Pride and Prejudice


The Formation of the Psychology of Love and

the Announcement of the Romanticism

 

 

Jane Austen (1775-1817) was the first woman to become an important novel writer. Her works draw a panel of the English agricultural society, conceived as a proper and complete world but with universal dimension. Austen has never married and she passed all her life in the countryside, at the house of her family. Although she used to write since the adolescence, her books were published only in her last years of life.

 

She used to write in small pieces of paper, not as a habit but as an artifice to defend herself from other people's curiosity: as she was very shy in relation to her writings, she could hide them quickly if somebody entered her room without previous notice. Also, the writing of novels was a disreputable profession in the early nineteenth century.

 

The manuscripts of Pride and Prejudice were written between 1796 and 1797, with the initial title of First Impressions (Antonio Candido would refer to the Romanticism – a movement somehow anticipated by Jane Austen – as the “romantic art of the personal impressions”). They were published in 1813 and became her most famous novel. It is believed that the final name came from the novel Cecilia (1782), by Fanny Burney. However, the same title appears much earlier, in the book Liberty of Prophesying, by Jeremy Taylor, dated 1647.

 

It is one of the first romantic comedies and its opening displays, in its very first lines, all the irony that will be present in text: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”.

 

The recurrent subject of her romances are the choices involving love. The protagonists are young and with vestiges of infantile innocence, deliberating on their future while taking part of strolls, visits, balls and teas. Specifically in Pride and Prejudice, the five Bennet sisters must find a husband if they are to make their way in the world.

 

The choice for the most appropriate husband and the good marriage (for love, in opposition to the one for convenience) is under total responsibility of each one, and this freedom takes places, simultaneously, with a series of hidden or explicit antagonistic circumstances, involving all the competitors for the love of the sisters.

 

Austen heroines come across with a gallery of personae with proper interests and endowed with strong personality. The interaction between characters composes a network with gradations that goes from indifference or hostility to affection and stimulation. The author considers the microcosm of the family life in all its complexity – relationship between sisters, parents and daughters, distant relatives etc – as well as its impact on the psychological structure of the individuals, all this in a short scope of a community – and focusing not more than four families.

 

The plot develops in one only tone, which is marked by some cold, ironic observations from the narrator, who always warns to keep some distance from the events although, in several occasions, what happens inside Elizabeth’s heart is deeply explored. Simultaneously, a succession of peripeties certifies the constancy of character’s points of view and feelings, not allowing them to undo the mistakes of their first impression and the false brightness of appearances. So, it becomes clear that, for the author, the primordial is the personal behavior and its consequences to the development of the action narrated.

 

Love preferences are not only the mere necessity of considering economic requirements or to observe social conventions. They are, also, the consequence of an option for definitive values. There are three main themes present in Pride and Prejudice:

 

a)         “Love” (the cherished love story between Darcy Fitzpatrick and Elizabeth, from different social levels);

 

b)        “Reputation” (the novel depicts a society in which a woman’s reputation is of the utmost importance); and

 

c)         “Position” (the strictly regimented life for the middle and upper classes in Regency England).

  

The plot is organized in terms of conflicts but characters never loose their temper. Elizabeth wants to be someone and she fights for the place in the world by consecrating her subjectivity. A detailed plot overview will not be analyzed in this essay but three passages deserve special mention and are good examples of the main themes:

 

a)   The wise Elizabeth’s decision to decline a marriage offer from the reverend William Collins, a clergyman and Mr. Bennet’s cousin, a man she find odious. This passage represents the aversion to the idea of a rationally convenient marriage, without love but in accordance to the protestant moral rules;

 

b)      Her relationship with the sweet-tempered Jane, her sister who falls in love with a well-to-do young man named Bingley. It represents the risk to the reputation, as a consequence of a bad marriage moved only for the impulse of an irrational passion;

 

c)      The verbal dueling between Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Elizabeth (which happened after another previous quarrel between Darcy and Elizabeth): Darcy was expected to become the husband of Lady de Bourgh’s daughter as they have been intended for each other since they were born. Obviously, it represents an opposition to the marriage previously arranged for the continuity of the rigid social hierarchy as well as the English ‘gentle’ values.

  

Although Austen used to write about love as something liberating from both religious moral standards and the rigid social stratification or, still, as something that could legitimize an union – much beyond the arranged marriages to give a course in women's life –, the idea of love would determine the ideological basis of the society, becoming an opportune Ethics to regulate its own mechanism.

 

The authority of the Catholic Church – as well as its power – decreased with the consolidation of the Protestantism, having the weddings obtained a distinctive status as a necessary institution. At the same time, there was an increasing respect for the marriage as an important legal institution, as well as a compensating interpersonal relation. It was recurrent to say that a union between two people would have to be given in “solid basis”, being this understood as based in something much beyond the simple interest of the participants.

 

In the West, the rupture between religion and love has happened drastically, being love one way to extend the importance of the individual, generating changes in the social practices, customs and moral. The Western culture also created, through the professed cult to the practice of love, the possibility of accepting and educating the sensitivity, associated to the state of passion and to the disposition to perceive the other one.

 

There was, then, an increasing effort to find a way to integrate love and marriage, creating a “frame” where the expression of human sexuality could be disclosed, and where the feelings of love, tenderness and affection could coexist with feelings of desire.

 

However, the concept of romantic love as an ideal – and as the probable basis for a marriage – was unknown in the past. And it is still unknown in many cultures of the world: only in the last few decades some privileged, more educated classes from some non-western cultures started to position themselves against the tradition of marriages imposed by their families, considering the Occidental World – and its concepts of “romantic love” – as a desired ideal.

 

Such ideal is individualistic and rejects the point of view that human beings are interchangeable units, giving more importance to the differences and to the individual choices. This new ideal is, also, an evolution from many similar manifestations in our history (as the Greek ‘spiritual love’, the Roman ‘stoic love’, the Christian ‘chaste love’ and the Medieval ‘palace love’), which originated the anti-sexual and anti-feminine models of the western culture.

 

The long process of secularization of love – and the attempt of overcoming the rigid separation between soul and body – started in the Renaissance and passed through the Enlightenment. But in the Age of Reason, a similar dichotomy between reason and passion surged with all the force. At that time, a typical characteristic of the intellectual was the disdain for the emotions: love was a game, an amusement; seduction and adultery were a way to pass the time. Women were to be deceived, manipulated and seduced – and they should never be taken seriously!

 

The concept of romantic love as a cultural value accepted as the ideal basis for the marriage – is, thus, a result of the XIX Century. It appeared in the context of a predominantly secular and individualistic culture, which valued both the mortal life on Earth and the happiness of the individual. It was, therefore, among the new middle class of the pre-industrial society that the romantic love – in a tamed, “domesticated” meaning – was considered a convenient accessory for the marriage.

 

For the first time, women started to be noticed as equal to men, in intellect and passion. “Vindication of the Rights of Women”, written in 1792 by Mary Wollstonecraft, particularly insisted in women’s rationality and intellectual capacity. Friedrich Engels would say, in his “Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State” (1884) that, under the capitalism, the marriage for love started to be proclaimed as a human right: not only a ‘droit de l' homme’ but, also, a ‘droit de la femme’, being this concept a very strange one to be widely assimilated at that time.

 

Therefore, since the initial phase of the Industrial Revolution, capitalism destroyed the social models of feudal relations, instituting the family life and celebrating the personal, individualistic passion, which culminated, years later, in the Romantic Movement. Before that, the literature of the western civilization was dominated by the subject “destiny”: men and women were presented as if they were puppets. Sometimes rebellious and challenging, sometimes sadly resigned but, always, puppets submitted to their inexorable destiny, which was completely out of their control and that determined the course of their lives, in spite of their choices, desires and actions.

 

Theater plays, epic poems, sagas and pre-romantic chronicles used to transmit, in a way or another, the same message: men and women were hostages of the destiny, prisoners in a universe essentially antagonistic to their interests and, if they were well-succeeded, the merit was not due to their own efforts but to certain fortuitous exterior circumstances.

 

Jane Austen’s writings are examples of narratives where the course of the characters’ lives started to be determined – and objectively chosen – by the own characters, pursued with a firm intention and despite of a series of problems to be decided – or obstacles to be surpassed. Characters would have to decide about their conflicts, based on their own values or through principles acquired from others – and assimilated through a flux of coherent and integrated events, resulting in a climax, which was the key for a consequent final solution.

 

Austen also teaches us, in Pride and Prejudice, that glamour, attraction and passion can happen at first sight but love, not. Love demands knowledge and this demands time. Even in the very first moment of a meeting, it is not uncommon that future lovers feel a sudden shock of recognition: a strange sensation of familiarity, a sensation to have joined somebody already known, in some level and in some mysterious way.

 

Such fascination happens whenever we realize that strange perception of unfamiliarity caused by someone else, which is very frequently converted in almost its opposite: the sensation of the already experienced. It is something that occurs as if we suddenly and powerfully come to the concretion of something that existed before only as a potential of our own psyche: “one part” sees the “other one” who is, at the same time, not “another one” but the “same”, and vice-versa.

 

This attraction and this shock of recognition are the basis of the mechanism which allows love – one of the vertices of the already mentioned subjects of Pride and Prejudice –, to win the other two: feminine reputation and social status. In this way, the force of the romantic love (or pre-Romanticist sensibility) wins the social barriers, destroying them and announcing the ideal that became the basis of the world we live in today.

 

So, in opposition to what literary handouts state, the Romantic Movement, which was to come next, was a kind of final stage of a long process that has been slowly constructed throughout the centuries and not necessarily a new aesthetic invented at random, in a specific moment in time – nor as a simple result of a fashionable style created by a specific author or text –, considered the exception of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, for the English poetry.

 

This process started with the secularization, went through the individualization of the self and was completed with the new psychology of love. We can even say that we become witnesses of such evolution of the self’s individual mentality by reading books like Pride and Prejudice, irrespectively of any moral judgment about the said evolution (i.e.: if “positive” or “negative”), which resulted in the bourgeois family values of nowadays.

 

Some critics say that Fitzwilliam Darcy is not a well-developed or believable character while others argue that such statements do not take into consideration the fact that the reader just sees him through Elizabeth Bennet’s prejudiced eyes. In her introduction to the 2000 Modern Library Paperback Edition, Anna Quindlen outlines that “Darcy learns to trust his heart and mute his arrogance, [while] Elizabeth not to make hasty judgments: hence the pride and the prejudice of the title” (p.ix). But we may say that both may irrespectively apply to them since Darcy and Elizabeth have, at least, the same sort of faults and qualities.

 

In terms of style, Austen inherited some of Samuel Richardson’s characteristics as the composition of scenes (the setting, the main characters and a summary of the plot is all introduced through a first dialogue between Mr.and Mrs.Bennet, without the narrator’s interference) as well as the characters’ inner life (Austen introduced the free-indirect speech in the novels, largely used by Virginia Woolf, later), among others. From Henry Fielding, she inherited the irony through a critical distance as well as the complexity of the plot.

 

The novel has also been criticized for not considering the politics of its time. Frederic Harrison, for example, referred to Jane Austen as a “heartless little cynic”. But why has a story of a young women marrying in the Regency England endured throughout decades when most other novels of its time have sunk into obscurity? Anna Quindlen says that it was exactly due to the fact that “her books were devoided of the politics of her era, the tumults of the French and American revolutions” (p.ix), curiously, the main complain of her detractors and critics.

 

Jane Austen decided to write not about war or peace but of men, money, and marriage, which were the battlefield not only for a woman of her days but, also, for many young ladies of our “modern” times. She discussed women's position and broke social rules and conventions (the long way walked by Elizabeth up to Bingley's estate was something unexpected - and unacceptable - for a woman at those times...). Pride and Prejudice is, thus, about the dance of attraction between two human beings who teach each other how to overcome their greatest faults, in an ironic, complex but not excessively plotted tone, being the book very pleasant to read.

 

Definitively, Darcy and Elizabeth deserve mention in a gallery of characters with a long tradition in Literature, together with other famous lovers like Abélard and Héloise, Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, Wherter and Charlotte, Don Quijote and Dulcinea or (why not?) Peri and Ceci, who have been teaching love to us throughout the centuries.