Like so much great literature, I first read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in high school, and it was lost on me. I have no memory of reading it in college, though I most likely did. I actually wrote a couple of long papers on the book for a graduate class on the 18 Century English Novel, but I cannot say I loved it or that I even understood it. I was more of a Sense and Sensibility girl back then.
The movies turned me around. I finally got a firm handle on who’s who in Pride and Prejudice when I bought the DVD version of The BBC’s six-hour-soap-opera-style presentation, famously starring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. Having sat through the whole thing several times over several years, mostly while nursing babies in the middle of the night, I now have the characters straight in my head as well as a good linear sense of their various doings.
In a nutshell, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, second eldest daughter to a father of limited means and no male heir, meets a very proud, very rich Mr. Darcy. She is initially repelled by Darcy’s haughty manner, refuses an offer of marriage, which would have ended her family’s financial worries forever, then slowly starts to fall for the guy as his various charms unfold.
There’s all kinds of other stuff going on as well, which always gave me fits as an early Austen reader. Elizabeth Bennet’s sister Jane falls in love with Darcy’s friend, Mr. Bingley, who loves her back but cannot marry her over the steady objections of his family and friends.
Elizabeth and Jane, besides having neither wealth nor position, have a very silly mother, an idiotic father and three ridiculous younger sisters. No well-to-do gentleman in his right mind would go near them with a ten-foot pole.
I won’t even get into the relationship between the simpering, fawning Mr. Collins and seemingly sensible Charlotte Lucas, or the botched elopement of Lydia Bennet with that dastardly officer, Mr. Wickham (spoken of in this house with nothing but contempt). Austen’s portrayal of social life among the landed gentry in late 18th Century England defies a quick summary.
Over the years, Pride and Prejudice has become something of a family project. My daughter and I have twice seen Flock Theatre’s live presentation of Pride and Prejudice in the aptly set parlor of the Shaw Mansion in New London. So you’d think, with all of this viewing and long-ago reading, I’d have an excellent grasp on minutiae of Pride and Prejudice.
Nay, not so.
Years ago, my husband started listening to the book on his iPod late in the evenings, perhaps hoping the old novel might lull him to quick slumber. This turned out not to be the case. He got so into the story, I believe he actually lost a couple of night’s sleep altogether.
Believing me to be the resident Austen expert, he started asking me nuanced questions about the book. Why, exactly, did Wickham choose to run off with, of all people, Lydia Bennet? How was Lady Catherine de Bourgh able to pass on her estate to her only daughter, while Mr. Bennet’s was entailed to a distant male heir? Indeed, is Mr. Bennet a sage or a clown?
I had no idea. Or, as Austen would say, I had not the pleasure of understanding his questions. So I found a used copy of Pride and Prejudice at the and buckled down to read it with little expectation for enjoyment, thinking it would once again be a long and tedious slog.
Oh, how wrong I was. The book is lovely. The prose is witty and sly. It makes you wish for all the world that Jane Austen lived next door and loved for you to pop over for tea. Her manner is formal but tempered by a rich humor and a deft hand for the subtle. My God, she tells a ripping good yarn.
Freed from the burden of trying to keep the characters straight, I was able to sit back and absorb all of the million little details that did not, indeed could not, make it into the movies. The genius of this novel, I see now, transcends plot. Open it anywhere and hold onto your socks. You’re in for a beautiful ride.