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.


healthily sanguine said...

Great post! I heartily agree with you about P&P being Austen's master work. I also think a large part of the reason for this is the heroine of the novel. Elizabeth Bennett, precisely because of her flaws and weaknesses, develops in a way that Fanny Price of Mansfield Park does not. Moreover, the reader can relate a bit more to Lizzie's quick reactions and subsequent repentance than to Fanny's long-suffering disposition, however edifying the latter may be. Ah, I need to pick up Jane Austen again! :)

j'aime said...

yes, yes, yes . . . she said people would love this one best, although her personal favorite was Emma. so odd, n'est pas?

Mabel said...

I just love Austen. Each of her works has a special merit all its own. But, as a friend once said to me in a debate (I'll call it that, although it really turned into something bordering much more closely on an all-out argument): "The cream rises to the top." I believe these words were uttered as a defense of the Harry Potter series, but that's neither here nor there. The point is - those works which come down to us through history as the most popular tend to have that place for legitimate reasons.

I love Pride and Prejudice. And agree with Sylvia, that Lizzie is just wonderful. One feels that she can really relate with her.

I actually love Mansfield Park more - perhaps because I love loving what is less loved by the masses. I can't really think up a better excuse than that. And something in the long-suffering of little Fanny has always moved me, although there were times in my last reading of the novel when I wanted to shake her and say, "Just scream. Tell them what you think of them. Throw something! For goodness sake, if you roll over one more time..."

But anyway. Lovely post on a lovely novel. You've whet my appetite. Perhaps I'll hit up the local library for some good, satisfying Jane Austen in these next few weeks.