Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Paging Mr. Darcy

When I wrote about another book in the canon of English literature this winter, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, I mentioned the difficulties I have blogging about such well-known books. My general M.O. is to simply share all of my impressions of what I've read: to discuss what I liked or disliked about a particular book, and to give anyone stumbling through enough of a sense of character, plot and style to know whether it's one they may want to pick up or not.

All of this is a lot harder when it's a novel that has been admired, respected and beloved for nearly two centuries, like Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. After I finished the book, I moseyed on over to Dishin' Dat, who is not only my source for all things Project Runway, but maintains two Jane Austen blogs. And there is a whole world of Jane Austen out there. There were articles on the fashion and design of the period, on ballroom etiquette, politics, women's roles, everything imaginable. There were pop culture references and links to more scholarly blogs. So this presents a pickle: anything positive I say about the book will be pretty stale, as will any attempts at analysis. Anything negative will sound like a tenth-grader dissing Shakespeare.

All I can really do is provide my personal, gut reactions. Basically, I liked this book a great deal. Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series was what piqued my interest in this book. Before that, I'd had little desire to try any Jane Austen, but I hate feeling like I don't understand his jokes, so I decided to give Pride and Prejudice a try.

For those of you who don't know, the heart of the book is basically the world's oldest romantic tale. It probably has its origins in cave paintings and pops up in literary and dramatic works from Shakespeare to sitcoms and all the way through the spectrum. When Elizabeth Bennett first meets Mr. Darcy, a close friend of their new neighbors, she hates him. He strikes her as a typical pompous ass, and she soon hears reports of him that takes her dislike to an entirely new level. He seems to essentially return the sentiments until he comes to her out of the blue, confesses his love, and asks her to marry him. She shows him the door, but it turns out that she's much mistaken about him...and you can most likely imagine the rest.

There is more to the tale than that. Elizabeth has four sisters and comes from a family which is respectable but not wealthy, so the stakes for all five of them to make successful marriages are high. Their mother is constantly scheming to this effect. By the end of the tale, three of the five are married, although each takes a different, twisting path to get there.

I also found it a fascinating glimpse into another era. Modern readers will have it brought home to them once again how thoroughly society has changed. For example, when one of Elizabeth's sisters absconds with a man known to be of low character, the family is naturally hysterical. But while a modern person may be concerned about financial exploitation or domestic abuse, the Bennetts were concerned about the girl's reputation and wanted to see her married to this man as soon as possible. And when the sisters of the man Elizabeth's older sister Jane is in love with attempt to break up the match (due to their own marital ambitions), she has little recourse. Societal conventions forbade Jane from simply writing a letter or paying a visit to get it all cleared up. The language, too, is a little difficult to get past at first: the connotative meanings of certain words have definitely evolved in the past 175 years. But it's worth it. This one deserves to be a classic, and it's enjoyable besides.

1 comment:

cb said...

i love me some old books, but Austen does NOT make the grade. i just can't get into her. Northanger Abbey is good, because i get the Gothic novel jokes, but - sigh.
the nineteenth century is where it's really at, yo. for some 19th century fluff, try Sherlock Holmes and also Hornung's "tribute" book Raffles. (Raffles shows up in a Jasper Fforde book. he's like Holmes in brains except he is a thief not a detective). they're great.

also, again: you need to work on some writing of your own, sparky. you've got some free time for the moment, so get cracking. i handed you a brilliant jewel of an idea in comments above. there has GOT to be a writers' group of some sort in buffalo that you could join to motivate you.

go! write! now!