I recently read Pride and Prejudice for the first time. I found it to be entertaining and enjoyed the story and Austen’s understated wit and liked her good characters well enough, certainly a worthwhile read. But, as Austen’s stories tend to do, it made me angry on behalf of the women who lived in that era that they had no choice but to do all they could to catch a husband. Austen’s leading ladies always come out happily, marrying men who are perfect, rich, and adoring gentlemen, but not all of her marginal ladies are so lucky. In P &P, for example, Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte marries the ridiculous Mr. Collins because she is old enough to be a burden on her parents (27!) and feels that she could do no better. The text makes it clear that no one could like Mr. Collins, and Charlotte never suggests that she does but marries him nonetheless because that was expected of women with little money.
What a miserable existence I would find it to reach an age at which none of my attributes, talents, accomplishments, education, or anything else would have the slightest significance unless I was married! All else would be washed away by that one terrible failing. Worse, still, if I were to earn my living. Austen’s ladies boldly push the limits of convention, but all rely entirely on others for money. This is why Elizabeth’s refusal of Mr. Collins is so incredible; as Mr. Collins boorishly reminds her, she had no assurances that she would receive another proposal. I couldn’t bear it.
Another thing that always chaps me about that period is the ideal characteristics of a lady. Dainty, fragile, demure, symmetrically featured, perfectly mannered. Caroline Bingley asserts in P & P that “[a] woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages [. . . .] a certain something in her air and manner of walking, her tone of voice, her addresss and expressions” (ch. 8), and Mr. Darcy adds, “she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.” Whew! it’s exhausting just to thinking about all of these “accomplishments.” I am in complete agreeement with Elizabeth, who replies, “I never saw such a woman.” And missing entirely from this list are active skills, anything outdoors, writing, intelligence. I would fit terribly in that society.
But Elizabeth Bennet defies those conventions. Austen’s creation of a female character who is good, but far from perfect, defiant (in some respects) of her cultures ideals, and who is three-dimensional and interesting is an admirable accomplishment for that time. Within her stories, Austen created a world in which women like Elizabeth could be highly valued and prosper despite their contradiction with society. Perhaps most importantly, she was and her ladies are bold enough to choose their own path in life and pursue happines. For that, I always feel indebted to Jane Austen and others like her, whose impertinence in their time made my choices possible.