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

  • Marea Mitchell
  • Dianne Osland

Abstract

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.

Keywords

Assure Hunt Dine Defend Stake 

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Notes

  1. 1.
    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
  2. 2.
    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
  3. 3.
    Jane Austen, Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. Deidre Le Faye (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 274.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, ed. James Kinsley and Frank W. Bradbrook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 7, hereafter cited parenthetically (P&P).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Edward Neill in The Politics of Jane Austen (Houndmills: Palgrave, 1999) suggests that a similar symmetry structures Pride and Prejudice, in that Darcy ‘is to his amiable but weak-minded friend as the spirited Elizabeth is to her charming but insipid sister Jane’ (p. 65).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 8.
    Judith Lowder Newton, Women, Power, and Subversion: Social Strategies in British Fiction, 1778–1860 (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1981), p. 73.Google Scholar
  7. 12.
    For a somewhat different interpretation of the implications of this scene, see Lorna Ellis, Appearing to Diminish: Female Development and the British “Bildungsroman” 1750–1850 (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1999), where Ellis argues that Elizabeth is experimenting with ‘the possibility of being both the subject and object of the gaze’, initiating Elizabeth’s development of control over ‘how she appears and how he perceives her’ (p. 133).Google Scholar
  8. 17.
    Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (London: Penguin, 1995), p. 27. The reference is to Richardson’s contribution to Johnson’s The Rambler 97 (19 February 1751) where he declares: ‘That a young lady should be in love, and the love of the young gentleman undeclared, is an heterodoxy which prudence, and even policy, must not allow’ (Johnson, IV: 156).Google Scholar
  9. 23.
    Janet Todd, ‘Jane Austen, Politics and Sensibility’, in Feminist Criticism: Theory and Practice, ed. Susan Sellers (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), p. 75.Google Scholar
  10. 29.
    Robert M. Polhemus, Erotic Faith: Being in Love from Jane Austen to D. H. Lawrence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 49.Google Scholar
  11. 32.
    B. C. Southam, in Jane Austen’s Literary Manuscripts: A Study of the Novelist’s Development through the Surviving Papers (London: The Athlone Press, 2001), notes that Austen ‘wrote to Cassandra in 1807 that the Steventon household has been reading … [The Female Quixote] for their “evening amusement; to me a very high one, as I find the work quite equal to what I remembered it”’ (p. 11). He also suggests that ‘the situation in “Edgar and Emma”, where the heroine, in search of a confidant, turns in desperation to the footman, is perhaps a memory of Mrs Lennox’s heroine, Arabella, who may also have been in Jane Austen’s mind when she was writing of Margaret Lesley in “Lesley Castle”’ (p. 12).Google Scholar
  12. 34.
    Richard Handler and Daniel Segal, Jane Austen and the Fiction of Culture: An Essay on the Narration of Social Realities (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1990), p. 72.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Marea Mitchell and Dianne Osland 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Marea Mitchell
  • Dianne Osland

There are no affiliations available

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