What comes to your mind when someone mentions Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice?
English Lit class?
A million costume-drama film adaptations? Not to mention Bridget Jones and Clueless – and even some YouTube versions. (The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, if you haven’t seen it, is an interesting take, btw.)
How about Colin Firth climbing out of a pond with a wet shirt? (I admit that I’ve never quite felt the appeal of that one myself…but oh boy, a lot of people have!)
I personally love Jane Austen. I’ve largely enjoyed the film adaptations – some more than others. But the actual novels…well, I unabashedly adore them.
I just really enjoy Austen’s characters – particularly her women characters. I admire their vibrancy, their intelligence, their utter three-dimensionality. Even the less outwardly spirited of them (like Persuasion‘s Anne Elliot – and even Mansfield Park‘s Fanny Price) have a sense of self that attracts and interests me. I like watching them navigate their lives, their dreams, their circumstances.
I’ve read and re-read all six of Austen’s major novels (as well as the novella, Lady Susan, and the unfinished The Watsons and Sanditon) multiple times. Jane Austen is my “comfort food” reading.
So, a few weeks ago, in the height of the holiday season and in need of some “comfort food,” I picked up a copy of Pride & Prejudice at the library. I hadn’t read this one in a while – so it was fresh enough, I figured, that it would amuse me.
And it did. It really grabbed me, actually – and not in any way I expected.
Maybe it was the “New Year” mindset that did it – that drive to evaluate your life and goals that tends to permeate late-December & early-January. Or maybe it’s just been long enough now since my last reading of this novel, and enough has changed in my life, that I could read it this time and pull something completely new from it. I don’t know!
But what happened when I read Pride & Prejudice this time around was that I found, in addition to the amusing story I expected, some very useful and pertinent advice to carry with me into 2016!
So, here it is:
The Pride & Prejudice 6-Point Manual for a Productive New Year
1-Take a good, hard look at yourself once in a while – and embrace the areas where improvement is needed. This is how you grow.
Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth both do this through the course the novel – and do it well. They both end up better, more openminded, humble, expansive people than they were at the novel’s beginning.
Mr. Darcy’s self-analysis happens largely off-stage; we just see the results of it when he meets Elizabeth and the Gardiners in Derbyshire. But Elizabeth’s we get to be privy to.
Here, for instance, after reading and pondering Darcy’s letter:
Personal growth is a huge focus for me this year. If I can be as effective at it as both Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy were, I’d consider myself to have had a really good year!
2-It’s okay to be selfish. After all, it’s your LIFE – your one precious life. Yours. It’s up to you to make something of it – or to sacrifice it to please others. And what you decide in that respect will shape…well, pretty much everything else.
It comes down to how much you value yourself. I’ve learned myself through hard experience that it’s vital to take this seriously – but it bears repeating and meditating on. It’s one of those concepts, I think, that should probably be pondered at least every new year.
It occurred to me, on this recent P&P re-read, that if you think about things from a purely practical, society-pleasing perspective, Elizabeth should have married Mr. Collins when he asked her. (Daunting thought!) She would have guaranteed herself – and her mother and sisters, too – financial security in doing so. But she never so much as considered it.
Watching Mr. Collins move through the story – and Elizabeth as well – it’s pretty much impossible to think she made a mistake in any way in turning him down! And I’m definitely not saying that. But the truth is, her refusal was a powerful act of honoring her own self – and I think it’s important to note that. There were plenty of reasons to say yes (reasons which Charlotte, for one, embraced.)
As if to expand upon this idea – this honoring-of-self idea – Austen later shows us Mr. Darcy proposing to Elizabeth in a very different but in some respects even more repellent manner than Mr. Collins had done previously. And, to up the ante, Mr. Darcy of course offered Elizabeth a good deal more than a Mr. Collins-level security; he offered wealth and status and a great estate. But her sense of self again triumphed:
“‘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…From the very beginning, from the first moment I may almost say, of my acquaintance with you, your manners impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form that ground-work of disapprobation, on which succeeding events have built so immoveable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.'”
The takeaway of this: Don’t throw yourself away. Not on a man who doesn’t deserve you, not on a life that doesn’t promise to allow you to be all of what you are.
It feels right, in the story, that when Elizabeth did eventually accept Mr. Darcy, it was a better, more evolved, more worthy version of himself than he had first offered. In working to improve himself, he made himself worthy of her. And so she didn’t sacrifice herself – or even throw herself with some kind of blind optimism into the future.
Her stakes in all of this – considering it was the early nineteenth century and her choices as a woman were extremely limited – were very high. But I think there remain plenty of women today (my formerly twenty-five-year-old self included…at least regarding the blind optimism part) who could stand to learn a few lessons in independence and “selfishness” (the good kind) from Elizabeth Bennet.
It doesn’t hurt to be reminded of this once in a while.
3-Look for reasons to believe the best of people. If you err, and so give people more credit than they eventually show themselves to deserve – well, this is much superior to erring in the other direction.
Jane Bennet is of course the model here:
Being selfish enough (as in #2) to advocate yourself, while also being generous enough to seek the good in other people and shine light on that – that’s a combination I’d like to balance better within myself.
4-Accept the unfortunate – and often painful – reality that There will always be people ready to hold you down. (Here’s looking at you, Lady Catherine de Bourgh!) But remember that it’s almost never as much about you as it is about them. Holding you back solidifies their own place in the world and their own choices. Do your own thing in spite – and maybe even because – of them.
I like this quote from author Elizabeth Gilbert:
“If people enjoy what you’ve created, terrific. If people ignore what you’ve created, too bad. If people misunderstand what you’ve created, don’t sweat it. And what if people absolutely hate what you’ve created? What if people attack you with savage vitriol, and insult your intelligence, and malign your motives, and drag your good name through the mud? Just smile sweetly and suggest – as politely as you possibly can – that they go make their own fucking art. Then stubbornly continue making yours.”
I aspire to be able to deal with difficult, judgmental people with as much grace and poise and faith-in-self as this quote urges! And Elizabeth Bennet nails this in the scene where she’s confronted by Lady Catherine near the end of Pride & Prejudice.
I’m slowly getting better at it, I think – but I’m not there yet! Definitely a goal for this year.
5-Understand that no one – no one – automatically gets a place in your inner circle. Nobody gets that by right! It’s hard to remember that sometimes – especially when it comes to family and longtime friendships.
But the truth is, though you might be entwined in some way – sometimes quite closely – with someone (co-workers, classmates, neighbors, family, old friends), it doesn’t follow that interaction means the same thing as intimacy. “Inner circle status” is nobody’s by right – not your sibling’s, not your childhood friend’s. It has to be earned – and it can be lost. And it’s okay to feel that.
For Elizabeth, it’s Jane, Mr. & Mrs. Gardiner, and to some degree her father whom she holds close to her. These are the people who respect and understand her – and she them. She can be open with them and vulnerable. She shares a certain worldview with them – and any differences in this regard are sources of learning and growth. (Mrs. Gardiner’s gentle guidance regarding Elizabeth’s early feelings for Mr. Wickham, to name one example…and Jane’s constant example of non-judgment, which Elizabeth comes to respect more deeply as she realizes how her own quick judgments of both Wickham and Mr. Darcy led her so very wrong.)
Mr. Darcy has joined Elizabeth’s inner circle by the novel’s end – while Charlotte, though still in it, has drifted to its outer edges. But this is how life works – if we let it. Our intimate relationships ebb and flow as we grow and change – and as the people in our lives do the same.
And it doesn’t mean that we stop caring. You can still care, even love, from a healthier distance.
Elizabeth clearly cares deeply for the well-being of her sister Lydia, for example – though she and Lydia aren’t at all close. As Elizabeth herself says:
I think that’s a really interesting statement – and one I can identify with.
The goal, I think, should be to aspire, always, to kindness and patience and compassion in your dealings with the people who, for one reason or another, are a part of your life (and see #3 above). But to find a way to do it without placing your emotional well-being in the hands of those who don’t deserve to have the guardianship of it. That’s the challenge.
Elizabeth Bennet is a good model, I think, for the right way to handle yourself in this area.
My last point, #6, is the simplest – but maybe the most powerful one of them all:
6-Never forget that a change of place and air can be a wonderful thing! Travel…yes. But sometimes even just a simple walk in the fresh air can work amazing things on your mind and insides.
It’s all about finding your center…finding balance. Being mindful. It’s about remembering to breathe…and about noticing the small beauties.
Walking anywhere can be of use – and any kind of exercise, really (not just walking.) But there is something particularly powerful, in my experience, about walking – on your own, in your own headspace. And in an environment that allows you to view nature.
In Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth is a “great walker”; we see this again and again in the novel. She lives in the country, so she’s walking largely on country lanes and through meadows – so, connected with nature.
The scene where she and Mr. Darcy finally come to an understanding in fact takes place on a walk. I think this suited the story needs more than anything; there weren’t that many places an unmarried man and woman could have private conversation at that time. But it adds greatly to the power of the scene, in my opinion. If their conversation had taken place inside a room or a carriage or something else enclosed, it wouldn’t have felt the same. It’s richer for being set in the open air and within nature.
I have myself a bad habit lately of curling up with my phone and reading Twitter when I feel down – when what I should be doing is putting on my shoes and going outside.
That’s definitely a 2016 change I need to make: less phone, more outside.
And more travel! If I can possibly manage it.
I love this quote from P&P – about a pending trip Elizabeth was invited to be a part of:
I think she’s on to something! 🙂
Do you have a favorite Jane Austen novel? I’d love to know which one – and why!
(words & images by Maggie Carlise)