As promised yesterday, here’s the first installment in my series on rereading Pride and Prejudice. If you’re following Rohan Maitzen’s excellent advice — “can everybody just go read the book? That seems to me the most fitting tribute” — I hope you’ll join me in talking about the novel here over the coming weeks, as part of the celebration of 200 years of P&P. No white noise, no zombies, no movies. It’s a challenge, given just how much white noise surrounds Jane Austen, and this novel in particular.
The first chapter of Pride and Prejudice begins with wit and energy. The famous first sentence is ironic and clever, immediately establishing the novel’s subject as the business of marriage, and the ensuing dialogue between two main characters is sharp and funny. The banter between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet gives us the tensions between them, and hints about tensions among their daughters. Mr. Bennet is intelligent; Mrs. Bennet is not. He says Lizzy “has something more of a quickness than her sisters,” while she maintains that Jane is more handsome than Lizzy and Lydia more good humoured. Jane Austen opens the first chapter of her “light & bright & sparkling” novel with a statement about how society thinks of young men and marriage, and closes the chapter with a deft characterization of Mr. Bennet as complex and Mrs. Bennet as simple-minded and single-minded. In between, Austen gives her audience drama, and leaves us wanting more.
At the end of the first chapter, we’re left with questions about what the daughters are really like. The novel is famous for its focus on five sisters and the question of what will happen to them when their father dies and his estate is passed on to a male cousin. We don’t know about the entailment of the estate yet, or about the cousin, but we do know in this first chapter that money is important to Mrs. Bennet, and that she wants to make sure her daughters marry money.
How does Jane Austen hook her readers? That first sentence, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” is so famous that it hardly needs to be quoted anymore, and yet it deserves its fame because it raises so many questions the reader wants to hear answered. Who’s the single man, and who thinks it’s a “universal truth” that if he has money, he must want to marry? How does he feel about how he is perceived?
The first chapter tells us the name of only one rich single man, Mr. Bingley. Mr. Darcy, the hero who has become even more famous than the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice, is not mentioned until Chapter 3. Austen says very little about setting: we hear about a “neighbourhood” and we know that the Bennets must not live far from Netherfield, the estate Mr. Bingley has leased. We learn about the Bennet family through the disagreements of the parents, and it seems that either Mr. Bennet is not as keen to marry off his daughters as his wife is, or he enjoys teasing his wife about not visiting the new, rich, single neighbour more than he likes worrying about how to provide for his daughters.
The chapter is almost all dialogue, and it’s the liveliness of the exchange between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet as much as the wit of the opening line that draws the reader in. The disagreement between them prefigures the later, more famous sparring between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, even though the Bennets have an unhappy marriage, and Elizabeth and Darcy will work through their disagreements to a deeper understanding of themselves and the world, and thus to a very happy marriage.
But at the end of the first chapter, we haven’t met the hero of the novel, and all we know of the heroine is that she is her father’s favourite because she’s smarter than her sisters. We need to keep reading, to find out what happens next.
What do you like, or dislike, about the famous opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice? Were you hooked from that first line?
My page Pride and Prejudice at 200 collects all the posts in this series on rereading the novel, along with links to other essays and articles on P&P.