"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." This is arguably the most brilliant opening line in all of English literature. In these few words Austen establishes the motive which drives her plot and sets the tone of ironic detachment which she conveys so deftly throughout her masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice. It stands out in a novel that is filled with quotable lines and it makes us regret that she never wrote for the stage. The first half of the novel is spent watching Fitzwilliams Darcy overcome his aversion to Elizabeth Bennet because of her appearance, "She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me;" and her relatives, “The situation of your mother’s family, though objectionable, was nothing in comparison of that total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by herself, by your three younger sisters, and occasionally even by your father.”
To our great delight, Miss Bennet prods and provokes him without appreciating how captivating she has made herself to him. In one of the great dramatic moments in all of literature, she scornfully rejects his marriage proposal, only to reconsider and spend much of the remainder of the book filled with remorse and recrimination. This isn't nearly as much fun, but it allows Austen to deliver pages of principled discourse on the folly of excessive pride -or deleterious prejudice - in matters of the heart. It also allows her to restore Darcy to our good graces by having him perform heroic feats of generosity toward Lizzy and her twisted sister, Lydia. It isn't until Darcy's awful, autocratic aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, one of Austen's greatest comic creations, steps in to save her nephew from an unthinkable connection,"Because honour, decorum, prudence, nay, interest, forbid it... Your alliance will be a disgrace; your name will never even be mentioned by any of us.'' that Lizzy finally gets her groove back. She retorts, "You can now have nothing farther to say,...You have insulted me in every possible method.'' Such insolence provokes Lady Catherine to utter this memorable insult (which my wife and I still hurl at each other), "I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet. I send no compliments to your mother. You deserve no such attention. I am most seriously displeased.''
Sparks start to fly again, but unfortunately for us, Miss Austen has had enough of the entire lot. She wraps things up quickly, and a trifle too patly for my taste. Elizabeth jokingly confides to her sister that her affection for Darcy "date(s)...from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley." I've always wondered if this isn't Jane Austen's true opinion of her character's change of heart and I suspect that she agrees wholeheartedly with the sentiments expressed by the sardonic and socially-inept Mr. Bennet, "For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?'' That is another truth universally acknowledged and the world of literature is infinitely richer because of it.