A late encounter with 'Pride and Prejudice'

Wednesday, May 13, 2020 - 7:54pm

NOSELL

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I’ve been having a hard time keeping track of time, but Goodreads indicates that it took me just under two weeks to read “Pride and Prejudice.” For some reason it feels like longer. Or maybe not? Time is passing in strange ways now. Maybe it’s that everything I do now has a greater tendency to completely fill my field of vision. When I decided to read Austen’s classic, it was all I really wanted to do. Her long, intricate sentences seemed to take up my entire brain. 

My housemate, who is the kind of person who read these novels in her adolescence, lent me her copy. It’s one of those ugly-but-useful Dover Critical Editions that has a bunch of essays and an eye-wateringly extensive bibliography in the back. She told me she’s read it six or seven times and you can tell. Her marginalia is that of someone with a real affinity for the material, as well as someone who knows what’s going to happen almost by heart. When Wickham tells Elizabeth his (misrepresented) life story, my housemate filled the margins with skepticism. “Consider how unusual at the time it would be to just say all of this directly to someone you just met,” she wrote. Elizabeth says something similar later on: “She was now struck with the impropriety of such communication to a stranger, and wondered it had escaped her before.” My housemate’s experience of this book reminds me of Zadie Smith’s analogy for rereading: like walking into a house whose rooms you know very well, and you can see clearly the placement of the objects and their relationships to each other. 

Elsewhere, my housemate’s annotations are enthusiastic. “OMG he is so bad at this,” she writes next to Darcy’s awkward attempts to converse with Lizzy Bennet. “Awful,” she writes next to one of Mr. Collins’s ponderously misogynistic speeches. Austen is a writer who inspires this kind of immediate affinity, fandom even, in a way that a lot of other literary writers don’t. I wanted to share this affinity, but I couldn’t. Even though I felt a sort of affinity for her style and methods, I never felt fully absorbed by it. This is, of course, my fault and I immediately felt bad about it. I don’t really care about the canon, not exactly, but it does bother me a little bit that when someone asks me what my favorite novel is, I will answer with something published in the last 5-10 years. Uh, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”? Maybe “Conversations With Friends”? I could lie and say “The Last Samurai.” That’s a book that people who want to be writers are allowed to have as their favorite, I think. It’s not that these are not good books, but it’s that I feel a little bit of shame at their topicality. They feel like news items and therefore whatever the opposite of edifying is. Of course, it’s not that I haven’t read “Jane Eyre” or anything, it’s just that I am not the kind of person who loves that kind of thing. 

What is “that kind of thing,” anyway? Maybe it’s the ethos Austen depicts. Her characters—mostly the lower end of the gentry who are, in their own way, precariously situated—spend a lot of their time visiting each other. They are constantly coming in and out of each other’s houses, being entertained in rooms specifically designed for the purpose, having conversations and judging each other’s conversational abilities. Conversation is like a game for these people: they are always trying to impress other people and (sometimes) trying to be fair and judicious in their own assessments. Darcy, who pretty early on refuses to dance with anyone at a ball and barely speaks to anyone, is met with such universal disdain by the Hertfordshire set because he basically confronts the concerns that animate these people’s lives and says “no, thank you.” No one seemingly dislikes him more than Elizabeth Bennet, who, as we know, ends up with Darcy in the end. 

Elizabeth’s opinion changes over the course of an uncountable number of social gatherings and chance encounters. Elizabeth visits Netherfield to see her beloved sister, who has fallen ill, and in the process is in the same room as Darcy in the evening. Later, she visits her friend Charlotte Lucas and her husband and Darcy happens to be in their social circle. It proceeds like that — largely by accident, and modestly. Austen’s characters are constantly making guesses and suppositions about their friends and relations that have to be confirmed by another visit, another noticed gesture. Even after it’s clear that Darcy and Elizabeth finally have chemistry, there are an intervening three or four visits and encounters before he proposes. It’s civilized in the extreme.

Austen is not even-handed or particularly realistic in her depiction of human beings, and veers into caricature more often than I would like. Austen has a particular disdain, it seems, for people whose education in manners has resulted in incomplete, stunted or overly self-possessed personalities. Mr. Collins, the ridiculous parson who proposes to Elizabeth in the first section of the novel, is an example of the kind of character who receives the most scorn from Austen’s narrator. Ditto for Mary Bennet, Elizabeth’s younger sister, who, by virtue of being “the only plain one in the family” is the most “accomplished,” meaning that she spends all her time with books and pretends not to care about balls or social functions where she would have little success. Her manners are rigid and solemn, and she sometimes repeats the lazy, misogynistic moralisms that Mr. Collins spouts. These two characters lack the natural, unstudied grace of Elizabeth and Jane.

Maybe this is an ethos of sorts for the novel as a form — drawn, as it is, as much from life as it is from other books, all the while disguising its source material. Even so, I didn’t like that Austen needed a character like Mary to make this point. More than once, I wrote in the margins ‘THIS IS A REALLY CYNICAL BOOK’ and meant it. Of course, a more fair assessment should take into account the very real social pressures placed on women in Austen’s world. She insists on women’s subjectivity in a world determined to deny it, and even if the result is a narrow, bourgeois kind of freedom, it’s something. Elizabeth Bennet is certainly an appealing character — judicious, kind, capable of changing her mind. Maybe my favorite part of this book is the close, intimate bond that Lizzy has with her sister Jane. The former almost seems to be capable of predicting the latter’s thoughts and has an intense feeling for her happiness and unhappiness. There’s a lot to admire here, even if parts of it I found off-putting. 

One would think that a lush Regency novel where the stakes are ultimately rather low seems like the perfect distraction right now, but it was like my eyes kept slipping past the text. As much as I want to just shut out everything that’s happening and become an art monster, I really can’t bring myself to. Like a lot of people with too much time on their hands, I’ve been checking Twitter and news sites compulsively. In the absence of other stimuli, my inner life starts to resemble a constantly refreshing timeline: jittery, fragmented, important-feeling, ambiguous in composite. I’m already pretty ADHD but this has been making it worse. 

To pull my brain back from that flickering state to Austen’s long, intricate sentences frequently didn’t work. I found myself rereading paragraphs and losing the thread in the process. She writes like the second movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto, just constantly unspooling dripping elegance that resides mostly in details. Austen is resolutely against the grand gesture. I’ve been feeling the need, maybe, for something dramatic now that there is very little opportunity to make a grand gesture without being grossly irresponsible. Still, it hurts a little bit that nothing in my life really gets to the pitch I want anymore. Maybe this book is trying to convince me to seek validation in repetition and confirmation rather than this persistent desire for drastic change. 

It’s not the fault of the work that I happened to run into it at a uniquely bad time. Like any great work of art, “Pride And Prejudice” makes the reader adapt to it, and it could be that I was just resisting what the work is asking of me as a reader. Ideally, you have to meet a work on its own terms and not be always imposing yourself on it, as difficult as it might be.