Elizabeth Buchan has a double degree in English and History. After a career in publishing, she decided to leave to do what she really wished to do - write. Her novels include the prizewinning Consider the Lily, Light of the Moon, Perfect Love and That Certain Age. A New York Times bestseller, Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman, has sold all over the world and been made into a CBS Primetime Drama. Her latest novel is The Second Wife. Below Elizabeth writes about Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.
Elizabeth Buchan on Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Jane Austen wrote six novels in which romance, satire and social comedy are deployed to illustrate the tussle between reason, good manners and morality and the baser and more ridiculous aspects of human nature.
So far, so good. But it was not until I read Pride and Prejudice as a new mother (having first read it as a soppy teenager) that I realized there was also something else weaving its way through Darcy and Elizabeth's love story. This was the belief that civilized happiness is achievable, provided it is based on tolerance, good humour and a willingness to live the examined life.
Struggling with motherhood and a career as I was and in danger of drowning, this seemed to be an excellent thing. The novel seemed to shine a light of sweet reason on to my domestic chaos and imported some much-needed laughter at the time when it was required most.
Even later, when I had experienced a setback which caused me much grief and many sleepless nights, I re-read it yet again. This time I responded to the element of fantasy which runs deep and poignant through the story of an intelligent and spirited girl with £1000 in four percents (as Mr Collins so charmingly reminds her when he proposes) and her relationship with a man of considerable means who was taught what was 'right' but 'not to correct his temper'. You can see at once from the disparity of their positions how in the Rationalist era, the money-and-class-minded Augustan squirearchy would have not allowed this love affair to prosper.
And, indeed, it had not. In 1795 Jane Austen met Tom Lefroy whose only fault (as she wrote to her sister, Cassandra) was that he wore too light a morning coat. The attraction was mutual: they danced and discussed the shocking novel Tom Jones. The next day he paid a morning visit. It was then a relation stepped in smartly and made sure that Tom was dispatched on his way to a distinguished legal career and a prudent marriage. The implication could not have been clearer. Poor and poorly connected, Jane was not a suitable choice for an up-and-coming lawyer. We do not know either from her behaviour or from her letters how she felt but, on further reading of Pride and Prejudice, it is impossible not to conclude how the pain and humiliation she experienced sowed the seeds of the novel in her writer's psyche.
It contains more than a whiff of revenge. For in contriving to marry Jane and Elizabeth to men richer and better connected than the Bennets, she is both indulging in a fantasy and cocking a snook at interfering relations. The Austen family were often hard pressed financially, and survival in a harsh social climate required cool thinking and self discipline. In bringing her hero and heroine together, the author demonstrates a belief that other things matter much more. Surely, she is asking in her deceptively subversive manner, to possess both money and position does not necessarily endow that person with superiority of mind or morals? She is also indulging in the delicious catharsis of hope triumphing over experience. And is there not a tiny suggestion of what we now would term 'feminism' in her contriving? For, in marrying Darcy, Elizabeth ensures she has a greater power to control her own destiny and to help her family.
The subversion is everywhere. The novel is stuffed with needle-sharp portraits and pointers which took me several readings to appreciate. From our post-feminist standpoint, we tut-tut over Mrs Bennet's frantic efforts to marry off her daughter - but what else, pray, should she do with five daughters who have no income or a job? Yet, for me, it is the deadly feline analysis of Mr Bennet's behaviour which leaves the bitter taste in the mouth. He is a man who has given up: who is openly contemptuous of his wife and whose detachment serves his family badly.
The tyrannies of class and money are cleverly exposed – not least the entail which will drive Mrs Bennet out of her house if Mr Bennet dies first. Less obviously, there is the underlying commentary on the exhaustion of living in families and the different, but equally exhausting, tyrannies exacted by its most powerful members. Peace and quiet are hard to find. There is often no time nor space to talk things over in private, feelings are driven underground and in the tight, contained units of family and community a transgression such as Lydia's can disgrace the entire family.
What a brilliant and funny novel it is and, like all great novels, multi-layered, for the wit, romance and comedy is leavened by a savagery and a touch of sadness. By the end, the Bennet house is emptying and there are long, long years ahead for Charlotte Collins as she does her best to avoid her dreadful husband. Furthermore, I have my suspicions that Fitzwilliam Darcy may well turn out to be a man who likes his egg boiled for exactly three minutes.
To counteract this, there is a powerful sense of Jane Austen's delight in her own creation. She may have resented and mourned the failure of her love affair while, paradoxically, she had no illusions about matrimony, but it did not prevent her rapturous delight in her 'darling child'.
And ours too.