Sunday, May 20, 2012

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

One of my quirks is an ability (if not a compulsion) to re-watch movies and tv shows and re-read books almost constantly.  I understand from others that this isn’t common – many people feel that once a book is finished, they never have the patience to go back and read it a second time.  That’s not a problem I have; if it’s a good book, I can almost guarantee a second reading, if not a third or fourth (but not back-to-back).  To me, re-watching movies/tv and re-reading books is like slipping into a second-day pair of jeans; you know it’s a good fit, and you’ve already broken them in, so you also know it’s going to be comfortable.  

My latest read, Pride and Prejudice definitely falls into that category, and it was almost inevitable that it would end up there.  In 2005, a cinematic re-telling of the story was put out, staring Kiera Knightly and Matthew MacFayden; that was also around the time that I was thinking that I wanted to specialize in Regency-era British History.  In a perfect storm of timing, this is also when I fell in with a group of friends who had read and loved it, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was released.  It all added up to my need to know what all the buzz was about, so I read P&P for the first time.

The story and characters are so well known, that I almost think it’s unnecessary to go over them in a book review.  It is one of the enduring ‘boy meets girl’ love stories of our Western literary zeitgeist and that in and of itself is odd; Jane Austen was writing in an era of rigid social expectation, in which women had few options in what they could do with their lives, and woman from the higher echelons of society had even fewer – a woman in Austen’s social circle could either marry, or be single and be ridiculed for being a spinster.  But everyone knows Jane Austen’s personal story: proposed to, she turned the man down and never did marry; what she did do was go on to write some of the most beloved love stories to ever grace our bookshelves.  Austen died a spinster, but she also died as an author whose works are still read and re-read to this day.

What makes her works popular (both now and then, and in my opinion), is their honesty; Jane Austen was a keen observer of human foibles and never shied from committing them to paper.  In what is, perhaps, one of the most famous lines Austen ever wrote (and which comes from P&P), she encompasses her honesty and observant nature:

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

With that opening line, Austen launches into a character study that is pitch-perfect.  In a society rigidly structured around etiquette, Austen found the humour in characters who felt they either had to hold the polite-line, or felt they had to buck it.  The characters in P&P fall almost entirely into either camp, and those that don’t are simply back-ground players.  For their honesty and sincerity, the entire cast of characters in P&P is endearing, something I relate to every time I read this work.

While I won’t comment on the content of the plot, I will comment on plot development.  So many of the ‘Classics’ (I find) tend to stagnate and slow-down at random intervals.  Often times the reader is subjected to morality lessons in-between plot development that slows the pace even more.  This is never a consideration in P&P; maybe it’s because the story is so well known that I know where all the twists and turns will be, but regardless, the plot is always moving forward in some fashion, which is a breath of fresh air for a work penned in the 1800s.

So, final verdict.  Read it, of course.  This is a massive piece of our literary zeitgeist.  I don’t think you would have a conversation with woman of a certain temperament and/or education about literature and not acknowledge that this work is more than likely a shared experience.  But more than just wanting to be part of the literary ‘in-crowd,’ this work is incredibly moving, relevant, and engaging, even 200 years after it was written.  Granted, this work won’t be for everyone – though (most) people will still be able to relate to the characters and emotions, it is written in contemporary language, meaning some of the vocabulary and sentence structures are not what we are used it.  But, I encourage you to look past that and push through.  In the end, you’ll have a deeper appreciation for what one of the most celebrated western authors was able to accomplish, and one of the best-loved ‘boy-meets-girl’ stories every put down on paper.  
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  1. Yes to everything you say about re-reading. I know a lot of people never do it and I get the argument that there's so much out there to read, why spend time with something you've already done but I love re-reading. You know what you're getting and that you like it. Of course it's good to experience new things but sometimes you want the comfort of the familiar.

    Also I read P&P because of P&P&Z but after reading P&P&Z twice and figuring I should probably read the real one at some point.

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