There’s much to be said on the subject of reading and timing.
It’s like magic when the right book manages to fall into your hands at the perfect time.
I toppled into the pages of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice like I would into an enormous armchair at the end of a hard day at work. And I stayed there, content and warm, until I’d turned the final page and there was nothing to do but, reluctantly, face the real world again.
After weeks on end of gloomy wordclouds that had subtly, yet relentlessly rained over my every thought, it was refreshing to read something completely different.
I am indebted to everyone who voted in my poll. Thanks to your advice, I spooned a little extra sugar into my time-travelling teacup, spent a little longer stirring in an anti-clockwise direction and – ZAP! I found myself in 1813.
This is not a book review. It’s a love story. But it wasn’t exactly love at first sight, because we all know that never happens.
Pride and Prejudice
Published in 1813
I couldn’t help but feel a little bemused as I read the first few chapters of Pride and Prejudice. Bemused…and perhaps a little horrified.
Essentially, Pride and Prejudice is a novel in which the lives of women revolve almost entirely around men. They wait for a man to glance in their direction. They flirt, scheme, gossip; they write letters and they go for walks. And…well, that’s about it. What irrelevant trash! I scoffed to myself.
But soon, I found myself smiling. Even laughing. As much as I thought I objected to this novel initially, within pages, its characters and plot and humour had drawn me in. There was nothing I could do but surrender.
There’s a particular scene that changed my mind about Pride and Prejudice. Towards the beginning, insane with jealousy, one of the Miss Bingleys leaps from her seat and starts literally parading herself in front of Mr. Darcy, hoping to attract his attention. First I laughed – then I cringed, as I remembered a time when I resorted to a similar technique.
(Not surprisingly, in 1993 as in 1813, it didn’t work)
Pride and Prejudice is nearly two centuries old – and yet, it’s still effective. Because, let’s face it – don’t you remember a time when that one, special person smiling in your direction meant pretty much everything? When something as uncomplicated as accidentally catching their eye was enough to send sparks of electricity through your brain?
Deny it, if you like; tell me I’m naive, but that’s what young love is like. Love is timeless; it transcends centuries. And Austen, nearly two hundred years ago, has managed to capture its innocent soul absolutely perfectly.
It’s no wonder Pride and Prejudice has become so engrained in popular culture. It’s been retold in so many different contexts. As a result, it’s likely that even if you haven’t ever read the book, you already know the story. But just in case…
By 1813 standards, the Bennet family are a little on the unconventional side. Mrs. Bennet dreams of little else but marrying off her five daughters to handsome, rich men, while her husband spends much of his time in his study, trying to avoid his wife and five daughters. Apart from Elizabeth – she’s his favourite, and our main character.
When the Bingley family move into an estate near the Bennets, Mrs. Bennet is quite eager for young Mr. Bingley to be introduced to the family. Bingley falls for Jane, the eldest of the Bennet sisters almost immediately.
Elizabeth, second eldest of the Bennet sisters, is far from impressed by Mr. Bingley’s friend, Mr. Darcy. When he’s not interested in dancing with her at a ball, Elizabeth is insulted. Her hatred for Mr. Darcy is intensified when she speaks to him and discovers he’s proud, opinionated and haughty, and it’s an opinion shared by everyone in Elizabeth’s little circle.
When Elizabeth meets Mr. Wickham, a military officer, she’s quite enchanted. There’s something about Mr. Wickham. He’s suave, charming – not to mention incredibly attractive. Elizabeth is convinced that Mr. Wickham’s looks mark him as a man of distinction and honesty. Unlike that beastly Mr. Darcy.
As Elizabeth is soon to learn, her opinions of both men are quite wrong.
I can understand my initial reaction to Pride and Prejudice; in particular, my feminist disgust at the way the lives of these women are controlled by men. But once you get into it, you realise that Pride and Prejudice is not a story about men. It’s a novel about women, written by a woman, and loved by women* for nearly two centuries now. Essentially, Pride and Prejudice is a female insight into a man’s world. Elizabeth is constantly battling the constraints of the male-driven society in which she lives. Although she’s powerless to inherit her own home, she’s not content to marry merely for the sake convenience. She’s not afraid to express her opinions. As far as I’m concerned, Elizabeth Bennet is a feminist. She pushes against the boundaries as much as she can.
Elizabeth refuses to marry someone she doesn’t love, but not all the novel’s characters share her strength. Pride and Prejudice isn’t all walks in the garden and dinner parties, after all. The novel is a warning against marrying for the wrong reasons: we’re told that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s marriage hasn’t been the happiest, and indeed, the pair have little in common. One of Elizabeth’s sisters is forced into the 1813 equivalent of a shotgun wedding. And Elizabeth’s best friend, Charlotte, marries the most insufferable prat she could find merely to avoid spending the rest of her life alone. This novel might be remembered for its romance, but there’s an intensely sad side to Pride and Prejudice that’s not so readily acknowledged.
I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice immensely. Yet there are a few quibbles I found with Austen’s writing that made reading this novel a little more difficult than necessary.
It took me a while to acclimatise myself to the way Austen writes dialogue. Often, I’d find myself having to track back to an earlier point of the conversation to find out who was speaking. And, annoyingly, there were times when Austen doesn’t tell us what the characters are saying at all – like, for instance, when (Highly unprofessional spoiler alert!) right at the novel’s climax, Elizabeth tells Mr. Darcy that she loves him! All we get is:
“Elizabeth feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand, that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances” (p.403)
It’s absolutely infuriating that we don’t get to hear exactly what Elizabeth says to Mr. Darcy…but, at the same time, totally delicious the way Austen leaves this pivotal moment, the very moment the novel has been leading up towards, to the reader’s imagination! After this scene, the novel goes a little downhill. Austen wraps up the rest of her plot a little too neatly for my liking. Her final chapter feels a little overindulgent.
Nonetheless, there’s much to enjoy about Pride and Prejudice. I’m not ashamed to admit it – I’m a fan. It’s warm, funny, endearing and, in spite of the novel’s 417 pages, it feels like a light read.
A lot might have changed since 1813, but there’s so much that remains the same. Women still like men in uniform. Little sisters can do silly things. It can be difficult to tell the Mr. Darcys of the world from the Mr. Wickhams. Parents will always be totally clueless.
And I think a love story, well told, will always be captivating.
* I was curious, and asked on Twitter if there were any guys who’d read and loved Pride and Prejudice, and I found quite a few! Interesting!
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
Yes. If you haven’t already. I feel as if I’m the only person alive who hasn’t read Pride and Prejudice. Read it. Take your time. It’s enjoyable.
In a word: