Second Reading: Jonathan Yardley Reexamines Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice'

Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen in the 2005 film of
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen in the 2005 film of "Pride and Prejudice." (Focus Features Via Associated Press)
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By Jonathan Yardley
Thursday, July 30, 2009

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

Eight of the most famous words in Jane Austen's masterpiece, "Pride and Prejudice," are to be found toward the end of the novel's third chapter. The five Bennet girls and their mother have just returned from a ball at Netherfield, a nearby estate, and find their father still awake and reading in his study. This is scarcely a surprise, for, as Austen so deftly puts it, "With a book he was regardless of time."

My mother, Helen Gregory Yardley, was just like that, a passionate reader from childhood until her death in 1986, and there were no books that she loved more than Austen's novels. A modest, cloth-bound set of them was shelved by her bedside in all the places where she and my father lived in their half-century of marriage, and she returned to them over and over again. The same set now has an honored place in the living room of the apartment my wife and I occupy at the northern edge of downtown Washington, and I glance at it every day.

Thus to devote a column in this Second Reading series to "Pride and Prejudice" is at least as much a tribute to my mother and her lasting influence upon my literary tastes as it is a reconsideration of one of the world's most famous and beloved works of fiction. Truth be told, there probably is nothing new to be said about "Pride and Prejudice" or its author -- the endless exertions of the academic dissertation machine notwithstanding -- and certainly there is nothing new to be said by me. By way of proof, consider the Penguin Classics edition that I read for this essay, so as to avoid marking up my mother's copy. It contains not one but two critical introductions -- the original from 1972 by Tony Tanner and another from 2003 by Vivien Jones -- as well as a biographical sketch, notes and emendations of various sorts, and recommendations for further reading.

Many of these recommendations, like Jones's introduction, have a decidedly feminist cast, with titles such as "Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel," "Jane Austen: Feminism and Fiction" and "The Politics of Jane Austen." Read if you must these exegeses, but spare my old gray brain. There's nothing quite like the combination of academics and ideology to drain the wit and subtlety right out of Austen's sublime novels, and few of the insights these pieces offer into her work are worth the immense, draining labor of reading the clanking prose in which they are written.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, though, that over the years just about everyone has taken a crack at Austen. Her novels have been translated into dozens of languages and apparently lose nothing in the process. More movies, plays and television programs have been drawn from her work than I can count -- a search for her at the Internet Movie Database yields enough links to keep one occupied for a week -- and at the moment one of the books on the Washington Post bestseller list is something called "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," an adaptation for the young -- or the young at heart -- by Seth Grahame-Smith, a Los Angeles writer-producer and Huffington Post blogger. You can even read, if necessity seizes you with irresistible ferocity, "Jane Austen for Dummies."

My impression, though, is that "Pride and Prejudice," along with the rest of Austen's work, remains resolutely impervious to all this meddling. Somewhere along the way I surely saw the first of the many film adaptations, but when I reread the novel now I don't see Laurence Olivier as Fitzwilliam Darcy or Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet in the way that, say, Joan Fontaine is too firmly fixed in my imagination as Jane Eyre or (of course!) Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. Precisely how or why Austen's work has resisted all these attempts at modernization is something of a mystery, though while rereading "Pride and Prejudice" for the first time in many years I kept thinking that its very modernity has much to do with the explanation.

Yes, some of the dialogue may seem a bit stilted to today's reader, and some early-19th-century usages need explanation ("condescension," for example, which occurs frequently herein, then meant "graciousness" or "courtesy"), but when one considers that it was first published in 1813, its depiction of relations between women and men and of middle-class manners will strike today's reader as far less old-fashioned than would be expected. It was a period when marrying for money and position was beginning to be supplanted by marrying for love, so on the one hand today's reader will be taken aback by the incessant chatter about marriages predicated on money or denied because of social position, but on the other hand Elizabeth and Darcy approach each other as near-equals in ways that will seem very familiar to today's reader.

Austen's own life has been the subject of intense investigation and even greater speculation, not least because this author of novels about courtship and romance turned down the only proposal known to have come her way and died a spinster in 1817 at the age of 41. Her own family was close (she was one of seven children of a minister and his wife) and mostly supported her literary undertakings with great loyalty. Her novels were published anonymously, the first four during her lifetime and two more after her death, to considerable success, but her advance toward the literary canon did not really get underway until much later in the 19th century. She is now an industry, and devotees of her work often refer to themselves as "Janeites," conducting their conversations on the Internet, in book clubs and societies, whenever two or more are gathered together.

Different strokes for different folks. Being neither a joiner nor a cultist, I have resisted all temptations to wave the Janeite banner, preferring to enjoy her books -- like those of the many other writers whose work I treasure -- in private. This seems to me especially appropriate in her case, for despite all the chatting and blogging they inspire, they are intensely private books, which may help explain why none of the dramatic adaptations of them that I have seen has really managed to capture their essence, in contrast, say, with some film adaptations of novels by Charles Dickens, which are far more populous and busy. Some of these Austen adaptations are notable for their period costumes and scenery, and they have provided employment for many fetching young British actresses, but if you want Jane Austen, you've got to read Jane Austen.

What a joy it is to do so. For the reader or two out there who hasn't gotten the word, the plot of "Pride and Prejudice" revolves around the exceedingly irregular courtship of Darcy (always referred to in conversation as "Mr. Darcy") and Lizzy Bennet. Darcy, visiting his friend Bingley at Netherfield, "drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year," which, according to the Penguin Classic notes, "puts him among the 400 wealthiest families in the country." Alas, he is also proud: "haughty, reserved, and fastidious, and his manners, though well bred, were not inviting."

Elizabeth dislikes him immediately. She is smart, she is nobody's fool, and she submits to no one. Darcy is attracted to "the beautiful expression of her dark eyes" and her "easy playfulness," but she finds him arrogant and (in the 21st-century meaning of the word) condescending. When he astonishes her with an utterly unexpected proposal of marriage, she rejects him with brutal candor. Later, visiting his magnificent estate called Pemberley, she muses about what her life might be like had she accepted, but as she puts it: "There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense."

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