Jane Austen starts her most famous novel with an ironic line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” The rest of the novel follows several single women in the quest to capture the hearts of men in possession of great fortunes. It’s a justification for predatory women, to hunt and capture rich men.
Austen begins with the irony of a universal truth about love. But, the true irony is that her book reveals more universal truths about love than most “serious” attempts at the subject.
Having just completed my 100,000th read-thru of Pride and Prejudice (I’m rounding up a bit), I’m thinking about why in the world this book about upper class women in regency England (early 19th century) still rings true today. These women didn’t have cell phones. They didn’t surf the web or update their Facebook profiles. Boyfriends didn’t even exist. Instead, they had an elaborate courtship and engagement process. Women didn’t work outside the home. As a general rule, they didn’t own property, and many of them died early in childbirth. So why in the world is it the ultimate chick lit book?
If Elizabeth Bennet lived today, she and Jane would probably go to a state school, where Elizabeth would be in her junior year at the beginning of the novel (at 20), and Jane (at 22) would be a year out of school and at an entry level job, doing something like nursing or social work. So when Mr. Bingley enters the scene, he’s a handsome, rich chap, but he’s not the answer to all their prayers. The Bennet women are doing just fine without his riches. Mr. Darcy is easily ignored and avoided. When Lydia and Wickham skip town, the family can be thankful that they don’t have to fork over the money for an elaborate ceremony and leave it at that.
Obviously, I think that the story has more reasons to carry over to our time and culture. But, it’s this sort of mindset, of sticking the characters in the modern time frame, that can limit us from seeing how much we truly have in common with them.
Within the context of the Bennet sisters’ historical situation, we see some universal truths played out, ones that continue to be relevant in today’s game of love.
1. Watch out for female competitors who use dirty tactics
Sure, the stakes today are a little different, but the heart still beats the same. Miss Bingley’s two faced friendship and attempts at sabotage with Jane and Elizabeth is a perfect example of the lengths many women will go to win their men.
2. Don’t be too quick to judge someone’s character
Elizabeth gets burned here. She used bad information to form an entirely incorrect picture of Mr. Darcy. The same goes for Mr. Wickham. She was way off on that one too.
3. Heartbreak doesn’t heal easily
Poor Jane. She languished for Bingley, and those of us who have ever felt heartbreak feel for her. So much more the reason to rejoice when they are reunited.
4. Good Girlfriends are essential to survival
Jane and Elizabeth are constantly debriefing after their encounters with their respective suitors. And Charlotte needs Elizabeth more than ever when she settles for the annoying Mr. Collins.
5. A woman has a lot of expectations to negotiate
While the family and societal expectations have changed a lot in the past two hundred years, women’s anxiety over being the “good girl” hasn’t changed at all. We aim to please a lot of different people, and many of them have conflicting desires for us. Elizabeth is trying to please her fickle family and the society that says she’s too low to marry upwards into Mr. Darcy’s stratosphere. Women today battle the call to stay home with their kids but also to embrace the feminist call to “do it all.” We can’t win. So we live in the skillful negotiation of the middle ground.
If anybody has been reading along with me, I’d love to hear your ideas for other “universal truths” in the story. I’m sure that there are plenty more.