Honestly, it’s not that bad. It’s true, I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s fiction–and I would read more if she left us more. Pride & Prejudice is my favourite, so that I find I have blogged on it a number of times, including:
- Advice to my 13 Year Old Niece Madison on Reading Pride and Prejudice for the First Time (tips for young readers);
- Superior Equality in Love: A Thought from Pride and Prejudice (on how Austen plays with gender roles); and
- The Stories behind Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice (on intertextuality).
I find the 2005 Pride & Prejudice film with Keira Knightly both beautiful and compelling–though no adaptation can ever capture for me the skill, humour, depth, and beauty of the original text. Films can do many things, but they don’t capture poetry very well.
I love Austen’s writing, though I’m not as religiously devoted to her as Keri Russell in Austenland or some of the characters of the Jane Austen Book Club. A quick scan at those two Austen-fan films shows that being a guy who loves Austen makes me a singular gentleman indeed. I honestly can’t remember if I have ever met a male who is neither a teacher nor a writer who confesses that Pride & Prejudice is among their favourite books. No doubt these fair readers exist, but when it comes to estates, the guys in my world are far more interested in the TD Gardens in Boston or the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto than the fishpond at Pemberley or the forbidden rooms of Northanger Abbey.
So what is it that draws me into Austen’s worlds–so much so that I may have admitted off the record to my students that while I did not actually design an entire masters-level course to find a way to teach Pride & Prejudice, I would be willing to do so. I love this book.
For the sake of my students–not to mention my readers, who may be puzzled why writers like Jane Austen and L.M. Montgomery pop up so frequently in a blog about C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and speculative fiction–I thought I would try to explain why I love Pride & Prejudice.
I could go on an on in answer to this question (my students have discovered that I do indeed go on and on), but a short passage may help us out at this point. This passage is from the penultimate chapter, part of the long denouement that is entirely unnecessary to good novel writing and yet so appreciated by Austen fans. This passage occurs after Darcy and Elizabeth have admitted–begrudgingly, yet impossible to deny–that they have mutual love one for the other. After having survived the shock of explaining their love to her family, Elizabeth wants to know how Darcy could possibly fall in love with her when she was so obstinate, resistant, sardonic, occasionally determined to be belligerent–and when, classically, Darcy had on the night of their first meeting suggested that Elizabeth was merely “tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.” Here is the exchange:
Elizabeth’s spirits soon rising to playfulness again, she wanted Mr. Darcy to account for his having ever fallen in love with her. “How could you begin?” said she. “I can comprehend your going on charmingly, when you had once made a beginning; but what could set you off in the first place?”
“I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”
“My beauty you had early withstood, and as for my manners—my behaviour to you was at least always bordering on the uncivil, and I never spoke to you without rather wishing to give you pain than not. Now be sincere; did you admire me for my impertinence?”
“For the liveliness of your mind, I did.”
“You may as well call it impertinence at once. It was very little less. The fact is, that you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking, and looking, and thinking for your approbation alone. I roused, and interested you, because I was so unlike them. Had you not been really amiable, you would have hated me for it; but in spite of the pains you took to disguise yourself, your feelings were always noble and just; and in your heart, you thoroughly despised the persons who so assiduously courted you. There—I have saved you the trouble of accounting for it; and really, all things considered, I begin to think it perfectly reasonable. To be sure, you knew no actual good of me—but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love.”
This passage captures a number of things I love about the book:
No doubt there are greater beauties in the text, but like Darcy, I am most deeply attracted to Lizzie’s “liveliness of mind.” Her impertinence is no doubt a large part of that liveliness, but not the whole. Eliza does resist the patterns of vacant women like Miss Bingley, who use the vanity of men to secure their power. And in doing so, she shines as an individual personality. Intellectually speaking, Elizabeth is unmatched in her rather large household, except perhaps by her father. Wit, in all the senses, is always on her tongue. And when she sees that she has been wrong or been wronged, she is able to mortify her shame and fortify herself to virtue.
Elizabeth Bennett is one of the great characters of literary history.
We can only see the strength of character in Darcy and Lizzie here, but in shadow form, we can see the “foil” that is Miss Bingley, who is always “speaking, and looking, and thinking for [Darcy’s] approbation alone.” If Austen could only draw foils, however, we would be unsatisfied. We see a great variety of insipid and “silly” women, including Mrs. Bennett, Kitty, and especially Lydia. These characters certainly stand in contrast to sensible and reasonable women, like Jane, Elizabeth, Charlotte, and perhaps Georgiana. Yet, this is part of the problem. In the end, Jane is no judge of character, Elizabeth has allowed her stubbornness and pride to nearly shipwreck her happiness, and Charlotte has married Mr. Collins. While we can instantly spot the insensible and silly girls, tempered emotion and reasonable action are hard for everyone.
But in case we think silliness is only a female vice and temptation, there is Mr. Collins. What a marvellous character this vacant, verbose, supercilious preacher is. I would die happy knowing I had created someone as daft and entertaining as Rev. Collins.
This passage is not the height of Austen’s prose, but a great example of what is relatively plain and straightforward prose where the poetry rests upon a lightness of atmosphere, a firmness of intent, and humour all the way through. There are many big words in the text–I had to look up supercilious–but these words bring energy to the text rather than take the story away from the reader. But this passage shows how the narrative is always reshaping the characters. “You loved me because I am saucy and resistant,” Eliza challenges Darcy. “I loved you for your liveliness of mind,” he answers. And they are both right. It is the kind of complexity and simplicity bound up together in this opening sentences of the novel–really one of the great first lines of history:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
The wordplay in this passage alone is enough to fill the exegetical portion of at least three of Fordyce’s Sermons.
4. Jane Austen extolls virtue while resisting aspects of culture
Finally, I want to briefly note the intriguing mix that Pride & Prejudice is to us. It has its roots in manners books, where the tale is meant to shape young people toward virtue. Virtue is commended throughout, so that humility, curiosity, and intelligence are valued over pride, rigidity, and rashness. Yet, Austen also challenges much that is common wisdom. The word “reason” is used hundreds of time in the text, and yet so is the word “feeling.” Rashness is problematic, but hesitancy can be deadly. Curiosity and a smile are necessary for heroic liveliness, and yet there is an in-built sensitivity to family shame and status. And though that status and station are maintained, love challenges, transcends, and rebuilds the importance of name, status, material wealth, and connections.
Beyond all the elegance of character and prose–beyond even Eliza’s liveliness of mind and spirit–I love Austen’s ability to read culture, speak to the cultural moment, and offer something of depth beyond it.
These, then, are my reasons. I thought I would share them with you systematically, before I am run away with my feelings. And now, nothing remains for me but to assure you all in the most animated language of the violence of my affection for Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.