Read a summary of Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice is a novel set mainly in two English counties – Hertfordshire and Kent – with some episodes in Derbyshire. The story takes place in the early 19th Century and depicts life among the landed gentry, which is composed of the rich, the financially stretched, and those in between. The drama of the novel is generated by the tensions among those various levels of English rural society. It is a very narrow social range, as it ignores the aristocratic and peasant population, as well as the middle class of businessmen and professional people.
The novel opens with what is probably the most famous opening sentence in any novel anywhere:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
That sentence foreshadows a story in which marriage and money are pursued in equal measure in a community where the most important quest of all mothers is to marry their daughters off, with the rich making sure that wealth is held on to securely and the not-so-rich, or downright poor, striving to better the family’s social position by marrying into wealth or at least a marriage that would not make matters worse.
As the story begins we see great excitement from Mrs Bennet, the mother of five daughters, on the news, that Netherfield, a large house three miles away from their own Longbourne estate, has just been rented by a wealthy young man – a single young man – Mr Bingley, and that he has already arrived.
Mrs Bennet begs her husband to call on Mr Bingley so that the occupants of the two houses can begin visiting each other. The relationship between Mr and Mrs Bennet is an interesting one and one of the great comic marital relationships of English literature. Mrs Bennet is lacking in intelligence and sense and Mr Bennet, a highly intelligent man who married her for her beauty, now amuses himself by cruelly teasing her. He says he will not, which is something of a torture for her as she has in her mind the possibility of a match between Mr Bingley and one of her five daughters.
Unknown to her, though, Mr Bennet does visit Mr Bingley and invites him to a ball at the local assembly rooms which the whole neighbourhood of gentlefolk will attend. Bingley has come with his two sisters, the unmarried Caroline and the married Mrs Hurst, whose husband is also there. He has also brought his best friend, the very wealthy Mr Darcy. They all go to the ball.
At the ball, Mr Bingley shows himself to be warm, friendly and charming, which makes him immediately popular with everyone. He dances twice with the eldest Bennet daughter, Jane, which delights her mother beyond measure. Mr Darcy, on the other hand, appears aloof and haughty, talking to no-one apart from Bingley’s sisters. When it’s suggested to him that he dance with the second Bennet daughter, Elizabeth, he declines and, within her hearing, intimates that she is not attractive enough. Although she laughs it off it sets the tone for the dislike that Elizabeth harbours for him through most of the novel. The community generally judges him harshly as a result of the attitude he exhibits at the ball.
Caroline Bingley invites Jane to dinner at Netherfield. On her way there she is caught in the rain and catches a cold, forcing her to stay the night at Netherfield. The next morning she is worse and Elizabeth goes to visit her and stays for a few days. While she is there Mr Darcy becomes attracted to her, telling the jealous Caroline, who has designs on Mr Darcy, that she has fine eyes. Jane recovers but only after Mrs Bennet has visited and revealed more of her silliness to Darcy and Bingley, and goes home.
Unfortunately for the Bennet family, Longbourne is an entailed estate, which means that Mr Bennet does not have discretion about who will inherit it after his death. Entailment means it goes to the eldest, closest male relative, usually a son. There is no son in this case and so it is to go to a second cousin of Mr Bennet, a young man named Mr Collins. One morning Mr Bennet tells his family that he has received a letter from Mr Collins, who is coming to visit them. He is to stay for some weeks.
It turns out that Mr Collins is a pompous, quite absurd, sycophantic clergyman, deprived of common sense or almost any sense. It is clear that it is his intention to choose one of the five Bennet daughters as a wife. Jane is the most beautiful but he is assured by Mrs Bennet, informed by wishful thinking, that she will soon be engaged to Mr Bingley and he swiftly switches his attention to Elizabeth, the second, also beautiful, daughter.
An army regiment is camping near the village and the officers become part of the social round. One of them, George Wickham, proves very popular among the young women because of his looks and his charming manners. He singles Elizabeth out and she finds him a pleasant companion and engages in several conversations with him.
He tells her that he is connected to the Darcy family and that Mr Darcy deprived him of a good living as a clergyman in a prosperous parish that was promised to him by Mr Darcy’s late father. That confirms Elizabeth’s dislike of Mr Darcy.
Mr Bingly holds a ball at Netherfield. Mr Darcy asks Elizabeth to dance, and, despite a vow she has made never to dance with him, she accepts. It is clear that Jane and Mr Bingley are in love but several members of her family display a distinct lack of decorum. Mrs Bennet loudly expresses her conviction that she expects Jane and Bingley to become engaged. The two youngest Bennet sisters draw attention to themselves by their silliness, exposing the family to ridicule.
In a scene that is comical Mr Collins proposes to Elizabeth. She rejects him. Her mother is furious and her father is relieved. The Bingleys suddenly depart for London without saying goodbye and with no plans to return. Mr Collins proposes to Charlotte Lucas, a sensible young woman and Elizabeth’s best friend. Charlotte is 27 and it looks like she is going to end up a spinster. In spite of her distaste for Mr Collins she is grateful for a proposal that guarantees her a comfortable home and she accepts. Elizabeth is shocked.
Jane, brokenhearted, goes to stay with her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner in London. It becomes evident that Miss Bingley has no intention of resuming their acquaintance. Jane is upset but she is a mature young woman and remains composed.
As spring comes in Elizabeth visits Charlotte and Mr Collins in Kent. They are all invited to Rosings Park, the splendid home of the wealthy Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mr Collins’ patroness, who happens to be Mr Darcy’s aunt. Lady Catherine and her sister, Darcy’s mother, have planned for Mr Darcy to marry Lady Catherine’s daughter. Mr Darcy and his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, arrive at Rosings Park to visit their aunt. Fitzwilliam tells Elizabeth how Mr Darcy recently saved a friend from an undesirable match. Elizabeth realises that Darcy was behind the sudden departure, and thus Jane’s unhappiness.
Later during that visit Mr Darcy, who has fallen in love with Elizabeth, although maintaining his silent brooding demeanor, proposes to her, declaring his love for her despite, as he plainly tells her, her inferior social rank, the family’s relative poverty and the silliness and lack of decorum of her mother and sisters, and even some of the behaviour of her beloved father who cruelly makes fun of his wife and silly daughters. She angrily rejects Mr Darcy, stating she could never love a man who caused her sister such unhappiness. She also accuses him of treating Mr Wickham unjustly. Mr Darcy brags about his success in separating Bingley and Jane because of the same objections he has to himself being connected to the Bennet family. He rejects the accusation regarding Wickham, but does not explain it.
The next day, as Elizabeth is walking in a quiet lane Darcy confronts her and hands her a letter. He has written that he interfered in the romance between Bingley and Jane because he did not understand that Jane’s personality is such that she is reserved and calm at all times and he mistook that for indifference to Bingley. He felt therefore that he wasn’t doing anything so bad and that he was saving Bingley from a marriage that would have been one-sided and with unsuitable connections.
He has also written that Wickham, the son of his late father’s steward, raised by the elder Mr Darcy as his own son, had turned down the living the elder Mr Darcy had arranged for him, and Darcy had given him money instead. Wickham had quickly squandered the money and when it had run out, asked for the living again. After being refused, he had tried to elope with Darcy’s 15-year-old sister, Georgiana, who has a large dowry.
Time passes, and some months later Elizabeth accompanies her uncle and aunt, the Gardiners, on a tour of Derbyshire. They visit Pemberley, Mr Darcy’s estate, which is open to sightseers. Elizabeth has made sure that Mr Darcy is not in residence. The housekeeper shows them around and describes Mr Darcy as kind and generous, recounting several examples of that. Elizabeth gets a shock when Mr Darcy returns unexpectedly. He is charming and gracious to the sightseers and invites them to meet his sister. Elizabeth is surprised and delighted by their treatment. This is a very different Darcy.
While in Derbyshire Elizabeth receives news that her sister Lydia, the silliest and youngest sister, has run off with Wickham. She tells Mr Darcy immediately and the party hurries away. Mr Bennet goes to London and he and Mrs Bennet’s brother, Mr Gardiner, arrange a financial package to save Lydia’s honour by her marriage to Wickham.
Lydia visits her family with Wickham and lets slip something that Darcy has tried to keep a secret – that Mr Darcy was at their wedding. Darcy has sworn everyone involved to secrecy but he wasn’t counting on Lydia’s lack of decorum. Mrs Gardner now tells Elizabeth that Darcy saved the situation by brokering a marriage deal – difficult because of Wickham’s reluctance to marry Lydia – and supplying the money for it. She hints that his motive for doing that was because he is in love with Elizabeth.
Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy return to Netherfield. Bingley proposes to Jane. Lady Catherine, having heard rumours that Mr Darcy intends to marry Elizabeth arrives at Longbourne unannounced. She demands that Elizabeth promise not to accept Mr Darcy’s proposal. Elizabeth stands up to her bullying and refuses. Darcy, emboldened by his aunt’s indignant account of Elizabeth’s response, again proposes to her. Elizabeth joyfully accepts.
The cynical Mr Bennet has difficulty in believing that in marrying such a rich man, Elizabeth is marrying for love but she manages to convince him. Up until now, Mrs Bennet has been loud and profuse about her bad opinion of Darcy but she now does an about turn, and is full of praise for her son-in-law to be. The novel ends in celebration of the triumph of the Bennets, with three of their five daughters married and fine, happy matches for Jane and Elizabeth.
That’s our Pride and Prejudice summary. Make sense? Any questions? Let us know in the comments section below!