‘It Was Happy She Took a Good Course’: Saving Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice

  • Marea Mitchell
  • Dianne Osland


There is an intriguing structural parallel between the plots of Sidney’s Arcadia and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in which two sisters — one spirited, witty, and self-possessed and the other sweet, placid, and unassuming — are courted by two friends, one of whom tries to talk the other out of his love, before succumbing to the demeaning passion himself. In the background is a father who fails in his parental responsibilities and whose neglect endangers his daughters’ happiness; in the background also is an aunt with matrilineal ambitions bent on promoting the marriage of her own child. This particular abstraction of Arcadia in terms of the two friends, Musidorus and Pyrocles, who fall in love with the two sisters, Pamela and Philoclea, daughters of the neglectful Basilius, and victims of their aunt Cecropia’s family ambitions, is obviously slanted towards a comparison with Pride and Prejudice’s two friends, Darcy and Bingley, who fall in love with two sisters, Elizabeth and Jane, daughters of a neglectful Mr Bennet, and victim (at least in the case of Elizabeth) of Darcy’s aunt, Lady Catherine, and her championing of her family’s interests. The way in which the parallel has been drawn clearly ignores some pertinent differences: Bingley, for a start, hardly needs to disguise himself as an Amazon in order to insinuate himself into Jane’s household; Mr Bennet’s nemesis is not oracular prophecy but the custom of entail; neither he nor his wife is intent on secluding their daughters from potential suitors; and, despite Mr Bennet’s suggestion that Bingley might like his wife better than his daughters, since she is as handsome as any of her girls, Mrs Bennet is not accused of harbouring amorous desires, like Basilius’s wife Gynecia, for her daughter’s lover.


Young Lady Proper Motive Sexual Ideology True Nobility Female Desire 
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    For a discussion of the Cinderella parallel, see, for example, Henrietta Ten Harmsel, Jane Austen: A Study in Fictional Conventions (The Hague: Mouton, 1964), and for a discussion of parallels with Fanny Burney’s work, see Mary Waldron, Jane Austen and the Fiction of Her Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).Google Scholar
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    To our knowledge, the closest anyone comes to suggesting the possibility of Austen’s familiarity with Sidney’s work is Jocelyn Harris’s observation in Jane Austen’s Art of Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) that, in relation to Northanger Abbey, ‘the two writers do look very alike’ in their defence of poetry/fiction (p. 28).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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© Marea Mitchell and Dianne Osland 2005

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  • Marea Mitchell
  • Dianne Osland

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