Friday, December 10, 2004

Pride and Prejudice, yet again.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

- Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice

According to a recent poll at
The Woman's Hour, a radio program sponsored by the BBC, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice took top honors for Woman's Watershed Fiction. By watershed fiction, they mean novels that has most changed the way women see themselves.

There are rather mixed reactions over the choosing of Pride and Prejudice, and two novelists, Monica Ali and Jenny Colgan, persuasively argue their side in TheGuardian.

Ali starts off by writing that "if Jane Austen had not given us Pride and Prejudice, we would never have had Colin Firth in a wet shirt in the television adaptation - an event that changed the lives of many women most profoundly." Humor aside, she goes on to detail how popular the novel has been among women, although popular doesn't always mean good or meaningful.

So why the widespread attraction? She furthers that
"Austen's exquisite irony lays bare the institution of marriage as an exchange commodity system. Yet she treats the subject with a great deal of subtle inflection, making a thorough study of the married state, from the unequal union of Mr and Mrs Bennet, through the unstable passion of Lydia and Wickham, to Charlotte's marriage to the pompous Mr Collins."

Also, Ali suggests, women in the 21st century have not totally bypassed these relationship issues. Charlotte, Miranda, Samantha, and Carrie (of Sex and the City) have surely went through all of this.

And at the center of it all is the spunky heroine, Elizabeth Bennet. Ali writes that she is "Quick-witted, lively, self-assured, full of good sense, and yet so falliby human. It is not only her prejudices she must conquer to make the match with Darcy, but, to some extent, her pride." Her path to self-knowledge, Ali believes, is still the best.

On the other hand, Colgan is disappointed by the results. Yes, she writes, the novel is wonderful, but that "there's still a bad taste left in the mouth at the idea of a woman who rides off into the sunset with her tall, brooding, and rich lover being a life-altering experience for the 14,000 people who voted."
It could have as easily been voted the top novel for 1824.

The other short-listed titles (Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Woman's Room by Marilyn French, and The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood), she writes, all deal with women's place in society, all have arguably better situations bent on shifting paradigms. And yet
instead, we all want to go on that carriage ride to Pemberley.

"Elizabeth Bennet's central message - about staying true to your inner self and conquering the worst elements of it - is most certainly an excellent one, but is this truly the reason it gained so many votes...or is that blasted man in his white shirt diving into a lake continuing to hypnotise an entire generation?" (italics mine)

Pride and Prejudice, Colgan writes, is truly an exquisite pleasure, and she ends asking an important question: did it really make us the women we are today? Because she likes to think that there's more to women than that.