Monday, January 28, 2013

Apologia for Pride and Prejudice

In honor of the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice, Alyssa Goodnight and Courtney @ Stiletto Storytime are hosting a Blog Hop Party!!!!  Click here to join in! 

jane austen portrait
The woman herself.
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There is so much to say in praise of Jane Austen.  Indeed, I am probably not educated enough to recognize and appreciate her merits thoroughly. 

But not all praise need be scholarly; Austen wrote of the heart, and the heart praises her as well.

I have friends who read Pride and Prejudice over and over again, literally as a bedtime story or when they are unhappy or stressed.  I know people who fall asleep to the movie at night.  I can see why--it's that kind of story.  It's the kind of thing you come back to when you're tired or sick.  It bears repeated exposure quite well. 

There's something comforting about the story of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy.  Something...faithful, almost. 

And it's not just readers. Writers (who must be readers first, of course) are nothing short of obsessed. The plot and characters have undergone countless retellings and variations. 

It cannot be ignored:  something draws us to this story. 

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There's a decided cynicism surrounding marriage in the world of Austen's characters.  People marry for money, or maybe for rank, and quite obviously for convenience.  It's expected.  It's unremarkable.  What is remarkable is someone like Elizabeth Bennet, who refuses to conform.  It's shocking--and, I find, uplifting--to see her refuse Mr. Collins,  even on the grounds that, as we can see, they are hardly living in the same universe.  She couldn't have a deeper connection with him than you have with your mailman.  She could never love him in the way she hopes to love a husband. 

Elizabeth refuses him because she believes marriage is something more than convenience.  She values the fullness of  love as essential not just to her happiness, but to her humanity. 

Of course, none of this has any relevance to our time.  We are fortunate in the twenty-first century.  We don't have to marry anyone unless we want to.  In fact, we don't have to marry anyone at all.  Plenty of people live together and sleep together long before they're married.  Marriage is just another way to get a tax break. 

How free we are. 

***

People don't die for ideas.  They die for faith. 

Pride and Prejudice is about faith.  Faith in love, its transformational power, and its legitimacy as part of a full life. 

In fact, it's about more than faith.  This story makes an argument.  It argues--just as all good love stories do--that the kind of love people sing about and write about and dream about isn't just a dream.  That the story you're reading is in an important way true.  That the earth-shattering attraction you feel for that one person isn't a figment of your imagination--it's real.  Pride and Prejudice is about nothing less than the reality of love. 

And once you argue for the reality of love, you are arguing for much more. 

Elizabeth and Darcy are more than players in a game of economic advantage.  More than bodies that go around seeking to derive pleasure from each other.  Through fiction that, I would argue, cannot but ring true in the hearts of readers, Austen makes an implicit argument about human nature:  human beings are such that marriage must be about more than money.   Far from a mere social construct, marriage is a reflection of human nature.  It is the union of two souls.  And for two souls to be united, they have to exist in the first place. 

Elizabeth Bennet believes that.  And you would be hard-put to convince me that Ms. Austen didn't believe it as well.

***

I have heard people say that Pride and Prejudice fans are simply addicted to the "emotional high" it provides.  Such critics imply that the experience is cheap, dirty.   I would ask them:  What is cheap about recognizing something transcendent in human nature?  In exploring the connection between two souls, the appeal of Austen's story is nothing less. 

I would also ask:  What could possibly be wrong with looking in the mirror of fiction and seeing something that we recognize in life, but that is also so wonderful that we sometimes fear to hope for it ourselves? 

Pride and Prejudice is also about hope. 

13 comments:

  1. I have never seen this movie believe it or not...I need to fix that :)

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  2. Well said! Austen has been on my "to-read" list for a long time, but I've never really gotten around to it. Any recommendations for a good Austen introduction?

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    1. Starting with Pride and Prejudice is not a bad idea. But if you'd rather not have your first read influenced by all the popular hype...well, any of them, then, honestly. Persuasion is often touted as her best book.

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    2. My favorite too but I wouldn't start with it. I'd go in order and see how Jane Austen's writing evolved. It makes Persuasion that much more beautiful and emotional!

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  3. Beautifully stated. I think that many women today still marry for convenience or think they need a rich man to be happy or someone tells them they do. I don't know how often I roll my eyes at a family member and say "Why do I feel like I'm living in a Jane Austen novel?" I'd add to your beautiful message that the story speaks to people 200 years later because it deals with human emotions and feelings and those are universal no matter whether you are an unmarried clergyman's daughter in the 18th century, an unmarried impoverished young woman with silly parents in the 19th century or a modern career woman!

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  4. Awww, this is entirely lovely, and I agree with you wholeheartedly! What a beautiful post.

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  5. Beautiful and compelling. "But not all praise need be scholarly; Austen wrote of the heart, and the heart praises her as well." I love this; I have had to consider Austen in a scholarly light (for school, etc.), but even long before I was amazed by the intricacies in her writing, my heart was enchanted. Thank you for sharing this!

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  6. You covered quite a lot and with depth. I am so glad to have ready your post as part of the P&P Blog Party Hop hosted by Alyssa Goodnight.

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  7. I couldn't have said it better myself. Jane Austen and her stories are simply incredible. One of the other things about Lizzie and Darcy that I like, is the fact that they better each other. In the moments when they are both unsure whether they'll get together, they still have allowed and worked for a change in themselves. I think that's absolutely what people should be able to do for one another, romantic relationship wise or friendship wise. Loved your thoughts and insight! Thanks for sharing. :)

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