Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Pride and Prejudice at 200

Full disclosure: when I was in high school (junior year to be precise) we were assigned to read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice in English class; but I didn't read it. I was going through a particularly problematic period in my life just then - actually the prelude to my almost complete meltdown (an expression not yet then in general use) a year later. For whatever reason, I didn't get the book and didn't read even a word of it. Alas, the quarterly exam had only one question, and it was about Pride and Prejudice. Needless to say, I failed the exam - my first failure ever. And so my quarterly report card duly contained a failing grade in English - an absurd situation somewhat mitigated somewhat by the fact that by then it was already obvious there was a problem that needed attending, a problem of which this sorry episode was obviously just a symptom. 
I recovered from that particular crisis moment and eventually rebounded from the larger failure of which that was a just harbinger. But Pride and Prejudice remained unread. Years passed. Then, thanks to film and TV, I finally rediscovered the literary gem from 1813 that I had missed out on in high school. (Of course, even if I had read it back in 1964, it's unlikely I would have fully appreciated it then!)
Back in the 90s, when Jane Austen seemed all the rage, one explanation for her enormous contemporary appeal was the mannered world it evoked. There is, I think, something to that. Certainly, that lost world invites us to contemplate fundamental human aspirations and experiences which our ill-mannered world lacks sufficient vocabulary to address anywhere nearly as well as Jane Austen could in the language and context of early 19th-century English country life. Of course, she captured those aspirations and experiences so incredibly well, in such well-written prose, creating characters of such depth and interest, and wrapped them in the appealing charm of the ordinary. If the very different manners and mores of turn-of-the-19th-century English country life render the story somewhat exotic to us today, still the universal aspirations and experiences it portrays transcend its exotic appearance and apparently narrow setting.
And so, as Anna Qundlen observed in 1995, Pride and Prejudice demonstrates how what she called "the search for self" occurs in the context of the ordinary, that it "is as surely undertaken in the drawing room making small talk" as in great events of supposedly world-historical significance.

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