Jane Austen’s most famous novel Pride And Prejudice remains hugely popular over 200 years after its original publication, and is known to many as a ‘bucket list book’ – one to read before you die. After reading The Great Gatsby last week I thought, why not take on another classic? Pride And Prejudice has been floating about on my Kindle for almost two years now just waiting to be read.
For a classic that was written so long ago, it’s not too difficult to get stuck into. I’ve previously read Austen’s Emma but found Pride And Prejudice far more engaging, perhaps because of how surprising Elizabeth is for a character of the time. In short, the story focusses on Elizabeth Bennet who is one of five sisters, all of which are being pressured by their mother to find a suitable husband. When many of us imagine literature of the 1800s that explore this topic, we imagine fragile women swooning over rich men, just hoping that they will be beautiful enough to advance in society through marriage. While the gender hierarchy remains, Austen uses Elizabeth as a strong character that exhibits the brain behind the beauty, creating a voice for women of the time.
Despite receiving an offer of engagement from Mr Collins, Elizabeth refuses – an act which shocks both her family and the reader. Austen takes us on the journey that asks, what would happen if women married for love in this period? What if women did what made them happy rather than what social pressures wanted them to do?
We see Elizabeth not only refuse proposals but also stand up for herself to the higher class. Lady Catherine de Bourgh demands that Elizabeth reject a potential marriage proposal from her nephew, Mr Darcy, because she believes they would be unsuitable for one another due to their difference in class. At this point Elizabeth says, “You have widely mistaken my character if you think I can be worked on by such persuasions as these […] I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my opinion, constitute my own happiness.” Elizabeth’s words not only reaffirm her dominance in the story, but also lead to the conclusion of her romance when (spoiler alert) she accepts Darcy’s proposal. Most significantly, to hear a female character of middle class in this era say such a thing is empowering as it represents Austen’s forward-thinking and battles principles that, to a small extent, society is still battling today.
So on my quest to figure out if classics are overrated or worthy of their status, I have come to the conclusion that Pride And Prejudice has its legacy for a number of reasons. One of which is the unique use of characters and their stance in society; another its relevance to society today. It’s rare to find a novel that illuminates the past whilst being relevant to the present, and for this it should be treasured.
Jessikah Hope Stenson