The difference ‘tween diamonds and pearls

When you’re an English Major, you have to deal with Jane Austen.  She’s one of the writers whose work you have to know before you graduate, like the medical students have to pass A&P.  This can be a problem because readers love or they hate her books with a passion.  There’s no middle ground.  Granted, Mark Twain said an ideal library contains none of her stories but his heroes create their own destinies by ignoring the rules of their cultures. Miss Austen’s characters don’t have that luxury.  They have to carve solutions to their problems out of a narrower field.  Nevertheless, constraints don’t defeat Austen heroines, they enhance them. Difficulties turn Jane’s women into jewels.
Pressure abounds in Pride and Prejudice.  The Bennet daughters are all old enough to marry but there’s an unspoken demand that at least one of the girls marry a man with money.  Mr. Bennet has no savings and his death would leave any dependent family homeless. The two older sisters know this although both would rather marry for love than a fortune. They also live in a world that runs on gossip and rumor and it’s hard to find the truth.  Nevertheless, Elizabeth Bennet withstands the stress with good sense and humor, refusing to marry the wrong man or  avoid the right one, once she sees him.  She can be misled into a mistake but no one can push Elizabeth into acting against her own conscience or will.  Instead, she stays true to her convictions and charms us with her sparkling wit.  Pressure makes lesser women crumble; it shapes Miss Bennet into a diamond.
Pressure isn’t what bothers Elinore Dashwood as much as heartbreak. Within the first two chapters she’s loses her father and the only home she’s ever known.   Then the family of the man she cares for treats her badly.   Elinor keeps most of this incredibly painful stuff to herself since her mother and sisters share at least two-thirds of her heartbreak and she doesn’t want to add to their burdens.  So Elinor becomes the Dashwood who faces reality and tries to get on with life, no matter how hard that is.  She persuades her mother to live within a budget and maintain good friendships with the neighbors who like to help their family.  She begs her younger sister, Marianne, to  behave respectably in public since good manners and reputation are only assets their family has left.  No matter how unhappy she is, Elinore returns malice with civility and kindness with generosity to make life as pleasant as she can for everyone. Her disappointments become the seeds that start her selfless generosity and compassion for others like a piece of sand becomes the instrument that starts a pearl. If Elizabeth sparkles like a diamond, Elinore’s kindness gleams through Sense and Sensibility like a pearl that’s caught the light.

Perhaps Miss Austen’s books aren’t for everyone and it’s odd they’re classified as tales of romance.  They’re not about adventurers but conventional people living conventional lives and they’re downright unromantic when it comes to the subject of money.  They honor the tedious virtues of patience, loyalty and truth while making fun of snobs and fools.  But they are intelligent, humorous stories and they’re all about the art of the possible.  And their heroines are gems.  You just have to choose your preference, diamonds or pearls. 

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