Friday, 8 October 2010

Pride and Prejudice

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife..."

Edition Notes; Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, 1813, Collectors Library (Macmillan?) 2003 edition illustrated by Hugh Thomson - £7.99 ISBN 978-1-904633-01-3

Somewhat misguidedly, I cheerfully announced last time that I would be back in two weeks with my thoughts on Pride and Prejudice.

Several things immediately happened in quick succession that pushed that thought, and the paper wrapped copy I had just purchased, to the back of my mind. To be fair, they were very good things. To be unfair, they took the form of the publication of one book I had been quite looking forward to and the arrival of three others I had been recently recommended. The next thing I knew it was the 25th and I had five days to complete a totally unknown quantity.

Let me explain - I am a fast reader. Under certain circumstances I am a blindingly fast reader. I am also very, very easily distracted. The amount of time it will take me to finish any given book is not distinguished by size or length but by how well it holds my attention and how easily I can get into the prose. I expect to finish most children's and young adult books, and any light genre fiction from an author I particularly enjoy in one day (Sometimes one sitting), Pratchett, Murakami, Gaiman and other heavier authors I am a slavish fan of in two or three days, a biography in half a week, and the average Edgar Allen Poe short story in a fortnight. Lolita took me three days, The Great Gatsby took me twelve. None of the Dark Tower novels has ever taken me more than a week but I had a three hundred page collected works of Washington Irving in my bag for a month. I had no idea whether Pride and Prejudice was going to be done in three hours or three weeks, because despite having it - still wrapped in a paper bag - hanging around for a week or more I hadn't actually opened it.

Happily, on Sunday morning I missed my bus and had half an hour to kill at the bus stop (Is that happily? Lets assume so) and, between that and my lunch break - in all maybe forty minutes at most actually concentrating on the book - managed to get a respectable six and a half chapters in. All in all, the whole thing should have taken me a little over a week - I got lazy and made it twelve days, because being a week late sounded more respectable than being a few days late. A few days is disorganised - a week sounds planned.

I always assumed Austen would be hard work - the Victorian literature I adore is nonetheless tortuously difficult, and I know people who had more trouble with Shakespeare than they did with French, and as a result the Regency period - coming neatly in the middle - should by all accounts be equally impenetrable. I was happily surprised.

My first revelation was how easy it was to read - there's the odd turn of phrase that doesn't quite make sense at first, the odd unusual spelling (Which I was actually more or less prepared for by Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell) and it's not Twilight but it's still very accessible. The second revelation was that Austen is funny.

The third, which is going to come as no surprise to anyone who's ever read the books but may well surprise those, like me, who haven't but judged them anyway - is that she's blindingly clever. Not necessarily educated - I have no doubt she was, but that's not what comes through in the book - what comes through is that she watched people and she understood people and then, when she wrote, she creates people. She's a satirist of the highest order but she's desperately sweet about it.

The problem with Pride and Prejudice is that I know the story. Between the BBC adaptation - the good one, with Colin Firth, that's become essentially synonymous with the story - and Bride and Prejudice (2004, Gurinder Chadha) which I was forced to sit through three or so times, I know exactly what is going to happen.

Which isn't, actually, such a bad thing. There are no terribly dramatic plot twists to be spoiled for you, and the characters are so well done that you can more or less figure out what's afoot well before it actually happens because you come to understand what their reactions are going to be. To be honest, if you didn't figure out within seconds that Darcy and Elizabeth are meant for each other and the rest of the book is just going to be details, then there is not a bone of romance in your body.

Above and beyond everything else, the book's strong point - and probably the reason why it and Austen's other work has endured so well - is the characters. The characters are masterfully done. In fact, the characters are blindingly, overwhelmingly good, because they're real.

I never felt the need to be told anything more about any of the characters to guess what they were going to do next, because they work in exactly the same way real people work. Mr Collins is whaffly and self-important, and in my experience people who are are usually so because they're insecure, and an insecure person would feel a failure after Eliza turned them down, assume that they'd be mocked at failing to come away with a bride, and thus wouldn't leave the house without some kind of engagement so it comes as absolutely no surprise when he goes scrambling off after Miss Lucas. I never needed to be told he was insecure and afraid of being mocked by society - or even if he is - because Austen understands how people work, and the characters work like real people.

Austen must have been a woman after my own heart as well. I was not expecting to find Mr Darcy either remotely attractive or compelling because I have virtually no interest in men (A major handicap when you're reading romance, I tell you now) and was proved wrong in the space of about three pages. Mr Darcy is incredibly sexy. It's the same kind of almost sociopathic arrogance borne out of a staggering intellect, absolute confidence in himself and zero tolerance for people who can't keep up that makes me go weak at the knees over Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes, General Cross in D.Gray-man and Georgette Heyer's Marquis de Vidal. When girls say they love a bad boy, they don't mean bloody Edward Cullen - they mean this.

Elizabeth is also a pretty damn good heroine. She has her faults - she's contrary for the sake of being contrary sometimes, and rebellious, and stubborn, and - by Regency standards - not attentive enough to her feminine qualities. She is also, in the most fabulously  honest way, not pretty. She's claimed to be a famed beauty but we quickly figure out - or at least, I did - that it's not because she's beautiful but because she's bright and quick witted and charming, which turns moderately pretty into stunning. This means she's incredibly easy to relate to. Every modern woman would like to think that, should they have lived back then, they'd have held out for a marriage with someone they loved and walked across fields even if it meant getting their petticoat muddy and refused to dance with someone who'd slighted them, even if he was darkly charming and had ten thousand a year. And I'm willing to bet every Regency woman did too.

A couple of things surprised me about Austen. One, like I said, was that it's very easy to read - grammar has changed a little since then but it's quite simple to get into - which I'm likely to put down to her being a female 'genre' writer of the time, writing for light enjoyment, instead of the heavy Victorian Gothic literary stuff by male authors I tend to be attracted to.

The other was that she's got a very unique approach. There is virtually no description. Settings and surroundings are only mentioned when they serve a function or are being discussed, which tends to say more about the character than it does about the room. Characters are only described by their bearing and conversation and dancing skills, not the colour of their hair or eyes. Not once has she mentioned any of their dresses. And do you know? It doesn't bloody matter. Well, I'd rather like to know what they were eating and what colour their gowns are - but the book doesn't need it and I'm surprised that I don't either.

The version I bought is the cute hard cover Collector's Library. I've been meaning to buy some of these for a long time just because they're so sweet, and hardcovers wear so well. On the plus side, it's so compact I can hold it one handed - which is great for me, who mostly reads on my lunch break, because I've got a sandwich in the other - on the downside, the gilt edges means that reading it for the first time, the very thin pages stick together, which defeats the object of being able to hold it in one hand. Despite the fact that the pages are tissue-paper thin, they're also quite opaque, don't discolour or become translucent under prolonged contact, and I have also failed to rip any of the pages or give myself a nasty paper cut so far so I think the gilt edges are worth it. The illustrations are charming. Of course, the trade off for hardcover and gilt edges is that there are more or less no notes on the text other than a brief afterword. For some people that's a blessing, and I have to say I didn't miss them - I'm not particularly familiar with the Regency period (Not in the same way that I am with the Victorian) and nothing came up that I was confused about. Austen's very accessible that way.

I enjoyed this far, far more than I expected to - which is to say still not quite as much as it deserved, but I expect it will bear up to further readings.

This is one of the books, I imagine, that's going to turn out invaluable for shoehorning Young Adult romance readers into adult fiction. The heroine is well developed and easy to relate to - the hero is almost alarmingly sexy - and the plot manages to convince you to suspend your disbelief and genuinely wonder if Darcy and Elizabeth ever really will get married. It's even worth reading if you've seen a good TV adaptation, because Austen's prose is delightful and not too heavy.

Next time
Because this one took me three weeks when it should have taken two, I'm going to attempt to get back on track by finishing the next book in one. So come back next time for Edwin Abbott Abbott's Flatland.

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