Advice to my 13 Year Old Niece Madison on Reading “Pride and Prejudice” for the First Time

austen pride-and-prejudice1946Dear Madison,

Since you are going to be reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time, I was hoping to read it with you so that we could talk about interesting or difficult parts. You, however, are a very quick reader, able to gobble up books in greedy bites. I am old and slow, with weary eyes scarcely able to pass across the dull print on the page.

This presents a problem. You can either:

  1. Read very slowly, like you are a turtle racing toward a piece of cabbage three inches away; or
  2. Let me get started ahead of you.

Let’s do #2.

pride_prejudice_allen_thomson_coverSo I have begun, and I am a couple of chapters in. Even though you have awesome parents and a good education and a very excellent uncle, you will still find Jane Austen’s brilliant Pride and Prejudice to be difficult at parts. So I thought that there were some things you should know (in no particular order).

  1. The hero is Lizzie, also called Liz, Elizabeth, Miss Elizabeth, Eliza, Miss Eliza, the Bennett’s second oldest daughter, Miss Bennett, and, occasionally, Hey, Girl. They had a lot of names back then. Or maybe it’s that Jane Austen is trying to show us that Lizzie’s character is hard to pin down.
  2. It is a funny book, but you won’t get all the jokes. That’s okay. Nobody ever gets my jokes anyway (see below for a funny Jane Austen example).
  3. Mr. Bennett’s chief joy is teasing is poor, silly wife. Watch for that. If you take him seriously the whole book will be just plain weird.
  4. Mrs. Bennett is often “nervous.” This isn’t just nervous like before a date, or at the dentist’s office when there is someone screaming in the next room. This is a “nervous disorder,” like anxiety attacks. The question is, does she really have problems with her nerves as she thinks? We will see!
  5. Penquin Pride and PrejudiceBack then, women couldn’t always own property. So when Mr. Bennett dies, according to his estate’s rules, everyone will become poor. It sucks, I know. Now women can own property and keep their own money. Unfortunately, we are all much poorer than the Bennetts.
  6. Even thought the Bennetts are wealthy, Darcy and Charles Bingley are SUPER wealthy. They are in a different class.
  7. Darcy is an even higher, royal class. So he can marry or be friends with the SUPER wealthy (like Bingley or his sister). But he can’t marry Lizzy.
  8. Lizzy can marry whoever she likes, but she never likes anyone!
  9. You will encounter some words you don’t know, like “Supercilious.” I just assumed it meant “super silly.” That’s worked so far, but I decided to look it up:

behaving or looking as though one thinks one is superior to others.
example: “a supercilious lady’s maid”

So, I was wrong. But I like “super silly” better. I would encourage you, if you come to a word you don’t know, just to make it up.

pride and prejudice Keira Knightley reading a book10. One of the great jokes of the book comes in the first few chapters when Jane is ill at the Bingley mansion, and Lizzie is there to help her become well. In the evening she goes to the sitting room where people talk, play games, write letters, read, and drink tea or wine. In this scene (I put the video below), there is a discussion of what an “accomplished” woman is like. She is a kind of superstar, the “accomplished” woman.

Yet, yet, is Jane Austen “accomplished” in a way that people would admire? She would not be considered so. Like Lizzie she does not fit expectations well. Jane Austen wrote in the sitting room, but would hide her novels when the servants came in.

11. Look at the first sentence of the novel:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Is this true? Did Jane Austen think it was true? Did Darcy or Lizzy or Mrs. Bennett think it was true? And does it turn out to be true? That’s the great mind-blowing, super wonderful, definitely not supercilious question for this great book.

I hope you enjoy. I’m racing off to read more to try to stay ahead of you.

Uncle B

An Example of Something Funny in Pride and Prejudice

“Would not conversation be much more rational than dancing?” said Jane Austen’s Miss Bingley. ‘Much more rational,’ replied Mr Bingley, ‘but much less like a ball.'”

Hard to disagree!

What was Jane Austen’s World Like?

C.S. Lewis said that it was quite different:

Between Jane Austen and us, but not between her and Shakespeare, Chaucer, Alfred, Virgil, Homer, or the Pharaohs, comes the birth of the machines” (“A Note on Jane Austen”).

Are we Childish (Arrested Development) If We Like Kids Books?

They accuse us of arrested development because we have not lost a taste we had in childhood. But surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things? I now like hock, which I am sure I should not have liked as a child. But I still like lemon-squash. I call this growth or development because I have been enriched: where I formerly had only one pleasure, I now have two.

But if I had to lose the taste for lemon-squash before I acquired the taste for hock, that would not be growth but simple change. I now enjoy Tolstoy and Jane Austen and Trollope as well as fairy tales and I call that growth: if I had had to lose the fairy tales in order to acquire the novelists, I would not say that I had grown but only that I had changed. A tree grows because it adds rings: a train doesn’t grow by leaving one station behind and puffing on to the next. In reality, the case is stronger and more complicated than this. I think my growth is just as apparent when I now read the fairy tales as when I read the novelists, for I now enjoy the fairy tales better than I did in childhood: being now able to put more in, of course I get more out (“3 Ways of Writing For Children“).

Oh… and #12: Dear Madison, see Jubilare’s great comment below. She is a trustworthy digital friend–even though I prefer the Keira Knightley version to the one she linked. One of the great treats in finishing the book is look at those two great films. And when you do so, you will be the expert.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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39 Responses to Advice to my 13 Year Old Niece Madison on Reading “Pride and Prejudice” for the First Time

  1. jubilare says:

    “Back then, women couldn’t own property.” This… is incorrect, and more importantly, might confuse your niece. After all, Lady Catherine owns property. 😉 Sometimes, though, the head of a family would, when he died, pass property on to a son on the condition that it could never be passed on to a woman. That’s what happened in the case of the Bennett estate.

    “royal class” Well, he’s gentry with connections to the nobility. Not that that detail is important, I’m just nitpicky. 😉 Also, he can, technically, marry below his station, it’s just socially frowned upon (and downright glowered upon by some). Lizzie and he are technically the same social class, but he’s at the top of it, and she’s at the bottom.

    If she can sit through it, or watch it in sections, this is, by far, the best film adaptation out there: The characters are spot-on, and the humor and wit are perfect.

    I was not so impressed with the Keira Knightley version, but then, I might be prejudiced. 😉 It mostly ignores the wit and satire in favor of the romance (a pet-peeve of mine, when it comes to Jane Austen adaptations and fandom), and softens characters to make them… I dunno… more palatable to modern audiences? In any case, seeing the different ratings of the two films on IMDB made me smile and nod.

    Ok, now I am done being nitpicky and annoying. All I have to say now is, huzzah for a first foray into the mind of Austen! 😀
    Fantastic words from Lewis, too. I heartily agree!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Dear Jubilare, I sit here at my desk corrected! Your brilliant response has now made you a permanent part of the post. In my oversimplification, I have erred.
      But, Keira Knightley … I mean. That’s awesome.

      Liked by 1 person

      • jubilare says:

        I’m trustworthy! That makes me happy, though “brilliant” might be going too far. Obsessive? Yes. Raised on British Literature? …and how! ^_^

        Hey, I said nothing against the casting. 😉 Also, it’s visually beautiful. What bothers me is the writing.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. WriteFitz says:

    Gee, wish I would’ve had such a well-read uncle in my life! Keep us posted on how Madison enjoys the book 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    If you will excuse a tangential oar… I don’t (of course – and needn’t, of course) know what Madison’s reading tastes, experiences, and responsibilities (‘ home-work-wise’) are, but when I was about her age, a friend met with a copy of Pope’s Essay on Man, second-hand, at a church rummage/jumble sale, and we got quite keen on Pope… I’m fuzzier on which other earlier and later eighteenth-century writers that led to, how quickly (of Jonathan Swift, John Gay, and Johnson and Boswell), but the same year we got assigned Pride and Prejudice at school at around age 15, we also got assigned Goldsmith’s play, She Stoops to Conquer, and Sheridan’s The Rivals, and my experience was, going back and forth between Jane Austen and eighteenth-century (humorous) writers made sense and was very enjoyable. (And, something similar might be said about going on to The Pickwick Papers from Jane Austen, and, again, back to Fanny Burney, both of which I only happened to do later…)


    • I had the good fortune to be introduced to great writers without being told that they would be “good for me” and was delighted by the story rather than ideas. I went to see Tom Courtney in “She Stoops to Conquer” and laughed out loud many times. I still think that pleasure is the best way into any writing. I am impressed that you found that in Pope’s Essay on Man.

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I saw a wonderful television production of She Stoops to Conquer (I’m not sure quite when) which was very funny in all sorts of ways (from a semi-literate Tony Lumpkin on up) – I wonder if it was the 1971 BBC one with Tom Courtney?

        For better or worse (probably somewhere in between), we were certainly reading The Essay of Man for its “ideas” as well as delight in its expression. Tangentially, I can recommend my old friend, Clive Tolley’s, paper, ‘Tolkien’s „Essay on Man“: A look at Mythopoeia’ from a centenary conference, in Inklings-Jahrbuch 10 (1992), pp. 221-239, to anyone who has a library with that in it, within reach (it used to be possible to order back copies after a fashion, but I just ran into a sort of blank wall at the Inklings Gesellschaft site).

        With “On Fairy Stories” in mind, I suppose its a question whether it is better to read something first – even a play – before seeing a production or adaptation, or to see something first that will leave you wanting to go on and read it…

        If people can be encouraged to try something, reading or watching, because they might enjoy it, I think many will find they enjoy a great variety of things they might have shied away from as “good for you” or “classic”. (They may also end up grumping about things in the way Tolkien sometimes does, of course, but will have given them a fair try, first, anyway.)

        Liked by 1 person

        • I claim no authority at all for saying this but it seems to me that if something was written for the purpose of being seen, i.e a play or a film or TV script, then to begin with seeing is entirely appropriate. With my own children I made it a rule that they could not see a film until they had read the book. I think that worked pretty well and they are both avid readers. My apologies to Neil Gaiman, though. We knew the film of his Stardust so well that when we finally found the book my younger daughter’s response was that she preferred the film! Perhaps that shows that a first encounter with a story is likely to be determinative whether it be through reading or watching. Perhaps someone else might wish to comment on what it means if one’s first encounter with a story is by acting it.


          • We also have a household rule of reading first. Sometimes films are just superbly done, like “Bridge to Terabithia,” “The Hours,” “Inception,” “The Princess Bride.”
            But with reading, we never try to make it a “eat your broccoli” sort of moment. We are far more evil. First we brainwash our son (and extended nieces and nephews and friends) so that they like broccoli and beg for it like a treat. We try to do that with books too.


      • Well, I had NOTHING assigned to me growing up.
        Not true, but as I struggle now to catch up on reading I missed, I’m overwhelmed by the haphazard history of literature in my skull.
        My wife and I gave our niece a 6 volume 19th-century women writer’s collection. She really wanted to start with Pride & Prejudice, though I wonder if “Little Women” or even the early 20th c. “Anne of Green Gables” might be better. I don’t know the Brontes well.
        But certainly P&P is my favourite. I didn’t read it until 5 years ago after watching “The Jane Austen Book Club” on film.
        Now I’m in a pattern of reading older books and essays. The essays are as often or not really hard. But what amazes me is that the books are not hard. Sometimes long. Sometimes it takes a bit to get the poetry or archaic language (register) into my skull. But once I’m in, I’m away. The easiness of Milton was my great surprise in 2013-14.
        I’ll have to add Pope. I know about him from “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” film, if it’s the same Pope.


        • jubilare says:

          This reminds me of a Lewis quote! “The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism.”

          The literary “canon” exists because the books in it have proved enjoyable or powerful or both to multiple generations despite the differences between those generations. You’re right that the language, and sometimes the nuances of an unfamiliar culture, can be barriers, but if one manages to break through those barriers, thar be treasure!

          It always makes me very sad when I talk to someone and find that they had Shakespeare stuffed down their throat… they don’t understand or like the language, they think him “stuffy” or “pretentious” because he was presented to them as this high and mighty master of English Lit. …the man was an entertainer… He was writing what were, in his day, movies. Drama, action, comedic situations and wordplay… when I see that dawn on someone, when I see the barrier break down (usually while watching a good performance of a play, Willie’s work is made to be seen and heard, not read) it’s like a whole new world opens up. This makes me think that a lot of Literature education goes about the process all wrong. No one should ever be bored in lit class.


  4. jubilare says:

    My mom also had a “read first” rule for us, for the most part, but she would hold “movie nights” for her lit students (of which my bro and I were two) where we would watch the best adaptations of whatever we were reading, eat treats, and have a good ole time. I love the fact that we would always watch Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead are dead back to back.

    Watching a film first tends to populate a book with images from the film, rather than those images being supplied by my imagination. And yet, I can imagine situations where a film might be a good introduction to a book. I’ve even known people who liked to have ready-made images in their heads before they started reading (to each their own, but why is a mystery to me). One would have to make sure, though, that the film is close enough to the book not to create false expectations. Hmm. My mother, realizing that I had some learning disability that made reading thick text difficult (at least, she knew I had A.D.D., we didn’t figure out the dyslexia issue until much later) let me listen to an unabridged audio-book of Moby Dick… it’s a good thing, too. I don’t think I would have made it through, otherwise.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      To extrapolate from what you said, above – “Willie’s work is made to be seen and heard” – almost nobody (except the people putting it on, at the Globe or wherever) would have been in a position to read any of it, in the first place; and those of us who enjoy reading, or being read to, aloud, are in a similar situation every time it’s something new to ‘the listener’; so ‘performance’ of one sort or another must be a lot of people’s first experience of a lot of works, down the ages – which is still distinct from adaptations, from ‘modern’ possibilities (since Tennyson and Browning, for example) of ‘recording’ (and so ‘fixing’ a performance like a bee in amber), and the combination of the two.

      Which is not puristically to hammer on ‘read first’, but is interesting to think about, also (as in “On Fairy Stories”) as to how one’s imagination can be affected.


      • jubilare says:

        I think “read first” applies to those things that are meant to be read more than to things like plays. Whatever medium is most natural to the work is a good starting place. 🙂


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Yes, though I even like reading plays first, before I see how people will perform them (however, when I was in a production of Merry Wives of Windsor, I didn’t see much to it – until the director and other actors got to work and it came alive! (I love the 1982 BBC production, too) ). Play-reading groups are great fun, as well.

          When I was taking a Milton course as an undergraduate, I went down to the dorm lobby to try reading Paradise Lost out loud, without bothering my roomie (and get through it at the assigned pace) – a friend heard me in the distance and thought a street-preacher had gotten into the dorm…

          Liked by 1 person

          • jubilare says:

            LOL! That’s hilarious. ^_^
            I read out loud when I am REALLY having trouble comprehending something, but that usually only happens when I am dealing with dry textbooks. Otherwise, I just read very slowly.


  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    By the way, as a fan, I just learned about a complementary undertaking, – what a lot of delightful ‘first acquaintance makings’ (such as, scads of Anthony Trollope, after having seen and loved the BBC Chronicles of Barchester before I had ever read a word of his) the former has given me (and mine), and now I see an unfamiliar Buchan novel read by the delightful Andy Minter at the latter…


    • jubilare says:

      Ach, I love LibriVox! But I had not heard about!


    • I was just on Legamus and didn’t see Trollope but stole some other cool things.
      I am a big fan of audiobooks and especially iTunesU–where I get audio lectures.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        O, those Charles-Williams-style sentences… I was trying to say that the Trollope was at LibriVox – Ayala’s Angel (which I had never heard of, before) was our first, and I love ‘tabithat’ as reader! (Her Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper is splendid, as well! – I ought to listen to more of her…) I might mention how good Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans as read by Nicholas Clifford is, too!

        You mention L.M. Alcott and L.M. Montgomery above – I did not catch up with them until I was grown up (famous though they are) – I think given the nudge by good dramatizations in both cases (certainly the Megan Follows Anne, anyway!). I suppose the Anne books would be easier than Austen, and perhaps Little Women, too, though taking the three in chronological order might be interesting… You also mention the Brontes – we had Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in school, and I enjoyed them both (though I never cease to find Catherine and Heathcliff pretty infuriating characters…). (I was fascinated when I read Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea years later, though I have never tried Jane Eyre and it back-to-back, yet: probably not the ideal undertaking at 13, though.) Speaking of Brontes, another book I came to by way of BBC adaptation – also at 15 – was Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons. (I am still somehow surprised to find her among the contributors to Light on C.S. Lewis! I got a copy of her novel, and of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, when we visited Toronto in 1972…) I just ran into Lewis contrasting Tolkien’s Middle-Earth with the Brontes’ Angria, again, rereading his Fellowship of the Ring review – I’ve never caught up with the latter, and LibriVox doesn’t have Legends of Angria (1933) – perhaps it is still in copyright…


        • I wonder if there are more places like Librivox but play on Canadian or Austrialian copyright rather than American.
          Bronte-Tolkien. Not a comparison I’ve heard!
          I missed getting all of this growing up. But we got a lot more Canadian literature than no one else would get!


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Yes, I wonder, too – the US Gutenberg has (or had) audiobooks other than LibriVox in its catalogue, as well, but – what wonderful, unknown (free!) things might be out there?

            “Canadian literature”. Learning Dutch better than any other ‘second language’, and (largely) starting like a child with children’s books (not exclusively, but lots), has made me realize that every tongue and land must have all sorts of delightful, ‘internally’ familiar things, quite unknown (except to scholars) across even the nearest borders (and even in accessible languages).

            Speaking of which, you might try Minnie by Annie M.G. Schmidt (if you can find it easily) – one of the few of her things translated into English – a delightful comical fantasy.


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