Pride and Prejudice

Monday, August 22, 2011

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.”

(1995 BBC miniseries)

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.

(2005 movie)

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.

(1940 movie)

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.


*ೃ༄ Jillian said...

I think I will love this book more, the more I read it. I agree totally about Charlotte. So many women must have had to do that. Still, Collins? Yuk! I always picture him as fat and sweaty. I don't know why. I have only seen one movie of this book, and I barely remember it. So I guess I added the bulk and sweat myself. I'd forgotten until my second P&P read that Collins is young.

Jason C. said...

Cool, I'm reading this book right now actually. I'll be sure to read your review more thoroughly after finishing. :)

Ellen said...

I'm not sure if it's the sign of a good book or a good review (maybe both?), but this makes me want to reread P&P this second. I can't believe no one else in your group had read Austen...until 4 or 5 years ago I didn't like her writing, having read maybe one or two of her books...but I came around, and she's such a cultural touchstone that I sometimes forget not everyone has read all of her books, or any of them.

I noticed a lot of the things you write about while rereading P&P last time. The things I've forgotten from watching the adaptations too many times, especially that part when Lizzy thinks Darcy doesn't like her now that she likes him, and I felt more able to understand Charlotte's decision too. When I watch the film I always feel...I don't know, sad, disgusted, by her marriage, but as you write she made what was (for her) a wise decision, given her age and prospects and financial situation. Ditto on Mr Bennett - I like him so much that it is heartbreaking when Lizzy (and we) begins to see him for what he really is, which is a man who often doesn't take other people as seriously as they deserve.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I love this book (LOVED the audio). Jane is funny as hell. Lizzy's father, and her damned little sister! OMG. So entertaining. I mean the book has to be something special if there can be 300 spin-off books. (That BBC version rocks my world.)

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Jillian - I pictured him as fat and sweaty too!

Jason C. - I can't wait to hear what you think of it!

Ellen - It seems so strange to me when I meet someone who has never read anything by Austen.

Sandy - People who haven't read her don't realize how hilarious she really is.

LindyLouMac said...

I am surprised that none of your Book Club buddies had read any Jane Austen, you do not tell though what they though of P and P?

Katrina said...

I'm amazed that your book group hadn't read it before. I remember that I was completely on Mr Bennett's side at first and then you gradually realise that he's anything but wise - which is how he ended up being married to Mrs B!

BookQuoter said...

Impressive dissection of a great book!!

Jenny said...

Mr. Bennett is such a jerk. I know he's fun to read about, but yeah, every time I reread this book I'm mad at him for not being a better father. At least a better father! It would be very difficult to be a good husband to dreadful Mrs. Bennett.

Mumsy said...

The British Library has an original manuscript of Jane's tongue-in-cheek History of the World, written at age 15, no doubt to make her sisters laugh. It is hilarious, and it brings that wicked 15-year-old vividly to life.

You don't say a lot about the adaptations (there are so many, it would have made this post MILES long), but my personal favorite Lizzy was Keira Knightley. Knightley really brought out Lizzy's charm, which is a very different quality from her undoubted wit. All the other films seem to think it's enough for Elizabeth to shoot off a few good one-liners, but they don't seem able to display the charisma, the endearing quality that Elizabeth MUST have had to win over a man as proud AND prejudiced as Darcy. Keira Knightly was just enchanting.

Jeanne said...

I agree with Mumsy about Kiera (I always agree with Mumsy it seems). Also, Bride and Prejudice, the Bollywood movie, has a hilarious Mr. Collins.

I think Mr. Bennett is a better match for his wife than some people suspect. He's silly and doesn't pay attention, buried in his books and his own interests. He's her opposite--she's buried in other peoples' business. But we forgive him his foibles because of the incredibly good line he gets about never forgiving Lizzie if she DOES marry Mr. Collins!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

LindyLouMac - They all thought it was slow at the start, but really rewarding by the end. We had a great discussion about social norms at that time and how focused they had to be on getting husbands.

Katrina - I know! He made such a horrible, superficial decision when he picked a wife.

BookQuoter - Thanks!

Jenny - Yes, it's the bad father thing that really gets me. He doesn't even pay attention to what his daughters are doing.

Mumsy - Oh the movies! The '95 adaptation is my favorite, because it's the first one I saw and it sticks so close to the book. I did love the Kiera Knightly one too though. I was living in London when it came out and saw it there. Then I saw it when I moved back to the states and realized it had a different ending here! In the US, they add a scene to the end where they are already married. I thought that was funny.

Jeanne - I'll have to check the Bollywood movie out. Mr. Bennet really does have the best lines.

Christopher said...

Melissa, you've given us a wonderful and very well-written review! I love P&P for its 'laugh-out-loud' humor. It is always the Austen novel that I give newbies as the introduction to her writing. I try and reread P&P on an almost annual basis, and not only do I enjoy it more with each reread, but I tend to discover something new.

I would also agree with you that Persuasion is my favorite Austen, and I think Emma may be her most perfectly crafted novel. Have a great day, and keep up the great work on your blog! Cheers! Chris

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Christopher - I agree, it's the perfect intro to Austen. This was my first re-read, but I think it's going to have to become a regular thing.

Christopher said...

Just as an aside, later in October, my wife and I are going up to Sacramento to watch my high school-aged nephew perform in a stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. LOL! He is playing 'Mr Collins'. I loaned him my DVD of the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle film adaptation, and apparently he watched it non-stop for weeks as he prepped for the play. I think it will be great fun to see how the kids do with this! Cheers! Chris

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Christopher - That will be so much fun to see! I saw a professional performance of the play once and it was wonderful.