The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: December 26, 2003
The marriage of true minds
Pride and Prejudice offers a satisfying and still useful guide to romance
By KRIS BERGGREN
Four women seated in the section just to my right at a recent staging of Pride and Prejudice sat at the edges of their seats during a climactic scene in the last act: Mr. Darcy was proposing marriage to Elizabeth Bennet. Finally, one of these women ardently and audibly urged: Say yes! We laughed appreciatively. She had voiced what many of us probably felt at that moment -- vicarious pleasure at a well-deserved happy ending.
Austens novels evoke the courtesy and restraint of socially proscribed courtship among the 19th-century English gentry. Her protagonists are women coming of age in a time when most women depended on their fathers or husbands for economic livelihood, and their happiness generally hinged on a fortunate marriage. Though Austen largely avoids upstairs-downstairs scenarios, her subtext is class and gender injustice characteristic of her time. Women with no family wealth or social connection to offer a prospective suitor were often backed into a corner of reluctant consent to a semi-arranged marriage that at least promised a home to keep and social status as somebodys wife. Whether or not she cared for the man or found him attractive -- or even knew him well -- could be irrelevant; men and women alike felt the personal unhappiness of such loveless if socially convenient relationships. A widow and her unmarried daughters could be turned out of their home if the husband died and the property was entailed to the closest male relative as was the common practice.
So Pride and Prejudice is not a simplistic story about love at first sight. Its about Elizabeths and Darcys growing awareness, over months of chance social encounters, of their mutual attraction and compatibility. Each learns, quite simply, to see past his or her prejudices -- about family background, gender roles, appearances and social class -- and to let go of the pride that prevents them from reaching out to the other in friendship if not romantic love. The novel, like most of Austens work, is about the triumph of an egalitarian marriage of true minds, to use Shakespeares phrase, over marriage as a utilitarian brick in the social foundation or the culmination of a socially engineered fantasy, à la Brides magazine. Austens take on romance offers a respite from the Springerization of contemporary relationship: the on-air deconstruction of sexual and marital foibles as spectator sport.
And frankly, I find the subtlety typical of Austens heroines romantic adventures to be very sexy. I dont know, maybe its a girl thing: To imagine a slow-burning courtship conducted by quadrille or waltz or an elegantly dressed walk about the gardens of a fabulous English estate does a lot more for me than to witness a sloppy couple in spandex or sweats, baseball caps or bad haircuts spewing epithets on Jerry Springers talk show. Or the notches-on-the-bedpost treatment of sexual relationships that passes for feminist empowerment on a show like Sex and the City. Or the double standard lifestyles of too many of our male role models from Jack Kennedy to Kobe Bryant, family men by day, sexual opportunists by night.
My children are inching closer to a dating world with very few rules of conduct. And its not easy to play a game with no rules. Of course, Im glad my daughters futures do not depend solely on their marriage prospects nor on what I can fork over in guaranteed cash value to their potential husbands. Im glad social class isnt destiny. But I am wistful for a world in which a happy ending seems to elude more and more of us. On marking my 15th wedding anniversary this year, someone told me that my marriage has twice outlasted the average marriage of seven years. Thats no cause for celebration, Im afraid. What is the matter with our expectations of romance and love? Are they too little or too great? Maybe a bit of both.
Austens lasting commentary on marriage and society shows how honesty, not game-playing, in romance pays off. In her novels, marriage is ideally about personal happiness, but its also about a well-suited partnership as a healthy hub of family and society -- this idea still rings true today. Thats a lot of pressure to bear for the bedraggled institution of marriage, but we continue to enter into these partnerships with hope and idealism at the rate of 2.3 million couples a year, or 6,400 couples a day, says the Census Bureau.
Austen, who never married, extols a good marriage as the natural conclusion to her stories -- but never without a lesson in self-discovery, her gentle reminder that marriage requires integrity and hard work. In other words, a felicitous wedding is not merely a happy ending with two people saying yes to each other. Its at best a new beginning that will add value not only to the couples happiness but to the common good of the world they live in.
Kris Berggren writes from Minneapolis. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
National Catholic Reporter, December 26, 2003
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