Sunday, November 9, 2014

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Two smart people try to correct mistakes made at the outset of their relationship

Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters will have no inheritance.  They must land rich husbands, else -- well, the consequences are never quite spelled out, although the dreadful Lady Catherine de Bourgh has a sideline in placing desperate young women as subservient governesses. In Elizabeth’s entertaining search for a plausible mate, she keeps encountering the obnoxiously haughty (if not worse) Mr. Darcy, who is visibly annoyed by the loud vulgar Bennets. On the other hand, wealthy Mr. Darcy seems to find Elizabeth amusing, although once she surmises he was the one who ruined her beloved sister’s engagement to the kind Mr. Bingley, her heart fills with hatred. Unfortunately, about thirty minutes after this realization, Mr. Darcy arrives to condescendingly and insultingly ask for her hand in marriage. Just as insultingly she declines, though later, when Elizabeth is presented with epistolary evidence that perhaps Mr. Darcy is not so evil as presented, she starts to rethink the situation. When the Bennets have a family crisis, and Mr. Darcy comes to the rescue, secretly protecting the marriage prospects of all the Bennet girls, Elizabeth feels esteem, gratitude and love. A double wedding ensues.

As always, I deeply admired the perfect plotting, the pellucid prose, the concise and lively characterization of every single person, the dialogue which does double, triple duty, even though this time the novel felt the tiniest bit cold and mechanical. Austen is skilled at establishing Elizabeth’s emotional state so that what happens next doesn’t require excess explanation. Darcy’s first insult to her, right off the bat, resonates for the entire book, sets her against him from the get go. His first marriage proposal, in the exact middle of the book, is perfectly detonated. The key to plotting is the minor characters, and this book relies on them, especially the very busy Mr. Collins, who in addition to being the linchpin to several subplots, is also one of English literature's classic comic creations. Austen’s strength is the witty delineation of every minor character with just a few brush strokes. 

Darcy and Elizabeth are the smartest people in the room, bored perhaps. They’ve never encountered anyone like themselves and perhaps have not imagined that such a person could exist.  Most of the characters are universal -- I could see almost any one of them in the modern age, Wickham especially. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet certainly. Lydia, of course, and even Mr. Collins. But not Mr. Darcy. The gentleman of leisure does not exist and could not exist in our society. Much of the story is taken up with long walks, and coach rides and month long visits. This novel would make no sense after the invention of the motorcar. Elizabeth would just pop over for lunch and wouldn’t be forced to play the piano and make endless after dinner conversation. Therefore, no book.

I don’t want to say that it seems the end dragged on, but it seemed the book had a very long coda, after the sturm und drang of the middle. One motivation, which I hadn’t seen before, is Elizabeth’s desperation to get the hell out of Longbourn and the influence of her mother.

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