I am a man. I like Pride and Prejudice. I’m not sorry. For some of you that’s probably enough. You like Pride and Prejudice too and you can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t. For those of you who have never read (or seen) it, or have but hate it anyway, I’m going to take some time here to say why it’s actually a great story.
To start off with, it has a wonderful, happy ending. “How dreadful!” I hear you say. Your skin shrivels and tingles at the thought. Well, not all happy endings are bad. In fact, I dare to say that most of us want a happy ending, so long as it’s within our genre. You might think you’re a tough man and reading of two people marrying each other at the end of a book about who’s going to get married is the lousiest ending you can think of. But maybe you like Action films. Maybe you like seeing all the bad guys blown up and the good guys celebrated for saving the day. Maybe you like reading a dark book where an evil character gets their comeuppance. If you don’t like the ending of Pride and Prejudice, then tell me, if you’ve seen Game of Thrones, how annoyed you were that they killed off Joffrey? We’re psychologically wired up to prefer certain trends most of the time. Be honest with yourself and accept that on one level there’s not much difference between a triumphant love story and a dark tragedy. There’s still room to play and break with such trends but, remember, they’re still there and even consciously breaking them is still acknowledging their place.
There’s something in Pride and Prejudice that is even better than the ending and that’s the entire lead up to it. Take the following:
“An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”
Now if you haven’t got any context this probably seems rather bland, but if you’ve been following along this is probably one of the funniest moments in the whole of Western literature. Apart from the general plot being quite clever with its twists and turns, and characters a little too memorable to be entirely fiction… one of the things that makes this novel stand out so much is the depth and insight of its humour. But why is that so?
Why have Comedy and Romance been so intertwined since the dawn of writing? Is Freud right to suggest there’s a simple and rather primal motive at the heart of it? Perhaps. I’d like to think there’s something more going on. If I talked of Satire, you’d probably think of some niche form of political humour but I think that almost all humour is satirical at heart. I think humour is primarily about highlighting inconsistencies and contradictions, especially when there’s a moral side to the predicament. It’s about exposing the flaws in all of us and how we live our lives. So when, in Romances, the lovers aren’t yet able to come together—either because one or both needs to change, there are obstacles to overcome or rival suitors they need to sift through—at that point of tension, humour can often be the best way through. Even if the characters themselves don’t laugh, so long as we see the irony and get the satirical point, it helps us understand what’s happening and what needs to be done. And, importantly, it does it in an entertaining and memorable way to keep you reading.
“But it’s a love story!” Yes it is, and one of the best. When I think back on Romeo and Juliet I can’t help but cringe at how naive they both were in so many ways. Lizzy and Mr Darcy may be flawed in their own (rather similar) ways but they grow and overcome their failings to then end up with each other. We see pride and conceit turn into self-sacrifice for the good of others, even at the cost of lowering oneself. We see prejudice and stereotyping make way before honesty and admitting one’s mistakes. We don’t end with two childish protagonists making stupid decisions in the heat of the moment, but balanced and considerate people coming together for the good of each other and those they love as much as for themselves. What’s wrong with that?
And yet, perhaps above all, we see hope. I read an interpretation at one point that perhaps Austen wasn’t writing herself as the glamorous Lizzy but the overlooked Mary instead. I’d hazard a guess to say she’s both. She’s Mary in form but Lizzy at heart; a part of her still had that hope that things would one day work out and she’d find her own Mr Darcy. This is a story where someone could be told they are the last person “I could ever be prevailed upon to marry” and, yet, end up marrying them. Seeing futile hope actually come to pass is probably why most of us can appreciate books like this, for who hasn’t hoped though it felt in vain?