Friday, July 9, 2010

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice is probably the best example I’ve ever seen of the necessity of reading a book before making a judgment on it. Previous to this year, I’d thought of Pride and Prejudice as literature lite, frothy Victorian romance for silly little girls and silly older women—Twilight for people who don’t like vampires, basically. In my defense, it’s easy to get that impression. Every crappy romance novel written in the last 20 years claims Austen as an inspiration, not to mention that Jane Austen herself has become a posthumous cottage industry. In your average bookstore, you’ll find significantly more books about Austen or inspired by her work—including some dreadfully explicit Darcy/Bennet erotica—than you will novels by the woman herself. So when Christopher told me that Pride and Prejudice was one of his favorite books, I was intrigued.

And so, how was it? Safe to say, it was nothing at all like I expected. In fact, after reading it, it’s hard for me to imagine how the Austen-worshippers have gotten from the book what they’ve gotten. To judge from Pride and Prejudice, Austen would have mocked the culture her work has spawned. Not to mention that, although it’s certainly romantic—but never treacly—at points, to me, it reads more like a comedy.

For those who don’t know, the plot is thus: The Bennets are a moderately wealthy family, made up of r. Bennet, their easy-going and uninvolved father, Mrs. Bennet, who is completely crazy, and five daughters, Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia. Elizabeth’s story gets the most ink now, but in the novel, both Jane’s and Lydia’s get nearly as much space in the book itself. There’s a lot to the plot and a large cast of characters, but considering the volumes that have been written already, I think I’ll focus on a couple things that stood out to me and leave the in-depth summaries to Wikipedia.

First, Pride and Prejudice is funny. Austen has a dry sense of humor, maybe too dry for a lot of modern readers (especially the kids who read it in school), but it’s hard to see how anyone could be unamused at the perpetually useless Mr. Collins, who, lacking in social graces, thinks the appropriate response to Lydia running off to elope with a less than pristine officer is the encourage her parents to disown her and to congratulate himself on not getting involved with Elizabeth, or this exchange, to which every comedy in the last 20 years owe royalties:

“Then it is as I always hoped,” cried Jane; “they are married!”
Elizabeth read on: “I have seen them both. They are not married,”

Jane’s hopeless optimism, Mary’s overwrought moralizing, and even Austen’s slow-burning disdain toward Mr. Bennet, who starts off with the reader’s sympathies but is eventually revealed to be passively complicit in his daughters’ situations. That’s not even to mention Mr. Darcy who spends approximately 2/3rds of the book acting like a major jerk. He insults Elizabeth at their first meeting, but is drawn to her when she rejects him. For her part, her interest perks up about the time she sees his beautiful estate. It makes a good point, one that romantic fiction rarely addresses: that frequently, the deepest affection can start in the shallowest of waters.

Secondly, Austen’s treatment of Lydia is interesting. Lydia elopes with the promiscuous Mr. Wickham, and upon her return home to see her family, we—and certainly the readers in Austen’s time—expect to find her cowed and realizing the error of her ways. Instead, she’s gleeful as a nymph, flitting around boasting about the wonderful man she’s landed. After that, we might expect some comeuppance, but even this doesn’t quite happen. True, when we last see her, we are told that her passion has cooled and that Wickham’s cooled long ago, and she is has little money or communion with her family, but is this really the most terrible thing? There is no cosmic consequence for her actions; she simply reaps more or less what you’d expect.

I guess what I’m saying is, read Pride and Prejudice. I’m glad I did.


Lula O said...

I love it when people say - the plot is thus..

Christopher said...

This book is terrific. As for Lydia, she'll reap her reward when the marriage goes south (as the Bennets has). Her temporary glee reflects Austen's sharp social satire, which shows how folly thrives in such a backwards system of marital customs.

Christy said...

I've read it several times, and while I caught some of that of which you speak, you have cast it in a different light for me. Especially with regard to Mr. Bennet, who is rather passive, as you've observed. That's what I get for tending to read popular interpretation into the story. Thanks for the thought-provoking commentary.

billy said...

well, you've inspired me to read this one. have you (or anyone else) read any other austen? should i just stick with this one or explore others?

Christopher said...

Billy: Brent and I talked about trying to read Emma at roughly the same time.

Brent Waggoner said...

Billy: I've only read P&P. It was a good introduction. Like Chris said, I think we're both going to read Emma soon.