It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Category: Writing & Reading | Type: Discussion | Title: Pride and Prejudice (in Context) | Author: Jane Austen | Ch: Chapter 1

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With "Call me Ishmael" (Moby Dick), "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life..." (David Copperfield), "All happy families are aliike..." (Anna Karenina), and "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan..." (Ulysses), Austen's opening sentence is among fiction's most famous. She writes, but the tone is as fresh and commanding as if she's speaking, in a precise, clear, measured voice. She displays entire confidence in her command through diction and syntax of the nuances of the word and sentence as to let us hear the voice within the written word, a perfectly controlled and modulated conversational voice, playful and arch. Austen steps lightly, swiftly, and surely. The chapters themselves will be short and rapid and lend a graceful, breezy quality to much of the novel. The style and form underscore our sense of the heroine. 

Yet, it is certainly not a universally acknowledged truth that a rich, single man should be looking for a wife. It is at best the panicky hope of mothers such as Mrs. Bennet who have unmarried, dowry-less daughters. By the ironic "universally," Austen reminds us that, powerful and pleased with itself as England is, its views on marriage and money do not represent the globe but a specific time and class.

Young men of wealth in England enjoyed privilege and leisure. They were in no rush to marry and were at this time doing so somewhat later than a century before, and their age would continue to rise slowly in the 19th c. Making the situation more difficult for women in general, women of this class in particular, a slightly larger percentage of babies born in the 19th century was female.

The first sentence's irony resides in the actual truth being that a single woman with no fortune must be in want of a husband. Austen's readers heard that inversion. To be a money-less single woman of the gentry left one in an awkward if not desperate condition. When she wrote the opening of Pride and Prejudice (henceforth P&P) she was herself dependent on her family for money to pay even for ribbons, postage, no less gifts and travel.

But there is a universally acknowledged truth: the signal importance of money even when it comes to love and especially when it comes to marriage. Emma's opening sentence summarizes the heroine in three terse adjectives, "Emma Woodhouse, handsome clever, and rich..," and Mansfield Park begins, "About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram...." Money and marriage are as inseparably joined as co-dependent spouses, and, as Austen's first sentence indicates, there's no embarrassment in acknowledging that. Austen is no idealist or sentimentalist but a novelist whose irony often depends on the practical matter that must be recognized even or especially in the midst of flights of love.

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