Northern Mummy

General thoughts and wittering about all sorts of things

Pride and Prejudice

on December 18, 2010

This is my third Austen novel for the challenge, which means at least 3 more to go and there’s only 2 weeks left in the year!  But don’t worry, the holidays have started and I think I can manage it!

So, Pride and Prejudice – what can possibly be said that hasn’t already?  We’ve all been there and got the t-shirt (or in the case of fans of the 1995 BBC adaptation, the wet Regency-style shirt…), right?  Except that once again I’d forgotten just how good a read it was.  I first remember reading it aged 17, for ‘A’ Level (I think I had read it at least once before but I don’t remember anything about how I felt about it) and thought that it was OK, but a bit boring.  The problem was that I had so much else to read that I only ever read small sections at a time, as prescribed by my teacher, so although I did read the whole thing over about 6 months I never really got into it.  Also, we had to appraise the text critically which almost always ruins a book for me for ages (two notable exceptions: Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and André Gide’s La Porte Étroite).  I remember that the teacher set us a detailed quiz to see how much we knew about it after we finished – one of the questions was “What was the name of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s late husband?” to which my friend and I, after puzzling for some time, put down “Chris”.  My policy in those days was always  “If you don’t know, entertain the examiner.”  So you can see that although I knew enough to answer questions on it in the ‘A’ Level exam, I didn’t really get involved with the characters and the story.  If I had I couldn’t have failed to know that the answer is Lewis.  However, after watching the aforementioned BBC adaptation (faithfully recorded by my Dad as I was living in France for a year as part of my degree at the time) I decided to read it again and refresh my memory as to Austen’s version of events and was surprised by how quickly I read it and how quickly the characters became real to me, how I laughed and cringed in equal measures over Caroline’s blatant flirting with Darcy, how I felt Jane’s pain and disappointment when she realised that everything with Bingley was at an end, how I shared Elizabeth’s mortification when it was revealed that Lydia had not only eloped with Whickham but was happy to live with him whether she was married to him or not.  All this even though I knew exactly what happened, because I’d read it before and watched it on TV so recently.

Over the past 13 months I’ve been to a Pride and Prejudice themed party (great fun, can thoroughly recommend it), seen a stage play version and the BBC version again and of course read 3 rewrites of it in the name of this challenge, but none of this can compare to reading the original.  I’d forgotten that in this novel at least, Austen is truly an omniscient narrator and doesn’t tell the story solely through the eyes of Elizabeth but allows the reader glimpses throughout the text into how other characters, especially Darcy, perceive things.   This makes him a much more sympathetic character than he comes across in film and TV, where a description of his internal state isn’t possible.

The other thing that I noticed is that questions which are often discussed by people who watch the film and TV versions are actually addressed in the novel.  The most obvious example is “Why does Whickham run away with Lydia?”  At least a page is devoted to discussing this, where Lydia’s lack of fortune and Whickham’s need to marry for money are covered, and this is again touched upon by Mr Bennet’s assertion that someone (he presumes Mr Gardiner until he and Elizabeth discover the truth) has settled a lot more money on Whickham to persuade him to marry Lydia with so little.  The reader is left no room to doubt that Lydia is, for the time, completely morally bankrupt and without any scruples regarding her reputation or that of her family as the only possible reason for Whickham’s interest in her (although not expressed in so many words) is that she’s prepared to sleep with him and is therefore of use to him until he becomes bored.  I think the confusion arises from a belief that in those days women didn’t behave like that unless they were from a certain social class, whereas in actual fact it must have happened occasionally but would have caused real shock to everyone who heard about it.  Austen creates such a believable society and involves the reader so closely in the lives of its inhabitants that it is shocking, and Elizabeth’s assumption that any hopes of a relationship with Darcy are now at an end are entirely justified.

This isn’t my favourite of Austen’s novels, but re-reading it after several years has brought it up in my estimation once again.

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