Monday, December 28, 2009

Pride and Prejudice, chapters 1-5

Jane Austen’s second published novel is one of the best known and best loved in the English language, so much so that it’s almost impossible to see it clearly any longer; it’s become a set of fixed images and responses in our collective mind. Perhaps only Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” has undergone so thorough a metamorphosis from literary work to cultural bulwark, bogged down by the accumulated accretions of generations who know it only second- or third-hand—or who know it only by reputation, a kind of ripple effect across the surface of western civilization; familiarity by osmosis. Whenever it’s mentioned we no longer even hear the dissonance in the title; it's just a series of syllables, a consumerist trigger—not Pride and Prejudice, but Pridenprejudice. It is, in these post-literate days, less a novel than a brand. And like all powerhouse brands, it’s proved capable of spawning sub-brands, the most powerful (and in my opinion the most insidious) being that which currently boasts legions of frenzied, maenad-like devotees who’d as soon rip Austen’s moldering carcass to shreds than grant her even a posthumous claim on her own creation. I speak, of course, of the great, the dreaded, invoke-it-at-your-peril, Darcy.

What’s been lost in all this, alas, is the original novel, which, when it’s read at all these days, is undertaken by people who already "know" it, who are convinced they’ve always known it, that they knew it in utero; they don’t just read it, they read it with intent. We all strive to find what we need in stories; we furnish what we can, in between the lines, to make the text more amenable to us—to reflect us better. But with the possible exception of the New Testament, no other seminal text has been so greedily trawled for evidence of the reader’s own transcendent superiority. Pride and Prejudice is the kind of book certain people make a point of visibly carrying with them in public, exhibiting it like a designer label. Or a weapon.

Astonishing, then, to read it afresh. Make a conscious effort to clear away the layers of received opinion, the yellowing varnish of endlessly parroted consensus, and you find a lean, feisty, spiky little novel, limber and fleet-footed and occasionally even vicious. A bantamweight boxer of a novel. Readers don’t fall for Pride and Prejudice; they’re knocked down. And while they’re on the mat they see twittering birds around their heads, like in cartoons. No wonder so many people are deranged about it. They’ve had their brainpans jostled. Their vision’s still screwy, they talk too loud, and under stress they’ve been known to wet themselves.

This most famous of Austen’s works begins with one of the most famous first lines in literary history: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” What nobody ever seems to get, here, is that she’s being ironic—she’s starting as she means to go on. The “truth” that is “universally acknowledged” is actually neither; it’s the kind of ludicrous attempt to co-opt the conventional wisdom we hear all the time in the modern world (“Everybody knows trees cause air pollution”). Austen even exposes the irony in the next paragraph, when she allows that even the single man in question might not be aware of the “truth” about him.

From there she gets right down to business. We’re thrown into the hearth and home of the Bennet family, a gentleman and his wife and their five grown daughters. Anyone expecting a Dickensian scene of domestic felicity is in for a rude shock. The Bennet home is if anything a kind of capital-B Bedlam, with Mrs. Bennet as the chief lunatic and her husband the sadistic warden who keeps poking her with a stick through the grate.

Both the senior Bennets are, in fact, major comic creations of Austen’s. Mrs. Bennet is all impulse, pure emotion; the delay between her having a feeling, and speaking it, cannot be measured by any instrument known to man. It’s like her synapses are actually in her tongue. She rages, she rants, she pouts, she preens, she exults—sometimes all in the space of a single sentence. Her husband, whose regard for her is clearly long gone, likes to amuse himself by orchestrating this cacophony of feeling—directing it first this way, then that, like a pinball player knocking about a little silver ball. His chief method of doing this is by affecting not to understand a word of what she says to him, even the plainest and most obvious statement of fact. This happens repeatedly in the first chapter, with such frequency you’d think any idiot would sit up and say, “Hey, wait a minute—are you busting my chops, here?” But Mrs. Bennet is not just any idiot. She’s world championship material; a Wonder Woman of imbecility.

And Mr. Bennet is an utterly ruthless tormenter. It’s fairly clear that he’s revenging himself on his wife for getting old and silly; but Austen skillfully implies an element of self-loathing as well. He can’t forgive his wife for losing her youth and beauty; but he can’t forgive himself for not having seen that’s all she ever had going for her.

The chief prod to Mrs. Bennet’s hysteria is that she has five unmarried daughters and a limited income. This is why she’s in such a state of high excitement when the novel opens; she’s just heard news of a gentleman—the aforementioned “single man in possession of a good fortune”—moving into the neighborhood. “What a fine thing for our girls!” she trills to her husband, who of course pretends not to understand her.

“How so? how can it affect them?”
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” replied his wife, “how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them!”
“Is that his design in settling here?”

This is exactly the kind of response that causes Mrs. Bennet to sputter bits of foam; but she manages all the same to make her point, which is that Mr. Bennet had better introduce himself to this newcomer, Mr. Bingley, immediately, so that he can then become acquainted with the rest of the family. But Mr. Bennet sees no point in that; if his marrying one of the girls is all that matters, why not just send over all five for him to choose from, like a pack of hunting dogs?

It’s here that Mr. Bennet first expresses some degree of partiality for one of his brood, when he adds that he may have to put in a good word for “my little Lizzy.” All his daughters, he declares, are silly and ignorant, but “Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters.” Elizabeth Bennet’s “quickness” is at the very heart of the novel, and of the character’s extraordinary appeal to generations of readers, and I sometimes wonder whether a certain type of female devotee—lethally smart, socially inept, unappreciated by her family and disdained by her peers—might not latch on so needily to Lizzy Bennet as a personal avatar if the first words regarding her super-specialness didn’t come from her father. My own observation of the “Lizzies” and their ilk is that, whoa baby, major Daddy issues.

As for the other Bennet sisters: Lydia, the youngest, is the most like her mother—all wild, unchecked feeling—and is for that reason her mother’s favorite, which she both knows and uses to her advantage. Mary is bookish but very far from wise; she’s always trying to come forth with some wise maxim or aphorism, but it invariably ends up sounding like bad advertising copy. Kitty coughs, and…well, basically Kitty coughs. And then there’s Jane, who’s possessed of no flaw of any kind: she has beauty, grace, charm, humility, and sweetness of temper. By page 19 you’re more than ready to push her in front of a train.

In the end Mr. Bennet does visit Mr. Bingley; Austen doesn’t say why, but it’s pretty clear he’d be only too happy to have one less mouth to feed. If he really can foist one of his daughters onto this new arrival, all the better. But of course he doesn’t tell anyone that he’s paid the call; instead he waits for his wife to snarl about how tired she is of hearing Mr. Bingley’s name since they’re never to know him; then he produces the news of his acquaintance as though it were something he’d agreed to all along, leaving Mrs. Bennet to do one of those whiplash reversals that over time have basically shredded her grey matter to confetti. If someone treated his dog the way Mr. Bennet treats his wife, PETA would have the guy shot.

And yet, we laugh. Of course we do. It’s funny. It’s also funny when Mrs. Bennet says, “If I can but see one of my daughters happily settled at (Mr. Bingley’s) Netherfield…and all the others equally well married, I shall have nothing to wish for.” We hoot because this is exactly the kind of mindless babble you get from women like her. She doesn’t even hear herself. She might as well have added, “and if I can but fly like a bird and live forever” into the mix.

Next thing you know there’s a ball, and in Austen that always spells trouble. She likes lining up all her characters so that they sweep around the room in perfect harmony, while in the ether above them all bloody hell’s breaking loose. In this case the hell is principally provoked by one of Mr. Bingley’s guests, a regal young man who enters the hall like Admiral Perry stepping foot on the island of Japan. This is Mr. Darcy.

The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.

Even worse, by Austen’s yardstick, is that he refuses to dance—unless it’s with one of Bingley’s two sisters, whose noses are as determinedly tilted skyward as his; they’re like three sea lions balancing invisible hoops. And when Bingley—who of course is having just a swell time, never better, love these peeps and hey how about that Jane Bennet number, woof—corners his friend and pleads with him to dance, Darcy flatly refuses:

“At such an assembly as this, it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.”

Bingley bravely urges him on, pointing out that Elizabeth Bennet is both very pretty and at present without a partner. Darcy looks over to where Lizzy is seated, and either not knowing or not caring that she can easily overhear him, declares:

“She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.”

So here’s my message of good will to all those aggrieved single women, smoldering with affronted self-esteem, who go angrily about their lives carrying tote bags that read AN ELIZABETH IN A DARCY-LESS WORLD: Ladies, I can help you! I know for a fact that there are very, very many men who would be only too happy to step reluctantly into your life, offend all your friends en masse, and then insult you in particular. You just say the word, I’ll have a whole rugby team of Darcys at your doorstep.

But then, I’m willing to bet these women meet such men all the time. And I’m guessing that they, like Lizzy, don’t recognize a potential Great Romantic Hero in any of them; or maybe they do, and that’s the point. They don’t want a potential romantic hero; they want one who’s already fully fitted out and ready to drive off the showroom floor. God forbid they should have to do any of the body work themselves. Or that, like Lizzy, they’d have to recognize some of their own failings into the bargain. What, are you fuggin’ kidding me…?
Good luck with that, chiquitas. ‘S’all I’m sayin’. Cheers, stay in touch.

Anyway, Lizzy is sufficiently self-confident to laugh off the incident, in fact to report it merrily to her friends and family, which only increases the general loathing of Darcy. Lizzy doesn’t mind being the figure of fun; it doesn’t leave a scratch on her. She’s invincibly well-adjusted. She knows it, too; when Jane, the next day, is all bewilderment at Mr. Bingley having paid her the compliment of asking her to dance a second time, Lizzy rolls her eyes and says, “Compliments always take you by surprise, and me never.”

We’re then introduced to another family in the neighborhood, the Lucases. Austen’s brief introductory sketch of their paterfamilias is a small comic gem all on its own, and a wonderfully coherent psychological profile as well; by the time you finish it, you’d be able to pick him out of a crowd. It’s worth quoting in full, because it shows how Austen’s comic genius can manifest itself even in the swiftest, most fleeting strokes:

Sir William Lucas had been formerly in trade in Meryton, where he had made a tolerable fortune and risen to the honour of knighthood by an address to the King, during his mayoralty. The distinction had perhaps been felt too strongly. It had given him a disgust to his business and to his residence in a small market town; and quitting them both, he had removed with his family to a house about a mile from Meryton, denominated from that period Lucas Lodge, where he could think with pleasure of his own importance, and unshackled by business, occupy himself solely in being civil to all the world. For though elated by his rank, it did not render him supercilious; on the contrary, he was all attention to everybody. By nature inoffensive, friendly and obliging, his presentation at St. James’s had made him courteous.

Sir William has a daughter, Charlotte, who’s Lizzy’s best friend. She is, we are told, “a sensible, intelligent young woman, about twenty-seven.” We already know she’s no looker, because a few pages earlier, during a scene in which Mrs. Bennet recounts for her husband the goings-on at the ball so exhaustively that the poor man is nearly driven to taking refuge under his desk, she says the following, of Mr. Bingley’s dance partners:

“First of all, he asked Miss Lucas. I was so vexed to see him stand up with her; but, however, he did not admire her at all; nobody can, you know.”

Charlotte thus has all the necessary criteria for seeing the world as it is: she’s smart, she’s old, and she’s unloved. And true to her nature, she speaks truth to Lizzy throughout the novel, though Lizzy—her supposed best friend—hears her without listening. She says something now, as the novel’s principle womenfolk gather to talk over the ball—making this one of the chapters male readers may have some trouble with (except, say, the kind of male who giddily consents to be in the studio audience for The View). As the ladies rise to new heights of indignation over Mr. Darcy’s insufferable pride, Charlotte interrupts them:

“His pride,” said Miss Lucas, “does not offend me so much as pride often does, because there is an excuse for it. One cannot wonder that so very fine a young man, with family, fortune, everything in his favour, should think highly of himself. If I may so express it, he has a right to be proud.”

Such wise words alarm Mary, who’s supposed to be the sage in the room. Accordingly she leaps into an extemporaneous discourse on pride that proves to be another comic high point. It’s a small masterpiece of flat-footed, tone-deaf banality:

“Pride…is a very common failing, I believe. By all that I have ever read, I am convinced that it is very common indeed, that human nature is particularly prone to it, and that there are very few of us who do not cherish a feeling of self-complacency on the score of some quality or other, real or imaginary. Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.”

At this point, she’s in serious danger of Lydia beaning her with a candlestick. Fortunately for her safety, a young Lucas lad chooses this moment to burst in and declare that if he were as rich as Mr. Darcy he’d drink a bottle of wine every day, prompting Mrs. Bennet to say that if she were to see him she’d take the bottle away from him, unleashing a repeated chorus of “No you shouldn’t”/”Yes I should” which, Austen tells us, “ended only with the visit.”

For the record?...If I were to meet Mrs. Bennet, a bottle of wine a day is about the first thing I’d recommend to her.
For the remainder of my analysis of Pride and Prejudice, see the collected Bitch In a Bonnet, which you can purchase from AmazonBarnes and Noble, and other fine sites, or download as an ebook for Kindle or Nook.