Way back at the dawn of creation, before The Shirt, before The Pond, before The Heaving Bosom Of Emotional Confusion — so, around about 1993 or so — I dressed up as Jane Austen for a “be a famous person” thing at school. Back then my lines would still get a little blurred between which part of the About My Famous Person speech, written out in my barely legible mechanical pencil fist-smashy handwriting on neon note cards, was really about Jane herself, and which was about Elizabeth Bennet. The two iconic women blurred in my head.
One was fiction, the other a hazy hagiographic ghost of a woman long dead whose image I recreated with my mom’s old Dutch Pantry waitress dress and a weird little red belt recycled from an old school photo shoot. But they were the women whose names and images first came to mind when I heard those three words, the ones that meant the big blue book with the golden edges was coming out. Pride and Prejudice. Ah yes. A book about sisters, mothers, best friends. And there was that guy in there who was kind of annoying but turned out to be okay in the end. What was his name?
But then something happened. I became a teenager. And all of a sudden, at about that time, Pride and Prejudice went all teenager on me too. This book about sisters and being tough women and making decisions about how you’re gonna act when stuff gets serious somehow turned into a bodice ripping TV booby romance!?
It’s been over twenty years now that we’ve discussed this book about women, by a woman, featuring a cast of women, almost exclusively in terms of “Mr. Darcy.” Darcy this, Darcy that. Darcy and a fried egg on top and Spam.
But it’s not about Mr. Darcy. It never was. Just stop it.
It’s about Elizabeth Bennet.
Elizabeth is the heroine of the novel. Her choices are what save Lydia and Jane, not Darcy’s. It’s her pride and her prejudice that must be overcome for the “happy ending” to occur, and that happy ending is not her marriage to Mr. Darcy, no matter how dreamy he is. (And for the record, no, I would not kick him out of bed.) (Duh.)
And I know a few of you are sitting there reading this like
(btw I stole your gif, whoever made this. Thank you)
But Elizabeth’s choice to return to Pemberley with an open mind is what saves her sisters. Darcy could never rescue Lydia, and eventually restore Jane and Bingley, if Elizabeth never chooses to pay him the compliment of believing what he says in his letter about Wickham.
Elizabeth, like Austen’s other heroines, has to come to grips with her own shortcomings before she can reap the rewards of financial and matrimonial stability. For her, bonus, that stability also happens to include “a large, handsome stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills” in which “natural beauty [has] been so little counteracted by an awkward taste.” (Also probably ponies and stuff.)
But I mean, seriously, she could have been like “screw your letter, you just called my mom AND dad horrible names, insulted the honor of my sisters, and I hate you. I’m not reading your stupid letter.”
Or she could have read the letter and decided that he was full of crap. But she didn’t. She swallowed her PRIDE! (title!) and got past her (guess what) PREJUDICE for Mr. Wickham and against Mr. Darcy —
[Because remember? Back in Chapter 16 when Wickham was all “oooh but how do you feel about him?” and Elizabeth was like “idk he kinda seems like a jerk” and Wickham was like O_O :
“I cannot pretend to be sorry,” said Wickham, after a short interruption, “that he or that any man should not be estimated beyond their deserts; but with him I believe it does not often happen. The world is blinded by his fortune and consequence, or frightened by his high and imposing manners, and sees him only as he chuses to be seen.”
“I should take him, even on my slight acquaintance, to be an ill-tempered man.” Wickham only shook his head.]
— and realized that she had also been a big stupid butt. “Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.”
So you know what? Spare me the “oooh Mr. Darcy is so amazing, Ooooh Mr. Darcy is so romantic” stuff. Yeah, he went after Lydia. But why? Because Elizabeth came back to him. She humbled herself, just like he did. She didn’t even have to. She wasn’t exactly nice to him, but she didn’t have to be. He is the one who insulted her, her family, her sister, etc, I already said this. And she is the one who went back.
[Okay, fine, I always do get a little bit tingly though when I think about how excited he must have been when he saw her at Pemberley. Like – did you ever get a surprise gift? Or a way better grade on something than you thought you deserved? Mmhmm. Tingly.]
So she saw him at Pemberley, and although she had almost started to make up her mind that he might have been telling the truth about all that Wickham stuff in his letter (but not the bit about Jane — come on) there was still the whole issue of insulting her whole family. But then he was so nice. Even if it was fake-nice, he was NICE to her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner. The fishing! The tour! “His sister, his friends, his house, his fruit”! She started to really allow herself to believe in his innate goodness, a process that had begun already with his letter, but was now continuing because #OMGNICEDARCY. The belief in his goodness had begun when she (Austen Lesson) overcame her irrational emotions and realized that he wouldn’t feed her a whole line of crap in his letter if she was just going to go ask Colonel Fitzwilliam about it, but also — importantly — through her sister’s (Another Austen Lesson) ongoing insistence that Bingley wouldn’t have been friends with a total turd.
See? Trust your sister. Trust her when she believes the guy isn’t lying. Trust the other one when she says she’s going to a soldier’s encampment where she’ll be “the object of attention to tens and to scores of [soldiers] at present unknown,” and spend her days “tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once.”
Elizabeth’s decision to return to Darcy is the most heroic in the book.
His later efforts to save Lydia are admirable, but they would be entirely impossible without her first overcoming her pride. (Shh. I know. He had to overcome his pride too, to wander through the streets of London, and deal with the deplorable Mrs. Younge. But dude, whatever, he should have done that anyway — he even admits that it was his fault he didn’t (basically) duel the crap out of Wickham in the first place and keep him from preying on other young girls. “It was owing to him, to his reserve and want of proper consideration, that Wickham’s character had been so misunderstood, and, consequently, that he had been received and noticed as he was.” WELL YEAH MAYBE SO MR. D.)
Okay so maybe P&P is a little bit romantic. Austen used the popular “marriage plot” novel to convey her moral lessons — self-knowledge and sisterhood — to us, kind of like how Tina Fey used 30 Rock to teach us how to work on our Night Cheese.
But what is the romance, really? Where is the strongest proof of love? Darcy changes for Elizabeth, sure, but this book, written by a woman, starring women in all the major roles, featuring the problems women faced at that time, is about the changes Elizabeth went through, the realities she had to face and the sacrifice she almost had to make (Does he really love me? Will I get to live in that swank pad or not?) to restore her sisters. For one sister, restoring honor. For the other, restoring love, hope and the ability to trust people.
So, while I think it’s okay to find Mr. Darcy dreamy and admirable and strong and clever and kinda nerdy and hot in a book-reading socially awkward smartass sort of way — no. On this Valentine’s Day I won’t say I ♥ Darcy.
I ♥ Lizzie.