[Chapter 1 of Jane Austen’s “Pride & Prejudice”. SAW staff notes at the end.]
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”
Mr. Bennet made no answer.
“Do not you want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.
“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”
This was invitation enough.
“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”
“What is his name?”
“Is he married or single?”
“Oh! single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”
“How so? how can it affect them?”
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” replied his wife, “how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them.”
“Is that his design in settling here?”
“Design! nonsense, how can you talk so! But it is very likely that he may fall in love with one of them, and therefore you must visit him as soon as he comes.”
“I see no occasion for that. You and the girls may go, or you may send them by themselves, which perhaps will be still better, for as you are as handsome as any of them, Mr. Bingley might like you the best of the party.”
“My dear, you flatter me. I certainly have had my share of beauty, but I do not pretend to be any thing extraordinary now. When a woman has five grown up daughters, she ought to give over thinking of her own beauty.”
“In such cases, a woman has not often much beauty to think of.”
“But, my dear, you must indeed go and see Mr. Bingley when he comes into the neighbourhood.”
“It is more than I engage for, I assure you.”
“But consider your daughters. Only think what an establishment it would be for one of them. Sir William and Lady Lucas are determined to go, merely on that account, for in general you know they visit no new comers. Indeed you must go, for it will be impossible for us to visit him, if you do not.”
“You are over scrupulous surely. I dare say Mr. Bingley will be very glad to see you; and I will send a few lines by you to assure him of my hearty consent to his marrying which ever he chuses [old spelling or error??] of the girls; though I must throw in a good word for my little Lizzy.”
“I desire you will do no such thing. Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good humoured as Lydia. But you are always giving her the preference.”
“They have none of them much to recommend them,” replied he; “they are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters.”
“Mr. Bennet, how can you abuse your own children in such a way? You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion on my poor nerves.”
“You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least.”
“Ah! you do not know what I suffer.”
“But I hope you will get over it, and live to see many young men of four thousand a year come into the neighbourhood.”
“It will be no use to us, if twenty such should come since you will not visit them.”
“Depend upon it, my dear, that when there are twenty, I will visit them all.”
Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture 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 character. Her mind was less difficult to develop[error]. 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.
SAW staff notes:
After an opening line that establishes the realities of that particular society and likewise the book’s chief material aims (to marry off the Bennet girls as quickly and as well as possible), the entire chapter is a conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. He teases mercilessly while she doggedly pursues her goal: that he go visit Mr. Bingley, so that she may be allowed to introduce the girls to him. Apparently, that’s the only socially acceptable way for her to introduce him to her five girls. She states flatly that Mr. Bingley’s very likely to fall in love with them, which would be perfect.
Is she still beautiful or not? We at any rate establish that she used to be a great beauty, or at least used to suppose herself one.
Does Mr. Bennet put down all his other daughters at the expense of Elizabeth in the presence of his children? Or is this conversation just between the couple? At any rate, we establish right away Mr. Bennet’s preference for Lizzy as being quicker witted than his other daughters, who are “all silly and ignorant like other girls.” Talk that is a little jarring to modern audiences both for its overt sexism and his willingness to not only choose favorites, but to also insult most of his children. But at the time of the novel’s creation, most readers probably just took away that he and Lizzy were intellectually interesting, while his wife and his other daughters were more conventional. Indeed, the narrator outright says that Mr. Bennet is complex and interesting and his wife not.
The dialogue is quick and lively. The humor continuous and effective. We get a sense of their dynamic: he doesn’t consider her his intellectual equal, a position she probably never for one moment aspired to, and he compensates for his intellectual loneliness and frustration by running joke rings around her. She finds this a little tiresome, but mostly plods along with her grand ambition: establishing her daughters in a good marriage. In a way, she’s the better parent. Marrying a nice man of a decent fortune was about the best a young woman of that time and place could hope for. He seems to flippant to take that reality very seriously. Of course, here he’s kidding around, and we soon learn that he’d always planned on visiting Bingley.
In some sense, the story is boring. Who cares about the petite bourgeois finding respectable matches? In another sense it is immensely interesting: the stakes for an individual’s happiness or misery seem higher: either one finds a suitable marriage, one marries someone one — due to personal or financial reasons — can’t be adequately safe and happy with, or one has to accept a life of sexual deprivation, loneliness, social second-placedness, and perhaps poverty.
Are these two characters likable?
I think we like them.
And we get the sense that for all the mocking on his part and the exasperation on hers, there’s an affection there. Why? Why do we get that sense?