I find it amazing that people have now loved Jane Austen’s books for over two hundred years. This is because her characters are so human. Lizzie Bennet is the main character that comes to mind. In a world where women were expected to marry for financial security and not love, to display the utmost propriety at all times, Lizzie is the complete opposite of that. She speaks her mind. She doesn’t care that her dress is covered in mud when she rushes to see an ill Jane at Netherfield. She rejects Mr. Collins’s proposal because she doesn’t love him. She is a strong, independent woman who has shown me that I need to not only be independent, but I also need to make decisions for myself without worrying about what others will think of me.
I was first introduced to Miss Bennet when I was about fifteen years old. It was spring break, and I was going with my parents and my best friend Lindsay to the Biltmore Estate, the largest private residence in the United States. This event reminded me of Elizabeth’s visiting Pemberley with her aunt and uncle. We left around 5:00 AM to make the four hour journey to Asheville, North Carolina from our house in Georgia. My dad was driving the minivan, my mom was sleeping, and Lindsay and I were wide awake. We were both so excited to see this estate, to see the art collections, to go into the gift shops and restaurant, and to see the beautiful landscaping.
Lindsay has been my best friend since we met in Girl Scouts when we were six. She has basically become my sister, and she comes with my family everywhere. Lindsay was obsessed with Jane Austen, particularly Pride and Prejudice. We were going to be in the car for several hours, so we brought a few movies to watch on our portable DVD player. One of the movies that Lindsay had brought was the 2005 film adaptation starring Keira Knightley as Lizzie. I had a hard time getting into the movie, probably because of the mixture of the terrible volume on the portable DVD player as well as how early in the morning we had attempted to watch it.
When we arrived at the Biltmore Estate, it was breathtaking. The front lawn was freshly mowed, and the many tourists were grabbing their digital cameras and flip phones to take pictures of their families in front of the main house. We decided to go on the self-guided tour of the house. Because the main house is so large, the girl at the front desk handed us our maps of the house as well as a guide book with details about each room of the house. Viewing this immense opulence was a little overwhelming. I couldn’t imagine a couple with only one child living in a mega-mansion with dozens of bedrooms and over forty bathrooms. I think that Lizzie must have felt just as overwhelmed by the opulence of Pemberley as I did when I visited the Biltmore.
We left the estate later that afternoon to return home. Lindsay spent the night at our house that night, and we watched the movie then. I was instantly hooked. I couldn’t get enough of the witty banter between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. After this, I knew that I needed to buy the book. I went to Barnes and Noble pretty soon after this and purchased not only a copy of Pride and Prejudice but also Austen’s entire canon of novels.
Even though I had purchased all six of Austen’s novels, I never read them. I read lots of spin-off novels as well as watched other movie adaptations, but I didn’t read the books. I felt that I wasn’t a true Austenite. I thought that I was being such a poseur and that I had no business referring to myself as a true fan until I read the novels. I tried starting with Sense and Sensibility, but I just couldn’t bring myself to continue reading it. It wasn’t until I reached my senior year of high school that I could finally allow myself the title of Austenite.
I was taking Honors British Literature, and I knew that Emma was going to be the Austen novel we were assigned. However, about a week before we were supposed to start, my teacher, Mrs. Pepper, changed her mind. We were going to read Pride and Prejudice instead.
“To be honest, I don’t really like Emma. I think she’s really annoying. Pride and Prejudice is her perfect novel,” she said.
I don’t think I have ever been more excited for a homework assignment as I was the day I found out that we were reading Austen’s most beloved novel. I used my own copy instead of the one provided in class, and I flew through it. I couldn’t get over how funny it was. The Bennets were not portrayed as a stuffy, prim and proper family in an eighteenth century world. They were real. They fought with each other, got annoyed with each other. They laughed and joked. They were so relatable, and they seemed like people I would want to know personally. The character I connected with most was, of course, Elizabeth Bennet.
Lizzie taught me to be independent. For a long time, I was so dependent on my parents for everything. I went to a small, private college very close to home; in fact, I went home practically every weekend. I didn’t know how to function without being close to my family at all times. I then decided to move to Florida after graduating college. I made so many friends living in Florida, and I have enjoyed myself, but it has been so hard not seeing my family every day. Pushing myself to live so far away from my family is something I never could have done without the inspiration of Lizzie.
Lizzie has also shown me how to make decisions without caring what others think. One of the biggest examples of this was the decision to change my major in college. I initially started my undergraduate career as a Musical Theatre major. I thought that I was destined to be an actor. However, English was always my true passion. I loved reading, and I wasn’t getting nearly as much enjoyment out of my acting classes as I was in my English classes. Lizzie helped me stay true to myself. She wouldn’t do anything that she didn’t feel happy with. Her rejection of Mr. Collins is a perfect example of that. Despite her mother’s objections, she told Mr. Collins no. To think that a woman didn’t have the freedom really to do such a thing as reject a proposal from a man whose feelings she didn’t reciprocate was astonishing. But Lizzie did it. I thought to myself, “If Lizzie has the courage to change the course of her life, then so can I.” I finally walked into the registrar’s office a week into my sophomore year and officially changed my major. I felt as if a giant weight had been lifted off my shoulders, probably the way Lizzie felt when her family ended up supporting her decision to reject Mr. Collins.
I don’t think I will ever stop reading Jane Austen novels. By now, my copy of Pride and Prejudice is worn and probably should be replaced. I think I keep returning to it because Jane Austen created a character who showed me how to better myself. I used to be such a timid person, afraid to do anything without approval from family or friends. Now I can enjoy life on my terms. So, thank you, Miss Austen, for showing me how to grow up to be the woman I always aspired to be, one who has “a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in any thing ridiculous” (Austen 9).
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Donald Gray and Mary A. Favret. Fourth ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2016. Print.