It is a truth … no, I can’t go there but, just in case you haven’t caught up with the news, I’m here to tell you that today, January 28, is the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s most popular novel, Pride and prejudice. And so I’ve decided to give Monday Musings a break this week and talk a little about this book. But where to start? What can I say that hasn’t already been said?
How about what the book means to me. It is the book that turned me from being a book reader to a literature lover. I hope that doesn’t sound snooty but what I mean is that Pride and prejudice is the first book to teach me that there can be more to reading books than quick page-turning to find out what happens in the story. There’s nothing wrong with page-turners – they serve a very important purpose in helping us to escape the daily grind – but books can offer a lot more if we want something else from the time we spend reading. They help us better understand the human condition, they can challenge our intellect, and they can appeal aesthetically.
Pride and prejudice, like all of Jane Austen’s novels, satisfies the first of these in spades. Through her characters, Austen demonstrates an in-depth knowledge of human nature. She shows us kindness, compassion, envy, selfishness, stupidity, thoughtlessness, integrity, anger, pride, prejudice and more, including, though Charlotte Brontewould not agree, passion. Mr Darcy’s ghastly “in vain have I struggled” proposal is nothing if not passionate. I for one don’t need ripped bodices to feel the passion!
Regarding challenging our intellect, one of the delights of reading Austen is the mind games she plays with us – the irony, the wit, keep us on our toes, encouraging us to see the meanings beneath the surface. And, if you read for plot, try reading an Austen novel a second time and you will see how perfectly she plots. Rereading books like Pride and prejudice brings so many pleasures. It’s like meeting an old friend and learning new things about her that enrich your relationship and remind you why she became your friend in the first place.
The aesthetic pleasures are something else – and I fear I’m on thin ground here because I’m probably using the term quite differently to the way philosophers and literary theorists might use it, but it’s the best I can come up with. What I mean is appreciating the novel as a work of art, regardless of its content. Readers from the 20th and 21st centuries can, I think, find Austen’s “art” a little quaint, if not downright dated, but in fact she was innovative. Susannah Fullerton in her latest book, Happily ever after: Celebrating Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and prejudice’, spends a few pages on this. Austen’s main innovation lies in her use of “free indirect discourse” (FID) or “free indirect speech”. She was not the first writer to use it, but was, says Fullerton, “the first English novelist to use FID consistently and extensively”. It is used in third person narratives and involves “hearing” what a character feels or thinks without the use of dialog and not via authorial interaction or the omnipotent narrator. We feel, in other words, that we are in the character’s head rather than being “told” what s/he feels. Austen slips between third-person and this interior mode regularly in her novels. It allows us, in Pride and prejudice, for example, to feel right along with Elizabeth – but the advantage of this technique is that it can shift from character to character in between omnipotent third-person narration. These and the rest of Jane Austen’s grab bag of literary techniques are another reason why she’s such a pleasure to read – and why her books are just plain beautiful.
In other words, Pride and prejudice is the real deal – great story and characters, along with food for the mind, the intellect and the heart. No wonder it has never been out of print.