2013 marks the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice. I’ve arrived a little late to the party, but I decided to re-read Austen’s most famous novel a few weeks ago in order to try and figure out what, exactly, is so engaging about it.
Many people find it strange that a two-hundred-year-old novelist, who wrote primarily about the process of courtship in the early nineteenth century, should still be so popular in the twenty-first. Jane Austen is often dismissed as ‘girly fiction’, as the precursor to ‘chick-lit’ and the modern romantic comedy.
But the idea that the plots of her novels merely appeal to the ‘romantic’ reading tastes of women (the notion that men and women exclusively enjoy certain types of fiction is in itself laughable) is, to me, insufficient to explain why Austen is so popular today. Why does she continue to be read by critics and ordinary readers alike? And why does she, despite all the criticism aimed at her, hold such an important place in the Western canon?
I’ve always felt the need, when speaking about books, to defend my love of Austen’s novels. To say someone is a fan of Austen these days seems shorthand for suggesting that they are romantic, fanciful, and unrealistic. And if you’re involved in any kind of literary studies, admitting to liking Jane Austen often singles you out as an imposter; as someone who likes reading ‘easy’ books for enjoyment rather than ‘hard’ books for deep intellectual examination.
So I admit to liking Jane Austen with a hint of embarrassment, and always accompany the admission with a hurried explanation: “I don’t like her because of her plots, you know, I like her because she’s a brilliant writer technically,” or “People don’t realise how nuanced and intelligent her writing is until they start to dig deeper.” No matter what I say, I inevitably end up sounding either unconvincing or pretentious.
Despite these setbacks, however, I will persist in defending Austen. And in honour of two hundred years’ worth of reading, I’ve compiled a short list of Austen’s achievements in Pride and Prejudice. Most of them, I hope you’ll agree, could just as easily apply to her other novels.
I. Universal Truth.
It seems appropriate to begin with that infamous opening line. “It is a truth universally acknowledged”. Has there ever been a more well-known, oft-quoted opening sentence? Austen’s comment, it seems, can also be applied to just about every real (and fake) world situation imaginable. It’s become a kind of journalistic Hail Mary; when you don’t know how to open your article, throw in some universal truth. Here are just a few examples:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that when one part of your life starts going okay, another falls spectacularly to pieces.” – Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001 film)
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that while many factors conspired to create the Global Financial Crisis, the US private sector was a fundamental culprit.” – from the ever-amusing International Business Times.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a UCI student in possession of two dollars, must be in want of boba—specifically, milk tea boba.” – from the University of California, Irvine (UCI) website.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that any film in which a teenage girl falls in love with a vampire, werewolf, unicorn, demon hunter, or any other mythical being, will be incomprehensibly awful.” – a recent review of The Mortal Instruments that stays remarkably true to Austen’s original language.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that one bizarre incident in possession of good news value and an Apple (AAPL) hook must be accompanied by another.” –By the aptly-named Philip Elmer-DeWitt.
But none of these delightful witticisms (my favourite is the one about Apple Computers -both incomprehensible and delicious) holds a candle to the original. In only a few words, Austen establishes the ironic tone of her novel and signals to the readers that her book is just as much about critiquing the ridiculous nature of courtship in the nineteenth century as it is about celebrating a successful one.
Reading Austen’s prose is illuminating. She is sparse when it comes to unnecessary descriptions and words. There are very few sentences which could be comfortably removed without altering the course of the novel. Austen doesn’t waste time describing the physical attributes of her characters (beyond the occasional ‘bright eyes’ or ‘handsome figure’); her novel is not about appearance but about character. Of course, Austen is as aware of the effect that a pleasing appearance can have as the next writer.
III. The Unreliable Narrator.
Although there is a distanced, third-person narrator present in the novel, this narrator is notoriously unreliable. It’s a demonstration of Austen’s excellent grasp of free-indirect discourse (where the narration is coloured by the thoughts of the characters). Though the narrator seems distanced, the thoughts of characters continually colour the narration, at times very subtly. I’ve heard it suggested, for example, that the famous opening line may in fact be Mrs Bennet’s thoughts, something which certainly changes the way the novel may be interpreted.
But this unreliable narration also opens much of what happens throughout the novel to doubt. The reader is not so certain of characters’ virtues or defects, because they are so often seen through the lens of others’ thoughts. Elizabeth, for instance, misinterprets Charlotte Lucas’ attentions towards Mr Collins because she finds it impossible to believe that any woman would find the ridiculous Mr Collins a viable option as a husband. During the ball at Netherfield, Elizabeth “owed her greatest relief to her friend Miss Lucas, who often joined them, and good-naturedly engaged Mr Collins’s conversation to herself” (Chapter XVIII, my emphasis). Because the narrator echoes Elizabeth’s thoughts, not all readers would have the insight to see that Charlotte is perhaps already planning on catching Mr Collins’ attention. Not everything is as it seems, and it is particularly tricky when prejudiced, blind, or foolish characters dominate the narration, skewering the ‘correct’ version of events.
IV. The Minor Characters.
Many people say that Austen expresses her approval of nineteenth century ideals of love and marriage through the courtship of Darcy and Elizabeth. But a look at the minor characters reveals a more troubling view. Mr and Mrs Bennet are the obvious examples when it comes to this; their unequal marriage may well serve as a lesson to the Bennet sisters about the dangers of marriage to a person one doesn’t know well. Mrs Bennet is a product of her time, obsessed with “get[ting] her daughters married”, interested only in “visiting and news” (Chapter I). And yet her obsession with marriage arises out of practicality; she is the only character in the Bennet family who seems to recognise openly that unless the Bennet sisters marry, they will likely struggle to survive on the little money left to them after their father’s death.
There’s much to be said for all the minor characters in the novel, but one I’m particularly interested in is the intellectual sister Mary, who might likewise be seen as a criticism of Austen’s society. Because she isn’t as pretty as her sisters, Mary appears to have turned to ‘intellectual’ exercises and improvements as a way of distinguishing herself from the rest of the family. She, according to Mr Bennet, “read[s] great books, and make[s] extracts” (Chapter II). Whether it is a way to endear herself to her book-reading father or whether it is a more general attempt to gain attention, Mary is a little pitiful. Though she reads a lot, what she reads is rather worrying; the only time she does venture to give her opinion on a subject is after Lydia’s elopement, when she muses that, “Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson; that the loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable – that one false step involves her in endless ruin – that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful …” (Chapter XLVII). These words, to me, suggest that Mary is merely parroting some “extract” that she has made, internalising the patriarchal attitude towards female sexuality which is prominent in almost all intellectual writing of the day. In her attempt to gain notice, and perhaps attention from the male members of society, she participates in the patriarchal domination of women’s lives, minds and bodies.
V. Mr Collins and Lady Catherine.
Need I say more? Some of the most amusing moments in the novel (and there are many) happen thanks to these two.
VI. “Till this moment, I never knew myself.” (Chapter XXXVI)
Austen’s novels always promote reason and balance. Self-discovery and self-knowledge are important in all her novels, but play key roles in two of her best-known books, Pride and Prejudice and Emma, where it is only once the heroine acknowledges her own blindness that she can begin to move on. This emphasis on accepting one’s own failures and learning from them is a timeless message for both men and women equally.
One of the best things about Austen is how easy it is to miss the point of her novels. I think Juliet McMaster, in one of her critical essays, puts it very nicely when she says,
[Austen’s] ironic mode and her economy of understatement make her novels a rich field for critical exegesis. Her fiction is layered, poised, balanced; it maintains a fine equilibrium between text and subtext, between assertion and qualification. (15)
The unreliable narrator in Pride and Prejudice forces the reader to question the truth of what they are told. In Austen, even a little detail can open up a new field of critical opportunity. Nothing is ever as it first appears; a fact that is demonstrated in the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy, and the character of Mr Wickham. The importance that nuance has in Austen is partly what makes her excellent material for re-reading; each new perusal reveals a different slant to a familiar story.
VIII. To Re-Read or not to Re-Read?
Finally, a little word about the story itself. All of the things I’ve listed above combine to make Austen a fascinating writer to study. But as much as there is a wealth of critical readings to be drawn from Austen, this alone doesn’t explain why she continues to be so widely read and loved by the general public.
For my part, this is probably the seventh or eight time I’ve re-read the novel. As usual, I began it resolved to read with a critical eye, and decipher what it is about Austen that has so much appeal. But, as always, it wasn’t long before I found that I was enjoying myself so much just reading the book that I had entirely forgotten to think about how I was going to write about it. Ultimately, there is something in Austen’s multi-layered writing that makes reading Pride and Prejudice just as fascinating and enjoyable the sixth time as it was the first.
Article quoted is from:
Juliet McMaster. Jane Austen the Novelist: Essays Past and Present. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996.