Pride & Prejudice


Posted to on January 29, 2006


Shortly after dropping out of the Trotskyist movement in 1978, I embarked on a systematic reading project of the world’s greatest novels. Since I had made the decision to begin writing fiction myself, I wanted to learn the craft from the masters. Additionally, I wanted a change of pace from the hard-core Marxist literature I had been reading for 11 years. (Within two years, however, I had returned to radical politics, largely under the impetus of the Central American revolution.)


I soon discovered that some of these masterpieces left me cold, including those written by Henry James, Joseph Conrad and especially Jane Austen. Although I would never deny that they were great writers, their words did not resonate with me. After reading 50 or so pages of “Pride and Prejudice,” I found myself wondering what all the hype was about. I was left cold by an endless round of country balls, dinner parties and arch dialogue that always sounded self-conscious and somewhat artificial.


To illustrate: Elizabeth Bennett, the major character who is based on Jane Austen herself, is in one of her frequent 'cutting' exercises with Fitzwilliam D’Arcy--reminiscent of an old Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy movie. Like Hepburn and Tracy, these two spend most of their time hating each other until they finally discover that they really are in love. (I myself had a different take on the matter. In my experience, people generally start off in love and then discover that they really hate each other, especially after being married for a few years--excluding me of course.)


Austen writes:


"I am perfectly convinced by it that Mr. Darcy has no defect. He owns it himself without disguise."


"No"' -- said Darcy, "I have made no such pretension. I have faults enough, but they are not, I hope, of understanding. My temper I dare not vouch for. -- It is I believe too little yielding -- certainly too little for the convenience of the world. I cannot forget the follies and vices of others so soon as I ought, nor their offences against myself. My feelings are not puffed about with every attempt to move them. My temper would perhaps be called resentful. -- My good opinion once lost is lost for ever."


"That is a failing indeed!" -- cried Elizabeth. "Implacable resentment is a shade in a character. But you have chosen your fault well. -- I really cannot laugh at it; you are safe from me."


It is to the credit of the 2005 production of "Pride & Prejudice" that it has converted a skeptic like me to the cause of Jane Austen despite such unnatural dialogue. It of obvious to me now that such dialogue is exactly what makes Austen special, especially after you get a good sense of who the characters are. Admittedly, like single malted scotch, it is an acquired taste. Although one cannot say for sure that the film is faithful to the novel, it at least has the merit of making me want to take another stab at this classic. With its sumptuous cinematography and first-rate acting, this is a film that can stand on its own. Considering the fact that this is director Joe Wright's first film, this is quite an achievement.


Jonathan Rosenbaum, who is probably the best-known radical film reviewer in the USA as well as a classmate of mine from Bard College, didn't find the movie faithful to the novel at all:


"Carnage is inevitable when breaking down a big novel, but the new film sends Austen's tale through a terrible mauling. Characters are brutally sanded down, softened, or rounded out in the most boring ways to forgive them their foibles and resolve their conflicts. There are fewer secrets, smaller revelations, less suspense. The best example is the almost total effacement of weak, wicked Mr. Wickham, the object of Lizzie's early misguided affections. In the book Wickham is the catalyst for the ways in which Darcy is misunderstood, then redeemed, and through whom Lizzie learns to temper her brash opinions."




I suppose that Jonathan is correct but since I haven't read Austen's novel, I didn't feel the same outrage over what appears in his eyes as a moustache drawn on the Mona Lisa.


Jane Austen's world is that of the agrarian bourgeoisie. Although some Marxists regard them as prototypical capitalists, it is difficult to find them doing anything productive in her novels, least of all "improving" their land. They are far too busy doing a gavotte or hunting foxes to actually figure out ways to increase crop yield.


Of course, Jane Austen was never really interested in how such people actually generated wealth. She was far more interested in what they did in their leisure hours, especially as it related to the question of social conduct. "Mansfield Park" is a novel about a young woman who relies on the support of her uncle--an absentee plantation owner in Antigua. In this case the discrepancy between the getting and spending of wealth is so extreme that Edward Said is forced to address it in "Culture and Imperialism":


"According to Austen we are to conclude that no matter how isolated and insulated the English place (e.g., Mansfield Park), it requires overseas sustenance. Sir Thomas's property in the Caribbean would have had to be a sugar plantation maintained by slave labor (not abolished until the 1830s): these are not dead historical facts but, as Austen certainly knew, evident historical realities. Before the Anglo-French competition the major distinguishing characteristic of Western empires (Roman, Spanish, and Portuguese) was that the earlier empires were bent on loot, as Conrad puts it, on the transport of treasure from the colonies to Europe, with very little attention to development, organization, or system within the colonies themselves; Britain and, to a lesser degree, France both wanted to make their empires long-term, profitable, ongoing concerns, and they competed in this enterprise, nowhere more so than in the colonies of the Caribbean, where the transport of slaves, the functioning of large sugar plantations, and the development of sugar markets, which raised the issues of protectionism, monopolies and price--all these were more or less constantly, competitively at issue."


"Pride and Prejudice" is an early work that ostensibly would avoid such moral dilemmas. At worst, someone watching the film might feel revulsion over the ostentation it celebrates. D'Arcy lives in a house that looks as large as the British Museum. Although the average movie-goer, having bought in to some degree to the value system of PBS's "Masterpiece Theater," might look forward to such a visual spectacle in the same way that Woody Allen fans swoon over the penthouses ubiquitous to his films, somebody like me or the late Edward Said might regard them as a waste of treasure.


Once you get past the aristocratic trappings of Jane Austen's world, you find yourself in a very familiar world, namely that of the anxious middle-class family. The Bennetts have 5 unmarried daughters including Elizabeth. The plot revolves around the need described in the very first sentence of the novel: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."


As man pursues woman and woman pursues man in this film, it is never far removed from an underlying pecuniary drive. Almost every character except Elizabeth and D'Arcy is preoccupied with the income of their potential mate. This is a world which is never far removed from Engels's observation in "Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State": "Monogamy arose from the concentration of considerable wealth in the hands of a single individual man-and from the need to bequeath this wealth to the children of that man and of no other."


In "Pride and Prejudice," the character who demonstrates this tendency in its purest form is the Reverend William Collins who shows up at the Bennett household one day with the intention of marrying one of the daughters, which one seems relatively unimportant to him. His real aim is to add a female body to his household so as to satisfy expectations of how a minister should fit into society at large. He puts it this way: "My reasons for marrying are, first, that I think it a right thing for every clergyman in easy circumstances (like myself) to set the example of matrimony in his parish. Secondly, that I am convinced it will add very greatly to my happiness; and thirdly -- which perhaps I ought to have mentioned earlier, that it is the particular advice and recommendation of the very noble lady whom I have the honour of calling patroness."


When his preferred Bennett daughter is not available, he turns his attentions to Elizabeth who is the proudest and most independent of the lot. When she turns down Collins's proposal (he is played flawlessly by Tom Hollander, a gifted comic actor), he dismisses this as coquettery--whereupon the feisty Elizabeth sets him straight:


"I am not now to learn," replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the hand, "that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long."


"Upon my word, Sir," cried Elizabeth, "your hope is rather an extraordinary one after my declaration. I do assure you that I am not one of those young ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time. I am perfectly serious in my refusal. -- You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who would make you so, -- Nay, were your friend Lady Catherine to know me, I am persuaded she would find me in every respect ill qualified for the situation."


Elizabeth's steadfast refusal to become an accoutrement to a bourgeois household has rightfully been identified as a kind of proto-feminism. Although this perception might be assumed to be associated with recent MLA conferences, it actually dates back at least to 1938. That year Mona Wilson wrote in "Jane Austen and Some of Her Contemporaries":


"…I wanted to express my conviction that her name should be linked with that of the great Vindicator of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft, and that the 'vis comica' of the one has been as powerful an agency as the 'saeva indignatio' of the other.


"Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft were bent on the destruction of the '…milk-white lamb, that bleats for a man's protection,' and the evolution of the rational woman."


("Pride & Prejudice" is now available online and at most video stores. The novel is available in hypertext at: