Monday, July 29, 2013

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice
by Jane Austen, narrated by Nadia May
Blackstone Audio, 2005 (originally published in 1813)
10 discs, unabridged

What can one possibly say about Pride and Prejudice? Well, lots, but someone like me, a lightweight fan of Jane Austen with a particular love for this book, is highly unlikely to say anything new or exciting. I did realize, though, I've never talked about this book on my blog, despite it being one of my favourite books of all time. I'll ruminate instead on the experience of "rereading" something by listening to it, and some of the bits that struck me particularly forcefully this time around. I'm sure that most of what I say here has been hashed through in first year English Literature classes the world round -- forgive me, I never took one of those, and my reading of literary criticism of Jane Austen has been very sparse (I haven't even read the introduction to either of the editions of Pride and Prejudice I own, though I would like to). There will be spoilers for the entire book here, so watch yourself if you haven't read it and have managed to avoid knowing anything about it.

Though it seems a little ridiculous to attempt a summary, here we go: Pride and Prejudice follows the romance, among other adventures, of Elizabeth Bennet, second of five daughters born to a quiet, intelligent, and rather lazy nobleman and his loud, foolish, and rather hysterical wife. She becomes aware of Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy near the beginning of the book, but not in a positive way -- he snubs her terribly at a ball, and she spends the greater part of the book quite disdainful of him. This is a rather unusual romance in that most of the falling in love takes place while the hero and heroine are separated, at least on the heroine's side. Also touched upon are the manners and conventions of the time, the status of women, education, morality, marriage, and female relationships -- both sisterhood and friendship.

Mrs. Bennet's prime goal in life is to see her daughters married; this is not as ridiculous as it sounds, given that we're talking Regency England here, and any unmarried daughters would be in a very perilous state indeed once Mr. Bennet died. Because has no male heirs, his estate, Longbourn, will be entailed to a distant male relative once he dies. The injustice of this is never commented on in much seriousness -- it is Mrs. Bennet who does most of the complaining, and she complains about pretty much everything -- but this is perhaps one of the better examples in the book of showing and not telling. The distant male relative is a buffoon and it does, in fact, seem rather awful that Mr. Bennet's generally (not universally) lovely daughters will become homeless, or at least entirely dependent on the goodwill of their brothers-in-law or, less likely still, the distant cousin, based solely on their sex if they do not marry.

And the book spends rather a large amount of time looking at what marriage can be. I am not sure if it was the mode of ingestion -- listening versus reading -- or whether it was that it's been quite a while since my last ingestion, but this seemed very clear to me this time around. Elizabeth explicitly thinks about the relationship her parents have in uncomplimentary terms, noting that the match has not been kind to either of them; her father has retreated into sarcasm and indolence; her mother, unrestrained by good sense (or the good sense of her husband), is more of a hindrance to her daughters than a help to them, and is also plagued by real or imaginary nervous ailments. She is determined she will make a better match than this, and in fact refuses a proposal relatively early on in the book that would have secured her future comfortably (and set her up to be mistress of Longbourn at her father's passing) but would have made her absolutely miserable otherwise. When Elizabeth's close friend Charlotte accepts the same man's proposal, it causes Elizabeth an enormous amount of turmoil, and she loses a great deal of respect for Charlotte.

This whole episode with Charlotte fascinates me, because Elizabeth Bennet is not stupid and must be able to see why Charlotte did what she did; and I've thought that perhaps she was just more of a romantic than she thinks she is. The idea of marrying someone to satisfy a financially stable future is completely abhorrent to her. Or at least, that's what I thought it was, but on listening to the book again I think I've got to modify my conclusion. It's not just that Charlotte is so mercenary -- though that does bother her -- it's that she knows Charlotte can have no respect for her husband, and I think that is what really bothers Elizabeth.

I think it is rather more than romanticism; Elizabeth moderates her own affection for Wickham based on his lack of prospects, despite the fact that she is indeed attracted to him. This is mercenary too, ignoring the desires of her heart because her head reminds her that marriage to Wickham wouldn't be a comfortable place for a lady who is used to a certain kind of status and society. It's the lack of respect for one's husband that bothers her -- and I think it must be at least partially because she's seen how that plays out in her own parents' life.

Austen never seems to condemn Charlotte in the same way that Elizabeth does; and indeed, she makes it quite clear that Charlotte, if not in raptures, is quite content with her lot. Her temperament is certainly much more suitable to the challenge than Elizabeth's, who doesn't have the patience to deal with either Mr. Collins or Lady Catherine de Burgh for the long haul. I have wished that Elizabeth could be a little more sensible about things, and understand that her friend still needs her, probably more than ever; but the relationship is never fleshed out fully either pre-Mr. Collins nor post-.

I've got lots more to say, but I'll spare you this time. The audiobook I listened to was quite serviceable, and I actually tried a couple before hitting on this one. I wish I could say that this book would be awesome no matter who reads it, but that is simply not the case. The first was abridged. (BAH.) The second had a narrator who was a little too excited about her role. This third was mostly good, though Nadia May doesn't distinguish between speakers maybe quite as much as she could (better than the over-distinguishing of one of the other narrators I tried.) Her smoky voice takes a bit of getting used to, but overall she's a great narrator for this tale. Highly enjoyable.

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