This is at least the third time I’ve read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, maybe the fourth. So I can’t really say it’s a “New Favorite Book” but I can say that it certainly holds up to re-reading.
So that’s what I’m going to discuss here, the pleasures and perils of re-reading.
There are some books that can be correctly understood in completely different fashions each time you read them. The Old Man and the Sea is my favorite example. When I used to read it with my 7th graders we read it as a straightforward fishing story, sometimes as a myth, sometimes as an allegory for how an artist creates a work of art. All valid readings, at least according to my undergraduate professor circa 1984.
You don’t get that with Jane Austen. Every time I read one of her books again, I read the book I read before.
The pleasure of re-reading Jane comes from the nostalgia of revisiting old friends. Everyone is pretty much the way you remember them, I felt more inclined to admire Mr. Bennet this time around than in previous readings, but you liked them in the first place so you like them still.
The prose is just as wonderful as I remembered, much better than Sense and Sensibility, and the dialogue is a delight. Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine de Bourgh are fine company even when they are at their worst. In fact, it’s often at their worst that they are the most fun. And they have not changed, not the way the characters in other books do, the way readers do.
This time around I was struck by just how good a husband and father Mr. Bennet is, by just how much he loves his wife and daughters. I have always liked Mr. Bennet, but used to find him basically a comic foil for Mrs. Bennet, George Burns to her Gracie Allen. He has much the same relationship with his daughters except for Elizabeth for whom he is a kindred spirit. But what I missed is that George Burns deeply loved Gracie Allen, always did, even when he seemed to be making fun of her.
Mr. Bennet does the same. He is exasperated by his wife, by her constant requests for introductions to eligible single men, but he always manages to come through with the introduction in the end. He indulges them all to a fault, though he does have other options. I think Elizabeth is much too harsh in her final evaluation of his character in the book’s closing chapters. Granted, had he kept tighter control over his family, Lydia might not have run off with Wickham, but I suspect tighter control would have ruined his relationship with Mrs. Bennet, at least– and imagine how Elizabeth, our hero, would have turned out with a more controlling father.
Pride and Prejudice is a triple-decker, divided into three sections that can be summed up as Elizabeth meets/rejects Mr. Darcy; Elizabeth comes to see the error of her ways regarding Mr. Darcy; Elizabeth comes to marry Mr. Darcy.
The first two sections are lots of fun. Everything everyone who loves Jane Austen loves about Jane Austen.
The third part though…..lags a bit. Once Elizabeth sees how wrong she has been about Mr. Darcy, that her confidence in her own opinion has really been simple prejudice, she becomes a bit cowed. I felt she lost some of the fire that made her so attractive a character in the first two parts. She kind of turns into a traditional 19th century heroine. And she gets a bit judgy. She’s right, I suppose, about most things now that she knows how wrong she has been, but she is so harsh about it, borderline preachy at times. I began to fear Ms. Austen was slipping into pedantry. We were getting a few too many morals-to-the-story for my taste.
Enter Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Lady Catherine is so awful she’s delicious. She should be considered one of the great villains in literature. And she is so much fun to have around–mean, petty, full of herself, snobbish. I love her. And she is really the only character in the book who is a true match for Elizabeth’s wit. Their sparring match, wherein Lady Catherine explains why Elizabeth should not marry her nephew, Mr. Darcy is one of the best in the book, probably in English. And this is the scene when Elizabeth first hears that Mr. Darcy is planning on proposing to her a second time.
Which is some fine, fine, plotting on the part of Ms. Austen.
I was very impressed, even though I knew it was going to happen.
Just like it did last time.
And the time before that.
And maybe even the time before that.
Which is one of many reasons why Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is my new favorite book. Again.
Next up in the Jane Austen Read All a-Long is Mansfield Park, which I admit I’m kind of dreading. I’m glad its in the middle of the Read All a-long. And I have until September to finish reading all the Booker nominees, which I have been mostly loving by the way.