Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Neither Sex, Money, nor Power: Why Elizabeth Finally Says "Yes!"

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Neither Sex, Money, nor Power: Why Elizabeth Finally Says "Yes!"

Article excerpt

IT IS A TRUTH UNIVERSALLY ACKNOWLEDGED that popular media articles about Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice must begin with the phrase "It is a truth universally acknowledged." All too often, however, those features, articles, reviews, and blogs that describe Pride and Prejudice (Austen's least typical novel) as the paradigm for each of her novels also assert that Elizabeth and Darcy experience an immediate, symmetrical sexual attraction to one another. True, some of these commentators acknowledge that Elizabeth and Darcy express superficial hostility, or that Elizabeth remains unaware of her true feelings for Darcy, but the "love/hate at first sight" theory dominates the popular understanding of Pride and Prejudice. (1)

Distinguished Austen scholars have also claimed that Elizabeth is in some fashion attracted to Darcy from the beginning of their acquaintance, even if they concede that her erotic interest is repressed, or is expressed as hostility. Juliet McMaster writes, "We see in Elizabeth as in [Shakespeare's] Beatrice the subsumed attraction that is behind their antagonism--although they always fight with their men, they are always thinking of them" (49). Jocelyn Harris reads Pride and Prejudice as Austen's reworking of Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison, suggesting that "Elizabeth's early 'hatred' of Darcy is a strong emotion akin to love" and that Elizabeth (like Harriet Byron wishing to make Grandison behave in a hateful way so that she would cease to love him) re-reads Darcy's letter in order to enflame her hatred (106-07). Claudia L. Johnson's argument that Austen's novel privileges Elizabeth's passionate happiness over cautious, conservative, conduct-book morality implies that Elizabeth's attraction to Darcy is more erotic than prudent (75-78, 80), while Barbara Sherrod calls Pride and Prejudice "a classic love story" in part because of Elizabeth's "sexual tension" in Darcy's presence (66-69).

My present close reading of Pride and Prejudice, however, finds no textual evidence to support such claims for Elizabeth's early erotic interest in Mr. Darcy. Nor am I alone in reading the novel this way: other critics have observed that Elizabeth's sexual tension in Darcy's presence appears only after she decides rationally that Darcy is admirable and therefore loveable. Barbara Hardy, for example, argues that in Pride and Prejudice, "Love grows from gratitude, esteem and proximity" (48-49). David M. Shapard reiterates this view in The Annotated Pride and Prejudice, identifying Charlotte's belief (that love begins with gratitude and vanity) with Austen's own views (37 n.8, 507 n. 56) and glossing Elizabeth's recognition that she respects and esteems Darcy with the observation: "This passage, in detailing the step by step development of Elizabeth's feelings towards Darcy, reveals how precise Jane Austen is in presenting the emotional evolution of the heroine" (485 n. 29). Deborah Kaplan refutes some feminist interpretations that dismiss Elizabeth's initial opposition to Darcy as mere defensive "bluster" meant to resist Darcy's powerful attractions and patriarchal control (190), while John Wiltshire suggests that Elizabeth attributes to Darcy some of her own hostile feelings: a projection, he argues, driven not by love but, rather, by resentment (105).

As these critics recognize, Pride and Prejudice is not a narrative about a heroine who learns that she has long loved the hero. Jane Austen knew how to construct such a story, as she demonstrates in Emma: Emma Woodhouse loves Mr. Knightley long before her knowledge of her feelings darts through her with the speed of an arrow, and canny readers delight in spotting the clues. (2) Throughout the novel, Emma reveals her love in her unconscious, heightened physical awareness of Mr. Knightley, culminating in the moment during the ball at the Crown when she admires his "tall, firm, upright figure" among the stooped, elderly men (Emma 352). Pride and Prejudice, however, offers no such clues. …

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