I received an email from reader Nancy a few years back which prompted me to write about Elizabeth Bennet–a character I love so wholeheartedly that I gave my daughter “Elizabeth” as a middle name. I even love her in PRIDE & PREJUDICE & ZOMBIES. She is, in short, a most admirable creature. Here is how that original entry went down:
I would so love for you to blog about Elizabeth Bennet. You’ve said before she’s a favorite character of yours. My response to this is a high pitched Seinfeld-y, and only 20% serious “whaaat? Are you nuts?! How could she possibly?”
And yet I appear to be alone in my opinion of her. I spoke with a 1900 English Lit. professor at UVa a while ago and she was surprised with my take on Lizzy. I may have used “twit” in my final verdict. However(!) said professor did see where I was coming from; I suppose that comes with being an educator though…
The girl flits from one dude to the next no less than three times. AIRHEAD. FLAKY. AIRHEAD. Of course she could get over her scruples with Mr. Darcy: she changes her mind more than her socks. Also what tripped me up pretty well is Mr. Bennet saying Mr. Wickham was his favorite son in law. Or something akin to that. This seems entirely out of character for anyone from that time/social setting. I didn’t have time with the professor to broach this; I was far too concerned about on one hand the Dashwood’s couldn’t afford a horse and carriage but on the other they could afford two servants. How’s that work. Got that question squared away though.
And after that, how could I not blog about her? First, favorite characters are hugely subjective. Recently I did a panel discussion with Sabrina Jeffries, Cathy Maxwell, and Gail Barrett. A reader asked how we felt about Scarlett O’Hara and our reactions ranged from adoration to flat-out hate. (My take is that she’s deeply flawed but I love her anyway.) So I could just leave that there and walk away–I love Elizabeth Bennet. So there. But that’s not helpful so I’ll give you some of the reasons I think other folks love her too:
1. She’s not beautiful. We’re told plainly that her elder sister Jane is the real beauty of the family, although Elizabeth is pleasant enough to look at. (Darcy’s commentary on Elizabeth’s looks–after he begins to be attracted to her–is that she has “fine eyes”. And that’s enough to start with.)
2. Her attractions come almost entirely from her personality. She gives as good as she gets and it’s THIS quality of liveliness and spirit that attracts Darcy and makes him give her a second look. The message here is that you don’t have to be the prettiest girl in the room to get the guy of your dreams–you just have to be authentic, and Lizzy is never anything BUT herself, whether she’s metaphorically tweaking Darcy’s nose or holding her own with Lady Catherine. Which leads us to…
3. She has an excellent sense of her own self-worth. She’s not a raving beauty; she’s not wealthy. Her prospects on the marriage market are fair at best, but Lizzy is not cowed by this. She doesn’t back down from sparring with the Bingley sisters or from confrontation with Lady Catherine. She even tells Lady Catherine quite plainly that she can have no objections to Elizabeth’s marriage to Darcy on the grounds that they are equals–big talk from a poor girl whose family estate is entailed to a buffoon like Mr. Collins. Which again leads us on…
4. She doesn’t take the easy way out. It would be expedient for her to marry Collins and keep Longbourn in the family, but she doesn’t do it. She opposes her mother’s insistence upon the match–albeit with her father’s approval–and holds firm to the idea that a woman should at least be able to respect her marriage partner.
5. She can laugh at herself. When she overhears Darcy slag her off to Bingley on their first meeting, she covers her hurt feelings with good-natured raillery. She doesn’t keep the story to herself; she shares it with a little embellishment and encourages others to see the ridiculousness in the situation. It takes a secure person to do that, and that is DEEPLY attractive in a heroine.
6. She’s willing to learn from her mistakes. Yes, she misjudges Wickham. She’s also twenty and with limited experience of men. She misjudges Darcy initially too. But she’s quite correct about Collins, Col. Fitzwilliam, and Bingley. One’s a social-climbing twit, one’s a perfectly nice guy with no marriage prospects–and therefore a pleasant friend–and the third is besotted with her sister, all conditions she judged perfectly. And she wasn’t the only one to make the wrong call with Darcy and Wickham. The novel was originally called FIRST IMPRESSIONS, and it makes a better title, I think, because Darcy’s first impression of Lizzy and her first impression of both men are all wrong. To her credit, she’s willing to put aside her prejudices–see what I did there?–and accept that Darcy is lovely and noble and generous and that Wickham is a toad. (And since you asked, Nancy, about Wickham and how Mr. Bennet could possibly like him, that one’s simpler. Notice Mr. Bennet didn’t say he admired Wickham. He said Wickham was his favorite. It’s easy to look fondly on someone you can also look down on. He knows he has a better character than Wickham, and Wickham took Lydia off his hands. That alone would earn some serious points. Bingley is a sweetly unassuming fellow who is probably a trifle vanilla to make much of an impression on his father-in-law. And Darcy would be a very uncomfortable fellow for a father-in-law to like–he’s got a strong character; he’s RICH, principled, and dashing. He’s far more of a gentleman with all that the word entails than Mr. Bennet is, and Mr. Bennet knows it. Remember, he tells Lizzy he gave Darcy permission to marry her because he dared not refuse him. Plainly put, he’s a little scared of this paragon from Derbyshire.)
Alright, Nancy, I’ve given you six good reasons for folks to like Elizabeth Bennet–and I could probably find a dozen more, but not to worry. If you don’t like her, you absolutely don’t have to. I defy anyone to make me like Fanny Price!