Timeless or tedious? 'Pride and Prejudice may not address the social problems of the time but it is as relevant now as the day it was written'
As Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy reappear in yet another dramatisation, we ask if Jane Austen's classic really is the most perfect English novel - or just a 19th-century Mills & Boon
Saturday 03 September 2005
The leading man of Jane Austen's novel is also shockingly rude, which, according to Bridget Jones, the mid-1990s reincarnation of the book's heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, makes him even more irresistible, although she added that "being imaginary was a disadvantage that could not be overlooked".
But why on earth should a man so, well, wooden; so prone to long periods of silence; so likely to ignore you and not return your calls had the mobile phone been invented almost 200 years ago, have endured so well? And why does Lizzy Bennet - not the most beautiful of literary creatures, or the most spirited, or the most complicated - remain the woman we still root for; most want to be like?
First, let me address the unique appeal of Mr Darcy. He is a bastard and, although I hate to admit it, women love bastards. Just look at Heathcliff, or Sex and the City's Mr Big, or ER's Doctor Doug Ross. We like a challenge. We aspire to the unattainable, the slightly out of our league. We don't hanker after men who are too nice, who return our calls and send us giant appliquéd birthday cards.
Jane Austen was the very first writer to be honest about this, to acknowledge that women would be intrigued by "the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world". Mr Darcy was most definitely not a new man; neither, I hasten to add, was he a metrosexual (when I first read the book, aged 12, I had in mind a vision of Jason King, very manly and covered with wiry hair). Of course, we all say we want our husbands to recycle and go to M&S in their lunch hour, but these are not qualities we masturbate over.
And, of course, Lizzy is the perfect literary heroine. We warm to her in the same way we warm to Carrie Bradshaw or Bridget Jones, because she has flaws. She isn't calculating in the way Emma is, or pathetic in the way Jane Eyre is when she wanders off to pine in a vicarage. No, our Lizzy is self-sufficient and determined. She isn't girly, thank Christ, nor desperate. She doesn't fawn or simper. She is intelligent, unafraid, and very much her own person.
Pride and Prejudice is, to my mind, the greatest novel in English literature. No, it doesn't address the social problems of the day - I think there is one reference in Austen's novels to the slave trade - but its honest depiction of early 19th century life; of the constrictions in which women were forced to operate, and its sharp observations about the relationship between men and women, with no self-deception, is as fresh and relevant now as the day it was written.
Nothing much, really, has changed since the book was published in 1813. Men and women still don't understand each other. Women are still trying to get men to do things they don't want to do. We are still trying to get off with people who don't fancy us. Take Mr Bennet. He doesn't listen, he feels hen-pecked, he wants peace and quiet and to be left alone in his chair.
The best thing about this book, apart from the love story, is the humour. Take the scene where Mr and Mrs Bennet are discussing the merits of their daughters. Mr Bennet is railing at their foolishness and their obsession with young men. "My dear Mr Bennet," says his wife. "You must not expect such girls to have the sense of their father and mother. When they get to our age, I dare say they will not think about officers any more than we do."
But do we really need yet another film adaptation of this comic classic? In the latest screen version, which premieres in London on Monday, Keira Knightley plays Lizzy Bennet and Matthew Macfadyen is Mr Darcy - not a patch, I am sure, on Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, whose on-screen chemistry in the BBC version was infinitely more erotic than Nine Songs, which I thought was, frankly, rather boring.
But at least another outing for the story will prompt a new generation of young women to read the book and laugh out loud and marvel at how Jane Austen, the seventh child of a country parson, who never ventured far beyond Hampshire; who only ever did chores and read books and who died aged 42, could have created the most perfect romance ever written. Ooh, and there is a happy ending. Always, always a bonus.
"Liz Jones's Diary: How One Single Girl Got Married", is out now, published by Quadrille, £12.99.
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