Friday 5 February 2010

... and they all lived happily ever after.

Our copy of Pride and Prejudice was a freebie from the newspaper, but I think it says more about the ridiculous things papers will do for circulation than any merit or otherwise that the book might have. It is a strange process reading a book that you are very familiar with but have never read. I saw the BBC adaptation many years ago and we have watched our copy of the Keira Knightley film quite a few times, then my sister gave us a copy of the series 'Lost in Austen' which we really enjoyed, so the basic plot held no surprises. I do not think that I am going to become one of those people who reads this book over and over and extolls the delights of Jane Austen to passing strangers. I am kind of glad I read it, almost to 'tick it off the list' of books that one ought to have read, but I fail to see what all the fuss is about.

By the time I had got through the first 100 pages all I could think was that these women lead the most boring lives imaginable, and what possible interest was there in reading about these stifled artificial conversations and their petty narrow concerns. But I decided to persevere and as the story developed I did get to like some people a little more, and also saw a different side to other characters. Elizabeth I grew to like enormously. It was particularly the scene where she comes to understand Mr Darcy's motivations and to recognise her own prejudices and acknowledge to herself that she has misjudged him. It was one of the few places where you saw something subtle happening in the disclosure of character. Throughout the book Austen does not allow us to draw our own conclusions about her characters but tells us straightforwardly their defining characteristics, and most of them are unfortunately rather one dimensional. Mostly they have one way of behaving and reacting to situations, and they do so with tedious predictability. The person I saw quite differently was Mr Bennett. In the film he is viewed as affectionately distant but essentially good and kind, but you discover much more about him in the book. He had married a pretty but shallow woman and then discovered that she did not become the wife he hoped for and in essence he has come to despise her. I felt sad about this, because, although self centred and over-emotional, I did not see Mrs Bennett as a bad person, she is merely the ultimate product of her time and her upbringing. So basically Mr Bennett had failed his family by failing to provide properly for them (relying on the birth of a son that never happened to ensure they were cared for) and preferred to hide in his study than face up to the Lydia situation. The uncle deals with the whole thing on his behalf and he is just relieved that the whole thing is settled with so little inconvenience to himself. I found him to be weak and selfish. Mr Collins on the other hand is so thoroughly awful that you just love him for the pleasure of laughing at him. The scene where Elizabeth and Maria are trying to leave after their visit was just ridiculous. It takes two pages to get out of the door and into the carriage because he is talking so much. He is like a symbol of everything that is tedious about the book, the endless polite exchanges and expression of thanks and regret and admiration and humility .... I just wanted to scream some of the time, I am so glad I live in the 20th century. Tish defined her style most succinctly earlier when she said that she writes a lot but says very little. I sped through the second half of the book as I did finally get engaged with the narrative disclosure. It is rather like watching 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' or 'Love Actually', they are fun to watch precisely because you know what is coming next and the familiarity of the exchanges and the characters is rather like chatting with a close friend. I can see why people might read this book again and again ... it's just not going to be me.

I guess the book is very much a product of it's era. Jane Austen was writing about the position of women and their lack of financial independence or material security, but I really felt that she was just documenting it rather than trying to make some point about what a bad situation this was and how there needed to be some kind of social change. (Just been looking up) Mary Wollstonecraft's treatise 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman' was published in 1792 but I am not sure how widely read it was amongst educated women of the period (Austen lived 1775 to 1817) and whether it influences the way women viewed their position in society. I confess I am much more keen on George Eliot who (although a little later in the 19th century) wrote much more about ordinary people with concerns beyond money and marriage, and is interesting in terms of social history. The world of the landed gentry is just so introverted and shallow, cut off from the reality of ordinary people's lives. Nobody in the book ever does a stroke of real work, in fact Mrs Bennett is adamant that her daughters do not need to do any cooking. I was just plain irritated by the lot of them, and she probably set back the cause of feminism by a century. I may go through it again, if only to help M pick holes in it for her exam.

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