Jane Austen was a trail blazer for plenty of reasons, but I am imagining one of most mainstream ideas that she captured first and arguably best was keeping two characters, destined to be together, maddeningly far away and desperately close, and then yanking and pushing those characters closer and further away.
This is the premise that made Pride and Prejudice one of the greatest books of all time, and a model by which other loves stories, from teenage television shows to literary fiction to the most critically acclaimed films and the most poorly made made-for-Netflix films fashion themselves.
But unlike a lot of novels who, over time, get asterisked with the frustrating caveat that, “it was revolutionary at that time” Pride and Prejudice still, after all the love stories that have tried to mimic or surpass it, has not been definitively outdone by any subsequent book, show, or movie.
Elizabeth Bennett still remains a role model for lovesick teens and twenty somethings scouring the bar scene for their Mr. Darcy, giving socially unsatisfactory men everywhere more chances than they deserve. The longevity of P&P’s dominance is monumental and shows no sign of stopping. If it has not since been dethroned as the queen of love stories, then it seems it may just reign eternal.
And the lion’s share of the blame for this success is because of the unity of Austen’s masterpiece. The book and subsequent films rely on three main elements- marriage during the Regency era of Great Britain, dancing, and love. These elements combine to create one large structural back and forth- a dance- that brings young men and women close, and then tears them away, because all elements of that era- structural, familial, physical, ideological- makes love feel impossible amidst a story where it is inevitable. And it might not be possible to have another love story where every facet of the book contributes so perfectly to that most frustrating and tantalizing question of two people in love- will they end up together?
This premise is established in the beginning of the story, visually, with a dance. I am not a scholar of early 19thcentury dance (or any dance… I really don’t like dancing), but as far as I can gather, the dancing that took place in those ballrooms and assembly halls in 1813 had a lot of jumping, turning, and walking towards and away from partners. So, whoever their partner may have been, someone they adored, or someone they loved, they were equal parts dancing with them and leaving them. And in the book and movie this dance is equal parts flirtatious (like when Bingly and Jane are falling in love) and escapist (like when Elizabeth must dance with Mr. Collins or Mr. Darcy before he was revealed to be the shit and not a shit). As we watch, we receive a feast of what’s to come in the story, young men and women perpetually being brought together and desperately trying to get away.
This minor visual element that illustrates the conflict resides on a foundation that the time period of the book lays. Stating the obvious, marriage and love back then were not like marriage and love now. It was more systematic, more political and intellectual, less emotional and free, more based on familial necessity and resignation than love and personal desire. And these overarching social structures are the strings that are pulled and let loose, bringing our beloved characters close and then far apart, turning them about and pulling them up into the air like a dance of its own, using the conflict of what a woman feels versus her means versus her families wishes versus the fickle men with which they have to work.
And when these come together, dance and the social structures that invisibly move the dancers, the story is beautiful. Austen, with her words, leads us through the assembly room that her characters inhabit like the greatest dance partner we could ask for. Showing us the visual dance of those in love, letting us eavesdrop on the behind-the-scenes conversations that lubricate the social machinery of marriage, and introducing us to the internal conflicts that keep these men and women apart despite our every wish, both the real and the perceived.
And when they leave that ballroom that we flitted through, they continue their dance, Darcy hates Elizabeth, Elizabeth hates Darcy, Darcy loves Elizabeth, but Elizabeth is repulsed by Darcy, Elizabeth loves Darcy but cannot overcome her shame at her mistreatment of him. They are in the same room, they are cities apart, they are dancing with each other, they are gazing at each other from afar. They dance, and us along with them, as our heartstrings are tugged by the same strings that guide their dance of love.
Every great work is united, each element enhancing the other, and this is why Pride and Prejudice may always hold the crown for greatest love story, because no time period could work so closely with the conflict of a love story and no setting could provide such a striking visual component to tell that story.
I believe the only hope is to invent a new way to portray love other than the waxing and waning of the heart, and I am just not sure that’s possible.
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