book-reviews

Pride and Prejudice

by Jane Austen

Rating: ★★★

I entered into Pride & Prejudice with some trepidation, as it was never a book that any review has convinced me I would like. My expectation was that it would be a tedious story, filled with stuffy characters and concerned mostly with a wispy romance. I was somewhat surprised, then, to discover myself liking it, or at least in parts.

The plot, to be clear, is pretty much exactly as tedious as I had anticipated. Almost everything in it centres around romances -- the unwanted, the calculated, the frustrated and the unexpected. To be sure, these are not merely affairs of the heart -- the livelihood of the young rests on these somewhat political manoeuvres (and I suppose the same could be said of almost all such affairs). Nonetheless, it is a bit dull, especially given that there are also long segments of the novel in which really nothing happens other than a few awkward non-conversations and social engagements.

However, where Austen really shines, and what brought the book up in my estimation, is her excellent dialogue and keenly observant social dynamics. The latter is hard to communicate, because it is subtly played into the scenes -- the careful management of Mr Collins by his new wife, the way Mrs Gardiner somehow managed to slow so Elizabeth and Darcy are left talking for some time at Pemberly. The former is much more obvious. There are, in fact, whole passages of dialogue which are funny, starting from Mr Bennet's early contributions and ranging to the full-blooded mannered punch-up between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine. The problem is, despite this skill with dialogue, Austen seems almost to deliberately avoid employing it, and there are consequently long slogs of narrative and groping introspection between these scenes where the novel comes to life. This is particularly a problem when it comes to some of the interactions with Darcy, where Austen resorts to simply having Elizabeth tell us that his manners were different, rather than taking the opportunity to show us.

The setting of the book is of course very high-class and, for want of a better word, very English. The whole mood of the writing, in fact, rests on understatement, and expecting the reader to understand things that are not directly said. I quite liked this, and it was another general positive for the book, although a rather minor one. (I did find myself thinking, though, that the plot would translate extremely well into a much lower-class modern England, substituting raves for balls, video games for letter-writing, etc. "Fit girls tonight, eh?" Bingley might say. "Nah mate," replies the taciturn Darcy, in earshot of where Liz is taking a breather while she waits for the ecstasy to kick in.)

The variations in style from the written English of our day were mostly not abrasive, and Austen's prose reads quite easily to the modern eye. The use of the anonymised '--shire' did confuse me a little, until I figured out that the militia were from somewhere other than Hertfordshire, and it was not an inconsistency. I found it interesting that Austen uses both 'choose' and 'chuse', depending on character. There were some quaint numbers ('half of a quarter of a mile', 'three couple of ducks'), which were sort of charming. One annoyance, though, was the terrible form of "her's" and "your's", which errors I can see no reason for not being corrected in a text over two hundred years old.

My experiment here has been a success, in that I come away with a better impression of Austen than with which I began. I cannot honestly say that I properly enjoyed the novel -- the delightful parts were scattered a bit thin in the narrative of an overall unappealing plot -- but I can more clearly see how someone could find it engaging, and I'm open to reading other of Austen's work, if assured of how it compares to this one.