I was not sold Pride and Prejudice the first time I read it. I was seventeen, a high school student in Singapore at the dawn of the second millennium, mired in angst. I read the book because it was part of our English program and I had no choice. (Our teacher’s method of teaching was to screen the adaptation of the BBC miniseries during school hours. He had a much-publicized crush on Jennifer Ehle.)
The sentences were long and opaque, interspersed with dashes and semicolons. The plot wound through drawing rooms, ballrooms and gardens, from one long conversation to the next. The way the characters reacted to events and situations seemed overwhelmed by my contemporary, inexperienced state of mind: the fuss made by Elizabeth going to Netherfield to check on her sister, Darcy’s pathological aversion to Bennet family, the idea that there could be no more horrible fate for a girl than to run away with a man she did not subsequently marry.
One emotional reaction I had no trouble sympathizing with, however, was Elizabeth’s horror at her best friend Charlotte deciding to marry Pastor Collins. Aside from how irredeemably obnoxious Collins is, my own best friend had recently gotten into a relationship, and it devastated me. The guy was obviously uncool: it was a universally recognized fact, in our social circles of hyper-judged teenagers. But the underlying cause of my misery was not the belief, as is the case with Elizabeth, that this was not a suitable match and that my friend would not be happy. If anything, it was the opposite. It was unbearable to think that she could find happiness with this boy that she couldn’t with me.
At the time, I dared not examine any of this; the implications – who I would be, what people would think, that I would never find anyone and die alone – were too frightening. So I kept going out with boys and being in an unbearable mood. But while I had first approached Charlotte’s marriage from Elizabeth’s point of view, it was indeed Charlotte’s situation that I identified with, despite myself.
A vision of Charlotte’s fate is that her marriage, and the “worldly advantage” it grants her, brings her happiness. There is a very amusing line in the novel: “When Mr. Collins could be forgotten, there was really a great air of comfort throughout. [the house], and by Charlotte’s evident enjoyment of it, Elizabeth supposed it must be often forgotten. But at the cost of comfort, of respectability within the confines of your society, being married to someone you could never love (much less collins)? I think part of me always knew I wouldn’t be able to do this.
The second time I read Pride and Prejudice I was five years older and slightly more self-aware. I was an intern at a three-person Liberal Democrat think tank (including me), a setup I found on a Yale program in order to have an excuse to spend a summer in London. (Like so many people raised in the shadow of colonialism – Singapore was a British colony from the 1800s to 1963 – I was in love with the culture of the conqueror.)
Reading Pride and Prejudice reminded me that we are all still in the middle of our own private narrative, on our way to a future that, by definition, we cannot know.
When I travel, I like to read novels that take place where I am, and with Mrs Dalloway and Down and Out in Paris and London I bought a Collection of Jane Austen novels editing. It turned out that reading Pride and Prejudice without the specter of having to write essays citing examples of Jane Austen’s irony and wit, or discussing the novel’s treatment of class and marriage, resulted in a finer appreciation of these subjects . I like to think Austen would have approved.
That summer, I fell in love with a college friend who was also in London on another program. She was from Shanghai and possessed a kindness and poise that reminded me of my best friend from high school, though it didn’t strike me until after. I fought my growing feelings as valiantly as Darcy does for Elizabeth, then I gave up, with a mixture of relief and dread, and declared it. She was as upset as Elizabeth at the news, not because she thought I was hateful, thankfully, but because, she told me, she didn’t know what to think; the possibility of such affection had never occurred to him.
We spent two months exploring London together, the fact that I felt like I was resting between us like an invitation to a ball that hadn’t been prepared yet. She was to leave before me, and on the last evening we wandered the city for hours, through the parks where we had sat, past the museums we had visited, along the gray length of the Thames. I asked her again, even though I suspected I knew what the answer would be. I don’t see what it would be, she said.
I accompanied her to her dormitory in Bloomsbury Square, then returned to the flat in Clerkenwell which I shared with three other students. I couldn’t sleep, so I sat down on the living room couch to finish my reread of Pride and Prejudice, the final act when Bingley and Darcy return to Netherfield and Elizabeth is thrown into an emotional turmoil over whether Darcy is still inside her or not. As a reader, we know she has nothing to fear.
Of course, Darcy will be steadfast; Also, as the heroine of a romantic comedy, she will get her happy ending. Corn Elizabeth has no idea – and it’s a testament to both Austen’s skill and the universality of romantic anxiety that, despite the predestined outcome, we sympathize so fully with the way Elizabeth ricochets between apprehension and hope and confusion and despair and assorted combinations of all of the above, the way she overanalyzes every interaction with Darcy and every one of her (inevitably sullen) expressions.
What struck me was how radical Elizabeth and Darcy are in their approach to finding a life partner.
That evening, while reading Pride and Prejudice reminded me that we are all still in the middle of our own private narrative, on our way to a future that, by definition, we cannot know. We absolutely feel, because the present is all we have; and we will never have the assurance of Happy forever, unlike fiction, but that’s because our stories don’t end, at least not until we die (which, when I was twenty-two, never seemed to happen). There was something immensely hopeful about that thought.
Twelve years later, I was living with my girlfriend in Brooklyn, enrolled in a fictional MFA program breaking corporate law. Pride and Prejudice was the first title on a reading list for a course on time management in fiction. We discussed how Jane Austen both condensed and extended time in her early 19th century account of marriage in the English upper class: on the one hand, by traversing whole swaths of time and events summarily (Charlotte’s marriage and departure from Meryton, Jane’s unsatisfactory marriage visit to London, and the closure of any budding romance between Wickham and Elizabeth takes place in the space of half a chapter! ); on the other, taking us beat by beat through particular scenes such that the reader feels as if listening to Elizabeth and Darcy arguing in Netherfield or meeting in Pemberley Gardens.
Meanwhile, in 21st century America, a revolution in the concept of marriage was underway. The Supreme Court heard arguments from Oberfell v. Hodges, who challenged state laws banning same-sex marriage. Two years ago, USA v Windsor struck down provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act that denied federal recognition of same-sex marriages. All of these developments have blown me away.
As someone who grew up in Asia and came of age in the 90s and early 2000s, the idea of being able to marry another woman seemed fantastic to me (and, for that matter, not a fantasy I ever had fed). It was only ten years ago Windsor which the Court has held, in Lawrence v. Texas, that laws criminalizing consensual same-sex adult sexual relations violated an individual’s right to privacy under the Fourteenth Amendment. Yet we were now at the point of whether same-sex couples should have the right to participate in one of the most heteronormative institutions of all time, to have their status recognized by law as fully equal as opposed to to a reluctant status. we assume you are not illegal. It almost felt like fiction, where you turn a page and jump back in time and find the universe of the novel about to change.
Reading Pride and Prejudice During this momentous spring, what struck me was how radical Elizabeth and Darcy are in their approach to finding a life partner, which necessarily means, given their time, marriage. Darcy places his esteem for Elizabeth above her family’s inadequacy, Lady De Bourgh’s opposition, and the expectations and obligations that come with her class and status. Elizabeth, just as drastically, says no when he proposes, even though he ticks all the boxes of the ideal husband in a society where marriage is seen primarily as an economic arrangement, a necessary means by which countless women can obtain a modicum financial security. as well as societal respect.
The same-sex marriage movement may be light years away from the marriages that Austen champions in his work, but it shares a fundamental affirmation: that individuals should have the freedom to choose who to love and how to establish their personal happiness, in the face of to custom and tradition and sectarianism.
In June 2015, the Court issued its opinion for Oberefell, and my world expanded: as it had when I realized it was possible to be both gay and happy (pun intended), and again when I met the person who has become the better half of my life. But what seemed just as important, and still is, is the long parallel road that same-sex couples have taken up to this point. They have formed relationships and nurtured families as meaningful as those of their married heterosexual counterparts – and in doing so, they have helped create the space for us all to imagine ways of loving and being together that don’t do not imply the sanction of institutions and the roles they make us play. There should be no right way to conduct love. This is perhaps the best thing about having the choice to get married: not the wedding, but the choice.
Auditors by Jane Pek is available through Vintage.