“In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”
These words first published 200 years ago this week – and just before St. Valentine’s Day – perfectly express a theme found not only in literature but in our lives as well. The heart wants what the heart wants, despite any reasoning against it.
Two central motifs dominate Pride and Prejudice: love and money. For some characters, the two go hand in hand, as with Mrs. Bennet’s hope that a young man of large fortune “will fall in love with one of” her daughters. Even she is not so callous as to hope for marriage without love; and once Mr. Darcy has insulted the least favourite of her children, his ten thousand a year loses its luster.
The association of the human heart to love and, indeed, all passions goes back to ancient times. Jane Austen could not have known that the embryonic heart begins beating before the brain has formed, or that a person may be declared “brain dead” whilst the heart beats still. Yet, she weaves the idea of heart over head throughout the narrative in such a way that one is left to wonder if she herself has taken a position in favour or against. Although clearly dismissive of love at first site and that “hackneyed” expression “violently in love,” Miss Austen comes across as ambiguous at best, even qualifying the basis of her heroine’s change of heart – “If gratitude and esteem are good foundations of affection, Elizabeth’s change of sentiment will be neither improbable nor faulty.” – with IF.
Miss Austen provides a plethora of examples of the folly in allowing the heart to lead the mind, even whilst acknowledging its inevitability. She tells us Mr. Bennet, “captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her.” Yet even he, when warning Elizabeth against what he perceives as a loveless union, holds esteem above material gain: “(Mr. Darcy) is rich, to be sure, and you may have more fine clothes and fine carriages than Jane. But will they make you happy?”
Does Miss Austen agree with Mr. Bennet, or did she possess the opinion of the self-described “not romantic” Charlotte, that “happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance”? Still, even the cynical Charlotte, who gladly sacrifices any chance of love in exchange for security and opines “very few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement,” can see what her romantic friend cannot: “My dear, Eliza, he must be in love with you.”
Alas, Mr. Darcy could not deny the desire of his heart, falling “so much in love as to wish to marry her in spite of all the objections which had made him prevent his friend’s marrying her sister, and which must appear at least with equal force in his own case.” How ironic that Elizabeth had once accused him of allowing nothing for the influence of affection!
The voice we hear predominately throughout Pride and Prejudice, of course, is that of Elizabeth Bennet; and perhaps she speaks for Miss Austen as well. When her aunt Mrs. Gardiner warns her against an imprudent match with Mr. Wickham, Elizabeth assures her, “He shall not be in love with me, if I can prevent it,” even while allowing, “we see every day that where there is affection, young people are seldom withheld by immediate want of fortune from entering into engagements with each other.” How lucky her heart was “but slightly touched” by Mr. Wickham.
We see Elizabeth repeatedly allowing her heart to rule her head. Beyond her flirtation with Mr. Wickham – in his state of “comparative poverty” – her refusal of Mr. Darcy’s first proposal placed her love for Jane (and misplaced esteem for Mr. Wickham) before the financial security of herself, as well as her mother and sisters. Then she admits, “Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away.” In fact, only when her head tells her Mr. Darcy is lost to her forever does she have a change of heart: “It was…exactly calculated to make her understand her own wishes; and never had she so honestly felt that she could have loved him, as now, when all love must be vain.”
Fortunate are we that Miss Austen draws Mr. Darcy with the same inclination to hold love above reason (as well as “honour, decorum, prudence”) – “I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.” – thus providing the standard against which all other romance novels are measured. No wonder Pride and Prejudice retains its relevance even after two hundred years.
What do you think of Miss Austen, who remained “on the shelf” until her death at the age of 41: Cynic or true romantic? What about you? Valentine’s Day: Love it or leave it?