High school tells students that Pride and Prejudice is a novel by Jane Austen, published in 1813, that sheds light on regency morality, social structures and norms. What it fails to tell them is that it represents far more than just the rules of society of the day.
In my last year of high school our Extension English class was made up of three students and one teacher. We watched Pride and Prejudice, the six-hour long BBC version, in a tiny classroom using one of those dodgy, underfunded-Catholic-school projectors that no one can figure out how to fix the volume, focus or colour on.
At the moment when Mr Darcy, played by Colin Firth, rises up out of the river after one of those manly and slightly-pointless-but-who’s-complaining-anyway types of swims wearing a dripping wet, white shirt there was a resounding sigh from every female in the room. ‘I find it really nice,’ said our teacher, Mrs Sewell, ‘that even females of different generations find Mr Darcy attractive.’
In 2008, Dymocks’ yearly survey found Pride and Prejudice to be Australia’s most popular book, just as a 2007 BBC poll found it to be England’s. Dymocks’ latest survey saw Pride and Prejudice slightly bumped down the list to number three. While the Twilight Saga sits at the top of the list, it’s heart-warming to see a 200-year-old book sitting at the top of the list next to two teenage-orientated novels (the second in the list being Harry Potter).
But what is it that allows Pride and Prejudice to transcend not only time, but whole generations of women? It’s not, as you might think, the attractiveness of Colin Firth. Instead, the simple truth is that for millions of women around the world, Elizabeth Bennet is their alter ego. She is not the beautiful, perfect, even-tempered Jane Bennet. She is not the over-the-top, man-hungry Lydia. She is not the awkward, anti-social Mary. Elizabeth is modern, witty and empowered, even despite the fact that she ‘lived’ in an English Regency novel, had most likely never heard of anything remotely like mascara, Sex and the City or toothpaste and had definitely never touched an iPhone.
Another main quality of Pride and Prejudice, arguably Austen’s most famous work, is a strong sense of humour, to the point where Austen laughs at all of her characters at least once. Gift shops abound are filled with Jane Austen merchandise. ‘I have fine eyes, do you have an estate in Derbyshire?’ pouts one badge from popular Austen gift shop Cafe Pemberley. Or, even more delightful, ‘Jane Austen is my homegirl’ emblazons one t-shirt from online shop Zazzle.
While the likes of Mr Darcy, Mr Knightley and Mr Ferrars may haunt our dreams, they are not what make Austen so sellable, so repeatable and so easy to stick onto a t-shirt you can then charge 40 bucks for. It is not the male protagonists that we hold dear, or that cause us to wear t-shirts with the lines ‘I randomly quote Jane Austen’ and ‘Obstinate headstrong girl’.
No, at the heart of all of Austen’s books lie our heroines. They’re the girls we want to be our best friends, sisters and companions. They’re girls we want to be ourselves. Why model yourself on the whiney and hopeless Bella Swan from Twilight, when you can be the charming, beautiful Jane Bennet or the witty and confidant Elizabeth? Unlike Pride and Prejudice, Twilight will not remain relevant for two hundred years; I highly doubt that it will be topping the Dymocks list in 2210.
There’s plenty of evidence hidden in the writing that Austen cared more for her girls than she ever did for the male protagonists. Our Elizabeth Bennet (who is fairly attractive, but has a pretty crappy dowry) rejects Mr. Darcy (the rich romantic interest) on the basis of his ‘ruining, perhaps forever, the happiness of a most beloved sister’. Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility keeps Lucy Steele’s secret, despite Miss Steele’s secret being that she is engaged to the man Elinor loves. Love and marriage, at the end of the day, is the name of the game.
Austen is, if nothing else, about the sisterhood. Essentially, Pride and Prejudice is the ultimate chick-lit. With this in mind, four girls and I organised to meet once a month to discuss Jane’s books in the order they were published. Small nuggets of wisdom emerged, as we laid out our private lives and opened ourselves up to the criticisms and advice of Jane.
Book club member Pauline learnt that some men will just be men, but always have been. ‘I always thought that women today had it far more difficult than they did back then,” she said as she brandished a copy of Sense and Sensibility. She read a passage aloud from the blurb. ‘And then I realised that there were idiots like Mr Willoughby then too, just like there are today.’
‘At least while they were being prats they were wearing a cravat,’ I said.
‘And had muttonchops,’ another member, Panayiota, chimed in. The five of us laughed, as we had come to the conclusion that Colin Firth is the only man who can actually pull off muttonchops. We continued to discuss the minutiae of all of Austen’s books. Was Willoughby really as dickish as he seemed? Was Edward Ferrars as good as Mr Darcy? Is Colonel Brandon, old enough to be our father, a good catch?
Helen Malcher, from the Jane Austen Society of Australia, believes that Pride and Prejudice’s popularity, even with 19-year-olds like ourselves, may also be due to the fact that ‘it’s superbly written, yet offers great scope for the current popularity of 18th century fashion, as well as describing stunning landscapes.’
‘It’s also a quite marvellous romance, which appeals to a large percentage of the reading (and certainly viewing) population,’ she says. However, the only universally-acknowledged truth about Austen is that her run isn’t up yet.
Whether it means being re-packaged with zombies, transcribed into a Latter-Day Saints film, or being picked apart by scholars and over-zealous fans, the Austen spirit will remain for many years to come. And really, I can’t think of many other books that have inspired blogs (guilty!), actual tattoos, and Facebook groups like That’s right, keep walking towards me Mr. Darcy, you sexy Beast, All I ever needed to know, I learned from Elizabeth Bennet and Edward Cullen? Screw that, I want Mr. Darcy!
Jennifer Duke is a second year Communications student, majoring in Journalism, at The University of Technology in Sydney. She maintains a Pride and Prejudice related blog called The Bennet Sisters.