Pride and Prejudice

Emilybooks’ Italian adventures continue apace. This has been a week of travelling and seeing things, thanks to the husband doing a great deal of driving (we have even purchased him a peaked cap), while I somewhat uselessly map-read and look out for road signs. Driving in Italy is both puzzling and terrifying. There appears to be a completely different attitude to things like roundabouts, sliproads and pedestrian crossings. Indeed crossing the road, at a crossing, is so alarming that I can only manage it by closing my eyes before stepping out into the traffic, which does grind to a halt but with extreme reluctance and only just in time.

The Etruscan tortoiseWe went to Volterra, where we met a dozy hot tortoise in the garden of a charmingly old-fashioned Etruscan museum, filled with urns on which were carved scenes from the Odyssey and the Underworld. Then we hopped on to San Gimignano, where we found a pretty square with herringbone paving remarkably free of the tourist hordes. Another trip took us to Orvieto, where I loved the alabaster windows in the Duomo. There, we went underground to see two of the city’s hundreds of man-made caves. There are paths from each cave up to a house, and the city’s inhabitants still use them as cool places to keep things like food and wine, as has been the case since the Etruscans! We stayed with Emilybooks in-laws not far from Orvieto, and they took us on a breathtaking long hot walk up a mountain, where there were an astonishing number of tiny wild flowers, including beautiful orchids. As we sat and ate sandwiches on a grassy bank, two cows and their calf padded past us rather nervously, their bell ringing with each faltering step, and it seemed serene and quite poetic, before I discovered the ants that were scurrying their way into my pants.

Beautifully displayed classicsOn the way back to Lucca, we stopped at Pienza, a beautiful Renaissance town, with an especially lovely Duomo. There was some absolutely terrifying subsidence, however, and I was almost too scared to stand in the cathedral’s sloping half, as the cracks on the floor and walls were so extreme that you felt that it might slip off the cliff at any given moment. Then on to Sienna, where we sat on the Campo with a slice of pizza and watched Italian schoolboys dressed up in the green, white and red costume of their Goose Contrada as they paraded around with drums, flags and a brass band. We also stumbled upon a sweet little bookshop, where all their classics were displayed as so.

Heart-shaped grassIt has not all been travel, however, and there have been some lovely afternoons picnicking and reading on the walls of Lucca, where I discovered this peculiar, pretty grass with heart-shaped leaves. It seems particularly apt company while reading Pride and Prejudice.

Re-reading Pride and Prejudice is such an enjoyable experience, that I am caught in that push-pull of wanting to consume it very rapidly indeed and feeling the panic of the end getting closer and so only allowing myself a few short chapters per sitting.

Pride and PrejudiceLast year was the 200 year anniversary of its publication and I’d thought it would be the perfect excuse to finally get around to re-reading it. I’d last read it as a cynical, precocious and, no doubt, proud and prejudiced fourteen-year-old, who couldn’t quite see what all the fuss was about. I was aware that my silly teenage self was far more likely to be wrong about it than the millions of people who declare it one of the best books ever written. Added to which, Penguin have published this completely beautiful, and gloriously yellow, hardback edition. But the year slipped past without it ever being quite the right time to read it. Perhaps one’s brain has to be in a more languid place to read classics, rather than full of London’s hectic hurrying about.

Pride and Prejudice, read out here during long lazy afternoons and evenings is, of course, wonderful. I am particularly enjoying Austen’s rather personal and eccentric approach to spelling, with her cavalier attitude to rules like i before e except after c, and feeling free to just miss off a letter or two, should she feel like it. While I am usually a stickler for correct spelling, hers is so dotty and unexpected that it makes me sit up and look at each misspelt word afresh. I find myself surprisingly happy that Penguin, for whatever reason – the note on the text doesn’t make it clear – has decided to keep her spelling as is, as so many words that would normally drift past jolt me to attention. I wish I knew more about spelling in the early nineteenth century. Could everyone afford to be quite so lackadaisical with it? Was it a time when any spelling would do so long as the reader understood the meaning rather than everyone getting so het up about it? If someone would care to enlighten me, I’d be fascinated and very grateful.

I am struck by how well Austen moves between the heads of her various characters. I’ve grown so used to the various screen adaptations that I’ve come to think of Pride and Prejudice as entirely Lizzy Bennet’s story: she is our heroine and so everything must be focalised through her. While she is undoubtedly the main character, and the one to whom we – and Austen – pay the most attention, Austen also flits between the minds of her other characters in a manner that seems to me not dissimilar to Virginia Woolf.

Take this, for instance, which comes at the end of volume ii, chapter ix. Elizabeth is staying with her friend Charlotte, who has married Mr Collins, and the two friends are puzzled as to why Mr Darcy and his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam visit them quite so often:

It was plain to them all that Colonel Fitzwilliam came because he had pleasure in their society; a persuasion which of course recommended him still more; and Elizabeth was reminded by her own satisfaction in being with him, as well as by his evident admiration of her, of her former favourite George Wickham; and though, in comparing them, she saw there was less captivating softness in Colonel Fitzwilliam’s manners, she believed he might have the best informed mind.

But why Mr. Darcy came so often to the Parsonage, it was more difficult to understand. It could not be for society, as he frequently sat there ten minutes together without opening his lips; and when he did speak, it seemed the effect of necessity rather than of choice – a sacrifice to propriety, not a pleasure to himself. He seldom appeared really animated. Mrs. Collins knew not what to make of him. Colonel Fitzwilliam’s occasionally laughing at his stupidity, proved that he was generally different, which her own knowledge of him could not have told her; and as she would have liked to believe this change the effect of love, and the object of that love, her friend Eliza, she sat herself seriously to work to find it out.

Austen nimbly switches from Elizabeth’s opinion of Fitzwilliam and recollection of Wickham to Charlotte’s musings on Darcy. In between the two of them are a few sentences (‘But why Mr. Darcy … He seldom appeared really animated.’) which could belong to either of them, or indeed both. This ambiguity conjures a conversation between the two friends, as though they’ve spent hours puzzling over the mystery together and this is the resulting opinion shared by the pair of them.

Austen’s is a very clever and very satisfying manner of storytelling, which enables the reader to dive into various consciousnesses and come away with nuggets of information of which other characters remain ignorant. The most obvious example is of course Darcy’s attraction towards Elizabeth Bennet, to which we are privy, while she remains ignorant. It has also made me look at the infamous first line in a new light:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

I had always thought this was one of those arch statements after which everyone laughs or tuts knowingly at Austen’s wit and knowledge. But perhaps it isn’t the authorial narrator speaking here. Indeed, it seems more likely that it is actually in Mrs Bennet’s consciousness that we begin the book. She is the first person to speak, just a paragraph later, and as her husband teases her (Austen would have spelled it teazes) into conversation, she soon says that Bingley is:

“A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”

It is such a close echo of the opening line, that it does suggest that the truth universally acknowledged is silly Mrs Bennet’s opinion, rather than Austen’s.

Austen’s moving between her characters’ consciousnesses, thereby revealing aspects of them to the reader, is particularly apt given that Lizzy, our heroine, as Bingley says of her, ‘is a studier of character.’ She is a studier of character who, in spite of assiduous observation, completely miscomprehends both Darcy and Wickham. If only she were to have the benefit of dropping into other characters’ minds enjoyed by us readers. So then, Austen’s storytelling technique encourages us all to become studiers of character. She has certainly given us some wonderful ones with whom we can begin.

By the way, I realise that my photos tend to be of tortoises or books, rather than beautiful cathedrals and piazzas. Sorry. I shall attempt to mend my ways.

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19 Responses to “Pride and Prejudice”

  1. The Northern Reader Says:

    Dear Emily, I think what makes Austen such a biting social commentator – for that is what she is – is her forensic awareness that life is an economic transaction. Or, as my great-grandmama apparently used to say, ‘Don’t marry for money: marry for love. But only love where there’s money.’

    • emilybooks Says:

      Indeed! But oh it does seem rather cynical to view life as no more than an economic transaction.

  2. Romy Ashby Says:

    Dear Emily,
    Please don’t mend your ways, I love the sleepy tortoise in your photo. I just came back from Holland and realize that all my pictures are of ducks.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Ha ha! Now that is most comforting and reassuring … and has left me longing to see one of your duck photos!

  3. Mrs Ford Says:

    You are living my dream life – three of my very favourite things are Italy, tortoises and “Pride and Prejudice”! I have re-read this book so many times, and each time still find something new – witty or wise or just somehow unexpected. Hope you continue to enjoy your trip and your reading, and I’ll try very hard not to be consumed with jealousy…

    • emilybooks Says:

      Ah Mrs Ford – they are indeed three of the best things in life! In lieu of a trip to Italy, ight I suggest re-reading Pride and Prejudice with the film of A Room with a View on in the background, and purchasing a tortoise who can patter by your feet while thus being entertained?

  4. genusrosa Says:

    Well I love being able to see a real Italian tortoise. :o) And his presence fits well with many of the descriptive terms in your lovely review; lazy afternoons…lackadaisical spelling…the strangely unanimated Mr. Darcy…a languid place in the mind to enjoy reading a classic…loved it! Wonderfully wise and tortoise-like. I also enjoyed your insight in how Lizzie was such ‘a studier of character’, yet managed to get the most interesting men in her life all wrong (initially). Surely a preview of Emma Woodhouse’s chagrin later, for similar reasons, and with similar results.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Thanks! And I loved reading about those beautiful Harvard editions on your blog and thinking about Jane Austen’s ‘laughter, light and beauty’ – wonderful reasons to love her work.

  5. teacupsandbuttercups Says:

    Keep the photographs of the books coming, no complaints here! Pride and Prejudice is the next book on my TBR pile and I am now looking forward to reading it even more after reading your post, thank you. I am now in the position of thoroughly enjoying what I am reading yet desperate for it to end so that I can get on with the serious business of reading P&P. I am also inclined to agree with you regarding the opening statement of the book – though one can hear Jane’s wry observational voice in there, it is Mrs Bennett’s silly tone that shines brought all the more, though I would not have come to this conclusion alone. Again, thank you for your thoughtful and considered approach to reading and writing that makes your blog such a joy to experience.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Ah thanks so very much – that’s lovely praise to read! I can’t wait to read your thoughts on P&P too.
      I laughed out loud reading about your trials with the dreaded Battenberg Cake… I wondered if you’d read The Hours by Michael Cunningham? It includes a very dark cake-baking scene indeed, and that’s even without the horrors of marzipan.

  6. Alice Says:

    I think that cover my be the best I’ve seen for P&P, I’m not a fan of the girlie ones. I agree that adaptations turn the story entirely on Lizzie. I definitely enjoy the interjection of other character’s thoughts, especially Darcy’s, it enriches the book. I didn’t love P&P when I read it, not that I hated it in anyway, it just didn’t grab me as Persuasion did. I think Mr Bennet and his marvellous wit made the book an enjoyable experience for me, he has some of the best lines.

    Your time in Italy seems so delightful, I’ve certainly never seen grass with heart shaped leaves here – and you’ve found Daphne’s Italian brethren!

  7. The Northern Reader Says:

    Dear Emily, You made me think. So I have posted a reply to you on my blog. Hope you like it. With very best wishes from The Northern Reader

  8. Paula Says:

    P&P is my all-time favourite book. I re-read it at least once a year, and re-read paragraphs and sentences within the book because they are so succinctly and precisely written and pack so much in. The prose is a delight. And although Mrs B is often held up as a silly and empty-headed character, Mr B bugs me more. His indolence means they are all heading for disaster, but he’s okay because so long as he lives their situation is comfortable.

    I’d also rather have photos of tortoises than piazzas. 🙂

    • emilybooks Says:

      Ah thank you Paula! And sorry for the delay in replying to you – I’ve been ‘senza internet’… I shall keep the rather idiosyncratic photographs coming.

  9. poppyonkirrinisland Says:

    A very thought-provoking post. I love Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Thanks for this post, Emily.

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