Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Jane Austen - Pride and Prejudice

Mimicking the first sentence in Pride and Prejudice, the final section of "Reading Lolita in Tehran", entitled "Austen", begins as follows:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man, regardless of his fortune, must be in want of a nine-year-old virgin wife"

So I had to make one final diversion from Asian literature, and go back to read P&P, which I had found so boring at the age of 16.

(Apparently, P&P was only elevated to the ranks of "great literature" in the 1940's, so mine would have been one of the first generations to have to read it in high school.)

It seems to be appropriate reading for teenagers -- since, after all, the main characters are in their early twenties, and naughty Lydia is only 16 when she gets married to wicked Wickham.

But honor student that I was -- it was way over my head, and it would have taken quite a teacher to attach me to its subtle approach to human situations that I had never experienced, especially through the lives of late 18th C. English gentry.

Now, almost fifty years later, it had me glued to the page, even if I still don't care whether Lizzy and her sisters will ever find sensible, congenial, and of course, filthy rich, husbands.

Austen just seems to know the questions that will arise in my mind as I follow the text.

So, for example, immediately after Elizabeth has that climactic confrontation with Lady Catherine, I was wondering why her family would not have noticed that she was very upset.

But Austen begins the very next chapter (15) with exactly that problem:

"The discomposure of spirits which this extraordinary visit threw Elizabeth into could not be easily overcome; nor could she for many hours learn to think of it less than incessantly"

And wasn't that an incredible scene?

The unstoppable force versus the immovable object?

The battle of the dragon ladies!

I felt like such a wimp as I read it -- knowing that if I were in Elizabeth's shoes, I would have defensively shouted "Hey, fuck you, bitch!", and the conversation would have ended immediately.

But as it turned out -- maintaining a reasonable contact for as long as she did, allowed Elizabeth to show that she defiantly would not reject Darcy's proposal - and that heroic defiance would drive Lady Catherine to report the conversation to Darcy with outrage rather than contempt, which then encouraged him to renew his nuptual proposal.

And please note, that was the only such pyrotechnic confrontation in the entire book.

The Bennet family's outrage over the Lydia-Wickham affair was just a tiny puff of smoke -- and that reminds us that the drama consequent to inappropriate marriages is the engine that drives this novel -- and it's hard to imagine that engine being so powerful in the eras that preceded or followed that revolutionary period in European history when the aristocracy was giving way to the bourgeois.

"Pride" is what bothers lower class persons (the Bennets) about the uppers (Darcy, Bingley, De Bourgh) -- and "Prejudice" is what that they feel.

BTW - it's interesting to note that nobody in this story has a job. (except, perhaps for Mrs. Bennet, whose job is to marry off her daughters, and whose perseverance in the execution of same makes her the target of the author's ridicule)

Everyone lives off the income of their property -- except for the two characters who are the most reprehensible: Collins, the obsequious pastor to Lady Catherine, and Wickham, the spendthrift, treacherous, gentry wannabe.

And we also might note that the main character, Elizabeth, is hardly the playful, lively soul that Austen repeatedly tells us, but does not show us, that she is.

Elizabeth is consistently wracked by anxiety, self-recrimination, and sharp, acidic contempt for other characters.

I can't imagine her being fun to be around -- and I pity poor Darcy for having to put up with her at Pemberley for the rest of his life -- though he does seem to be a fellow who enjoys being humiliated. Isn't that why he continued to pursue Elizabeth Bennet when she continued to spurn him, and he clearly had many other options?

Which brings us to consider the possible sequels to this story.

Most readers apparently assume the Elizabeth-Darcy relationship to be idyllic --especially since it will continue at the magnificent estate of Pemberley (shown above) -- (which - if you remember - is the reason that Elizabeth teasingly gave for being attracted to such a proud, aloof suitor)

So most sequels have looked elsewhere for drama, except for Mary Sherwood's, who decided to test the couple with the trials of middle age.

But I think this is a disastrous couple - and the real drama will come when their children become adults.

I'd have them conceive a girl on their honeymoon -- and then since their sex life would probably drop off dramatically (she's too much the shrew -- he's too much the wimp), they won't have another child for ten years -- after he comes back from India and rapes her in a drunken stupor.

The second child would be a very smart boy -- likely would grow up homosexual -- and I'd have the story follow his consciousness, just as P&P followed his mother's.

Now that would be a sequel! (though, I suppose it would have to be written in the style of the 20th instead of the 18th Century)

One more thing I noted, is how quickly the characters "fall violently in love" (an interesting use of the word "violent") and then make their marriage proposals. Especially compared with the careful consideration that usually accompany arranged marriages (like the one described here or here ).
Given their beauty and interest in marriage, it's a wonder those 5 Bennet sisters were all still unmarried at the beginning of the story.
And, it's a wonder that any marriage under those circumstances would remain a happy one after a year or two -- much less over the decades.
It's also interesting to note how marginal Christianity was to the characters in this story. One of them (Mr. Collins) is a minister, but the portrait of his groveling and sanctimonious self is hardly flattering, and another ( the worthless Wickham) would have joined that profession if he had the patience.
Church is regularly attended -- but Christian faith or ideals are never mentioned.
It's also interesting to note how marginal the arts were to these gentry lives.
Mary and Elizabeth are the only characters who practice music -- though not very well.
And nobody writes poetry - or seems to have any interest in visual arts, including the kind that is worn on the head, wrist, or neck.
Beauty only plays a role in the description of Pemberly -- with its beautiful woods and magnificent natural vistas.
Scholarship is of some interest -- but only to the rather dimwitted, bookish Mary, and to her father, for whom it mostly serves as an escape from his scatterbrained wife.
Hunting/fishing seems to be the primary passion of this aristocracy -- in sharp contrast to the aristocratic aesthetes described in the Tale of Genji or the Baburnama.