudiced, particularly when it comes to anyone who a) does not realize her greatness right off the bat, and b) any rich jerk who comes sniffing around and then tries to insinuate she’s not up to their standards. Lizzie is incredibly reductive in how she essentially decides, based on a single run-in with Darcy at that first ball, that he’s awful and has no redeeming qualities (when he even concedes that she’s sort of ok looking, if you like country girls). And that only develops further into outright contempt (it’s more evident in the book than the movies usually make it) the more she is put in these superficial situations with Darcy where they can’t actually form any kind of rapport without it devolving into each one making assumptions about the other based on the minimum amount of contact. It’s only when they are forced to essentially live under one roof when Jane takes ill at Netherfield that each gets a glimpse of how the other actually is on their own and that neither is as basic as the other has made them out to be. Both start to develop respect for one another and their pridefulness starts to breakdown as a result.

      Which is why when they gradually come around to realizing that they are actually in love with one another, it feels authentic, not just pasted on for plot convenience.

      Reply
  4. brocadegoddess

    I always thought that statement was an example of her “archness”. It’s not always perfectly obvious when Lizzie is joking and when she’s being serious. I think it’s at least a case of half in jest, full in earnest, not just a bald statement. She did also declare at the start of the story that only the deepest love would induce her to marry, and seemed pretty serious about it. And although her character does a lot of growing as she realizes her tendency towards prejudice and develops deeper understandings, that doesn’t seem like a principle she’d give up. She never betrays her values in favour of pragmatism – excepting Wickham’s pursuit of Miss King. Which has just made me realize that she gave Wickham a pass for trying to do nearly the same thing for which she so heartily criticized Charlotte. Oh, Lizzie. So wonderfully, delightfully flawed (but then, so is everyone else in the book – Mr Collins is my next fave, after Lizzie & Mr B – except Jane of course).

    Reply
    • Kendra

      But she doesn’t give Wickham a pass — the whole thing with Miss King makes her realize that she’s not really in love with Wickham, and that Wickham is a turd, and so she can shrug it off (publicly at least) as “whatever.”

      Reply
  5. red*razors

    I’m with brocadegoddess – that house thing to me was pure jest. It’s sortof the converse of that Mrs Merton interview question, “So what first attracted you to millionaire Paul Daniels?” The visit to Pemberley is the first time that her prejudices about Darcy are challenged and she starts to really question whether she’s being fair to him or not. Up to that point he’s like a pantomime villain, a one-dimensional character. The whole experience of Pemberley makes her realise that on reflection he is not so bad after all.

    Reply
  6. michaeladebruce

    Yeah she was absolutely joking- it’s continuing the jokes at the start with her mother that his handsomeness was dependant on his wealth, and then his pride. It’s a bookend to those comments.

    http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/ppv3n59.html
    The two people she is honest with Jane:
    “`It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.’
    Another intreaty that she would be serious, however, produced the desired effect; and she soon satisfied Jane by her solemn assurances of attachment. When convinced on that article, Miss Bennet had nothing farther to wish.”

    Her father:
    “Elizabeth, still more affected, was earnest and solemn in her reply; and at length, by repeated assurances that Mr. Darcy was really the object of her choice, by explaining the gradual change which her estimation of him had undergone, relating her absolute certainty that his affection was not the work of a day, but had stood the test of many months suspense, and enumerating with energy all his good qualities, she did conquer her father’s incredulity, and reconcile him to the match.”

    And she dreaded telling her mother:
    “`Good gracious! Lord bless me! only think! dear me! Mr. Darcy! Who would have thought it! And is it really true? Oh! my sweetest Lizzy! how rich and how great you will be! What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages you will have! Jane’s is nothing to it — nothing at all. I am so pleased — so happy. Such a charming man! — so handsome! so tall! — Oh, my dear Lizzy! pray apologise for my having disliked him so much before. I hope he will overlook it. Dear, dear Lizzy. A house in town! Every thing that is charming! Three daughters married! Ten thousand a year! Oh, Lord! What will become of me. I shall go distracted.”

    This was enough to prove that her approbation need not be doubted: and Elizabeth, rejoicing that such an effusion was heard only by herself, soon went away. ”

    So in light of how much she dreaded telling her whole family she was able to joke with Jane and be her old self. But I still think it was a bit of a pride that lead to it. Given how no one expected her to marry at all let alone someone as financially independent as Darcy? Oh heck yeah that is her having a moment of relishing in something nearly everyone wanted to deny her.

    But if her motives for her own marriage are selfish on an emotional level, she certainly was acting in a way to secure her future through her sister
    She keeps trying to get the Bingley thing happening until Darcy’s letter. It was pretty hard hitting. So yeah, she totally acted to secure her comfort but by pushing her sister to marry the first handsome man of good fortune who also seems to be genuinely nice.

    Reply

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