The Delicate Art of No; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen


The Delicate Art of No; Pride and Prejudice by Jane AustenTitle: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Published by Penguin, Penguin Drop Caps
Published: December 12th 2012
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pages: 416
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
Buy: Bookshop(afflilate link)

A is for Austen. Few have failed to be charmed by the witty and independent spirit of Elizabeth Bennet in Austen’s beloved classic Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth’s early determination to dislike Mr. Darcy is a prejudice only matched by the folly of his arrogant pride. Their first impressions give way to true feelings in a comedy profoundly concerned with happiness and how it might be achieved.

You must give me leave to judge for myself, and pay me the compliment of believing what I say.

As a forewarning, this review of Pride and Prejudice will be entirely personal in nature, meaning I’ll be referencing the book’s plot and its parallels to something that recently happened to me.

This is one of my favorite books of all time, and I tend to reread it once every year or so because reading it makes me happy. This year, I read it right in the midst of all of the Valentine’s Day marketing and goopy, lovey stuff. I don’t particularly read much in the “romance” genre, and Jane Austen is about as traditionally romance-y as I get. Every time I’ve reread Pride and Prejudice, it resonates so much more with me because Austen can paint with such skill these true-to-life renditions in her cast of characters, and because two hundred years later, people like Jane Bennet, Caroline Bingley, Fitzwilliam Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, and Mr. Collins still exist.

During this reread, Collins’s proposal to Elizabeth made me laugh a bit harder and balk a bit more as it mirrors a recent experience of mine. For the past year, I have felt the pressure to entertain – for lack of a better word – a young man who is in love with the idea of me. To him, I am the attractive and intelligent geek girl who plays the video games he likes and reads the science fiction books he likes. In the entertainment marketed toward men of a geeky persuasion, this is one instance of the ideal woman. I had to fend off numerous instances of his version of flirting (which included wanting to purchase things for me, to treat me “like a lady,” and to essentially tell me how smart/beautiful/unreachable-and-therefore-valuable I am). I have had to decline many offers to go out with him. I have instead offered friendship to him without any promise of dating him. There have been instances where I felt like I couldn’t say no. For example, he offered to help me move, he insisted on helping, so I let him help. I couldn’t say no; he wouldn’t let me say no. The entire moving experience was incredibly uncomfortable and additionally stressful because of this. He is a self-professed “nice guy,” and he cannot take no for an answer. He has also, in essence, told me he cannot find the courage to make the first move, which tells me in a nutshell that, if I did date him, I would have to lead the way every single time. That is not in my nature. I like a balance. I want someone confident enough to make the first move at least half the time. Yes, he is nice, he is gentle, he is kind, all things society tells us a woman should want in a man, but really, he’s a boy. He’s much younger than I am, and he’s not in a similar position in life. I would like to date someone who has a good sense about themselves and who is relatively stable in a grown-up life.

I ended that friendship a week ago.

It was one of the better things I’ve done for myself in recent memory. I haven’t even felt comfortable talking about it at length until recently. I felt like it should just be dismissed, that I would be told to just let him have a chance and date me, that it was not important enough to talk about.

Every conversation we had either in text messages, in the video game we both played, or in real life had the tendency to eventually circle back to something he liked about me, either my looks, my gaming abilities, my intelligence, or his want to date me. In the process of nearly every instance of asking me how, he belittled me, and he diminished himself. After I’d decline, he’d say it took him a certain amount of time to work up the courage to ask me, as if that would make me feel pity and change my mind. This cycle made me fully realize that it’s been a recurrent thing in popular romantic films that the pursuit of women, the chase, the consistently asking her out in hopes she’ll eventually relent is romantic. It’s honestly terrifying.

While I was considering what to say to him after being asked out this final time, I did a little bit of poking around and found post after post exposing this ridiculous “romantic” idea that consistently asking women out will eventually get them to date you. And most of those relentless men were self-professed “nice guys.” I don’t like “nice guys.” I don’t like guys who are like Ted Mosby, or Ross Geller, or Mr. Collins.

Word for word, I told him

It’s disrespectful to 1) continue to ask me out after I’ve said no because it’s invalidating my decision (because it gives off the impression to me that you’re thinking “maybe if I keep asking she’ll give in and say yes”), 2) precede all of this by hoping that I don’t have Valentine’s Day plans because that is a dick move, and 3) expect that I’ll already give you a disgusted sigh and sassy eye roll, which is offensive and demeaning. There is not one thing humorous about it. I’ve tried to be “nice” by deflecting your advances lately, but I am over being “nice.” I am not going to date you, go out with you, or do anything to make you think you have “a chance.” At this point, with the way I’ve been treated, friendship isn’t an option because I don’t know if you’re using that as a means to get close to me in an effort to date me. I absolutely need you to stop asking me out.

All of this happened before I cracked open Pride and Prejudice again, so let’s go back to Austen and that proposal in Chapter 19 now that there’s a backstory. To think that women having to say “no” over and over to a man’s proposal for it to resonate clearly is still a thing that happens today, and that happened two hundred years ago, is incredibly and laughably baffling. At first glance, Collins seems harmless – and he sort of is, really – but to a woman with little or no agency, the pressure of an unwanted marriage, of unwanted advances by a man, is terrifying. You can almost hear the echoes of terror in Elizabeth’s voice when she says, “You must give me leave to judge for myself, and pay me the compliment of believing what I say.”

Collins continues to disregard her decision by saying he believes it to be “the established custom of [her] sex to reject a man on the first application, and perhaps you have even now said as much to encourage my suit as would be consistent with the true delicacy of the female character” (my italics). Holy shit. Her rejections make him want to pursue her even more. If Collins were in this situation with Elizabeth today, couldn’t she begin to file a sexual harassment charge against him? If I still worked with that boy, I know I could.

Collins continues by saying “your refusal of my addresses is merely words of course.” Ack. Get away. Elizabeth is just saying silly things to Collins to distract him, obviously. /sarcasm

Collins also says that he will choose “to attribute it to [her] wish of increasing [his] love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.”

Oh my god. This is so uncomfortable to read, isn’t it?

Elizabeth says,

“I have no pretension whatever to that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable man. I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed sincere. I thank you again and again for the honour you have done me in your proposals, but to accept them is absolutely impossible. My feelings in every respect forbid it. Can I speak plainer? Do not consider me now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart.”

Collins, after this final plea from Elizabeth for him to stop asking her and that she will not marry him, still has none of it and tells Elizabeth that once he speaks to her parents she’ll accept his offer. Elizabeth, knowing nothing else she can say will persuade him otherwise, walks away without saying another word. Collins absolutely refuses to take no for an answer because he is so caught up in the notion of proper “male” and “female” behavior and in the ideas of “romance” perpetuated by contemporary society. Those ideas of romance are scarily still perpetuated today.

The chapter ends, and, after nervously giggling throughout that entire exchange, I set the book aside for a while to think about it. It’s made me uncomfortable, too, and I have to sort my thoughts out. That final paragraph of Elizabeth’s dialogue is freakishly similar to what I texted the boy. While I am thankful women today have more agency than women did then, it makes me so angry to know that we still have to put up with this behavior from men. Yes, even the harmless-looking ones, the self-proclaimed “nice guys.”

I also wonder if this behavior from Collins is partially what upsets Elizabeth when she hears of Charlotte’s engagement and marriage to him later on. To Elizabeth, Collins’s marriage to Charlotte could be a mockery of what Elizabeth believes love is and could be – a healthy, mature, well-matched love. Love to Elizabeth is a meeting of the minds, and to Elizabeth, Charlotte is too good for the likes of Collins, but Charlotte submits to the pressure of being a burden on her parents at the old age of twenty-seven (I’m twenty-eight!!!!). In the end, Charlotte finds the particular pleasure of running her own house, and Elizabeth learns that everyone marries for different reasons and that perhaps Collins and Charlotte have a particular kind of love she cannot fully understand. Which is true for anyone, really. Someone else will love something about someone that you don’t find attractive.

(As a side note which seems pertinent to add, my roommate asked, “Doesn’t Darcy ask Elizabeth several times?” I said yes and no. Darcy asks Elizabeth twice. The first time he asks, Elizabeth is angry at what Darcy has done to her beloved sister and says no. The second time he asks, Elizabeth has recognized Darcy’s character and effort he’s made to right the wrongs and has realized she has been blinded by her pride and prejudices about nearly everything, and they both ask forgiveness of each other. There is, I believe, a mutual sense of respect that grows between Elizabeth and Darcy that is lacking in the interactions between Elizabeth and Collins.)

Pursuit can be romantic at times, yes. Darcy pursues Elizabeth, but at a respectable distance. He knows he has had a hand in doing wrong, and makes the effort to do the right thing by Elizabeth whether or not she will have his hand in marriage.

But in the effort of pursuit, one must realize and understand the power of no. Saying no has become such a delicate art. A woman’s art. We cannot hurt men’s feelings, oh no, not us, precious. We can deflect, we can ignore, but we can never say no. Elizabeth really only escapes the pursuit of Mr Collins by his distraction of marrying someone else, and I really only escaped the pursuit of the boy by cutting off all contact. Two hundred years later, and we’re still dealing with the problem that a woman’s no is not taken seriously. That is so fundamentally frustrating.

Be this a reminder, to myself and to you, dear reader: if you feel uncomfortable about a man’s advances toward you, you have every right in the world to voice that feeling. Tell that person you are uncomfortable and try to find a way out of it if it is safe to do so. Talk to someone else about it. Have a trusted person help you if it is not safe. Don’t keep it hidden away. Don’t keep quiet. That’s what we’ve been conditioned to do. We’ve been conditioned to conceal and deflect for fear of hurting a man’s feelings.