Jane Austen had originally thought that Pride Prejudice,enjoying its bicentenary this week, should have been called First Impressions. After all the moral of the tale is how wrong they can be.
On Saturday, the Guardian Review celebrated with some ,very much, second or third impressions of the main characters. Which given that all the contributors were top drawer authors or Austen scholars were a lot different from most people’s first impressions of Lizzie B ,Darcy and co.
Now most would think Mrs Bennet an archetypal air head, a disgrace to her sex and a fool to boot. Not so Austen scholar Bharat Tandon. Like any good Mum despite all their failings, Mrs B stands by her daughters and if anyone wrongs them she is totally prejudiced. As Bharat says,”who ever wanted their mother to be impartial? You might not want her in your space.but there are worse people to have on your side.”
Mr Bennet ,now there is a witty old cove. Seeing through all the foibles and nonsense that goes on around him, making fun of the girls and especially his dotty wife,its him and heroine Elizabeth against the world But according to scholar John Mullan ,he is of course an absolute swine, “from the very first chapter he is teasing and tormenting poor stupid Mrs Bennet.” He is punishing her for his own folly in marriage. His put down of his daughter Mary’s piano playing “You have delighted us long enough” is typical of his cruel wit. He has failed to provide for his daughters,he fails to protect Lydia and too often instead of facing reality he retires to his library.
Then we come to Elizabeth Bennet . Top writer Zoe Williams is put on the case. Now we all love Elizabeth,girls want to be her and men want to marry her. She is not the cheap fantasy of a one night stand.Clear eyed, sensible , not too attractive ,she is a beau ideal of a life partner. However Zoe feels Elizabeth’s alliance with her father which despises all the other members of the family makes her suspect. Zoe writes”excepting her fondness for her elder sister that seems mainly habitual and sentimental (she)can’t stand women…Its a tough call to find a feminist icon in a woman who hates her sex to please her father.”
And so we come Mr Darcy. His served up by Sebastian Faulks. He is the romantic hero ,the tight pants,the pain, the generous spirit, the fact he cant dance(and of course rich,rich,rich). He is what every English man wants to be and every woman in the world fancies But first impressions as we know can be deceiving . Faulks says,”he is a man suffering from chronic depression,dwelling on the past, but unable to take the responsibility of his own actions. “Blaming your parents is for an adult man not good enough. Faulks really starts to enjoy himself when he rips,”In modern therapeutic terms he (Darcy)needs to understand his emotions more deeply,get to know himself ,take exercise, abandon the protective persona(beneath me) he has adopted.” In Faulks ‘s book Eliza becomes Darcy’s “life long Prozac”. But they got married in a pretty church,dammit.
PD James has George Wickham becoming a well respected bishop. Paula Byrne has flighty Lydia as the true heroine of the book. She is in touch with and not afraid of her sexuality,she gets the man she loves and she doesn’t even have to eat humble pie. Byrne opines”Austen despised pictures of perfection-heroines who have no flaws. Lydia bounces off the page in all her glorious noisy imperfection.” And you thought she was such a silly girl.
Mary Bennet ,the dull one, should according to scholar Janet Todd have been the one to marry the awful Collins. With her books and attitude she would have made a fist of it and saved the family. Lucy Mangan defends the poor Charlotte Lucas. She after all, looking at approaching poverty and spinsterhood did marry Collins. But Ms Mangan reckons she would soon tire of this stupid man and if Mangan rewrote the book then Charlotte would hook up with Lady Catherine and open a boutique hotel in Bridport which specialised in catering for Georgian lesbians.
So as you can see,First Impressions can be very deceiving . But in the end my impression of these wonderful critiques is that probably, Pride and Prejudice is not for Guardian readers. You have to read the Daily Mail or even better still the Daily Telegraph to get it.