Saturday, May 17, 2008

Pride and Prejudice - 50 Greatest Books

Pride and Prejudice - by Jane Austen

I'm posting the entire article today because this book is probably the most famous and well know of all Jane Austen's books.

The 18th-century novel was a baggy, sententious affair before Jane Austen gave it bones. Pride and Prejudice has a classic three-part structure, one that modern readers respond to effortlessly. In certain other respects, the novel is more typical of its time. Reading it after watching the 2005 film starring Keira Knightley (a lively version that puts the livestock into the phrase "gentleman farmer"), you're struck by Austen's lack of sensory detail. Dialogue was her medium, and all she needed. The vividness and complexity of the characters, as revealed through conversation alone, is electrifying. Pride and Prejudice makes you believe in the reality of the past, to the extent that you doubted it.

We tend to say that Jane Austen wrote about lives lived in drawing rooms because that's all she knew. And yet (as Carol Shields points out in her gem of a study for the Penguin Lives series), Austen's family offered all sorts of other material: two brothers fighting in the Napoleonic wars, an aunt thrown into prison for stealing a piece of lace from a shop, a cousin's husband guillotined in the French Revolution, a sister's fiancé dying of yellow fever in India. Austen shoved all of this to the side, along with bereavement, religion, servants and children (though as a maiden aunt, she spent years as nursemaid).

Instead, for that "little bit of ivory (two inches wide) on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces so little effect after so much labour," Austen separated out the most poignant strand of her experience - the fact that a woman's station in the world, her independence, her very survival, depended on the uncertain and often demeaning enterprise of attracting a man who could accept the size of her dowry.

There are a lot of smart, self-reliant young women out there who are passionate about Pride and Prejudice. This is partly due to Jennifer Ehle, who played Elizabeth Bennet (in the 1995 BBC miniseries) with an irresistible combination of serenity and mirth, in spite of the dreadful armpit-waisted muslin gowns she was forced to wear. Why does this novel resonate so powerfully with women who have so many other options in life?

I blame Pride and Prejudice for the fact that the hero of every romance novel is rotten to the heroine the first time he meets her. In my heart, I also blame it for our persistent and anachronistic tendency to regard a man as an embodiment of personal destiny. Well, not Pride and Prejudice alone. But we carry stories around in our bones, and among novels about the sexes, it's the best there is: Elizabeth snagging Mr. Darcy is romantic heroin for the discriminating reader.

Maybe I'm wrong. There are lots of reasons to love Pride and Prejudice, reasons that have nothing to do with romantic identification: Austen's swift and exact insights into character, her lack of sentimentality, her delicious satire, her fluid, intelligent sentences.

And Elizabeth Bennet is a terrific heroine for any age. Witty, spirited and outspoken, she risks everything in being adamantly who she is. At first, she's too rash in acting by her own lights, but in the end, her fidelity to herself is fabulously vindicated. Mr. Darcy's wealth is both beside the point and to the point: He values Elizabeth for her intelligence and unconventional spirit, which is all we require - but this is payback time.

I did ask a 28-year-old friend about her love for Pride and Prejudice, and most of her appreciative comments came back to its language. The attraction between Elizabeth and Darcy is a talky, civilized, celebration of minds: witticisms over the pianoforte, painful disclosures alone in the drawing room, letters deconstructed strand by strand. By the time they plight their troth, the two have gone some distance down the relationship road. Not so much in learning to know each other as in learning to see their own imperfect selves in the mirror of their interaction. How much more interesting their life together promises to be than the lives of lovers in those turgid 19th-century novels, where passion and mystery (i.e. sex) rise like mist off the moors. At 21, astonishingly, Jane Austen knew that talk is the enduring heart of a marriage.

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