Pride and Prejudice: An Untimely Review

Originally posted August 25, 2012 on ErinBlogue.

 Penguin's Drop Cap edition of Austen's  Pride and Prejudice . Cover design by Jessica Hische.

Penguin's Drop Cap edition of Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Cover design by Jessica Hische.

Was I really the only ultra-prissy, doe-eyed girl to reach adulthood without picking up Jane Austen? It took me twenty-six years to take that plunge. I stalled, partly out of embarrassment for having missed out on a classic, and partly out of embarrassment for being the girl seen in public reading Jane Austen—you know, that girl. It wasn’t until a roommate mistakenly left behind a copy of Pride and Prejudice that it occurred to me to quietly take to the shadows with my new book, read it carefully, and then spend the rest of my life pretending that I’d discovered it as a budding thirteen-year-old. Then I remembered I have a blog and no discipline for weaving labyrinthian lies about my literary past. So I decided to embrace both my childhood in front of the TV and my sudden, adult desire to see what I’ve been missing. I finished a week ago, and I still have a few months before twenty-seven rolls around. Not altogether shabby. Now, what I think…

If I had access to a Mr. Fusion–based DeLorean time machine, I would set my time circuits to 1820 or so and give this book five stars. The writing is superb, and there’s a reason why Austen’s sparkling language has endured—though it’s surprising that she wasn’t more popular in her day. Lizzy Bennet is a vibrant thinker and independent woman who isn’t afraid of many of the restrictions her society poses. She is quick to bear her opinions loudly, and she gradually becomes the type of person willing to admit when she’s been a colossal idiot. She is juxtaposed against a variety of female archetypes manifest in the other players, and it’s understood that Austen sees value in the heroine being someone apart from Jane Bennet, the angel in the house whose sole purpose is to appease and conform, and Lydia Bennet, the girl with the devil-may-care streak who preys on adventure at the expense of her family’s reputation. Lizzy is something in between, neither demure nor guided by impulse. She is rounded and secure and remains one of my favorite ladies in literature. All of this is saying quite a bit for little, ole Lizzy, a heroine created in an age when women’s suffrage was but a twinkle in Mary Wollstonecraft's—albeit dead—eye.

What’s more, the story is genuine. As I read about Lizzy and these nineteenth-century twentysomethings, I superimposed my friends and foes onto the characters with facility because the personalities and conflicts are so relatable. Take any event from the book, slap on skinny jeans and a hash tag, and you’ve got yourself a pretty modern story. That Bingley bitch could as easily have been a creation of Gossip Girl as what I've come to think of as old-timey literature.

That said, I regrettably do not have access to that stylish time machine I mentioned—not even one made out of an old alarm clock and a car battery—so I do have to disparage this book for its predictable marriage plot. Not that I was shocked—we’ve all seen that coming since we first crawled out from under a rock and heard about Bennet v. Darcy. Romance is all well and good, but as a third-waver, I experience a flash of white rage and some mild intestinal discomfort every time I read a story that wraps up conveniently into a silver-and-white package with a wedding cake on the front. I could be reading the most compelling book in the English language, but if you montage through the explosive first kiss ideal to a shot of the wedding, I check out. By the time an author finishes listing all the loose ends that a happy marriage has tied up—usually as an afterthought in a hasty, brief chapter, like a stinger in a Sousa march—I am miles away, plotting my revenge with a dive into Susan Faludi or worse . . . Andrea Dworkin.

So for the early nineteenth century, Pride and Prejudice is a great book with a lovely ending that bestows a sense of fulfillment to readers in a highly matrimonial world. And if you look at it from a literary and historical perspective, I would urge both impressionable tweens and hardscrabble feminists alike to soak in its glory with pleasure. The only thing is that today it’s hard to swallow such a neat ending. It’s as if we don’t need to know any more about the well-sketched characters once they’ve passed through the marriage veil. It’s tempting to imagine a Pride and Prejudice that ends on a cliffhanger, one that sees Lizzy off to a governess post to a pair of sly and inventive children in a faraway part of England, or off to America or India to become a novelist. On the other side, it’s tempting to imagine a good ten more chapters post-marriage that detail the new social horizons that come as Lizzy faces sudden wealth and young domestic love. A lot of ink and pixels have been spilled over Pride and Prejudice fan fiction, sequels, and modern parables that might satisfy my curiosity, but I want to hear from Austen. We have come to admire her characters, maybe more than we do the truly real figures in our own lives, yet they leave us in a puff of glitter at the precise moment when things begin to get interesting.

Does humanity gravitate toward the marriage plot for want of closure and release—as this book provides—or do we go there because after all this time, we still see it as the natural order of things? And even if we want it, should we be satisfied with the implicit jab that nothing beyond that point in a woman’s life is interesting enough to immortalize in literature? Should we expect more? I’m grateful I live in such a diverse literary age, and it’s heartening to understand that the fictions of our deep past are alive and true two centuries later. But there’s something about Happily Ever After that screams “cop out,” and as much as it helps the reader to tie up the story so neatly, I much prefer a comparatively modern inventiveness and courage of plot to soft chiffon and a quiet slip out of history.

Erin Reads a Trashy Romance, Part 2

Originally posted December 28, 2012 on ErinBlogue.

Between December’s gauntlet of holiday festivities and several stubborn bouts of illness, I finally managed to soldier through the second half of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Thoughts . . .

 Penguin's spiffy 2010 hardcover of Lawrence's  Lady Chatterley's Lover .

Penguin's spiffy 2010 hardcover of Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.

I’ve mentioned before that I rarely get fired up over romance in the “classical literature” sense, and that’s mainly because the books tend to be either neat, little bedtime stories that are best served with the final chapter torn out, or cautionary tales that paint doom and hurt for anyone who tries to cast off convention. In reality, we all know that the relationships we build are complex and run the gamut from despair to sheer bliss, so it hurts my pretty, little head to see the romantic ideal forced into one of two extremes without showing the nuance of something so fierce and complicated. Easy storytelling has sent more than a few of the classics back into my donation pile, anyway.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a unique read for me because it is one of the few oldish novels I’ve read that doesn’t fall into either camp—at least not very neatly. The second half takes Connie and Oliver from casual lovers to devoted partners and elaborates on the shortfalls of industry, classism, excess, and the Machine that perpetuates it all. Some dicey stuff happens, and in the end the situation ends up as complicated as any daytime soap. To put a fine point on it, the book calls to question what we live for—what we have built our lives around—and sort of asks us to get back to what makes us human. Are you motivated by progress or by happiness? It’s really a lot of little questions that add up to the bigger picture. And in the end, the plot doesn’t end Jane Austen–style with everyone finding someone and riding off into the sunset. It’s more of a mellifluous cliffhanger—satisfying, but far, far from resolution—just like life.

Written nearly a hundred years ago and an ocean away, this book has a hippie streak that still has a lot to say to a twenty-something career girl with a heap of bills and way too many shoes. Whether you’re looking at the philosophical message or strictly the romantic arc, the book takes the whirlwind of life, love, and progress and kind of snaps it all into perspective. Are you living for what’s important, or are you simply racking up the points?

And now, a purely feel-good line from Oliver’s letter to Connie on the closing page: “Well, so many words, because I can’t touch you. If I could sleep with my arms round you, the ink could stay in the bottle.”

So with that, I finally say good night to this book, a little droopingly, but with a hopeful heart.