Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice

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.

4 thoughts on “Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice

  1. Great obser­va­tions Nathan. Austen’s use of lan­guage is pro­foundly witty and her com­men­tary on human nature remains rel­e­vant across the centuries.

    I highly rec­om­mend check­ing out the BBC ver­sion with Colin Firt. It’s phenomenal.

  2. Thanks, Mary! Yeah, that’s the ver­sion my sis­ters tor­tured me with. Now I can’t see Colin Firth in any­thing with­out see­ing Mr. Darcy. It can be disconcerting.

  3. Also, read­ing com­pre­hen­sion fail­ure on my part. Completely missed the part where you said that your sis­ters tor­tured you with the BBC minis­eries in the SECOND SENTENCE of this post. Old age is mak­ing me dumb.

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