First, some backstory. Pride and Prejudice turned me into a lit major. It's also the book that completely changed my life.
English was always my best subject at school because I was allowed to read novels and call it work. You knew me as a kid: I was the one with the scraggly hair and glasses who read books under her desk while the teacher droned on about the same piece of Mesopotamia I'd learned about for the past three years. I refused to be separated from my Tamora Pierce novels in sixth grade, and I was the first person I knew to jump on the Harry Potter bandwagon at the end of eighth grade, when I saw the synopsis in my Book Order catalog.
Freshman English was hellish, because we had to read what I consider the wasteland of literature: classics meant to improve our minds that will very rarely convince a fourteen year-old girl to read. Or a fourteen year-old boy, whom I assume is the target audience for most of the Great Novels that make up the literary canon. Great Expectations. The Old Man and the Sea. The Lord of the Flies. I disliked these books because I thought they were boring. I still think they're boring.
We got better, as time went by. Fahrenheit 451, which I read until it fell apart because it spoke to me in a way I still can't identify. Shakespeare: Henry IV, Hamlet. The Stranger, by Camus. The Great Gatsby. Candide may have been the only amusing book we read in four years. I loved all this beautiful, slightly painful literature in high school because that was what I was assigned. That's what I had as my basis for Great Novels, the ones I Should Like. However, we interspersed it with Melville, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Dickens, and Orwell, all spectacularly bleak male novelists designed to convince me that I should avoid literature in college. Plus, I was under the impression that my dad wanted me to get an MBA, so I tried for a slightly more pragmatic field: PR.
PR didn't work out.
Neither did Political Science. I'd decided that I wanted to be a lawyer, because all of my friends were going to be lawyers, and lawyers made good money, and I'd be good at law. So I switched my major and hated that, too.
My sister's freshman year of high school, the Powers that Be changed the curriculum (well, they added to it) and required all incoming freshmen to read Pride and Prejudice. My sister was unimpressed. She thought it was fluffy and annoying and didn't see the point in reading it when she could be off doing something fun, like drawing pictures of wolves.
I came home from college unexpectedly one weekend and she walked into my room and dumped her copy of Pride and Prejudice on my bed with this resounding endorsement: "Here. This book sucked. Maybe you'll like it." So, my first copy of Pride and Prejudice came from my little sister, who got a C in book-marking because she didn't do much underlining. Also, because her commentary wasn't "foreshadowing!" and "(interpretation of text)" so much as it was, "Wow, this dude's a jerk," and, "whatever."
I didn't have time to read novels the rest of the semester because I was busy avoiding my ex-boyfriend, doing speech, and panicking because I was not learning how to be a lawyer. At the deserted train station before Thanksgiving, with my purse as a pillow and legs dangling over the edge of the railing, I shocked myself by laughing aloud for the first time in weeks. In fact, the book was so funny that I couldn't stop laughing, and I spooked the ticket seller. But I didn't care, because it is a truth universally known that a single man, in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
I read while waiting for the train. I read on the train. I read at Union Station, standing on the platform for my connecting Metra train. I read on that train. And I finished it in my bedroom that evening, thrilled and jubilant and still half convulsing with laughter.
I don't know if it's because I read Pride and Prejudice at exactly the right time in my life to truly appreciate it, or if she was just that good an author, but that book completely changed the course of my existance.
For various reasons, all of them converging on my being completely miserable, I had already decided to transfer to a different school closer to home. I decided that the easiest thing would be to go to a school downtown because I didn't have a car and that way would not have to borrow my mother's vehicle to go to class. I took the train with a friend and walked around the Loop. We walked around the first campus on my list (which was very short) and I insisted on seeing the library, because by god, I was going somewhere with a decent library this time. So I walked into an honest-to-goodness academic library instead of a sad excuse for a microfilm machine storage space. I decided this was the place for me to go, pretty much on the library and location, and that was that. I didn't really have any particular plan, except that I suddenly realized I wanted to be a lit major. Because I hadn't felt this alive in ages.
That was the school where I got my BA. That was the school where I took classes with teachers who introduced me to Early Modern Literature, to alternative schools of thought, who gave me a classical education that changed the way I view the world. Who challenged me to be better, who told me to apply for the Newberry seminar that taught me to research in alternative ways and to view history as fluid and fallible. That was the seminar that introduced me to the head of the History Department at my university, who heard me present my thesis. Six months later, the same man hired me for my first out-of-college job. It was an odd job, but it was a good one, and I actually miss that particular brand of insanity for the same reason that I will forever love Jane Austen: if nothing else, it was spectacularly amusing.
Which brings me back to the actual point: Pride and Prejudice, one of the most clever, wry books that has come across my shelf. Also, a surprisingly difficult book to write about because I cannot convey its brilliance. I cannot tell you why it spoke to me, only that it did on such a level that it changed the way I viewed the world. I read it again at Christmas, and then once more that spring, right after the first thaw, still deeply moved by the character portrayals and the witty way that Eliza Bennet views the world.
The basic story is about five women in rural England, their parents, and some of their friends, all of whom are thrown into a tizzy when a rich man, Mr. Bingley, rents the house nearby. Nothing will do, of course, but for him to fall in love with one of the Bennet girls, so their mother schemes and connives to get one of them -- any of them -- engaged to him. However, at the same party to introduce the eldest Bennet to the eligible Mr. Bingley, his friend of triple the wealth, the very socially awkward Mr. Darcy, snubs Eliza Bennet in such a way as to spoil her family's good opinion.
And so Pride and Prejudice begins, launching the reader into a view of Regency England through Lizzie's eyes with an occasional detour to Mr. Darcy's perspective. Which, perhaps, is merited, because otherwise, it would be a bit harder to see Eliza for the extraordinary character that she is. Elizabeth Bennet is a surprisingly strong character. Not just for the regency era, though she's definitely not demure enough to be considered a good role model, but in general. She's a woman who knows her own mind, is forthright to the point of occasionally offending her social betters, and has an obstinate streak when it comes to a defined point of view. At the same time, she's constantly embarrassed by her particularly embarrassing family, from her youngest sisters' insipid silliness and flirtatious, outrageous behavior, to her sister Mary's quest to be the most moralistic, boring, accomplished woman around. Her mother's affected nerves and unwillingness to keep her ill-founded opinions to herself is only compounded by her father's acerbic tongue, amusement at other people's folly, and refusal to even attempt to keep his wife and daughters in check. And then there's Mr. Collins, who is the most verbose, absurd, ridiculous spectacle of a clergyman to make it into print. Very in love with himself, his property, and the eminence of his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who is everything right, proper, and correct, and will tell you so herself.
In all honesty, the book might be worth reading for a few of Mr. Collins's absurd sermons alone, but they are made all the better by the audience to whom he attempts to deliver them.
The overarching story fits: it is a love story, true, about a few couples searching for happiness. It's a comedy of manners, delightful for watching groups of people fumbling around, attempting to live out their daily lives while running afoul of one another. But it's also satire, a veiw of Regency England personified through these excellently-drawn characters who demonstrate the mores and morals of the time. It's a comedy of class, with sly commentary about working in Trade, about husband hunting and the power of gossip, about an attempt to kindle a good opinion once lost. It's also extremely subtle, superbly funny, and accessible enough to still make sense without a translator.
I reread Pride and Prejudice in July for the first time in a few years. Even though I know the story, and I've also seen the BBC miniseries more times than I care to admit, it was still a breath of fresh air.
So if you haven't read it, go read this book if you want a laugh. It's definitely good for that.