|The woman herself.|
There is so much to say in praise of Jane Austen. Indeed, I am probably not educated enough to recognize and appreciate her merits thoroughly.
But not all praise need be scholarly; Austen wrote of the heart, and the heart praises her as well.
I have friends who read Pride and Prejudice over and over again, literally as a bedtime story or when they are unhappy or stressed. I know people who fall asleep to the movie at night. I can see why--it's that kind of story. It's the kind of thing you come back to when you're tired or sick. It bears repeated exposure quite well.
There's something comforting about the story of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Something...faithful, almost.
And it's not just readers. Writers (who must be readers first, of course) are nothing short of obsessed. The plot and characters have undergone countless retellings and variations.
It cannot be ignored: something draws us to this story.
There's a decided cynicism surrounding marriage in the world of Austen's characters. People marry for money, or maybe for rank, and quite obviously for convenience. It's expected. It's unremarkable. What is remarkable is someone like Elizabeth Bennet, who refuses to conform. It's shocking--and, I find, uplifting--to see her refuse Mr. Collins, even on the grounds that, as we can see, they are hardly living in the same universe. She couldn't have a deeper connection with him than you have with your mailman. She could never love him in the way she hopes to love a husband.
Elizabeth refuses him because she believes marriage is something more than convenience. She values the fullness of love as essential not just to her happiness, but to her humanity.
Of course, none of this has any relevance to our time. We are fortunate in the twenty-first century. We don't have to marry anyone unless we want to. In fact, we don't have to marry anyone at all. Plenty of people live together and sleep together long before they're married. Marriage is just another way to get a tax break.
How free we are.
People don't die for ideas. They die for faith.
Pride and Prejudice is about faith. Faith in love, its transformational power, and its legitimacy as part of a full life.
In fact, it's about more than faith. This story makes an argument. It argues--just as all good love stories do--that the kind of love people sing about and write about and dream about isn't just a dream. That the story you're reading is in an important way true. That the earth-shattering attraction you feel for that one person isn't a figment of your imagination--it's real. Pride and Prejudice is about nothing less than the reality of love.
And once you argue for the reality of love, you are arguing for much more.
Elizabeth and Darcy are more than players in a game of economic advantage. More than bodies that go around seeking to derive pleasure from each other. Through fiction that, I would argue, cannot but ring true in the hearts of readers, Austen makes an implicit argument about human nature: human beings are such that marriage must be about more than money. Far from a mere social construct, marriage is a reflection of human nature. It is the union of two souls. And for two souls to be united, they have to exist in the first place.
Elizabeth Bennet believes that. And you would be hard-put to convince me that Ms. Austen didn't believe it as well.
I have heard people say that Pride and Prejudice fans are simply addicted to the "emotional high" it provides. Such critics imply that the experience is cheap, dirty. I would ask them: What is cheap about recognizing something transcendent in human nature? In exploring the connection between two souls, the appeal of Austen's story is nothing less.
I would also ask: What could possibly be wrong with looking in the mirror of fiction and seeing something that we recognize in life, but that is also so wonderful that we sometimes fear to hope for it ourselves?
Pride and Prejudice is also about hope.