Sunday, March 30, 2014

Shakespeare as Music: Adaptation or Expansion (or something else)?

I ran across an interesting NY Times article about why Shakespeare is so suited for dance: more ballets have been based on Shakespeare than probably any other writer in history.  On the one hand, this suggests that Shakespeare can be translated visually--either in visual metaphors, or in the spectacle that his theatre naturally lends itself to.  However, since ballet is movement and music, we lose all language--everything must be spoken in dance.  What do we lose and gain in this approach?  Is it acceptable as Shakespeare, or is it simply something based on Shakespeare, the same way Tchaikovsky's famous overture to Romeo and Juliet suggests, rather than performs, Shakespeare's text?  You can read the article here:

However, this reminded me of all the great music I listen to inspired by Shakespeare.  Shakespeare is a natural draw for classical composers, who have created ballets, operas, and orchestral works based on his plays.  Here are a few of the most significant ones that have become almost as popular as the plays themselves:

Mendelssohn, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Overture and Incidental Music (he wrote the overture to evoke the piece at age 16; decades later, he was commissioned to write incidental music to accompany the play, and used his overture as a basis: the famous "wedding march" that we hear at most weddings comes from this music)

Berlioz, Beatrice et Benedict, Overture: this is an overture to Berlioz's opera based on Much Ado About Nothing.  It captures the high spirits and romance of this wonderful comedy, and the adventurous can go on and listen to the entire opera.  (Note: There are many operas based on Shakespeare, notably those by Verdi, who wrote one for Macbeth, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Othello). 

Berlioz, Romeo and Juliet, symphony: one of Berlioz’s most unusual scores, it is a vocal symphony (not an opera, cantata, or oratorio) which tells this famous story in a mixture of long, orchestral rhapsodies and evocative arias.  The highlights are the Mendelssohnian Queen Mab Scherzo (which does a great impression of Mercutio’s speech) and the Balcony Scene, which certainly inspired Tchaikovsky’s later effort (see below). 

Dvorak, Othello, Overture: unusual for the rather bright-spirited Dvorak, he wrote an overture to Shakespeare’s grim tragedy—and rather effectively, too.  To be fair, it’s part of a three-part work he originally titled “Nature, Life, and Love,” which he later broke up into the overtures “In Nature’s Realm,” “Carnival,” and “Othello.”  It opens with a bleak theme which gains in passion (jeaousy?) until it explodes, trumpeted out by the entire orchestra.  Though short, it is one of Dvorak’s masterpieces and is one of the only successful pieces of music I’ve heard that captures Othello’s haunting music. 

Tchaikovsky, Romeo and Juliet Overture, a highly successful 'adaptation' of Shakespeare musically, opening with a solemn theme that represents Friar Lawrence, which soon explodes into the fighting of both houses, and before long, the super famous love theme emerges that has been parodied in everything from soap commercials to Spongebob.  If you can listen with fresh ears, it's an amazing piece.

Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet, ballet: Prokofiev wrote not the first, but the greatest ballet based on the entire play.  It is an extremely moving experience to watch the entire thing, and musically, it evokes much of Shakespeare's language and power.  Especially powerful is the Final Act, where Romeo tries to make a sleeping Juliet dance with him--but she merely slumps over lifelessly.  This scene makes sense like never before.

Sibelius, The Tempest, Incidental Music: Sibelius was an extremely famous Finnish composer in the early 20th century, and he was asked to create music that could suit this very musical play--including the many songs sung by Ariel, Caliban, and others.  He succeeded marvelously with dark, mystical sounding music which occasionally evokes the music of Shakespeare's time.  One of the most powerful pieces is Ariel's song in Act One, "Full fathom five thy father lies" (great alliteration!), which is full of haunting doom, and helps us understand Ferdinand's desolation.  Also listen to the powerful Overture evoking the storm (which borrows the mood and ferocity of Sibelius’ final tone poem, Tapiola)  and the creepy “The Oak Tree,” also seemingly drawn from Tapiola.  Fittingly, this is the among the last orchestral music Sibelius wrote, just as The Tempest was Shakespeare’s final bow (minus some shoddy collaborations with Fletcher) from the stage.   

Tchaikovsky, The Tempest, Tone Poem: A "tone poem" is an impression of a poem or story set to music, and Tchaikovsky excelled at these.  Here he took on Shakespeare's last play, opening with a eerie, ferocious storm scene before relaxing into a theme for Miranda and Ferdinand.  It's a lot like the Romeo and Juliet overture, and takes about as long to play out.  (Note: Tchaikovsky also wrote a wonderful overture for Hamlet, as well as incidental music for a production, which is equally good--a dark, exciting score). 

Strauss, Macbeth, Tone Poem: One of Richard Strauss' earliest tone poems evoked the sinister world of Macbeth.  This 20-minute piece is full of all the characteristics we would later find in his more famous pieces such as Don Juan or Don Quixote, though it's a little less cohesive here.  Yet high drama is everywhere, and it would make a great curtain raiser to any production of the play (clipped a bit shorter, perhaps).  

Vaughan-Williams, Serenade to Music (Merchant of Venice): Not many composers have been drawn to The Merchant of Venice, but Vaughan-Willliams, a 20th century English composer, famously set part of the Final Act of the play (where Lorenzo and Jessica speak of music) to music in a draw-joppingly beautiful piece with soloists, chorus and orchestra.  It belies the darkness and unsettled nature of the final act, but it does capture the essential 'music' of Shakespeare's play. 

Elgar, Falstaff, Symphonic Poem: Elgar, a master of pictoral music, created this symphonic portrait of Shakespeare's famous 'hero,' capturing him at various times in his career: in Henry IV 1 and 2, as well as The Merry Wives of Winsdor.  It's a dramatic, comic piece written in Elgar's expansive late style.  

Walton, Henry V film score: one of the most famous Shakespearean film scores, this was written for Sir Lawrence Olivier's war-time film of Henry V, and contains some of William Walton's most rousing, touching music.  (Note: Patrick Doyle wrote another famous Henry score for Branagh's 1989 version). 

Shostakovich, Hamlet, film score: written by a 20th century Russian master, this score is both chilling, humorous, and exciting by turns.  His greatest film score set the standard for all Shakespearean film scores to come, and makes amazing listening in its own right.  Written for a 1960's Russian version which remains an exciting adaptation of this very long and tricky play (Note: Shostakovich also wrote the score for the famous Russian version of King Lear, which is more spare but no less evocative than Hamlet).  

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Get a Free Book Just for Visiting the Virtual Astrolabe!

As long as you don't mind that it's my book! :)

My last post discusses my frustration with how some publishers/agents are defining--and limiting--YA literature, whether fantasy or mainstream.  Here is my creative response to the problem: my YA fantasy novel is free this weekend and Monday at Amazon.  But be warned!  Several characters are over 19 years old! (a no-no, I've been told); it's not in first person (teenagers of the "me" generation can't relate, I was warned); and it writes to them, not down at them (these kids aren't readers, make it read like a movie, they insisted).  The result, for all its flaws, is an attempt to write a funny, interesting YA novel that connects to much classic literature and fairy tales/folklore.  Download and read if you get a chance!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

What the$#$#!@!@!! Is Young Adult Literature, Anyway?

The following is an excerpt from a rejection letter a literary agent recently sent me.  Most rejection letters annoy me, or at least frustrate me, but this one hit me below the belt.  The reason for this is because it has almost nothing to do with my novel, but espouses a philosophy of literature—and YA novels in particular—that is the very antithesis of my own.  In rejecting my novel, the agent explained,

the characters are too old for this work to be considered for 8-12 year olds. The characters are almost too old to be considered for YA novels, as it seems the Count is 19 and most YA protagonists' ages cap at 18.

I had to take a long walk outside to recover my equilibrium; then I wrote, deleted, and re-wrote my response to this nonsense.  What bothered me the most about this rejection is the agent’s dogmatic belief that ‘Young Adult’ readers were literally incapable of accepting a protagonist beyond 18—the cap, so to speak.  Reading between the lines, the agent is basically saying, “these readers are so self-absorbed that they can’t relate to anything old, meaning anything beyond their immediate interests, and the greatest imaginative leap they can possibly make is to imagine an eighteen year-old hero or heroine.  Beyond that, they’re fit for the grave, so why bother to write a novel about them?”

Of course, I am a reader of Young Adult literature, so I found the agent’s response offensive both as a reader and a writer.  Is ‘Young Adult’ literature such a fixed, tradition-bound genre?  And how can something written for ‘young adults’ follow tried-and-true laws, when teenagers are, by their very definition, changing the rules and constantly adapting—or dismissing—the past?  Of course, this brings me to my greatest frustration with the rejection letter, and with the genre itself: “the characters are too old for this work to be considered for 8-12 year olds.”  In the publishing world, everyone seems to have an idea of what ‘Young Adult’ is, and few of these definitions agree or fail to cancel each other out.  Is Young Adult even a genre?  I mean, when I think of genres, I think of science fiction (which itself has several subcategories and genres), romance, horror, mystery, travel writing, etc.  But Young Adult?  This is an audience, is it not?  Who the hell are Young Adults?  By definition, they are teenagers—young adults, not 8-12 year olds.  I’ve never heard the YA genre as something marketed to pre-teens, since they have other genres for that—Middle Grade Readers, etc.  But no matter which audience we decide to rest on, it remains exactly that, an audience
So the question is, what do teenagers like to read?  What are they interested in?  And perhaps most tellingly, what kind of books do they buy?  For agents and publishers, the answer is easy: they buy YA books.  And YA books, as best as I can tell from my copious rejection letters and reading the self-important babble of agents and editors on websites and in The Writer’s Market, consist of the following elements:

  • Characters that “leap off the page” and are instantly relatable (i.e., they remind the readers of themselves)
  • Language that is similar to what the readers, themselves, use
  • Romance, romance, romance
  • Zombies, vampires, and apocalypse
  • Should be told in first person from a variety of perspectives; that’s the only way to make it “immediate” and “exciting” for the reader
  • Should be a “page turner”: if the first page doesn’t grab them they give up immediately
Agents always talk down to writers as if they’ve never been teenagers themselves (or consider that we, too, read the very books that we aim to write).  Of course, I was a teenager and the kind of books I read ranged from Jane Austen to Splatterpunk to Joseph Campbell.  Sure, I enjoyed reading works whose characters resembled me in some aspect, and who I could personally identify with.  But every book?  I fell in love with Pride and Prejudice because this was a world I didn’t know, full of people who had tremendous wit, life, and character, even though none of it resembled what I could find outside my window—much less what I found staring back at me through a mirror.  And as for page-turners, I often plodded through dense works of history and philosophy that I could scarcely understand for the sheer joy of finally “getting it.”  I read widely, even recklessly, in as many genres and fields as I could since everything interested me.  And I rarely threw down a novel even after the first 50 pages, no matter how obscure or baffling.  I think you’ll find most true readers have a code of reading to the end, a code they break only in the most extreme circumstances (gratuitous violence, objectionable characters, etc.). 

My problem with this agent’s response is how it stereotypes an entire field of literature and those who read it.  Bottom line, publishers and agents want to make money.  Few of them believe in YA literature or those who read/write it; they simply want to understand why it works so they can crank out one bestseller after another.  And while some ‘truths’ might connect one work to another, it can never be universal and unshakeable.  Otherwise we wouldn’t read books or need to be young again.  Isn’t the whole point of being a teenager (in reality or spirit) to challenge the status quo and remake the world in your own image?  And yet this agent said, “oh, we know what’s best for them, we know what they like, and it’s only X, Y, and Z.”  Of course, time and again, some book comes out of nowhere and surprises the hell out of everyone, since it breaks the rules or defies some eternal truth of a publisher’s existence.  Before Harry Potter, it was chapter and verse that teenagers would never read a book over 200 pages.  So much for that!  Now it’s “teenagers only want to read about themselves and their Facebook, Twitter, Instragram generation.”  Never mind the continuing popularity of Lord of the Rings, which has characters that do not “leap off the page,” many of whom are mere archetypes, speaking stilted (yet inspiring) language, all from the mind and imagination of a man who didn’t give a damn what teenagers wanted to read. 

And here the two loves of my life—reading and education—come violently crashing together.  Publishers/agents want young people to tell us how to write, what to read, how to think about things.  True, it’s a double standard: they tell us what teenagers want to read but back it up with studies and market research: the readers have spoken!  We see the exact same thing in higher education, where universities terrified about losing students are kowtowing slavishly to student expectations.  Being “student centered” is now the norm, which translates to de-emphasizing the classroom experience for the “outside” experience: field trips, study abroad, community activities, intermural sports, on-line classrooms, etc, etc.  In essence, many in higher education are asking students “how should we teach you?  What do you want in a university?  How can we do our jobs better?”  If someone had asked me that as a teenager (and remember, I was one once) I would have responded, somewhat abashed, “how the hell should I know?  I came here for you to teach me!”  This was the very response I got in one of my recent student evaluations, where one of the last questions asks, “list ways that the teacher could improve his/her performance in the classroom.”  An anonymous student responded, “wouldn’t know, I’m not a teacher.” 

Lest I sound arrogant here, my point is simply this: the job of teachers is to educate since they spent 10+ years specializing in their chosen fields.  The same is true of writers; let them write the stories that they, themselves, find inspiring and interesting.  If readers don’t like them, so be it.  But to slavishly decide what readers want—and writers should deliver—is a sure recipe for mediocre claptrap.  It’s the very reason why the shelves of so-called Young Adult literature are clotted with endless variations on the apocalyptic theme.  Many of these works are exciting and new—but they will quickly cease to be so if that’s all we find on the bookshelves.  Just because one story—and one approach to a specific story—is successful doesn’t mean the alchemic blueprint has been discovered.  Let writers write and find themselves in writing.  Don’t tell us what sells or what ages or characters need to be.  Have more faith in your readers and in the power of literature itself, which is designed to go beyond the limitations of our limited ego and connect to something much more profound and universal.  As a reader, I found myself by reading works that were often over my head from wildly different cultures and languages.  Far from turning me off reading, it made me a better reader—and a more intelligent person to boot.  Should we deny that to our children in the interest of making a buck? 

I’ll close with the observation—obvious to anyone who reads YA literature—that the audience of this literature is as diverse as its content. Most people I know who read YA literature are not teenagers (hell, I’m 39).  And most of these people don’t just read YA literature.  I don’t even regard it as such myself; to me, literature is literature, no matter what form it takes or who reads it.  In the end, it either makes you think or it doesn’t; it either makes you dream or it doesn’t; it either makes you want to take up a pen (or a word processor) and write your own story or it doesn’t.  We can divvy up the readers or the genres as much as we like, but what really matters is the story and everything that goes into it.  Even if the characters are (gasp!) 89.  When I was a child the character I most idolized was Obi Wan Kenobi.  The man did not speak like me or share anything I could remotely relate to.  On the contrary, I wanted to be like him—not make him in my image.  And isn’t that the power of literature, to remake ourselves in someone else’s life and thoughts?  When literature is reduced to one endlessly FB selfie, then perhaps the publishers and agents will finally crack the philosopher’s stone.  But until then, they need to throw up their hands and admit that art can’t be predicted or prescribed; teenagers will read whatever interests them, and writers should be encouraged to remember the dreams they had when they were young.  No easy task, when piles of rejection letters make one feel very old indeed...

Thursday, March 6, 2014

On Sitting Down to Read Pride and Prejudice Once More...

In John Keats’ famous short poem, “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again,” he remarks that “When through the old oak forest I am gone,/Let me not wander in a barren dream,/But, when I am consumed in the fire/Give me phoenix wings to fly at my desire.”  Obviously art is not life, so in some respect we look to books (among other things) as a kind of escape.  Not, I hope, merely to bury our heads in the sand or even to indulge in voyeuristic fantasies; instead, it is a kind of leave-taking of the earth by trying on new forms—an entirely new identity.  Thus it is not a “barren dream,” but a way to kindle our fiery passions into new life, rising on the “phoenix wings” of an author’s thoughts.  The best works of art, such as King Lear seduce us out of our workaday world and offer us visions of new worlds which seem tantalizingly close to home.  Many a book lover would jump at the chance to live in his or her favorite book, even as a minor character; these worlds are not necessarily ‘better’ than our own, but the presence of the author assures us they are observed and shaped by a loving hand (even if Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out and Cordelia is hanged!).  Ultimately I think we identify with the creator, and want him/her to guide our own lives, welcoming us home from exile and marrying us off to our Fitzwilliam Darcy or Elizabeth Bennet.  Which brings me to reason for writing this post, as I recently sat down to read Pride and Prejudice once again—so many times now I’ve frankly lost count. 

In a certain sense, this is a difficult book to re-read.  After all, there are two very famous adaptations based on the book that imagine every particular, and the plot has been so much discussed and appropriated that there are no longer any surprises.  Even Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey have moments where you forget a certain detail or conversation and nearly fall over backwards in surprise.  Not so Pride and Prejudice, where one conversations leads seamlessly, but predictably, to another, and the inevitable union of Elizabeth and Darcy is nowhere to be contradicted, much less by Elizabeth’s doubting—and often clueless—narration.  In some sense, it reminds me of Jerry Seinfeld’s quip against people who keep books at home—roughly, “why keep them around, are you really going to read them again?”  Indeed, why read Pride and Prejudice again when you know everything about Darcy, about Wickham, about the contents of that fateful letter which unmasks them both?  Is it merely to relive familiar haunts, or indulge in the sheer romance of a well-told love story? 

Ironically, Keats never really tells us anything about King Lear—what brought him back to it, what his favorite scenes are, his favorite characters, his favorite lines.  What emerges from his poem is the sense of beholding a sublime moment in art, like watching an advancing thunderstorm roar in the distance.   We’ve seen thunder, rain, lightning, even hail dozens—perhaps hundreds of times.  Why see it again?  Because it’s a powerful, visceral experience: it lives and breathes, and seems quite capable of flicking us out of existence.  True, the experience of reading King Lear is quite different from Pride and Prejudice, but in the end both are sublime in exactly this way.  I never get the feeling I’m reading a work of ‘art’ fashioned by a writer consciously shaping characters and situations to conform to an overall theme.  No, this is as natural as the wind and as musical as the ocean.  While in the presence of such works you are at once awed by the power that dared to conceived it, yet consoled by the reality that it does exist and that you can be part of it, even if only for as long as it takes to read the book.  And the book is never quite the same book you picked up before, even if you know the plot and can recite all the dialogue verbatim.  You are older; you are wiser; you are sadder; you are more content; you are looking for solace; you are looking for inspiration; you are reveling in Austen’s syntax the way you sit back and bask in the melodies of a Mozart piano concerto.  In short, it’s not the story or the characters—however divine these are—but the sheer pleasure of being swept away by something larger than anything we can dream into existence.  Even if she could. 

And yet, there are many surprises when you re-read Pride and Prejudice.  The most obvious one for me is the sheer audacity of Austen’s prose.  By audacity I mean her fearless ability to be witty at everyone’s expense—no small task for an unmarried spinster!  Not that wit was something new (Congreve and Fielding had that market cornered several generations earlier), but to see a woman doing it—and doing it so artfully—is a marvel to behold.  Take, for example, the hilarious (in a darkly comic sense) letter Mr. Collins writes to the Bennet family upon learning of Lydia’s elopement:

“I feel myself called upon, by our relationship, and my situation in life, to condole you on the grevious affliction you are now suffering under…No arguments shall be wanting on my part, that can alleviate so severe a misfortune; or that may comfort you, under a circumstance that must be of all others most afflicting to a parent’s mind.  The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this…[Lady Catherine and her daughter] agree with me in apprehending that this false step in one daughter, will be injurious to the fortunes of all others, for who, as Lady Catherine herself condescendingly says, will connect themselves with such a family.  And this consideration leads me moreover to reflect with augmented satisfaction on a certain event of last November, for had it been otherwise, I must have been involved in all your sorrow and disgrace.”

In his usual tone-deaf way, Collins says exactly the wrong things in a letter meant to console.  Yet he goes much further by his sheer stupidity in claiming to know what a parent would feel—and then suggesting that it would be better if Lydia had died!  What parent would think or feel so?  In classic satirical fashion, Mr. Collins invokes his duty rather than his love, and then goes on to thank himself, more or less, for not marrying Elizabeth; otherwise, “I must have been involved in all your sorrow and disgrace.”  That Austen could even devise this speech is a testament to her genius.  This idiot of a clergyman is too concerned with his own position and prosperity to ever think of another’s feelings, even for the few minutes it must have taken to write this letter.  Invoking Lady Catherine as his unimpeachable authority, he reminds the family that they are ruined socially and that this may well be the last letter he writes them (unless he really takes pity on them!).  What kind of response did he imagine from such a letter?  Hilariously, I’m sure he expected them to be deeply moved and appreciative of his “condescension.” 

Now imagine Austen writing this: an unmarried woman, the daughter of a clergyman herself, who dared to write saucy novels lampooning the pretensions of her wayward society.  It was not for nothing that her nieces and nephews took great pains to excuse her conduct posthumously, reminding readers that “She did not rank any work of Fielding quite so high.  Without the slightest affectation she recoiled from everything gross.  Neither nature, wit, nor humour, could make her amends for so very low a scale of morals” (Henry Austen, Biographical Notice).  Certainly, too, such a deadly satirical portrait was never drawn for life—goodness no!  And we know this for a fact, since Henry Austen also reminds us, “She drew from nature; but, whatever may have been surmised to the contrary, never from individuals.”  Of course not! 

The satirical humor in this novel is so extensive and varied that an entire encyclopedia could scarcely do it justice.  It ranges from the dark humor above to a more gleeful, self-satisfied mockery, as in the case of Caroline Bingley’s attempts to mock Darcy out of love with Elizabeth:

“I particularly recollect your saying one night, after they had been dining at Netherfield, ‘She a beauty!—I should as soon call her mother a wit.’  But afterwards she seemed to improve upon you, and I believe you thought her rather pretty at one time.”
“Yes,” replied Darcy, who could contain himself no longer, “but that was only when I first knew her, for it is many months since I have considered her as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance.”
He then went away, and Miss Bingley was felt to all the satisfaction of having forced him to say what gave no one any pain but herself.” 

Like Fielding (who we know she did read, as her letters mention her reading Tom Jones with Tom Lefroy, her one-time beau), Austen is able to dissect society to its mean artifices and petty triumphs.  Yet what makes this novel more than an exercise in 18th century wit is her deep compassion for all her characters, even the ones who seem on first glance to be trivial buffoons.  Mrs. Bennet comes in for great mockery in the novel, and yet once Elizabeth is made to realize her own prejudices against Darcy, she also realizes how rashly she has judged her own mother.  On the same hand, she has given her father all too much license to be wise and discerning.  As Austen writes,

“Her father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour, which you and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind, had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her.  Respect, esteem, and confidence, had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown…She had always seen it with pain; but respecting his abilities, and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook, and to banish from her thoughts that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible.” 

This is a sober moment in the book, when the satirical ribbing of Mr. Bennet becomes more sinister than the obsequiousness of Mr. Collins and his like.  No wonder Elizabeth is Mrs. Bennet’s least favorite daughter (as she, herself, reflects before trying to marry her off to Mr. Collins); Elizabeth had grown up largely despising her small-minded obsession with getting husbands.  However, one could just as easily argue Mrs. Bennet was being more of a realist than her husband, who seems to have washed his hands of all five daughters long ago.  That she cared to provide for them—even in her crass, misguided way—says a lot about her character, as well as Elizabeth’s inability to read parental affection. 

Elizabeth’s character, too, moves remarkably and believably from an eager, satirical ‘wit’ to a more cautious woman of feeling, suddenly aware of having to read people as people—not as characters in this or that romantic novel.  As a great reader, she naturally sees the world in novelistic terms—all the more so when characters take their cue from fiction (Wickham, Collins, and in some aspects, even Darcy).  But no romantic hero is spun from whole cloth, and we only discern character by re-reading, much as Pride and Prejudice itself is better appreciated once the plot is known and we can read for character, rather than plot.  Ironically, it is Darcy’s letter that teaches her to stop ‘reading’ and truly look.  It is a lesson learned previously by Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, who imagines herself in a Gothic novel, and Marianne Dashwood, whose beau seems to have skipped right out of a Walter Scott novel.  Yet Elizabeth is a step removed since we see how she changes much more gradually and artfully.  Catherine is thrown out of the Abbey and Marianne takes to her sick bed—all very convenient, in some ways, to affect a grand transformation.  Nothing actually happens to Elizabeth other than a proposal which she refuses.  What makes her change is not the plot; it is herself.  She decides to change based on emotion and reason (or sense and sensibility, perhaps). 

The same, of course, is true for Darcy; he teaches her to read just as he, himself, learns the importance of being read.  As he remarks after his second proposal,

“I cannot be so easily reconciled to myself.  The recollection of what I then said, of my conduct, my manners, my expressions during the whole of it, is now, and has been many months, inexpressibly painful to me.  Your reproof, so well applied, I shall never forget: ‘had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.’  Those were your words.  You know not, you can scarcely conceive, how they have tortured me;--though it was some time, I confess, before I was reasonable enough to allow their justice.”

As a proud and dignified man, he had no interesting in what ‘those people’ thought of him.  He ruled himself—quite well, if he dared say so himself—so the opinions of a Mrs. Bennet or even an Elizabeth Bennet reflected more on their own meager abilities.  For Elizabeth, however, he realizes the pain that a single glance, a single misplaced word can bestow.  Few people want to consciously cause pain, yet few realize how easily pain is dispensed upon the ‘underlings’ of the world.  Not surprisingly, Darcy changes the way most of us change: we fall in love with one person, and through that person we begin to see the world.  Initially he wants to be kind to her, to protect her, be civil to her aunt and uncle, and then to her wayward sister, and then…well, he’s become something of a decent human being.  This is one of the few novels I can think of where education is the means of romance.  They learn to be people before they fall in love, which is the polar opposite of almost any other novel or movie that even flirts with romance.  Is education sexy?  Not surprisingly, Jane Austen can make anything sexy. 

I could go on and on, obviously, but I’ll end here with the observation that Pride and Prejudice should be revisited, and often.  When Austen initially wrote the book it was an epistolary novel entitled “First Impressions.”  She drastically re-wrote the book to reflect more Romantic tastes (I imagine the first version might have sounded a bit more like Lady Susan or her unfinished novel, Catherine), though this central idea, how we read and misread the world, remained intact.  All reading is a mixture of pride (I’m too good to read those sorts of books!) and prejudice (oh, I know where this is headed!) yet this invites all sorts of confusion and misdirection.  To be truly educated, the novel suggests, is to read yourself before you read others.  To listen before you pronounce.  And to fall in love with the person who most captivates your intellect, regardless of their class, background, or parents(!).  I fell in love the first time I read Pride and Prejudice at 17 or 18 without even knowing why, and later felt almost embarrassed for doing so (it’s a chick book, isn’t it?).  Good books, however, and neither ‘chick lit’ nor ‘Young adult’ nor ‘world’s classics.’  They are simply there, waiting to be read, and waiting to bear us off on the “phoenix wings” of desire.  Until our next reading…