Elizabeth Benett & Mr. Darcy: True Love?

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Was Elizabeth Bennet a gold digger?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Pride and Prejudice is a very romantic book. When Jane Austen created Elizabeth Bennett, who is spirited and has nice eyes, and Fitzwilliam Darcy, who is brooding and has an irresistible fondness for water features (or perhaps that was only the BBC adaptation), she probably had no idea that she was setting in motion two hundred years of obsession with the kind of True Love that overcomes All Obstacles and silences All Unpleasant Family Members.

Very few pieces of writing have entered our cultural consciousness like Pride and Prejudice, and deservedly. For who can forget that heartwarming scene where Elizabeth rides over the crest of the hill in Derbyshire, gazes upon the majestic masonry and rolling fields of Pemberley and falls head over heels in love with Mr Darcy’s enormous estate?

But wait! That’s not right, is it? It’s Mr Darcy Elizabeth loves so much, not his lawn ornaments and attractive mahogany furniture. At least, that’s what everyone says. But the more I actually read the text the less I’m convinced. Certainly, Elizabeth wouldn’t have married Darcy if he had looked and behaved like Mr Collins, but I’m not so sure, if Darcy had been the owner of Hunsford Parsonage, whether Elizabeth would still have been quite so interested in him. In the final third of the book, you can practically hear the cogs turning in Elizabeth’s head:

I could be mistress of Pemberley. (You know, his nose isn’t so bad.) I could be mistress of PEMBERLEY. (He’s actually got quite nice hair.) I could be MISTRESS OF PEMBERLEY. (I’m sure he’s not really so unpleasant.) I COULD BE MISTRESS! OF! PEMBERLEY!

And so, readers, she married him.

This is going to upset a lot of Jane Austen fans, but as far as I’m concerned Pride and Prejudice is just as much about the triumph of hard-headed cash-hungry business sense as it is about finding your One True Love.

It’s not just Pride and Prejudice, either. Many of the books that our culture holds up as romantic ideals actually contain a lot of behaviour that’s, well, not particularly nice. Mr Rochester keeps a spare wife hidden in his attic like a naughty pet, Romeo kills Juliet’s cousin and then can’t even be bothered to keep his appointments properly, and Heathcliff kills puppies, digs up a grave and self-harms against a tree.

These sterling examples of the ideal man have filtered down into our modern-day novels, giving us such beautiful examples of humanity: Birdsong’s Stephen Wraysford, who sleeps with a married woman after about two weeks and ten words of conversation, and Twilight’s Edward Cullen, who likes to creep into his crush’s bedroom at night to watch her sleep. If my boyfriend did any of these things, I’m not convinced I’d want to keep him around for long. But this is fiction, and in fiction stalker behaviour is almost always treated as an adorable expression of deep and abiding love.

Actually, if you’re looking for examples of a stable, non-insane long-term relationship in books, it’s better to stay away from romance plots altogether. While fiction’s great lovers run around dramatically on landscapes, screaming and crying and getting lost and so on, characters who are designated as friends have a much nicer and more peaceful time of it. I don’t think it’s exaggerating too much to claim that one of the best literary examples of a marriage is Sherlock Holmes and Watson. The fact that they don’t sleep together is really immaterial. They live together, they work together and engage in the kind of hugely loving argument that only two people who are thoroughly under each other’s skin can manage.

This is partly because, until very recently, men and women had extremely little in common. The gap in education between sexes, especially in the upper classes (who were generally the people who wrote books), meant that there usually could be very little going on apart from physical attraction. Men knew The Iliad in the original Greek and Hobbes’s Leviathan and women knew… well, hats. That doesn’t leave much to chat about.

Yes, Elizabeth tries to talk to Darcy about books in a ballroom, and yes, many naturally clever women did make efforts to educate themselves, but even the best DIY programme of study wasn’t going to match up to Oxbridge, and so the meeting-of-minds model of relationship, the idea that you should be best friends with your partner, just wasn’t available to most heterosexual couples until about fifty years ago. So, I suppose, at the time there was nothing you could do to express your affections apart from bang your head against trees.

This isn’t an excuse for all the bad and crazy conduct that goes on under the label of literary romance, but it is a suggestion that it might be time to lay some of our illusions about romance aside. After all, instead of worrying about the lack of grand passion in our lives we should be feeling extremely lucky. We, almost uniquely in history, can have a partner of the opposite sex who’s as interested in the French Revolution or geriatric medicine as we are. And if that sounds a bit dull to you, you ought to ask yourself if you really want a mentally unstable obsessive abuser chasing after you. If Mr Rochester came into your room right now, would it actually be a good idea to leave with him? If you’re entirely honest with yourself, the answer is: probably not.

Maybe the problem is with the word “romance” itself. Stop calling what goes on in Wuthering Heights or Pride and Prejudice the same thing as what happens when you buy someone flowers, and we might not get so confused. After all, they don’t have many similarities. Romance, ultimately, is all very well in books, but in my opinion that’s where it belongs. After all, I’m sure Jane Austen’s heroines would have exchanged everything they ended up with for a man who’s got more going for him than his enormous house.

Robin Stevens

About Robin Stevens

Robin started out writing literary features for Litro and joined the team in November 2012. She is from Oxford by way of California, and she recently completed an English Literature MA at King's College, London. Her dissertation was on crime fiction, so she can now officially refer to herself as an expert in murder (she's not sure whether she should be proud of that). Robin reviews books for The Bookbag and on her own personal blog, redbreastedbird.blogspot.co.uk. She also writes children's novels. Luckily, she believes that you can never have too many books in your life.

Robin started out writing literary features for Litro and joined the team in November 2012. She is from Oxford by way of California, and she recently completed an English Literature MA at King's College, London. Her dissertation was on crime fiction, so she can now officially refer to herself as an expert in murder (she's not sure whether she should be proud of that). Robin reviews books for The Bookbag and on her own personal blog, redbreastedbird.blogspot.co.uk. She also writes children's novels. Luckily, she believes that you can never have too many books in your life.

2 comments

  1. Veronica says:

    I know I’m several years late, but I stumbled upon this post while researching. I don’t agree that Lizzie was a gold-digger. First, she had no idea of Mr Darcy’s affection before turning down Mr Collins, and though she did not like him much, he had a comfortable living and may have been her only option. She was a romantic and he would not do for her. What made Me Darcy fall for him was her indifference. He appreciated that she did not care about his fortune, however, we are not given the opportunity to know how she would have behaved if she had not overheard him and felt slighted (but that alone absolves her of gold-digger status). Lets also not forget that she would have chosen Wickham over Darcy had he not been a gold-digger. She comes to love Darcy over the course of the book, little by little, as she realizes that his remarks about her family and Mr Wickham were true. She is also quick-witted and makes jokes about how Darcy’s fortune was what made her fall in love. She does that with Jane, her most trusted confidante. I think overall, she was a lucky girl that got the boy. He loved her unrequited. She came to love him because of his deeds, not his money, although that was the benefactor to his deeds. I still think she would have loved him without it and probably more easily since he would not have had the same demeanor.

  2. Candy says:

    I’m also a good number of years late, but I also don’t see Lizzy as a gold-digger. The reason for this is in her philosophy. At an early point in the story, she tells her beloved sister Jane, about her outlook on marrying. She says something like, if a man had a good nature and loved me, I would not mind marrying him even if he made ~50 pounds a year. This thought is also echoed when she expresses interest in Wickham, who doesn’t look poor but she knows he isn’t rich either, when she turns down Mr. Collins, and also later on when her father confronts her about her marrying Darcy and he tells her not to give him the sadness to see her married to someone she doesn’t respect (which is definitely a reference to his own marriage but that’s beside the point). I think Lizzy being as intelligent as she is, received much more guidance from her father growing up, or maybe just watching her parents’ relationship was enough vicarious learning for her to know what she shouldn’t do.
    Darcy, on the other hand, is a little stalker-ish I’d agree. But I think I can’t criticize him much on that end, because I find it perfectly plausible. When I was about 13, I used to have a crush on this bookworm guy, and would go “stalk” him by seeing him through the spaces between books in the library sometimes. It might be creepy, but I really couldn’t help it. Maybe I shouldn’t excuse such behavior, but it’s unrealistic to dismiss it as something people don’t usually do (I’m sure people stalk each other on social media nowadays). Darcy doesn’t creep on Lizzy’s room in Mr. Collin’s humble abode using a telescope from a window from Rosings. He just does what a human in love usually does (afaik): he stares at Lizzy from afar, gets really nervous around her but tries to maintain composure, tries to be in the same places as her “casually”, etc.
    As for their match and success, I can’t talk much. Things can happen and a perfectly stable marriage may crumble, or one that seemed like it was going nowhere may prove to withstand time. Which of those Darcy and Lizzy’s marriage is, I can’t tell, but I also don’t think that is the point of the story. The marriage is only the result that makes most sense after the whole story has taken place- for the point of the story was more on “how” they reached marriage than that they actually did. Both Darcy and Lizzy have given thought on how fitting each other is for their life partner. Lizzy knows what she needs in a partner, and hence turned both Mr. Collins and Darcy’s proposals down at first – at those points in time, she couldn’t respect either of them and felt contempt for them, so they would not be good husbands in her mind. She knows she wants to avoid her father’s mistake of marrying someone hot but a simpleton, and she knows she wants to find her equal in intelligence, much as Mr. Gardiner and his wife. Darcy, on the other hand, is attracted to Lizzy because she has a vivid mind despite being a woman. Yet, he also gives courting her much thought, as he so elegantly (sarcasm) put when he first proposed to her. Lizzy was offended, but honestly I think Darcy was justified in thinking those things through. At the time, marriage was mostly definite and unbreakable even with much regret on either side, so he had to analyze whether his fondness of Lizzy was just temporary or rooted in something deeper than just the superficial features. In fact, he goes “tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me” to “I’ve been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow” to “it’s been several months since I have regarded her as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance” through the course of the story – Lizzy’s face is unchanged, but the more he knows her and her mind, the more her perhaps not-so-handsome features started to grow on him. Since they have really thought their fit for each other, I’d be inclined to think they had a successful marriage.
    Anyhow, perhaps I just see things in this way because I am a huge fan of Pride and Prejudice, despite tending to dislike fairytale-like obvious happy endings. There’s something in this story- perhaps it’s Lizzy’s initial rejection of Darcy- which made me think at some point or another that they would not end with each other. There’s also the fact that Darcy and I are quite similar in character, and so I can understand him better and perhaps pity him for being misunderstood in the book and also in real life conversations such as this. Thanks for reading and sorry for the lengthy babbling hehe

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