Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice is so ubiquitous that I thought it would be familiar and unsurprising. After all, my sisters tortured me through one junior-high summer with repeated viewings of the BBC miniseries, and I saw the 2005 Keira Knightley film in the theater. But after reading the actual text I can repeat that trite dictum: the book was better.
Because you’ve probably already been acquainted with P&P, there’s no need to dilly dally by summing up the plot. (If you don’t know who Lizzy and Mr. Darcy are, you’re either a sisterless guy or a romanti-phobic gal, and you should check out Wikipedia.) Instead, I want to focus on Austen’s writing: deft and witty. Her prose is tight and her dialogue is engaging. As one might expect, she uses cadences and words that are a touch foreign to the modern ear, but the words and descriptions are so clear that the foreign “accent” becomes familiar.
A few samples from the book—
Mr. Darcy explaining his views on character defects to Lizzy:
“There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil—a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome.”
“And your defect is to hate every body.”
“And yours,” he replied with a smile, “is willfully to misunderstand them.”
Mr. Bennet discussing the sniveling Mr. Collins’ marriage proposal with Lizzy and his wife:
“I understand that Mr. Collins has made you an offer of marriage. Is it true?” Elizabeth replied that it was. “Very well—and this offer of marriage you have refused?”
“I have, sir.”
“Very well. We now come to the point. Your mother insists upon your accepting it. Is it not so, Mrs. Bennet?”
“Yes, or I will never see her again.”
“An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day, you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”
And, of course, the famous opening line:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Which reminds me: one must be careful reading Austen. A modern reader might be tempted pass on her, perhaps considering her an outmoded traditionalist. But that famous opening line is imbued with the trenchant, cutting cultural criticism that fills the novel. Austen evaluates her characters honestly, and so she skewers many them in a way that prefigures 20th-century criticism of “traditional” family roles. Lizzy’s sisters do not simply want to be married, they are marriage hungry. Her father is a well-meaning but reclusive and neglectful man, one who is very nearly emotionally absent toward his family. And the upper class are not always afforded the dignity that they think they deserve.
I was surprised and thrilled by how much I enjoyed Pride & Prejudice, and by how familiar it was, though set in the early 19th century.