Finally. Finally. Finally. I cracked the spine of a Jane Austen book. All I can say is, what took me so long.
My prior Jane Austen experience amounted to seeing the Ang Lee version of Sense and Sensibility, reading the published screenplay by Emma Thompson, watching the Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice with Kiera Knightly, and repeated viewings of Clueless.
It's going to be difficult to sum up in one post how much I enjoyed the experience of reading Pride and Prejudice. For the first half of the 1813 novel, a surprisingly swift 339 pages, I was captivated by the world, the humanely comic portrait of the Bennet clan, and the centrality of the female point of view.
Plus, it's funny. The writing itself -- the droll descriptions, the understated asides -- are easy to move right past, but when noticed practically jump off the page.
Consider this passage. Elizabeth, our heroine, has just trudged three miles across muddy fields to visit her sister Jane who has taken ill with a cold at a nearby estate. Jane, as thoroughly good-natured a person as you'll ever meet, had traveled to the house to visit Mr. Bingley, a relatively wealthy young man whom her mother hopes her to marry. So Elizabeth shows up at this fancy house, all muddy, and Mr. Bingley's sisters think she's loony and uncouth. Mr. Darcy is their even richer friend, and Mr. Hurst is married to one of the sisters, a pretty dull fellow. Here's how Austen describes their reaction to Elizabeth:
Mr. Darcy said very little, and Mr. Hurst nothing at all. The former was divided between admiration of the brilliancy which exercise had given to her complexion, and doubt as to the occasion's justifying her coming so far alone. The latter was thinking only of breakfast.
Trying to describe why something is funny is the surest way to bludgeon the humor right out of it, but this final line tells us everything we need to know about Mr. Hurst (and to some degree his wife), sets him apart from Mr. Darcy in his interest in Elizabeth, and is hilarious (in context, I swear!).
The story largely concerns the marriage prospects of the Bennet sisters, particularly Elizabeth, Jane, and to a lesser degree Lydia. We get various views on 19th century marriage. Here's a bit from Elizabeth's friend Charlotte, who eventually gets exactly what she describes:
"...Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other, or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life."
To which Elizabeth replies:
"You make me laugh, Charlotte; but it is not sound. You know it is not sound, and that you would never act in this way yourself."
Elizabeth's view, which edges toward the possibility of having both romantic love and marriage, feels progressive for its time. She envisions (and her droll father hopes for her to find) an intellectual and emotional match. Someone who can keep up with her. Someone who can disarm, rather than tame, her.
Enter Mr. Darcy. He and Elizabeth share light verbal sparring matches during the opening passages of the book, taking an initially strong dislike for one another. These passages are marvelous in their wit. They are swashbucklers of the highest order, trading words and inflections as surely as a swordsman parries and thrusts.
The read was very good till the halfway point, and then it became great. By the end, it became one of my favorite books of all time. I have rarely finished a book and wanted so badly to start it over again immediately. I can count on one hand the number of books I've read and known for sure I would read again.
Pride and Prejudice is that good.
My admiration for this novel goes beyond affection. I love it. I want to jump in the middle of it and experience it all over again.
My only question is, which Jane Austen should I read next? I'm assuming Sense and Sensibility, but if anyone has another suggestion, please let me know.
Incidentally, though die-hard fans of the epic miniseries version of Pride and Prejudice will scoff, I think that Joe Wright's 2006 version is almost impeccably cast.
Whoever had the brilliant idea to give Donald Sutherland the role of Mr. Bennet deserves our eternal thanks. If you haven't seen it, you should.
But read the book first!