The Mating Game -- a Play-by-Play with With and Intelligence

TIM BAKER

August 09, 1993|By TIM BAKER

It is a truth universally acknowledged that people of intelligence and substance do not waste their time reading romances. So this year's suggestion for a summer book may not, at first, entice you.

It's Jane Austen's ''Pride and Prejudice.'' Read the novel. Then watch the movie.

You'll find the 1940 MGM film in the classics section at most video stores. Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier star as Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy.

Do not, however, get the video before finishing the book. The movie, you see, is a romantic comedy. So, if you watch it first, it will distort your appreciation of the novel.

But isn't the novel a romantic comedy? That's the question. Is Miss Austen a romantic at all?

Her story certainly has all the elements of a romance. Darcy is the rich and handsome stranger who visits the provincial Hertfordshire. His haughty behavior promptly offends the quick-witted Elizabeth. At a party, she overhears him disdain to dance with her. There is not, he confides to a friend, a ''woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.''

Circumstances then throw them together as house guests. Elizabeth enchants him with her sharp repartee. One night he forgets himself and even suggests they dance. She refuses. ''And now despise me if you dare,'' she taunts him. ''Indeed,'' he jTC answers, ''I do not dare.''

''Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her. He really believed that were it not for the inferiority of her connections he should be in some danger.''

The Bennett family's lower social status persuades Darcy to advise his friend Bingley to break off his ardent pursuit of Elizabeth's sister Jane. But Darcy's scruples cannot restrain his own passions.

To Elizabeth's surprise, he proposes. ''He spoke well, but he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride.'' What bothered him, he explained to her, was ''his sense of her inferiority -- of it's being a degradation -- of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination . . .''

She refuses him. ''I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly.''

He is shocked. ''And this is all the reply which I am to have the honour of expecting! I might, perhaps, wish to be informed why, with so little endeavor at civility, I am thus rejected.''

''I might as well inquire why with so evident a design of offending and insulting me you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character?''

She accuses him of ruining her sister's happiness, of cheating the estimable Wickham, and of arrogance, conceit and pride. ''Abominable pride!'' He leaves. She bursts into tears.

Of course, the plot ultimately untangles this delicious impasse.

In Hollywood's version, the misunderstandings are corrected. Darcy's true character is revealed. Elizabeth discovers her real feelings for him. In the inevitable happy ending, they are reconciled and married. The movie is a minuet.

The novel is an opera. Miss Austen uses her incandescent wit and dialogue to explore the possibility of fulfillment in love.

Elizabeth's friend Charlotte tells her that happiness in marriage is ''entirely a matter of chance.'' So, before marrying, ''it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.''

In accordance with this philosophy, Charlotte marries the irrepressibly pompous Mr. Collins with whom she has no chance of happiness at all.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, wants to work on a relationship with a potential husband -- even Darcy. But it isn't love at first sight.

Nor is her initial evaluation of him distorted by mistaken facts. Indeed, from the beginning they both understand each other very well. They simply don't like what they see. Not right away.

Elizabeth's scathing rejection of Darcy's proposal, however, leads him to re-evaluate himself. She also examines her own behavior and concludes, to her chagrin, that she has been as proud and prejudiced as he has.

She begins ''to comprehend that he was exactly the man who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her.'' These self-discoveries enable the two of them to overcome the plot's obstacles and achieve true ''union.''

Well? Does Miss Austen view courtship through a romantic's eyes? Or does she, like Shakespeare, use the form of romantic comedy to cloak a subtle, sophisticated, and coldly realistic analysis of how to pick a mate?

Here's a hint: Watch how many other couples achieve happiness in this novel.

Of course, you can't expect too much sophistication from a Regency spinster. Everyone knows Miss Austen's novels entirely avoid sexuality as a factor in the mating game.

But just for the fun of it, see if you can spot any sexual puns, allusions, symbols or metaphors. There's nothing on the surface, so anything you find underneath is probably just accidental. Isn't it? After all, she was a maiden lady from a small village.

Indeed, serious people always agree that Miss Austen focused on a little world. Her novels address no serious issue of politics, philosophy, morality or theology. They happily ignore the epic events of her time: the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, the industrialization of England.

But try her as a late summer diversion from serious literary works, like ''The Firm'' and ''Jurassic Park.'' She will entertain you with a light story about the trivial question of how men and women choose the mates with whom they will spend their lives.

Tim Baker's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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