Back in the early to mid-2010s, my local Jane Austen group undertook a program of slow reading Jane Austen’s novels, coinciding with those books’ 200th anniversaries. Given that began around a decade ago, we decided last year that it was time to do another slow read program, and to stick with a chronological approach – that is, chronological in terms of publication. This meant that we did Sense and sensibility last year, and have just completed this year’s book, Pride and prejudice.
It is truly amazing just how much “new” we can find to talk about with books most of us have read not once, not twice, but multiple times, proving I suppose Italian writer Italo Calvino’s definition of a classic. Hmmm, no, not “definition” but “definitions”. He has fourteen of them, but here are the two that are most applicable to my post:
4. A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.
6. A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.
These explain why slow reads can be particularly enjoyable with classics: once you know the plot, you are freed to discover how the author did it, to think about why they did it, and to notice more of the things they were telling you that you didn’t notice on the first read in your rush to find out what happens.
So, over the last three months, my group’s discussions have ranged across all of these, including finding some questions that we hadn’t thought to ask before. In Austen there are always those things she doesn’t tell us because they were known to her audience. These are the things we gradually pick up over years of Austen reading and research, such as the entail. But on this read, members raised questions regarding plot events that many of us hadn’t thought to ask before. For example, when Mr Darcy tells Elizabeth, on their meeting accidentally at Pemberley, that his sister “wishes to be known” to her, we wondered what had he told her about Elizabeth? Had he unburdened his heart to this shy young girl? Or, was it just an excuse to encourage Elizabeth to hang around a bit longer? And, when Lady Catherine visits Elizabeth because she fears there’s an engagement (or “an understanding”) between her and Darcy, where had she got this idea from?
We also found – yet again – that we had changed our minds about some of the characters, though sometimes these were diametrically opposed. For example, one remembered that when she first read the book as a schoolgirl, she felt “enormously sorry for ‘poor misunderstood Mrs Bennet’” but now she “would willingly strangle her”. For me, it’s the opposite. I had little sympathy for Mrs Bennet in my first readings, but now, understanding her worries about her daughters’ futures and Mr Bennet’s negligence in providing for them, I feel some sympathy for her – though her behaviour, all the same, is ridiculous. By contrast, in my early readings of Pride and prejudice I was far more sympathetic to Mr Bennet than I am now.
In fact, many of us in fact had little epiphanies regarding different characters that we shared with the group. Sweet Jane Bennet was thought just far too saccharine by one member, but she read some analyses that likened the angelic Jane to the sentimental 18th century heroines. Philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith argued, she told us, that feeling rather than reason provides the grounding for morality – and Jane exemplifies this. She sympathises with everyone, and behaves graciously to all. Our member wondered whether she should temper her view of Jane – though by the end she still felt Jane was just “too nice (to be real)”.
Some of these changes are due to the way slow reading exposes subtle clues that we don’t see on early reads, but some, I’m sure are due to life experiences. Austen is the perfect writer for illuminating (and then informing) our individual experiences of life.
We discussed which characters changed over the course of the novel, and, surprise, surprise, we didn’t all agree. No, let me rephrase that: we all agreed that Elizabeth and Darcy change, but some felt Mr Bennet did too, while others of us felt not – or, perhaps, only for a moment!
And then there’s the writing and the plotting. On each read we find more examples of just how beautifully, and cleverly, Austen writes. As one member said this week, as soon as he starts reading her sentences he’s drawn in – more than with any other writer. And then he shared a funny little quote from the novel that I had picked out too. It’s when Elizabeth first sees Pemberley from the outside, and takes in its beauty and grandness,
and, at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!
Such an understatement … but of course the novel is full of statements like these, of satire and little ironies, of big and little insights. We also found interesting parallels, such as between those two ridiculous women, Mrs Bennet and Lady Catherine, who, said one member, are silly and illogical in different ways. Which brings me back to sweet Jane. Writing to Elizabeth to tell her about Lydia’s running off with Wickham, she says of her mother’s overwrought behaviour that “Could she exert herself, it would be better; but this is not to be expected.” “But this is not to be expected” tells us that Jane knows her mother very well – and more, I’d argue, that Jane, while generous towards people, is not so taken in that she doesn’t see what’s what when it’s there in front of her. She just gives people the benefit of the doubt. I like that.
I fear this has been a self-indulgent ramble that hasn’t said much of substance, but it’s the best I can do right now!
Meanwhile, to those of you who do slow reads, why do you like doing them, and what you most get out of them?