On the other hand, the power of Jane is that even now, two hundred years after she lived, across continents, across worlds she probably couldn't even fathom, everyone knows her writing intimately, this woman who confined herself to writing about the drawing rooms she found herself in. You may not think she's important (who are you and why do you read this newsletter by another woman who writes about the world she finds herself in?) but you cannot ignore the impact she has had on the world.
Okay, that done, I'm getting to the meat and bones of this, which is my beloved Pride and Prejudice. [I began with Sense and Sensibility which I hadn't actually read before, that and Persuasion are both to be tackled on this read]. Like all of you, I have certain well formed opinions about the characters in P&P, which are:
1) Miss Bingley and Mrs Bennet are the worst.
2) Elizabeth is the best.
3) Darcy is dreamy.
4) Bingley seems a Nice Guy, with not much to say for himself, but an overall impression of Nice.
5) Poor Charlotte Lucas.
Upon re-reading though, I am beginning to revise my opinions on some of the characters, but most surprisingly, on Mrs Bennet.
Now, Austen sort of wants us to hate Mrs Bennet. You can tell by the dialogue she's given, she mewls and vapours and exaggerates. I mean, who could love such a woman? Certainly not her husband, we're told that quite clearly: he was fooled by her youth and good looks, not her children, except for the youngest, perhaps, a person of such monstrous selfishness that it's hard to think of Lydia loving anyone besides herself. Her siblings? Nope, there's the brother, Mr Gardiner, who is sort of ashamed of his sister, the other sister, Mrs Lucas who is about as silly as Mrs Bennet, but they don't hang out much. Take this woman, then: five daughters, one husband, two siblings, and no one loves her. Isn't that sad?
If Mr Bennet was fooled by youth and good looks, could Mrs Bennet have been any less gullible? I'm assuming no one warned her about the fact that her new husband's home was entailed away from her offspring, besides, at that point, she might have been confident in having a son. But, she's given five daughters instead, five daughters to marry off and ensure the welfare of. Is Mr Bennet interested in the matrimonial prospects of his daughters considering he doesn't have that much money? He is not. Instead he mocks and stymies her every chance he gets, not in the least interested in whether his kids will get to live comfortably after he dies. (In Austen's time, it is assumed that the only way to live a good life is to marry into it.)
Which brings me to Charlotte Lucas. I was always a little sorry for her, here she is, age 27 and forced to marry a man who is ODIOUS. But on re-reading, I realised that Charlotte had not done so differently as anyone with an arranged marriage would: she picked a man who could support her, and who, presumably, she does not hate. She doesn't love him, sure, and she might be embarrassed by him, but she likes the life they have together, her little cottage and the hens, and she can tolerate the man and make him a good wife. We can't all have Darcys. (I did some idle wondering about their sex life, but I'm sure it was about as earnest as Mr Collins himself.)
Speaking of Darcy, I know, I know, great passion, great speeches. But the problems he outlines at the beginning of the book regarding her connections: her parents, the fact that her brother-in-law is the man he hates most in the world, the connection to a poor country parson, who is basically his aunt's servant, those problems aren't going to go away, despite all of Elizabeth's flashing repartee and hot body. What happens next? What happens when Mrs Bennet, after the death of Mr Bennet, has to go live with one or the other of her daughters, because the man she married has failed to provide her a permanent home? At least we know, since Jane has spelt it out, that Mrs Bennet does not love Elizabeth, likes her least of all her children, so probably she'd spend most of her time with Jane and Bingley.
It's funny that Austen names the eldest daughter after herself: Jane, meek and mild and lovely, always willing to believe the best of everyone, and yet, if you imagine Austen, you're more likely to think of an Elizabeth type person. Someone smart and energetic and full of life. But Austen herself never married, despite writing all these love stories, I wonder if Jane was the Jane she wanted to be, placidly drifting through life without complaints.
Did any of you also think of P&P while reading A Suitable Boy? There's the two sisters and the silly mother, and the marriage looming over it all, even though Vikram Seth is kinder to Mrs Rupa Mehra than Austen is to Mrs Bennet. She may have been a silly woman but in the end, she was perhaps the only practical member of that entire family.