By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 3 2013 01:00PM
Why is everyone so convinced that Elizabeth Bennet isn’t beautiful?
This past weekend, Deborah Moggach, the screenwriter for the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice, told an audience that she’d initially been “appalled” when Keira Knightley was cast as Elizabeth, because Knightley’s beauty detracted from the story’s empowering message. “Elizabeth inspires women because her wit and intelligence is what captures Britain’s most eligible bachelor,” Moggach said. “Women love that because it means you don’t have to be beautiful. If you are clever and funny enough you can get Mr Darcy.”
Moggach isn’t the first to promulgate the Elizabeth-isn’t-beautiful meme: back when the Knightley movie opened, the New York Times’ critic opined (under the headline "Marrying Off Those Bennet Sisters Again, but This Time Elizabeth Is a Looker") that its heroine was “not exactly the creature described in the 1813 novel,” who “prevails. . . through her wit and honesty, not through stunning physical beauty.”
Apparently, we want to believe that Jane Austen’s heroines are smart, plain girls who win their men solely through character and intellect. But let us turn to the text:
Chapter 15: “Elizabeth, equally next to Jane in birth and beauty. . . “
Chapter 3: “In a few days Mr. Bingley returned Mr. Bennet's visit. . . . He had entertained hopes of being admitted to a sight of the young ladies, of whose beauty he had heard much.”
Chapter 45: "I remember, when we first knew [Elizabeth] in Hertfordshire, how amazed we all were to find that she was a reputed beauty.”
Chapter 61: “Mary was the only daughter who remained at home. . . . no longer mortified by comparisons between her sisters' beauty and her own.”
In other words, the five Bennet daughters, with the exception of poor, bookish Mary, are a good-looking bunch – no surprise, genetically speaking, since we know that, in her youth, their silly mother was attractive enough to turn the head of a man who should have known better. Jane is the pearl, yes, but Elizabeth is second only to her.
In fact, only three people in the novel ever disparage Elizabeth’s looks: the Bingley sisters, especially Caroline, whose jealous sneer (“how amazed we all were”) inadvertently confirms Elizabeth's local reputation for beauty; and, of course, Mr. Darcy (“tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me”). But he’s in a bad mood that night, inclined to find fault everywhere, and it doesn’t take long for him to change his opinion – not just about Elizabeth’s mind, but also about her face, “rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes."
Let’s face it: Elizabeth isn’t just smart, strong-minded, irreverent, witty and uncowed by power. She’s also a looker.
And how do plain girls fare in Austen’s novels? Well, Charlotte Lucas – “at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome” – marries Mr. Collins; need I say more? Anne Elliot, who has lost her youthful bloom, marries the dashing Captain Wentworth – but only after recovering that lost bloom. Fanny Price starts out as an awkward child, but by eighteen she is pretty enough for her uncle to remark upon her looks. (Affectionate or creepy? You decide.) The other heroines fall somewhere along the continuum from pleasingly pretty to downright handsome.
Why are so many casual commentators eager to insist on Elizabeth Bennet’s plainness? Clearly, some wish-fulfillment is at work: as a columnist in the Independent pointed out recently, Lizzy is beloved by “young book geeks,” seldom beautiful themselves, who fiercely identify with her cleverness and want her happy ending for themselves.
But I think the plain-Lizzy meme also springs from a desire to counter a stereotype of Austen, one that is encouraged by all those movies starring gorgeous young actresses: the view that she wrote high-toned chick lit, fairy tales in which the women are lovely, the men are handsome, and the children are all above average.
The truth is, however, that Austen was realistic enough to know that beauty matters. It's not the only thing that matters – Caroline Bingley is good-looking, too, yet she’s never going to win Mr. Darcy’s heart – but it isn't irrelevant. It's a bargaining chip in the marriage market, and Austen’s usually impecunious heroines need all the chips they can get. It is we, with our insistence on the improbable victory of the smart, plain girl, who are the romantics.