Pride and Prejudice – (Classically Lacking)

Author: Jane Austen

Initially published on 27 January 1813

I hate to assume what people think, but I shall, and I assume that to most who have not already read it, Pride and Prejudice is a stuffy corset of a romantic drama. It is not. It is about gender norms in 19th century society. It is about the supposed duty of marriage. It is about injustice, imbalance, and inequality. But how qualified am I to talk about that? All I want is to express that in 2019, Pride and Prejudice is worth turning back to, because it is still funny.

Austen draws us into Regency Era Britain, and into the lives of the Bennett family, mainly that of protagonist Elizabeth. The heads of the Bennett family are immediately at odds with each other. Mrs Bennett is a serious sort, determined to expand the wealth of the family through the educated marriage of her five daughters to suitable…suitors. Mr Bennett seems to find this routine ridiculous. He is sarcastic, and favours Elizabeth of his daughters the most, whereas her mother finds her the most frustrating, as she is the least easily plied upon unsuspecting gentleman for potential marriage. Indeed, when a gentleman known as Mr Collins visits the household with the specific intent of marrying Elizabeth (his cousin) he is quite resolutely rejected, and is forced to look for another option.

Which he finds.

Immediately. 

This is a frequent occurrence. Characters take a long time to eloquently display their desire for one thing, singing to the rafters the praises of another who they wish to befriend, marry, or welcome into the family, only to pivot immediately into a completely contrasting decision. It gives the book fantastic comic timing, and represents perfectly how marriage in this era worked. Love is second place, at best, to the practical benefits of matrimony, and as such the target of affections changes with those benefits. Elizabeth, as our heroine, finds this laughable, and distressing. Particularly when she eventually feels real love for the handsome, super-rich, but prideful, Mr Darcy, as there is a panic that her connections and familial wealth might render her unsuitable, despite reciprocated feelings.

Colin Firth as Mr Darcy in the 1995 BBC Mini Series.

There is a certain stuffiness in the dialogue, but of course there is. This is hardly a familiar world, but it doesn’t make it any less enjoyable to spend time in. The manner of speaking which the characters take with each other is finely measured, to the point of being almost inhuman. Austen has little time for set dressing. Character descriptions are brief or non-existent, and environmental details are largely ignored, as most of the word count is taken by dialogue, and the inner workings of Elizabeth’s intelligent, but tumultuous, mind. It does make it slightly difficult to get into. I can’t say the writing captivated me immediately, but with a slight effort to burn through the first fifty pages I found my groove and settled in nicely. Once I had got to grips with the manner of the book, I found it immensely enjoyable.

It is not perfect, no doubt. Those dialogue sequences can be very long, and I found myself losing track of certain characters who dip in and out of the plot, but once I found the trace again it often seemed that my befuddlement was of little consequence, if anything it seemed purposeful. Characters in Pride and Prejudice love to talk about other characters, and Austen is quite happy to let the natter flow without interruption. It certainly encourages a more methodical read, but I cannot say it ever put me off.

It is also fantastically quotable. Even when I set to taking pictures of my favourite lines instead of copying them by hand, it slowed my reading pace considerably, as I found that I was stopping every couple of pages to set up a shot.

Austen’s humour is subtle, and on occasion demands a second reading of certain lines.

‘The only pain was in leaving her father, who would certainly miss her, and who, when it came to the point, so little liked her going, that he told her to write to him, and almost promised to answer her letter.’

This line drips with the kind of sarcasm that characterises the entire book. It is demonstrable of its subtle humour, the simple insertion of the ‘almost’ turns a plain line into a comical one. It presents a trust in the reader to understand the sardonic tone, and the nature of the character of Mr Bennet whose ironic manner is well-established from the off.

Elizabeth herself provides a great deal of comedy in her observations of the world, and, gratefully, brings common sense to a flock of deranged would-be-nobles.

‘When Mr Collins could be forgotten, there really was a great air of comfort throughout, and by Charlotte’s evident enjoyment of it, Elizabeth supposed he must be often forgotten.’

Keira Knightley as Elizabeth in the 2005 movie adaptation directed by Joe Wright.

She displays the same bewilderment with the described world as Austen does, and as such appears as an authorly apparition in the conceited upper reaches of Hertfordshire, but she is not without flaws. She is judgemental and holds herself apart from others as if she holds some great wisdom that is beholden only to her, but that is why she makes such a charming heroine.

We are all guilty of looking out on the world and blowing air from our noses in disgust, only to go forth and make decisions that we live to regret, and that we can barely explain. It is easy to judge, and Austen in fact allows us to judge, encourages it even, but in Elizabeth we can see a word of warning, a snippet of seriousness amongst the sarcasm. Don’t be so quick to pass your verdict, it says. Elizabeth’s ill-conceived initial judgements of Mr Darcy and his rival Mr Wickham, inadvertently leads her family into scandal, and herself away from love. It is only once she recognises her faults that things fall back into place. In the beginning of my read I was also clouded by my preconceptions, and all I could see was the stuffy dining rooms and posh-bastard chatter, but by pushing through this, I found joy in a witty, charming, novel, and learned exactly why it has endured through the centuries.

Verdict: If you haven’t read it, and you care about reading (interesting that you’ve read this far if you’re not) then let me be the first person ever in the history of time and space to tell you that Pride and Prejudice is a worthy classic. It is my honour to present this under-rated gem to you, my three readers. Thank you. In all seriousness, this isn’t just a book to read because you feel like it is important to read, it is a genuine good time, and it is worth turning back on the tide of infinite content coming your way in 2019 to give it a go.

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