Book musing: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

I listened to these two books one after another. It was my third time with Pride and Prejudice, and my first time with Sense and Sensibility.

Though I first read Pride and Prejudice in high school, then again in college, I never tire of it (though I’ve never swooned over Elizabeth/Darcy’s romance or daydreamed of my own Darcy; I’m much more enamored by the idea of coming into so much wealth and such a comfortable life as I can only imagine Elizabeth Darcy’s would be). It’s such a wonderfully delivered story, and I love Austen’s writing. As I’ve admitted before, I’m a big fan of the 19th-century style.

I made some new observations in this listening, however:

  • It surprised me how often, even in key scenes, Mr. Darcy’s dialogue is paraphrased and summarized instead of given directly. Even Mr. Collins’ own offensive proposal was heard straight from his mouth, while Mr. Darcy’s was summarized. It would have been interesting to contrast the different language they used to make the same point: how their marrying Elizabeth would be a great condescension on their part.
  • Also I think it’s impressive that, unlike in a lot of romance stories, the hero has real faults (though those are quickly amended in the second half).
  • Mrs. Bennett’s and Lydia’s awfulness have not at all diminished since the last time I read it. In fact, a new interpretation struck me, one I would pose to any hypothetical readers out there: Do you think Mrs. Bennett and Lydia (maybe even Jane) are more two-dimensional caricature than fully developed portrayals of realistic people? They’re just so unbearable and forever unswayed, and sometimes frankly seem over the top (like when Mrs. Bennett actually takes comfort in the notion that Jane might die of a broken heart). I’m hoping they are, at least, because that’s more comforting than the idea that anyone would be afflicted by such people.

I admire this book not only for the prose quality, but how well the story itself is crafted. Elizabeth’s trajectory in her understanding of and attitude toward Darcy is immensely satisfying, especially how acutely she feels her family’s shame after Lydia’s elopement, their debt to Darcy, and her inability to hope he would ever propose again. The ultimate conclusion is the best kind of wish fulfillment and makes it easy to understand this story’s lasting appeal.

On to Sense and Sensibility

This was a difficult book for me. From one of the opening scenes, when John Dashwood’s wife talks him out of interpreting his dying father’s express wish that he would materially provide for his three half-sisters — I actually had to talk over the audiobook, expressing strong objections and heaping abuse on the characters, which is what I do when I can’t physically throw a book from me. But it was one of the most revolting scenes I’ve encountered, including those with bodily fluids on display: that kind of miserly self-interest and complete vacuum of compassion, the way two people rationalize keeping all their money to themselves and their already well-provided-for son, agreeing that his step-mother and half-sisters don’t need any more comfort or better prospects (including suitors, who might be restricted from marrying them, despite sincere affection), when they know they are the women’s best chance to receive anything or improve their station in life. In short, Jane Austen has not been appreciated enough for her skill in creating deeply unpleasant characters, and it isn’t remotely surprising that she’s one of J.K. Rowling’s favorites and influences.

The rest of the book was pretty slow-paced, nothing as enchanting or hooking as Pride & Prejudice.  I was kept in pretty good suspense about the romantic outcomes for Elinor or Marianne, though I don’t know if that’s to the book’s credit — I certainly never got a handle on Edward’s character until the denouement, when he was already secured to Elinor and revealing all.

Marianne was also a trial for me. Now I’ve learned how awesome teenage girls actually are, despite how they’re routinely shat on by just about everyone and have been for a very long time. So I’m not going to groan about how annoying Marianne and her alarming notions of romance were (as she seemed exactly the sort to consider it her duty to throw herself into the Thames, after her lover announced his engagement to another). I gritted my teeth and tried to be patient, and it paid off, thanks to her Edifying Fever from which she emerged far more mature. I wish those Edifying Fevers were more common today.

Now the plotline with Colonel Brandon is likely to scandalize modern readers. He’s introduced almost immediately by two characteristics: 1) his undeniable middle-age at 36, and 2) his attraction to Marianne, who is 16. This is not at all regarded as inappropriate by family or friends; the key consideration is his wealth.

For a while, I was hoping he’d end up with Elinor instead (especially since so little was known of Edward). But instead, in the summary section at the end of the book, we’re told that a couple years after the Edifying Fever, he and Marianne do indeed become husband and wife. When she’s 19.

Modern sensibilities aside: Reading both these books offers an excellent cultural study of Jane Austen’s time and what middle-class women could expect, and it’s fascinating to compare how their society functioned with our own. Acquiring wealth in the modern world depends on education and salary, with varying factors that include benefits and stock options; in Austen’s time, there was this whole concept of a “living” that young gentlemen hoped to come into and that were so largely out of their hands, no matter what “work” they decided to do (oh yes, welcome to England’s infamous class system and the original appeal of America for smashing those boundaries).  Income was all about what relatives and benefactors might bestow, which would become fixed likely for the rest of your life, barring some great stroke of fortune. That’s why marriage was so important, entirely aside from romantic notions — and why stories about fortune and happiness gained through marriage, against all odds, were so popular.

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