Monday, May 4, 2015

Jane Austen: Why We Love Elizabeth Bennet!

Jennifer Ehle as Lizzie Bennet

If you are a Jane Austen fan, as I am, your favorite heroine might be Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. There are many other wonderful heroines in her stories, but Pride and Prejudice seems to be the perennial favorite. 

If you don't know the story: here it is in a nutshell.  Elizabeth Bennett is about twenty, still lives at home with her mom, dad, and four sisters. Their dad has a nice home, Longbourne, with servants. There's a little problem with their future, however, as daddy's home is entailed, meaning he cannot leave it legally to anyone but the nearest male relative. No sons. So mom worries all the time about what should happen if Mr. Bennett dies. She fears they will all be tossed out onto the street, penniless, when Mr. B's nephew obtains the property. 

So, mom has five unmarried daughters, and her plan is to marry them off to rich men of means, so they will all be ensured a prosperous future.  Well, it is the early 19th century here, so that was normal. Women couldn't go to college. They couldn't to out and get jobs, unless they were low born. Then they could be servants, tavern maids, or governesses.

Elizabeth is the second daughter. Her older sister, Jane, is said to be a startling beauty. Lizzy is the brainy one of the family, and her father's favorite. Jane is serene and quiet, like a beautiful swan gliding over a peaceful pond.  The other three sisters are annoying and shallow--just like mom. The youngest, Lydia, who is fifteen, is the worst of the bunch, being spoiled as the baby and clearly mom's favorite. 

So, when Elizabeth Bennet, a very feisty, smart woman who loves books, like her father, meets a certain man who is haughty and condescending, she immediately takes him in dislike. Worse for it, he actually insults her to his friend at a ball, (with her overhearing his nasty remarks), which adds fuel to her dislike. 

Getting back to the storyline of the house falling into the nephew's hands:  Mr. Bennet's nephew, Mr. Collins, comes to visit. He's a clergyman, and really rather . . . unattractive and simple minded. 
Mr. Collins

He comes with the intent of asking one of his cousins to marry him, thereby keeping the house in the family when he inherits it after Mr. Bennet's death ...and as an olive branch as his father and Mr. Bennet were estranged as brothers. 

Unfortunately, he fixes his fancy on Elizabeth. Her mother tries to bully her into accepting, but Elizabeth refuses to given in.  

Lizzie's father comes to her rescue, as he says "I'm afraid you are faced with a terrible dilemma, Lizzie. You mother has vowed to never speak to you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never speak to you if you do [marry him]." 

You can see where Lizzie gets her wit from. But this incident shows us Lizzie is not going to be bullied into marriage (a common occurrence in Regency novels and times) by her mother or anybody else. She's determined not to attach herself to an idiot for life, and her intellectual father upholds her decision. 

What is so different about Elizabeth Bennet over the many regency era heroines we love to read? 

  • Elizabeth is not looking for a man!  Yeah, she's not really into the marriage gig. Oh, she's not opposed to it to the point of being militant about it. She just quietly goes her own way and lets all the men buzz around her beautiful older sister, Jane.
  • She loves her goofy, embarrassing mom, and her reclusive dad. Lizzie endures, as many young people do still trapped at home with parents. She endures their flaws without drama. She's learned to just put up with their flaws.  
  • She loves her sisters, especially Jane, who she has a special bond with as they are the two eldest. Elizabeth does what she can to promote Jane with Mr. Bingley, where in this competitive society of must marry fast and well, a girl might consider her sister competition for a wealthy man's attentions. 

  • She doesn't mind if other women make fun of her for loving to read. She says as much to Miss Bingley, the shallow, snarky woman who is jealous of her because Darcy likes Elizabeth. Our Heroine takes the vixen's venom in mixed company in stride and ignores the woman's callow remarks, decidedly lessening the barbs by not being baited. She just keeps reading her novel serenely. 
  • She speaks up for herself without apology, and gives her opinions.  Elizabeth is a gentlewoman, raised to adhere to the strict manners of society, yet she is self confident and uses her wit to good advantage to make fun of some people's expectations about society's traditions. 
Here is a perfect example of Elizabeth Bennet's (LB) spunk and self confidence:

 The following scene takes place Lady Catherine's home, at her dinner table with other guests literally quaking in their shoes in the presence of her ladyship, and not willing to speak hardly at all. Lady Catherine (LC)takes to quizzing Elizabeth on her family. Note how Elizabeth stands her ground on her opinions and doesn't resort to quivering or groveling: 
LC: "Are any of your younger sisters out?" 
EB: "Yes, ma'am, all of them." 
LC: "All!--What, all five at once? Very Odd ......the younger ones out before the elder is married?" 
EB: Yes, my youngest is not sixteen. Perhaps she is full young to be out much in company. But really, ma'am, I think it would be very hard upon younger sisters, that they should not have their share of society and amusement because the elder sister may not have the means or inclination to marry early. The last born has as good a right to the pleasures of youth, as the first. And to be held back with such a motive!--I think it would not be very likely to promote sisterly affection or delicacy of mind."
LC: "Upon my word! You give your opinion very decidedly for so young a person. Pray, what is your age?" 
EB: "With three younger sisters grown up," replied Elizabeth with a smile, "your ladyship can hardly expect me to own it." 

The Response: in Jane Austen's words 'Lady Catherine seemed quite astonished at not receiving a direct answer; and Elizabeth suspected herself to be the first creature who had ever dared to trifle with so much a dignified person.' 

You will find many such witty parries in conversation throughout the book. Elizabeth, her father, and other characters play mental chess with less intelligent people, [like her drama queen mom and her silly sisters!] and they do it with a smile and with charm their targets hardly even realize they've been made fun of.  It's brilliant writing, akin to Shakespeare but without the tedious 'thees', thous' and 'doth's.  

After Mr. Darcy's rude and condescending proposal of marriage to Elizabeth, in which he says that he loves her against his will and good judgement and has fought against his feelings for her as [according to him] she is so much lower then his family in society: 

"You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner."

Say What, you don't want to marry my wealthy, arrogant @$$? 
She could have just said 'No, I don't want to marry you.' Instead Elizabeth had the chops to point out to her arrogant suitor that his behavior was insulting, and therefore relieved her of the burden of feeling bad for refusing his offer. 

"In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal." 

Said to the haughty Lady Catherine de Bourgh when the elder woman was putting Lizzie down for her social standing and insisting Elizabeth was not suitable to marry the super wealthy Mr. Darcy. Instead, Lady Catherine's attack made Elizabeth all that more determined to marry Mr. Darcy. 

This story is full of family drama, romance, and wit. Jane Austen makes our heroine self-confident, lovable and enduring.  Elizabeth has the grace and aplomb to stand her ground and yet to do so without being vicious or melodramatic. She remains strong and cool headed when faced with a family crisis--the youngest sister runs off with Mr. Wickham (the girl is hardly sixteen). While her mother wallows in self pity, feigns fainting spells and takes to her room wailing inconsolably, Elizabeth keeps her head and tries to help her father figure out a solution.  

Elizabeth is a sensible, intelligent heroine in this regency romance. And the really cool thing is that Jane Austen, the author, actually lived in that era, so it's a contemporary look at Regency and late eighteenth century life. If you are an author, you'll find hidden gems about life in this era, manners and so forth, and it's a great read! 

Note: I used photos from the 1995 BBC film version of Pride & Prejudice for illustration purposes.  This version is my favorite as it is pretty much word for word from the book (a rare thing in this era!). There are several film versions available but the best part is reading the book. You'll be highly entertained by our witty heroine as she navigates regency society and the uncertain waters of romance.  

Elizabeth, you'll live on in our hearts for generations to come! 

No comments:

Post a Comment