The 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice on January 28 has brought another outbreak of Jane Austen fever, and I for one consider it the least harmful of any social fad. Indeed, with the exception of the tiresome meme about Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy being the “ultimate sex symbol” it seems positively healthy to me. P&P leaves a strong impression that true romance is the reward of restraint and a principled approach to life — even if one of those principles is financial security.
The romantic appeal of the novel is, of course, at odds with its outmoded gender paradigm whereby protagonist Elizabeth Bennet’s entire future is predicated on her being married off to a successful man. It is a truth all but universally acknowledged today that a woman can build her own fortune and need not depend on a man. Indeed, roles might be in the process of reversal. The Telegraph reports:
According to a new survey, 37.3 per cent of parents believe their sons will be financially sound for the rest of their lives if they marry a good woman – while less than a third of parents (31.9 per cent) believe the same of their daughter to be the case if she weds.
The Scottish Widows study, which polled 1,000 British parents to mark the bicentenary of the novel indicates that
nearly eight out of 10 parents with daughters believe doing well at university and getting a good job is the answer to them achieving the greatest financial security for the future. By contrast only seven per cent think their daughters need to ‘marry well’ to be financially set.
And only one percent, thankfully, chose “marrying a celebrity” as a goal for their daughters.
In truth, marrying at all has receded to a far horizon and only four percent of the parents believe that starting a family should be a priority for their children.
Given the fundamental change in attitudes to gender roles and marriage since 1813, what, actually, is the appeal of the work Jane Austen called her “dear child” to the younger generations? Is it all about the sex appeal of Colin Firth or Keira Knightly in the newer movie versions? This writer suggests there’s a lot more to it than that:
They say there are two main love stories that run through every successful book, film, play, song in the world: the first is boy meets girl, they hate each other, but over time and through revelation, they realised they are in fact perfect for each other. The second is boy meets girl, they fall in love at first sight, but due to cruel circumstance they are separated, only to be passionately reunited at the end.
One of the keys to the enduring success of Pride and Prejudice is that it has both these classic stories running side by side, in the form of Darcy and Elizabeth, and Bingley and Jane.
And these templates fit perfectly with the contemporary idea of marriage as the uniting of “soul mates” — who, we must add, have first established their financial viability and temperamental compatibility by living together…
Children? Well, their value to a couple is represented ambiguously in the novel by the rather fraught (on her side) and tired (on his side) relationship between the Bennet parents, and the enormous challenge they face of seeing five girls suitably settled. Not much encouragement there for the modern couple, except that Elizabeth and Jane are great girls and, heavens, there’s never a dull moment in the Bennet household. That has to be worth something.