Book Review: Pride and Prejudice
Updated: Aug 17, 2020
Hang on. Was that supposed to be funny?
How do you even begin to review Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice? It is a dearly beloved novel. It has been analyzed and critiqued for over 200 years. The story has been adapted for stage and ballet. It has been filmed for television, movies, and YouTube. It has inspired multitudinous sequels and reimaginings. Recently, I read a social media thread that recreated scenes from the novel via Instagram photos and Facebook posts.
What else is there to say? Probably not much, other than some personal thoughts and observations.
Christmas 1984: my brother gave me copies of Pride and Prejudice and Silas Marner. I was in my second year of college, majoring in English. So far, my classes had focused almost exclusively on the DWM canon: Pope, Tennyson, Browning, Byron, Melville, Twain, Hawthorne, and Emerson. During my entire time in college, not one literature class ever touched on the works of Jane Austen or George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans).
When I started reading Pride and Prejudice, I had no foreknowledge of the plot. At the time, I was still learning how to read 19th Century literature, with its unique style and idiom. The culture described in the novel was unfamiliar to me, so I had to learn about the importance of courtship, community dances, and daily visits. When Mrs Bennet begs Mr Bennet to introduce himself to Mr Bingley, I seriously did not understand why that was such a significant event. I figured Mr Bennet could go up to anyone he wanted and simply say hello. Evidently, there are protocols for courtesy.
Then I came across this sentence: “Mary wished to say something very sensible, but knew not how.”
Hang on a moment. Was that … a joke?
Since when did serious literature ever have a sense of humor? Suddenly, I was reading Austen through a completely different lens. This was not a stuffy, uptight novel, but rather one rich in witticisms. Humor runs like a precious silver vein through a mine. There is so much to be harvested, and how beautifully it shines.
Since that moment of discovery, I have read all of Austen’s novels multiple times. What fascinates me about her work is that she carefully describes the protocols of respectability. There are specific ways to do things. Every character knows what is acceptable and what isn’t. And yet all her characters have realistic flaws. They fumble, stumble, and commit faux pas. They are insensitive, careless, or downright silly. They are recognizable and relatable – each aspiring to perfect behavior, but Austen is never afraid to topple them from their pedestals. Even Elizabeth Bennet, for all her wit and insight, suffers from a fair amount of prejudice and pride. And Darcy, suffused with arrogance and a rigid moralistic code, has a compassionate side.
It seems to me that Pride and Prejudice holds a special place in Austen's bibliography. While fans of Austen (sometimes referred as Janeites) may argue about which novel is best, it is a foregone conclusion that everyone loves Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. I know I do.