Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, 1813
Originally, I wasn’t going to reread anything for this project. However, now it would seem strange to skip over major works of literature in my chronological journey through the canon. So, I am adding books to the list that I have already read, but I forgot to add Pride and Prejudice until after I read Emma and Mansfield Park. Hence, my Austen chronology has gotten mixed up and my opinion of Austen got mixed up with it.
Here’s a summary of how I felt as I read the first 4 of 6 Austen novels on my list:
Before: Ugh, so much Austen.
During Sense and Sensibilty: Ugh. Yuck. Blergh.
During Mansfield Park: Yawn. Why does anybody read this stuff?
During Emma: Ok, Austen, I’m not too mad. Emma is kind of a worthless B, though.
During Pride and Prejudice: OMG, Darcy and Lizzy’s love is more important to me than my own life! They are the best lovers in literature. Yay, Austen!
There’s a good reason for P&P being Austen’s most well-read and well-regarded novel. It is largely absent of the flaws common to her other works. As I see it, those flaws include excessive length, thoroughly boring characters and conversations, scanty plot and weak characterization. Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park are the worst offenders. Pride and Prejudice, however, doesn’t have these problems. Despite the maxim that authors should show rather than tell, when characters are having a dull conversation, it’s often better for the author to summarize. In Mansfield Park Austen dedicates 10 pages to a pointless conversation about shrubbery just to show the reader that a certain character is profoundly boring. In P&P she mercifully tells us that Sir William Lucas and his daughter “had nothing to say that could be worth hearing” and moves on with the story. That summary made me so happy. Writer win!
I have probably read this book five times now and each time I find myself more emotionally invested in the lives of the characters. I wonder how much this has to do with the merit of the book versus the cultural cache these characters have. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy transcend their novel of origin. Am I invested in their love story because I like this book or because I like the BBC miniseries or the film starring Kiera Knightley or because I’m pretty much obsessed with Bridget Jones’s Diary? Any way you slice it, I really care about their love. They provide the archetype of the lovers who initially misunderstand and dislike each other, are thrown together by circumstance and grow to have a deep respect and horniness for each other. By my estimation, 98% of RomComs and romance novels make use of this archetype. I guess we’re all hoping that the people who dislike us just don’t “get” us and with more time and experience will see how deeply wonderful we are and propose, like, nine times. Especially if the people that don’t like us happen to be rich and handsome. The minor characters in Pride and Prejudice are more vivid than in other Austen novels. The sarcastic, lackadaisical father, the frivolous, inappropriate mother and sisters, and the sycophantic Mr. Collins are literary archetypes in their own right.
The love stories in earlier novels go one of two ways: 1: “Hi, nice to meet you. You’re hot. I’m hot. Our parents are ok with it. Let’s get married. I’ll send for the pastor in the morning.” Or 2: “Hey, dummy, let’s elope.” I think Pride and Prejudice resonates with modern readers, because we want lovers to get to know each other. We like to see marriages founded on affection. We want characters to have some experiences together before they tie the knot. Elizabeth and Darcy do this and it helps the reader feel invested in their romance.
I didn’t like Pride and Prejudice when I read it as a teenager. Elizabeth Bennet has grit, but you need a decent understanding of the social norms of the early 19th century British aristocracy to appreciate her particular spunkiness. In the context of earlier novels and when compared to Austen’s other heroines Lizzy is a breath of fresh air that provided me a much needed reprieve from the swooning, confused, inactive ladies of early English literature. Many people romanticize this era in literature, but in the past I have found it difficult to relate to the concerns and sentiments of Austen’s characters. With more life experience relating to Austen gets easier. I have actually spurned a lover for being ill-bred.
You might not like Pride and Prejudice if:
- Eh hem. If there’s one thing I’ve come to terms with as an appreciator of English literature, it’s that not liking Pride and Prejudice is not an option. You will read it and you will like it! If you find yourself not liking it, revise your thinking. We, the literati, have decided that there is nothing wrong with this book. If you don’t like it, there’s something wrong with you. Bad wrong.
“‘I am astonished, my dear,’ said Mrs. Bennet, ‘That you should be so ready to think your own children silly. If I wished to think slightingly of any body’s children, it should not be of my own however.’”
You might like Pride and Prejudice if:
- Wait, you haven’t read Pride and Prejudice yet? That’s crazy. Borrow a copy from a friend. Pretty much everyone owns this book. (My home seems to spawn copies of P+P. Every time I purge my bookshelf I get rid of two extra copies.) It’s a quick and delightful read that displays Austen’s unique wit at its best. Read it now so you can read it again two more times. It just gets better.