I have a longstanding hate/love relationship with Jane Austen. Or with her books, anyway.
I was first subjected to Pride and Prejudice my senior year of high school. It was part of the curriculum of your standard advanced English class and presented as a Great Work of the Western Literary Canon, and treated with all due seriousness, to which I responded with far less enthusiasm than a) my teacher would have preferred, and b) my fellow female classmates did at the romance between Lizzie Bennett and Mr. Darcy. While the teacher did an excellent job of teaching the grand themes, the symbolism, and the cultural reasons for the endless obsession with finding good husbands for the five Bennett daughters, they were lessons that went right over my head.
A few years later, I took a college course on British Literature where Pride and Prejudice popped up again. Had I not been surviving on coffee, Pop Tarts, and three hours of sleep per night, I might have understood what the professor- who also did a wonderful job of teaching- was trying to tell us about the book. As it was, I was too tired to truly soak in the lessons that he and Jane Austen had to teach.
Cue up the movies.
About seven years after I graduated from college, and thanks to a Netflix subscription, I watched a particular couple of movies- the newest versions of Mansfield Park and Pride and Prejudice. While Hollywood often butchers novels, sometimes they stay true enough to make a book come alive to the point where my interest in that book is picqued, and so it was with Jane Austen, although not initially with Pride and Prejudice. To re-start my troubled relationship with her works, I started with Northanger Abbey– a send-up of the Gothic fiction that was popular in Austen’s time, and I have to admit- I was charmed. I went on to Sense and Sensibility, and ultimately on to the bete noir of my previous literature classes- Pride and Prejudice.
I don’t know if I fell in love with the book because I was older and better able to follow the writing structure, if I was able to simply enjoy the book without having to search for themes and motives, or if I finally realized what a brilliantly funny satire it is. While Joe Wright’s cinematic version (starring Keira Knightley and Matthew McFadyen) was a charming love story, I don’t think it quite caught the humor within (sentences such as “Is not general incivility the very essence of love?” are easily overlooked).
What also is overlooked is the reason that Lizzie Bennett captures Mr. Darcy (and the reason that she is such an enduring literary heroine). She is not a great beauty, is not massively talented in music or drawing or dancing or what have you, and does not have the benefit of being a wealthy heiress. Lizzie is a young woman of no great means who says what she thinks, sticks to her guns (metaphorically speaking), and is undaunted by rank or position.
In other words, Lizzie makes the best match of the realm by being smart, snarky, and independent. How many other heroines (outside those of the Brontes) can say the same? With Pride and Prejudice, the wealthy, the pretty, and the class-conscious- the very people who are supposed to be well regarded- are proven to be ridiculous, snobbish, sycophantic, or otherwise horrid people you wouldn’t want to be around. Lizzie is none of these, yet you root for her all the way through. So much for the pretty people. In Austen’s world, it is the clever and the free-spirited girls who end up with the best of men.
So my first exposure to Jane Austen didn’t go too well, but there are some things that a bit of age improves- including the understanding of what some books are all about. Fortunately for me, Pride and Prejudice was one of those books where time helped me out.