What exactly is it about Jane Austen’s second novel, Pride and Prejudice, that has made it so unwaveringly popular from 1813 up until the present day? It could be the irresistible romance or the social commentary – but many argue that it is its central protagonist, the admirable, complex Elizabeth Bennet and how she navigates the intricacies of this plot that has caused Pride and Prejudice to be so compelling to all generations.
Elizabeth Bennet was the first feminist I came across in my life. She is both assertive and vulnerable, determined yet unsure. Much like the majority of the modern youth, she feels alienated from her parents due to their differing ideals, which is one of the main aspects that still makes it so appealing to today’s readers. Cited as “headstrong” by her mother but supported by her father, she is torn throughout the novel as to what route in life to follow: one of optimism and true love, however hard it may be to find, or one of realism and acceptance of the social class divides that pursue her.
As daring as a woman in the socially restrictive Regency era could be, Lizzy is a hyperbolised version of the sharp and lively Austen herself. Though written in third-person prose, Pride and Prejudice gives us unimpeded access to Lizzy’s thoughts, feelings and disposition throughout the novel, showing us life in 1800s England through the slant of a cynical and at times judgemental young woman. Why shouldn’t she marry for love? Why must her family be shunned for their lack of propriety? Why is her sister Jane refused a life with the man she loves because of their gap in class? Lizzy’s resentment towards the way her world works fuels an energy within the reader that makes us want to fight for Lizzy’s cause, too. As the chalk to older Jane’s cheese, the pair experience the conflict of loving their families, whilst knowing they are being held back because of them.
It is Lizzy who is at once unconventionally strong, yet also capable of finding love, disproving many skewed feminist ideals that a woman must spurn men in order to achieve independence. It is Lizzy who overcomes her own flaws (a difficulty to forgive, as seen with Wickham and Darcy, and impulsiveness of judgement) in order to appreciate Mr Darcy’s true character, after one too many misunderstandings leads them both to initially dislike and even despise one another. It is Lizzy who reluctantly disregards her original perceptions of melodramatic Mr Collins in favour of her value for her and Charlotte’s friendship, so that she can be happy for her best friend’s choices. As the novel progresses, we readers discover the lively, perceptive way Elizabeth deals with the problems she faces, acknowledging them with emotion yet regarding them much more thoughtfully and privately than any of the other impulsive Bennet sisters, excluding perhaps Jane. This leads to a period of distance between Lizzy and her family, especially beloved Jane, but it is this manner that also allows her to develop an open and accepting mind. It is in fact her growing exposure to all aspects of the ‘real’ world – the unfortunate obligation many women felt to marry, the haughty and self-involved attitude of the high-ranking Lady Catherine de Bourgh and others like her, the lengths a respected circle of friends would go to in order to protect one another’s status, and the surprisingly unsavoury intentions of a man she once regarded as sincere – that transforms her giggling naiveté into assured, confident strength.
Throughout the novel, as its title suggests, the question ‘Who has the pride, and who has the prejudice?’ occurs frequently. Are Darcy’s flaws or Lizzy’s getting in the way of their prospective relationship? Arguably, Austen reveals the pride and prejudice in every single one of her characters through their interactions with Lizzy Bennet. We experience everyone and everything through her delightfully intelligent eyes, and in turn see her own quick wittedness and humour often lost on the ignorant family that surrounds her. Most importantly, she is at times betrayed, saved, affirmed, offended, ignored and misunderstood – but everything she does is on her own terms.
Words by Megan Harding