Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Jane Austen's Pride and prejudice

Selection of members' editions including iPad and Kindle 
In 1905 William James Dawson wrote, in a book titled Makers of English fiction, that Jane Austen was born into a "world of unredeemed dulness. Everything around her was prim and trim and proper", and

Yet it was from this material that Jane Austen has contrived to extract stories which have survived for a century and seem likely to endure quite unprophesied generations. (Ch. IV, Jane Austen, and the Novel of Social Comedy)

How right he was ... because here we were in January 2012 discussing, yes, Jane Austen's Pride and prejudice.

Eleven members turned up for our first meeting of the year, and the discussion got off to such a fast and furious start that we had to draw ourselves to order so all could hear what each other had to say:

  • "I read the book and watched the DVD four times but I'm not sure I have anything new to say."
  • "I only read it in deference to you but I loved it. I loved the language, vocabulary, turns of phrase, the eloquence."
  • "I listened to the audio book and I was bereft when it ended."
  • "This was the first time I read it and I really liked it".

... and on went the opening exclamations.

There's something about Pride and prejudice that gets us in every time. I wish I could write a thorough analysis of the group's discussion but so much was covered there's no way I could do it justice. So, what did we talk about? Well, we discussed, in no particular order:

  • the quality of Mr and Mrs Bennet's parenting. There were some differences of opinion - in degree rather than absolutely - regarding Mr Bennet's failure to take bringing up his children seriously, his treatment of his wife, and Mrs Bennet's silly behaviour. We all agreed though that Mrs Bennet correctly recognised the financial imperative and social importance of getting her daughters married. It was briefly discussed that there aren't many great parents in Austen's books.
  • how one family can produce such a wide variety of children in terms of their sense. One reason, suggested in the book, is that by the third child the parents had lost interest in/had less time for attending to the education of the children which could explain the increased silliness of the younger girls.
  • the degree to which Mr Wickham worked as a believable character as well as being an important plot device. Why, for example, did he take up with Lydia? Some argued that he saw it as a fling and that he did not seriously intend to marry her. They found this consistent with his character while others felt he is the flaw in the novel.
  • that Mr Collins is more one-dimensional than other characters. Some of us still found him believable, for all his over-the-top sycophancy.
  • that Charlotte Lucas made a rational decision for her situation and seemed to manage to make it work for her.
  • that Jane Austen transitions between the societal emphasis of the 18th century and the more individual romanticism of the 19th century.
  • that a major issue/theme explored in the novel is that of appearance, as reflected in the way Elizabeth jumps to conclusions about Darcy and Wickham based on pretty superficial observations regarding their appearance and manner. A member reminded us that the novel's original title was First impressions, which rather suggests the significance of this theme.
  • that beneath the wit and humour, the comedy, are philosophical discussions about life and how to live it, about "virtue" even.
  • how carefully plotted the novel is; how, knowing the story, it is possible to see this careful plotting and enjoy the language. 
  • the value of reading Jane Austen for social history of the period as well as for the more universal truths/values she conveys about human behaviour. We discussed the role of dance in courtship of the period and how Austen describes it; the importance of trimming bonnets and how Austen uses it to pass comment on the characters (such as Lydia's rather careless purchase of an ugly bonnet)
  • the importance of the art of conversation in Austen's era and how modern technology means that we don't practice it anywhere near as well today!
  • the comparative indolence of the well-to-do, and the amount of walking done by the middle classes (at least)
  • whether any of us could remember how we felt, what we expected, on our first reading. Most of us couldn't, really, though a couple remembered not enjoying it, finding it boring.
  • Fanny Burney's role as a precursor to and perhaps influence on Jane Austen. Should we read a Fanny Burney?
  • how tight and sparkly Austen's language is compared to that of another 19th century favourite, Thomas Hardy.
  • whether Pride and prejudice might have inspired Louisa May Alcott's Little women. We agreed that the latter lacks the wit and irony of Austen but does contain a lively, independent-minded heroine (the second of four sisters)

We covered a wide range of subjects ... but there's a lot, as you can see, that we didn't cover too. It's likely also that I haven't remembered all that we discussed. Please, Minervans, add your comments!

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