Today brings us to the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s most popular work, Pride and Prejudice. All over the world, we Janites are whooping it up in celebration! I’ve found myself watching bits and pieces of Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle’s re-creation of the timeless story in my favorite 5 hour BBC version.
Two hundred years have done NOTHING to diminish Jane’s appeal. I think we may love her even more today than the royal family did in the early 1800’s.
There have been millions of pleasant novels written in the past 200 years with interesting characters and happy endings. What makes Jane’s work so enduring?
I put forth that, behind the extravagant balls, gowns, estates and relations, Jane gives us men.
Fitzwilliam Darcy, Edward Ferrars, George Knightley, Edmund Bertram, Frederick Wentworth.
And many a fine lady has spent time dreaming of these men, wishing they were real. Hoping they might walk through the door of their morning coffee shop and deliver them a red rose. There have been dozens of movies and hundreds of books dedicated to that very same day-dream.
They seem too good to be true, these men. Larger than life, the stuff of fairy tales. Grown up fairy tales. Ahhh, yes.
But, what gets me, is that when we look a bit more closely at these men Jane gives us, I don’t really see fairy tale men. After all these reads and re-reads of her novels, they begin to look a bit familiar. And I realized that I don’t think Jane would want us to put these great characters on quite so high a pedestal.
Her men weren’t perfect!
(all the guys on the planet let out a sigh of relief…)
Really, though. Let’s take a minute here and step back. Don’t hate me. Don’t click away. Bear with me for just a minute….
- If there was a guy like Fitzwilliam Darcy at your office, you’d very certainly think he was a complete jerk. Handsome and wealthy, yes, but that can only go so far before you’d like to carry on a conversation of more than two sentences.
- Edward Ferrars, while compassionate and thoughtful, was about as wimpy as they come. He only has the chance to marry his one true love after his fiance runs off with his wealthier brother.
- George Knightley, while being the most ‘perfect’ of Jane’s characters (and well portrayed by Johnny Lee Miller :) ) was a bit arrogant and jealous, don’t you think?
- Edmund Bertram was tender-hearted and faithful, but so easily swayed by outside opinion that he very easily would have married the wrong women if not for a gigantic gaff on her part.
- And Frederick Wentworth. Dear, brave, stalwart Frederick. We admire him, but wasn’t he stubborn!? Took him 10 years to get around to talking to his one true love after having his feelings hurt.
(we won’t even go into all her secondary male characters – ooh, that’ll make a great future post, though!)
While Jane Austen was never married, I think she knew men fairly well. She adored her brothers and had an admirable relationship with her father. She spent a year in 1796 flirting with Tom Lafroy, but it was not to be. She wrote, “At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea.” Jane was proposed to by another man later in life, accepted the proposal and then turned around the next day and refused. She simply didn’t love him. Unfortunately, Jane, living in her 17th century world, was limited by class, birth order, inheritance and family connections. Thankfully, we do not have these same limitations today. While she technically became ‘an old maid’, she was by no means clueless. And, gathering from her letters and other writing, she was an astute observer of people.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not male-bashing here. I truly love these characters. They are mysterious, handsome men, who at least once do something very noble to woo the woman that they love.
But, I don’t think Jane Austen wrote her books so that women would be left thinking their only hope is to run into Colin Firth on the subway. I don’t think she’d want us comparing our husbands to Mr. Darcy, either. We need to realize that Jane Austen gave us a half-dozen various portraits of reality. While her characters accomplished great things in finally catching the women of their dreams, in the meantime they were regular guys with flaws, annoying habits and qualities that would make you want to take them by the shoulders and give them a good shake. Jane Austen gave us good men, who were at times imperfect, and other times noble. But, they love us despite ourselves, and we love them.
I think that’s what makes us delight in Jane Austen’s works after all these years. While the stories are romantic and beautiful, they’re also authentic, and the character you are most attached to really could be the person sitting across from you at the coffee shop. Let’s give these men a chance, shall we? I think Jane would want us to.
And, for me, I see clearly now. After years (how many times have I read and re-read Pride and Prejudice?) of literary idolatry, I find that my husband (and maybe yours) isn’t really that different from Mr. Darcy after all.