Being Elizabeth Bennet

By Pamela Jane

I was a kid who hated school, so any book that was assigned in English was automatically suspect.  As a senior, we were assigned Silas Marner and Wuthering Heights, so predictably I decided these books were obsolete and had nothing to do with real life.  Fortunately none of Jane Austen’s novels were assigned, nor George Eliot’s Middlemarch so I never learned to hate those.

During high school, my friend (and now co-author) Debbie introduced me to Austen’s novels.   Like many literate young women, I imagined myself to be the brilliant, witty Elizabeth.

When I was eighteen, I fell in love, dropped out of college and ran away to live with my boyfriend, who was at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.  Apparently hating school was catchy because after a year or so, he dropped out too.

David’s parents were furious with us when I went to live with him in Portland.  They were even more pissed off that I’d left, claiming I’d precipitated his dropping out of Reed.  That summer, I flew back to his parents’ house (which to my eyes looked like Pemberley in Connecticut) to talk over marriage plans.  His parents had made it abundantly clear that they disapproved of me and our living arrangements, and I felt shy and insecure as I sat holding David’s hand in their well-appointed living room, his mother shaking with rage at the idea that her son was marrying a college drop-out from a broken family.  His father, the kindly physician, offered an explanation.

“If you were from Circle Beach or went to Smith”— Dr. Crowley smiled apologetically — “things would be different.”

It was painful to sit in that room, thick with tension, and face these people who felt I wasn’t good enough to marry their son.  But of course I wasn’t really there and this wasn’t really happening.  What was happening was that I, Elizabeth Bennet, the brilliant heroine of Pride and Prejudice, was standing up to the arrogant Lady Catherine de Bourgh in the scene where she confronts Elizabeth with a rumor that she is engaged to marry Lady Catherine’s wealthy and distinguished nephew, Mr. Darcy.

Lady Catherine: “If you were sensible of your own good, you would not wish to quit the sphere, in which you have been brought up.”

In marrying your son, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere.  He is a gentlemen; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal,” I shot back.

“True.  You are a gentleman’s daughter.  But who was your mother?  Who are your uncles and aunts?  Do not imagine me ignorant of their condition.”

My father was a noted scientist; David’s father was a respected physician.  So far we were equals.  But who was my mother?  An uneducated woman, the daughter of Italian immigrants (David’s family were mostly descendants from the Mayflower), a divorcee with a dubious mental history (she had suffered a nervous breakdown when I was fourteen).

Ultimately, we did get married and David’s parents went on disapproving of me.  As far as they were concerned, the woods of Pemberley were indeed polluted.  But although I never won them over, I’ll will never forget that difficult conversation in their living room, and how Jane Austen and Elizabeth Bennet helped me get through it.

***

Though when I was young, I imagined myself as Elizabeth Bennet, as I’ve gotten older I feel some faint sympathy for poor Mrs. Bennet who will lose everything if her daughters don’t marry well.  Imagine, losing your home, your 401K if you have one, your dishes and even your sheets.  Mrs. Bennet is still silly, still destructive to her daughters’ happiness and her husband’s peace of mind (seriously, I think she was having hot flashes when she thought about starving in the hedgerows).  But when you realize what she was up against, she is a little less deserving of contempt.

It’s a tribute to Austen’s genius that the reader always finds something fresh and immediate with each perusal.  Her novels are like prisms, casting beams of light that strike us at different angles through the years.  Each time we return, we see different dilemmas, different conflicts, and new perspectives.

 


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