Thoughts on Pride and Prejudice
So here’s confession of the day – I had never read Pride and Prejudice until about a month ago. I think I picked it up at the age of ten, decided it was probably beyond me and never returned to it.
As I got older, I also harboured the sense that Austen just wasn’t for me, with her formalities and her social hierarchies and her neat, well-maintained romantic arrangements. I’ve always been more into the freak show masochism of Wuthering Heights, or the quiet probing of inequalities that is Middlemarch. And even though it’s really not possible to fault Pride and Prejudice for its well-tempered romanticism, there’s something that irks about Austen’s refusal to question or interrogate her subject matter. Why, I want to ask her, is Lydia so incapable of self-restraint? Doesn’t Lizzy’s marriage to Darcy reinforce rather than critique the prevailing materialism of the time? And it’s no use telling me that she was just reflecting the attitudes of her age. Clearly, she was astute enough to recognise the infantile behaviour of some women; to hold Lizzy up as a paragon of just what a good girl should really be like. But if she could see all of that, why didn’t she – as Mary Wollstonecraft had done some 21 years previously – suggest that there might be something lacking in women’s education? Or that there was something deeply unjust about depriving women of a means of supporting themselves if – heaven forbid – they found themselves without a single man in possession of a good fortune?
There’s so much to love here – I don’t deny it. The zinging wit and repartee – the observational humour and awareness of human failure and foibles. But there’s also so much I have trouble digesting. And I don’t just put that down to twenty-first century sensibilities. I want my great writers to ask questions; not to reinforce the status quo.