It may not be a truth, and it may not be universally acknowledged, but I have a growing feeling that things in Pride and Prejudice aren’t quite what they seem.
Not only do the characters we are directed to despise and ridicule evoke some grains of sympathy, but those we are led to like and admire also aren’t always what they are cracked up to be.
I’m talking about you, Elizabeth Bennet. Yes, your faults are presented charmingly and we enjoy watching you learn not to judge too hastily, and we are delighted when you are rewarded with the alpha-male, but, you know, there are a few things along the way that remain unresolved.
Wickham burns at both ends
Let’s look at Lizzie’s relationship with Wickham. You remember, he’s the one who spins a devious yarn about Darcy and who shows a lot of interest in the lovely Lizzie, only to scurry away from her into the arms of a gal (Miss King) who has just inherited a shedload of money.
At the point this happens, Lizzie is in the dark about Wickham’s character. She finds him really attractive and wants to believe the best of him.
She doesn’t know that Wickham has lied about Darcy, and he has yet to seduce (and later reluctantly marry) her jailbait youngest sister, Lydia. Even so, Lizzie is very quick to defend his mercenary actions.
OK, so Wickham had moved in on the newly-rich Miss King like greased lightning, but, hey, she says, a person in ‘distressed circumstances’ needs to move quickly. No time for niceties of behaviour when you’re broke. Oh, boys will be boys, she almost says.
And this is Lizzie, who can hardly speak for disgust when her plain, poor friend Charlotte marries a tedious D-lister because she wants security.
Not only that, Mrs Gardiner, Lizzie’s sensible, worldly-wise, elegant aunt, puts the knife into Wickham’s new romance, saying Miss King must be lacking sense or feeling to accept the attentions of someone who seems to be after her money.
Lydia also dismisses the hapless Miss King as a ‘nasty, freckled little thing’ who Wickham never cared about – just what Lizzie had thought, although she would never express herself in such a vulgar fashion.
Girls, girls, is this sisterhood, I ask you?
When Wickham is revealed as a liar, a cheat and a serial seducer of young women, Lizzie is ashamed that because they had a nice flirtatious thing going, she believed every word he said.
Lydia of the pack
But she’s pretty hard on Lydia, who fell for the charmer just that little bit more and, lacking Lizzie’s resources of character and sense, allowed her feelings to run away with her, or rather to let her run away with Wickham.
Austen makes no bones about it, Lydia is a silly little slut, and Lizzie shows no signs of disagreeing. The subtext of sex and jealousy is buried beneath considerations of reputation, honour, propriety.
For a fleeting moment, Lizzie is the girl who fell for the charming, rakish soldier with the nice smile, but she leaves that girl behind and joins in the general censure of Lydia, who was unable to resist.
Lizzie is saved, as she has to be. She gets the far, far, better man, and we have to believe that not once will she look at her Bad Boy brother-in-law with anything other than tolerant good humour.
My new book, Charlotte’s Wedding, is a contemporary reimagining of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice which explores the compromises and choices made by women as they negotiate their way through issues of independence and security, love and money in their complicated 21st Century lives. It’s available at Amazon worldwide.