Friday, January 22, 2010

Five Things That Surprised Me About Pride & Prejudice

I've mentioned this before: I am remarkably ill-read.  I've yet to finish a novel by Dickens (I've committed on Monkey Bear Reviews to finish Little Dorrit for her Stretch Yourself Challenge), I've read only one Bronte sister, I've (and oh, wow, is this a shameful confession) never read Little Women (although I did read Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom), and of course I haven't read any Jane Austen.

Technically, I still haven't.  But I did yesterday finish listening to Lindsay Duncan's wonderful reading of Pride and Prejudice on CD.  (I won't claim to be an expert, but if you're looking for a good audio version of P&P, hers is excellent.  My husband got it for me on Amazon and did lots of research on which version was favored.)  And while I have no doubt that everything that can be said about Pride and Prejudice has already been said (or written), and thus I have nothing new to offer, I was sufficiently struck by just one or two things.  (Okay, five.)
  1. How almost earworm-like the syntax and cadences of Austen's language can be.  This is perhaps a result of hearing it rather than reading it, but by the time I was done, it felt as thought contractions and familiarity were just so rude and ill-bred.  Coincidentally, I was also reading (on paper) Mary Balogh's Slightly Scandalous, and I fancied I could see similarities in the language of  Balogh's modern-day interpretation of a romance set at roughly the same time as P&P.  That's a compliment to Balogh, of course.  But also a note to self:  if I should ever decide to write a historical romance (and no one thinks to shoot me in self-defense), I should listen to Austen on tape before I began to write.

  2. How formal the forms of address really were.  I knew that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet called each other precisely that: Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Bennet, but I hadn't appreciated that we (the readers) never even learn their first names.  Nor Bingley's, either of the Gardiners' (although we know her first initial is M.), and so forth.  In fact, we might never have learned Mr. Darcy's first name but for his signing his letter.  By contrast, we know all the unmarried ladies' first names, even Caroline Bingley's.  Once married, though, their first names are extraneous (unless part of an honorific due to noble birth, as with Lady Catherine de Bourgh).  And what really stopped me cold was the way that correspondence between Jane and Elizabeth includes the form "my mother," "my aunt," etc. as though they don't both have the same relationship to that woman.  That has to be some peculiarity of the times; there's no other reason for it.  Sounds all wrong now; in fact, it smacks of sibling rivalry:  "she's my mother!" = "Mom loves me best."

  3. Geography.  (For a fun discussion of which place names are real and which are not, go here and don't be shy about clicking on the map of England.)  The term "neighborhood," as used to describe the relatively small geographical area, say, around Meryton, I understood.  And "shire," meaning the whole of Hertfordshire or Derbyshire, was also perfectly clear.  But it took me a while to understand that "country," as in "he quit the country," was about leaving an area larger than the neighborhood but smaller than the shire.  (Because of more than one incredulous -- on my part -- conversation with my first husband, I already knew that one is always going "up to town" when traveling to London regardless of which direction London is in and thus going down to anywhere other than London* even someplace considerably north of the capital.  *The one exception, I understand, is university: one goes up to university, and if expelled, one is sent down from university.)

  4. Sex versus money; sex versus love.  I certainly wasn't expecting any sex in P&P, but I was surprised at how superficial the valuations of people were nonetheless.  No one notices anyone's sexual appeal (let alone specific erogenous zones, e.g., breasts) but we sure do know a lot (if not everything) about how much money everyone has (or hasn't), gets, expects, spent on furniture, and so forth.  So, rather than value anyone for their sexual prowess, experience, inexperience or anything else sexual, there's loads of frank conversation about how much money a man has (meaning, presumably, income from an estate), a woman is likely to have settled on her on the occasion of her marriage, a widow will have to live on, etc.  I speculate that as this money isn't "earned" (as we think of "earning a living," for example) it's okay to talk about, in perhaps the same way that it's okay to talk about how hawt someone is, just not in their hearing. 

    And in a related point, while there's no physical touching (even the illustration above rather reads into that scene the idea that Jane and Bingley were actually holding hands), there's lots and lots of love.  People are deemed in love if they're just interested in another.  Even "violently in love" and in one notable example, someone is described as a "lover" where we'd only think him to be an admirer.  Either "love" wasn't much valued back then, or it's roughly synonymous with having one's interest engaged.  It reminds me of my mother's childhood in the 1930s, where it was quite unremarkable for an adolescent schoolgirl to have a "pash" (short for passion) on a teacher, even a teacher of the same sex.  We wouldn't equate "passion" with "crush" today; language changes.  And some time in the past 200 years, love because lurve!

  5. Elizabeth's impression of her father changes subtly over the course of the book even as her impression of Darcy changes more dramatically.  Mr. Bennet seems "all that is amiable" in the beginning of the book, but by the end, Lizzie has figured out that his "indolence" is a factor in some of their family's difficulties.  (Her mother is not similarly rehabilitated by the same point in Volume 3, but Lizzie does seem more sanguine about Mrs. Bennet's ill-advised opinions and prejudices.)  I found myself more struck by Lizzie's budding awareness of her father's faults than her awareness of Darcy's virtues; that seemed real evidence of her maturity.  (At the same time, I really enjoyed Lizzie's answering her own question about why Darcy fell in love with her, speculating that it was because she was, in effect, the anti-Miss Bingley and thus all the more attractive for not sucking up to him.)

There you have it.  It was wonderful, and very hard to leave Pemberly.  My only disappointment is having to wait until next Christmas for another Austen book on CD.  (Hint hint, honey...)


  1. It's interesting to read your comments and reflections on your first Austen 'reading'!

    Re the formality of address, it's one thing I do cringe about slightly when in historical-set romances people call each other by their first names so early in their acquaintance, and so frequently. It simply didn't happen like that! My grandmother (born 1900), when heavily pregnant with my mother during the Depression, met another heavily pregnant woman in a soup-kitchen queue; they became very close friends, and the friendship lasted for thirty years until my g-ma died. But they always called each other 'Mrs Rudge' and 'Mrs Berg'. (In fact, even though I remember Mrs Berg coming to visit us several times, I have NO idea what her given name was!)

    Re the assessment of people in terms of money, I think we have to realise how important that was in terms of a prospective husband for women of the era. Without assurance of sufficient funds, a woman's future was downright frightening, as she could not expect to earn a living for herself. The governess/companion option was little better than the Poorhouse - drudgery, powerlessness, and an uncertain old age. If one had a close family, with suitable income, then it wasn't quite so scary, as a woman could live with relatives, but that sill wasn't an attractive future for most women, and was dependant on the good will of the relatives. Despite the fact that we often interpret 19th-century marriage as being almost akin to enslavement for women, for many women it offered more independence and 'power' as mistress of a household than the alternatives did. So yes, money mattered!

  2. Bronwyn -- Was your grandmother English? My first husband was a British patent agent for more than 20 years before he moved to the US to marry me. He'd had a client for almost the entire time he was working in London; in 20 years they never stopped being Mr. Smith (or whatever the client's name was) and Mr. Blanco White (my ex's delightfully silly surname). If that sort of formality is still going on in late-20th century England, we can only imagine how formal everyone was back in the early 19th century!

    Like you, I think about this as I read modern Regency Era romances, even ones written by Brits. It would be so easy to finesse by having the heroine refer to the hero by his title. For example, in Slightly Scandalous, Frejya could (and should) have referred to the hero as Bellmere (as in, the Marquis of) rather than "Joshua" and then "Josh."

    But I have to disagree a bit about the money. Yes, every thing you say is clearly true, but I don't think that entirely explains how Austen comes to pepper an otherwise quite decorous novel with mentions of how many thousands of pounds this one or that one had. (The shocker, for me, was the housekeeper at Pemberly telling the Gardiners and Lizzie how much the furniture cost.)

    To my mind, it has to have been a common enough practice among the sort of genteel society as Jane Austen's family enjoyed. (I've just checked a biography my DH produced magically this morning -- when Jane's father died, her mother was going to have to live on 210 pounds per annum. But the brothers all rallied round and pretty much doubled Mrs. Austen's income, so that they could live fairly comfortably, keep a servant, and even travel.)

    Here's the best parallel I can think of. I live in a country with lots of land. I can say publicly that I live on 24 acres because while that's a lot of land compared to the average American, it's not evidence of particular wealth. (If I lived in the UK, owning 24 acres would put me in Madonna territory!) What with one thing and another, saying how much land I live on is just a bit of information and not very boastful.

    I imagine that 200 years ago, with this huge divide between people who lived off the income their land generated and those who lived off the value of their labor, saying what a man's estate generated in income would have been a bit like saying how large the estate was in acreage.

    So, while I agree completely about how difficult it was for a woman to be financially independent, I don't think that explains how or why it was considered perfectly respectable to know and discuss openly how much money a man's estate was said to generate. Today, that would be considered terribly rude. Back then, it was just open knowledge.

  3. I still like the movies better. I read it as opposed to listen to it. The novel actually has few distinctions between who says what in a large room full of people. I will have to listen to it I think to truly appreciate it. I am not a classics kind of girl.

  4. One thing that surprises me, even now, about reading the classics is how much was left to the imagination. We've become spoiled with "I love you" scenes in movies based on the same material, when they weren't specifically supplied in the text. For example, the second Darcy marriage proposal, where he declares his feelings and she declares hers, is such a frustrating let-down compared to a) all of Austen's marvelous tension up until that point, and b) the wonderful adaptations that exist on screen. I don't need to read about Darcy and Elizabeth knocking boots, I love you? Please? It's a very different sensibility.

    Another example comes from "Bleak House," which is a fantastic miniseries. There's a brilliant scene in which Esther, the heroine, is being grilled by her future mother-in-law about her background. The screenwriter was Andrew Davies, who did the Firth P&P. But when I went to look for that scene in the original book, not having remembered it as being quite so funny, a rather nondescript passage about birth and marriage expectations. A bit of humor, but certainly little of what I found charming about the adaptation and how it was performed. I credit the screenwriters with finding the edge in the source material and presenting it to us in a way that reflects our expectations now--all while retaining that historical feel.

    I'll stop now. I'm letting my background in Lit get the better of me :)

  5. Been forever and a day since I read this or watched the movie. Never been a massive fan, but then I am a uncultured bogan. ;)

    I would assume that it would be fairly common the knowledge + talking about the funds and worth at the time. It was part of what kept the pecking order in the ton going IIRC, so therefor one would assume it was bandied around a bit.
    Maybe instead of land a comparison could be made with the ways peoples jobs/professions are talked about?

  6. Are talked about today.

    I mean we generally have a similar pecking order today, instead of birth and annual income, we have "Oh he is a lawyer.. a doctor... a tyoon"

    re. And random speculation but the housekeeper - she could have been proud to work in the 'esteemed' 'rich' household so therefor the bragging??? So they knew how good she had it?


  7. I'm going to read P&P for the first time ever next week. I can't believe I've waited this long.

  8. Hi Magdalen! My grandmother was Scottish, but she'd emigrated to Australia as a young woman - and even back then Australia was known for being more informal than the 'auld country'. And she certainly was working class, rather than upper class.

    Regarding the discussion of money issue, maybe it's influenced by the rapidly changing times that Austen is writing in - the 'Industrial Revolution' for want of a better term, was already well underway by the end of the eighteenth century. Prior to this time, breeding was the most important status symbol - which family, what connection to what titles and land etc. But the changes in production, economy and society in this period shake things up considerably, impoverishing many of the aristocracy and making many manufacturers and investors wealthy. The stock market begins to have an significant effect on the economy, the first non-miltary large organisations become firmly established (eg the British East India Company), and it's really the beginning of a capitalist, consumerist society, with goods becoming more available in a wider range of markets.

    So, in that context, I guess I can see why the financial circumstances of the aristocracy are of interest and discussed, as well as the value of purchased goods - Mr Darcy is very confortably well-off, as well as of good 'breeding'; and his taste, his commitment to improving his estate, and his financial well-being are demonstrated in his purchases.

    My Honours thesis was on eighteenth century worsted textiles, and I spent a lot of time reading account books and letters and the like, and it's interesting how expenses are detailed in many circumstances. Barbara Johnson's 'album' for example, in which she (rather haphazardly) pinned samples of fabrics that she'd bought and fashion illustrations, lists the price of most of the fabrics, as well as how much she bought, although it is by no means an account book.

    I suspect that this period really is when consumerism starts to bloom, and with the threat to the aristocracy from the rising influence of 'trade', I don't find it surprising that there was emphasis on establishing the suitability of a person through both breeding and wealth.

    Oops, I think I've rambled....

  9. Keira -- I really was never going to read any Austen, and I have no excuse but I think I just didn't want to work that hard at reading. :-)

    One day, I was flipping around the channels on XM and heard a bit an audio serialization of P&P -- and loved it. It's a completely different way of experiencing the book, and I highly recommend it. Particularly, for me as an American, it helps to hear the English accents... (I'm not a classics kind of gal either. And Last of the Mohicans is both unreadable and "unlistenable," just as an example.)

  10. Carrie -- I thought for sure I would feel that way about that particular scene, but it was rescued by Lizzie's asking Darcy when and why he knew she was the one (a question I'd been asking myself) and then answers it herself. In some ways, that's much truer to male-female interactions in real life than our romance novels are today. "Why do you love me?" "I dunno. I just do."

    But you are so right about Andrew Davies. My husband is a Dickens fan and watched a lot of the Davies adaptations (we're watching his adaptation of Little Dorrit now); DH says Davies is the go-to guy for a good, contemporary adaptation of a classic. But Bleak House, in particular, must have been a challenge. It was the only Dickens novel my mother couldn't finish: Jarndyce v. Jarndyce did her in!

  11. Edie -- Your point perfectly illustrates the cultural divide from Austen's time to today: back then to say you were a doctor or a lawyer was still pretty infra dig. Much better not to be employed at all! Today, someone living off the income from an estate (more likely to be stocks & bonds than a working farm) wouldn't dream of saying how many pounds/dollars that estate generated. Professional today = respectable education & labor; enjoyment of investment income = idle wealth and thus contemptible.

  12. Katiebabs -- If you post about P&P, be sure to tweet the link. I'd love to know what you think!

  13. Bronwyn -- Back in 2005, first husband (aka Hub 1.0) and I visited the Lake District. We toured a steam powered mill that made wooden spools for thread: a perfect example of the onset of the industrial revolution, practical on the doorstep of Beatrix Potter's home.

    Perhaps that crossroads -- the first flickers of the Industrial Revolution, the difficulties of shifting an agrarian economy to accommodate the loosening of the social barriers to labor being seen as respectable (particularly for those men who'd served in the army but came home to a still-feudal system in places), and the necessity of "forgiving" people like the Bennets their connections with "trade."

    It seems significant that Austen makes the Gardiners so lovely and respectable; they (of all the "adults" in the story) seem the most grounded. He works in trade but is well-read and well-spoken. Darcy likes him and treats him as an equal. That's quite an egalitarian notion: Darcy's of one social class and Mr. Gardiner of another, but it's Mr. Gardiner's manners and sensibilities that matter, not his source of income.

    In America and (I believe) in Australia, the artificial social barriers are much more easily breached by hard work, accomplishment, and success. But those attitudes still lingered among certain people in the UK as recently as 30 years ago. I first visited my English cousins in 1971 as a teenager. (He was a patent law barrister, she didn't work outside the house but her mother had been a psychiatrist.) When I met some friends of my older brother's -- a lovely couple from Derbyshire who worked in more "modern" jobs like market research and venture capitalism -- my cousin Anne was quite concerned. She actually warned me that my parents wouldn't approve of the Wards. I had to tell her that my father was a snob about only two things: intelligent conversation and the "right" brand of mayonnaise. Nothing more was said on the subject.

    And you're free to ramble here any day! I do it all the time. :-)

  14. Still think jobs are used today as a modern income guide esp. in relationships.

  15. Excellent commentary and discussion!

  16. Edie -- I hadn't thought of that. Of course, today women aren't supposed to be concerned with what potential mates make, only what male colleagues make. But you're right that we do substitute job titles for markers of wealth, which is no guarantee that our assumptions of what a lawyer or doctor or garage mechanic makes will be accurate.

    My mother used to say she couldn't decide which profession she would like her son-in-law to have: automotive mechanic (to help fix her car), electrician or plumber. (Can you tell my dad was a lawyer and thus no good at DIY?)

    Keira -- Thank you.

  17. Judging from a book I'm reading now (The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England), if you didn't worry about how much money someone would bring to marriage, it wasn't proper - even if you were in love, you were supposed to consider your future income. Not to do so was almost shameful. Choosing a husband was in many ways the most important decision of a woman's life.

    It was really enlightening reading about the long, cautious negotiations between a particular couple (there are excerpts of their letters), and the strategies both of them employed, before the woman accepted a proposal of marriage.

  18. Victoria -- That's fascinating. I'm not surprised. And again, we have that tension between what the modern author can do with the historical realities of an era and still satisfy modern readers' sensibilities. Because you just know if any one wrote the historical romance that dealt with all the back and forth of marriage settlements, dower settlements, trusts for children, etc. -- it might actually be too boring to read! (And too lawyerly. Bleccch.)


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