Desert Isle Keeper
Pride and Prejudice (#3 on our Top 100 Romances list)
An AAR Top 100 Romance
review originally published on December 18, 2000
Blythe: Few people who knew me in high school would have guessed how much I loved Pride and Prejudice. The image I cultivated was more sarcastic and smart alecky than romantic, and I definitely preferred jeans to prom dresses. But deep inside I was really a closet romantic who knew every word of Mr. Darcy’s first proposal by heart. I first read Pride and Prejudice when I was a young teenager, plowing through my own self-guided tour of the classics. When I picked it up I knew almost nothing about it, which I think is an advantage, because I was in for a wonderful surprise. I quickly came to love the story of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, and over the years it has stood up to frequent re-readings to become a cherished keeper.
The appeal of Pride and Prejudice is so widespread that it is nearly universal. It touches on themes of class, social behavior, and family relationships. It’s a peek into a world that in some ways is nothing like ours, but it contains truths which seem to apply in any world.
While I love it for these noble, impressive, literary reasons, I love it most for the romance. Like Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet, I enjoy human folly. Who could help but be amused by Mr. Collins’ obsequiousness or the “peculiar condescension of Lady Catherine de Bourgh?” But the page I turn to again and again is the page where Mr. Darcy proposes, which in my opinion is one of the most romantic pages in the book, and possibly the most romantic page ever: “In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”
When I first read those words I was as shocked as Elizabeth, because as far as I was concerned they came out of nowhere. As Mr. Darcy continues to propose, he manages to offend Elizabeth by telling her that he is proposing against his better judgment, and he goes on to insult her family and admit that he is responsible for turning his friend Bingley away from Elizabeth’s beloved sister Jane. Naturally, Elizabeth turns him down flat. But what I found so romantic is that Darcy felt such boundless, unstoppable passion (for her beauty and her mind) that he absolutely had to propose to Elizabeth. He loved her in spite of himself.
From here Elizabeth learns that Darcy is not quite the man she thought he was, and he learns that loving Elizabeth means accepting her family. His second proposal at the end of the book is a much more humble one as he tells Elizabeth that his feelings remain unchanged and apologizes for the manner of his earlier proposal. While I like that proposal too, it’s the first one that always gets me.
Teresa: I first read P&P when I was in the 8th grade. My English teacher, Mrs. McAlpine, assigned a book report to be written on the book of our choice from a pre-approved list. There must have been a hundred titles on that list, and I have no idea how I was lucky enough to choose P&P – maybe I liked the title? I started reading it but had a difficult time getting into it at first. I thought it was pretty boring. Being the diligent student I was, I doggedly continued until suddenly (it seemed to me) Darcy proposed to Elizabeth. Holy cow! And she turned him down. No way! I was suddenly hooked and stayed up the rest of night to finish it. I believe this was the very first romance I ever read. I read it without any preconceived notions of what a romance should be, and no idea of the conventions of the genre (which Austen instigated). Oh to be that innocent again. I felt like it was my own personal discovery – this amazing book that no one knew about.
What is amazing to me is how it stands the proverbial test of time. I read it on my own at age 13 and didn’t need a teacher walking me through it chapter by chapter the way I needed with Shakespeare or Melville. (Maybe it helped that the version in my middle school library had pictures?) It’s still as romantic to me now as it was then, and I have re-read it too many times to count. The beginning no longer seems boring to me at all. It is a charming and amusing time of character development. And of course I have the opening line memorized – it is one of the all-time best opening lines in any novel ever written: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Mustn’t he? He just doesn’t know it until he meets Elizabeth!
As I was trying to quantify all the reasons I love this book, I kept thinking about all the reasons I love it in spite of itself. If I look at it from my perspective now, having read many of Laurie’s ATBF columns and AAR Reviews, I notice that there were all these long separations which I normally would dislike in romance. Objectively speaking, Darcy and Elizabeth don’t spend all that much time together. Why do I still love it so much then? I think it is because the separations actually enhance our empathy for these characters. The lack of contact in the first half of the book allows for a fairly large misunderstanding as to the true nature Darcy and Wickham’s characters, but because of the deft handling, it never seems trite like the Big Misunderstandings that often show up in more modern romance. Indeed it is an example of how a Big Mis should be handled – make the reader believe it too, make it understandable, and clear the air in a straightforward manner at the most reasonable opportunity (the fact that she’s willing to tell him to his face what she really thinks of him is shocking!). Then the separation in the later half of the book allows our anxiety to build as we worry that Elizabeth’s refusal of him and later Lydia’s behavior will alienate Darcy for good. The separations are in fact much of what create the tension in this book, and somehow make for an incredibly touching romance.
Blythe, at what age do you think young women should try this book?
Blythe: Thirteen certainly seemed to be the magic age for us! We were so lucky, weren’t we? And since I read it in a period of teenage superiority, I looked on it as “my” discovery. I would say 13 or 14 is a great age, at least for good readers.
Teresa: Hey it was “my” discovery first!
Blythe: When I reread it this last time, I noticed how many romance conventions get their start with P&P. Darcy’s character especially has been much copied, but I don’t think anything can touch the original.
Teresa: Ditto. But I also noticed how there are conventions that I ordinarily wouldn’t like, like all the separations – as I mentioned above, they really don’t spend that much time together!
Blythe: And there are so few scenes where they are even talking to each other that’s it’s easy to name them all. Then there is the matter of love scenes – these two don’t even kiss, or think about it.
Teresa: I know. It’s especially interesting to me because I normally prefer romances which are on the hot side, like those by Linda Howard or Mary Balogh. But then I go back and re-read this and realize it’s not the sex but the story that matters. Since these two don’t spend much time together, it means what time they do spend is not all taken up with thoughts of “Gee she’s so hot” but actual, meaningful, personal interaction. She comes to love him because she first learns to like him, not because she unwittingly feels sexually attracted to him and mistakes that for love.
And I love the letter from him. I could read that over and over. This could never work in a contemporary – who writes letters like that? And it wouldn’t be the same over a phone. The fact that he spent so much time shows how much he cared.
Blythe: I think the letter is in a way more of a turning point then the proposal. Elizabeth reads it and she suddenly sees that Wickham is not what she thought, and her opinion of Darcy rises accordingly. Meanwhile, I think while Darcy is writing it – and afterwards when he reflects on it – he realizes that Jane loved Bingley, and that his proposal to Elizabeth was really insulting.
Teresa: I agree about the letter. It is a real turning point, and for the reader too! The reader is really in Elizabeth’s shoes – we see Darcy through her eyes and until we get the letter we don’t know Darcy or Wickham at all.
Blythe: One thing we definitely miss out on is the hero’s point of view. But, in this case it certainly makes my favorite proposal scene more of a surprise. Can you just imagine a modern version with Darcy speculating about Lizzy’s physical charms? I like to get inside a hero’s head now and then, but I guess it’s something of a double-edged sword.
Teresa: Yes, exactly. The fact that it’s all from Lizzy’s POV means that events come as much of a surprise to us as to her. Like both the proposal and Lydia’s elopement.
Blythe: It adds to the suspense at the end, too. It’s very clear that Lizzy’s feelings for Darcy have changed, but she doesn’t know if he still loves her.
Teresa: Yes, it’s so poignant. I was certainly in suspense at 13!
You know, Austen (and Heyer) are supposed to be the mothers of the Regency Romance. So how come there’s none of that insipid language in P&P that always crops up in modern regencies? You know, terms like “chit,” “leg shackle,” “marriage mart,” and “parson’s mousetrap.” I always hate all that; it seems so affected.
Blythe: My guess is that all comes from Heyer. Hardly anyone uses slang in P&P, except maybe Lydia. Heyer is full of Regency cant, though. I don’t think it’s bad, but it makes for a very different read. Oddly, I find the author that comes closest to imitating Austen in speech patterns (but not a whole lot else!) is Amanda Quick, mostly because her characters usually adhere to a very formal style of address.
I think we should actually plug the movie here [The 1995 BBC production with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, shown on A&E in 1996] as well, because I think it’s as good as the book, which is really saying something.
Teresa: I agree completely. If you love the book, then you should really rent this amazing movie. In the movie there are several scenes of dialogue that the book only implies and I even find these to be more satisfying than the sketches in the book. Sometimes I wish Austen had been more explicit in places.
Blythe: Yes, the movie adds dialogue in a couple of areas, and takes things Austen merely implies further. I can’t say enough about my favorite scene, which takes place during the Netherfield Ball. I could watch this for hours. Darcy and Elizabeth share a dance which grabs me every time I watch it. The intricacy of the dance goes on while Darcy and Elizabeth talk, and it’s just amazing.
Teresa: Oh yes. I wish people still danced like that. Sigh. Another small departure is that the movie ends at the wedding, but the book goes much farther into an epilogue of sorts. Is that more satisfying for you?
Blythe: I do find the “epilogue” in the book more satisfying, because I really didn’t want the book to end at all. Darcy and Elizabeth converse further here about their feelings and the misunderstandings between them. After proposal #1, this is probably my favorite section to reread.
Teresa: In regards to point of view, the movie departs from the book and shows scenes that Elizabeth wouldn’t have been privy to. After Elizabeth confides to Darcy about Lydia’s elopement, we see a scene in Darcy’s parlor with just Darcy and Miss Bingley and the Hursts. Miss Bingley is trying to provoke Mr. Darcy with catty statements about Elizabeth, but you can tell he is preoccupied and worried about the Bennet’s situation and all Miss Bingley succeeds in doing is getting him to bark “What?!” at her. It’s a perfect way to give us some insight into Darcy’s real feelings that we don’t get in the book. Another scene in the movie that isn’t in the book is a brief bedroom scene between Lydia and Wickham which illustrates Lydia’s misplaced faith in Wickham. It’s wonderful that this movie is so faithful to the book that not only is nothing cut, but edifying scenes like these are added without altering the nature of the story at all.
Blythe: There is also a short but effective scene that takes place after Elizabeth visits Darcy’s home, Pemberley. Late at night we see him wander alone back to the music room where she played the pianoforte. He is obviously unable to sleep because he is thinking of her. It’s very romantic – and again, not in the book.
Teresa: I like the movie so much that it actually creates a dilemma for me. I want my daughter to discover and love novel the way I did. But if she watches the movie first (and how can she avoid it when my husband and I watch it at every opportunity?) – will that spoil the book for her? And even if she never sees the movie, what are the chances that this will become her favorite book like it is mine? My mother’s favorite books were Jane Eyre and The Mysterious Island. With my mother’s prodding I read the first and only thought it was okay, and never got around to reading the second. I can imagine giving my daughter a copy of Pride and Prejudice when she’s fourteen and having her read it under duress and telling me it was “only okay” and break my heart. <g>
Blythe: When I sat down to write my comments about this book, I kept getting distracted. I would look up a certain passage to comment on it, then realize that ten minutes had elapsed and I was still reading! Here I was reading a book I’d already read countless times (and indeed had just finished) and I couldn’t stop reading long enough to write a review about it. If I’m ever stranded on our imaginary desert isle I hope I have a trunkful of books. But if I can only take one I think Pride and Prejudice just might be it.
Teresa: In our latest poll of our 100 favorite romances, Pride and Prejudice was my number one choice, and came in number thirteen in the final results. I think this is in part due to the fact that many people weren’t sure whether or not to include the “classics” in their ballots (there must be some reason it wasn’t number one!). To me it doesn’t matter when it was published. It still outshines every other romance novel I have ever read and will always be my all-time favorite.