There are lots of things to like about Pride and Prejudice.
For a start it bursts with engaging characters… The comic mother, the witty father, the lovely and gentle Jane, the agreeable Bingley, the feisty Eliza, the roguish Wickham, the ridiculous clergyman, the haughty Catherine de Bourgh and, of course, the wealthy and handsome (and tormented) Darcy.
At its heart is a wonderful pair of romances – Jane and Bingley & Eliza and Darcy. One is gentle and makes instant sense. The other is fiery and comes on after a strong initial dislike. I feel the pairing cleverly allows for different romantic tastes in readers.
I think the triumph of the book though, is that Austen makes most readers fall in love with the Bennet family long before we meet either Bingley or Darcy. The dynamics of the family, and the real affection between Jane and Eliza, and Eliza and her father, make us want this family to triumph.
This combination of elements would have made Pride and Prejudice a good read even if Eliza Bennet weren’t such an engaging protagonist, but she is the reason I’ve seen most often attributed for the book’s success over time.
To us, she seems very modern. She’s smart, witty, feisty, independent and this ticks all the boxes of typical 20th or 21st century heroines.
Many of these aspects of her character were no doubt what appealed to readers of the original print run, because the book came out in a time where old social hierarchies were being broken down to a degree, and the individual was beginning to be a more powerful entity.
But whenever I think of Eliza’s appeal as a character, I think of her warmth, her loving nature and her good sense, and how that is juxtaposed with a very believable fault (the ‘prejudice’ of the title). She is quick to judge and sometimes too much so, which is what leads her to believe in and admire Wickham, while not recognising Darcy’s developing feelings at all.
She’s the kind of character you could imagine having a conversation with, because she feels very real and, in fact, unlike a character. This is something Austen achieves with many of her characters – even some of the more comic ones – but is probably most fully done with Eliza Bennet.
What I find remarkable about Austen’s books – and Pride and Prejudice is a fine example – is the sheer amount of stuff going on between its covers. Two trips, four weddings and the fate of three of the sisters settled by the end. That’s more story than a lot of modern novels manage!