Perhaps the most famous opening lines from any nineteenth-century novel are the opening lines to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."
These words are spoken by Mrs Bennet to Mr. Bennet on the news that a gentleman of fortune has just moved to Netherfield Park, a nearby estate. The Bennets begin this story with a peculiar problem: they have five unmarried daughters and no sons. Their estate is entailed, or restricted in inheritance, to Mr. Collins, a family cousin. Upon Mr. Bennet's death Mr. Collins will inherit the family lands, which will leave the Bennet daughters without a home or money. It becomes vital, therefore, that at least one of the daughters marries well in order to support and house their sisters (and mother if she is still alive) should they not be able to marry.
Shortly after arriving alone, Bingley brings to Netherfield his two sisters, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst; his brother-in-law, Mr. Hurst; and his friend, Mr. Darcy, who also happens to be wealthy and unmarried. Not wanting to miss a favorable introduction to their new neighbors, Mrs. Bennet pleads with Mr. Bennet to call on Bingley so that she can begin introducing her daughters to him. Initially Mr. Bennet refuses to play any part in matching anyone of his daughters with Bingley. He tells his wife that if is she is so intent on meeting the newcomers at Netherfield, she must visit Bingley herself. However, prudent manners forbade to woman call on a strange man, making Mrs. Bennet powerless to begin the process which she hopes will lead to a marriage between one of her daughters and Bingley. Following the pronouncement that Mr. Bennet refuses to call on Bingley, Mrs. Bennet despairs that her daughters will never be able to meet wIth the eligible bachelor. Yet Mr. Bennet does call on Bingley, beginning the family's acquaintance with him. He takes ironic pleasure in surprising Mrs. Bennet with the news after letting her believe that he would not call on him.
The Bennet girls meet the Netherfield party for the first time at a small ball. Bingley proves to be personable and polite to the local folk, making him instantly well-liked. Darcy, while handsome and noble looking, appears proud and indifferent to participating in the activities of the evening or even socializing with the other guests.
The eldest daughter, Jane, is instantly drawn to Bingley, and he seems equally attracted to her. Jane is portrayed as gentle, unselfish, and very mannerly. Elizabeth is also well mannered, but possess a very sharp wit and refuses to be intimidated by anyone. Inclined to be protective of Jane and her family, she nonetheless recognizes the faults of her parents and other sisters. At the assembly, because of a shortage of men who dance, Elizabeth is left sitting. She overhears Bingley encouraging to Darcy to dance, suggesting that he ask Elizabeth. Darcy curtly replies that "she is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men." Elizabeth, though insulted, refuses to give Darcy's comment any weight, instead telling the story to all her friends and ridiculing his pretentious behavior.
Jane and Bingley's relationship continues to deepen during family visits, balls, and dinners. His sisters pretend to like Jane, but are appalled by her mother's vulgarities, her younger sisters' wild, loose manners, and their lower economic position among the landed gentry. They find great amusement in making fun of the Bennets behind Jane's back. A particular point of hilarity stems from the way Kitty and Lydia chase after the young military officers stationed locally.
Jane rides on horseback through a rainstorm in acceptance of an invitation from the Bingley Sisters. She consequently catches cold and must stay at Netherfield until she is well, much to Mrs Bennet's delight. Thinking her sister might need attending, Elizabeth goes to stay with Jane until she is well. Darcy soon begins to demonstrate an interest in Elizabeth, making Miss Bingley jealous, as she has hopes of marrying him herself. In fact, Miss Bingley has a right to worry, as Darcy notes to himself that "were it not for the inferiority of [Elizabeth's] connections, he should be in some danger."
Soon Jane is well and returns home. Another visitor arrives in the person of Mr Collins. He is a clergyman and will be the inheritor of the Bennet estate upon Mr. Bennet's death. Thinking himself generous, he decides to try to marry one of the Bennet daughters, so that any unmarried daughter will still be able to live at the family estate. His patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who is also Darcy's aunt, has urged him to marry. He obeys her, as usual, with servile haste. He becomes interested at first in Jane, but when Mrs. Bennet indicates that Jane is taken, he fastens on to Elizabeth. She refuses him, believing that a marriage without love is not a worthwhile endeavor. Mrs Bennet breaks down in hysterics, though Elizabeth's father approves her decIsion. Within a day, Mr. Collins proposes to Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth's best friend, who accepts him.
During Mr. Collins' visit, Lydia and Kitty meet an officer newly stationed in Meryton. Wickham becomes a favorite among the ladies, including Elizabeth. He claims to have grown up with Darcy, saying he is the son of the late Mr. Darcy's steward. He says that the younger Darcy has cheated him of his inheritance, forcing him into military service Already inclined to believe the worst of Darcy, Elizabeth now believes she has proof of his poor character, never once questioning the truthfulness of Wickham's story.
The Bingleys hold a ball where all of the Bennet family's manners, with the exception of those of Jane and Elizabeth, are exposed as lacking, much to Elizabeth's mortification. Soon the Bingley party packs up and leaves Netherfield to live in London during the winter. A letter comes from Miss Bingley to Jane Implying that Bingley might become engaged to Darcy's sister. Jane, while refusing to express her loss to anyone but Elizabeth, is devastated. When Elizabeth learns of Bingley's near engagement, she quickly realizes that Bingley's sister does not think Jane is a good marriage partner and has persuaded her brother that Jane is not really interested in him. Unlike Jane, who faults no one but herself for Bingley's departure, Elizabeth is furious with Miss Bingley, and perhaps Darcy, for interfering WIth her sister's happiness.
Thinking that a change in scenery would Improve Jane's condition, Mrs. Bennet's sister-in-law, Mrs. Gardiner, suggests that she spend part of the winter in London. While there, Jane is snubbed by Bingley's sisters and never even sees Bingley. Meanwhile, Elizabeth visits Charlotte and Mr. Collins in Kent, accompanied by Charlotte's sister and father. She sees Jane on the way and is sure that Darcy is keeping Bingley from visiting Jane.
In Kent, Lady Catherine honors the visitors, as Mr. Collins repeatedly informs them, with regular invitations. Elizabeth finds the woman to be haughty and ill-mannered, constantly thrusting her opinions on the others and fully expecting that they be followed without question. Elizabeth responds coolly to the other woman's prying. Darcy soon arrives in Kent, visiting regularly at the parsonage, sparring verbally with Elizabeth Unexpectedly, he proposes marriage to her, explaining that he loves her in spite of her low family connections. Rather than being Impressed and honored that such a highborn man should be interested in her, Elizabeth is insulted and refuses. She accuses him of being ungentlemanly, of destroying her sister's happiness, and finally of treating Mr. Wickham in a miserable manner. He storms away, but the next day presents her a letter answering her charges.
In the letter he states that he did keep Bingley from Jane, referring to the improprieties of her family and his Sincere belief that Jane had no feelings for Bingley. He goes on to explain how Wickham squandered all the money the late Mr. Darcy left him and how he even attempted to elope with Georgiana, Darcy's sister, for a chance at her fortune. Elizabeth acknowledges the truth of his explanation, reproaching herself for believing Wickham without once questioning the truth of his story
Slowly, her prejudice against Darcy begins to weaken without seeing him again, she returns home
In spite of Elizabeth's protests, Lydia goes with one of the officer's wives to Brighton, where the regiment is now stationed. Jane returns home from London, and Elizabeth leaves to travel with the Gardiners on a tour through the country which will take them to Derbyshire, the region where Mrs. Gardiner was born and where Darcy lives. They go to Pemberly, Darcy's home, believing that he is away and Elizabeth need not fear running into him. But he comes home earlier than expected. In spite of their mutual embarrassment, he treats Elizabeth and the Gardiners with courtesy, asking if he may introduce his sister to her. Surprised. Elizabeth agrees.
While in Derbyshire, Elizabeth enjoys her time with Darcy, Georgiana, Bingley, and Bingley's sisters. She becomes very fond of Darcy and almost believes that he may ask for her hand once more. A letter from Jane quickly dashes Elizabeth's hopes. Lydia has eloped with Wickham. Wracked with guilt that she might have prevented this disaster if she had made known what Wickham had done to Darcy's sister, Elizabeth rushes home. It is soon discovered that the runaways are not married, but hiding in London. Wickham lets it be known that he can be bribed to marry Lydia, so Mr. Gardiner arranges a quick wedding. With no other option, Mr. Bennet must consent, though he worries how he will repay Mr. Gardiner, who is surely pr0viding the considerable bribe to Wickham. Once they are wed, Lydia and Wickham return to the welcoming arms of Mrs. Bennet, who refuses to be embarrassed by Lydia's lack of propriety.
All is Well
Lydia, heedlessly breaking her promise to Darcy, tells Elizabeth that Darcy attended theIr wedding. Elizabeth then convinces Mrs. Gardiner to give her the details. It turns out that Mr. Darcy arranged the wedding, paid off Wickham, purchased Wickham a commission in the army, and supplemented Lydia's small dowry
Soon after, Bingley and Darcy return to Netherfield. They call on the Bennets and soon Bingley proposes to Jane, who happily accepts. Elizabeth, having developed feelings for Darcy, scrutinizes him, hoping that he still has feelings for her. But he soon leaves Netherfield
An unexpected visit from Lady Catherine soon occurs. She has heard a wild rumor that Darcy and Elizabeth are soon to be engaged, and she wishes for Elizabeth to refute the rumor and promise never to become engaged to Darcy. It seems that she has hopes her sickly daughter will marry him. Unintimidated, Elizabeth refuses. Lady Catherine leaves in a rage, later repeating the conversation to Darcy,unwittingly giving him hope that Elizabeth is in love with him. He knows Elizabeth well enough to understand that had she "been absolutely, irrevocably decided against [him], [she] would have acknowledged It.. frankly and openly." He returns to Longbourne and proposes once again. Without hesitation, she accepts.