There is something singularly beautiful in the way books offer an escape from the horrors of reality, only to throw one into a world where one is compelled to contemplate the various philosophies that govern it. This offer for escapism is further pronounced in books that are of a different era, a world so different from the present that it can not help but pull a weary man from his tedious life. And what book offers such a reprieve, satisfying a nostalgia for the old world, devoid of many problems that plague the modern world, but Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’?
It is a novelty to behold the self-assured conduct of Mr Darcy, in a society that ridicules a propensity for silence, cries offence at the slightest instance of social ineptitude, expects every man to be as well-spoken as the next, indulge in witless conversation and paints a man of few words (and those few of great value and meaning, which one would think a most desirable quality in an environ where insincere compliments and nonsensical chatter abound) to be one with the most disagreeable disposition. “Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue”1 and it is a delight to perceive it unfold, both in Mr Darcy and Miss Eliza, for having expressed her opinion in a previous conversation, against Mr Darcy at that, that one ought to accept and cater to the request and plea of a dear one, without necessary argument, she yet believes Mr Bingley to be at fault for staying in London at the insistence of those closest to him, prejudiced in favour of her sister as she was; as for Mr Darcy, having prevented Mr Bingley from pursuing Jane on the grounds that his affections were not equally reciprocated, he continued to pursue Miss Eliza himself, without any assurance of the same, although it could be said that it was more pride and overconfidence that formed the basis for the latter.
I must confess, I was prejudiced, in favour of Mr Darcy, in fact, I know not why and this might have led to me experiencing the book differently. But it was in uncommonly poor taste that Darcy observed Eliza to be too plain to ‘tempt’ him. And the proposal! It is quite astonishing how clueless most characters were in the face of sarcasm, insincere compliments and the workings of the human mind. The guilelessness of Lydia and Mrs Bennet, and their abject stupidity, paired with Lady Catherine’s vulnerability to flattery only magnify the absurdity of the situation, leaving one to wonder just how it was possible for a group of adults to be so simple. This is nothing to say of Mr Collins conducting himself with unbridled ostentation, of trying to purport a deepness of character that simply does not exist, whilst simultaneously being unsuspecting of the Bennets’ amusement at his expense. In his pursuit of a dignified and refined mien, he ends up portraying himself in a poor light. And Mr Hurst, with his lethargy and predisposition towards a vague and empty lifestyle, only helps highlight Mr Darcy’s character with his effortless handling of Lydia’s scandal. Afterall “Prosperity doth best discover vice; but adversity doth best discover virtue”2. Hence it is shocking how Mr Darcy, who managed to remain distinguished, with none of the foolhardiness and follies of the others, struggles to comprehend the fault in his ways when he is left wondering about Eliza’s denial after he so completely insulted her and her standing, all but declaring that she was not of a good enough station or birth and that it pains him to be so engrossed in her. Truly, one cannot fathom why her rejection came as a surprise to him.
In an era where the rules of socialising and public conduct were abundant, and the mannerisms of a ‘gentleman’ and ‘lady’ stringently defined, and numerous expectations held of a truly accomplished person, the principle of civility and manners were lost on most of the lower gentry, with a set of rules stridently followed for fear of social ridicule and the many repercussions that would otherwise plague them, the protagonists standing firmly by their principles is refreshing, while managing to present themselves in a distinguished manner, worthy of polite company.
With a lot of character traits that are plain offensive to today’s morals, by all rights the book must have been intolerable. But there is just something charming in the way Austen spins her story, a satire of her own society, that makes it impossible to put the book down. Indeed, if not for the countryside and the romance, one must concede that it provides at the least, an opportunity for amusement, derived from absurdity of character and circumstance.
It is one thing to acknowledge one’s errors and set about correcting them, but it is an endeavour of a different degree altogether to acknowledge that there are errors in the first place, especially in a world filled with unsuspecting and undiscerning characters such as Mrs Bennet, that Eliza and Darcy do speaks for itself. It was nevertheless refreshing to see the faults of both leads acknowledged, for what better accounts for reality but its imperfections?
1. La Rachefoucauld’s maxims
2. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), in his essay Of Adversity