Pride and

A family's zoology

Gabriele Dessin

     In every family there are relatives who have the natural ability to be funny and embarrassing in equal measure. Usually the amusement occurs privately, whereas calculated embarrassing moments always happen in public, and when one would least prefer it.
Let us now imagine that we are highly  intelligent people – for some of us it will be easier than for others –, that have enough common sense to recognise when people are laughing at us, that we live in the countryside of Hertfordshire in the middle of the nineteenth century, that we are wealthy enough not to have to work, but too poor to be protected from the harsh judgments of the neighbourhood; only then can we understand the particular situation in which Elizabeth Bennet finds herself.

     The Bennet family comprises of five girls of marriageable age, two parents, a cousin who is a priest, an uncle who is a merchant, and the pleasure of maintaining relations with twenty-four families in the neighbourhood. Nine people in total alone constitute an entire zoological catalogue of human variety. What however is not found in the family can easily perceived in a half-hour walk to the Netherfield Park estate, or to the provincial village of Meryton. I have not used the term ‘zoological catalogue’ by chance, because being literary characters from Jane Austen’s pen, these characters will allow us to walk amongst them and observe them as fascinating animal species without failing to examine the common sensibility that two thousand years of Christianity has imposed on our conscience – by which I obviously mean the sensibility we have developed regardless of religion and therefore, without holy judgement or sacred condemnation.

This is the natural condition of stupidity: it is, for those who suffer from it, totally asymptomatic.

    In respect of today’s dutiful claim of equal gender opportunity, let us start with the hostess, Mrs Bennet. In her very unfortunate nametag, we find: “She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news”.[1] Indeed, it is not surprising to see such obstinacy: As a woman with five daughters, a cook, servants, and a family fortune that, on the death of her husband, is bound to a distant relative of his, it is not surprising that her primary occupation is to marry off her girls as soon as possible. The mere idea of a more or less advantageous marriage is enough to awaken the ardour and energy of an early youth in her. The slightest glitch in her plans can throw her into such a state of despondency that she despairs of her own health. She also possesses an extraordinary consistency, a virtue, which she knows how to elevate to an art form. She can argue for hours with someone without changing her ideas one bit, which almost always amounts to her not having listened to a single word. At the same time, she is completely immune to any kind of mental rigidity: a single piece of information picked up and interpreted at will can make her abjure the convictions of her entire previous life.

     On the other hand, in Mr. Bennet we find such a perfect counterpart to his wife, that one doubts the real reason for such a union: sometimes it seems providence, sometimes a twist of fate. “Mr. Bennet was so odd amixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his”.[2] Another way of revealing the secret of a long-lasting marriage is the ability of always being able to surprise your spouse, and escape the monotony of your own transparency and predictability. In fact, Mr. Bennet had asked for his wife’s hand in marriage “captivated by youthand beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give”,[3] but the illusion soon gave way to a more lucid view of reality. However, one should not imagine that this threw him into a state of permanent affliction. Instead, “He was fond of the country and ofbooks; and from these tastes had arisen his principal enjoyments. To his wife he was very little otherwiseindebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement. This is not the sort of happinesswhich a man would in general wish to owe to his wife; but where other powers of entertainment are wanting,the true philosopher will derive benefit from such as are”.[4] Fortunately for us, we have a witty observation that succinctly encapsulates the whole philosophy of this wise man: “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”. [5]

     When you are the eldest child, there are only two ways of avoiding any violation of your birth right: by becoming either a tyrant or a saint. I am happy to say that Jane Bennet – or Miss Bennet – chose the latter.
In her goodness and trust in others, often crosses that very thin line that divides virtue from imbecility. However, having carefully considered all her actions, one can solely recognise a delicacy of feeling that puts her above any suspicion of lack of sense. Her beauty is well known and admired by all, but more interestingly is her sister’s opinion of her. Elisabeth: “Oh! you are a great deal too apt, you know, to like people in general. You never see a fault in anybody. All the world are good and agreeable in your eyes. I never heard you speak ill of a human being inyour life”.[6] If you want to be a saint, you’d better be a saint to the full or risk leaving for paradise and finding yourself in purgatory, i.e. somewhere in the provinces. Therefore, to avoid this sad scenario, it is better to sincerely believe that politicians are in good faith, that money does not make you happy and that the world is full of natural blondes.

     Elisabeth Bennet is undoubtedly the central figure of an idyllic family. She is an educated, well-read and sensible young woman who takes four hundred pages to free herself from the prejudice of first impressions – and we all know what Wilde thought of first impressions. Her strength is certainly her skill in finding the comic side of situations – it is no wonder why her father adores her and her mother ignores her. However, this skill does not extend as far as her father’s mastery, so much so that she suffers greatly from the ridicule that her family members so often cover themselves with in society. Nevertheless, she manages to escape the advances of two unlikely suitors – one of whom goes so far as to propose marriage –  and settle down with the richest and most handsome bachelor who has ever set foot in the county: if that is not common sense, give me a more appropriate definition! Her sufferings are as vivid as her great sensitivity and are intensified by her remarkable intelligence. It is no coincidence that this is the very essence of intelligence: it increases the sorrows and lessens the joys; some of us can easily experience this.

  Regarding intelligence, there is only one thing in the world more reprehensible than being stupid, and that is being stupid with the conviction that you are not. In fact, this is the natural condition of stupidity: it is, for those who suffer from it, totally asymptomatic. Yet, some are so ill-advised that they attempt, with commendable diligence, to disguise themselves with an air of thoughtfulness, culture and wisdom. Mary Bennet is the living picture of this type of being. Too ugly for her sisters to provide her with a suitable marriage, she is inexistent for her mother. Too silly to be interesting and too pedantic to be funny, she is ignored by her father. She loves above all books that promise moral elevation, but it is doubtful that they love her as much in return. Her figure is so sad and, alas, so common, as to arouse such compassion that I shall say no more about it.

     Very often in large families the amount of character available is not sufficient to provide each child with their own individual personality: Catherine (Kitty) and Lydia Bennet are examples of this unfortunate situation. Therefore, I will only speak of Kitty, and readers can duplicate what I have said with regards to Lydia. Catherine is the most marvellous example of a flirt that can be imagined. She brings her mother’s obsession with marriage to its apex, but taking it as calmly as she needs to. After all, there are so many men in the world to woo and to be wooed by, that it would be a sign of an uncompassionate soul not to please as many as possible without becoming a person of ill repute. The main misfortune of her existence – the arrival in Maryton of a regiment of militia with all its officers – is for her the greatest sign of divine benevolence. Young Kitty chases the officers’ britches as much as they chase after her skirt – allow me this small poetic licence. She succeeds in falling in love with one of them – George Wickham: corruptor, gambler, liar, schemer and full of debts – she flees with him to London, forces her family to embark on a desperate search, is saved by Mr. Darcy’s intervention (who hates Wickham more than anyone else in the world) and by a generous financial offer from him. She then marries her beloved and finally, before being exiledto the north, returns to bid farewell to her parents and sisters with the joy of someone who has seen all her dreams come true, and the malice of her younger sister who manages to marry before her elders. It is the triumph of pragmatism over thought. Needless to say, both Mr and Mrs Bennet will later declare that Mr Wickham is the best of their kind – it’s up to you to guess which of the two is ironic.

     There would be so many more wonderful characters to learn from that one cannot cease to imagine them. Reverend Collins, an example of how a religious vocation is only useful to the spirit when the human being from which it springs does not have the rationality of a horse-drawn carriage; Lady Chaterine de Bourgh, Mr. Darcy’s aunt, a proof that money may bring happiness but not elegance nor manners; the adorable and influential Mr. Bingley, and his sisters –  not all snakes live in meadows; the Lucas family, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, Mrs. Philips…

Unfortunately, however, I find myself short of space – to be honest, I have already taken up more than my due and, above all, of intelligent propositions – or at least itmay seem so.
Therefore, I can only wait for you in the pages of Pride and Prejudice, this extraordinary work by a wonderful writer who constituted the very form of the contemporary English novel and who deserves a place in our libraries and, above all, in our memories.

[1] Jane Auste, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 1.

[2] Ibidem.

[3] Ivi, Chapter 42.

[4] Ibidem.

[5] Ivi, Chapter 57.

[6] Ivi, Chapter 4.

Ti è piaciuto l’articolo? Lascia qui la tua opinione su La Livella.

Did you enjoy the article? Leave here your feedback on La Livella.