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.