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Pride and Prejudice is 200 - well, sort of

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 5 April 2013


I first encountered P&P in 1953, as a set book for the Leaving Examination of that year. Since I obtained honours in English, I very likely read it, but I remember Macbeth, the set Shakespeare text, much more vividly. In 1954 I went off to University, intending in the long run to be an English/History teacher in secondary schools (History was my others Honours subject). Guess what! P&P was a set book for first year English Lit. too. I probably didn't read it then, either, on the ground that I had done it last year.

I had been an avid reader ever since I could read, and doing English Literature as a major was, in retrospect, one of the worst decisions I made, because it took all the joy out of reading. I don't blame my university teachers at all. Most of them loved their subject, and were fair to good teachers. But for three years I studied the texture and the plot of book after book, the scansion of poetry and the history of plays - not to mention some Anglo-Saxon and early English. The joy of reading great books had gone. By the end of that major I never wanted to read 'literature' again. I greatly preferred History, and would have avoided teaching English, had I been able to, and had I actually gone teaching.

Bit by bit, a feeling for it came back. Plays well acted, especially Shakespeare, brought back a love of drama. I found that I remembered poetry, like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and bits of Scott, Browning and Tennyson. And in my late thirties I rediscovered Jane Austen, picking up my old copy of P&P, and reading it in one hit. I knew something now about love and marriage, and choices, and snobbery and pretension, and the class system - even the tepid one Australia had. I was hooked, and I've been hooked since. OK, Pride and Prejudice is superior chick-lit. So what? I quite like chick-lit, and have even written some (I'll tell you about it, and offer it for sale, some time later this year).

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In typical fashion (for me, that is), having found that P&P was immensely enjoyable I read everything else Jane Austen had ever written, acquired a set of the Chapman edition when I was in England, discovered that one of my new English friends was an authority, and became something of a Janeite. It is the 200th anniversary this year ofP&P's first appearing in print, but it took sixteen years for the author to find a publisher, and the original version was called First Impressions.

The great success of the novel is due to its heroine. Elizabeth Bennet is every man's fantasy woman: attractive, spirited, competent, funny, easy to be with, and mush underneath, at least with respect to her true love. I don't think there was any such creature in English literature before 1813, and there hasn't been a superior heroine since. And much as I like the Greer Garson and Jennifer Ehrle screen versions, the great beauty of all Jane Austen's novels is that she lets you imagine the characters. The author does not not describe them with either precision or care. You know them by what she has them say and do. You learn a great deal, for example, about Mrs Elton in Emma though one paragraph, which delivers in verbal shorthand her reported experience of gathering strawberries at a polite picnic. I will eagerly watch any new screen version of any of the novels, but the heroines are never quite what I want. My imagination is stronger than the screen.

Pride and Prejudice is still my favourite, but I read the others no less often. I have a lot of time for Elinor in Sense and Sensibility, and have known a Marianne or two - and a couple of Emmas as well. Of all the heroines, Anne Elliott in Persusasion gets my greatest sympathy. Northanger Abbey is a delicious spoof of the Gothic novel, and I had to go back to The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Monk, both of which I had studied at university, to see how good it was. Both books were published, incidentally, when Jane Austen was at work on her first two novels.Mansfield Park, about which I have written before, is my least favourite, and that is because its moral seriousness overpowers its satire. Mrs Norris is a dreadful woman, the most detestable creature in all her writing, and Edmund and Fanny, the hero and heroine, are not for me at all. But I still re-read it, every few years.

Jane Austen left two unfinished novels in manuscript, and others have had a go at completing them. Neither The Watsons nor Sanditon worked for me. P. D. James wrote Death Comes to Pemberley, and that is a decent-enough mystery, but it didn't recapture my pleasure in the original. I did thoroughly enjoy the Indian film Bride and Prejudice, and Clueless, a Hollywood take on Emma, and Bridget Jones' Diary, and Lost in Austen, where the original plot of P&P is deliciously scrambled. But at the end, the originals are the best, and reading them, not watching them, is the ultimate pleasure.

What a wonderful writer she was. And the imagined pleasure of actually meeting her at a dinner party is tempered by the thought that you might discover yourself skewered on a page in her next novel!

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, What Was It All For? The Reshaping of Australia was published by Allen & Unwin.

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