Saturday, September 25, 2004

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

Virginia Woolf said that Jane Austen, of all writers, was the hardest to catch in the act of genius. I agree. Having re-read Pride and Prejudice, I kept this in mind, and could not find any really memorable or standout quotes. Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde you can quote till the cows come home, but not Jane Austen. Her genius rather permeates through everything she writes - she is so subtle. To quote Virginia Woolf again: she threw out the window general writing conventions and invented a language of her own. Again, I can't help but agree.

Jane Austen is arguably the greatest novelist ever. Her only rivals are perhaps Tolstoy, Cervantes and Dickens. Well, I'm inclined to think Don Quixote the greatest novel ever written. But Jane Austen wrote so much more!

If Jane Austen is Shakespeare's sister, as has been suggested in the past, then Pride and Prejudice must be her Midsummer Night's Dream. Indeed, that line from Midsummer Night's Dream that runs something like 'the course of true love never did run easy' could easily be used as the subtitle for the novel. The over emotional and irrational Mrs Bennett is a veritable Titania, Queen of the Fairies.

The plot of Pride and Prejudice, like Midsummer Night's Dream, has so many people being led astray, or tricked by false reports, that you would think there is an army of mischievous fairies making all impossible for the lovers of Pride and Prejudice. But this is not so, it is human frailty that leads Elizabeth Bennett to misread the character of Mr Darcy. Yet all in the end comes to a happy conclusion.

I also found it amazing how Mr and Mrs Bennett, the main married couple of the novel, are described as being so absolutely wrong for each other. It's not so much an unhappy marriage, as a marriage in which both parties know they have absolutely nothing in common and keep their distance. Mr Bennett is philosophical about it, while Mrs Bennett, described as being totally self absorbed, seems indifferent to her husband. How bizarre to have these two presiding over a novel whose major aim is to marry off five young women!

Poor Mrs Bennet, how are we to take her? Having produced no son, the Bennett estate must be entailed to distant cousin Mr Collins - an insufferable boob. Instinctively, Mrs Bennett rails against this as unfair. Being inarticulate, she can't put her case into words. Both eldest daughters Jane and Elizabeth try to explain how the entailment works, but Mrs Bennett will have none of it. It's simply unfair.

Her portrait is not a flattering one. Yet in some ways she reminds me of Chaucer's great feminist figure the Wife of Bath, from the Canterbury Tales. She is the only one in the novel who consistently points to the injustices done to women by the rule of property being passed from male to male. If it wasn't for Mrs Bennett, we would hear very little about it, if anything. The wife of Bath was boxed about the ears for speaking her mind on the sexism she found in the bible. You get the impression that Mrs Bennett often comes close to a similar fate herself - luckily she belongs to this civilised middle to upper class, which saves her.

As for her daughter, Elizabeth, she gracefully walks through all of this madness like a Greek philosopher. When she realises she has been wrong about Darcy she says (perhaps the most memorable line for me), 'up until this moment I never knew myself'.

Wasn't it Socrates who said, Know Thyself??

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