Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Pride and Prejudice, at 200 and at 17

Today is the 200th anniversary of publication of Pride and Prejudice, and many people have up retrospectives or tributes or scholarly articles analyzing the enduring popularity of Jane Austen's best-known work.

I first read Pride and Prejudice at age seventeen, seventeen years ago. Doubtless there were then, as there have been for the past 200 years, Austenphiles, but I never knew any. Austen's works were, to me, simply Old Novels, and I neither sought them as desirable or shunned them as being the sort of thing those girls read, simply because I never heard anyone ever talk of having read them. The A&E miniseries had come out the year before, but even if I had heard of it, we didn't have cable, nor did we jaunt down much to Blockbuster, and the library's VHS collection could be spotty.

My family had an old paperback copy of Pride and Prejudice acquired in some donation, and it sat, unread, on the shelf with other battered copies of Great Books that had someone made their way into the house.  One day in 1996, I was going with my dad and siblings downtown to a Cincinnati Reds game, and we were going to ride the bus to the stadium, back when we still called it Riverfront Stadium, although by then it had been renamed Cinergy Field (before it became the Great American Ball Park). Any of you who have ever ridden a city bus know that there is no romance in public transportation. It is to be endured, and a book is one of the best ways to endure it. On my way out of the house, I pulled Pride and Prejudice from its dusty spot on the shelf.

In regards to Austen, I was a complete tabula rasa. I had never even heard the names of Elizabeth Bennett or Mr. Darcy. The blurb on the back of the book said, "No novel in the English language has brought forth more superlatives than Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen's simplicity, gentle wit and ability to draw her readers into the life of eighteenth-century England have brought her universal acclaim. As William Lyon Phelps said, 'Jane Austen is one of the supreme literary artists of the world. Pride and Prejudice is her masterpiece.'"Fine words, but not a lot to go on in guessing what the book was actually about. And so, in complete innocence as to plot, content, characters, or author, I read.

I read on the bus all the way to the stadium. I read walking into the stadium. I am not generally an advocate of reading through events that one has chosen to attend, but I read through the ball game (no big loss; as someone once said, a baseball game is thirty minutes of excitement jam-packed into three hours). I read on the bus all the way home. I read late at night in my room to finish the book. Every incident and plot twist was new and surprising to me; every phrase fresh. I carried no cultural baggage about Pride and Prejudice being the epitome of romance or of Mr. Darcy being the archetype of the perfect man; I simply found it a wonderful book.

In those delightful days before the sheer ubiquity of the internet, it was much harder (though many still made intrepid attempts) to get caught up in fandom. I was spared the silliness of having my enthusiasms instantly validated by Facebook memes or fan fiction or quizzes about "Which Austen Man is Right For You?" The massive Austen marketing machine had not yet been set into full gear. Instead, I had to read the critical essay at the beginning, then read the book again, then read it again.

It took me a number of years to get around to reading Austen's other novels, and for that I'm glad -- I was no prodigy; reading Northanger Abbey now is an infinitely more rewarding and comprehensible experience that it would have been if I had first read it when I shared Catherine Morland's age and experience. Catherine is a heroine for an older woman looking back; Elizabeth Bennett is a heroine for a young woman looking forward.

It's a rare experience now for me to have such a fresh first encounter with a book, and such a well-known one at that. My own children have seen movie versions of Pride and Prejudice more than once, have listened to the audio book, and know the plot. They'll read it for themselves one day, but that first thrill of discovery won't have that pristine newness to it. But of all the books I could come to so marvelously unencumbered by the critical (or uncritical) opinions of others, I'm so glad I struck on Pride and Prejudice at seventeen -- as felicitous a match as any of Austen's heroines made.


Bob the Ape said...

Do I get to be the first to say Happy Anniversary?

Anonymous said...

This book leaves a dull aching in my heart for a more refined society. The joys of the english language, country dances and honour. I've watched the A&E miniseries so many times I've nearly worn out my discs if that is possible.

Charming Disarray said...

"Catherine is a heroine for an older woman looking back; Elizabeth Bennett is a heroine for a young woman looking forward."

I love that.

My introduction to P&P was a lot like yours. My dad handed me a huge, chunky book with all five novels in it, and I worked my way through them gradually. No one I knew had read them and no one talked about Mr. Darcy or the miniseries.

Enbrethiliel said...


Given how many YA Paranormal Romance heroines would do good to wake up from their fantasies and realise they've just been dreaming those hotties were vampires, werewolves, fallen angels, or other postmodern Gothic tropes, I tend to think that Catherine Morland is for readers as close to her own age as possible. (Perhaps I'll take a leaf out of your book, Mrs. Darwin, and write a Northanger Abbey/Twilight crossover with precisely that twist! I mean, I have been looking for something to make Lent more penitential . . . =P)

It's Anne Eliot who I think is for older women looking back.

As you know, Mrs. Darwin, the hate part of my love-hate relationship with book blogging has flared up. I miss, even mourn, the purity of reading before I knew what a blog was. These days, books have huge digital footprints before they are even published, and it's all about the marketing. When it comes to classics, sometimes it's about the clique. Hasn't anyone else found that it's more fun to troll online Austenites than to appreciate Austen?

Bob the Ape said...

The same as everyone else here, I encountered Jane Austen fairly early in life, at 19 or thereabouts; this was in the mid-Seventies, well before the Austen industry had started. I picked up a copy of Pride and Prejudice at a used bookstore and was immediately hooked. P&P is still my favorite, with Persuasion and Mansfield Park close behind. The lady tells a good story and tells it well, and deserves a place among the top-tier English-language novelists.

I would like to put in a plug for the BBC adaptation of P&P that was done in the early Eighties with Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul as equaling or surpassing the A&E production in almost every respect.

(BTW, Mrs. Darwin - thanks again for the Christmas gift. I've used my half to get Visual Studio for Dummies and Visual Basic for Dummies; the Bride is still deciding what to get with hers.)

mrsdarwin said...


Which book was not in the anthology?

mrsdarwin said...


Austen wrote P&P and Northanger Abbey within a short span, and both when she was quite young, but P&P is very anticipatory whereas Northanger Abbey has a strongly nostalgic tone. I don't think that I would have found half the humor or subtext in Northanger when I was younger, but then, I came of reading age before the great Gothic Revival -- thank God! Not that I think I would have read Twilight even then, but I might have felt that I was missing something by not doing so.

If you are looking to make your Lent more penitential, writing is certainly the way to go. :)

And I am glad I read P&P outside of the clique of Austen. You're right that it's attractive to be cynical and mock people for their excesses. but I think it's a cheap temptation to fall too far into the hip detachment category and lose sight of what is truly admirable about the books.

mrsdarwin said...


We own the BBC miniseries and enjoy it a great deal. It's the only one that gets Mrs. Bennett right, in my opinion -- it preserves the humor, while remembering that she is a ridiculous figure. I can't bear her in the A&E version. Her one-note shrillness is the very antithesis of an Austen character.

On the other hand, David Rintoul is so emotionally reserved as Darcy that his performance almost never varies, and that's a major problem for a major character. Elizabeth Garvie's acting is wholly admirable, though, and she's a lovely singer to boot.

We hope our Christmas present is some small return for our Christmas gratitude. :)

Bernadette said...

Oh, I remember Riverfront! I keep forgetting that it's ever been renamed.

I think I read Pride & Prejudice when I was about the same age. I had tried to read it when I was maybe 12 or 13, and I just couldn't get started. Then we watched the Laurence Olivier & Greer Garson movie version, which inspired me to try again. This time, when I opened up the book it came alive, and I barrelled through to the end. The Lady Catherine Deburgh from that movie incarnation will always be the Real Lady Catherine to me, even if her character in the movie deviates sadly from the book.

Charming Disarray said...

Whoops. All six, I mean. That's what I get for midnight commenting.