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Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Guild Publishing, 1979, 286 p. First published in 1813.

Pride and Prejudice cover

Again, as with Sense and Sensibility, it is difficult to assess this novel without being influenced by prior knowledge, the number of TV and film adaptations which make the plot familiar.

The novel’s register requires easing into, its famous opening line “It is a truth universally acknweledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” designed to draw the reader in, but undoubtedly more pithy than many of the following sentences. But you don’t approach a two hundred year-old novel expecting brevity.

Austen has a reputation for dialogue and indeed her touch is sharp here but it is striking how often speech is reported (some of Mr Colllins’s meanderings for example) rather than being direct. There are wonderful characterisations – the skewering of hypocritical, sycophantic clergy in Mr Collins, Lydia’s air-headedness, the lack of awareness and tact of Mrs Bennet, Mr Bennet’s resignation to, but irritation with, “silly” female company, Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s sense of entitlement. Yet Mr Bingley is almost a cipher, his sisters hardly more than plot devices, and Jane Bennet’s reserved nature scarcely makes her leap off the page. But that is the fate of relatively minor characters in any book.

The heart of the book is of course pride and prejudice, the “First Impressions” that was Austen’s working title for the book; Lizzie Bennet’s on Darcy’s first disparaging her, his seeming aloofness and regard for his station in life, her initial credulity of Mr Wickham due to his appearance and ease of manner. Warnings still.

Lizzie’s statement, whether a joke or not, that her affection for Darcy arose, “‘from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley,’” coloured by Darcy’s letter of angry rebuttal of her accusations against him regarding his treatment of Wickham, is grounded in her reflections as she toured the estate with her aunt and uncle. A single young man in possession of a good fortune indeed has certain advantages.

There is only one direct mention of the Napoleonic Wars – raging at the time Austen was writing – and it is on the penultimate page, “even when the restoration of peace dismissed them,” but then her concern was not with world affairs but rather with human nature and interactions (which are timelessly recognisable) and with the habits and mores of the time.

Pedant’s corner:- many archaic or Austenian spellings [develope, exstacy, ancle, synonimously, skreens, stopt, stile (style,) recal, staid (stayed,) mantlepiece (mantelpiece,) unfrequently, sprung (sprang,) dependant, “all had ate” (eaten,) chaperon (chaperone,) uncontrouled, Kenelworth (Kenilworth,) East Bourne (Eastbourne,) laught, intreaty, expences, the same flip-flopping between ‘chuse’ and ‘choose’ as was evident in Sense and Sensibility.]
Otherwise; “the Miss Lucases”, “the Miss Bennets”, “the Miss Webbs” (the names here are in effect adjectives. The noun is Miss, whose plural is Misses, hence we ought to have ‘the Misses Lucas’, ‘the Misses Bennet’, ‘the Misses Webb’. After all, the plural of ‘Bennet sister’ is not ‘Bennets sister’,)
A closing quotation mark without an opening one anywhere in the paragraph preceding it, “the whole party were still standing” (the whole party was ..,) Mrs Philips’ (Philips’s, two lines earlier there was Philips’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “the whole party have left” (has left,) Grosvenor street (Street,) “the whole family were indebted” (the whole .. was indebted,) “to stay supper” (to stay to supper.)

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Guild Publishing, 1980, 280 p. First published in 1811.

Expectations count. When you’re told something is good – excellent even – your anticipation is heightened, but perhaps also tinged with the thought, ‘Well go on. Impress me then.’

So what do you say about an acknowledged classic of English literature? Well, the first thing is that the past was different. This was written over two hundred years ago. They did things – and wrote – differently there. There is a prolixity to the prose here also present in Walter Scott’s novels (an only slightly later vintage) – though Austen is by far the better stylist and aphorist – yet to begin with I found this more of a slog than Scott and the similarly vintaged Mary Shelley stories I have read in the past few years were a smooth read by comparison. I don’t suppose my familiarity with Sense and Sensibility’s plot due to TV series and film adaptations helped with this.

For expectations count. I had been told that Austen’s dialogue was exquisite, but what I found in the first few pages was very little in the way of dialogue but instead, screeds of exposition, a large amount of telling rather than showing; backgrounding if you like, but still.

I don’t give up on books though. Not even poor ones. And this is by no means a poor book. It just didn’t grab me overmuch.

People don’t change, but social circumstances do. The constraints Austen’s characters – and the author herself in the writing of them – were under are/were formidable. She was writing for her time and a degree of prolixity would have been welcome back then.

Sense and Sensibility demonstrates behaviours recognisable today – Mrs John Dashwood’s selfishness disguised as concern for her offspring, well-meaning but overbearing neighbours, imputations derived from the slimmest of evidence, money driving people’s motivations. The centre of the main plot, though, Marianne Dashwood, is seen through her sister, Elinor’s, eyes and is shadowy as a result, Colonel Brandon, nearly always off-stage, seemed more of an absence than an agonist in the book, Willoughby’s attempts/protests at self-exculpation, though underlining his cupidity, are an unlikely ploy.

I’m not giving up on Austen, though. My expectations tempered, my exposure to her style as a prime, I’ll need to see what I make of the rest of her œuvre in the light of those.

Pedant’s corner:- There are some 1811 spellings – ‘dropt’ ‘wrapt’ ‘farewel’ ‘stopt’ ‘befal’ ‘seisure’ sooth for soothe etc, sprung for sprang and sunk for sank, but some which may be exclusively Austen’s, ‘chuse’ (but ‘choose’ also appears,) ‘scissars’ ‘wo’nt’ (but ‘won’t’ elsewhere) ‘stilish’ ‘expence’ (yet expenses for the plural, and, later, expense for the singular,) ‘extatic’ (but ‘ecstasy’ and ‘ecstacy’ later.). Otherwise; the Miss Dashwoods, the Miss Careys, the Miss Steeles (the Misses Dashwood, the Misses Carey, the Misses Steele,) “carried away be her fancy” (by her fancy,) “the whole party were assembled” (was assembled,) “in whatever shop the party were engaged” (the party was engaged,) “these kind of scrutinies” (these kinds of scrutinies,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “in her way to the carriage” (on her way sounds more natural to me.)

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