What Would Elizabeth Bennet Do?


An article in the journal Evolutionary Psychology claims that classic 19th century novels such as Pride and Prejudice (though the title of the paper refers to all of these novels as “Victorian”) help shape the reader’s view of how society should work. From the abstract (PDF):

Novels therefore apparently enable readers to participate vicariously in an egalitarian social dynamic like that found in hunter-gatherer societies.

In other words, asking ourselves What Would Elizabeth Bennet Do? (or insert the name of your favorite protagonist there) allows us to understand how to behave in our society; a conclusion that seems obvious, but we kind of wish more people would ask themselves What Would Lizzy Do? (Or better yet: What Would Jane Austen Do? and really take it seriously.)

The researchers used an online survey that listed 435 characters from 201 novels. A very quick scan of the paper reveals that these characters included (at least) Augusta Elton and Elizabeth Bennet. Oh, boy, would we love to see the raw data from that survey! 🙂

It’s very dense and academic, but the findings are broken down a bit in New Scientist and the Guardian. In the Telegraph, Jojo Moyes shows the possible drawbacks of this literary approach to life.

Among their subjects, Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for example, scored highly on “conscientiousness and nurturing”, while Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula scored highly on “status-seeking and social dominance” (not to mention “good dental hygiene”, presumably). Dr Joseph Carroll, whose work is published in the New Scientist, believes such novels have the same effect as tales told around the campfire in older societies: “They have a function that continues to contribute to the quality and structure of group life.”

Well, I can see how behaving like Lizzie Bennett might not be a bad thing. Especially if it bagged you a stately home and a wet-shirted love god in the process. But if former generations really did take their subconscious cues from such books, you’ve got to hope that they were selective. What would reading Thomas Hardy tell us after all, except of the essential futility of being human – or indeed of doing almost anything other than dig turnips, accept your humble lot, become ostracised, and die?

If “bagging a stately home and a wet-shirted love god” is all one takes away from Pride and Prejudice, then we despair, we really do.