A tale of Pride & Prejudice

24 Jan

The publication of the much-loved story of Elizabeth and Darcy is reaching its 200th anniversary. And ‘Janeites’ all over the world are gearing for the celebrations. 

Pride-and-Prejudice-Jane-Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any woman who has read Pride and Prejudice must be in want of a Mr.Darcy.

Unfortunately though, even the author herself couldn’t find her Mr. Darcy; what hope is there for the millions of her females fans, spanning generations?  In recent years it looked as if Colin Firth might fit the bill (and did he ever – le magnifique Darcy), but now Colin Firth is married too. And let’s face it – he was only ever playing a part, he is not the Real Mr. Darcy.

The Perfect Mr. Darcy -portrayed by Colin Firth

The Perfect Mr. Darcy

The sprightly spinster who wrote this timeless novel, what would her reaction be, if she could see the adoration the novel now enjoys?  She was no stranger to failure, Jane Austen. When her father first attempted to publish Pride and Prejudice as First impressions (its original name) with offers to bear the publishing cost himself, it was still rejected. She eventually became a published author within her own lifetime but enjoyed only moderate success. It took more than fifty years after her death for her to be rediscovered and several more years after that, to become the acclaimed author she is today.

Tomorrow (Monday) marks the 200th anniversary of the first publication of Pride and Prejudice. The BBC, which filmed the most popular adaptation of the novel to date, in a six part series featuring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle as Darcy and Elizabeth, is gearing up to thrill fans again by bringing the regency romance alive  – this time in the form of the Netherfield ball.

Yes an honest to goodness Netherfield ball with period costumes, dance, music and even food – with experts being consulted to make sure of their period authenticity. If you are one of the lucky ones who get to attend that ball, make sure you know the right etiquette and protocols. A real Mr. Darcy attending might have a heart attack otherwise. Such as for example, never dancing more than twice with a partner – and even dancing twice might make all the ladies gossip of an impending marriage between the two of you. You shouldn’t exhibit such shocking particularity lightly. Society has its rules. Especially Jane Austen’s society.

netherfield-ball-backs-of-dresses

For an inquisitive and innately wise young woman, the strictures of eighteenth century British society must have afforded a lot of amusement and entertainment – as well as frustration.  And that is what comes out in all her novels; her perceptive exploration of her society with grace and wit. Like many other artistes who portray their society’s foibles, she caricatures and lampoons – but she does it with so much skill that the caricatured are not cartoon figures. Or if they are, they are at least believably, realistic cartoon figures. Spanning generations and cultures, her books resonate with people even today because they can identify with having a mother / aunt like Mrs. Bennett or an irritating relative like Mr. Collins. It is too bad that only a beau like Mr. Darcy is often the missing staple. Perhaps he alone of all her creations remains a little unrealistic – although not unbelievable.

mrdarcyelizabeth

If fairy tales are accused of engendering unrealistic expectations of a Prince Charming, how much more dangerous is Pride and Prejudice? It has no fairy god-mothers or magic spells turning pumpkins into chariots. It is a very believable tale that many a woman has sighed over. And consequently the average lady bookworm out there has never dreamed of an inept prince picking up her slipper. She dreams instead of a tall, dark and handsome, proud and haughty man, who is also incredibly wealthy. She imagines that their paths might cross the wrong way at first but it will all come right in the end. Sounds familiar? Yeah, Harlequin / Mills & Boon et al make a killing on it. They probably ought to pay Austen patent rights for it.

For her time however, the theme and the way of dealing with it was new. She was a trend setter, not a follower. She wrote at a time when the gothic novel was at its height in popularity. Yet her novels have nothing of melodrama in them (although they sport melodramatic characters like Mrs. Bennett and Lady Catherine de Bourgh).

Charlotte Bronte of the overly dramatic Bronte Sisters  was famously contemptuous of her as a light and frothy writer, a view many of her contemporaries held of her. Jane Austen probably didn’t mind. She had her own contempt for the gothic novels, which she caricatured in her novel Northanger Abbey. The air-head of a heroine Catherine, is a glib devourer of such novels and is always looking for similar melodrama in real life – which obviously doesn’t provide it.  In that novel, Austen irreverently makes it clear, what she thinks of the reigning literary genre of her day.

The Bennett sisters

The Bennett sisters

The main accusation of her detractors is that she was an ‘elitist’ portraying gossipy, elite society in a light vein and nothing else. Yet though the society and its many frivolities that she lived through are long gone, why is she so enormously popular still?  Perhaps because she wrote the perfect romance that is bound to resonate with women the world over, but it is an undeniable fact that she claims many men, as well as academics and scholars amongst her fan base.

A more plausible answer is that she had an unerring eye for detecting human foibles and telling the story of humanity in a way that people can understand and relate to. She had narrow scope in which to study her characters, true, but she made skillful use of whatever access she did have.  She was a lady of noble birth but modest means in eighteenth century Britain. She had limited options as an unmarried woman to achieve anything in her society. She was not Joan of Arc and did not try to be. And rather than writing something she had no idea about, she did something revolutionary for her time –  she wrote about something she did know about exactly as she saw it.  In the 200 years since, the language and sentence structures have changed slightly. The society and culture, especially with regards to the rights of women has almost completely changed. Yet the genuine honesty of her perception and probing in trying to understand the people around her surpasses all that to reach out across time to the reader; because human nature has not changed.

We might be much more independent women with many more avenues to explore those means than Jane Austen ever had – but we still have irritating fathers, nagging mothers, annoying younger sisters, inquisitive neignbours – and over and above all that, that hankering for the perfect Mr. Darcy.

jane-austen

Two hundred years on, we feel you Jane, we so feel you!

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3 Responses to “A tale of Pride & Prejudice”

  1. The Puppeteer January 27, 2013 at 5:46 am #

    I’ll not let you burst my bubble. I’m still holding out for Mr. Darcy.

    • Tulie January 27, 2013 at 6:35 am #

      😀

      Well. good luck with that! 🙂

      In the meantime, I can introduce you to several Mr. Collinses if you are willing to settle for something more realistic 😀

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