Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
When I was a wee lass, I remember there was a much abused paperback of Pride and Prejudice in the back of my parents’ car. I tried reading it once, but I think it was about the age I discovered I can’t really read in cars. I’ve somehow managed to get to eighteen without reading it, so I decided to correct that shameful omission.
For those of you who don’t know, Pride and Prejudice follows the fortunes of the Bennet family, particularly the love lives of the eldest of their five daughters, Elizabeth and Jane. When ridiculously eligible bachelor Mr. Bingley moves into their quiet neighborhood, every eligible girl in town is excited. Every girl, that is, except Elizabeth, who has crossed paths with the proudest and most arrogant man she’s ever met–Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley’s mysterious friend. Thus starts one of literature’s most beloved romances.
Elizabeth, of course, is a brilliant creation–witty, dry, rational, and realistic, she’s very easy to identify with. Indeed, all of Austen’s characters in Pride and Prejudice are cleverly and realistically done. Even Lady Catherine, the closest thing to an actual antagonist the novel has, is simply throwing her weight around, and tries to run Darcy’s life, not ruin Elizabeth’s. While it took me a while to get a sense of all the sisters (I thought Catherine and Kitty might have been two different people after accidentally skipping over Mary), they were fun. Jane is the most innocent and lovely creature in all creation, and it’s a great testament to Austen that she’s not annoying or cloying, but simply good-hearted and almost determinedly naive. Mary’s blithe pretentious quoting from the vast amounts of literature she reads makes her funny and human, and provides an extreme for well-read Elizabeth to measure herself against. Darcy’s evolution from aloof outsider to the man who loves Elizabeth despite himself is just perfectly executed.
I always knew that Austen took sly jabs at her culture, but I never realized just how sharp her knives were. The treatment of Lydia and especially the treatment of the elder Bennets took me by surprise–Mr. Bennet’s appeal to Elizabeth that she find a marriage partner she can bear to go through life with was almost heartbreaking, considering how awful Mrs. Bennet can be. I was also surprised to see how gender politics played out. While Mrs. Bennet bemoans the favoring of a male cousin in inheritance as opposed to her daughters, it’s a combination of indignation and her own selfishness. Lydia is implied to be loose of virtue and must marry to save her reputation, although I was quite happy to see it barely bothered her. I’m going to assume that’s a sisterly trait, since I was also happy to see that Darcy’s initial rejection of Elizabeth barely phased her.
The pace is much improved by the necessity of the Bennet girls to get married or face destitution. I was especially impressed by Lydia’s absolute folly towards the end, which both complicated and sped up things quite nicely. Emma, I have to say, really dragged for me, since there were no stakes. Here, we get to see Elizabeth and Jane try and balance the necessity of a husband without compromising themselves. I’ve always loved Austen’s remarkably sensible treatment of love. We’re warned against such mercenary matches like Charlotte’s and such lust-fueled matches like Lydia’s in favor of the temperate, complementary, and rational love between Elizabeth and Darcy, which I find quite healthy in romance.
The humor is exceedingly dry and occasionally wicked–this is not a book to read thoughtlessly! From Elizabeth’s dry humor to the antics of Mrs. Bennet to the cattiness of the Bingley sisters, there’s a nice variety of humor that’s well dispersed. I cheered when Darcy finally put Miss Bingley in her place after she insulted Elizabeth thoroughly. Still, it doesn’t feel like a straight comedy–the humor is too light and the stakes a little too grave for that, I feel.
It’s charming, and a little subdued. The latter is why I’m daring to knock half a star off–it’s sweet reading, but page turning it is not. The pace is quite thoughtful and the language can be occasionally a little vague. I went back a few times to double check who the subject of several sentences was, I have to admit. When you’re in the mood, it’s wonderful, but I can definitely see how it can frustrate some people.
Bottom line: This is how you do romance–rational, slow, and between two complimentary individuals. Elizabeth is such a relatable and dry heroine that it’s hard not to love her and Regency England is spared no mercy from Jane Austen’s sharp wits and satiric eye. One of the classics.
I rented this book from the public library.