Revisiting a Classic — Pride and Prejudice

Song of the Day: ‘The Stars Above’ by SianSpheric

Any movie adaptation of a book is bound to destroy the story!

That said, I still watch these book-destroyers always in the hope that A.!’s Law of Life #5385702 might be proven wrong. The closest this ever happened was with Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

2007 was definitely Jane Austen’s year. Everything she ever wrote (minus Pride and Prejudice) was re-made by ITV during a fit of Austen-lunacy suffered by its writers and directors, who for all their malady afflictions did far better than I expected them to, and were certainly so far removed from the messy job the director did with Pride and Prejudice in 2005Granted, after a TV mini-series so brilliant that there were moments that stood neck to neck with the original novel; one could argue that the only way left to go was down. And, to be sure, that film fell rock-bottom: it was terrible in every sense of the word (not even deserving a review except an what-a-waste-of-time-and-money award). What the hell inspired the director to kill all plausibility by turning Elizabeth into a giggling teenager and Darcy into Heathcliff? 

Anyhow, back to 2007: Austen-mania wasn’t confined to the tiny island that gave the world English but made its way across the pond as well, in the form of something worse, Becoming Jane.  Nonetheless, what all this terrible cinematography did was make me re-read the books in the hopes that my comprehension might have been faulty. You can imagine the order I read them in: Pride and Prejudice, her most famous novel; Emma, her most perfectly realised; Mansfield Park, her most public; Sense and Sensibility, her wittiest; and finally Northanger Abbey, her kinkiest. But of all them, Pride and Prejudice resonates the best with me simply because each time I open the book, it’s a different novel.

pride_and_prejudice12This time I found myself coming to a new understanding, if not total affection for the least likeable characters, largely because of something that was always present in the novel but that I had not noticed before. Whatever your opinion of the shrieking harpy Mrs. Bennett, the money hungry yet intellectually bankrupt Mr. Collins, the sadly cynical best friend Charlotte, or the imperial Lady Catherine de Bourgh; they all possess one thing lost on the far more appealing characters. They are the only characters thoroughly aware of the era in which they are living. The closest any main character comes to such wisdom is rude-phase not romantic-phase Darcy.

It turns that even those of us who praise Jane Austen profusely still have loads to learn. For a novel so steadfast in the belief in having it all- great love and loads of money – the novel is also blessed with a deep understanding of the real machinations of society, and the economics of love, marriage and sex, so much so that these characters serve to remind us that for the rest of the world things are not so simple, if ever they were.

Take for instance Mrs. Bennett. Very early on in the novel, Austen makes a striking character assessment of her, a technique that would have been condemned in 20th century fiction as ‘telling’:

Mr. Bennett was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

No reader in the nineteenth-century would have dismissed Mrs. Bennett as shallow and callous from that sentence, in fact they would have congratulated her for being the only Bennett with her head on straight. The fact is this was a woman saddled with five daughters. Think about that for a second; the paragraph will still be here when you get back. Five daughters, two of which were nigh passing the age of desirability. What’s more, Mr. Collins, the sanctimonious kiss-ass who stood to inherit their estate had made no bones about leaving them to starve should none of the sisters marry him. You can congratulate your smug self that Mr. Bennett so wittily told Elizabeth not to marry Collins, but he had also condemned five women to a life of destitution and seemed to be quite pleased with himself about the matter. Mrs. Bennett has every right to shriek and scream; the man had in a way destroyed his own children. Mrs. Bennett is not dead set on a wedding because she enjoys wedding cake. She’s thinking about the survival of her children, something Mr. Bennett doesn’t pay much attention to until his loosely run house allows one of his daughters to cut loose.

The same is true for Mr. Collins, reptilian as he may be. A man lucky enough to be blessed with inheritance is not about to squander it taking care of five spinsters, none of whom plans to give him any hand in marriage (or sex if you want to get post modern) in the bargain. Charlotte disappoints Elizabeth when she marries Collins and seems to get her punishment with a life of unhappiness, but again credit Austen with some sense and sensibility. She neither condemns nor condones the marriage, but does make it clear that for a plain, poor woman like Charlotte a fate like hers was an extremely lucky one. Had Austen written a novel that had put forth the Elizabeth-Darcy model as the only legitimate male female relationship, it would have joined all the other bodice rippers of the time that have been forgotten. But Austen has always been keenly up to date on her own society. Something she shared, not in the romantic ideals of her great characters but in the cold practicality of her minor ones, the ones who served to remind us that while love sure is grand, even in the 19th century, it’s all about the dough.

Some food for thought, maybe?

Till Next Post!

PS:  I had originally posted a version of this here.

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One thought on “Revisiting a Classic — Pride and Prejudice

  1. Pingback: Perfume — Patrick Süskind | AMTAF!'s World!

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