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Pride and Prejudice

Text by: Geneil Johnson
Photography by: Polite Society Archives

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
-Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice
When we think of love, is it any wonder that we think of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice? This classic English novel has gripped the minds and hearts of generations since it was published.

Why is it that this story is such an appealing and enduring classic? Some people think of it as classical chick-lit—a fluffy, romantic story with not much else to recommend it. However, I (and many, many readers with me) would say that it is much more than that. It is about love, but it is about love as we experience it in real life (romantic love and familial love). It is about misunderstandings and forgiveness; it is about the difference between real love and those other things that sometimes pass for love. It is about what makes love happen.

At the heart of this story is the relationship between Miss Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy's first meeting is anything but love-at-first-sight. A certain Mr. Bingley (who is very rich and handsome) moves into the Bennets' neighborhood; when Mr. Bingley attends a local ball he brings with him his houseguests, including one of his oldest friends—Mr. Darcy. Mr. Darcy is even more rich than Mr. Bingley, but everyone soon proclaims him a proud, introverted man. He only dances with Mr. Bingley's sisters, he does not ask to be introduced to anyone, and he even insults Elizabeth by telling Mr. Bingley that she isn't pretty enough to tempt him to dance with her. Elizabeth overhears him, and finds him amusing—well, in a not-quite-pleasant sort of way.

Elizabeth's angelic sister Jane is immediately drawn to Mr. Bingley, and it is clear that Mr. Bingley is also very taken with Jane. He is encouraged in his affection for her when his sisters befriend her despite her lack of fortune. The Bingleys invite Jane for a visit at Netherfield, their estate; Jane becomes ill there, and Elizabeth comes to take care of her. They stay for nearly a week. This gives Elizabeth a chance to cement her impressions of the Bingleys and of Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth is pleased with Mr. Bingley's happy and open disposition, because Jane is truly falling for him. Mr. Darcy, as far as Elizabeth can tell, takes himself rather seriously; he seems very aware of his own importance, and he definitely does not have Mr. Bingley's disposition. Elizabeth has no idea that she herself has caught Mr. Darcy's eye. He really enjoys her personality, her lively playfulness, her quick conversation; he also finds himself admiring her beauty more as he gets to know her better. "Darcy," our narrator tells us, "had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her." However, he does not want to marry into her family, so he is relieved when Jane recovers and the Bennet sisters return home.

Elizabeth's negative impression of Mr. Darcy is reinforced when she meets Mr. Wickham, a member of the local militia regiment. Mr. Wickham quickly develops a crush on Elizabeth, and she is very flattered by his attentions. He tells her a sad personal history; his father was the steward of the Darcy estate, and Mr. Darcy's father left Wickham a position as the estate's parson when he died. Wickham tells Elizabeth that Mr. Darcy refused to give him the position. Elizabeth is shocked—she thought Mr. Darcy was unpleasant, but she didn't think he was dishonest. Later, at a ball hosted by Mr. Bingley, Elizabeth finds herself singled out by Mr. Darcy for a dance. As they dance, their conversation hints at Wickham; Elizabeth is unsatisfied by Mr. Darcy's guarded responses (which indicate to us that things are not as they seem to her).

Elizabeth's opinion of Mr. Darcy deteriorates further when Mr. Bingley and all of his guests go to London for the winter. Jane travels to London to stay with relatives, hoping to see Mr. Bingley. But when she makes friendly overtures to his sisters, they make it clear that they are not interested in being friendly anymore. They also give some strong hints that Mr. Bingley is pursuing Georgiana Darcy, Mr. Darcy's younger sister. Jane is heartbroken. Elizabeth learns later that Mr. Darcy kept Mr. Bingley in London through the winter and concealed Jane's being there, specifically to help Mr. Bingley forget about Jane.

Elizabeth goes to visit friends in the spring, and Mr. Darcy happens to be staying nearby. They see each other often. When Elizabeth stays home from a social gathering one evening, Mr. Darcy comes to see how she is. Suddenly, he confesses that he is in love with her and would like to marry her! She is flattered, but then he explains that he loves her despite her low connections and her family's often outrageous behavior. Then she gets angry. She refuses him, saying that his other feelings should help him to recover from his love soon. He is angry at that; he asks why she is being uncivil. She tells him that he has ruined her sister's happiness forever, and that she is disgusted with his behavior toward Mr. Wickham. He acknowledges that he played a role in separating Jane and Mr. Bingley, and expresses astonishment at her opinion of him—that he is conceited, proud, and not gentlemanlike. He assures her that he was only trying to be completely honest with her; then he apologizes for taking up her time, wishes her the best of health and happiness, and departs.

Elizabeth passes a very agitated night. She goes for a walk in the morning and is surprised to meet Mr. Darcy; he gives her a letter, asks her to read it, then leaves with a bow.

The letter is an explanation of Mr. Darcy's earlier actions. He first explains that he truly believed Jane to be indifferent to Mr. Bingley; that, together with her low connections, is why he convinced Mr. Bingley to let her go.

He then explains that Mr. Wickham is a scoundrel. Mr. Darcy's father did leave Wickham a position, but Wickham asked Mr. Darcy to give him cash instead; after he spent everything Mr. Darcy had given him, he asked if he could have the position after all, or maybe just more money. Mr. Darcy, knowing how Wickham was living, refused. After that, Wickham sought out Mr. Darcy's sister (who was 15 at the time, and staying with friends); he convinced her that he loved her and that they should elope. Mr. Darcy came to visit unexpectedly and was able to stop them. "You may imagine," he writes to Elizabeth, "what I felt and how I acted."

Elizabeth is ashamed of herself. "Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think, without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd." She realizes that she was flattered by Wickham and offended by Mr. Darcy, and that she let those two feelings keep her from seeing the true value of each man. She knows, too, that Jane's complacency and discretion really could have kept Mr. Darcy from seeing her love for Mr. Bingley.

When she returns home, Elizabeth finds that Jane is still quietly heartbroken over Mr. Bingley. There is nothing Elizabeth can do, so she goes traveling with some relatives; they happen to visit Mr. Darcy's estate. Of course, Mr. Darcy is home unexpectedly. To Elizabeth's surprise, he is all openness and welcoming. He asks to be introduced to her relatives, and he is friendly and inviting toward them, too. She is amazed and pleased to see that he wants her to think well of him, and that he may even still have feelings for her; she is even more amazed to find that her own feelings are not what they used to be…

Then she receives a disturbing letter. Her sister Lydia has done a very unfortunate thing: she has eloped with Mr. Wickham. After Elizabeth tells Mr. Darcy the disastrous news, he becomes firm, quiet, and resolute; he is very polite, but she is convinced that this has ruined his regard for her once and for all.

Elizabeth rushes home. Lydia and Mr. Wickham are soon located; they are not yet married, and Wickham has built up substantial debt. He will only marry Lydia if Mr. Bennet will pay some of his bills. Mr. Bennet agrees, so Lydia and Wickham are married quickly in London. Lydia tells Elizabeth afterward that Mr. Darcy arranged everything; he found them, he arranged the wedding, he paid the bulk of Wickham's debts. Elizabeth would like to think that Mr. Darcy did this for her, but she is afraid to believe it.

The Bennets soon receive some interesting news: Mr. Bingley is returning to Netherfield! He pays a visit, and they learn that he isn't alone—Mr. Darcy has come with him! Elizabeth is pleased to see that Mr. Bingley still only has eyes for Jane; she is less pleased when Mr. Darcy acts much like he did when they were first at Netherfield, but she does understand him better now.

One morning Mr. Bingley arrives very early. Mr. Darcy had apologized for his earlier actions and confirmed Jane's affection, so Mr. Bingley came to propose to Jane as soon as possible! Jane is glowingly happy, and Elizabeth is thrilled for her.

Eventually, Elizabeth finds a chance to speak to Mr. Darcy privately. She thanks him for all his help with Lydia, assuring him that her family would be as grateful as she is if they knew of it. He replies in a very reassuring and romantic way:

If you will thank me," he replied, "let it be for yourself alone. That the wish of giving happiness to you might add force to the other inducements which led me on, I shall not attempt to deny. But your family owe me nothing. Much as I respect them, I believe I thought only of you.

He repeats his proposal, and she accepts him. We then have the pleasure of reading a few chapters full of their discussions about their misunderstandings, their changes of heart, their love; we read about their wedding, and the happy way their lives go on together.

Yes, Pride and Prejudice is about love. It is about the services we perform for those we love, just as Mr. Darcy swallowed his pride to save Lydia (anonymously!) because he knew what it would mean to Elizabeth. It is also about the way that love makes us strive to be better, just as Elizabeth strove to be less judgmental when she learned how she had undervalued Mr. Darcy. It is about the way that gratitude—for example, Elizabeth's gratitude for Mr. Darcy's help, and his gratitude for her forgiveness—increases and strengthens true love.

All of this, along with Jane Austen's witty narration, makes Pride and Prejudice a truly classic love story, and one I would highly recommend.