Your lovin give me a thrill,
But your lovin don’t pay my bills.
Now give me money.
That’s what I want.
… Berry Gordy / Janie Bradford
Enda O’Doherty writes: In classic fiction, it seems that the most celebrated of first lines are those which are most assertive in tone – and yet not always indisputably true. I am hesitant to tell Mr Tolstoy he has got it all wrong but I have to say I am acquainted with a number of happy families whose happiness manifests itself in a variety of ways quite distinct from each other. Nor do I think it necessarily the case that anyone had been telling lies about Joseph K.
The most famous classic opening line, however – or at least the opening line of the classic that most people have read – probably comes from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” – an assertion whose supposed universal acceptance is almost immediately challenged by the possibly wilful obtuseness of the long-suffering Mr Bennet in an exchange with his wife:
‘What is his name?’
‘Is he married or single?’
‘Oh! single, my dear, to be sure. A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a-year. What a fine thing for our girls!’
‘How so? How can it affect them?’
‘My dear Mr Bennet,’ replied his wife, ‘how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them!’
‘Is that his design in settling here?’
And yet if Mr Bennet seems unconcerned about the importance of making a good marriage bargain he cuts a rather lonely figure in this high-mindedness, if high-mindedness it is. Even the two eldest Bennet girls – the most intelligent and sympathetic of his brood – seem to have an eye, or at least a half-eye, on the main chance. Money, of course, and its relation to the marriage prospects of her heroines, were always central matters in Austen’s fiction. As WH Auden observed – somewhat tongue in cheek:
You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.
Mr Bingley’s coveted “four or five thousand a-year” is the main motor of the early part of the Pride and Prejudice story as the Bennets, mother and daughter (Elizabeth), attempt to build – in the face of some obstacles ‑ on the young man’s evident attraction to the pretty and sweet-tempered Jane. If we leave money aside – the Bennet family has none to speak of – Jane Bennet would certainly come in as a nine (out of ten). Bingley, a pleasant young man but without any outstanding recommendations deriving from superior intelligence or strength of character, might be a six or seven ‑ but that four or five thousand a-year will certainly move him up a few notches. His friend Mr Darcy has more than twice that amount but sadly his manners leave something to be desired and being of very grand family himself he is acutely aware of the Bennets’ insufficiencies in this regard. The immediate family itself (or half of it at least) is bad enough, but there is also the matter of their low “connections”. The Bingley sisters are speaking:
‘I think I have heard you say, that their uncle is an attorney in Meryton.’
‘Yes; and they have another, who lives somewhere near Cheapside.’ [That is, who is “engaged in trade”.]
‘That is capital,’ added her sister, and they both laughed heartily.
‘If they had uncles enough to fill all Cheapside,’ cried Bingley. ‘it would not make them one jot less agreeable.’
‘But it must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world,’ replied Darcy.
There is a small irony here in that we have earlier been told that Bingley père, who has left £100,000 to his son (which produces four or five thousand a year in interest – there will be no need for him to work), made that money himself through trade. The sisters seem to have forgotten this, the brother perhaps not. A sufficiently large amount of money can of course be guaranteed to wash away almost any social taint.
By “men of any consideration in the world” Darcy means landowners, substantial landowners, men who have never turned a penny buying and selling and whose wealth derives rather from the fact that their distant ancestors, with their powerful warhorses and heavy chain mail, stole the land on which they are comfortably ensconced from its previous, less-well-armed, occupants.
Darcy’s early reaction to Elizabeth Bennet is that she is “tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me” and Elizabeth’s reaction, having overheard the remark, is to tell the story to everyone, for she “delighted in any thing ridiculous”. It is not long, however, before Darcy changes his opinion of her:
[He] had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they met, he looked at her only to criticize. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes.
And so, in spite of being at first judged to be only tolerable, Elizabeth Bennet receives in relatively quick succession two proposals of marriage, the first, a selfless offer from the clergyman Mr Collins (“Your portion is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness”), is merely preposterous; the second, from the smitten but prickly and offensive Mr Darcy, is deeply insulting. And Elizabeth is quite ready to repay insult with insult:
From the very beginning, from the first moment, I may almost say, of my acquaintance with you, your manners impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form that ground-work of disapprobation, on which succeeding events have built so immoveable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.
Unlike Mr Collins (“I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application”), Darcy is not a fool and he is able on this occasion to take No for an answer. Yet strangely he is not cured of his passion for the spirited Elizabeth and, many chapters and many revelations later, is encouraged to renew his suit, which this time is accepted. With too much alacrity?
Elizabeth is gradually persuaded that she has misjudged Darcy and indeed done him an injustice by her growing realisation that the smooth George Wickham, who has traduced him, has been lying; by praise of his character and conduct by his housekeeper, Mrs Reynolds; and by her eventual discovery that he has been discreetly helping her family to minimise the scandal of her sister Lydia’s elopement. All very creditable, even if Darcy’s explanation of his conduct in trying to break up the relationship between Jane and Bingley is rather less persuasive.
All of this – and her gradual change in feelings ‑ Elizabeth has kept to herself, with the result that when she eventually tells Jane that she and Darcy are to be married she is not believed: “Oh, Lizzy! it cannot be. I know how much you dislike him.” And a little later,
‘My dearest sister, now be, be serious. I want to talk very seriously. Let me know every thing that I am to know, without delay. Will you tell me how long you have loved him?’
‘It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.’
Another entreaty that she would be serious, however, produced the desired effect; and she soon satisfied Jane by her solemn assurances of attachment.
Jane Austen’s novels, of course, at least in the bare bones of their stories, share a good deal of emotional weather with the Harlequin romance: the difference – a rather large difference admittedly ‑ is in the quality of the writing, and of course the abundant humour, both sly and wise. The books are fairy tales, tales of wish fulfilment: in contrast to how life pans out (usually), the good here eventually get their reward and the bad are at least slightly discomforted. And it is certainly true that in this kind of work Cinderella must marry the prince and not his footman.
But in snaring her prince is Lizzie Bennet actually getting the best bargain possible? We know, from what we learn in the second half of the book, that Fitzwilliam Darcy is an upright man, that he is honourable, even that he is capable of kindness. But will the match work out? What about his pride and temper? Elizabeth’s father, who knows her well – and whose wit she has inherited – warns that her “lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage”, that is in one in which she found it difficult to like or respect her partner. Are the parties’ personalities compatible? How much change in character can we expect from a man whose immediate reaction to his first marriage proposal being rejected is to turn “pale with anger”? In one of her earliest jousts with Darcy, Elizabeth remarks: “Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.” Will there be many laughs at Pemberley?
Well, we cannot tell, but Austen does leave us a brief hint of a possible softening in Darcy’s character – or at least what we might consider an invitation to soften. Georgiana Darcy, living at Pemberley, saw her brother, “who had always inspired in herself a respect … now … the object of open pleasantry … By Elizabeth’s instructions she began to comprehend that a woman may take liberties with her husband, which a brother will not always allow in a sister more than ten years younger than himself”. Which is to say that Elizabeth’s “lively talents” of teasing and deflation are finding employment in the couple’s new life together at Pemberley. But how they are being received we are not told.
Developing the ability to take oneself less than wholly seriously is thought to be an important part of the recipe for a successful marriage or life partnership. It is sometimes argued that it is the male party rather than the female who has the harder job developing the acceptance of the inevitable slight knocks to self-esteem that is essential to arrive at such a desired equilibrium.