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.
We 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.
On 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.
It 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.
Last 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.