Monday, 27 December 2010

'Pride and Prejudice' by Jane Austen

'Pride and Prejudice' by Jane Austen - one of my all-time favourite novels (I also adore the BBC dramatisation of it with the gorgeous Colin Firth).

Well anyway, I was prompted to re-read it yet again the other day. Why? Because our eldest son Alexander's girlfriend Simone is studying it as part of her English Literature degree with the Open University. She is reading a posh, large edition of it, with lots of lovely pictures of the BBC dramatisation in it. Whereas the edition that I have sitting on my shelf (published by Pan books) is a very small paperback edition, but includes a superb introduction by Brigid Brophy. However, unlike me, Simone unfortunately (especially for her, as she is studying it) doesn't seem to like the book much at all. She is struggling to read it, it seems, and the whole process is taking her a long time (even though she is a quick reader). Then, again, of course, reading Jane Austen is challenging. But let's just hope that such things do not effect her ability to obtain a good degree. She has been finding the degree challenging, although has also made some good progress overall.

So, anyway, I decided to read 'Pride and Prejudice' again. With the classics (whether this be in literature, music or whatever) I find that every time one reads, listens, watches, or observes, or whatever one usually gets something new and different out of the whole experience.

This time I got many new and different things from reading 'Pride and Prejudice'. First of all, I thought in more concrete terms about some of the similarities between Jane Austen and myself. This is something that I have felt instinctively for many years; but reading 'Pride and Prejudice' again, this time I thought about it more explicitly. It is a well-known fact, of course, that Lizzy in 'Pride and Prejudice' represents a side of Jane Austen (and that Emma in Jane Austen's novel 'Emma' represents another side). I also love the book 'Emma' and, once again, also particularly loved the BBC dramatisation of it, with Doran Goodwin and John Carson. I can see elements of both of these characters (Lizzy and Emma) within myself. This includes factors such as looking at life through both intelligent and satirical eyes; wishing to be cultural and accomplished whilst also having awareness of one's own limitations (Lizzy's awareness of her limitations on playing the pianoforte, for example); being attracted to a certain type of man (intelligent, dark, strong-minded, sometimes distance, having manners in certain circumstances but not necessarily so in others if it does not seem to be appropriate etc); loving to read novels (Jane Austen enjoying this from a child, as I did - her father had a library of 500 books by 1801 and Lizzy enjoying books); a religous upbringing (Jane Austen herself, with her father being a clergyman); the need to use our brain within the situations that we find ourselves in (this applied to Emma on a large-scale, which was why she became a match-maker of course and obviously to Jane Austen herself); having a family that could often be embarrassing (this applies to various members of Lizzy's family, including sisters Lydia and Mary as well as her mother; also to Emma's father who was always complaining about the drafts etc) and to having a particularly annoying and silly mother (in this case, Lizzy's mother).

I feel a great affinity with Lizzy in regard to her mother. Like Mrs Bennett my mother was confused, silly and always going on about her nerves! We are introduced to Lizzy's annoying and daft mother on just the 2nd page of 'Pride and Prejudice', with Mrs Bennett saying this to Mr Bennett:

"You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion on my poor nerves."

And he replies:

"You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty five years."

I love the satire! Similarly, my mother - she was always going on about 'her nerves' and all the things that were wrong with her. She was a right hypochondriac!

In regard to Lizzy's mother, Mrs Bennett, we have various gems. Jane Austen says that Mrs Bennett 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; her solace was visiting and news." (p. 3)

'Nerves' for a certain type of woman could be just so useful!

And here we have something about Mr Bennett's view in regard to Mrs Bennett:

"Her [Lizzy's] father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown." (p.175)

Then, towards the end of the book, when Jane, Lizzy and Lydia are all married we discover that Mrs Bennett still:

"...was occasionally nervous and invariably silly." (p. 286)

So, she never fundamentally changes. And Mr Bennett, by marrying such a person, caused many and various problems for the family of course. Still, he was an intelligent man and managed to see his way through many and various situations, somehow or other (although he recognised the fact that he was also often very fortunate in how things finally turned out).

In regard to the humiliation and embarrassment brought upon the family by the behaviour of Lydia with Wickham we have statements such as this:

"But she [Lizzy] had never felt so strongly as now, the disadvantages which must attend the children of so unsuitable a marriage, nor ever been so fully aware of the evils arising from so ill-judged a direction of talents; talents which, rightly used, might at least have preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife." (pp. 175-6)


"Lydia - the humiliation, the misery she was bringing on them all..." (p. 204)

I similarly, have suffered considerable embarrassment from certain members of my family on and off over the years!

As I have already said though, what I particularly loved and appreciated reading the book this time round, was the powerful and insightful introduction to the book by Brigid Brophy. Brigid Brophy made me think very clearly about some very important points about the novel as an art form; thereby emphasising the brilliance and genius of Jane Austen in a slightly different way for me (as opposed to enjoying the novel on a somewhat simpler level).

Brigid Brophy talks about the beautiful forms that Jane Austen created, and how she did this partly by being ruthless with her work, and destroying that which needed to be destroyed.

"Jane Austen's novels are beautiful forms because of what she destroyed in uncovering them. No element is without counterpart. No action merely ends a phase - it is always a resolution, not merely the last note but the key note, exactly in tune by virtue of its relation to all the notes that went before and theirs to one another." (p. x)

This reminds me of Mozart's work in some ways; having just the right amount of notes, and in the right order etc. (as opposed to some of his critics at the time, that said that his compositions had too many notes! Dear oh dear).

And then there is Mr Collins, the silly and annoying cousin of Lizzy's that also never read novels. As Brigid Brophy says:

"...Mr Collins declares he never reads novels. Jane Austen couldn't have said anything more damning than that." (p. xv)

Here then, Jane Austen is emphasising again how infuriating she can personally find silly and annoying people to be, whilst also making it clear just how wonderful she thinks the novel is. And Lizzys' love of reading is also articulated in the following way when she is reading a book, and then looks up to say to Mr Darcy:

"How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book! - When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library." (p.40)

'How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book." I couldn't agree with her more!

Yet, in 'Emma' we witness here the compassionate side of her in regard to those that are less intelligent, with Miss Bates, who is so good-hearted and kind, but not very bright. Also, how guilty Emma felt at one point, when she felt that she had not treated her right and where she had spoken in public about the limits of her conversation.

Moving on, Brigid Brophy rightly turns on its head, the notion that Jane Austen wrote limited novels that just mirrored the society and the surroundings that she was brought up in. This is an accusation that is often thrown at her work, and is really just so unfair. I am reminded of the work of the philosopher J.S. Mill which I have written about in my newsletters and on my 'Ruth Rikowski Updates Progression' blog. J.S. Mill had an amazing ability to be able to write clearly and in an approachable way, which can then sometimes perhaps be taken for granted. I think something similar can apply to Jane Austen's novels. On one level they can appear to be so clear and simple and just lovely, creating a beautiful environment with interesting people - we can just escape into it, and perhaps wish that the real world was more like it, and leave it at that (or at least I can on one level, that's for sure). But although this is all very nice, if we leave it at that, then we are grossly under-estimating the power and brilliance of Jane Austen's work of course (although in reality, to be fair, that does not really happen much). As Brigid Brophy rightly says:

"It is sometimes implied that Jane Austen was a great novelist despite these limitations on her own experience and on her subject matter. But there is no 'despite' about it. Her subject matter constituted bricks quite adequate to building the structures her imagination conceived, as the perfection of the finished structures bears witness. Her own circumstances were actually helpful in that they included the opportunity for her to make herself technically competent - indeed, virtuoso - at writing novels. The technique of fiction is every bit as hard and lengthy to acquire as that of architecture or counterpoint" (p.v-vi)

Charles Hazlewood also thought this about Mozart's work; that much of the brilliance and passion of Mozart's work arose precisely from the life circumstances that he found himself in; and that his work should not be seen as something separate from this. But geniuses have the unique ability to be able to do this; to transform everyday occurences and passions into something else; into something creative, artistic and wonderful, that we can then all enjoy. This is what I see as being the big difference to be.

Brigid Brophy continues, says that:

"Far from passively and impartially reflecting back everything in her own milieu, she is a ruthless suppressor of all items which would not forward her plot or carry a structural weight in her design. A mirror reflects an assemblage in which the elements don't, as old-fashioned water-colourists used to put it, 'compose'; Jane Austen's novels are cogent, dynamic designs - structures of organic engineering." (p. vii)

Then, Brigid Brophy makes it clear that she thinks that Jane Austen's level of genius is on a par with that of Marx, Freud, Shakespeare and Mozart, and I quite agree with her about all of this. She says:

"The twentieth-century, which has been rightly taught by Marx and by Freud to get down to economic and sexual brass tacks, would quickly dismiss a merely mirroring Jane Austen as reflecting far too small a corner of England, too well protected against the intrusion of brass tacks to be statistically significant...Instead, of fading, Jane Austen is in the twentieth century standing out more and more unmistakenably. For the first time since one of her contemporary reviewers [Whately, later Archbishop of Dublin] recognised her as a Shakespearean genius, it is clear that she wrote her books not as a more entertaining way of passing the long rural, upper-middle-class winter evenings than needlework, but because she was a passionate artist whom nothing - not even if she had been a vivandiere - could have stopped." (p.ix)


"The imagination of a great novelist is an instrument as penetrating and analytic as the imagination of a Marx or a Freud. And indeed Jane Austen's artistic insight into the worlds she created carried her down to the very same brass tacks as those two thinkers reached by thinking their way down into the structure of the real world outside themselves." (p.x)

Furthermore, Brigid Brophy says that:

"The ground-plan of all Jane Austen's structures is laid out round two axes, her two great realistic perceptions: the economics of being a woman at a time when marriage was the only key to financial independence; and the power of sexual attraction, which may tempt you towards an imprudent marriage or towards a love which, not being reciprocated, won't lead to marriage at all. The novels Jane Austen constructs about these two great pillars are no more naturalistic than Mozart's operas or Shakespeare's comedies." (p. xii)

She concludes by saying that:

" many great works of art, Pride and Prejudice is itself a metaphor of art: an ever-living monument to the power of the imagination, constructed by an imagination of genius round imagination's two principles." (p.xvii)

Wow - Brigid Brophy's introduction is almost an amazing piece of art work in itself, I think!

The ability to re-create life in its various forms, into a beautiful work of art - what a truly wonderful, wonderful gift that is! And how much we can benefit from all of that. And of course, Jane Austen had this gift in abundance.

So I come to the end of another little episode for me in regard to Jane Austen. Although, perhaps now I will re-read one of her other novels, perhaps with new, refreshed and different eyes. Have to see.......

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