The scene: November 2017. My house. For about thirty days, if not longer. I’ve taken longer to read books than that space of time, but none felt longer—not even War and Peace, and that is saying something—than that month or so trying to slog through Jane Austen’s beloved and highly-praised novel Pride and Prejudice, which has been one of English literature’s most celebrated works since its publication in 1813.
This post will serve, for better or worse, as a sequel to my earlier mention of Doctor Zhivago, which I called “a classic I can’t get into.” That post—and this one, too—was primarily meant for entertainment purposes, rather than most of my other entries in this blog, which are much more in the persuasive vein, considering that I do actually want readers of my site to check out these wonderful classic novels.
So, please, please, please, don’t get the notion that I dislike Pride and Prejudice so much that I’m suggesting you not read or reread it. I’m not. In fact, it deserves to be read for as long as people are still reading novels, even if I don’t like it, because that’s the power some books have.
Finally, let’s not forget my praise of an earlier Austen novel, Northanger Abbey.With those disclaimers sent out to meagerly protect this post from any outraged Austen fans, I’ll now proceed to my problems with Pride and Prejudice.
The base plot of Pride and Prejudice was familiar to me before I’d even read the book, thanks to its saturation into other media (Bride and Prejudice) and the fame this novel has achieved in modern times: a young woman in England in the early 19th-century, Elizabeth Bennett, sees her parents try to marry her and her sisters off so they can achieve a respectable societal status in a time when society expected young women to be dependent on their husbands for income.
At the same time, there’s a huge variety of relationships in front of Elizabeth that show the down side of rushing through falling in love—even Elizabeth’s own parents don’t come across as an ideal couple. The celebrated and complicated relationship Elizabeth has with the brooding Mr. Darcy offers yet another pairing perfect for the same scrutiny.
Besides all that, there is (supposedly) comedy galore to be found in the social world’s rigid rules of behavior and curious characters like Elizabeth’s mother (obsessed with getting her daughters hitched) and, of course, Mr. Collins (obsessed with being . . . weird, not to mention being willing enough to offer a marriage proposal to pretty much any woman he’s with.)
If there was ever a novel that had a context that needed explanation in order to understand it, Pride and Prejudice would be that book. The world of early 19th-century English social mores was terra incognita for me. Unfortunately, my copy contained minimal footnotes, so most of the context was left to me to guess or Google. My biggest problem was that I couldn’t warp my head around how important family income was to the characters in this book. Which isn’t a fault of Austen’s, since it reflected real-life at that time and place, but just didn’t translate well for a 21st century reader like myself.
I will also confess to being totally mystified by the comedy of this book. Yes, Mr. Collins has his moments, but the laughs were really more just smirks, and I suspect this has to do with the bizarre social world once again. Also, it’s hard to really get into a book when the two biggest characters—Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy—aren’t the most empathetic (I mentioned a similar problem in Doctor Zhivago), especially the prickly Darcy. Elizabeth’s sisters—Jane, Kitty, Mary, and Lydia—all prove more interesting than Elizabeth, odd as that might sound, with Mary stealing every scene she’s in with her witticisms and fondness for reading (yay!). It’s not a great sign when the heroine’s siblings overshadow the heroine herself!
Ugh, now that I’ve got that out of my system, I’d like to repeat that this book should still definitely be read. Even if you’ve never read it, and you’ve just gone through this post and decided that Pride and Prejudice sounds stilted and unreadable, pick it up, dust it off, and read it just like you would any other book I’ve talked about on this blog.
Because that’s the only way you’ll know for yourself. Plus, who knows? I might just join in and reread the novel some years down the road. At that point, I hope, I’ll be clutching at my sides the moment Mr. Collins shows up.
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