The impending arrival of a wealthy bachelor creates much excitement in the environs of Meryton - particularly for Mrs Bennet, who immediately forms hopes of acquiring him for one of her five daughters. Mr Bingley proves to be every bit as handsome and charming as she could wish, but the friend who accompanies him is far less agreeable. Miss Elizabeth Bennet especially conceives a dislike for the insufferably proud Mr Darcy, and not all his immense wealth can endear him to her mother. His reputation slides even lower when the dashing Mr Wickham lets slip a tale of unjust suffering at the hands of his former friend. Despite the remonstrances of her sister Jane - who cannot bear to think ill of anyone - Elizabeth is quite ready to believe the worst, the more so as she is certain Darcy has been responsible for ending Bingley’s attachment to Jane and hastening him out of the neighbourhood.
But Elizabeth hasn’t seen the last of her least favourite person. By an unfortunate stroke of fate Darcy’s aunt is Lady Catherine de Burgh, the patron of the Bennets’ pompous clerical cousin Mr Collins (who, having been soundly rejected by Elizabeth, married her best friend instead). A visit to the new Mrs Collins, and a tour of the countryside with her aunt and uncle, both conspire to throw Elizabeth and Darcy together. Could anyone so proud possibly wish to ally himself to someone with a negligent father, a vulgar mother, an uncle in trade, and a sister who has just disgraced herself utterly - and after stooping to deception to save his friend from the same folly? And what would the dragonish Lady Catherine have to say about it if he did?
I seriously doubt whether there is anything I can say about Pride and Prejudice that hasn’t been said a zillion times before (and that, combined with the fact that I’ve loved it so long it’s hard to determine exactly why, has been giving me a serious case of reviewer’s block). It was the first Austen I read and it vies with Persuasion for the place of favourite. The Bennets must be one of literature’s original dysfunctional families. Mrs Bennet is a perpetual embarrassment to her elder daughters, with her attacks of nerves, obvious attempts at matchmaking, and indulgence of officer-mad Kitty and Lydia. Mary tries to compensate for her lack of looks by acquiring, and showing off, dubious intellectual and musical accomplishments. And Mr Bennet lets them all be as silly as they please, so long as they amuse him in the process. Jane and Elizabeth are the only sensible ones, but I have a soft spot for Mr Bennet - his straight-faced teasing of his wife and younger daughters never fails to make me smile. There’s hardly a character in the book I don’t love to read about; even the less pleasant ones, such as dragonish Lady Catherine or Mr Bingley’s delightfully bitchy sisters, are poked fun at rather than set up as serious antagonists. Only Wickham is unredeemed by any traits fit to be laughed at.
Elizabeth is one of my all-time favourite literary heroines; she has an independent mind and little hesitation in using it, from rejecting Mr Collins despite the good it could do her family to telling off Lady Catherine. (It’s a little strange to think that the same author who created a heroine so appealing to modern sensibilities was also responsible for Fanny Price, the epitome of meek and mild.) Between her own case of disgust at first sight and the charming Wickham’s plausible tale, it isn’t hard to see why she is so ready to believe everything bad of Darcy. The pride responsible for Elizabeth’s initial aversion has an equally firm basis, and their respective reformations are perfectly convincing. Not only does each receive a strong fillip to change their ways, but they’re allowed plenty of time to adapt their thinking.
This is a book capable of keeping its readers smiling all the way through. There’s hardly a page without some gentle sending-up of early nineteenth-century country society and the people who inhabit it (who could forget Mr Collins bragging of the cost of a fireplace that’s not even his?). Plus, of course, a fabulous heroine and a hero who’s almost perfect. And as for Mr Wickham - I can’t help thinking he gets just what he deserves.