“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
With that incredible sentence Jane Austen draws the reader into her story. Is she serious we ask? ‘A truth universally acknowledged’ is the language of mathematics, of science, of logic; it is like saying: “we are dealing with self-evident truths–axioms.”
How does this statement apply to society? to families? to manners? From the beginning Jane tells us that a little teasing doesn’t hurt anyone –lighten up, dear readers– don’t tighten your seat belts; we’re in for a smooth enjoyable ride.
Although I have read many articles and reviews on Pride and Prejudice, its perennial enchantment has eluded me until now. What makes this novel a favorite of so many readers after so many years?
The title to begin with, is provocative. Both terms pride and prejudice are applicable to Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy. But prejudice is directed more towards Darcy than Elizabeth. I would have like Jane Austen to use the word ‘Prejudgement’ as opposed to prejudice because the former word is laden with situational biases such as when Darcy prejudges Elizabeth: “She is tolerable; but not hadsome enough to tempt me.”
Ah, the title is also alliterative; and it would have also worked with prejudgement. Which tells us that Jane was a student of rhetoric. In fact, Mary –the pedantic sister– alludes to Hugh Blair’s, the then much-in-vogue Lectures on Rhetoric.
Not wanting to walk along the trodden path I want to propose a few personal impressions.
First, it is a syntactically flawless–British English at its best– narrative which is never boring; perhaps due to Austen’s adroit handling of the Indirect Free Speech. Although scholars generally attribute the invention to french writers, the brit lady Jane Austen had already been employing the technique in all her her fiction.
Second, the characters are diverse: some attractive (Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, Jane and Bingley) and others picturesque (Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins, Mrs. Bennet, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh). Given the superb characterization of Mr. Collins, I would throw him into the circle where The Wife of Bath, Falstaff, and Sancho reside.
Third, that Pride and Prejudice is a moral work in which not only good manners and judicious decisions are privileged, but also virtue. To sin on the side of virtue I will predict that at the end of this century, readers will still be delighting in the pride, prejudice, and prejudgments of Jane Austen’s lovable characters. If someone asked me to choose between Pride and Prejudice and the DaVinci Code, I would say in horror: “You’re asking me to choose between a pure-breed race horse, and a jackass–with all due respect to jackasses.”
When the divine Plato cast poets and artists out of his utopian Republic, little did he realize that one can learn virtue from literature as well as from philosophy. And that is a ‘truth universally acknowledged.’
So, for now, I will say “keep your breath to cool your porridge–and I shall keep mine to swell my song.”
Retired. Former investment banker, Columbia University-educated, Vietnam Vet (67-68). For the writing techniques I use, see Mary Duffy’s e-book: Sentence Openers