Monday, July 21, 2008

Pride and Prejudice Again

On any given day, I will certainly recommend reading Jane Austen. She is a perennial favorite with a masterful command of the English language, a biting wit that produced the most delightful social commentary, and a deeply penetrating insight into human nature. Her novels paint rich portraits of intricate characters set against a backdrop of deep moral beliefs in the context of an historical era that has proven itself perpetually intriguing to the modern mind.

I think, however, that of all Jane Austen's talented works, I must particularly recommend the dearly beloved Pride and Prejudice to readers of this blog. Why would I recommend a Jane Austen novel that is already so well-known? Quite frankly, because it is a masterpiece, her masterpiece. Of course, you might remind me, "Isn't it true, however, that Mansfield Park was the novel that conveyed the most thoroughly developed and complete expression of Jane Austen's world view and ethical system? Isn't Mansfield Park her most mature novel?" Well, yes, that is true. I believe most critics would agree that that is so. Nonetheless, I maintain that Pride and Prejudice is in fact Jane Austen's true masterpiece.

The reason I say this is because artistically speaking, Pride and Prejudice is without doubt the most perfect offering of Austen's pen. It contains some of the most beautifully composed English prose ever written; the turn of her phrase, the elegance of her expression are remarkable. It literally and literarily sparkles in a manner never so fully achieved by the rest of her novels, while it also never forsakes that underlying seriousness of intent so crucial to Austen's effect. At no point does the plot really begin to stick or drag; it maintains momentum and interest because of its unfailingly vivacious dialogue, and its strategically timed developments. Austen, herself, seemed to prefer Pride and Prejudice to the rest of her work, calling the novel "my own darling child," and referring to it in terms of endearment at numerous points throughout her life.

Of course, as with all of Austen's work, at its most basic level, Pride and Prejudice is about marriage, but again, Pride and Prejudice conveys its message in a particularly joyful and delightful manner. With gentleness and grace but without compromise, the novel asserts the necessity of virtue in a good relationship, and shows that a good relationship, a good marriage, is built upon a mutual striving for virtue in which both parties assist each other to achieve that virtue. All the characters are flawed, but those who emerge with the strongest relationship (Elizabeth and Darcy) are those who seek to overcome their vices, who possess the honesty to recognize when criticism is merited, who accept criticism from those they love most, who courageously take steps toward self-purging, and who constantly seek to become more worthy of being loved. Even Jane and Bingley, who seem to be presented as the perfect couple, do not possess nearly the depth or richness of love and understanding in their relationship as is had by Elizabeth and Darcy. In the end, you know that Austen favors the latter couple, as in fact she herself mentioned upon more than one occasion.

All this having been said by way of introduction, I suppose it ought to be mentioned that I am once again happily engaged in reading my favorite novel. I am particularly pleased to have discovered a brand new edition called The Annotated Pride and Prejudice, annotated and edited by David M. Shapard, whom I have found to be very sound in his analysis. This edition is probably not meant for first-time readers, as its notes are capacious, but for second-time, third-time, and every-other-time readers, it is absolutely delightful. The historical and social comments from Mr. Shapard gain you a whole new level of understanding and appreciation for the events in the story, and his literary comments draw out all sorts of intricacies and subtleties of Jane Austen's thought and writing process that all too easily escape one's notice. The end result is such a rich experience of Regency life and Austen insight that your mind just begs for more. I hope that Mr. Shapard will find time to annotate and edit the rest of Jane Austen's work.