Sunday, May 8, 2011

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I haven't reviewed this book till now because it's one of those books that's almost impossible to review. Should I, for instance, summarise the plot? Well, half of you are going to know it by heart already. Should I drop a hint that this book is not at all badly written, that the characters are passably good, and that one might spend many an hour doing worse than reading it? Again, most of you probably know this already. Ah, well...let me try my best anyway.
I knew about Pride and Prejudice long before I read it or knew what it was about. I thought it sounded pretty dry. I thought it might be a book-length essay on the stuff of its title. Well, I wasn't completely wrong: Pride and Prejudice is, in fact about those two vices. Not, as some people think, a romance. Not even wholly a comedy; but a character study with wit, plot, and laughter.
I was introduced to it by the A Beka English Literature course. It was a big, shiny book with big, shiny pictures, and it caused me endless frustration. I had read Beowulf by the time I was twelve and so I knew, I knew the fifteen-page version they included must be severely abridged. After the one tantalising scene included from George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, I spent the next two or three years fruitlessly searching for a copy of the whole thing. I had already been interested in Edmund Spenser for a long time; so why did they include only the first book of the very first canto? And what on earth could have possessed them to include just five chapters of Pride and Prejudice? Even now I can only guess that the course must be intended for children who don't like reading. The book introduced me to many authors I would otherwise have met much later, and that five-chapter taste of Pride and Prejudice got me hooked on Austen, but why just study the first five chapters? Dear homeschooling mums, please don't spoonfeed your children with a chapter of this and a stanza of that. Fortunately, my own mother never used this course; she just let us flip through it on rainy afternoons, and the English Literature that we did take in we read for pleasure. But I digress.
Pride and Prejudice was published at the end of the first century of the history of The Novel, and seems to fall naturally into that earlier period, with its restrained narrative voice, its careful realism, and its preoccupation with morality. Already by Jane Austen's time this older style of novel was fading and being replaced by the gothic works of Radclyffe, then later Shelley and the Brontes.
There are five Bennet sisters—as we all know—and their two parents. Mr Bennet, the sarcastic one. Mrs Bennet, the foolish one. Jane, the pretty optimist. Elizabeth, our shrewd and witty heroine. Mary, the dull moralising one. Kitty, the weak one, and Lydia, the rash one. When a wealthy young man moves into the neighbourhood, Mrs Bennet immediately begins planning to marry him to one of her daughters (getting all five of her girls married is her first aim in life). Mr Bingley is obviously the perfect prospective son-in-law: not only does he dance two dances with Jane, but he also brings with him an even richer gentleman named Mr Darcy. Alas, Mr Darcy is proud and distant and insults Elizabeth at a dance, thus reducing his eligibility quotient from 10 to 0. Mrs Bennet is soon comforted by Mr Bingley's continued attentions to Jane, the arrival of a whole regiment of dashing officers at a nearby town, and the visit of Mr Collins, the clergyman to whom the Bennet estate is entailed, who wishes to marry one of the Bennet daughters in order to assure them of financial security after Mr Bennet's death.
Elizabeth's own pride is injured by Mr Darcy's overheard words, and her prejudices are further raised when a handsome and plausible officer tells her how Darcy ruined his life. On his part, his own pride in his superior position, personality, and connections and his prejudice against the often foolish Bennet family begins to break down under a growing conviction that Elizabeth is the only woman who could make him happy. Will both of them navigate the pitfalls in the path of matrimonial success to live happily ever after? You bet.
A lot of people love this book. And well they might. It's witty, frequently laugh-out-loud funny. It contains a good deal of wisdom, some very finely-drawn characters, and a quickly-moving plot with plenty of excitement.
Oh, all right, I'll bite. It also contains a romance.
The reason I put this last is because almost everyone puts it first. Pride and Prejudice is not a romance novel, any more than Brideshead Revisited is a romance novel. The romance forms a large part of the plot, but the genre is actually a comedy of manners; in other words a story about the code and expectations of society as compared, contrasted, and pitted against the wishes and actions of the characters.
We'll get back to comedies of manners in a moment, but right now I want to talk about the romance. The interesting thing about Pride and Prejudice is that its reputation as a romance has nearly outgrown its true nature and this results in two rather regrettable reactions. The first can be illustrated by a memory of mine. I was lunching with a party of girls I didn't know very well and when I brought up Pride and Prejudice, for a reason I fail to recall, one of the girls suddenly rolled her eyes in delight, clasped her hands, and cooed devoutly to the sky, “Ohhhh, Mr Darcy!”
The second bad reaction to Pride and Prejudice comes mainly from people disgusted by that first reaction. But they share the same basic misreading of the book. They, too, see Pride and Prejudice as basically a romance. They, too, think the whole point of the book is that Mr Darcy is some wonderful romantic hero intended to sweep them off their feet.
If you are of this latter party, you were probably a little surprised when I said the book is realistic. Well, and so it is. There are no zombies in Pride and Prejudice. There are no pirates or long-lost civilisations. Not even one of the characters has so much as a mad wife in the attic. The single elopement is a shabby, heartbreaking, tawdry little affair that has to be hushed up. And the love of Elizabeth and Mr Darcy is built upon likemindedness, mutual respect, and pure, guarded affection; what could be a better foundation for the happy ending?
It's true that people read Pride and Prejudice as escapism. I always find it constructive to ask exactly what is being escaped from, before saying whether escapism is wrong. It's possible that thousands of women read Pride and Prejudice to escape from a world where there are few manners and fewer morals, where young men do not think of matrimony as a positive benefit, and where affection is rarely pure and never guarded. It's possible that many women, even those who being Christians should live more well-regulated lives, try to escape from the responsibility of reforming this culture to a time when reformation was not so obviously necessary. But escapist readers (for the book itself was not escapist when it was written) are responding to something which is good in the book.
You see, this is a good comedy of manners. Societies always have rules. Ours are different—opposite, nearly—to those of Jane Austen's times, but still present; remember, the question is not whether you have rules, but which and whose rules you have. A novel of manners is about the clash between personal intentions, hopes, and morals and these societal rules. It isn't hard to imagine a truly bad novel of manners. Maybe the author shows the societal rules as evil and repressive. Maybe the put-upon heroine needs to follow her own heart and break the silly rules of society which will only stunt and injure her. (This, by the way, was how Mary Wollstonecraft found herself abandoned with a small child in Revolution Paris, trying to commit suicide).
But in Pride and Prejudice, we see quite a different picture. In Austen's England, the societal rules were based largely upon a long and robust tradition of Christianity. Austen herself was devout and in her book she focuses on some of the most Christian of these rules. The rules of courtship and marriage, for instance, protect foolish young women like Lydia from heartbreak. And Mr Bennet's failing is clearly that of abdicating his position as head of the family. Instead of discipling his children, he ignores and mocks them by turns before escaping to the quiet of his library.
Austen goes for some smaller points, as well. She gently mocks most of the Bennet family for their terrible manners in public. Mr Darcy's twisted sense of his position manifests at the beginning of the novel in pride and disagreeable manners; later, after he has had time to change, his new understanding of his position as a leader and a wealthy man in society manifests as considerateness to Elizabeth's nouveau riche but worthy relatives, the Gardiners, and as a willingness to help out her family in their time of need secretly, without getting any of the credit for it. Nor does Austen have a simplistic view of hierarchy and societal rules: Mr Collins's manners are odious because they are obsequious and self-serving. Respecting Lady Catherine de Bourgh may be a good thing, but prostrating oneself before her is certainly not.
There's a lot more to Pride and Prejudice than meets the eye—and if you only look at the love story, you're missing the point. Rewind time a little way and wander through the exquisite prose of one of the greatest English novelists. It'll do you good in all sorts of ways.
Miniatures and Morals: The Christian Novels of Jane Austen by Peter Leithart, available in its entirety from Google Books!

1 comment:

rohit said...

Must be an enjoyable read Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and original, this book is going in by "to read" list.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...