Monday, August 22, 2011
Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice
by Jane Austen
Almost ten years ago, I read this, my very Jane Austen novel, and I was completely in love with the book. In the ensuing years I gobbled up every other single book of Austen’s I could get my hands on.
Recently my book club decided to read Pride and Prejudice and I was shocked to learn that I was the only one in the group who had read anything by Austen. Keep in mind, I’m the youngest in the group by a solid 30 years. How had they missed the brilliance of one of my favorite authors?
Anyway, the book club’s decision prompted me to re-read my second favorite Austen novel (Persuasion is still my fav). It was such an incredibly rewarding experience. The first time I read it I mainly focused on the romance between Elizabeth and Darcy. Second time around I noticed everything else, and there’s so much!
**If you haven’t read the book, fair warning, the plot is pretty well known, but I do discuss things that might ruin it for you if you really don’t know how it ends.**
For one thing, Austen’s wit is unmatched. Austen is sometimes considered boring because there's not a lot of action, but she's so funny and you can't forget the characters she creates. The stuffy Lady Catherine, the pious Mr. Collins, the insufferable Miss Bingley, the utterly unlikeable Mr. Darcy, who of course becomes so lovable; they are all such divine creations.
Elizabeth, our heroine, can be stubborn and judgmental, but whatever her faults, her love of her sister Jane supersedes all else. I love that Jane’s happiness is more important to her than her own. It says a lot about her that she puts someone else’s welfare above all else. If there’s one thing that Austen could truly capture, it’s the love between two sisters.
“Elizabeth instantly reads her feelings, and at that moment of solicitude for Wickham, resentment against his enemies, and everything else gave way before the hope of Jane’s being in the fairest way for happiness.”
It’s easy to forget that turning down a marriage proposal was a huge deal during that time period, especially when you had no other prospects. Lizzy doesn’t just turn down one proposal, she turns down Darcy once and then Mr. Collins multiple times. And Collins isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. After Eliza turns him down four times in a row, he still thinks she’s being coy and says, “You are uniformly charming” and is convinced she will still accept him.
A wonderful example of Austen’s famous social commentary is the section which talks about the public opinion on Darcy and Wickham. First everyone loves Wickham, then they hate him, they hate Darcy and then they love him, but it’s rarely based on their actual experience with the individuals. They are swayed by the merest whisper of a scandal or controversy.
“…everybody was pleased to think how much they had always disliked Mr. Darcy before that had known anything of the matter.”
One of Darcy’s main objections to Jane (as a possible wife for Bingley) is her family, which can be a bit embarrassing. I loved reading the section that chronicles Elizabeth and Darcy's dinner at Lady Catherine’s house. The pompous old woman (Darcy's aunt) is blatantly insulting Lizzy and he is mortified. It’s a great reminder that everyone has family members that they aren’t always proud of, but you can’t judge someone because of that.
“Mr. Darcy looked a little ashamed of his aunt’s ill breeding, and made no answer.”
Charlotte’s role in the novel completely changed for me this time. When I first read it I was only 18 and I couldn’t believe she settled for Mr. Collins. Now I’m 27, the same age she is in the book, and I understand her decision so much better. She was making a huge sacrifice. She had no prospects, she was getting "old" and she knew she would just be a burden to her family. I still wouldn’t have done it, but now I really get it. It was a different time and she knew this might be her only shot at having her own household. Her decision also underlines how unusual Lizzy’s decision to turn down Collins was.
Another interesting element is Mr and Mrs. Bennet's relationship. Although she is a fluttering idiot and at first glance, he's hilarious and likable, I found myself really frustrated with him by the end of the book. He completely ignores Lizzy’s warning about Lydia’s behavior. He doesn’t take it seriously and doesn’t realize his mistake until it’s too late. He didn't think ahead and plan for his daughters' futures, thus putting them in a horrible position. He also treats his wife with utter disdain. Even though she incredibly annoying, he should at least show her some affection or respect because she's the mother of his children.
Lizzy’s views of married life are rooted in her own parent’s unhappy marriage. It’s the only real example of how a husband and wife interact that she's witnessed for her whole life. She’s particularly horrified by Charlotte’s marriage because she sees it as the joining of two people who are so different in intelligence and temperament, just like her parents, and she’s worried it will lead to unhappiness for her friend. That’s why it was so important for her to end up with someone who was her intellectual equal; she needed a partner she could respect.
“Elizabeth, however, had never been blind to the impropriety of her father’s behavior as a husband. She had always seen it with pain; but respecting his abilities, and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavored to forget what she could not overlook, and to banish from her thoughts that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible.”
The problem with watching too many movie and miniseries versions of P&P is that I sometimes forget what is and isn’t in the book. It always bothered me that in the movie versions, Elizabeth and Wickham seem so buddy-buddy in the scene where they chat at the end, but I’d forgotten that in the book she’s still seething inside. She just acts nice so she can get out of the conversation.
“…she had walked fast to get rid of him; and unwilling for her sister’s sake to provoke him.” P. 264
I’d also forgotten that there’s a whole section where Lizzy has fallen in love with Darcy (after learning what he did for Lydia, etc.) and she thinks there’s no way he still likes her. They’re at a party together and she follows Mr. Darcy around the room with her eyes, and then gets mad at herself for being so silly. I love that we get to see her a bit vulnerable and girlish. She’s fallen for him and so her defenses are down.
I love how the end of the book gives a summary of what happened to everyone in the following years. Jane and Bingley move closer to the newly-married Darcys. Lydia tries to weasel favors out of the Darcys, but gets turned down (ha). Kitty is improved by Jane and Lizzy’s new positions in society and is kept from Lydia’s company. Lizzy and Darcy’s sister get along so well, and Elizabeth maintains her spunk and ever shocks her new sister-in-law with how she talks to her husband, just brilliant.
A few things I had forgotten about P&P:
1) Elizabeth goes by Lizzy and Eliza too, I love that.
2) Kitty’s real name is Catherine
3) Mr. Collins is described as “tall, heavy-looking” and is only 25. Because of the movies I had begun to picture him as short.
4) The book says about Mrs. Bennet, “Eliza was the least dear to her of all her children,” – ouch, even if you don’t get along well with your mother, that’s still pretty harsh.
“There are few people whom I really love, and fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense.” – Elizabeth
Photos of Pride and Prejudice movies from here, here and here.