onsdag 28 februari 2018

Is Lizzy really prejudiced and Charlotte really wise?

I've now finished Pride and Prejudice, the second novel in my Jane Austen Rereading Project, and yes, I can see why it's a favourite with so many Austen fans. It feels like a much more assured work than Sense and Sensibility, and Elizabeth Bennet really is a charming heroine. One problem I had with the novel - and this is nothing that Austen could help - is that the plot is by now overfamiliar to me. If you have seen the BBC adaptation by Andrew Davies, then you already know pretty much everything that will happen plot-wise - there are no "deleted scenes", as it were. Davies even added some scenes in order to flesh out the depiction of domestic life at Longbourn. As Austen's novels are comparatively short (well, compared to the average Victorian novel at any rate) there isn't really much in the way of sub-plots to discover either.

Are there no surprises in store, then, for someone who clearly remembers the numerous TV and film adaptations but hasn't read the novel for quite some time (or for someone who hasn't read the novel at all)? Well, there were a few things that I'd forgotten since I last read it and that haven't been emphasised much by the various adaptations. My views on Mr Darcy remain pretty much the same as when I wrote about Darcymania, but two things did take me aback somewhat. Firstly, there is absolutely no indication for the first half of the book that Darcy is actually a good egg. On film and on TV, you tend to get the sense that Darcy is more gauche than proud, really, and his brusqueness a sign of insecurity. His initial rejection of Lizzy is the sign of a man "in denial", and their romance is foreshadowed with exchanged glances etc.: the "love story that starts with a fight" trope is set up clearly enough. This isn't really the case in the novel. I first read Pride and Prejudice in a Swedish translation when I was about twelve or thirteen, which incidentally was too young as I was rather bored by it, but I remember finding it a pleasant surprise that Darcy turned out to be Elizabeth's love interest. I don't know how I managed to be so completely ignorant as not to know about this famous pair, but it proved a boon to me that I didn't. Darcy proving himself in Elizabeth's eyes became a plot twist - the villain was suddenly the hero. It would interest me to know if the novel's first readers had the same experience. If for some reason you would stop reading Pride and Prejudice after 150 pages (not likely), you would come away from it convinced that Mr Darcy is nothing more than an arrogant, conceited and humourless young man, almost as unfit to be a husband to Lizzy Bennet as Mr Collins.

In fact, adaptations tend to play up the "prejudice" part of the novel's title and play down the "pride" part. Elizabeth is shown to be full of mortification over the vulgarity and inappropriate behaviour of her family, and it is implied that it was perfectly reasonable of Darcy not to want his friend Bingley mixed up with that kind of people. Furthermore you are more or less given to understand - in the Davies adaptation especially - that if Elizabeth hadn't been such a silly goose, she would have understood all along what a sterling chap Darcy is. In the novel, on the other hand, there's no way for Elizabeth to know anything of the sort. When she meets him at Pemberley and he is suddenly all politeness and charm to her and her uncle and aunt it is acknowledged that he's a changed man, who behaves completely differently than when he was at Netherfield. Elizabeth wasn't blinded by her partiality for Wickham and dislike for Darcy into not seeing his good qualities before - he just never displayed them before.

Secondly, I must admit to having wronged Darcy in one instance. I've claimed more than once that I didn't believe he ever truly apologised for separating Bingley from Jane, and that the scene where he asks his friend's forgiveness in the BBC adaptation is a pure fabrication on Davies's part. It turns out, however, that he does apologise for the Jane-Bingley affair, and for all his other failings, to Elizabeth in a most handsome manner towards the end of the novel. It's true we don't see him apologising to Bingley, but he tells Elizabeth of having confessed to his friend that he was in error, which made even the good-natured Bingley angry with him for about five minutes. The Darcy apology doesn't get much air-time when the novel is adapted, and I honestly wonder why. If it's anything that earns Mr Darcy his high standing as a romantic hero, then surely it's this - his ability to understand when he's been in the wrong, admit to it and change his behaviour accordingly.

Another thing I didn't remember from the novel is just how negatively Charlotte Lucas's decision to marry Mr Collins is depicted. From adaptations, you mostly get a sense of this being a sensible move on her behalf: she is not likely to get another offer, and Mr Collins's situation as a vicar under Lady Catherine De Bourgh's patronage provides solid material comfort. Moreover, he is the their to Longbourn. Later, when Elizabeth visits her friend, she finds that Charlotte has arranged things rather cosily for herself and seems contented.

However, her arrangements include seeing as little of her husband as possible. I used to believe that Charlotte thought rather better of Mr Collins than Elizabeth, and that this was one reason why she could face marrying him when Lizzy couldn't. From the book, though, we are left in little doubt that Charlotte has no high opinion of her intended. "Mr. Collins to be sure was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary." Not only does Charlotte not love him: she doesn't even esteem him or like him (those words that Marianne in Sense and Sensibility found so insipid). When Elizabeth leaves Charlotte at the end of her visit, "Her home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry, and all their dependent concerns, had not yet lost their charms". The "not yet" strikes a worrying note, and one wonders if such a marriage can prove happy to Charlotte - or, for that matter, to her husband - in the long run. For all her apparent sensibleness, I suspect that Austen is really too much of a romantic at heart to make a very convincing advocate for a marriage of convenience.