Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” isn’t just one of the most wonderful novels ever written; it has one of the most wonderful opening sentences of any novel ever written: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Who, especially among us of the female sex, doesn’t want to read on?
And it seems that many women agree with my assessment. In a recent British poll of literary females, some 1,900 women voted for the rich, darkly handsome Mr. Darcy, who first arrogantly rejects genteel-poor Elizabeth Bennet, then ardently loves her, as the man they’d most like to date. “Pride and Prejudice” is, of course, the underpinning of Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and Bride and Prejudice, an exhuberant new Bollywood-musical adaptation of Austen’s novel to an Indian setting, is set for release any day now.
Everyone loves “Pride and Prejudice”–or everyone except the feminist establishment, that is. Inky reader A.P. has alerted me to this column in the liberal U.K. Guardian in which columnist Cherry Potter wrings her hands over Mr. Darcy’s continuing fascination for our sex. I mean, really, wasn’t he just a patriarchal male? Wasn’t Austen just catering to a female fantasy that a woman’s love can change a man? Writes Potter:
“It’s natural that such a fantasy held sway over women two centuries ago. When society was deeply patriarchal, men like Darcy really were severe, remote and all-powerful – in the novel, Darcy even describes himself as ‘selfish and overbearing’. Women were separated from men by all sorts of formal conventions which left them little opportunity to get to know men until after they were married. The question is, why does Darcy continue to have a compelling hold over women, particularly educated literary feminist women, in the 21st century?”
Why, why, why? First of all, I don’t think Potter understands “Pride and Prejudice” very well, for in Austen’s novel, Elizabeth isn’t perfect, either; she has her own “prejudice” against Darcy to learn to overcome–just as the cinematic Bridget Jones has to learn that Mark Darcy, whom she first disdains as insufficiently romantic, is really the better man for her. Austen’s novel is about moral transformation. The two leading characters, male and female, in the process of assessing each other’s failings, discover their own failings and go to work on them. Second, Potter’s real quarrel seems not to be with Elizabeth’s match with Darcy but with the fact that Austen rewards the pair for their moral struggle by giving it a happy ending via–horror of horrors–a happy marriage between the pair. And we all know that marriage is the very worst form of patriarchal oppression for a true-blue feminist. Potter writes:
“…Austen leaves us to assume that her heroine’s marriages are happy despite portraying very few idyllic marriages in the rest of her texts. Also, Austen’s deification as a novelist is such that one hardly dares to point out that when it comes to marriage and what goes on behind the bedroom door, she herself had no first-hand experience. But as modern women with our wealth of relationship experience and all the benefits brought about by feminism, we should know better. The fact is that dark, smouldering, moody, charismatic, arrogant Darcy types, whom we hate at first sight and then later find ourselves falling in love with, often – particularly after we have married them — turn out to be rigid, dominating and controlling.
“What message is this Darcy fixation sending to men? On the one hand, women say they want men who are emotionally intelligent, sensitive, flexible, who enjoy sharing equally and are fun to be with. But these same women are swooning over a fictional character who is the epitome of the dominant patriarchal male. No wonder men are confused.
“Far from swooning over the latest Pride and Prejudice adaptation, those of us who have experienced the dark side of the Darcy syndrome should be warning younger women who may be in danger of repeating our mistakes. I’m sure Jane Austen would be cheering us on.”
No, she wouldn’t. She’d be shaking her head at Cherry Potter’s obtuseness in failing to get the point of her novel. Fortunately, most of the rest of us do get it, and that’s why we thrill over and over as Elizabeth and Darcy, in all their incarnations, shake off their pride and their prejudices and find lasting love.