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Austen 2014: Introduction to Pride & Prejudice

When I planned my year-long Austen marathon, I didn't realize I'd be spending a full third of June away from home, so the schedule has rather gotten away from me. However, I allotted enough cushion time that I should be able to get back on track over the next few weeks or so, as we tackle Austen's most popular novel, and one of the most popular novels ever written: Pride and Prejudice. To attempt to write an introduction to one of the most read, studied, and influential novels ever is sheer folly. However, I promised to do so, and for what do we live, if not to make sport for our neighbors, and to laugh at them, in our turn?

When was it written? 

As with the two other "early" novels, Austen largely wrote Pride and Prejudice in the mid-late 1790's, meaning she was rough twenty-one when she completed it in its initial state, under the name First Impressions. She revised the work in 1811-12, changing to name to Pride and Prejudice in what was almost certainly a reference to one of Austen's favorite novels, Fanny Burney's Cecilia. Considering that it was published after the success of Sense & Sensibility, it may also have been an attempt at what we would now call branding, allowing readers to associate this new novel with the one they'd already read and enjoyed by the same author. It was published in January 1813, and though it sold very well, Austen sold all the rights to the novel outright rather than receiving a share of the sales, so she didn't profit from it as she might have done. Needless to say, in the two hundred years since it was first published, it has gone through innumerable editions, and was translated into French the same year it was published in English.

What's it about?

You already know this, right? Well, if you don't: Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have five daughters, and Mrs. Bennet is determined to see them all married--well. The eldest, Jane, is the handsomest of the group; the youngest, Lydia, the wildest; the next older, Kitty, lives largely in Lydia's shadow; and the middle daughter, Mary, is bookish and rather overly serious. It is the second daughter, Elizabeth, usually called Eliza or Lizzy, however, who is our main character. Intelligent, witty, and with rather fine eyes, Elizabeth Bennet is also quite headstrong and has a tendency to let her judgment be guided by her emotions. So, when she meets a rather aloof member of the landed gentry, Fitzwilliam Darcy, and hears him speak of her and her acquaintance in less than favorable terms, she takes an instant dislike to him. However, Darcy's friend Charles Bingley, a wealthy, single young man, who clearly is in want of a wife, takes a shine to Jane, so Elizabeth and Darcy are frequently thrown together. Over the course of the novel, they each, separately, fall in love with the other, and realize that first impressions often need to be revised, and that both pride and prejudice can stand in the way of true happiness.

In a way, Pride and Prejudice is a very dangerous book, because it is, more so than any other Austen novel (I'd argue), a fairy tale--and fairy tales are always dangerous, for they establish the false idea that, in this life, wickedness is punished and virtue is rewarded, frequently materially so. Elizabeth's father has not planned well, so though she is a gentleman's daughter, her future is not secure unless she marries well--meaning, marries rich. Our Lizzy, however, is a romantic, however, and wishes to marry for love. She's also a cynic, too, so she despairs of ever doing so. In Mr. Darcy, however, she finds a man who is handsome, wealthy, virtuous, and enough in love with her to defy the wishes of his aunt, many of his friends, and even, to some extent, his more rational judgment. She even persuades Mr. Darcy to laugh at himself when she teases him. This is not realistic romance--this is fantasy, the fantasy we all have of that perfect man or woman who will not only encourage us to be ourselves, but will allow us to do so in a very large house. Austen's other heroines marry clergymen--Catherine, Fanny, Elinor-- or marry someone relatively within their own sphere, such as Emma and Marianne do. Elizabeth, while a gentleman's daughter, is not truly wealthy, and has essentially no dowry. Mr. Darcy is one of the wealthiest men in England. He literally could marry anyone he chooses--and he chooses her. It's a realistic outcome only in the same way that, sometimes, in this world, crazy things do happen. But not often.

What this novel lacks in realism, however, it makes up in wit and charm. Its famous first sentences set the tone of ironic cleverness and witty phrasing that pervades the novel. Elizabeth and Darcy do not talk; they exchange witticisms and bon mots, Lizzy particularly being fond of the choice turn of phrase. To read this novel is to find delight in every paragraph and to revel in its playfulness and warmth. Austen herself, at least somewhat sarcastically, referred to it as being "too light, bright, and sparkling," and indeed, both the prose itself and the novel as a whole are rather jewel-like. Like a diamond, however, this book is harder than it looks, and it has a sharpness about both its characters and its world that is frequently lost when it is read as being "merely" a love story.

What should I be looking for when I read?

We all know about Lizzy and Darcy and their romance, so I'm going to really be looking for and examining those hard edges and cutting moments that often get smoothed over when people think about this book. I'll try to look for and highlight those sections that don't make it onto the big screen, those authorial asides that don't get remembered. In short, and I know this is hard, I'm going to try to read the book that Austen wrote, not the story that we all know before we even read it. As a very smart faculty member at my college said when we were discussing Hamlet, it's hard to talk about a play that's all quotations, meaning we had to get beyond what we thought we knew about the world's most famous play. I am sure I shall fall short, but what I want to try is to go beyond what everyone already knows about one of the world's most famous novels. 

We can swoon over Darcy later. :-)

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