[Marxism] Pride & Prejudice

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jan 29 08:32:02 MST 2006

Shortly after dropping out of the Trotskyist movement in 1978, I embarked 
on a systematic reading project of the world’s greatest novels. Since I had 
made the decision to begin writing fiction myself, I wanted to learn the 
craft from the masters. Additionally, I wanted a change of pace from the 
hard-core Marxist literature I had been reading for 11 years. (Within two 
years, however, I had returned to radical politics, largely under the 
impetus of the Central American revolution.)

I soon discovered that some of these masterpieces left me cold, including 
those written by Henry James, Joseph Conrad and especially Jane Austen. 
Although I would never deny that they were great writers, their words did 
not resonate with me. After reading 50 or so pages of “Pride and 
Prejudice,” I found myself wondering what all the hype was about. I was 
left cold by an endless round of country balls, dinner parties and arch 
dialogue that always sounded self-conscious and somewhat artificial.

To illustrate: Elizabeth Bennett, the major character who is based on Jane 
Austen herself, is in one of her frequent 'cutting' exercises with 
Fitzwilliam D’Arcy--reminiscent of an old Katherine Hepburn and Spencer 
Tracy movie. Like Hepburn and Tracy, these two spend most of their time 
hating each other until they finally discover that they really are in love. 
(I myself had a different take on the matter. In my experience, people 
generally start off in love and then discover that they really hate each 
other, especially after being married for a few years--excluding me of 

Austen writes:

"I am perfectly convinced by it that Mr. Darcy has no defect. He owns it 
himself without disguise."

"No"' -- said Darcy, "I have made no such pretension. I have faults enough, 
but they are not, I hope, of understanding. My temper I dare not vouch for. 
-- It is I believe too little yielding -- certainly too little for the 
convenience of the world. I cannot forget the follies and vices of others 
so soon as I ought, nor their offences against myself. My feelings are not 
puffed about with every attempt to move them. My temper would perhaps be 
called resentful. -- My good opinion once lost is lost for ever."

"That is a failing indeed!" -- cried Elizabeth. "Implacable resentment is a 
shade in a character. But you have chosen your fault well. -- I really 
cannot laugh at it; you are safe from me."

It is to the credit of the 2005 production of "Pride & Prejudice" that it 
has converted a skeptic like me to the cause of Jane Austen despite such 
unnatural dialogue. It of obvious to me now that such dialogue is exactly 
what makes Austen special, especially after you get a good sense of who the 
characters are. Admittedly, like single malted scotch, it is an acquired 
taste. Although one cannot say for sure that the film is faithful to the 
novel, it at least has the merit of making me want to take another stab at 
this classic. With its sumptuous cinematography and first-rate acting, this 
is a film that can stand on its own. Considering the fact that this is 
director Joe Wright's first film, this is quite an achievement.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, who is probably the best-known radical film reviewer in 
the USA as well as a classmate of mine from Bard College, didn't find the 
movie faithful to the novel at all:

"Carnage is inevitable when breaking down a big novel, but the new film 
sends Austen's tale through a terrible mauling. Characters are brutally 
sanded down, softened, or rounded out in the most boring ways to forgive 
them their foibles and resolve their conflicts. There are fewer secrets, 
smaller revelations, less suspense. The best example is the almost total 
effacement of weak, wicked Mr. Wickham, the object of Lizzie's early 
misguided affections. In the book Wickham is the catalyst for the ways in 
which Darcy is misunderstood, then redeemed, and through whom Lizzie learns 
to temper her brash opinions."


I suppose that Jonathan is correct but since I haven't read Austen's novel, 
I didn't feel the same outrage over what appears in his eyes as a moustache 
drawn on the Mona Lisa.

Jane Austen's world is that of the agrarian bourgeoisie. Although some 
Marxists regard them as prototypical capitalists, it is difficult to find 
them doing anything productive in her novels, least of all "improving" 
their land. They are far too busy doing a gavotte or hunting foxes to 
actually figure out ways to increase crop yield.

Of course, Jane Austen was never really interested in how such people 
actually generated wealth. She was far more interested in what they did in 
their leisure hours, especially as it related to the question of social 
conduct. "Mansfield Park" is a novel about a young woman who relies on the 
support of her uncle--an absentee plantation owner in Antigua. In this case 
the discrepancy between the getting and spending of wealth is so extreme 
that Edward Said is forced to address it in "Culture and Imperialism":

"According to Austen we are to conclude that no matter how isolated and 
insulated the English place (e.g., Mansfield Park), it requires overseas 
sustenance. Sir Thomas's property in the Caribbean would have had to be a 
sugar plantation maintained by slave labor (not abolished until the 1830s): 
these are not dead historical facts but, as Austen certainly knew, evident 
historical realities. Before the Anglo-French competition the major 
distinguishing characteristic of Western empires (Roman, Spanish, and 
Portuguese) was that the earlier empires were bent on loot, as Conrad puts 
it, on the transport of treasure from the colonies to Europe, with very 
little attention to development, organization, or system within the 
colonies themselves; Britain and, to a lesser degree, France both wanted to 
make their empires long-term, profitable, ongoing concerns, and they 
competed in this enterprise, nowhere more so than in the colonies of the 
Caribbean, where the transport of slaves, the functioning of large sugar 
plantations, and the development of sugar markets, which raised the issues 
of protectionism, monopolies and price--all these were more or less 
constantly, competitively at issue."

"Pride and Prejudice" is an early work that ostensibly would avoid such 
moral dilemmas. At worst, someone watching the film might feel revulsion 
over the ostentation it celebrates. D'Arcy lives in a house that looks as 
large as the British Museum. Although the average movie-goer, having bought 
in to some degree to the value system of PBS's "Masterpiece Theater," might 
look forward to such a visual spectacle in the same way that Woody Allen 
fans swoon over the penthouses ubiquitous to his films, somebody like me or 
the late Edward Said might regard them as a waste of treasure.

Once you get past the aristocratic trappings of Jane Austen's world, you 
find yourself in a very familiar world, namely that of the anxious 
middle-class family. The Bennetts have 5 unmarried daughters including 
Elizabeth. The plot revolves around the need described in the very first 
sentence of the novel: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a 
single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

As man pursues woman and woman pursues man in this film, it is never far 
removed from an underlying pecuniary drive. Almost every character except 
Elizabeth and D'Arcy is preoccupied with the income of their potential 
mate. This is a world which is never far removed from Engels's observation 
in "Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State": "Monogamy arose 
from the concentration of considerable wealth in the hands of a single 
individual man-and from the need to bequeath this wealth to the children of 
that man and of no other."

In "Pride and Prejudice," the character who demonstrates this tendency in 
its purest form is the Reverend William Collins who shows up at the Bennett 
household one day with the intention of marrying one of the daughters, 
which one seems relatively unimportant to him. His real aim is to add a 
female body to his household so as to satisfy expectations of how a 
minister should fit into society at large. He puts it this way: "My reasons 
for marrying are, first, that I think it a right thing for every clergyman 
in easy circumstances (like myself) to set the example of matrimony in his 
parish. Secondly, that I am convinced it will add very greatly to my 
happiness; and thirdly -- which perhaps I ought to have mentioned earlier, 
that it is the particular advice and recommendation of the very noble lady 
whom I have the honour of calling patroness."

When his preferred Bennett daughter is not available, he turns his 
attentions to Elizabeth who is the proudest and most independent of the 
lot. When she turns down Collins's proposal (he is played flawlessly by Tom 
Hollander, a gifted comic actor), he dismisses this as 
coquettery--whereupon the feisty Elizabeth sets him straight:

"I am not now to learn," replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the 
hand, "that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the 
man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their 
favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second or even a third 
time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, 
and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long."

"Upon my word, Sir," cried Elizabeth, "your hope is rather an extraordinary 
one after my declaration. I do assure you that I am not one of those young 
ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk their 
happiness on the chance of being asked a second time. I am perfectly 
serious in my refusal. -- You could not make me happy, and I am convinced 
that I am the last woman in the world who would make you so, -- Nay, were 
your friend Lady Catherine to know me, I am persuaded she would find me in 
every respect ill qualified for the situation."

Elizabeth's steadfast refusal to become an accoutrement to a bourgeois 
household has rightfully been identified as a kind of proto-feminism. 
Although this perception might be assumed to be associated with recent MLA 
conferences, it actually dates back at least to 1938. That year Mona Wilson 
wrote in "Jane Austen and Some of Her Contemporaries":

I wanted to express my conviction that her name should be linked with 
that of the great Vindicator of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft, 
and that the 'vis comica' of the one has been as powerful an agency as the 
'saeva indignatio' of the other.

"Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft were bent on the destruction of the 
mik-white lamb, that bleats for a man's protection,' and the evolution of 
the rational woman."

("Pride & Prejudice" is now available online and at most video stores. The 
novel is available in hypertext at: 

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