A few years ago, a woman walked into the bookshop where I worked and asked for Jane Austen.
“That’s A-U-S-T-E-N,” she informed me, as if I were one step behind in the evolutionary process. “She writes classics.”
I gave her the rictus smile sales assistants reserve for these situations and showed her to the section beneath the Classics sign. Glorified romance, I thought, as I pointed out the Austen shelf. If it weren’t a few hundred years old people would be embarrassed to ask for it. Having once attempted to read Sense and Sensibility, I felt perfectly justified in this opinion. But, for some reason or other (possibly having to do with Colin Firth) I decided to give Pride and Prejudice a go.
This was at a time when, in my own writing, I was attempting to cram in as many big events and sub-plots as possible, to keep it interesting. What seduced and confounded me about Pride and Prejudice (besides Mr Darcy) was the small scale on which it was set and the relative unimportance of all the events. Jane Austen didn’t need explosions, car chases, or zombie hordes (thank you, Seth Grahame-Smith) to hold my attention. Her characters crossed the divide of centuries and spoke in my mother’s voice, my father’s, my annoying aunt’s, my own. And because I became so engaged with these characters, the tiny spheres of their lives and the smallest events affecting them became of the utmost interest. The characters seemed so real that it was hard to believe Pride and Prejudice was first published in 1813.
But Pride and Prejudice isn’t just a sketch of the middle class in Regency England. It is a light, humourous examination of relationships, marriage, and human folly, laced with Austen’s trademark irony and sharp wit.
Much of the novel’s comedy comes from watching the characters declare one thing, then do another, such as Mrs Bennet’s announcement to her daughters that she would much rather live a quiet, retired life and not always be making new acquaintances, when we know she takes great pleasure in visiting and gossiping, and imposing her presence on others. Even Elizabeth Bennet, our heroine, who archly promises her mother never to dance with Mr Darcy, has moments of inconsistency and hypocrisy. There is that famous scene where, upon seeing Mr Darcy’s estate Pemberley for the first time, she decides that Darcy isn’t quite so bad after all. Far from alienating us from these characters, Austen’s exposure of their weaknesses and follies only makes them more human, more sympathetic, more familiar.
If you only know Pride and Prejudice as that movie Keira Knightly was in, or as that book you had to read in English, or as a boring romance that can only be improved by zombies, do yourself a favour and overcome your prejudices.
Emma Doolan is currently completing her degree in Creative and Professional Writing at Queensland University of Technology. When not reading Pride and Prejudice or swooning over Colin Firth in the BBC version, she can be found in the Classics section of her bookshop discussing Jane Austen with frightened customers.