Monday, January 28, 2013

Happy bicentennial, Pride and Prejudice!

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I first read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice in my senior AP English class in high school, and I've been obsessed with it ever since. I read it again later in my 18th-century Brit Lit class in college and in my grad-level Austen seminar at UC Irvine, and eventually wrote my Master's Thesis on it. If I were to go on for my  PhD, I would without question join the scores of Austen scholars everywhere. 

And, OH, the adaptations! I've seen all but maybe two (the BBC version from the 80's and Bride and Prejudice). I even kind of enjoyed Lost in Austen, non-canon though it is. (I even watched Bridget Jones' Diary, which I felt was an extreme insult to my intelligence.) I've seen the 1995 one about a million times - it's my favorite. I'm currently obsessed with The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. I've even suffered through a couple of "sequels," although admittedly, they were kind of dumb. But I understand the compulsion to want the story to continue, because it's such a wonderful story. 

It's not JUST the love story. - I'm not knocking the love story. I'm totally NOT claiming that I'm above it, because I am just as guilty as any other fan of sitting there and sighing and being like, "OH THE FEELS!!!!1!!!" - It's that Austen is a masterful writer. Austen's name often comes up (along with Shakespeare's) when discussing classic writers who just made AMAZING use of the English language. There have been MANY times when I have sat there, stuck on the same sentence for an inordinate amount of time because Austen has this ability to pack SO MUCH information into such a seemingly-simple group of words that it takes me a little while to decode it all. And then I'm left gaping in awe.

Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She 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; its solace was visiting and news.

This is an easy paragraph to read through quickly and get the gist of how she is characterizing Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. But when you stop to look at her word choice, it's kind of astounding because... what IS she getting at, really? I'll have you know that we spent a good 20-30 minutes on this paragraph alone in my grad seminar. (Professor Richard Kroll - I will never forget you. The world lost an amazing mind when you passed away.) 

There's a lot of social commentary in Austen - critiques of the class system, entailments, gender roles, and the military abound. My Master's thesis surmised that Austen uses the characters' attitudes towards literacy as a form of characterization, which of course says a lot about her own attitude towards reading and writing. (That it's AWESOME. And she's RIGHT.)

But... okay, let's talk about the love story. Austen is one of those amazing authors who is highbrow literature while simultaneously being "chick lit," and not many authors can occupy both spheres at the same time the way she does. There are a bunch of us snobby literature scholars who adore her, and there are a bunch of swoony girls and housewives who just want to see Colin Firth in a wet shirt as well. (I count myself as both, after all.) 

Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are one of my favorite couples in literature. (For the record, I also love Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe from the Anne of Green Gables series and Beatrice and Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing.) Why? For one thing, they're a HEALTHY couple. Some writer recently compared Darcy to Edward Cullen and I just about threw up in my mouth. What makes Lizzie and Darcy so great as a couple is that they make each other BETTER. They are each other's catalysts for self-examination and personal growth. They both challenge each other to examine their assumptions, and they both come out as better people for having known each other. Darcy also rescues her sister, and at the same time, Elizabeth becomes someone important to his sister as well. They are both passionate, intelligent people, neither willing to settle for the first thing that comes along, neither willing to settle even for the earlier versions of each other. It's a relationship I hold far above nearly any other literary couple, way more than Catherine & Heathcliff or Jane & Rochester. They are flawed people to start with, and it's not that they make each other perfect (because there's no such thing), but one could easily believe that they will have a long and happy life together, a love that is lively and full of lively debates, passion, and smirking :)

Elizabeth is... a really cool chick :) (Yup, all that money spent on higher education, that ends up being my assessment.) She is smart and strong and has a healthy sense of humor. She enjoys reading and going on walks. She refuses to marry unless it's for love. 

Darcy is... well, yes, dreamy and all that, but I will be honest and say that Darcy is the character I relate to the most. I too am socially awkward and have trouble at parties, and I too put people off. Some of that is snobbery, but some of that is actual awkwardness. He is fiercely loyal to the people he loves and really takes care of them. 

The two of them... they have real discussions and they call each other out on their flaws, and then they both fall in love. (Well, Darcy fell in love with her first, but really, it's not like he was ever far from Elizabeth's mind.) And this story has survived 200 years and is still one of the most beloved stories ever. It's not just about love. It's about the flaws and follies of being human.

So, yes... this is my ode. I love you, P&P. Happy 200th! Here's to 200 more!