|Book cover by fourblackbirds.|
I read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, and I loved it.
Reading Jane Austen, like dancing in public, makes me uncomfortable. I see people either dancing or reading Austen all the time, and to them, it seems natural. They clearly love what they're doing, and many of them will try to tell you about how great it is, and how if you'd just give it a shot, you'd love it, you really would. And so you always say no, no thanks, not this time, but every once in a while, just for kicks, you give it a try. And as soon as you start, nothing works, and you feel painfully self-conscious and certain that everyone is staring at you, so you naturally quit doing it an go home and watch a baseball game, which feels much more your speed.
And then, just to make yourself feel better, you look down your nose at the people dancing in public or reading Austen, wasting their time on something so frivolous when there's real work to be done. Like watching more baseball, or reading more Philip Roth.
At least, that's how I used to feel. This summer I decided to read Pride and Prejudice, so I ordered a copy from amazon and put some badass stickers on there, just so no one at the coffee shop would get the wrong idea about what kind of books I liked to read. Here's what my book looked like by the time I finished it.
Now that I've finished P and P, I can see that that I was being excessively proud in thinking that way. You might even say I was showing something like prejudice against Jane Austen and her fans by avoiding her for most of my life. For shame! Now I understand why there are so many fans of Austen in general and this book in particular.
I knew she had the reputation of being a careful observer with a sharp wit, and it's true. Her characters are lively, hilarious, and often ridiculous, but she creates them with incredible verisimilitude. There's the preposterous Mr. Collins, the infuriating Mrs. Bennet, silly Lydia and dastardly Wickham. Then there are the two main characters, Elizabeth and Darcy, who seem so solid and confident with their very different views of the world that they would never compromise. And then, of course, they do.
But more interesting to me was that the revelations that these two characters experience don't come in an epiphanic flash, or in a melodramatic confessional that you always see in romantic comedies these days, and that, for some reason always takes place either at the airport or in a rain storm. Jane Austen hated cliches like that, and she carefully avoided them in her novel (except, for a few times, to make fun of them.)
Rather, these two characters are drawn together, bit by bit, over hundreds of pages. And it's not a mere misunderstanding that stands between Elizabeth and Darcy; they are definitely, stubbornly against one another. It's only through dozens of different tests of character and patience that the two come to understand one another and then become a married couple. The author forces each character to take her or his point of view, which seems sensible and just, and then reexamine it from the other's vantage.
My prejudice against this book was that it was frivolous, just about five daughters who had to find a man in order to maintain their genteel status in society. And, partially, that's correct. The Bennets, as down-and-out as they are, are still flirting with the upper fringes of society, living in wealth and trying to avoid the kind of destitution that might require them to join the working class. Their struggle is not a life-or-death one; in fact, in the whole of the novel, not a single character dies!
But there is real tragedy in the book. The first, most evident one is that the five women in the Bennet family will never be able to choose their own fate because of their gender. They are merely women and must either be married or enter into spinsterism. But the second, more tragic notion is that it didn't have to be this way. Mr. Bennet, the patriarch, seems cursed. In five tries, he had five daughters, but never gave up hopes that a son would come along until it was too late. He should have known better! He has utterly mismanaged his family's fortune and brought about its destitution. He may or may not have been able to prevent his estate from being entailed only to a male heir; even if he couldn't have prevented that, he could have saved his income for the benefit of the five girls, but he didn't. All he can do is watch his daughters' misfortune with a despair that he covers with irony and humor.
And, lest I miss the point, I must point out how charming and wonderful Pride and Prejudice is. It's a riot. I wrote "ha" in the margins of my book many, many times, and I loved chatting with my wife about all the dips and dos between Elizabeth and Darcy. We've watched most of the 1995 BBC production of the book, and I find myself starting sentences with "Darcy this...." or "Darcy that..."
Pride and Prejudice is irresistible, great stuff, and everyone should read it--even dudes.