Friday, May 28, 2010

Pride and Prejudice (Without Zombies)

I have a shameful secret to confess: until a few weeks ago, I had never read anything by Jane Austen.

This wouldn't be a shameful secret for everyone, but I was an Honors English major at Kenyon College thirty years ago or so, which meant, among other things, that I had to pass a six-hour comprehensive examination on all of English literature. Plus, I do in fact regularly read 18th and 19th Century novels for pleasure. About ten or twenty years ago, there was a huge surge in interest in Austen's work, so that a literary-minded person could hardly turn around without bumping into her somewhere.

This popularity has waned a bit, but it may now be renewed by the recent parody mixing her gentle romantic comedy with the tropes of the horror genre, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Indeed, that work has itself become so popular that it has created a new sub-genre all its own, and compelled me to title this review in such a way that readers would know right off the bat that I was speaking of the original.

So, after all this time I finally decided to pick up a Jane Austen novel. The verdict? I liked it. I liked it quite a bit, actually. I can't imagine it being improved by the injection of zombies.

Austen's novels are generally classed as comedies, which is true enough but the modern reader should be warned that this is primarily in the classical sense of the difference between tragedies and comedies being that in a tragedy everyone ends up dead and in a comedy everyone ends up married.

This is not to say that there is no humor in "Pride and Prejudice." There is quite a lot of humor, some of it quite pointed. The book is full of satirical wit, and indeed it is just such wit on the part of the main character, Elizabeth Bennet, that captivates the heart of the aloof Mr. Darcy. But it's humor of the nodding and smiling variety. You probably won't find yourself laughing out loud.

There's nothing wrong with that sort of humor, and some even prefer it, but in this era of jaded tastes and television laugh tracks many expect anything labeled a "comedy" to deliver more-or-less constant belly laughs, and you certainly won't find that here. That said, there are plenty of smiles.

Feminists have adopted Ms. Austen as one of there own, which has no doubt helped the popularity of her novels. Elizabeth is, however, at best a problematic exemplar of feminist ideals. It's true that she does twice turn down proposals of marriage. But it's not as if she does anything to indicate that she contemplates a career, or any other kind of future other than eventually being a wife and homemaker.

And despite the fact that her pushy mother, Mrs. Bennet, trying desperately to get her girls not just married but married "well," is subject to at times vicious satire and presented as at best a buffoon and at worst a thoroughly despicable person, her values are not so much rejected as they are tempered and slightly redirected by the books plot and what constitutes a happy ending for Elizabeth.

Elizabeth refuses to marry for money, and a friend who has no such scruples is thereby diminished in her eyes. But the book is hardly an encouragement to follow one's hear with no thought of practicality. The one impulsive union based purely on emotion with no calculation for the future that we see in the book is presented as a complete disaster.

No, Austen's contribution to the social system she found herself in, the social system dominated on the female side by figures like Mrs. Bennet, is to insist that, at least as an ideal, the calculations involved in making a marriage should *include* the congeniality of temperaments, and not *just* be a calculation of how much a suitor is worth a year.

This is hardly a feminist or even an overly Romantic stance, and it is a reflection of how banal and mercenary the society she depicts in her novels was that in her hands it does indeed seem almost revolutionary.

The title of this book might seem to refer to negative qualities one might attribute to each of the main characters - Pride would be associated with Darcy, obviously, and Prejudice with Elizabeth, who assumes much about him that turns out not to be true. In fact, both of them display both of these characteristics, and both need to learn to overcome their pride and prejudice and see each other with new eyes, before the inevitable happy ending can occur.

This novel was published almost 200 years ago. The society it depicts is, in its protocols and details, gone forever. But venality and greed, fondness and passion, maternal calculation and obsequious favor-currying all will be with us forever, and all are on display here, observed with a keen eye and depictged with a lively wit that indeed makes this book timeless.

I intend to rectify my decades-old error and begin searching for other Jane Austen books directly.

By Jane Austen
Penguin Classics, 480 pp., $8.00
This edition published 2002
Originally published 1813