Inspired after finally watching the movie Becoming Jane, I decided to read and reread Jane Austen. The movie was a reminder to me of what an extraordinary artist she was for her times: skilled, brave, funny. Listening to the vehement protestations of my friends that Emma was not worth rereading, I picked up the other Austen in my house: Pride and Prejudice. While very familiar to me, it quickly became apparent that this was not a reread. I knew it from countless rewatchings of the BBC adaptation and more recent film, but I had never read the novel before! This is probably because most of my literary educational focus has been either on Shakespeare and his contemporaries, or Modernism. Sorry, Austen.
And it did take me aback at how much the novel Pride and Prejudice gave me. It is over two Centuries old, I know the characters, the plot, the zombie adaptations, the fanfic-like sequels; surely everything has already been done here? But as a read it was fresh and delightful, an intelligent comedy of manners written with both compassion and an observant eye.
Tongue-in-cheek, the famous opener “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” is a playful way to set the tone. As we come to know Elizabeth Bennet and her family, we know this is a wry kind of a statement from our lead, inspired perhaps by the preoccupations of her mother or youngest two sisters. Because Elizabeth embodies a different kind of femininity, with an independence of mind and wit often confusing to her family and society, but that makes her still utterly relatable in the 21st Century.
Elizabeth, her older sister Jane, and their three younger sisters Mary, Kitty and Lydia reside at Longbourne with their mother, preoccupied by the inanities of life, and father who is completely distant from them. Their small community is set all a flutter when the news comes that Netherfield park has finally been let, to an eligible bachelor of four or five thousand pounds a year. With his sisters and dark and handsome friend in tow, Mr Bingley makes a splash, especially with the eldest Miss Bennet. Both charming and endlessly kind, they seem destined for each other. His friend Mr Darcy however is glowering and proud, wealthy and disdainful. Elizabeth, with her quick wit, finds a target.
We all know what happens here. But wow, it was a genuine pleasure reading this book. It made me both laugh and cry, I stayed up late to read more, I both tore through it and reread paragraphs for the joy of it. Some of the language is a little antiquated and my penguin classics edition did have some odd spellings based off the first edition, but this just contributes to the context of the plot. Waiting for a letter! A shock elopement! Chaperoned travel to town! The characters still feel true today, but you may have to get into the zone for the events that drive the story.
So here I am, another woman who sees herself in Elizabeth Bennet. She is a delight, her journey is sincere, the story is joyous. I adored reading Pride and Prejudice, and now plan to work my way through the rest of Austen’s novels.