Sunday, 10 February 2013

Belated birthday wishes to Pride and Prejudice

January 28th, 1813. The day the world changed. Not because of a major political event, no outbreak of war, no massacre or bombing. In fact, the change wasn’t even noticeable then. But it happened. Because that was the day Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was published.

Critics will argue that the novel is nothing but a series of fluffy portraits of posh women and poor women and in-between women – all interested only in finding husbands. That despite living in the hardest of times, despite having brothers in the army and navy and a brother-in-law guillotined in the French Revolution, Austen remained oblivious to the plight of the world around her, and her mind and writing remained confined to household and marriage. A criticism as silly and limited as saying Tolkien lived in a make-believe world and did not address real problems.

Because those who want to look beyond the obvious will see that beneath its resolutely fluffy, frothy surface, Pride and Prejudice is equally resolutely real. That it is as much about, and rooted in, the grim reality of Austen’s time – the military regiments and their movement, the economic disparity, land laws, social and legal gender discrimination, social mobility and the lengths to which women had to go to secure their and their children’s future – as it is about relationships – friendship, family, the importance of a companionate, loving marriage founded on shared values and equality. That it is a sharply observed study of human nature and failings, and one in which men and women are treated with an equal hand.

Even within her limited scope as a woman in what was essentially a male bastion, Austen manages, in Pride and Prejudice, to defy stereotypes and present men and women that aren’t the norm. Elizabeth Bennett is not the most attractive or the most domestic of her five sisters – two qualities that men would have looked for in a wife. She is, however, intelligent, self-respecting, with a mind of her own and the courage to speak it. She is also well-read, a point that Austen makes more than once. And even though her sister Jane is described as beautiful, Austen makes it clear that her beauty is incidental, and is less important than the fact that she radiates goodness and warmth. The other sisters are described as not particularly worthy either because of their behaviour or their limited intelligence – never because they aren’t attractive or “accomplished” in the way that women were expected to be.

Darcy has all the trappings of a catch – yet he isn’t immediately portrayed as one. Far from allowing him to remain a surly, uncommunicative hero, Austen ensures that he sees the need to change, to realize his mistakes and have the humility to apologize for them. If I were to receive a marriage proposal like Darcy’s first one to Elizabeth, I would not think twice about saying no. Except that this is two centuries ago, so when she rejects him, it is a much bigger deal. Especially since she has already rejected the odious Mr. Collins. Both rejections are vital, since they send out the message that women do have a choice, that marriage should never be seen as a way out of other problems no matter how limited one’s options. The rejection is also necessary since it shows Elizabeth’s own great flaw, her inability to see Darcy outside of her own prejudices. She, too, needs to realize that first impressions are not always the last. Not just women, even men deserve better.

Feminist, satire, chick lit, progressive, regressive, populist, niche. Pride and Prejudice refuses to be pinned down and stuffed into any one box. Which is why, 200 years after it was published, it still evokes the most heated debates on topics ranging from gender literature to irony and narrative form. It still gets pride of place on every bookshelf, is arguably the most popular choice for book club discussions, routinely tops best-book-ever-written polls. And continues to spawn innumerable fan fiction revisions and sequels, TV movies and shows, Hollywood movies, Bollywood movies. From vampire romance to crime thriller, no genre has been unaffected by it.

So as it turns 200, this is my humble, adoring tribute to a novel that has become the inimitable gold standard for wit, for love and equality, for everything that matters. To a novel that is, itself, a truth universally acknowledged.

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