I Learned Everything I Needed to Know About Marriage From Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen’s classic is 200 years old, but longtime spouses and relationship experts alike stand by the principles it presents.

Penguin Books

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.

You Really Do Marry a Family, Not Just a Person
A survey in the November issue of Glamour found that the majority of men polled by the magazine said that they judge a woman by her family. This truth universally acknowledged forms one of the great obstacles between Elizabeth and Darcy, a point revealed in the explanatory letter Darcy writes to Elizabeth following her refusal of one of the most infamous marriage proposals in all of literature. Darcy’s objections to the marriage between his friend Bingley and Elizabeth’s sister Jane, he explains in the letter, owed “to that total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by [Mrs. Bennet], by your three younger sisters, and occasionally even by your father. Pardon me. It pains me to offend you.” It does offend Elizabeth—at first. But once her pride subsides, she recognizes the truth and the validity of Darcy’s concerns.

These familial objections are, of course, overcome in time for the happily ever after. But Darcy has recognized, wisely, that he is marrying into a family and he does so with open eyes and readiness—as much as that is possible—to accept that fact of life.  Indeed, my own “happily ever after” has, after many years, come to mean a household that includes my aging parents. Anyone who doesn’t believe that you marry a family should talk to a man in my husband’s situation.

Missed Communication Is Miscommunication
In other words, silence is the voice of complacency. The lovely match between Elizabeth Bennet’s eldest sister Jane and Mr. Bingley nearly doesn’t happen, in large part because neither makes their feelings clearly known to the other. Natural reserve isn’t a character flaw (see: Darcy), but it’s a trait that must be overcome when reticence means letting something—or someone—important slip away.

Experts even have a name for this tendency we have to think our communication is stronger and clearer than it actually is: signal amplification bias. Motivational psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson writes that this general assumption that we have said more than we actually have is the “most common source of miscommunication in any relationship” because “people routinely fail to realize how little they are actually communicating.” I don’t think my marriage is unusual in consisting of one overcommunicative partner (guess who that is!) and one partner whose signal amplification bias is, shall we say, strong. Jane and Bingley’s relationship and the misunderstandings that surround it offer a textbook’s worth of insight for navigating real-life communication problems.

In Marriage, One Size Doesn’t Fit All
This is one of the more nuanced and difficult—but no less important—lessons from Pride and Prejudice, as Noah Berlatsky argued earlier this year. When Elizabeth’s best friend Charlotte Lucas marries Mr. Collins, that fawning prig whom Elizabeth had easily turned down earlier, Elizabeth is understandably disappointed in her friend’s choice. But of course, “choice” plays little part in the matter since the primary social problem in the world of the novel is that its women have so few choices. Marriage is, the novel explains, “the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.” This “preservative,” Elizabeth comes to realize, Charlotte obtains in her marriage to Mr. Collins. “And at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she [Charlotte] felt all the good luck of it.” When Elizabeth visits the newlywed pair later, she observes that Charlotte has made peace with her choice. Charlotte’s new home has “really an air of great comfort throughout,” and Elizabeth can see Charlotte's “contentment” and her “evident enjoyment of it.”

Elizabeth would not—and did not—settle for the same choice. (She’d not have been our heroine if she had!) But despite their being the best of friends, Charlotte and Elizabeth are not the same. Likewise, no two marriages are the same. Nor need they be: Trying to force a one-size-fits-all formula on individual marriages invites disaster. A couple I know who are part of a conservative religious community, for example, tried for the first decade of their marriage to conform to roles they thought were expected by their community and failed miserably. Finally, she went to work full-time and he stayed home with the children—and they’ve never been happier or more stable.

The Best Marriages Balance Prudence and Passion
Have you ever known a couple whose love is rooted in pure passion, defying all reason (or any need for a good résumé or health insurance)? Or a couple on the opposite end of the spectrum, for whom love means never saying the mortgage is late? I think we’ve all seen, or even experienced, relationships in which either passion or reason reigns like a tyrant over the other.

In Pride and Prejudice,  Lydia marries out of pure passion and Charlotte marries out of sheer prudence: “Marriage had always been her object,” despite not "thinking highly either of men or of matrimony.” But the novel extols the best marriages as those that balance prudence and passion, sense and sensibility. Jane and Bingley’s marriage fits this description, even though both their wit and passion are more subdued than those of Elizabeth and Darcy.

It is, of course, Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage which the novel holds up as exemplary. Theirs is a match crowned by the twin laurels of romance and reason. Both the heart and the head assent that this is a match made in Austen’s heaven—and that of many readers as well.

A Good Marriage Challenges Both Partners to Grow
Despite being well-matched in both intellect and passion for each other, Elizabeth and Darcy have to undergo painful chastening, admit their errors, enlarge their perspectives, and see matters through the eyes of the other before they can love each other. And although the novel ends, as all classical comedies do, with their felicitous union, we know enough of their strong minds and robust personalities to perceive that challenges will lie ahead. But we are certain that Elizabeth and Darcy are, like iron that sharpens iron, equally matched. Their marriage provides the best marriage lesson of all: Marry someone whose love will develop you into a better person.

And to borrow a line from another novel, “Reader, I married him.”