Wednesday, July 08, 2015

the last book I read

Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen.

Well, this is awkward. You'll recall my listing a whole catalogue of 19th-century classics that I'd never read, perhaps with just a touch of It's All A Load Of Ruddy Nonsense inverted snobbery self-justification. And here I am undermining myself again by reading one.

Seriously for a moment, if you're embarking on a reading of a 19th-century classic, you're going to have to accept certain realities, not least that there are certain subjects that would not have been acceptable for description in respectable novels (furtive under-the-counter stuff like Fanny Hill being a slightly different matter). So there'll be no sexy sexy times, no swearing, no-one's going to nip out for a fag or a shit, and the conversational discourse will be conducted in a typically arch and circumlocutory way that will beg to be satirised in this sort of manner. Furthermore, if two people are in different parts of the country and wish to communicate, they'll have to either hop in a horse-drawn carriage for some hours or conduct a painfully long-drawn-out exchange of letters over the course of several days. And of course there'll be no chance of any of the standard norms of society being violated to any significant degree: patriarchy rules OK, the peasants defer to the nobs, no vegetarian options.

Look at it another way: the constraints as listed above make certain types of novel possible, not least Pride And Prejudice, which turns on a series of misunderstandings which could have all been sorted out with a brief exchange of text messages or a couple of phone calls. None of which is to criticise the book itself, which is, in addition to being a love story, a sly and witty satire on early-19th-century manners. It'd be easy to go overboard and paint intelligent, feisty Elizabeth Bennet as a sort of proto-feminist heroine, but for all her sparkiness she's still basically just sitting round a large country house playing the piano until a prospective husband turns up.

We should probably take a moment to outline the plot here, such as it is, just in case anyone's unfamiliar with it: here's the Bennet family, not especially well off by the standards of their gentrified neighbours, but still swanning around in a country house with staff and feasting on the occasional haunch of venison, so they're not on their uppers. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have been blessed with five daughters, so while Mr. Bennet tries to keep a roof over their heads Mrs. Bennet's job is to help to get all five married off to eligible men, preferably of good breeding and weighed down by flipping great wodges of cash. Eldest daughter Jane strikes up a promising-looking relationship with Mr. Bingley who has moved into the neighbouring estate, but everyone agrees that his haughty friend Mr. Darcy, despite being absolutely minted, is a bit of a cold fish and a bore and really not quite the thing at all, although there may just have been a suspicion of some sparks flying between him and Elizabeth.

Even if this wasn't one of the most celebrated novels in the English language you'd be able to see where this was going, but in order to extend the story beyond a couple of chapters some obstacles must be provided for the young lovers to stumble over before they eventually land on top of each other. So there's the mysterious withdrawal to London of Mr. Bingley (at Mr. Darcy's urging, it turns out), the mysterious past of dashing military type Mr. Wickham, which involves Mr. Darcy in some murky way, the somewhat implausible episode where Elizabeth goes on holiday to Derbyshire with her aunt and uncle and they happen to drop into Pemberley, Mr. Darcy's family home, just as he unexpectedly returns early from a trip (though note that there's no sexy post-swimming dishevelment in the book), and the further complication of Mr. Darcy's interfering aunt Catherine, a minor member of the aristocracy who deems Elizabeth entirely unsuitable owing to her lowly social status and lack of the sort of bashful deference that best befits a prospective wife.

So misunderstandings pile up, rash things are said and written, explanations proffered, apologies offered and accepted, tearful reconciliations occur, father's permission to marry is sought and gladly given, yadda yadda yadda, happy ever after. And so to bed. No, really, if you want Pride And Prejudice fanfic which gets a little more, hem hem, detailed about what might have happened once Mr. Darcy got his new bride home, there's plenty of it out there.

Clearly it's not really for me to pronounce on the merits or otherwise of Pride And Prejudice, since that decision has already been made by virtue of its constant popularity and success over the 202 years since it was first published. As it happens I enjoyed it very much, and found it a lot easier to read than I expected, notwithstanding everyone taking half a page to say something that could have been delivered in a single sentence. Some might find the country house milieu a bit stifling as well; there's absolutely no sense of there being a larger world out there where momentous stuff might be happening. But, to be fair, thunderous dramatisations of the Battle of Trafalgar weren't really Austen's thing, sly social commentary was, and that's what you get. And Elizabeth Bennet is a very appealing central character - how appealing you find Mr. Darcy (assuming you don't just come over all unnecessary at the thought of Colin Firth in a wet shirt) depends to some extent on how much you empathise with his extreme social discomfort at being regularly put in a room with people he doesn't know or care about and expected to make sparkling and inconsequential small talk. As it happens I empathise with his plight acutely.

Needless to say Pride And Prejudice has been adapted for the screen a gazillion times, from the straight costume drama stuff to the more radical re-interpretations like Bridget Jones's Diary, which tells essentially the same story. The clips dotted around here are all from the celebrated 1995 BBC adaptation starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.

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