Pride and Prejudice has relevance across time and culture
Originally written April 28, 2016. Published 17 October, 2017.
200 years apart, there are connections between two pieces of media – and both relate to women.
Recently I saw two very different videos. The first one was the 2005 movie version of Jane Austen’s famous novel of manners, “Pride and Prejudice”. It is a novel of manners, famous for noble behaviour by both its lead characters (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uuMT5TZggSU). The second video was about China’s “leftover” women, and it was both heartbreaking and hopeful; please watch it. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=irfd74z52Cw).
What astounded me was that some of the themes raised in the novel were being echoed in the words of the Chinese women 200 years later. Here are some examples:
- At 0:31, the subtitle reads “You become a subject that people talk about, and you get so much social pressure”. At 0:48: “people think that in Chinese society, an unmarried woman is incomplete.”
- From 1:02 through until 1:17, the video shows the Shanghai Marriage market, and the topics being raised by parents there on behalf of their sons and daughters are identical to those from Pride and Prejudice: What’s his income? What’s his job? Does he have a house and a car?
- From 1.40 to 2:17, we see examples of the same questions that arise in the novel – do I settle, or do I wait for true love? Am I being unrealistic?
In the first half of this video, the parental pressure shown is just immense, and in my view, taken to the point of real cruelty. I should point out that I don’t think that the Chinese parents are “bad” people, but they have real concerns for both their daughters (and presumably their sons, too) and themselves. In the absence of an effective welfare system, Chinese parents need their children to help to look after them in old age. And their love for their daughters shines through in the parents’ reactions in the second half of the video.
However, in 2016 some cultures still have people who could be considered the “idle rich”. China, India, and the Middle East come to mind in regards to this. While this lifestyle still exists in the West, it’s not as common as it used to be. In the Western world (in general), while things are certainly not perfect, many of the social limitations upon women have lessened since 1813 (the year the novel was published), allowing many of them to earn their own livings, and to choose who they wish to associate with.
It is worth remembering just how circumscribed the social conventions were compared to now. How difficult would it be to be in the situation of any of the five Bennet sisters? If they had not been part of the gentry, perhaps the Bennet sisters would have been taking in laundry or sewing, or training. But this was not possible according to the social mores of their class, limiting their choices to becoming a governess or a lady’s companion.
The concerns expressed by Mrs. Bennet are very real, and have their parallel in the concerns of the Chinese parents in the video. Regardless of how much your parents love you, the inescapable fact is that in 1813 (or 2016, come to that!) it would be hard work to feed seven people on a limited income. Thus, Mrs. Bennet’s desire to get all of her daughters safely married off to decent, reputable, people is understandable. All the same, it must have been very frustrating for intelligent women such as Elisabeth to be spruiked like cattle at a saleyard any time an eligible male was present at a social occasion.
There are also parallels between England in 1813 and China/India/Middle East in 2016 in being an eligible male at social events. Rather than simply being able to enjoy other people’s company, he would have to watch carefully what he said so as to neither cause offence nor be seen to offer encouragement. And to not be appreciated for one’s own character, but only for ticking all of the boxes, must at times have felt stifling and frustrating too.
What does life look for daughters in modern Chinese, Indian, or Middle Eastern families that hold a similar social position in 2016 to what the Bennet family did in the novel? What restrictions do these women face if their family feels that their only purpose in life is matrimony and childbirth? What are considered “ladylike” behaviours and activities?
How does character come into it, for both the man and woman involved? If every male candidate being considered ticks all of the boxes (i.e. being rich, and owning a mansion/apartment block/half a city, driving a fancy car, being a doctor or lawyer, and being of the same caste or religion) how do families pick the right man for their daughter? How do they ensure that such a man will treat their girl with respect both privately and in public? How do they know he will not commit domestic violence?
If a girl has been brought up to (quite literally) act like a princess, how helpful is she going to be to her husband when he faces challenges in life? Are the social limits of what she has been allowed to do going to cause limits on how much they have to talk about, or have in common? If she’s been given everything she ever wanted without needing to work for it, how will she react to someone who thinks differently, and expects her to work for things?
Finally, as anyone who’s had a serious relationship knows, marriage doesn’t always resemble a fairy tale. How do both of them work through the issues of:
- the daily work that needs to get done?
- their expectations of each other’s, and their own individual roles?
- their respective dreams and aspirations for the future?
- communicating effectively with each other?
The truth is that none of us really know what the right choices are. As was the case in 1813, life often offers us a bunch of decisions with consequences we cannot clearly foresee, and it’s rarely cut and dried as to what the right choices should be. And I think we should be aware that people (especially women) everywhere are facing difficult choices as centuries-old beliefs clash with the secular ideals of a high speed and often bewildering modern world.