Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of Pride & Prejudice, is most beloved, perhaps, for her fearless persistence in speaking truth to, and resisting, power, especially in situations when a female is under pressure to be silent and acquiesce in an injustice being imposed on her or on one of her loved ones. One of the most thrilling scenes in all of literature is the confrontation between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine de Bourgh in the wilderness at Longbourn, when Elizabeth’s refusal to acquiesce in the latter’s demand that she promise never to accept a marriage proposal from Darcy, sends the latter off fuming in apoplectic rage.
In light of very recent events in the news involving female persistence in resisting oppression, and refusing to be suppressed and silenced, it’s worth taking note of two such occasions when Jane Austen actually uses the word “persist” in her most famous and popular novel, never dreaming that she would be inadvertently echoed by a latter day male version of Lady Catherine from Kentucky.
First, in Chapter 20 of P&P, we read Mrs. Bennet’s ill-advised assurances to Mr. Collins that Elizabeth will be forced to accept his repulsive proposal of marriage; at which points Mr. Collins narcissistically points out that Elizabeth’s persistence in rejecting him suggest she would a defective wife who would make him an unhappy husband:
“But, depend upon it, Mr. Collins,” she added, “that Lizzy shall be brought to reason. I will speak to her about it directly. She is a very headstrong, foolish girl, and does not know her own interest but I will make her know it.”
“Pardon me for interrupting you, madam,” cried Mr. Collins; “but if she is really headstrong and foolish, I know not whether she would altogether be a very desirable wife to a man in my situation, who naturally looks for happiness in the marriage state.
IF THEREFORE SHE ACTUALLY PERSISTS IN REJECTING MY SUIT,
perhaps it were better not to force her into accepting me, because if liable to such defects of temper, she could not contribute much to my felicity.”
“Sir, you quite misunderstand me,” said Mrs. Bennet, alarmed. “Lizzy is only headstrong in such matters as these. In everything else she is as good-natured a girl as ever lived. I will go directly to Mr. Bennet, and we shall very soon settle it with her, I am sure.”
And all Janeites know that Mr. Bennet thwarts his wife and his would-be son-in-law, by eloquently rewarding his favorite daughter’s persistence with his witty parody of the Biblical Solomon, which takes Elizabeth off the hook!
Then, shortly thereafter, in Chapter 24, after Bingley abruptly and inexplicably up and leaves Jane pining away in Meryton, Elizabeth, speaking with Jane, persists in attributing bad actions and bad motives to the Bingley sisters, in regard to their influencing their brother Charles to suspend his courtship of Jane:
“…I intreat you, dear Lizzy, not to pain me by thinking that person to blame, and saying your opinion of him is sunk. We must not be so ready to fancy ourselves intentionally injured. We must not expect a lively young man to be always so guarded and circumspect. It is very often nothing but our own vanity that deceives us. Woman fancy admiration means more than it does."
"And men take care that they should."
"If it is designedly done, they cannot be justified; but I have no idea of there being so much design in the world as some persons imagine."
"I am far from attributing any part of Mr. Bingley's conduct to design," said Elizabeth; "but without scheming to do wrong, or to make others unhappy, there may be error, and there may be misery. Thoughtlessness, want of attention to other people's feelings, and want of resolution, will do the business."
"And do you impute it to either of those?'
"Yes; to the last. But if I go on, I shall displease you by saying what I think of persons you esteem. Stop me whilst you can."
"YOU PERSIST, THEN, IN SUPPOSING HIS SISTERS INFLUENCE HIM."
"Yes, in conjunction with his friend."
"I cannot believe it. Why should they try to influence him? They can only wish his happiness; and if he is attached to me, no other woman can secure it."
"Your first position is false. They may wish many things besides his happiness; they may wish his increase of wealth and consequence; they may wish him to marry a girl who has all the importance of money, great connexions, and pride."
Once again, Elizabeth persists, this time in speaking inconvenient truth subversive of the cruel exercise of power by the wealthy, snobbish Bingley sisters.
So, something tells me that Jane Austen would be smiling at the way so many women and men have responded so positively to the fearless leadership the other day of a latter day Elizabeth, who persists in speaking truth to power, a truth that no rule created by the pen of men can ever silence.
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