From Nora Ephron’s October 1980 essay, “A Few Words about Elizabeth Bennet”*, inspired by that year’s BBC production starring Elizabeth Garvie as Elizabeth Bennet and David Rintoul as Fitzwilliam Darcy. “A Few Words” shows the magic and power of Ephron as Everywoman — personal yet universal.
The other day they sent me a photograph of the actress who plays Miss Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, and I took one look at it and threw it into the garbage can. All things considered, this was a mild response. I have spent twenty years knowing exactly what Elizabeth Bennet looks like, and she does not look a bit like this person they have gotten to play her. She looks like me.
It has been possible for me to persist in this delusion as long as I have partly because I love Elizabeth Bennet and partly because Jane Austen, who created her, managed to leave out of her novel any detailed physical description of her heroine. She does write that Lizzy is not as beautiful as her sister Jane and that she has fine eyes — there’s much made of those fine eyes — and a pleasant figure. But there’s not a word about whether she is short or tall, blond or brunette; not a word about her nose or her lips; and while the fine eyes are said to be dark, there is not a word as to whether they are dark brown, or dark blue, or dark green, or dark lavender, or the color I happen to know them to be, which is dark hazel.
. . .
I fell in love with Elizabeth Bennet the first time I read Pride and Prejudice, and I have read the book at least once year ever since. “It is a truth universally acknowledged,” the book begins, “that a single man n possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” That glorious sentence is a threshold into Austen’s world, a world of manners and domestic arrangements, a world where nothing — not politics nor war, which are simply not mentioned — is as important as the right match. Each time I cross into this word I bring to it the same intensity and sense of suspense I felt the first time through. I cannot put the book down. I am on tenterhooks about Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. I am stunned by what becomes of Wickham. I am captivated by Elizabeth’s father and appalled by her mother. I am furious at Miss Bingley. And when it becomes clear that things will work out, the lovers will triumph — when Elizabeth unexpectedly meets Mr. Darcy while walking through Pemberley and realizes his feelings for her are unchanged — I cry.
All this may say more about me and my rather dippy capacity for romance than it does about the book, but I doubt it: Pride and Prejudice is one of the greatest romantic comedies ever written, a novel about the possibility of love between equals, and in many ways it is the forerunner of a genre it was undoubtedly instrumental in creating. Two strong-willed people — one of them rich, the other not — meet and take an instant dislike to each other. She reacts by being arch and provocative; he is attracted by her audacity, her playfulness, her intellect, and, as Elizabeth reminds Mr. Darcy at the end of the book, her bad manners. “You may as well call it impertinence at once,” she says. “The fact is that you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking and looking and thinking for your approbation alone.” Eventually — after a long push and pull, half a dozen misunderstandings, and one explosive rejection — the lovers soften ever so slightly, acknowledge themselves to be possessed of at least one flaw apiece, and realize they were meant for each other, class distinctions aside.
What a lovely fantasy this plot is! It is the dream of any woman who has ever wanted to believe that what really matters is not beauty but brains, not flirtation but wit; it is the dream of every young woman who has ever been a wallflower. Indeed, when Elizabeth first meets Mr. Darcy, she is exactly that: She is sitting on the sidelines at a dance when she is pointed out to him, and to her amusement she hears his comment on her looks: “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.” It is also the dream of every young woman who has ever worried she would never marry; for her the sister who is most serious, most thoughtful, most sensitive, is rewarded in the end by the very thing she has been shown to care least about — a rich husband. And for a moment — in spite of the many examples in Austen’s work to the contrary — we are allowed to believe in the likelihood of a great marriage. “I know your disposition, Lizzy,” Elizabeth’s father tells her. “I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable unless you truly esteemed your husband, unless you looked up to him as a superior. Your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage. You could scarcely escape discredit and misery. My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life.”
(The plot of Pride and Prejudice and the scrappy, feisty dialogue that characterizes Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s relationship — the skittering banter, the deft back and forth — have been imitated in thousands of novels that have been written since and dozens of movies: It Happened One Night, with Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable; The Lady Vanishes, with Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave; Woman of the Year, with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. In these movies the convention is reversed: The part of the not-rich person is played by the man, and he is the first to be arch and impertinent, she is the prideful snob. For the most perfect illustration of what might happen to an Elizabeth and a Mr. Darcy after they marry, see The Thin Man, with William Powell and Myrna Loy.)
I may be deluded about the similarity between Elizabeth Bennet’s looks and mine, but I have never been as foolish on the question of character. Hers is far superior to mine. Her flaw is that she is too quick to form opinions based on first impressions; in short, that she is prejudiced. And that is her only flaw. I have at least a dozen as serious as that and a few far worse. The Austen character I most resemble, I am sorry to say, is not Elizabeth Bennet but Emma Woodhouse, of Emma. Now there’s a woman with flaws: She’s manipulative, bossy, and controlling. There are few Austen lovers who do not believe Emma to be Austen’s finest work, but I have always been grumpy about it; it’s too close to home. I prefer my literary heroines to be perfect, unlike me; and Lizzy is as close to perfect as she can be and still be interesting. In fact, I consider her flaw so minor that the first time I read Pride and Prejudice I assumed that both nouns in the title referred to Mr. Darcy. Who, after all, could blame Elizabeth for thinking ill of a man who insulted her at a dance? Who could think her genuinely prejudiced? Not I, that’s who.
Recently, I was reading a novel by by one of the most shrill of the feminist writers, who complained in it that there were no more Mr. Darcys. There are probably no more Elizabeth Bennets either. What’s more, there were probably none in the first place. Which is wonderful. It means that those of us who would love to be like her can never feel too bad that we aren’t; no one is. That’s what makes Lizzy so lovable: She doesn’t exist.
Not so surprisingly, Pride and Prejudice made it onto Ms. Ephron’s list of “What I Will Miss” in her last book, I Remember Nothing, published in 2010 several years after the onset of her leukemia:
What I Will Miss
The concept of waffles
A walk in the park
The idea of a walk in the park
Shakespeare in the Park
Reading in bed
The view out the window
Dinner at home just the two of us
Dinner with friends
Dinner with friends in cities where none of us lives
Next year in Istanbul
Pride and Prejudice
The Christmas tree
One for the table
Taking a bath
Coming over the bridge to Manhattan
Thank you to Nora Ephron for all the laughs, in print and at the movies, and for my lifetime fixation with the semi-colon.
* From my copy of Nora Ephron Collected, 1991, moved from Washington, DC to NYC to the prairies