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…