Princess Muse

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Musings on 200 Years of Pride and Prejudice

Monday (January 28) was the 200th Anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice.  Interestingly, an author I follow on FaceBook mentioned that she had never read anything by Jane Austen and was wondering which one she should try.  (She wasn't sure she'd like any because she thought the language was a bit flowery.)  Others in the posting were saying that they had read Jane Austen in school and just didn't care for her.

I have a confession to make:  I never read Jane Austen for a class.  Not in high school; not in college; not in graduate school. Nope, I had to find Jane on my own.  Alright, not totally on my own;  my mother is a retired AP English teacher and she told me to read Jane Austen.  I think I was out of college, but hadn't decided if I wanted to go to grad school or not--or even what I would study in grad school!

So, before I rhapsodize all things Pride and Prejudice, I want to back up a little and share my secret belief on why more people don't read the classics (but why they'll read books that are supposedly modern retellings).

It's an assigned book.  There.  That's the problem.  When I was in high school, I ignored the assigned pages.  I read the book as if I was reading a book for fun.  It usually took me a day or two to read the whole book, and then I'd go back and review the assigned pages so I could remember specifically what happened in a particular chapter so I could get a good grade on the inevitable quiz.   And there had to be a quiz, because if there wasn't a quiz, very few people would read the book.  (I had to take an American Lit class in graduate school because, even though I had taken several English classes, and was very well read, I had nothing on my undergrad transcripts that said "American Lit," and, to become a teacher in Maryland, I had to have an American Lit class.  One of the books we read was Moby Dick.  The professor actually stated that we would be having daily quizzes to make sure students were reading the book.)  There are only two books I have ever read for classes that I only read the assigned pages:  the aforementioned Moby Dick, and The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy.  I didn't enjoy either one.  I still won't read anything by Thomas Hardy, despite my mother's assurances that Hardy really is an enjoyable author.  Just Can't Do It.

Plus, there's that whole "I have to do this."  I don't know about you, but I hate having do things just because someone tells me I have to do it.  Or being told I have to do a really big job in a short amount of time.  I drag my feet having to do it.  I'll invent a million things I'd also need to do.  Anything, but do the thing "I have to do."

I'll bet, if teachers could trust students to read an assigned book, there would be fewer quizzes (oh, there'd have to be a few quizzes, because teachers need to have grades because Society insists on it), but the quizzes could be on other things than "In Chapter 6, Elizabeth tells Jane what?".  But, students being students, teachers can't count on them all to read an assigned book within a few days so the Discussions can begin.  

And, the Discussions can be where a lot of the fun of an assigned book is.  Why did Jane Austen title her book Pride and Prejudice? (Most people will tell you that Mr. Darcy is "too proud" and Elizabeth Bennet is "prejudiced against Mr. Darcy because of his pride," but I believe that both of them are proud and full of prejudice.)  Discuss the Aspects of Love (Mr. Darcy) and Lust (Mr. Wickham).  You have to understand a little bit of history (Why was it so scandalous for Lydia and Wickham to elope to Gretna Green?  Why did people run off to Gretna Green anyway?  Heck, where is Gretna Green?)  What would be an equivalent scandal if this book were written today?  (Oh, I don't know....maybe the fact that Lydia was 16 and Wickham was in his mid-to-upper 20s?)  How do you know that Mr. Darcy is falling in love with Elizabeth?  When does Elizabeth start to fall in love with Mr. Darcy.  Do you think Charlotte Lucas ever regretted marrying Mr. Collins?  Was she wrong to marry Mr. Collins for the reasons she did?

Heck, let's face it, Book Clubs are just English classes without the Daily Quizzes.  After all, this is why people form book clubs:  so they can discuss the books that they've read--even if they didn't like the book.

So, why do I like Pride and Prejudice so much?  I think it's the characters.  We still see them in books everyday.  Mr. Darcy is the smart, rich guy.  He's not always nice--but he'll give a lot of money to charity and thinks this makes him nice. To his friends, he'll do anything he can to help them--even if it is a bit interfering.  To the people he considers his inferiors (and I think this means his intellectual inferiors, not so much his socio-economic inferiors), he has little patience.  He will make snap judgements, and sometimes won't re-examine his judgements.  Elizabeth Bennet is our feisty girl, in someways very democratic (she sees no social difference between herself, the daughter of a gentleman who probably has an income of about £1,000 per annum, and a gentleman who has an income of £10,000 per annum--and, to be honest, the difference isn't so much economically as it is about class.  Mr. Bennett is not a peer, and, if he has relative who are peers, they are probably only Barons--the lowest peer rank, and still considered "gentry";  whereas Mr. Darcy is the grandson of a peer (his mother was Lady Anne, which implies that his maternal grandfather was probably at least a Viscount).   She's also very loyal to her friends, but Stupid People irritate her, although she's maybe a little more tolerant of them than Mr. Darcy is.  Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley are the cute, sweet couple that everybody loves (but I think are a little too apt to give up when the going gets a little tough).  Lydia Bennet is the classic Self-Absorbed Mean Girl.  Mr. Bingley's sisters are the Rich Mean Girls.  Mr. Wickham is the Ne'er-Do-Well (I'd call him a Rake, but in Romance Novels, the Rake is almost always redeemable, and I'm not sure Mr. Wickham is).

I read a blog (but I can't remember where I found it!) about the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice (the one starring Kiera Knightley and Matthew Macfayden), specifically about Matthew Macfayden's portrayal of Mr. Darcy.  She said that it wasn't so much that Mr. Darcy was proud, as he was socially awkward.  She said that the reason why Mr. Darcy didn't want to dance with Elizabeth was more that he wasn't a good dancer, and then tried to cover it up by stating that there was no one there who could "tempt" him to dance.  His first proposal to Elizabeth was awkward because he doesn't know how to talk to women.  As I re-read Pride and Prejudice on Monday, I kept that in mind.  Yes, Mr. Darcy does acknowledge that he doesn't make friends easily, especially when compared to Mr. Wickham, but I don't think it's because he's socially awkward, but because he really doesn't care if he makes friends or not.  He's rich, he's socially connected and people are going to listen to him because he's rich and socially connected, so he doesn't have to care about what you think of him.  But then, he realizes that the woman he thought was quite pretty enough, who's family is an embarrassment, is everything he really wants in a woman.  Oohh...but he's already insulted her--how to overcome this?  And his first proposal to her shows that hasn't quite figured out that Elizabeth isn't overawed by his social position and money like everybody else is.  Then Elizabeth, after insulting Mr. Darcy's proposal, finds out how her prejudice is going to stand in the way of her happiness.  By the end of the book, both Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth have unbent their pride, let go of some of their prejudices and find their Happily Ever After.

So, if you haven't read it before, or even if you have, go and celebrate 200 years of Pride and Prejudice.    Read.  Watch the movie(I prefer the A&E/BBC 1995 miniseries--there are some alterations from the book, but, on the whole, a very faithful adaptation).  Enjoy the Romance.