“Happy for all her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters.” The opening line of the last chapter of Pride and Prejudice is my favourite line in the novel, as I mentioned when I first started writing this series of posts, because it’s the only mention of the wedding day for Elizabeth and Darcy, and Jane and Bingley. I like it because the focus on Mrs. Bennet’s attitude toward weddings ties the ending of the novel to the beginning, because the sentence is short and snappy, and because this line challenges the expectations of readers who come to the novel expecting a big wedding as the culmination of the courtship plot. There’s no question that Pride and Prejudice has a happy ending — but the wedding day isn’t the most important part of the happy ending.
I’ve made this point about the “Happy for all her maternal feelings” sentence before, but it’s hidden in an endnote about film adaptations in my book Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues (page 178, note 8). It’s an important point, though, so I’d like to highlight it here: “One-line weddings do not translate well to the screen.” Adaptations of Austen’s novels that focus on the wedding at the end don’t do justice to her emphasis on the process by which hero and heroine come to understand each other. Love is the most important thing for Elizabeth and Darcy; the wedding is the most important thing for Mrs. Bennet.
The happy ending isn’t just the final chapter of the novel, in which the narrator tells us what happened to everyone after the double wedding, it’s the three chapters that precede that one, in which the dialogue between characters is the main focus. Elizabeth thanks Darcy for what he did for Lydia, he assures her that his “affections and wishes are unchanged,” she accepts and returns his love, and they discuss the many misunderstandings of the past; Elizabeth tells Jane of her engagement and tries to persuade her sister that she really does love Darcy, and then she tries to persuade her father of the same thing; and in the second-last chapter, Elizabeth teases Darcy and tries to find out how he fell in love with her. Their happiness is shown in the spirited conversations they have about their affection, which contrast with, but are closely related to, the fiery disagreements they’ve had in the past. As Elizabeth assures her aunt, “I am happier even than Jane; she only smiles, I laugh.”
Jane Austen’s happy ending in Pride and Prejudice is much like her intriguing first chapter: she relies on dialogue more than description to make her plot and characters interesting.
The last sentence of the novel, like the first, is narration rather than dialogue, however, and this last line is nowhere near as famous as the first one. “Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them [the Gardiners]; and they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them.” The Bennets always get more attention than the Gardiners in discussions of Pride and Prejudice, yet this last sentence reminds us that while Mrs. Bennet has tried so hard to secure single men of large fortune for her daughters, it is in fact Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle who have been instrumental in helping bring about her marriage, not only by taking her to Derbyshire, but by showing Darcy that she has family members she can be proud of.
Back to Darcy’s second proposal. I’ve said Austen’s use of dialogue is really important and effective in this happy ending. But why doesn’t she tell us exactly what they say when he proposes the second time? Darcy tells Elizabeth that his “affections and wishes are unchanged,” and this is how Austen describes her response: she “immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand, that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances.” Why don’t we get to hear what she says? Are you disappointed that we don’t hear it?
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.
Thanks for celebrating the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice with me! 2013 is an exciting year in the world of Jane Austen and Edith Wharton, my two favourite novelists, and I’m looking forward to beginning a new series of posts to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Wharton’s The Custom of the Country.
Please join me, starting July 4th, for conversations about the novel Wharton called her “magnum opus,” and about her controversial heroine Undine Spragg. Be sure to follow my blog or subscribe by email to make sure you don’t miss the discussion. In the meantime, if you haven’t already seen it, you might want to read Sage Mehta’s fascinating article in Salon on Undine Spragg, “Edith Wharton Invented Kim Kardashian.”