When I teach Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I take great pains to un-sully it from students’ film-adaptation-induced misconceptions that it’s a “romantic” novel. As a satirist, even if a gentle one, Austen offers rather unromantic corrections to vices and foibles, many of which range far beyond the surface themes of love and marriage. Indeed, like most early novels, Austen’s contend with the seismic social shifts birthed by modernity, particularly the rise of the individual. In Pride and Prejudice, as in Austen’s other works, the private angst surrounding the choice of a marriage partner really reflects the larger, public anxieties swirling around a disintegrating class structure, a new social mobility, and increasing personal autonomy.
Nevertheless, the truth is that I still learned everything I needed to know about marriage from Pride and Prejudice.
Marriages are foremost in Austen’s world, and, its place in literary theory and history aside, Pride and Prejudice enchants me again and again with its hairpin sharp insights into matrimonial matters. Here are nine lessons Pride and Prejudice taught me about marriage—and surely, there are many more.
Mutual Respect Is Essential to a Happy Marriage
The first marriage we encounter in Pride and Prejudice is Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s. These two illustrate magnificently by negative example just how crucial respect for one another is to marital bliss. Mr. Bennet treats Mrs. Bennet like the fool she assuredly is, and Mrs. Bennet, in return, exerts the only authority she has: nagging. As readers, we may laugh with Mr. Bennet (and the narrator) at Mrs. Bennet, but we don’t side with him entirely. Even Elizabeth, as much as she loves her father and as much as he respects her, admits she “could not have formed a very pleasing opinion of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort” based on her parents’ marriage.
We can’t help but wonder along with Elizabeth, who “had never been blind to the impropriety of her father's behaviour as a husband,” if Mrs. Bennet might have grown into a better partner and woman with more active loving-kindness from him. Instead, Mrs. Bennet fits the description of what one marriage expert—Pat Ennis of the marriage-enrichment program The Third Option—calls the “Critical Nag,” one who is never happy with how others do things. Mr. Bennet, meanwhile, is the “Ridiculer-Name Caller,” the person who constantly puts others down. Ennis says that respect is the bedrock of lasting love, wisdom the never-married Austen recognized long before psychology, life coaches, and marriage retreats were invented.
First Impressions Can Be Misleading
As fans of Pride and Prejudice know, “First Impressions” was Austen’s original title for the work. The first half of the novel is an accumulation of false impressions, particularly Elizabeth’s misperceptions (leading to the titular prejudice) about the seemingly, titularly, proud Darcy. Ironically, Elizabeth’s confident assessment of Mr. Darcy as proud stems greatly from her own pride in her keen, but not infallible, perceptiveness. The rest of the story consists of the correction of those misreadings—and of the prejudice and pride that foster such misunderstandings.
Like Elizabeth, but for different reasons, I’m fortunate that my first impressions of the man who would become my husband were wrong, too. When as a Lydia Bennet-esque college freshman, I first spotted the man, marriage was far from my mind—and he appeared to be someone who might regard it the same way. He didn’t. Then I didn’t. We never looked back (as I have written about here).
You Can Judge a Man by the Size of His Library
In Austen’s world, size matters. The size of one’s book collection, that is.
While stuck at Netherfield because her sister has fallen ill there, the hospitable Mr. Bingley offers Elizabeth access to his books, to “all that his library afforded.” Elizabeth assures him she is content with what she has. He admits, “I wish my collection were larger for your benefit and my own credit; but I am an idle fellow, and though I have not many, I have more than I ever looked into."
Then coy Miss Bingley attempts to converse with Darcy while he is engaged in reading. “When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library," Miss Bingley proclaims. "I am astonished that my father should have left so small a collection of books. What a delightful library you have at Pemberley, Mr. Darcy!"
"It ought to be good," he replies. "It has been the work of many generations."
"And then you have added so much to it yourself, you are always buying books,” Miss Bingley says flirtatiously.
Later, after Elizabeth has shed her initial false impressions about Darcy, she recollects the evolution of her feelings toward him. She explains that her love for Darcy “has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley." Indeed.
In the provincial world of Austen’s novels, small-mindedness is among the greatest of personal and social follies, for which an expansive library serves as a counterbalance. Darcy’s fetching library serves as metaphor for a variety of qualities in a marriage partner today which might counteract contemporary excesses and limitations: broad-mindedness in an age of identity politics and narrow partisanship, integrity in an era of brutal pragmatism, strong work ethic in a culture of shortcuts, steadiness in a swirl of passing fancies. While countless other qualities might substitute for those represented by Darcy’s library, these attracted me to my husband and have deepened my love for him more over the years. Not to mention the fact that he built me my own library, and its shelves are overflowing.
Romance Is Not Enough
Mr. and Mrs. Bennet married, we learn later, out of youthful imprudence and passion. This same error is repeated by their daughter Lydia (who is all romance, no prudence) when she elopes with the conniving Wickham (who is all prudence with no romance). It doesn’t take long for the honeymoon luster to fade, and upon hearing of her sister Elizabeth’s impending marriage to Darcy, Lydia is reduced to begging the couple for a court appointment for her husband, confessing, “I do not think we shall have quite money enough to live upon without some help.” Such dire straits are not in keeping with Lydia’s former romanticism.
Austen would not likely be surprised at recent findings reported here at The Atlantic that for the middle class today (which is approximately the class of the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice) the difference between a happy marriage and a miserable one is something decidedly unromantic: chores.