50 Greatest Books: Pride and Prejudice

From the Novel Readings archives: In 2008, the Globe and Mail ran a series on the “50 Greatest Books.” Though, quite mysteriously, they never asked me, a complete nobody, to weigh in (no, not even on Middlemarch!), I couldn’t resist opining occasionally off in my own corner of the internet. As I’m hard at work right now on a review of Claire Harman’s Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World for my hosts at Open Letters Monthly, I’ve been thinking a lot about Jane Austen, and since I don’t dare undertake a wholly new post here until I’ve met my deadline, I thought I’d dust this little piece off and put it on display in the meantime.


This week in the Globe and Mail‘s “50 Greatest Books” series, Joan Thomas weighs in on Pride and Prejudice. While I heartily endorse the choice, I felt Thomas sold Austen short in her essay, accepting as wholly unironic Austen’s famous remark about her “little bit of ivory (two inches wide)” and claiming that Austen “shoved aside” broader social and political contexts in order to focus on personal experience:

We tend to say that Jane Austen wrote about lives lived in drawing rooms because that’s all she knew. And yet … Austen’s family offered all sorts of other material: two brothers fighting in the Napoleonic wars, an aunt thrown into prison for stealing a piece of lace from a shop, a cousin’s husband guillotined in the French Revolution….Austen separated out the most poignant strand of her experience–the fact that a woman’s station in the world, her independence, her very survival, depended on the uncertain and often demeaning enterprise of attracting a man who could accept the size of her dowry. (read the rest here)

I agree entirely that “Elizabeth Bennet is a terrific heroine for any age” and that winning Mr. Darcy is, indeed, a great vindication for her insistence on acting “in that manner, which will, in [her] own opinion, constitute [her] happiness” (V. 3 Ch. 14) . I too love the “talky, civilized celebration of minds” that constitutes the Elizabeth-Darcy romance: it is, on both sides, an intellectual as well as a sensual seduction, which is no doubt the reason “this novel resonate[s] so powerfully with women who have so many other options in life.” But to describe Elizabeth’s achievement strictly in terms of “her fidelity to herself” is to forget how modern a value that is, and thus to lose much of the novel’s revolutionary charge. The line I quote above about seeking her “happiness,” for instance, is part of Elizabeth’s great confrontation with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who represents the powerful forces arrayed against “the upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune.” Class and gender politics permeate the novel, and Elizabeth’s ringing declaration that she owes no “reference” to Lady Catherine but only to her own happiness is, indeed, radical. Lady Catherine’s appalled demand “Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?” is comic in its extravagance, but especially so because behind it is a shade of truth. In a novel painted in more sombre tones, Elizabeth’s reward for so defying the class barrier might be far different: think Rose Crawley, for instance, in Vanity Fair:

Sir Pitt Crawley was a philosopher with a taste for what is called low life. His first marriage with the daughter of the noble Binkie had been made under the auspices of his parents; and as he often told Lady Crawley in her lifetime she was such a confounded quarrelsome high-bred jade that when she died he was hanged if he would ever take another of her sort, at her ladyship’s demise he kept his promise, and selected for a second wife Miss Rose Dawson, daughter of Mr. John Thomas Dawson, ironmonger, of Mudbury. What a happy woman was Rose to be my Lady Crawley!

Let us set down the items of her happiness. In the first place, she gave up Peter Butt, a young man who kept company with her, and in consequence of his disappointment in love, took to smuggling, poaching, and a thousand other bad courses. Then she quarrelled, as in duty bound, with all the friends and intimates of her youth, who, of course, could not be received by my Lady at Queen’s Crawley—nor did she find in her new rank and abode any persons who were willing to welcome her. Who ever did? Sir Huddleston Fuddleston had three daughters who all hoped to be Lady Crawley. Sir Giles Wapshot’s family were insulted that one of the Wapshot girls had not the preference in the marriage, and the remaining baronets of the county were indignant at their comrade’s misalliance. Never mind the commoners, whom we will leave to grumble anonymously.

Sir Pitt did not care, as he said, a brass farden for any one of them. He had his pretty Rose, and what more need a man require than to please himself? So he used to get drunk every night: to beat his pretty Rose sometimes: to leave her in Hampshire when he went to London for the parliamentary session, without a single friend in the wide world. Even Mrs. Bute Crawley, the Rector’s wife, refused to visit her, as she said she would never give the pass to a tradesman’s daughter.

(interest caught? read the rest here–you won’t regret it, all 90o pages of it…)

Austen’s delicious irony never conceals, though it treats lightly, the economic and moral precipice on which Elizabeth teeters. Consider, for instance the fearful compromise made by her friend Charlotte Lucas, whose pragmatic acceptance of the appalling Mr. Collins shows the proximity of respectable marriage (under the conditions Thomas alludes to) to prostitution. And only Darcy’s benevolent intervention saves Lydia from the price of her far more overt form of sexual fallenness. Is Lizzie perhaps more serious than Jane allows when she suggests her love for Darcy dates “from [her] first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley” (Vol. 3 Ch. 17)? How could she not be moved by such a prospect? Even if you are inwardly persuaded (as I am) that she loves him, not because he owns Pemberley, but because he deserves Pemberley, Austen never allows you to forget that money as much as love (or, as Thomas emphasizes, talk) is an inextricable part of marriage in her heroine’s world.

“How much more interesting their life together promises to be,” Thomas says of Elizabeth and Darcy, “than the lives of lovers on those turgid 19th-century novels, where passion and mystery (i.e. sex) rise like mist off the moors.” Ah, those novels, or rather, that novel, as what novel besides Wuthering Heights fits that description? And the genius of Austen is not to leave passion out of her books but to show that desire need not be “turgid”: it can be evoked and aroused by a glance, a word, a dance. Elizabeth and Darcy’s romance is not as manifestly erotic as that of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth (or is it?), but it shows that intelligence can be sexy–again, surely much of the appeal of this novel to generations of book-loving young women hoping wit, spirit, and good conversation will bring them what Thomas aptly calls “payback.”

7 Comments to 50 Greatest Books: Pride and Prejudice

  1. steve donoghue's Gravatar steve donoghue
    May 23, 2010 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    What an impossible tease, even for a virtuously hard-working blogger! Surely you can’t make a posting like this without giving us YOUR list of the 50 Greatest Books! Would Tolstoy and Homer be the only authors to have two entries? Would you split it fiction/nonfiction or throw everything together and let God sort them out? Would anything at all from the 20th century make the list? You can’t just TAUNT us like this!

  2. May 24, 2010 at 5:14 am | Permalink

    Wuthering Heights is “turgid”? That makes me sad.

  3. steve donoghue's Gravatar steve donoghue
    May 25, 2010 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    oh come now! Much as we all like the Bronte sisters (and the luscious little Bronte brother Branwell! Mmmmmm!), surely we can agree that if we’re making a list of the top 50 books in the entire history of literature, nothing they wrote makes the cut? I mean, think of it: only 50 spots! I just don’t see any of them beating out the competition …

  4. Tom Wood's Gravatar Tom Wood
    May 25, 2010 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    Rohan, Harvard UP is publishing Patricia Meyer Spacks’ annotated ed. of Pride and Prejudice this fall. It may be interesting….

    As always, great work! With thanks and bests, Tom

  5. May 25, 2010 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    Hi, Tom–nice to hear from you! I’ll keep my eyes open for the release of the Spacks edition. I’m teaching P&P this summer for the first time in a while–I’m looking forward to it. I had switched to Persuasion because P&P was too familiar, to me and to the students.

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