Back in January, I reread Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, and mentioned that I planned to reread all of Austen’s novels at some point this year. Despite my great love for these books, it took me until May to get to the second book on the schedule which was Pride and Prejudice, perhaps Austen’s best known work and a favourite for many. As before, I must warn you that this is less of a critical review and more of an enthusiastic appreciation of the novel which will no doubt give away parts of the plot (as if you didn’t already know them).
Although I find that each of Austen’s novels has a unique appeal which makes it impossible for me to choose between them, Pride and Prejudice is probably the book with which I am the most familiar. This novel was incredibly clear in my mind when I came to rereading it (and indeed remains so even after waiting a further six months to write the review) even though I haven’t read it for more than six years when I studied the text for A level. This familiarity is no doubt partially due to the many adaptations of Pride and Prejudice which exist, which means that many people feel as though they know the book even if they have never actually read it: I’ve seen the much-loved BBC adaptation starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, the more divisive Kiera Knightley film version and even a local stage adaptation. I know there are a whole host more that I haven’t touched. But it’s also because the Bennet family, Mr Bingley and his two awful sisters, Mr Darcy, the inimitable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the slimy Mr Collins and the roguish Wickham are the sort of characters who stay with you long after the book has finished. I’d venture to say that the plot is pretty standard fare and even entirely predictable, but it is the characters that Jane Austen peoples the book with who make it so remarkable. I bet that most people after reading Pride and Prejudice just once would be able to describe how Lady Catherine, Lydia Bennet or Caroline Bingley would react in any given situation, and they aren’t even the main characters (no doubt the reason why this book has spawned so many spin-offs). It is this wonderfully believable character creation combined with fabulous writing, even more than the image of Mr Darcy in his wet shirt, which has made Pride and Prejudice so much a part of general literary consciousness.
What this latest encounter with Pride and Prejudice revealed to me is how much Jane Austen’s books are made for rereading. Austen is famed for her irony but I hadn’t realised until now quite how much proleptic irony there is, only obvious to the reader who has the advantage of knowing how things develop as the book progresses. For example, following Mr Collins’ proposal to Elizabeth, which makes me simultaneously squirm with embarrassment and giggle with laughter, there is this exchange:
It was absolutely necessary to interrupt him now.
“You are too hasty, Sir,” she cried. “You forget that I have made no answer. Let me do it without farther loss of time. Accept my thanks for the compliment you are paying me, I am very sensible of the honour of your proposals, but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than decline them.”
“I am not now to learn,” replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the hand, “that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long.”
“Upon my word, Sir,” cried Elizabeth, “your hope is rather an extraordinary one after my declaration. I do assure you that I am not one of those young ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time. I am perfectly serious in my refusal. — You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who would make you so, — Nay, were your friend Lady Catherine to know me, I am persuaded she would find me in every respect ill qualified for the situation.”
Mr Collins’ complete refusal to take Elizabeth’s refusal seriously is amusing enough on its own, but an extra layer of humour is there in Elizabeth’s response for those who know what happens later. Although she insists that “I am not one of those young ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time” this is of course exactly what happens, unintentionally, between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy: she refuses his first proposal, eventually realises that in doing so she has thrown away her chance of happiness and then is given a second chance when he asks again. Even though Elizabeth is not playing coy games in this latter instance, it provides another chance for the knowing reader to see Elizabeth’s prejudices in action and for Jane Austen to prove her heroine fallible; not only is she wrong about Mr Darcy and Mr Wickham, she is also wrong about herself.
This time around, I also found I was able to read more objectively rather than always siding with Elizabeth Bennet (always tempting with such an entertaining and likeable character). On the first reading of this book, I followed Elizabeth’s lead exactly as Jane Austen (I think) intended, but on subsequent readings I have more knowledge of exactly how the plot develops than she does, and therefore it is impossible to fall in with her in quite the same way as I am looking out for different things. Whereas before I found myself carried away with indignant reproach and Mr Darcy’s rejection of Elizabeth, this time I found his attraction towards her far more obvious throughout the book. Although I loved reading the book and being thoroughly caught up in Elizabeth’s thoughts and feelings, I also enjoyed visiting it again with a greater distance between her opinions and my own and I think it makes Pride and Prejudice a much more humorous, interesting and thoughtful book. It is testament Jane Austen’s great skill as a writer that I find all her books work in this way, offering more to me as a reader the more times I return to them.
There are so many things that I haven’t mentioned here: the wonderful comedic characters of Mrs Bennet and Lady Catherine, the sweet romance between Jane and Bingley, the dynamic that exists between the Bennet sisters. There is so much to appreciate in this wonderful novel that I couldn’t possibly cover it all. Needless to say, I think it is deserving of its status as both a classic and a popular novel. I can’t wait to rediscover my next Austen now!
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Published by Virago, 1989,pp. 299. Originally published in 1813.