Great Novel No. 8: “Pride And Prejudice”

Pride And Prejudice: A Novel

by Jane Austen

***

“A Novel”. They are two little words that usually have me rolling my eyes every time they appear on the cover of a modern work of fiction, and I feel not a moment’s regret in doing so. These days subtitling a work as “a novel” smacks of utter pretentiousness. It’s by far the most common form of prose fiction imaginable, neither as new or distinctive as the etymology of the word suggests. And when everyone uses that subtitle, the practice is only devalued all the more.

But this is the first time we’ve seen it in this reading list; for that, and the fact that I believe the subtitle is justified, my eyes don’t roll. In my remarks on Tom Jones I called it the first true English novel of this list in the sense that it was consciously aware of it’s own power and limitations, and worked within them to achieve the desired effect. Here, with Jane Austen’s 1813 masterpiece Pride And Prejudice, the list not only enters the nineteenth century but also finds the novel form entering a new phase of maturity.

Few authors before Jane Austen drew characters with such believable motivations, thoughts, and most importantly transformations. Though on the surface this is a story about falling in love and fairy tale marriage, Austen spends most of her time within the bounds of Elizabeth Bennet’s inner thoughts as she reacts to and judges the actions of others, then acts on those judgments. This psychological realism is where Pride And Prejudice finds its power — and earns its title. Pride is the insufferable lens through which we view ourselves. Prejudice is the unjust measure by which we judge others. The examination of both emotional mechanisms, to which degree each character has them, and to which degree they overcome them, is the story’s real concern. It is a novel about performing to strangers to protect one’s self, and about how much outward appearances create first impressions (the then-popular “picturesque” aesthetic is a recurring motif).

But all of this is what leads to me a somewhat ironic opinion, given how many times Pride And Prejudice has been dramatized: that it is, in fact, a practically unfilmable book. It isn’t that its plot is too complicated or that there are too many characters or that the visual effects would be prohibitively expensive. None of those things are true. Instead, what makes it unsuitable for film is that psychological realism, that exploration of Elizabeth’s thoughts and attitudes and the way in which they undergo gradual change; such things are hard to translate into a medium designed to be an outward show of appearances. Precisely when we’re meant to be realizing how much certain characters are only putting on a performance, we rely entirely on the performance of an actor. It’s no wonder then that when I first watched the BBC miniseries (before reading the book) I couldn’t understand what all the fuss for Jane Austen was for. It wasn’t until I read the book in college that I understood why she was considered a classic author — and only now, on a second reading, do I see why my opinion changed.

I wad fortunate enough to be reading an annotated edition that pointed out how much the English language has changed since Austen’s time. There are many times when the words she uses have subtly different meanings than they do for us today, thus probably changing the way we’re reading her text. “Punctually” means pointedly, not just on time (hence also the related word “punctilious”); “interesting” means significant, not just that something is of interest; and “unfolding” means discovering or revealing, as when Elizabeth unfolds Darcy’s climactic letter which reveals to her truth that she hasn’t known before.

Pride And Prejudice has long been counted as little more than chick lit by some men, and I admit I used to be among them. But on closer examination I’ve found that it’s actually a work of great complexity, working more or less within the expected patterns of romance fiction but ultimately more concerned with how people fall in love rather than how they dance around it in order to extend the plot. It earns its place as one of the Great Novels that should be on everyone’s list.

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2 thoughts on “Great Novel No. 8: “Pride And Prejudice”

  1. Well put! You have done justice to one of my all time favourite novels. The movies will never do Ms Austen’s books justice but at the very least, they encourage people to read the books.

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