Monday, October 12, 2009


It is beneficial at times to step away from our classics of literature, to take them down from their high pedestals and look at them without pretension. No novel, no matter how well-regarded, is universally esteemed – Twain, Emerson, and Charlotte Bronte all savaged Pride and Prejudice in print – so let us, for a few moments, stop treating it as holy writ and just look at it as a novel, at how it holds up to a modern casual reader.

Pride and Prejudice (1813) is Jane Austen’s novel of manners – it thoroughly explores the ins, outs and economics of nineteenth-century courtship. The novel’s central character is Elizabeth Bennet, one of five daughters, whose family lives in a country village. Two wealthy, eligible bachelors move to town, and romance, confusion and animosity ensue.

Austen populates her novel with all manner of flawed characters. Many of them are annoying – that is, they behave badly and are antagonistic toward the main characters – but they all show at least some depth. No one here is without flaw, but no one here is without virtue, either (except Mr. Collins, the most ludicrous of them all). And this is why the novel works: because Austen treats her characters and their social milieu gently, delicately (well, except Mr. Collins). If she had done otherwise, if she had been more cutting, she would have lost the sympathy in the reader that many of these characters engender.

To the modern audience, Austen’s plotting is rather sluggish, although it must be recalled that novels moved at a rather more leisurely pace then. At any rate it often seems that there is one too many side plots, or perhaps one too many visits to relatives, and there are patches that can be quite hard to get through. But you don’t go to Austen for plot – you go to her for clever dialogue, for a delightful turn of phrase. That is what she thrives at, and that is what she is best remembered for. And in spite of the novel’s overlength, Austen delivers a full and completely satisfying payoff. Rarely is a happy ending so fulfilling, and it may not be until the last few pages of the book that it becomes evident to the reader how masterfully Austen has set it up. And this is a large reason why the novel has such enduring appeal.

Much of the nuance in Pride and Prejudice may be lost on casual modern readers. For example, the character of Mrs. Bennet is the object of great scorn from many readers, and this has only been exacerbated by the film adaptations of the novel. But while marrying for love is the norm today, then, it was not; Mrs. Bennet is the only one looking out for the Bennet family’s financial future.

Pride and Prejudice is, on the whole, a satisfactory and clever novel, and, at present, one whose merits are diminished mostly by readers too far removed to understand it in its fullness, or whose tastes have diverged too far.