“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice epitomizes Jane Austen’s writing; here is money, here is marriage, here are (one hopes) love and romance, and here is a drily witty narrator who is sure that you share her amused discernment. One reason that Pride and Prejudice has worked so beautifully on stage and on film is that its heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, is often as perceptive and as witty as the narrator. Indeed, when A.A. Milne (of Winnie-the-Pooh fame) adapted Pride and Prejudice for the stage in 1936, his version was titled Miss Elizabeth Bennet.
In Jane Austen and the Theatre (Cambridge UP, 2002), Penny Gay recounts how the Austen family loved theatre, and frequently staged amateur productions of comedies. An outbuilding at the Austen Rectory in Steventon was full of home-made theatre sets. Austen herself was a critical theatre-goer, with a keen attention both for scripts and performances. Gay makes a convincing argument that Austen drew as much inspiration for Pride and Prejudice from comedies as she did from older novels. When Elizabeth refuses to be cowed by Mr. Darcy’s superior wealth and social status, she echoes Roxalana, the witty heroine of the Orientalizing comedy The Sultan (by Isaac Bickerstaff, 1775), who will not let a mere Sultan intimidate an English gentlewoman.
When Elizabeth dances with a taciturn Mr. Darcy at the Netherfield Ball, she tells him that society requires a bare minimum of speech: “One must speak a little, you know. It would look odd to be entirely silent for half an hour together.” Elizabeth instructs her dancing partner that “It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy – I talked about the dance, and you ought to make some kind of remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples.” In that moment, Lizzie is an actor in the drama of the ball, a playwright creating the lines to be spoken, and the director telling Darcy how he ought to be playing this scene. It is an intensely theatrical episode within the novel.
However, it is not solely for the delightful romance between Elizabeth and Darcy that we love Pride and Prejudice. It has a varied cast of characters, and each brings something very valuable to the story. In Chapter 39 of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth’s boy-crazy sixteen-year-old sister Lydia Bennet commands our attention, and, “nicely crammed” into the family coach with them, recounts some of her recent adventures to her older sisters:
“Dear me! we had such a good piece of fun the other day at Colonel Forster’s … by the bye, Mrs. Forster and me are such friends! … what do you think we did? We dressed up Chamberlayne in woman’s clothes on purpose to pass for a lady — only think what fun! Not a soul knew of it, but Colonel and Mrs. Forster, and Kitty and me, except my aunt, for we were forced to borrow one of her gowns; and you cannot imagine how well he looked! When Denny, and Wickham, and Pratt, and two or three more of the men [of Colonel Forster’s militia regiment] came in, they did not know him in the least. Lord! how I laughed! and so did Mrs. Forster. I thought I should have died. And that made the men suspect something, and then they soon found out what was the matter.”
We are set up to notice that Lydia has such a bold disregard for propriety that it may one day compromise even her sisters’ reputations – but Austen is doing something much bigger than any one character here. Lydia’s story connects the world of Pride and Prejudice with Georgian London’s queer subcultures. In Mother Midnight’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830 (GMP Publishers, 1992), Rictor Norton writes of the illegal “molly houses” where eighteenth-century men flirted with each other, made love, and occasionally dressed as women. “Not a few foot soldiers” participated. Norton also writes of the masquerades where men frequently arrived in feminine disguises. Horace Walpole, the author of the first English Gothic novel, “passed for an old woman at a masquerade in 1742,” Norton informs us, and the highly respectable magazine writer Richard Steele found himself being propositioned – as a “pretty fellow” – by a flirtatious clergyman. The comedian Samuel Foote (1721-1777) frequently performed an apparently outrageous turn as “Miss Dorothy Midnight” in the all-male routine Mother Midnight. In the 1810s, regulars of molly houses often went by female names, such as “Miss Selina” the police constable. Dressing up Chamberlayne in women’s clothing – and finding that he looks very well to several well-born men – is part of a vibrant, often underground, tradition.
This moment in the family coach in Pride and Prejudice is as quintessentially Austenian as the novel’s first sentence. As a woman writing in the conservative 1810s and trying not to bring scandal on her family, Austen was highly constrained in what she could say. Yet with the wild young Lydia’s story of dressing a handsome soldier in drag, Austen gives herself the opportunity to allude to worlds quite outside the Bennets’ English village. What Austen is describing is also a highly theatrical moment, of costume, disguise, and a hilarious reveal. Most importantly, it is a reminder that, while Pride and Prejudice is structured around the romance between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, it is not what we would call heteronormative. Pride and Prejudice has carved out just a little bit of space for other romances and other stories. It welcomes every reader and every audience member.