Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen (1813)
Having seen at least three different adaptations of this work, I tried some time ago to actually read the book and just couldn’t get into it. But after seeing a copy in a charity shop for 25p I decided to take it as a sign and give it another go. While I wouldn’t call this a favourite book, and I’m in no hurry at all to re-read it, the plot itself is as good as ever, and it was very satisfying to get the complete story. For those very few who don’t know, it is the story of Elizabeth Bennett, a quick-witted but judgemental woman, and Fitzwilliam Darcy, an honourable but aloof man, and how the two are brought together after a relationship that began antagonistically. Set in the late eighteenth century, the book was originally entitled First Impressions and, as well as being a satire of middle-class society at the time, highlights the importance of not judging by appearances.
I’ll be the first to admit, this isn’t the sort of book I’d normally pick up and it wasn’t something I flew through, but I did enjoy it all the same. I think it’s very important to remember, throughout this, that the author is taking the p***. All the ridiculous behaviour is a deliberate lampooning of this society and should be viewed as something comedic, not something serious (a mistake I made the first time I tried to read it).
I’ll get the cons out of the way first. One: I found the blanks really annoying. Whenever the militia regiment is mentioned it is referred to as the _shire, and seeing that takes me right out of the story. Looking it up, this was apparently a common thing for authors to do to avoid annoying someone by saying that, for example, the South Essex regiment was in such and such a town when they were actually off fighting the French or something (and also to avoid offence in case it was believed that Wickham, for example, was based on a real person from that regiment). But I have to say it would be so much easier just to make up a false name for that regiment (the way Austen did with places like Meryton). It would be a lot less jarring to read.
Two: Yes, I do know that it’s deliberate, but the overblown language can get old very fast. I appreciated that the dialogue is limited by social convention and that, to an extent, the whole book has to be. But surely nobody’s inner monologue is that long-winded and pretentious? A reaction that could be summed up in a paragraph is instead done as pages of massive, five-line sentences, all written as if the character is declaiming it to an audience.
On to the pros. Once you realise this is sarcastic, you can definitely appreciate the humour, you just have to remember that! Every time I got frustrated with Mrs Bennett or Lady Catherine or Mr Collins, I reminded myself that these people are parodies and are supposed to be like that. Initially I wrote this bit as a con but the anger the reader feels at Mrs Bennett in particular is of course entirely deliberate. Mrs B reminded me of Dolores Umbridge: The two are really nothing alike but the feeling I had when reading was very similar; they’re both people who are deliberately written as being unbelievably frustrating due to their (in at least one case, deliberate) ignorance, but without actually being ‘villains’.
At the same time, there are also characters for whom I felt genuine sympathy – not least of whom was Mr Bennett. Though it’s a prison of his own making, I feel so sorry for him that he’s trapped in a marriage that seemed like a good idea at the time but that he’s now ‘repenting at leisure’. In many ways his behaviour is no better than his wife’s, in the neglectful way that he treats both her and (to a lesser extent) his children, but still I feel for him. I got the feeling that he knows he’s doing wrong but that treating his wife as a joke is the only solace he can find in the situation (Basil Fawlty anyone?).
Good moments? There were a few here and there, but few can match the sheer satisfaction of Lizzie’s final meeting with Lady Catherine. If anybody can be described as ‘laying the smackdown’ on someone in P&P, then it’s Lizzie here – beautiful dialogue that I only wish we’d seen more of, but then I suppose that would make this scene less special!
Predictably I love Darcy – always have, always will. He feels like the living embodiment of a man refusing to bow to what society wants him to be – he doesn’t dance if he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t pander to what strangers think of him, and if he has nothing to say he says nothing, rather than ‘rattle away like other young men’. He only makes an effort to change his outward persona when he realises that he’s causing real offence, which was never his intent. Classic example of a strong and silent man with a heart of gold.
As for Lizzie, I liked her for her attitude, but nothing like as much as I liked him. She’d good-hearted, quick-witted, and equally reluctant to compromise herself for society’s expectations, I just think he pulls it off better!
All in all this wasn’t particularly my thing but still a good book and well worth reading.