Sunday, August 9, 2009

Book Twelve: The Annotated Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single reader in search of a pleasurable read need only turn to Ms. Austen. Such was the experience again when returning to a book I have read several times, yet find more interesting each time. There is little new to be said about Austen's work in general and Pride and Prejudice in particular. What is it about her work that has won her regard since this novel was published and which continues unabated today? If we are to judge by the movies made of the stories it is primarily the great romantic intrigue which is central to all her novels. But with the notable exception of A&Es long version of the novel (with Colin Firth creating the Mr. Darcy and my wife and daughter wishing they were Elizabeth Bennet), many of them miss what makes reading Austen so enjoyable.

First, there is her well-known wit. Excuse my play on the opening line with my opening line, but most readers are familiar with the famous opening. "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." At the outset we get Austen's biting sense of humor and a preview of what is to come. There are few novelists who can encapsulate so much in a single line and carry off her humor in the midst of a "serious" novel. Austen is not a comic writer, but in the realist mode she knows that life does have humor and that some people are more humorous than others. The father, Mr. Bennet, is someone I would love to have an hour to talk with someday. He has quick insight into others, throws caustic lines at others in the cloak of humor, and enjoys nothing more than listening to a ridiculous person. He does not take himself seriously either, even noting that his guilt over Lydia's behavior will pass from him as well.

Which leads us into a second attraction of Austen -- her realist portrayal of characters. The entire novel is based on the misguided perceptions of the two central characters. "Pride" and "prejudice" are hardly two ways to induce people to like your central characters, but Austen pulls it off. She does so because she knows the best people fail to be the people they want to be at times, and for Austen that is acceptable. Darcy and Elizabeth both stumble several times throughout the book, but Austen forgives them, the reader forgives them, and ultimately they forgive each other (and true love reigns!). Her realistic portrayals extend to most other characters except for the younger sisters and Mr. Collins, although in many ways they simply serve as foils. Even the mother is shown to have something other than loudness when toward the end we see her intimidated by Lady Catherine de Bourgh and subdued by Darcy.

Of course, there are far more that two reasons to read Austen, but I will not suffer the reader any longer (hey, great Austen type language there!). If you have avoided Austen so far, please resist no longer. Yes, everyone reads her and loves her, but hey, sometimes the majority is right.

A quick note on this annotated version. As I "feared" it did slow me down, but David Shapard has put together a very comprehensive and interesting edition. The text is on the left and his annotations on the right -- at times they are quick definitions or explanations, and at times they are literary criticism. I agree with much of his reading of the novel and found many of his explanations most helpful. If you are a fan of this book this is an excellent edition to seek out. The only downside were several printing errors which left some sentences on the bottom of the page blank -- so keep you other edition handy in case you cannot guess what you are missing.

Reading Challenges

An unexpectedly tough week. I was on vacation from my usual job, but had something at church one night, a meeting another night, and worst of all, a garage sale to prepare for. I did so much physical labor during the day (which is not much in my world) that I was exhausted at night. Fortunately, the book provided a welcome respite from the day's concerns.

I will admit to thinking how nice a week off from reading would be -- or at least a week when I was not thinking about finishing. This is hard work and I have to be intentional, but once I sit down with the book I'm quite happy. I've never been a big tv viewer, but that is nearly nonexistent now (same goes for movies). But I've now completed three months without a serious threat to success, so I will continue forward.

Next Up

Elizabeth Bennet battles zombies. This will be interesting.

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